Ph.D research

I commenced my Ph.D at SUNY Stony Brook in September, 2007. Below is my proposal.

Visible and Invisible: The Cultural Influence of Canadian Illustrators Working in American Print Media, 1950-2010

Program of Study                                                                                          Jaleen Grove

Sept. 2007, I commenced studies at SUNY Stony Brook in Art History and Criticism, with a Certificate in Cultural Studies. I will be doing coursework until May 2009, after which I will be examining the cultural influence and identity of Canadian illustrators in American culture. I established my interest in illustration during my MA in Communication and Culture (York and Ryerson), where I completed a thesis on the historical and social genesis of the Island Illustrators Society in British Columbia (2006). I developed theories of the local field of cultural production and of the slipping signification of illustration in the fine art milieu there. My familiarity with commercial art originates in my fifteen years of being an illustrator and graphic designer myself.

Titled Visible and Invisible: The Cultural Influence of Canadian Illustrators Working in American Print Media, 1950-2010 , my thesis will examine the conditions of production, formal properties, and cultural impacts of Canadian editorial and advertising illustrators contributing to American print media. By "Canadian" I propose to select those who have resided in Canada for at least ten years before age 25, or who have lived and worked in Canada for at least five years. By "illustrator" I mean those who make art for clients, creating imagined images (drawn, painted, assembled, traditional and digital) as opposed to captured ones ("straight" film, video or photography). It is necessary to address advertising and editorial illustrators together because the majority have done both. My project asks, "Have any Canadian illustrators had a significant impact upon U.S. cultural production?" and "Can Canadian cultural traits be identified in their work?" Others are: what is a Canadian cultural trait? If national characteristics exist, are they made unconsciously, or artificially? Are illustrators beholden to their clients as is commonly believed, or do they exercise subtle artistic license, as they tell me? Can Canadian creators insert a critical socio-political voice into American cultural products? How does perception of cultural imperialism in Canada change if Canadians are actually making and influencing the imperial culture in question?

Illustration is visible everywhere, but Canadian illustrators are invisible compared to other artists. Most work on American projects, and many move to New York, but as an invisible minority due to cultural and linguistic similarity to Americans, their cumulative contribution seems to be unrecognized. There are notable instances where a distinctly Canadian perspective has permeated what is assumed an American product. For instance, Superman 's artist Joe Schuster modeled Superman's home city on his own hometown, Toronto (1). It is also possible that comparatively liberal political views held by Canadian artists affect the depiction (and therefore the public image) of American politicians, such as when in 2002, Anita Kunz controversially drew a satirical New Yorker cover of George W. Bush galloping on horseback, wearing his horse's blinders. Whether Canadians employ American visual language when doing work for Canadian clients is also of interest. Several art historians, to whom existence of national identity is questionable in a time of neoliberal globalization, have recently challenged nationalist frameworks in art and design history (2). By negotiating between commerce and art (base and superstructure), not pressured to "be Canadian" in style as fine art has been, illustration is a locus for seeking what might be resiliently, undesignedly Canadian. If found, perhaps we can claim a radical, resistant Canadianness after all. My failure or success in locating it will contribute to understanding what Canadian culture is or is not.

After years of decline, since about 1999 illustration has been becoming popular again (3), in part because it can establish brand identity more individualistically than photography (e.g., the series by Marcos Chin for Lavalife's dating service). Because the rhetorical power of the image is reflective of the cultural literacy of the producer, critical engagement with visual texts must be accompanied by critical engagement with the worldviews and obligations of the makers. But, because theirs is invisible as "art", there has been no broad study of Canadian illustrators, despite their prominence in NY publishing in the 1960s (4), and in video game/animation industries now (5). Many have international reputations and won top awards, yet remain unseen in major galleries and art history (e.g., James Hill, Will Davies, Tom McNeely, Anita Kunz, Gary Taxali). Nor are they known among visual communication or visual culture scholars (6), who appear to have concentrated on the meaning of specific images rather than on the field or on particular artists (7)-- although important historical and biographical work for the era 1880-1965 has been done by Stacey, Reed, Bogart, Heller, Davis and Dowd. However, Heller and Arisman's synopsis of the profession describes significant recent industry crises affecting illustrators, while Soar's sociological work on graphic designers makes strong arguments for the necessity of more research on cultural producers, while his SSHRC research Logo City on Montreal corporate visual identity shows the importance of studying commercial visual culture. Illustration seems to have fallen into a no man's land between art history and media studies. I would like to bridge this gap in an interdisciplinary way, using perspectives from art history and media/visual communication, but addressing sociological and cultural factors commensurate with the visual cultural approaches of Mitchell, Mirzoeff, and Buck-Morss. I particularly heed Raymond Williams' marxist "cultural materialism" and "sociology of culture", empowering art by dissolving the dialectic of base/superstructure, material/thought.

At SUNY Stony Brook, I am lucky to be working under the supervision of Prof. Michele Bogart, a key illustration scholar. With an award, I would be completing course work, writing exams, then proceeding on to thesis work, Sept. 2009. I have already been interviewing elderly art-ists, locating archives. In an email list and conferences I have begun assembling a research circle of illustration scholars. I am co-editing an issue on graphic arts for the J. of Canadian Studies. I also contribute to the popular blog Drawn.ca, and continue some of my own art practice. I am conscious that my role as participant observer complicates my position as a researcher, but deep ethnography keeps me in touch with industry trends, affords me credibility among the many illustrators who distrust academia, and enables the connection between theory and practice advocated by Williams.

My research will be both quantitative and qualitative, using interviews, closed and open ended survey questions, statistics, ethnographic fieldwork, and textual analysis. There will be three parts: biographies, description of the field, and analysis of cultural influence. The biographic work will identify notable illustrators, trace their education, careers, and social connections, establish what percent of work was for the US, and recount what each artist thought of their contributions. This will entail primary research on several vital but undocumented deceased and living artists. The description of the field will identify how many key contracts were done by Canadians by counting what percentages of Art Directors' Annual Awards and covers of top magazines were theirs. It will also comprise content analysis of subject matter (politics, social life, product types, etc). The analysis of Canadian impact will use close readings of specific illustrations as they function in Canadian and American cultures. I will look for links between the quantity and quality of Canadian illustrators' work and the level of "voice" they had in American media by tracking the evolution and influence of artistic styles over time, seeing whether styles were copied or died out. By looking at what sorts of assignments Canadians were given - whether they were editorially or creatively conservative, whether they were high profile politically or visually - I expect to develop a theory of cultural influence or lack of influence, corroborated by what illustrators themselves tell me. Once I have determined the scope and intensity of Canadians' production, I will begin theorizing in what ways a Canadian sensibility may or may not be apparent in the work itself. I expect to inform this part of the study with paying close attention to what illustrators say about which contracts they sought, whether they declined certain jobs, or adjusted depictions to reflect political and moral norms that are more identified with Canada than the US, or customized two versions of the same artwork destined for both countries, or had ever been hired or not because they were Canadian. Finally, out of this research I would also like to curate a long overdue exhibition of Canadian illustration, vital for illustration history, illustration theory, and Canadian cultural studies all.

Notes

The Toronto Star (April 26, 1992): "Great Krypton! Superman Was the Star's Ace Reporter", by Henry Mietkiewicz. Also of note, Walt Disney's father was Canadian.

2  Jessup, Donnelly, et al, University Art Association conference, Waterloo, Nov. 3, 2007.

3  See archived forums 1997-2007 at www.theispot.com to track industry issues.

4  From an interview with illustrator Gerry Sevier (Feb. 2006) who was one of several to win NY Society of Illustrator awards 1965-70, and who claims his work set international trends.

5  Banister, R."Future is bright for B.C.'s animation industry". Vanc. Board of Trade. Feb.3, '05.

6  Caricaturists, comic book and children's book illustrators now excepted, although Canadian studies on them date only from the last six years or so.

7  At the 21st annual Visual Communication Conference at Estes Park, CO, June 2007, I formally surveyed scholars' awareness of illustration as a topic of study. Many had studied images at least once, but none had studied the field. Nor did they know of any studies.

 

 

 

 

Cover by Anita Kunz

 

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