Illustrator Profile - Martha Rich: "I love controlling my own destiny"

By Robert Newman   Thursday September 3, 2015

Martha Rich is an illustrator and artist whose work is a delightful and exuberant explosion of color, styles, and techniques. She creates art and illustration for a wide-range of formats, including product design, fine art, T-shirts, animation, book covers, editorial illustration, and an ongoing series of engaging personal projects. Rich has also created the 100 for $100 project, making 100 paintings and selling them for $100 each—she describes the work as “humorous and absurd and affordable.” With a vibrant and extensive social media presence and a seemingly never-ending ability to find new ways to showcase her work, Rich is a textbook example of multi-faceted, forward-thinking visual creator. Rich will be part of a group show called Raised by Foxes, at the FOE Gallery in Northampton, Massachusetts, opening September 11. Also in the show are Katherine Streeter, Gina Triplett, and Matt Curtius.

My mother was an artist and art teacher. She encouraged my brother and I to make art from an early age. We had a craft room in the basement where she taught us how to batik, tie-dye, make macramé (she was a bit if a hippie), develop film and print photos, do print-making, tumble rocks, make stained-glass, use a glass cutter to make glasses out of beer bottles (maybe this is why my brother ended up brewing beer for a living)—you name it, we probably did it. I created Ye Olde Continental Times down there. It was a magazine written and illustrated solely by me.

Other than that, I lived a pretty average life in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I stayed in the same school district from kindergarten to high school, went to a liberal arts college, got a job, got married and did what you were supposed to do according to middle-class suburban rules.

Here are some of the jobs I have had: hotel front desk supervisor for Sheraton, headhunter for one day, collector for Ford Motor Credit Company (I collected car payments and sometimes repossessed peoples cars, ugh), promotion manager for Atlanta magazine, copy editor for DMJM Engineering, and human resources coordinator at Universal Studios Hollywood

I have a BFA with honors in illustration from Art Center College of Design, and an MFA in Painting from University of Pennsylvania. I also have a sociology/anthropology degree from Denison University. I am highly over-educated.

I have lived in Atlanta and Los Angeles and currently am in Philadelphia and have been working for 15 years.

My studio is one block from my apartment and I share it with Matt Curtius, sometimes Gina Triplett and a photographer friend, Andrea Cipriani Mecchi. It is a storefront overlooking a triangular park and people are always walking by. During nice weather we keep the front door open. There’s a great coffee shop right nearby and a crazy good pizza place, that I go to too much. A few times a year we host happy hours and invite creative people from Philly to hang out. You never know who will show up. Sometimes we have drawing nights there. Philly drawing nights always get a little lowbrow. Wine gets drunk, the drawings get blue, things get spilled, injuries happen. Ha! It is sad though—we are about to move to a bigger studio, which is good, but I will miss this place and now I’ll have to walk FIVE blocks instead of one. Poor me. Call the wahmbulance.

I can’t tell you how. It is magic! No really, I make everything by hand, mostly using acrylic paints, but I am getting into cut paper, wood cut-outs and I just got some screen-printing equipment so we shall what happens. I have no formula.

My big break was way before I got any jobs. It was meeting the Clayton Brothers. After going through a bummer divorce, I decided to take art classes at night to do something positive instead of stewing at home listening to Hole while drinking wine and feeling sorry for myself. I thought I might want to design magazines so I took an intro to graphic design class at Art Center at Night at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. While looking at the catalog I saw there was an illustration class offered, so on a whim I signed up for that too. It was taught by Rob and Christian Clayton, who make art as the Clayton Brothers. After the first class I knew I was not going to be designing magazines. Kerning? Grids? Nope. It was illustration all the way. I basically blew off the intro to design class and focused on illustration. I got an F in graphic design and an A+ in illustration. The Claytons saw something in my work and gave me the courage to quit working in corporate America and go back to school to study art. I was 35 years old at the time. I am a late bloomer.

My mom and dad and brother and step-mom, my nephews and all my friends, my teachers and my students and every artist who ever existed!

Really one person? I admire so many, but OK—I would say Esther Pearl Watson. She is dynamite. I have never met anyone so driven and funny and creative and generous who has overcome so much. Knowing her (and her husband Mark Todd) changed the way I thought about myself as an artist.

Overcoming my innate laziness and need to be social.

Steven Wardlaw and Mitch Nash at Blue Q. We’ve been working together on different products for the past few years. Steven and Mitch (the founder of Blue Q) are really good at the back and forth of idea sharing. They are also really funny. Some of the notes I get from them are so absurd and silly, but it makes sense. My personality fits well with Blue Q. They understand my weirdness because they are basically just as weird.  When they first asked me to work with them on designing some socks I had a really hard time figuring out the template. It was so non-intuitive for me, so they said, “Hey, why don’t ya come up to Blue Q headquarters and work with us in-house for a few days?” Working with them in person made my head spin with creative ideas and I laughed a lot. It was great! Fingers crossed they want to keep working with me.

Daily living gives me unlimited inspiration.

I have been working with Blue Q on so many cool products. They are my favorite people to work with!

Following Loretta Lynn on tour (in her tour bus) while reporting on the food and wine in each city in my sketchbook and getting paid a lot to do it would be ideal.

I don’t do much traditional editorial illustration anymore and most of my work is personal-project driven. The closest thing to traditional illustration I am doing is illustrating the Jealous Curators next book (with Chronicle Books). She’s a creative director who blogs about art and artists and being a creative person. It’s been so fun and, knock wood, easy. We have a great goofy rapport.

I have been doing a lot of gallery shows lately, too. Last year I did a pop-up show with Sloan Fine Art in Los Angeles and I got to go to Mexico City and show my work at Guru Gallery, founded by a Mexican rock star musician named Cha! He also runs the design studio Hula Hula and is an all-around cool renaissance guy.  

Right now my work is in the lobby of the Wieden + Kennedy ad agency in Portland until the end of August. I filled a giant wall with almost 300 colorful wood cut outs of speech bubbles and funky heads. It was a daunting task, but it turned out pretty cool. It was the biggest art undertaking I have ever done. I also painted murals that were like giant sketchbooks and made a bunch of those face-in-the-hole things you see at tourist attractions. I wanted people see my art and to be in my art and laugh.

The next show is at FOE Gallery in Northampton, MA with Gina Triplett, Matt Curtius and Katherine Streeter. Come see it! We are all going to the opening on 9/11.

Personal projects though, are my first love. I even teach a class in the Masters program at FIT about this subject! Way back in 2006 I wasn’t getting much illustration work so I decided to paint one painting a day for a year. I made my own blog in Dreamweaver and sold the paintings using Paypal buttons. That’s where I got a taste for controlling my own stuff. The paintings were weird and experimental and no one told me what to do and people seemed to dig them. It was ideal.

Now I have two online stores. One is called 100 for $100, where I make 100 pieces of art for $100. I haven’t gotten to 100 yet though. I am trying! The other is Martha Rich Art Projects where I sell random art, prints, books and whatever else comes up. I plan on focusing more on these this Fall and doing a whole new more cohesive website.

All of them. I know that is a cop out answer, but I really do love so many illustrators and I am afraid I’ll leave someone out.

The way the industry is going fits my personality so well. I love controlling my own destiny. I don’t like working for the “man.” The tools out there are insane! I have my own store! I can take credit cards! I can promote my art around the world in a blink of an eye! I can ship my work across the globe! I can make my own products! It’s an amazing time!!! Exclamation points!

I think networking, hands down, is what makes me able to still be working after 15 years. Meeting real people face-to-face works for me. I have been networking since my first trip to NYC to show my portfolio after graduating from art school. I have gotten really good at it. I also do all the other things: Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, etc. I enter American Illustration every year, do email blasts, go to the ICON conference (Hey, I was even President once!). I am going to start sending personalized postcards again. I like promoting. Turns out I am a people person.

Surround yourself with talented over-achieving people, make interesting art and work your butt off. I know that sounds lame but it’s the truth. If your work is boring and you don’t work hard you will fail. Common sense.

See more Martha Rich illustrations, new work, and updates: