The Q&A: Joel Holland

By Peggy Roalf   Monday November 13, 2017

Q: Originally from [where?] what are some of your favorite things about living and working in [your current locale]?

A: I grew up in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, a small farm town west of Philadelphia. I then went to study at Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland. Ate lots of steamed crabs there, then moved to New York at the tail end of the subway token era. Initially I lived in Brooklyn; currently I live in Manhattan with my wife and two daughters. I love it. Walking everywhere, sitting on park benches. We have a very lovely view of the East River. Wouldn’t trade it.

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

A: My studio-mate Leo, our 9-year-old Shih Tzu. I work at home and the times we leave the building for his walks really help to refresh me. Plus it keeps me from making 20 cups of coffee a day. 

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

A: For personal projects there’s a definite click when I know it’s finished. And done well. With lettering, it depends. Sometimes the first thing that I work up is best as it’s the least self-aware. Other times it’s about pushing styles, fitting into shapes, flowing, repeat, repeat, etc. Then the cleanup process begins and it falls into place.



Q: What was your favorite book as a child?  Caps For Sale. For the story and the art. And the hats. Also Bugs Bunny’s Carrot Machine. The first memory of looking at the spine of a book—the Little Golden Book spines are the best.

What is the best book you’ve recently read?   The Other Half,a biography of Jacob Riis. He’s more than a beach in Brooklyn—he’s the New York people’s champ.

Q: How did you arrive at your love of lettering as an illustration practice? 

A: I’ve always been a fan of found/folk/honest lettering, and signage in the wild. Sometime around 1999 I got my first few jobs hand lettering the titles for book jackets and was immediately hooked. There’s a tinge of nobility in drawing letterforms. The work can be conceptual but still a proper honest skill. It also feels infinite, there’s always something to tweak or improve, other avenues to explore.

Q: Do you keep a sketchbook? What is the balance between art you create on paper [or other analog medium] versus in the computer?

A: Normally I have a small sketchbook with me, but if not I’ll have a few 3x5 cards and a ballpoint in a pocket. My kids love it. Everything starts with a pen and paper. It goes: draw, scan, compose, send. That’s the norm. 10% of my work is done in computer. Whatever I can do ahead of time on paper saves me some hassle and the work some integrity. 

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

A:  There’s a big percentage of inspiration that comes from the city and my schedule. As well as a bit of fear… and a bit more competitiveness. No coasting allowed here. Endurance is everything.

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

A: Discovering the series of covers that Edward Gorey created for Anchor books. THAT WAS IT FOR ME, IT! The range of skills and styles while keeping a consistent hand was eye opening. It was the first time I comprehended that an illustrator could be a designer. Dream job.


Q: What was the strangest/most interesting assignment you've taken that has an important impact on your practice, and what changed through the process?

A: The biggest book I’ve worked on was J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. It was so interesting to see the process and ripple affects of my work under the scrutiny of so many eyes. Despite there being so many cooks in the kitchen, it was a great experience! There were secret file names used to prevent leaks, It was translated into over 20 languages (in my hand) and reading internet comments and reviews of my work. 

Q: What would be your last supper?

A: A big bowl of cacio e pepe and a bigger glass of red wine. Pana cotta and espresso for dessert. It was a good run!!!



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