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Illustrator Profile - Polly Becker: "Put something of yourself into your images"

By Robert Newman   Thursday January 19, 2017

Polly Becker is a Boston-based illustrator and artist who is known for her smart, elegant, and very imaginative assemblages. Her editorial illustrations have appeared in countless magazines and newspapers. In addition to her assemblages, Becker also works in a black and white, pen and ink style, with a strong vintage feel.

MY LIFE:
I am from the Bay Area of Northern California.

As a child I lived in my imagination a lot, and was fascinated by the past. I spent lots of time alone, drawing and making things. (All this is still true).

In my early teens an art teacher told me that I “could be an illustrator already.”  I knew she was delusional, but it made an encouraging impression anyway.  I went to RISD, which I loved, though my tastes interests did not quite align with with those of the the illustration department. Fortunately, before leaving I was able to take a class with Henrik Drescher, focused on a different kind of approach, more editorial. He exposed us to, and exemplified, with his own work, how cool and playful and personal illustration could be, and revived its luster in my eyes.

I moved to Boston and started working in scratchboard and pen and ink for Ronn Campisi, The Boston Globe, The New York Times Op Ed page, and local ad agencies, publishers,  and design firms. Later, when I started doing an assemblage style using found objects, I got more work from nationally distributed magazines and other clients around the country. At that time, I started getting into the annuals and meeting illustrators and designers in New York who continue to inspire me.

I’ve lived in Boston’s South End for decades. I teach illustration sometimes at nearby art schools, including RISD  and MassArt. My  husband is an architect, and we have two sons, 12 and 15.

MY WORKSPACE:
I live and work in a small space, so it’s good (and no accident) that most of my work concerns miniatures. Even so, the apartment just barely accommodates the supplies and collections of found objects (aka “the art rubble”) I use for projects. By contrast, my line work technique requires only a table and a few easily portable supplies; so I focus on  pen and ink assignments when I go to home to the West Coast, which I do for a month every summer.


HOW I MAKE MY ILLUSTRATIONS:

I photograph the assemblages myself. Most of the work is handmade, but not all. I am ambivalent about Photoshop. The image above left was created with no Photoshopping at all, ("Hidden Cameras," about a 40-member band). The one above right, for a story about nutrition trends, depended on a fair amount of digital processing.

I try to make things I work on mean as much as possible, in any way I can. Answering an assignment is one kind of problem-solving. Designing the solution so that you can find amusement in executing it, and also satisfy the client, is more complicated. But it’s something I try for.  “A Decade of Diet Fads” ended up being lots of fun because gave me a chance to play with clothing and food (things which I care about) and also to incorporate personal items such as my grandmother’s silver (which crops up again, in a recent project for The New York Times).

Things seem to go best when I can relate naturally to my topic. Thus, it was exciting to be assigned a piece on Jane Austen, an author I adore, for UK magazine The Prospect

Sometimes it seems there’s an almost magical alignment between my interests and the projects I am offered: while pregnant, I was assigned a project about pregnancy for The Seattle Times; right before my wedding, I was asked to do a series about marriage, for The Atlantic. It’s extremely flattering when art directors intuit my personal themes,  and then assign me the very projects I would most wish to get.

To start a project, I ruminate on the topic while sifting through all the “art rubble”™ and pulling out everything I think might possibly fit. Working hesitantly, I try and discard approaches, and put things together and dismantle them over and over. Documenting my process all the way through with photos, I fuss with different arrangements until one seems to start telling the story.

Trying to embody the mood of my subject  tends to yield a better result than a more cerebral, or literal, approach. An exploratory process as opposed to planning is also good, as little happy surprises and discoveries can occur, and these are the (rare) moments I live for. I have learned the work will be smarter if I don’t try to think. Sometimes I am surprised by how feelings and subconscious ideas  I was having while mulling things over seem to just find their way in and may get perceived by someone else.

It’s important to ruthlessly pare the elements down, with collage. More is less. The main thing is to avoid being banal. Anyone can combine tired old junk for a wistful, backward-looking ambiance. Sincerity and significance are trickier.

I am thrifty, and re-use not only actual specific physical fragments, but also metaphors such as string, or thread, or scissors. I love that they can mean different things for different projects.
  

MY FIRST BIG BREAK:
Although I started working right out of school, and was able (albeit just barely) to support myself, I spent many years in a state of frustration, striving for good craft, and to deliver something that looked professional. I was just trying to provide what I thought others expected to see. I felt like there was something  in me my work didn’t reflect. Later, when I branched out into the assemblage technique, it felt not just like a break, but almost like a prison break—the perfect crime. The new work got me a different type of assignment—a whole series of “big breaks” professionally, right away—even though it felt easier, was more fun,  and came more naturally. Go figure.

MY INFLUENCES:
Edward Gorey, Picasso (my parents were fans), Howard Pyle’s pen and ink drawings, and Saul Steinberg.

MY MOST ADMIRED CREATIVE PERSON:
I am perpetually engaged in case studies on How to Be Good, looking at writers, musicians, filmmakers and comedians, along with visual artists, and building my Pantheon of art-heroes, some of whom (The Beatles, Saul Steinberg) I drafted in at a young age, and some of whom (Louis CK, Mark Rylance) are current heartthrobs.

MY CREATIVE INSPIRATION:
I love reality, and strive to get some tiny bit of it, somehow, into things I make. Communicating emotion is a goal, too—an engine (like desire) to drive things forward. I have again and again noticed with surprise that when you feel something, another person may be moved too.

THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF WORKING ALONE:
Tasks I don't enjoy (such as self-promotion and paperwork) get neglected, with no one to force me to attend to them.

A MEMORABLE ASSIGNMENT FROM THE PAST YEAR:
A recent project for The New York Times, about the unavoidability of the presidential campaign as a dinner party topic, generated an unusual amount of positive feedback. When I did it, which was immediately before the election, it seemed certain Hillary would win—hence her sunny smile. Now, though I don’t hate the piece, what I didn’t know then makes me feel a little sick when I look at it.


DREAM ASSIGNMENT:

I am not sure what my dream assignment would be (though I would like to work for The New Yorker).

A couple of projects I’ve had in real life come to mind, because being offered something so wonderful created a sense of  unreality. A few years back, patrons of the arts in the Middle East commissioned over a dozen pieces so that they would have a presence in Art Dubai, then flew me to the UAE for a solo show in an ancient monastery

Another time, an advertising firm in Austria commissioned a large series of illustrative interpretations of Mozart operas for posters, and program, of the debut season of a new opera house in Vienna. 

MY FAVORITE ART DIRECTOR: 
These relationships mean so much.. I am indebted for their kindness, and friendship, to many art directors.

Fritz Klaetke of Visual Dialogue is a dear friend who’s also helped me (and hired me) a lot. He’s offered advice I depend on and has been incredibly kind, designing my identity and promos, since we met, decades ago. Ronn Campisi is another good friend who’s been there since I was starting out and had a big impact. Ronn was the first person to hire me out of school, and also the first to publish my dimensional work, and he periodically bookends our relationship by being also the most recent. And as many other editorial illustrators are also aware, he is a joy to work for.


SOME OF MY FAVORITE ILLUSTRATORS:

I  often look at Brian Cronin, Maira Kalman, Christoph Neimann, Melinda Beck, Jillian Tamaki, Henrik Drescher, Zohar Lazar, Roz Chast, Ralph Steadman, and many others I am equally  intimidated/delighted by but whose names don’t happen to be on the tip of my tongue at this moment.

HOW I STAY CURRENT:
I don’t think I do stay current. (Is that bad?)


HOW I PROMOTE MYSELF:

Well...It’s fortunate my career doesn't entirely depend on my sporadic efforts in this area.

I depend to a large extent on assignments resulting from existing relationships, also on that helpful effect of living in a digital era where work gets seen sometimes without me having to directly make it happen. The internet also brings more international work. Though the feeling of using social media is embarrassing/uncomfortable I try to use it sometimes anyway. (Don’t bother following me on Instagram, though).

In France I have a representative. Nothing I have tried with representation in the US has felt right; much of my work is editorial, where representation is unnecessary. Also I find both paying that commission, and interacting with a client through an intermediary, frustrating.

ADVICE FOR SOMEONE STARTING OUT:
The idea of “a style” being such an imperative causes anxiety for young illustrators. But adopting  mannerisms for their own sake, just so that you’ll have them, is a mistake. It is when you are being yourself that your work will be most appealing and most involving. When you put something of yourself into your images—some life, something truthful—you may avoid being bored, and boring.

See more Polly Becker illustrations, new work and updates:
Polly Becker website
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