Design Arts Daily interview

Gayle Kabaker: The DART Q&A

By Peggy Roalf   Monday, June 24, 2013


When the winners of American Illustration were announced at the end of March, I received an email from Gayle Kabaker about how her June 25, 2012 cover art for The New Yorker made its way from her painting studio, to Françoise Mouly’s Blown Covers blog, to the magazine itself—and then to AI32. It’s a great story, so I asked Gayle to do the DART Artist Q&A. Here’s what she wrote:

You live in Ashfield, MA, originally from San Francisco. As an artist, what are some of your favorite things about living and working in Western Massachusetts?

In the winter I’m able to work without going anywhere no matter how bad the weather is. And in the summer I can take breaks to go for a swim!  I love my home studio, but we only have satellite internet and this does not work for teaching online, so I have a little office in Shelburne Falls, a great small town about 10 minutes away.  I like being in town because I’m a city gal and need to see people and the outside world.

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

I’ve always loved to draw and always been interested in fashion. I had a baby sitter who was a fashion illustrator for the Washington Post and I loved seeing her drawings in the paper. I had a seriously inspiring teacher in junior high. Oroon Eugene Barnes. We called him OEB. He once threw a staple gun across the room, (not at me—at another kid) so we were a bit afraid of his wrath. But he was an incredible, passionate teacher.

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

I graduated from the Academy of Art in San Francisco with a BFA. I loved art school and San Francisco was an amazing city to grow up in. I lived on California Street and took the cable car to school. I had some amazing teachers and really thrived in art school. I went back last summer to take a tour with my son and it's like a whole other planet now. It was only two buildings when I was there. Gladys Palmer who is now the head of the fashion department was a huge influence on me in school, teaching me how to draw with a very interpretive line. I had a rough time leaving San Francisco and moving to the boonies of Western Mass. My friends took bets on how long I would last, but it’s been about 26 years now.

What was your first assignment?

I was very industrious—looking  for freelance work before I was out of school. My first job was drawing women for massage parlor ads in the SF Yellow Pages. The owners came to my apartment and paid me $100 per drawing in cash. It was thrilling to see myself in print when the phone book came out. 

What is your favorite part of the creative process?

Coming up with ideas is exciting. It feels great when I’m really in the zone and painting and then collaging and designing in Photoshop. I also love collaborating. For too many years I worked in isolation, only having contact with the art director on a job. Now I like to get involved in projects where I can network and collaborate with others. One of my favorite collaborations was with Anthony Russo, working on an animated music video for my daughter. We actually drew together and some of the drawings are his and some mine. I’d never done that before or since, but I’d love to do it more often!

Who and what are some of your biggest influences?

Matisse is certainly one influence. Fashion illustrators like Mats, Antonio, and René Gruau. I’m often inspired by patterns. Flowers inspire me. Gorgeous photography inspires me. I love going to Salvation Army and other thrift stores or flea markets  - looking for interesting patterns on old scarves or clothing. 

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

The Academy of Art University, for their online degree program. Since my class is a beginning drawing class and a requirement—I get the full range of abilities. When the serious students begin to emerge, it’s very rewarding to watch them improve.  I taught fashion drawing in my studio this past year with great live models from a local theater group. I also taught a one-hour class for Katie Brown, who has her own TV show and lives locally part time. She had friends visiting from NYC and wanted to do some fun, creative things with them. It was pretty insane; these big SUV’s pulled into our drive and many parents and small kids got out and I had EXACTLY 1 hour to pull off a fun drawing class. I recognized George Stephanopoulos right away and knew some of the other faces but couldn’t quite place them. It was a really fun group and everyone seemed to have a great time. George took a bit of coercing, but finally did one drawing. I love teaching!

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

The Matisse show at the Met. I was so inspired and came home and painted with much more pattern and color than usual. Istvan Banyai’s recent show at the Norman Rockwell Museum was very inspiring. (I don’t get to museums nearly as often as I should!)

What advice would you give a young artist on selecting an art school or college art program to attend?

Having just gone through this with my 18-year-old son Max, a photographer, I can really speak to this. I picked the Academy of Art for myself because it was the only art school at the time that offered fashion illustration. Max picked Parsons because he loved their photo dept. and they let you focus in on your major right away.  He visited RISD, SCAD, the Academy of Art, & Cooper Union. He liked the vibe at Parsons the best. So do your research and choose the place that addresses your particular passion the best. Visit  more than one school if possible, and pay close attention to the vibe you get when there!

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

If I’ve been painting a lot and am not getting anything I like and it’s late, I just go to sleep and get up really early to get back to it. I might send it to a few illustrator friends I trust for advice on how to make it work. My husband is an artist, so I might show it to him for ideas. I’ll look online, or at old fashion magazines or design annuals for inspiration. Since I paint first then scan into Photoshop, there are so many—sometimes too many—options. Sometimes the best thing I can do is just simplify things.

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

I like that you said just getting noticed instead of just getting started. Because if they are getting noticed then they are probably good. In that case I’d say make sure to use social media to spread the word about your success, but stay humble with it. Enter competitions. Keep growing and experimenting. Have mentors who you admire and can show your work to for feedback. I love showing my work to my peers and vice versa. It’s important to have a support network. And really appreciate any success that comes your way, as it can be so fickle. Here today, gone tomorrow! Only the really talented, strong and savvy are able to survive these days. Being talented  just isn’t enough.  When I say strong, I mean you need to have a tough skin. Don’t let rejection get to you. That can be really hard.

Illustrator-designer Gayle Kabaker lives in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. Her images and hand-lettering appear in advertising and marketing collateral, magazines, logos and branding, and on licensed products for the home and gift market, including lights carried by Seascape Lamps.  Her New Yorker cover June Brides was recognized by American Illustration, the Society of Illustrators, Communication Arts, and Print Magazine, and has touched the hearts and lives of many who considered it a strong statement for marriage equality. You can listen to Gayle talk about her experience during this NPR interview. Gayle is currently working on a portrait series of Signature Sounds Recordings artists for an upcoming show.