The DART Interview: Whitney Sherman

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday February 28, 2019


Whitney Sherman: Post Typography Lettering & Type book launch / MICA Falvey Hall / Baltimore: F is a Four-Letter Word

At last count, I found Whitney Sherman [a long-time DART subscriber] wearing five hats: Director of the MFA in Illustration Practice and Co-Director of Dolphin Press & Print at MICA; Illustrator, Designer and Proprietor,; Co-editor/Contributing author, History of Illustration (Bloomsbury/Fairchild 2018); and Author/Editor of books including “Playing with Sketches” (Quarto 2014). If that weren’t enough, Sherman gives workshops in Mexico, China, and the US; is a gardener; and also the mother of a graphic designer. 

Peggy Roalf: From where I sit, it looks as if Narrative Art is enjoying a new life in the commercial world with the incredible resources offered by rapidly evolving developments in digital platforms. Can you talk a little about how this has changed the role of educators in the field?

Whitney Sherman: Contrary to the old saw, "those that can't 'do', teach", educators constantly need to be at the front lines of their field—or at least it's that way in a non-tenured institution! To be pioneers in the field, we have to prove our worth through research, meaning we must stay relevant in our field and in our personal work. And so it stands to reason that staying abreast of developments—perhaps even being inquisitive and strategic about how one utilizes new developments—is essential to one's own professional survival, both at the studio and in the classroom. 

I wouldn't deny that some people have had difficulty climbing over the digital divide. This is normal for any technology shift—similar to the sound technology in the early 20th century that transitioned silent films to "talkies." My point is that if an educator is teaching illustration, by default they much grapple with issues of creation, communication and consumption. 

Consumption today is on a wider range of outlets, from analog to digital to virtual. And as illustrators, we are not bound by a particular media. We own it all! That means as a practitioner, I have to learn about what is available, and assess what is right for me to use [to make or to promote my work]. As an educator, I need to understand my limitations and partner with others who may have stronger skills than mine in certain areas so that together we can bring an awareness of new developments, to contextualize them for students [because we have insights that only time provides] and support them in their experimentations to discover which new developments will drive their making and which will help them connect to their consumers.

PR: Is it possible to anticipate—and get hands-on demos—as new apps are introduced?

WS: Working with graduate students is very different than working with undergraduate students in terms of my expectation that they conduct their own research and work more independently. That said, each student comes to the program with depth in certain areas. Because of that, I formulated Teams to promote peer-learning. One team is called Small Workshops, where the team surveys student skill sets and learning interests, then develops a series of one-hour workshops. These are optional and put no pressure on students to participate unless they want to. Peer learning also happens in the studio outside of class time and so if one student says, for example, they want to map their imagery onto a 3D form, someone may point them to a Youtube video, or tell them what software to use, or know of a student or faculty already doing that and recommend the interested student seek them out. Faculty-to-student learning occurs on a slightly more formal way with regular meetings and so in this case, the student benefits from raising their interests directly with faculty who may have the answer. Most students already have a relatively long term relationship with applications and are often fearless in jumping in to learn on-the-go with any new application.

Whitney Sherman: Squirrel Pope (hand cast porcelain), Atomic Books, Baltimore

PR: As your student body at MICA is comprised of digital natives, what proportion of their classroom and seminar hours are spent with non-digital practice? Do you often see artists who aren’t interested in making things by hand; if so, what tools do you bring to the negotiation? 

WS: Surprisingly, perhaps, a good number of the students that are accepted into the ILP program are from other fields such as sociology, literature, economics, robotics, graphic design, animation, studio art and many others. Yet they have loved illustration and made it their own by doing self-directed work. Some use digital tools and some use traditional tools. That mix changes each year as a new crop of students are accepted, so I can't assume anything in this regard. 

That said, in the first year of the program, I designed it to cause all of the students to work with their hands in workshops such as paper engineering, sewing, book binding, stop-motion animation, patterns, ceramics and hand lettering. After being immersed in a workshop, the students then create a reaction piece—that's a new work that takes what they experienced in the workshop with their native idea making and hand skills with the instruction to experiment, take risks and honor the possibility of failure as they get outside their comfort zone. The workshops bring out the explorer in the students. Rarely is anyone resistant to the play involved in each material, despite how digitally skilled they may be. The workshops bring each student back to the primary elements of idea making and allows them to think outward in sophisticated ways. 

This outdoor mural on the Dolphin Building, in Baltimore, was created through a collaboration between MICA students and street artist Pose. Photo courtesy Photo/MICA

PR: Printmaking seems to be a large part of your studio practice as well as the MICA programs. Could you talk a little about it’s ‘siren call’ to you?

WS: While I would never claim myself to be a printmaker, I do make images using handcut rubber stamps, and I'm the co-director of Dolphin Press & Print @ MICA where we engage nationally known artists in a number of fields to create limited editions of books or prints. I also studied photography in college, did photo-screenprints for my thesis show, and have collected numerous prints over the years, but I'd still resist the descriptive of printmaker. What attracts me to printmaking is the idea of multiples, the repetition and individuality of each print. In college, I was greatly influenced by a Pop artist named John Wesley who used multiples in his early paintings, and for a few years I made drawings with repeated imagery, so I think I have a curiosity about repetition and printmaking satisfies that curiosity.  

Left: @dolphinpressprint James Siena edition completed! Lauren is getting ready to pack the edition for signing with the artist @j.siena

PR: I’m fascinated by the workings of Dolphin Press & Print. Could you tell readers a little about how this functions and how its productions align with the Illustration Department at MICA?

WS: Dolphin Press & Print was established in 1998 by printmaker Hilary Lorenz and poet John Yau. The Press was designed to promote collaboration between visual artists, writers and students in order to produce limited-edition letterpress books and broadsides. In 2000, master printer and papermaker Gail Deery, then Chair of Printmaking at MICA, assumed direction of the Press. She broadened the mission statement to include printed editions in a variety of printmaking media. 

In 2003, when I was Chair of undergraduate Illustration at MICA, I approached Gail about producing a print suite of pages from Peter Kuper's version of Kafka's “A Small Tale.” Each page was made to be poster size, with a very small number of them placed into handmade portfolio cases. This was done during Peter's ten-day residency in the undergrad illustration department, which included critiques and talks as well as making the prints. 

 Peter also was given a space on campus to work on his then upcoming book “Sticks and Stones,” and for students to drop in to chat with him. My goal was to capture something of his residency at MICA. Afterward, Gail asked me to join her in operating the Press, to expand the scope of projects to include work with illustration book artists/designers as well as students from the undergrad Illustration Department. I next brought in Jon Rappleye and placed his residency into a course called Studio Remix—a mix of illustration and printmaking students. They worked on a print diptych that seamlessly combined screenprinting and digital printing. Another project I brought in included the book “Vostok” with Michael Bartalos. Gail brings in artists of another stripe including James Siena, Willie Birch and Trenton Doyle Hancock. 

It's important to know that all of the editions we do are prepared, printed and curated by students under the guidance of the director and a master printer. The students learn about collaborating with other artists and how to create a professional print or book edition. Dolphin Press & Print is closely tied to curriculum giving it a student centric focus. Each year, an undergraduate student is appointed staff printer. The student takes an active role alongside the faculty coordinator in leading projects, maintaining the shop and archives, assisting classes and workshops, and representing the Press to other institutions. 

SInce I began the MFA program, I have engaged my grad students in a project with Gizem Vural as the artist in a book project that will launch this summer. The edition was started in the ILP Grad Remix: Dolphin Press course. Throughout its history, the Press has produced more than 40 projects in addition to in-house posters and announcements. Gail and I serve as Co-Directors of the Press. 

History of Illustration (Bloomsbury/Fairchild HC 2018/PB 2019) includes this extract from a 229-foot-long textile depicting the 1066CE Battle of Hastings.

PR: As co-editor of The History of Illustration (Fairchild Hardcover 2018, Softcover 2019), you were involved for more than five years in a massive effort that resulted in the first comprehensive study of the what is perhaps the most ubiquitous of the design arts. Please forgive this innocent question, but how did you keep this engine on the rails?

WS: I think it's fair to say that any collaborative effort plays out from difficult to easy throughout the life of the project. Early on, we decided on a system and hierarchy for planning, agreement on content, process of commissioning writing, proofing and editing, and ultimately managing the voice of the writing to be harmonious. We did our best to maintain this system yet there were times when the publisher had deadlines to be met, or where the writers needed a nudge and we all were not immediately available, but for the most part departures from the system were dealt as needed.

Editor’s note: Whitney Sherman describes the project as: This book rose out of a grass-roots initiative called HIP, the History of Illustration Project. The initiative led to the commitment of numerous authors, mostly unacquainted individuals—faculty teaching illustration history, scholars from several universities, noted collectors, publishers, dealers; curators and prominent practitioners—in response to the need for a textbook. The collective goal was to enhance and promote scholarship and study of illustration. The contributing authors produced an authoritative textbook. The planned web-based portal for enhanced research and collaboration was taken up by the Rockwell Museum's Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies as an ever-growing history blog The book planning began in 2012 and the hardcover edition launched in February 2018. With time-zone differences, changes in editorial staff at the publisher, conflicts in the Middle East and other difficulties to work around, it is absolutely amazing that this book came to be! We are really proud that the quality of it is so high. 

HIP editorial meeting at the Norman Rockwell Museum, in 2013. Photo: Susan Doyle

PR: How did the three main editors came together?

WS: Over the years you probably have heard any number of people talk about the need for this book to happen. I was one of those people, and in the course of time working on educational initiatives, I was in NYC at the Society of Illustrators with my undergrad students in my History of Illustration course. While in the permanent collection, I met Jaleen Grove, a Canadian PhD student. She and I struck up a conversation and of course the idea of creating a History book came up. We were both deep into our respective project [she her dissertation at Stonybrook and me developing the MFA program while I ran the undergrad illustration program at MICA]. 

I had met Susan Doyle initially at the Educators Symposium at SI years before but then again at ICON7 in Providence. I spoke to Susan there, much like I had with Jaleen, about how this History book was needed and we decided to meet up for dinner to talk about how it might happen. As I recall, she was so gung-ho that she brought books with her to dinner. During the course of dinner, I mentioned this Canadian academic I'd met at SI and our discussion on the need to make a book, recommending that she look her up. It was not long after that that a listserve was set up to engage fellow illustrators in contributing to a conversation.

The drive to move the conversation forward came out of a comment James Gurney made on his blog where he threw down the gauntlet to everyone to [in so many words] do it or stop talking about it. The Rockwell Museum took on a leadership role and offered to hold a meeting for concerning/interested parties. I was in China leading workshops and so I couldn't attend, but that meeting solidified intentions to move forward. It was there that Susan Doyle committed to an editor role and Jaleen and I joined in to spearhead the project. Interestingly our areas of expertise chronologically fell into place with some overlap where it was needed.

Imaginary London. Plate, tea towels, wrapping paper forPbody Dsign

PR: Now that the book is out, what is your next big project?

WS: In the immediate future, I'm giving a talk at the Illustration Across Media symposium at Washington University in St. Louis on Illustration Hidden in Plain Sight. I am also working on building an Illustration History Week at MICA. Using chapters from the book, I'd like to invite authors and practitioners in panels and have this culturally significant work related to other study areas. Also up is getting both feet back into my studio, especially Pbody Dsign www.pbodydsign.comwhere my husband is now partnering with me.

Trained as a photographer, Whitney Sherman has worked as an advertising art director, publications designer, and VP/Creative Director. As an educator, she was the undergraduate Chair of Illustration for 10 years at MICA where she developed entrepreneurial coursework and interdisciplinary programming. In 2010, she founded the MFA in Illustration Practice where she is the program director and teaches MFA Thesis. 
She is also Co-Director of Dolphin Press & Print @ MICA, and proprietor of Whitney Sherman Illustration studio, and of Pbody Dsign producing limited edition illustrated homewares. Her award-winning illustrations have been recognized in annuals from the Society of Illustrators, NY; American Illustration; Communication Arts; Print Regional Design; Print Casebooks and others. She has exhibited widely. Her Breast Cancer Research stamp is the first semi-postal stamp and the longest running USPS issue in history raising over $83 million for research so far. 
Sherman is associate editor and contributing author of the History of Illustration, and the author of Playing with Sketches, a book of 50 exercises that redefine the idea of drawing, which has been translated into Chinese, Korean, German and Russian. She conducts lectures and workshops internationally based on her book. MP031019
Her websites are: and
Instagram: @whitneysherman and @pbodydsign


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