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The DART Q&A: Ellen Weinstein

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday July 10, 2013

Ellen Weinstein is an artist who knows her heroes. In her blog she noted, “Norman Rockwell said, ‘If a picture wasn’t going very well, I’d put a puppy in it.’ Why stop at one?” The drawing she made in response [below] landed on The Atlantic Magazine’s “Gallery Page.” Ellen recently took time out from art and teaching to do the DART Q&A. Here’s what she wrote:

As an artist, what are some of your favorite things about living and working in New York

I live and work from my apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which happens to be the neighborhood where I grew up in. I love the mix of energy, people and cultures and the random juxtapositions that they can create. On any given day, I can bump into an old childhood friend or an artist whose work I greatly admire. There is always a sense of limitless possibilities here. For me, it’s always been home.

Dream On, for JWM Magazine.

How and when did you first become interested in art, illustration and design?

A rite of passage for anyone who grows up in New York is that moment when you are allowed to travel the subways by yourself. I was around 11 years old and took notice of the posters done [for School of Visual Arts and for Mobil Masterpiece Theater] by Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast and other famed designers on the subway platforms and streets of the city. I saw how they changed the grim environment of New York at that time and wanted to do the same.

Tells us about your art/design background. Where did you study? What was your experience there like?

I was fortunate to attend The High School of Art and Design after passing the admissions test there. The school not only provided a great introduction into what would become my career but it was also an environment that made me feel accepted as an adolescent. From there I went to Pratt Institute where I majored in graphic design and lived on campus in Brooklyn. The emphasis in the Communication Design program at Pratt was visual thinking and concepts, which carries over from design to illustration.

What was your first assignment?

My very first assignment was for Steven Heller at The New York Times for the Sunday Book Review. Over the course of a year, I had met with Steven several times to review my portfolio, and after the third time he had a project for me. I picked up the manuscript on Friday and the final was due Monday morning, no sketches in between. I stayed up for 72 hours and did about 10 versions of the art and was thrilled to see it run in the paper.

What is your favorite part of the creative process? 

The moment after I resolve a problem I have been struggling with. Inevitably with almost every project, there is a point whether in the beginning, middle or end when it’s going terribly wrong and working through that is very satisfying. I really enjoy being able to say something with my work and having an idea I feel strongly about.

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

I keep a sketchbook for ideas but it’s usually not in a sketchbook per se. I clip loose sheets of paper and scribbles together for future reference. I do always have a small cheap sketchbook on hand to jot things down but it’s not something I would scan and share. My work starts out traditionally whether it’s sketching or painting elements that later get combined digitally. Recently, I have been going in a more analog direction but as an illustrator, I consider how the work is applied to be the final.

Left: Can you Have Too Many Bonds?, for aiCIO Magazine. Right: Gay Bullying, for Village Voice Media.

What is your favorite time of day for working? How do you spend the first hour of your work day?

That changes for me. For a long time I loved the late night hours. Now, I enjoy getting up early before my husband and our dog to work on sketches; it’s my favorite time for that part of the process. I end my workday by creating a to-do list for the following day. I begin my day by reassessing the list and seeing what can wait until the next. It’s a vicious cycle.

What are you listening to?

I have my local NPR station, WNYC, on most of the time. Daft Punk has also been on heavy rotation as of late.

Who and what are some of your strongest influences?

Some of my earlier influences were the great poster artists mentioned as well as the Stenberg Brothers, Archie comics, Raymond Carver, and Stanley Kubrick among many others. I am more inspired by the stories being told rather than the medium used to tell them. Observing my surroundings whether I am in New York or somewhere else is always stimulating as well.

What was the biggest mistake you ever made and what did you learn from it?

Spending too much time ruminating over my mistakes. Missteps and failure are part of the process and need to be embraced alongside the successes. I find that what later feel like my breakthrough moments come after the down times and learning from them. I still do obsess a bit though; I’m working on it!

What was the last art exhibition you saw and what did you take away from it?

Nick Cave’s “The Crossing” at Grand Central Station was more of a performance than an exhibition where students from the Alvin Ailey Dance School wore sound suits created by Mr. Cave and transformed themselves into horses before a live audience. I loved the shared emotional experience of the crowd and how activated the space felt. As an illustrator it is less common to see someone interact with your work in person. Below: Ididnotarod, which found a home on The Atlantic Magazine Gallery page.

Has social media been a boon for self-promotion? Or do you have methods you’ve always used that still work?

Social media has been great to share work and interact with many people who I would not have access to otherwise. I am now connected to people all over the globe and when I travel and make new acquaintances, we have a way to remain in touch. In this digital age there is still much to be said for meeting in person at events like ICON, The Illustration Conference.

Have you ever had a creative block with a deadline looming? What do you do to get crackin’?

I don’t really believe in blocks but if I am feeling stuck, I try to switch gears for a few minutes. Sometimes I don’t have the luxury of time to do something else completely. If I am working on ideas, I will just start making marks on paper and that will usually lead somewhere. On a final, I will turn the piece upside down; look at a color image in grey scale or any other way to experience the work differently. I am married to illustrator who loves nothing more than on a late Saturday night to be asked, “does this need more contrast?” so he is a valued additional set of eyes when needed.

Where do you teach—and what do you like best about teaching?

I teach one day a week at the Rhode Island School of Design in the Illustration department. I have sophomores in the fall and seniors in the spring semesters. I enjoy getting to know the students as individuals and finding what their strengths and inspirations are. I have also been traveling and teaching workshops internationally. In the past year I taught in Venice, Italy through Teatrio and in Xalapa, Mexico at Amarillo Design Center and those were rewarding experiences as well. Through travel and also with international students who attend RISD, I get to learn about other cultures which informs my own work.

What advice would you give to a young illustrator who is just getting noticed?

Whether someone is getting noticed or not, I would say to stay focused on the things you can control, the work you make and how you act. Be true to your own voice and don’t get caught up in the trends of the moment and be thankful for the work and time people give you.

Ellen Weinstein is a New York-based illustrator whose work has been recognized by American Illustration, Society of Illustrators, Communication Arts Illustration Annual, Print’s Regional Design Annual, Society of Publication Designers, and The Art Directors Club. Ellen exhibits her work in local New York galleries as well as galleries in the US and Italy. She lectures and conducts workshops in various art schools and internationally and is an instructor at the Rhode Island School of Design. Ellen is the President of ICON8, The Illustration Conference that will be held July 9-12, 2014 in Portland Oregon. Blog.

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