Artists on Illustration as Visual Essay

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday May 8, 2008

Over the years, Marshall Arisman's name has become synonymous with the Illustration as Visual Essay program at the School of Visual Arts. The celebrated artist and illustrator organized the MFA program in 1984 and today remains its chair.

Among the artists of the day who found their voice through this intense two-year program are Nathan Fox, Douglas Fraser, Eddie Guy, John Hendrix, Paul Hoppe, Viktor Koen, Nora Krug, Thomas Libetti, Lauren Redniss, Stephen Savage, Yuko Shimizu, Jeffrey Smith, Ai Tatebayashi, Riccardo Vecchio, and Annabelle Verhoye.

Left: Marshall Arisman, with Rainbow Runners. Right: Buffalo/Deer Transformation.

When I saw that the 2008 thesis exhibition is currently on view - and that Marshall is hosting an open studio in Chelsea this weekend - I randomly contacted a few alumni to ask what they found unique and inspiring about the program.

Yuko Shimizu took a moment from her typically non-stop day to say: "It is an amazing program where bringing out the personal voice of each of the students is the main focus. In a way, the program is almost custom-built for each one. I ended up learning so much about myself in those two years, not just about my artistic side but about everything. And by coming to fully understand who you are, you can make your art a true reflection of yourself. I think the reason why so many of the alumni are doing so well in the industry is because this department philosophy ends up producing illustrators who are truly original." Yuko is a member of the BFA Illustration faculty at SVA.

Nathan Fox called from his home in Kansas City, and after covering the bases on subjects ranging from the Orphan Works bill to Comic Com, Nathan spoke and I typed: "I don't think I'd be where I am now if I hadn't gone through the program. Prior to that, illustration didn't seem to be a tangible contemporary art form even though it had been my undergrad major - I had no idea what to say. In the program and with Marshall I could identify with the premise that it's about narrative and solving problems in all media, engaging the reader or viewer through the narrative. From the gitgo, it was an open studio that perpetuated the best in all the students. It didn't matter how you wanted to work, the point is that you were telling a story in an engaging way, challenging the viewer. Over time I started to build confidence in my approach through the work we did while I was there - a blank sheet of paper wasn't an empty page anymore; it became a place of infinite narrative space. From that point on image making and illustration had no boundaries."

Little did I know the three artists I contacted for this article were classmates in the program. Just in from John Hendrix, who lives in St. Louis: "The Illustration as Visual Essay program is the illustration world's AAA minor league affiliate. There is no better place to see the stars of tomorrow than in Marshall Arisman's training ground. I had the honor of attending this program and I owe much of my career to the two years I spent there. Both Marshall and David Sandlin were an essential part of my visual development. They taught me to forget about 'style' and embrace 'voice.' They encouraged me to abandon what I thought illustration 'should be' and to explore what there was about image making that brought me joy. They pushed me to take risks and did me the service of not catching me when it was time to fall. I learned so much from my peers, sharing a studio with Yuko Shimizu, Nathan Fox, Aya Kaykeda, and from my thesis advisor Tim Bower, among many other high flying talents. Part of what makes this program so influential is the collision of a small group of gifted, if unrefined, young artists and a fearless faculty. They throw as hard as they can, and we swing for the fences."

The MFA 2008 thesis exhibition was curated by Gary Panter, a member of the MFA Illustration faculty. The show is on through May 17, with a reception next Tuesday, May 13 from 6:00 to 8:00 pm at the Visual Arts Gallery, 601 West 26th Street, 15th Floor. Hours: Monday - Saturday, 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Gary, by the way, will be signing copies of his new book this Saturday in Brooklyn. Rumor has it there are some special on-site only give-aways to be had at the Picture Box Departmental Store.

Marshall Arisman is hosting an open studio to present his new series of paintings, "The Ayahuasca." Reached by email yesterday, he offered a brief synopsis of his inspiration for these large scale paintings, which are done in oil on hand-made paper. "The Ayahuasca series references the cave paintings done over 45,000 years ago," he wrote. "Archaeologists believe that the shaman drawings on cave walls not only illustrated the journey from the material to the spiritual world but were a source of energy. The energy could be activated by placing your hands on top of the drawings. Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic drug from the Amazon Jungle used to locate lost objects and lost souls."

The Ayahuasca Series is on view from May 9 - 11 at 231 West 29th Street, Room 804. Hours are noon to 8:00 pm on Friday and 11:00 am to 6:00 pm on the weekend. For more information: 212.967.4983 or To read an in-depth interview with Marshall Arisman, click here.