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Interview By Kathryn Weinstein
Illustrations by Christopher Darling

Interview first appeared in UCDA’s Designer magazine (Vol. 42, Issue 1, Spring 2017)

Christopher Darling is an illustrator and educator. The Society of Illustrators, American Illustration, 3x3, Creative Quarterly, The Pixie Awards, and the Association of Illustrators have recognized his work. His clients include The New York Museum of Natural History, Sony Music Entertainment, and the United Nations Refugee Agency. Christopher’s paintings and illustrations have been published and exhibited internationally.

Christopher Darling’s current interests and research examine the historical relationships and dynamics between illustration and written content, outsider artwork as High Art, and the impact of art/illustration education within incarcerated communities.

Tell us a little bit about your background?
I was born in Chicago, spent some of my childhood in Minneapolis, but really call Kalamazoo, Michigan, home. My father was a professional football player before I was born and became a Baptist minister about the time I was five. My mother was a poet; she went through the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. She writes only for herself and has about 10-15,000 pages of poems in her closet and was going to burn all of them last year, actually, but I convinced her not to. I have six siblings; I am very close with all of them.

I would be lying if I said that religion did not shape me in some way, as I spent almost every day of my childhood thinking about heaven, hell, death, and salvation—I was immersed in these topics at home, church, and school. Growing up I was always interested in cartoons (TV and print), picture books, drawing, and writing.

Do you still think about heaven, hell, death, and salvation?
I wish I could say no, but I think the themes are embedded in a way—I have learned to reprogram my thinking a bit though, which has made the later part of my life much more enjoyable.

Left: Illustration based off of Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s Guest for ILLOZINE. Right: Illustration about irrational fear for ILLOZINE.

When did you decide to pursue illustration—I seem to recall you studied creative writing as an undergraduate? And why did you decide to pursue an MFA in Illustration as Visual Essay at the School of Visual Arts?
I studied fine art and poetry as an undergraduate. I really enjoyed writing poems, but never really cared to try to make a living that way. I took the first six months after graduating to create a body of paintings and prints which I showed in a solo exhibition. I sold a few pieces, but it wasn’t enough to live on. I had a friend who was a flavor chemist at a big flavouring company in Michigan. I ended up illustrating newly flavored products (Swedish Fish, Halls cough drops, chewing gums etc.) as international promotion for that company. I was not crazy about the subject matter, as it was very technical illustration, and I did not necessarily agree with artificial flavoring, but I was 22 and was able to eat something besides Ramen noodles every night because of that job.

A design friend said to me one day, “So you’re an illustrator now.” I did not even know what that meant, I actually googled “illustration.” The first book that popped up as I was researching was The Education of an Illustrator, written by Marshal Arisman, chair of the MFA Illustration as Visual Essay program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. I researched the program—which blends creative writing, commercial illustration, fine art, design, and surprisingly enough, spirituality (Marshal grew up in a psychic community in upstate New York, Lily Dale). I knew I had to go to that program, so I sent Marshal a book of poems and some drawings and ended up attending. I think all the teachers there were equally influential.

As a graduate student, you were one of the founding members of Carrier Pigeon magazine. Could you tell us a little bit about the impetus to create the magazine, and what has happened with the magazine since, are you still involved?
In graduate school, I along with four friends decided to start the magazine, Carrier Pigeon. I think we all were a bit disillusioned with traditional forms of illustration (advertising, editorial, product, etc.) and were looking for something more personal or unique—maybe less corporate feeling. We all enjoyed writing as well, so we created the publication, which weaved fine art, design, illustration, and fictional stories in an atypical way.

Left: Volume 1, issue 2 of Carrier Pigeon. Ten different artists were asked to create 100 screen-printed covers. This image is Christopher Darling’s cover. Right: Interior spread Carrier Pigeon.

When I left NYC my involvement with the magazine ended, but I still have good feelings toward everyone there. I know the offices just relocated to New Jersey and the publication is housed now within Guttenberg Arts—a 45,000-foot space which includes a gallery, common areas for painting and drawing, classrooms, a sculpture garden, printing presses, a ceramics studio, and residency spaces—all run by two of the initial founders that also produce Carrier Pigeon.

How would you describe your style? How do you find your projects? What themes are you interested in exploring?
I think my work comes off as playful or humorous—usually there is something sort of hidden behind all of that, something dark, more serious, or contemplative.

I worked more for clients when I was in NYC, and most of that work came from relationships as I never had an agent. Now I am more interested in personal and collaborative work.

I recently finished a graphic body of work that revolved around the objectification of Native Americans, which feels particularly timely now with what is going on at Standing Rock. I’m interested in personal psychoanalysis—fears, desire, dreams. I love humor and culture as well.

What projects are you working on now?
I am currently working on a series, Everywhere is Cleveland—inspired by the people in Cleveland and places I like to go or visit within the city. The works began as reportage or observational studies on location and ended up a bit more imaginative, embellished, and nostalgic. I read a Tennessee Williams quote just before I began the series, “America has three great cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” This general past and present attitude made me want to showcase different aspects of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio.

Everywhere is Cleveland series. Left to right: Thirty-one at Cumberland Park, The Cleveland Museum of Art: Picasso and Woman Reflect on Brancusi, The Cleveland Orchestra Plays Respighi.

Your work was commissioned by Sony Music to create an animation celebrating the centennial release of Robert Johnson’s Crossroad Blues. Do you have any plans for future collaborations with animators?
I am always open to any type of collaboration with animators. Currently I don’t have any future plans for anything though.

You’ve moved back to the Midwest for a fulltime teaching position at Kent State University. How has that impacted your life?
Leaving NYC was really difficult—it is such a creative and energetic city, I had a lot of connections and friends there. It took a while to adjust back into the Midwest, but I now really enjoy teaching fulltime at Kent State—the faculty in our department are incredible and our students are producing excellent work. I moved out of Kent, up to Cleveland recently—I love being by Lake Erie, there is a lot of diversity, good food, exceptional museums, and I really like watching the Lebron James and the CAVS play.

Left and right: Stills from Crossroad Blues–an animation commemorating Robert Johnson.

How did you become involved with incarcerated communities?
Initially I just wanted to paint a mural on a building in Cleveland, North Star. After a meeting with them, and the Oriana House, a door was opened for much more to happen. I worked with Oriana House in Akron, Ohio. Oriana manages/operates/funds two other organizations: Cuyahoga Correctional Facility and North Star Rehabilitation Resource Center in Cleveland. I met with a group of nine clients from CBCF at the North Star Rehabilitation Resource Center in Cleveland twice a week for three weeks to talk about art and illustration, do some material demonstrations, and to plan a collaborative mural. For two weeks after the classes we all worked on the mural together—we had to work around the client’s program schedules so it was not every day. 

I’m now working with the clients, and developing relationships has become the best part of the process. If you look in a prison or halfway house you will find a bunch of really creative people. I think art and education are essential for any community. It is tragic that many individuals in this country are denied equal education based on zip codes, it is truly a caste system right now.

Mural for North Star Rehabilitation Resource Center, Cleveland​, Ohio.

What artists influence you today?
I can tell you I have Lynd Ward’s God’s Man and Prelude to a Million Years on my nightstand right now—they are wordless graphic novels from the 1930s. I go to the Cleveland Museum of art pretty regularly, they have an amazing collection that I enjoy: Martin Wong, Otto Dix, Jacob Lawrence, Henri Rousseau. I have been looking at William Johnson recently. I like the way Marjane Satrapi and Chris Ware tell stories. Huge fan of David Heatley—my advisor in grad school with whom I worked closely.

What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing careers in illustration?
I was at a jazz club at 137th and St. Nicks in Manhattan years ago and a woman asked me if I wanted to buy a necklace she made. I said no, but she whispered, “Ask and you shall receive.” I have thought about that sentiment often­­—I think it is the best advice for students. The woman was asking in a calm, direct, respectful way; I think she sold a lot of necklaces that night.

What was the best advice you ever received?
Probably what I mentioned above…

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