An Interview with M. Genevieve Hitchings
Interview By Kathryn Weinstein
Riverside Park Photo by Jay Lazarin
Illustrations by M. Genevieve Hitchings
Interview first appeared in UCDA’s Designer magazine (Vol. 41, Issue 4, Winter 2016)
M. Genevieve Hitchings is an illustrator, designer, and educator. In this interview she talks about her influences and her journey to becoming an accidental natural historian.
Tell us a little bit about your background?
I was born in New York and grew up with my two sisters. When I was 4, we moved to Vienna, Austria, where my mother is from, for 7 years and we moved back to the States when I was 11. I am grateful for the experience of having lived in two different countries as a child; I think it provided me with a certain perspective on navigating the world. When we moved back to the States I never quite felt like I fit in, but I learned to feel comfortable in environments where I felt like an outsider. After finishing high school in Rye, New York I attended college in Massachusetts. Since college, I have mostly lived in New York City with a few month-long visits to Austria when time allows. I try to go yearly.
Both my parents are talented artists and love the arts. My mother is a paper-conservator; she restores old or damaged works on paper. My father, who is now retired, worked as a journalist/editor. My father always had several creative projects he would be picking away at when he was home from work: painting, writing, fixing-up things around the house, etc. In his retirement those projects have only increased.
When we were little my mother would regularly take us into New York City to visit museums and art galleries. I loved any excuse to go into the city with her. We would usually end up in SoHo. There was always something new to see, this was of course before it turned into a shopping mall.
Early influences? Gosh there are so many. I suppose these were the lasting ones: Henri Matisse, Honore Daumier, Kazimir Malevich, Ludwig Bemelmans, Keith Harring, Charles Adams, Edward Gorey, Aubrey Beardsley, Al Hirshfeld, Hilary Knight—all men?! I love illustrators who have a sense of design and texture in their work.
Why did you decide to go to Hampshire College? Did you go directly to graduate school or did you work for a while and then go back to school?
I always thought if I could make a living being creative I would be happy. I did not really know exactly what that would be. I had the great privilege of attending Hampshire College for my undergraduate degree. In many ways it was an ideal school for me. There were no grades and you were allowed to design your own curriculum. I wanted to study Graphic Design but at that time the college did not offer anything specific to such a major, so I ended up compiling a smorgasbord of classes from history, sociology, fine arts and social theory under an umbrella titled Mass Media and Communication. In retrospect I am grateful that I was able to pursue other disciplines. During my senior year email swooped through college campuses. It’s bizarre to think that the Internet did not exist prior to that point and computers were far and few between. We actually did our work by hand and hung out in libraries.
I did not return to graduate school until years later. I earned my MFA in Illustration from the Fashion Institute of Technology. In fact at that point I had been working as a graphic designer for a number of years but most of the ‘design’ work I was creating had been generated on the computer. I was craving the tactile, creative experience that comes from working with your hands.
What were your first jobs and how did you find them?
My first job fresh out of Hampshire College and within the field of design was working at a printing house on Varick Street in the West Village. I desperately wanted to work as a graphic designer but did not have a portfolio or the work experience to land such a job. It was the beginnings of the desktop publishing era and I was eager to learn the emerging technology. Working as a printing technician afforded me the opportunity to learn several computer programs and also see a range of professionally produced work. It was a particularly stressful and unpleasant work environment because the owner, a very badly tempered man, would verbally abuse both employees and customers on a regular basis. I was pretty eager to find another job and worked hard to build a portfolio. Fortunately the time there allowed me to put together a portfolio, and before the year was up I was hired as a junior designer. I’ve always been very focused on my portfolio; I think my early years in the field trained me to constantly pursue projects that were interesting to me. I would take on freelance work afterhours and for little pay, in the hopes of showcasing better work. Eventually I learned that such projects would also help me to acquire paid work in subject matter that appealed to me.
I stumbled into science illustration in graduate school. My capstone project was an illustrated documentary style website about pollinators in New York City. Initially I hoped to design a project that would allow me to illustrate a story online but I needed a good subject matter. Prior to graduate school, I had been working as a web designer and loved the possibilities for visually explaining complex concepts online. At the time I lived close to Riverside Park and one day while taking a walk to brainstorm ideas a butterfly landed on me. That is how I came up with the idea to showcase the role pollinators and native plants play in sustaining New York City’s wildlife. For the project I spent hours studying and drawing insects and accidentally fell in love with it.
Left to right: Black Yellow Garden Spider; Centipede; Swallowtail.
Invertebrates of the Mid-Atlantic U.S. © Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, American Museum of Natural History
A few months after I graduated I was contacted by someone affiliated with the Museum of Natural History who had seen my urban pollinator website. That led to my first assignment, illustrating invertebrates for the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation. Initially I was asked to help them with a web project they were attempting to build and there was an illustrated component, which I was also asked to do. That assignment led to the next.
Early on, while one of my illustrations was being reviewed at the American Museum of Natural History someone commented on an inaccurate detail in the anatomical structure of a moth I had drawn. I was caught off guard because I thought I had been so careful to make sure everything was correct. I had been using photography as reference and quickly discovered that two dimensional images made certain details invisible and I was making assumptions about what I thought I could see rather than what was really there. That led into a much deeper exploration of the subject matter. I invested in a microscope and started looking at things up close. In my studio I have a growing collection of insects that have been found or given to me. I think visitors are often spooked when they see it—I know I would have been, before I started to draw them.
Since your capstone project, your projects have continued exploring projects as a contemporary natural historian. How do you find and research projects?
Because I teach I have the luxury of choosing design projects that are interesting to me. I really enjoy the challenge of explaining complex problems graphically. The natural world and history supply me with endless intrigue.
In graduate school a teacher of mine would say, give yourself permission to do. It sounds like such simple, common sense advice but I think the self-doubt that comes with creativity easily becomes an excuse not to do. I have developed a thick skin and if I have an idea for something I want to pursue I keep knocking on doors until something opens up. I’ve always accepted rejection as growing pains. And on occasion work finds me through word-of-mouth or from previous clients.
Creatures of Morningside Park is a project that evolved from the recommendation of a former client. Working with scientists from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Seed Bank, the piece was designed to cultivate a sense of citizen stewardship of New York City’s natural resources. The project is a single page, interactive illustration featuring several animals often seen near the pond at Morningside Park in New York City; it shows how they are linked in a complex and fragile urban ecosystem. (urban-parks.org)
You seem equally comfortable working with traditional media and digitally—what’s your process and do you have a preference?
I prefer to work in traditional media but even so the end result usually ends up incorporating digital at some point along the way. When illustrating I use watercolor pencils and micron pens (I love their fine point).
In my earlier years as a web designer, I worked for an online direct marketing company. I was often tasked with designing and animating banner ads as gifs. Essentially they were short, little stories that had to attract users to click on them within the span of a few seconds. I did hundreds of them. In retrospect I learned a great deal about presenting content visually for an audience. The subject matter was not particularly sophisticated but I learned to pay attention to detail especially as it relates to readability and legibility; and also to work creatively under tight deadlines and in a time-based medium.
At the beginning of an assignment I still tend to plan things out as if I were designing something interactively, even if it’s supposed to end up static and on paper. I probably make it a more complicated process than it needs to be, but I have an easier time organizing content, figuring out what needs to be communicated and how best to frame things if I envision it as an interactive story. (The Lyme Disease poster is an example of an assignment I developed in that way.)
Animals for A to Z (poster and detail) © M. Genevieve Hitchings
Early on, you embraced the web as a means to view your work. Did that influence that type of work you created? Did the web create a new breed of natural historians? Are you interested in pursuing animated versions of your animals?
I began my work as a designer when the Internet first appeared. I embraced the web because that is where the job opportunities were. But I also found the interactive work that was happening very inspiring. Second Story, a Portland, Oregon based interactive studio heavily influenced me. They specialize in story driven experiences that educate. I still find the prospects for presenting clear, digestible bits of engaging information interactively incredibly exciting. I always think about how I might present assignments that were created for print, interactively and with animation, but often budgets and time allotted do not comply. Animals from A to Z was designed as a poster but would make a fun interactive piece for early readers, and if I have the time at some point I hope to develop it into that.
What projects are you working on now?
I have been working on an illustration series titled Seeing the Invisible World through Illustration. Its focus is on invertebrates inhabiting the North American Mid-Atlantic region and I hope to facilitate and expand comprehension of the life forms that appear, often unnoticed by humans, all around us in the natural world. Raising the general awareness of this invisible world might encourage more sophisticated land management and restoration that sustain and improve biodiversity.
You are a mother of two young children—how do you balance teaching, family and illustration?
A close eye on the clock, not enough sleep, chocolate, and lots of help!
What advice do you have for students wishing to pursue design/illustration?
Always make sure you are learning something new. The minute you find yourself bored, it’s time to move on. The challenge of moving on is the cure to boredom and possibly the key to a rewarding career.
What was the best advice you ever received?
Ha-ha, my seventh grade gym teacher Mr. Kelly used to print out two little slogans as stickers (“act as if” and “yes I can”) and make us wear them on our t-shirts. At the time I along with my friends thought it was very funny and a completely ridiculous thing to do. Looking back it really makes me laugh; in my career I have been in many a situation where I have told myself to “act as if” and in doing so I somehow managed to step up to whatever it was that was demanded of me. His advice has served me well and I am grateful to him.
If you had access to unlimited funds, what sort of projects would you like to pursue?
I would probably continue to pursue the projects I currently pursue. There is so much need in the world, so many things that need calling attention to. I love the challenge of using creativity to solve problems visually especially in subject matter that interests me e.g., ecology, history, science, social justice. Maybe the difference would be that unlimited funds would help to buy me a lot more time.
Left to right: Lyme Disease Poster © M. Genevieve Hitchings; Eastern Painted Turtle, Creatures of
Morningside Park © M. Genevieve Hitchings, Created for: urban-parks.org; Digital Display, Creatures of Morningside Park © M. Genevieve Hitchings, Created for: urban-parks.org