Drawn to St. Louis

This Q&A has been condensed and edited for clarity by Heather Riske. Photos are by Michael Thomas.

How did you wind up in St. Louis?

I moved here in 1995 to go to the art school at Washington University in St. Louis. I started to make connections and get involved in the art and cartooning scene. I did move to San Francisco for a few years after school, but then got sucked back into St. Louis, which happens, and I’ve been living and working here ever since. I’ve been freelancing on my own as an artist for about 20 years. I started in St. Louis working at an agency down in Soulard called Xplane where we did cartoony-style informational graphics. That has led to my work being historical or informational or just dense with factoids. Now, I teach one class at Wash U. in the Master of Fine Arts in Illustration & Visual Culture program, which I’ve done off and on since maybe 2006 or 2008.

How did you come to define your style?

I’ve always liked reading, learning and researching. I was working at Xplane when the Pope came to town, so we did all the maps of the Pope route, and I got to do a drawing of the Popemobile and how it worked and another on the Pope’s hat. I would really get into the visual aspect of everything that was going on around a certain topic. When I started making my own work, a lot of it was very much based in research and local history and stuff that I was interested in. I’m just always learning new stuff. They know me well at the Missouri Historical Society Library & Research Center, and all the local libraries. My prints end up having a lot of little text and factoids and things, I can’t help myself. It’s sort of a way of putting a book on one illustration.

Why do you incorporate St. Louis history into your work?

I’m just interested in intensely local things. I’ve done neighborhood maps, and I did the brewery map of St. Louis, which I’m constantly having to update because it changes so often. For many years, I did all the posters of the Purina Pet Parade in Soulard. Back when they were renovating the Arch grounds, I did an infographic about the construction process of the Arch for Explore St. Louis, and I have also done infographics about how the Arch itself works with the tram elevator inside and how it was built. I also did a piece for Explore St. Louis about Route 66 through St. Louis.

I’m also into birds; I’m sort of an amateur bird watcher. There is a famous bird, the Eurasian Tree Sparrow, and the only place it lives in the Americas is in the St. Louis area. Of course, most birds like starlings quickly spread all around the country, but for some reason this tree sparrow has only stuck around St. Louis. Hardcore birdwatchers come through St. Louis just to mark that bird off their list. 

I’m working on a new book project now called “Missouri Weird and Wonderful” with Reedy Press that’s being written by Amanda Doyle. It’s about all of Missouri and there are sections on food, nature and famous Missourians like Walt Disney, Langston Hughes and Scott Joplin. I’m working on the wildlife section now so I’m researching hellbenders and paddlefish. I keep trying to cram little St. Louis things in and I have to remember that there are many other cities and places in Missouri besides St. Louis. 

Tell us about the exhibition you did with the Missouri History Museum.

I started doing this whole series of prints of famous St. Louisans, like professional wrestler Lou Thesz, who used to wrestle at The Chase Park Plaza, or James Eads, who designed the famous Eads Bridge downtown. That led into a big exhibit at the Missouri History Museum called “A Walk in 1875 St. Louis” that I did about 30 giant wall-sized illustrations for in 2015. There’s a famous map of St. Louis that was one of those huge panoramic, bird’s-eye-view maps made in the late 1800s that is still to this day regarded as one of the most detailed maps that were made of an American city. So the Missouri History Museum had this idea to take sections of this map and blow them up to wall size – there’d be one of Tower Grove and one of Soulard, for instance. But they knew they wanted to have some other colorful illustrations to go with the old-timey maps. So we ended up doing all these scenes of life in St. Louis in 1875 – what it would be like to go to the market and what a baseball game was like. They really let me go wild with all of these drawings that accompanied the maps. It was pretty different for a history museum, which is usually pretty serious. I don’t think people were used to seeing giant, wall-sized drawings of cartoony, very colorful, sort of silly, graphic novel-style images. Bright colors and a fun style can go a long way in telling history.

You must have learned a lot about St. Louis over the years.

Totally. I probably know a little bit too much about some things. I’ve had to draw toasted ravioli more times in my life than I can count. But I keep finding new ways to do St. Louis-y stuff. Part of it is that St. Louis is a big enough city to have rich history. There’s tons of history in St. Louis, but not so much that you can’t wrap your head around it, I think. And then there are so many different neighborhoods and different communities. The more you learn, you learn that the history is more complicated than you think. The Arch is awesome, and an amazing piece of modern sculpture that you can ride up into the top of like an amusement park. But then of course, you learn about the entire neighborhoods that had to be wiped out to build that and the unfair hiring practices during construction. The history is complicated.

Tell us about your design for 314 Day.

I created a couple different logos. There’s a simple version and there’s a version with a bunch of illustrations integrated. For the simple version, how much can you communicate with just three numbers – 3, 1 and 4? So I wanted to use bricks as a theme. St. Louis bricks were famous around the world, and obviously there are entire neighborhoods that are all brick. That was what struck me when I moved here from Louisville, Kentucky. I was struck by all the brick architecture – even the tiny rank-and-file houses were these beautiful brick houses.

The full version’s got all this St. Louis stuff – Red Hot Riplets, Chuck Berry’s guitar, thin-crust pizza, the eyeball sculpture at Laumeier Sculpture Park, Bigfoot the monster truck, which was invented here. It’s a lot of fun, and we’re making temporary tattoos out of all the little pieces. This is all stuff that I’m very familiar with, so I’m excited to be part of it. I also will be excited to see what other artists do in future years.

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