Illustrator Profile - Anita Kunz: "This is a golden age of narrative art"

By Robert Newman   Thursday November 12, 2015

Anita Kunz has been working as an editorial illustrator for more years than many of our younger Profiles readers have been alive (she got an early start!). But her work remains as energetic and forward-looking as ever—if not more so—as she continues to expand and develop both her art and her craft. Kunz has created an ongoing series of brilliant high-profile illustrations for the covers of magazines like Rolling Stone and The New Yorker over the years. And while she attracted much attention and acclaim for her portraits, Kunz’s conceptual illustrations have been equally memorable. Her work is by turns provocative, funny, smart and imaginative, and always a treat to see. In recent years Kunz has been creating some remarkable personal work and fine art, although she says “My heart is still in narrative art, whether it’s illustration or gallery work.”

Kunz will showcase highlights of her work and will also talk about the process of creating political portraits onNovember 17 in New York City, as part of theBarack Obama: Portraits of a Presidentpanel discussion, sponsored by the Society of Publication Designers. The event will be held at 7pm at theHelen Mills Theater, 137 W. 26th St. Also appearing will be illustratorsBarry Blitt,Steve Brodner, andEdel Rodriguez.

I am living in Toronto but have also lived in London and New York. I had an apartment in the West Village for 23 years, and gave it up two years ago. I’ve been illustrating for almost 40 years! But I’ve always made art, even as a child. I think most people are good artists when they’re children. They simply become self-conscious about their drawings around the age of 12 or 13 and give it up. I just never stopped!

My uncle Robert Kunz was an illustrator and was my biggest influence. His motto was Art For Education, and he made all kinds of art. He illustrated all of the textbooks that high school students used at the time, and also worked with one of the great Canadian education reformers Lloyd Dennis on projects, including a children’s corner page in the Toronto Telegram newspaper. He also made rugs, stained glass and sculpture. Plus he was a nature lover and environmentalist. He influenced me in the sense that I came to realize that art didn’t need to merely be decorative but could also perform a valuable function within the culture. 

I really haven’t had any other significant jobs other than illustrating. I started freelance illustrating straight out of college. I had a few unremarkable jobs in a factory and as a waitress to put myself through college. Other than that I’ve always been a working artist.

I went to school at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, and also attended The Illustrators Workshop in upstate New York. That really opened my eyes to the possibilities of making art that could be meaningful, personal and culturally significant. 

At present I’m dividing my time between teaching, illustrating and making personal work (my fine art). After illustrating full time for 25+ years I wanted to make work that wasn’t necessarily solving someone else’s visual problems, but rather might explore what it was that I want to say about the world and my place in it. I began thinking about my legacy and how I wanted to describe my thoughts and ideas in pictures, without any input from anyone else. I’m still a narrative artist, whether it’s illustration or my personal work.

I have a third floor studio in our old crooked Victorian house. The only thing I think I really need is natural light. I find it essential. Otherwise I can work and have worked in a variety of different places. 

I always use water-based material and always have. I remember attempting to use toxic materials such as oil and benzene-based materials in art school and I’m so grateful that I discontinued using them. I think we’re all a bit more cavalier when we’re younger and we think we’re invincible. I use watercolor and acrylic paints. But I’m not a purist at all. I’ve also occasionally added collaged paper, 3-D elements, and pen and pencil crayon to my work. My illustrations have typically been small. But I’m now working on a larger scale. Most of my work is now up to 30" x 40" and I work in diptychs and triptychs, and these days I tend to work in series. My personal work seems to be in three categories: gender, evolution and the natural world, and religious narratives vs. science.

Early on in my career I summoned up the courage to call Marshall Arisman, who gave me amazing advice and a list of art directors to contact. He also ended up writing an article in CA magazine about my work. I owe him so much. I think that was my big break.

But I’ve had the great fortune of working with so many amazing art directors over the years including Louis Fishauf, the great Fred Woodward, Arthur Hochstein, Francoise Mouly and so many others. Illustrators are only as good as the art directors who allow us to flourish. 

There are far too many people who have been influential. So many artists have inspired me over the years. My earliest influences were the English illustrators. As a young artist who didn’t have a clue as to where I wanted to direct my art, I was blown away by the work that was coming out of the Royal College of Art at the time. I was a huge fan of the work of Russell Mills, Ian Pollock, Sue Coe, The Quay Twins, Robert Mason, Catherine Denvir, and of course the amazing Ralph Steadman. They were my earliest influences. I began to love art that had a larger political and societal context. And I still love artists whose work is authentic, personal, moving, compassionate and revelatory. Brian Cronin is another one. And of course Barry Blitt. Brilliant work.

Well at this point I’d have to name Ralph Steadman again. Fear and loathing aside, he has made extraordinary work having to do with human rights, war and peace, extinct species (something he’s working on now), and the human condition. Plus he’s as prolific as he ever was and I’m so pleased and feel so fortunate to have become great friends with him. He’s a dear mentor and friend.

I’d have to say that I'm a sucker for anything having to do with science, anthropology, new medicines, emerging technologies, etc. I’ve been attending the TED conference for a number of years, and I’m overwhelmed at the amount of information that’s disseminated there. I’m continually amazed at how brilliant and innovative we are as a species, and yet we can be so profoundly cruel. That paradox provides endless content for me. Plus the stories we tell ourselves inform my work, whether it’s parables, children’s tales or religion and the accompanying morality tales. These narratives describe who we are, and I’m endlessly fascinated by them. My ancestry is German and the children’s stories I heard as a child both repelled and inspired me. 

I’ve been doing it so long that I’m used to it. I think the biggest challenge for me early on was learning the business side of the industry. That was tough. Learning how to quote jobs etc.…I still hate that aspect. The other thing that has been challenging is self-promotion. These days it seems to be essential to constantly be promoting. I was taught it’s not polite to brag! So that's been a bit of an issue for me to overcome. 

I was thrilled to get two high-profile jobs which were on the stands the same week. The first was a New Yorker cover that was an interpretation of Eustace Tilley that I entitled Eustace Trippy because I depicted him as a 1970s character smoking a joint. I never thought I’d get away with that! It was for an anniversary of Tilley. The second assignment was a Rolling Stone cover of John Belushi which marked the 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live. That one was significant to me because I remember the very first episodes and love that show.

Anything where I’m given lots of creative freedom!!

These days I love working with Francoise Mouly. It’s tough to get a New Yorker cover now because it's so competitive. But I love The New Yorker. The fact that they use so much illustration is an artist’s dream! And I love being able to pitch ideas that attempt to describe the Zeitgeist. 

There are so many great new artists at the moment!! This is a golden age of narrative art. Graphic novels are flourishing, comics have gained a newfound respect, and storytelling is everywhere!

Well, the caricature work was a bit of a departure for me. I was doing mainly serious conceptual work for magazines, and for topics that were socially and politically oriented. I think one of the first calls I got was from Fred Woodward who was working at D magazine in Texas. He commissioned me to do a portrait of Ray Charles. We continued a working relationship for decades, and I was doing mainly conceptual portraiture for him. I feel so lucky to have worked with him all those years. The portraits were fun, creative and relevant for the time. I wasn’t necessarily interested in the celebrities as much as I was interested in WHY we are so interested in celebrities! And the rock stars we did for Rolling Stone were always a tiny bit irreverent, and played on the idiosyncratic traits of the musicians and celebrities. I still love doing portraits, and I always try and inject either humor or a strong idea into the painting. I never felt particularly boxed in, because the idea was what was important to me. 

Well I’ll consider anything really. But my heart is still in narrative art, whether it’s illustration or gallery work.

The interesting thing about illustration is that there is a feedback loop that isn’t there when making personal work. I receive the assignment, negotiate fees, sketches, etc., make the illustration, submit the work, get paid, and see the work in print. Then I move on to the next one. There’s a complete cycle. With fine art, it’s all very personal and open-ended. I am the art director, I determine content, I decide when it’s finished, and only then do I find a venue for it. It is a much slower process. Whereas the illustration process can take as little as a day, with fine art it may take months to finish a series and find a home for the work. 

I actually find that making personal work is much more difficult and challenging.  I’m tough on myself.

The biggest change to the industry as I see it is the computer and internet. It’s the biggest paradigm shift since the industrial revolution. So I’ve adapted to using social media to get my work out into the world. Plus despite the fact that I’m a bit of a Luddite, I’ve learned programs such as Photoshop to help me navigate the changes and remain relevant. But the biggest move I’ve made is into the gallery world. Where I previously never dreamed I’d be a gallery artist, I’m now actively moving in that direction. In the past I would have counseled illustration graduates to pick one direction and specialize (for example editorial illustration). These days I think a better strategy is to strive to make your work as sophisticated and personal as possible, and then look for different venues for the work. I think that most of us illustrators working today do multiple things, illustration, personal work, teaching, etc. There are so many different opportunities these days that I think it’s too limiting to look for work in only one area.

I think I’ve tried pretty much everything. Somehow the competitions seem to work best. And despite all the amazing new social media platforms, postcards seem to still do the trick!

I’ve actually compiled a list of eight tips for students. I usually go into a lot more detail but here they are in a nutshell:
1. Work hard
2. Embrace self doubt
3. Remove toxic influences
4. Nurture your uniqueness
5. Not working can be just as important to creativity as working
6. Stop trying to be perfect
7. Be kind and stay humble.
8. Remain a student for life.

See more Anita Kunz illustrations, new work, and updates:
Anita Kunz illustration
Anita Kunz personal work
Videos of Anita Kunz (interviews, talks, work)
Editorial Illustration: Communicating an Idea Visually / Video interview with Anita Kunz


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