The DART/ICON9 Q&A: Mark Kaufman

By Peggy Roalf   Monday June 27, 2016

Editor’s note: With ICON9 The Illustration Conference just a week away—four days of art, discussion, performance, and plenty of talk in Austin, TX—the current roster for the Q&A is peopled with many of the exceptional artists making presentations during this biannual artfest. Mark Kaufman will lead a workshop on Collage Improvisation on Wednesday morning. Info

Q: Originally from Jersey City, NJ, what are some of your favorite things about living and working in Palm Springs, CA?

A: I moved to the desert around a year and a half ago after 25 years in Seattle. Life is laid back here, as you’d expect from a sun-drenched resort destination. I’m starting to get antsy though. While I love Mid Century Modernism, vintage Cadillacs and old school cocktails, I feel like I’m trapped in a version of America that exists only in the minds of design purists or vinyl completists. I think I need something more shambolic. It’s funny, we moved here with the intent of working less, but I’m kind of bored, so I actually find myself working more.

Q: Do you keep a sketchbook? What is the balance between art you create on paper versus in the computer?

A: I’m always drawing or scribbling notes to myself for design or illustration projects on scraps of paper and sketchbooks. It’s rare that I use sketchbooks in the classic sense, just to draw, but when I do I tend to binge on them for days at a time for experimentation. Then just like that, I’ll put them aside. After a few weeks I’ll spot a stack of half-filled books piled up in a corner, I’ll flip through one, get inspired and start screwing around again. It’s just more convenient for me to jot something down on the closest available napkin than to seek out my official sketchbook of the moment.

Q: What is the most important item in your studio?

A: My wife and business partner Jacqueline McCarthy. We’ve been working together for well over 20 years. Tools and technologies come and go, what we have is special to me, and I need that.

Q: How do you know when the art is finished?

A:  As a designer or illustrator, it’s finished when it serves the needs of my client. For everything else It’s done when it serves my needs. 

Q: What was your favorite book as a child?

A:  Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls, sick, violent, nonsense poems and limericks edited by William Cole and illustrated by Tomi Ungerer.  

What is the best book you’ve recently read?

A:  I am currently reading The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy by KliphNesteroff, a deep dive into half-forgotten comedians and their influence on American culture.

Q: If you had to choose one medium to work in for an entire year, eliminating all others, what medium would you choose?

A:  I’d want it to be something that I haven’t done, so I’d ditch solving other people’s problems and work in film or video. Experimental, non-narrative video, like a Stan Brakhage or Hollis Frampton for the iPhone era. 

Q: What elements of daily life exert the most influence on your work practice?

A:  Social media. It keeps me informed and entertained and thinking about what’s going on in the world. 

Q: What was the [Thunderbolt] painting or drawing or film or otherwise that most affected your approach to art? 

A:  Not a thunderbolt, more of a starting point. When I was around eight years old my parents bought me a set of books called American Heritage Book of the Presidents and Famous Americans, filled with engravings and editorial cartoons, photographs, timelines and artifacts of American history. It’s where I first saw the art of Ben Shahn and Thomas Nast, which definitely stoked my interest in art and design with a political or social realist point of view.

Q: Who was the [Thunderbolt] teacher or mentor or visiting artist who most influenced you early in your training or career?

A:  I was a terrible student at the School of Visual Arts in the late 1970s. If I showed up to classes at all, I sat in the back, unengaged, afraid of not being cool enough and trying to figure out how I fit in. Enter Kenneth R. Deardorff, an art director at Grove Press and Riverside Records. While everyone else was trying to be punker and hipper and more jaded than the next person, Ken was the epitome of the dapper, mid-century graphic designer—erudite, with sophisticated, well-rounded tastes in art, literature and current affairs. I figured out two things in Ken’s class: not to judge a book by it’s cover and that I wanted to be a designer.

Q: What would be your last supper?

A:  I’d like to say my mama’s lasagna or a classic dish from a Michelin starred restaurant, but it would probably just be hot dogs.

Put Mark Kaufman in a time machine. Set the controls for 1978 when he entered the School of Visual Arts. Ply him with Quaaludes, whiskey and cigarettes and ask him what he wants to do in 35 years. He’ll say “I love you man”. Then he’ll tell you he wants to be a graphic designer and illustrator. He wants to win awards from The Society of Illustrators, American Corporate Identity, Society of Publication Designers and American Illustration. He wants to illustrate for The New York Times, The Progressive, In These Times and The Stranger. He wants to serve on the boards of AIGA Seattle and ICON The Illustration Conference. Set the controls to now. He’ll tell you he’s done all these things and wants to do more. 

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