By Michael Gibbs
Trained as a photographer, self-taught in illustration and design, Whitney Sherman’s work has been represented in American Illustration, Communication Arts, AIGA, Society of Publication Design, Society of Illustrators of NY and Los Angeles, Print Regional and Print casebooks, as well as the Art Director’s Club of New York, San Francisco, DC, and Baltimore.
She has served as a lecturer, panelist, and moderator on numerous occasions, and her work is regularly commissioned by the NY Times, Business Week, Forbes and other national magazines as well as by design firms such as Tolleson Design/SF, national institutions such as the Ad Council and the American Red Cross, and publishers such as Clarkson Potter, Random House, and St. Martin’s Press. She has served on the ICON Board twice [ICON4 & ICON5] as Events co-chair and as president, respectively.
Notably, she created the first semipostal issue Breast Cancer Research stamp for the US Postal Service, which has raised more than $73 million dollars for research. The longest-running stamp in the history of the US Postal Service, it is the first to be issued in a foreign country.
Along with her studio work, Sherman is the director of the MFA in Illustration Practice at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), and co-director of Dolphin Press & Print @ MICA. Formerly, she was chair of undergraduate Illustration for 10 years where she built the department into the largest in the College, with diverse interdisciplinary programming and professional development coursework.
So it was a pleasure to have the opportunity to interview Whitney Sherman for our July 2013 “Top Dog” issue that asks, “How Competitive Are You?”
Michael Gibbs: I know it’s an old question, but it’s still a great way to introduce you to our readers. Was drawing something you did as a child? Where did you get your training? How did you get started in illustration?
Whitney Sherman: Oh yes, I have drawn as long as I can remember. Although many of my family members are creative, I was considered the artist in the family. The same was true at school, where I’d get requests for drawings of horses and the like. My grandmother was an amateur painter, weaver, baker, and seamstress, so she inspired me at a very early age, and my parents were very supportive. I took the usual uninspired art classes in public school—no special art classes—then attended art college. I got my start as an illustrator after college. I’d majored in photography, but had no job or money to set up my darkroom, so I used drawing to get my ideas out. Design friends saw the drawings and asked me to do pieces for them, and I enjoyed it. Thus began my illustration career.
Michael Gibbs: As we mentioned above, one of your noteworthy professional achievements was the US Postal Service’s first-issue Breast Cancer stamp. That stamp has raised more than $73 million dollars for research, a wonderful illustration of the power of … illustration. Can you tell us about that project?
Whitney Sherman: Well, as with most illustration assignments, it started with a call from an art director, in this case one who is part of the team at the US Postal Service, Ethel Kessler. She and I had gone to college together, though I don’t think that’s why she called me. She had made presentations to the USPS creative director that were photographic and typographic that hadn’t struck the right chord, so she decided to ask an illustrator to solve the problem.
The stamp image had to distinguish itself from the earlier Breast Cancer Awareness Stamp, and originally the USPS wanted the pink ribbon to be featured. Neither she nor I wanted that, so I worked up numerous B&W concepts which were reviewed and narrowed down, and then color versions were done. The benefit to me as an illustrator were firsthand stories about being a survivor and a willingness by the art director to represent my thinking to the committee of designers the USPS retains.
Once the concept and color treatment were approved, it was made into final art, placed in the stamp format with typography, and sent to the USPS Advisory Council for final approval. Despite the popularity and success of the stamp art, the USPS has involved me in few events pertaining to the stamp.
Michael Gibbs: Your career—and influence—as an illustrator reaches beyond the artist’s studio. You’ve lectured, written articles, sat on panels, chaired the national Illustrators Conference, taught illustration and design, and now direct the MFA in Illustration Practice at MICA, the highly regarded art college in Baltimore. How and why did you get into teaching?
Whitney Sherman: Someone asked me, right after getting out of college, if I wanted to teach. My reply was that I had absolutely no interest in teaching! Yet some years after that, I was asked to do a workshop on “comping” and I was bitten! I really enjoyed telling people about things that I know or had learned, and seeing them gain the knowledge was close to magical.
For the next few years I did demos and four-week workshops, then petitioned for a class, which I got the next year. I was really interested in seeing how things work so I was at the department meetings and ready to teach more classes. I was really happy with part-time for many years, but eventually felt that I had to stop or put to work my vision of how things could be run.
That’s when I applied for a full-time position as chair of Illustration undergraduate. The field has changed enough that I also felt a need for a graduate program. One of my courses in undergrad, “The Lab,” was the impetus for the new MFA program.
Michael Gibbs: As noted, this issue of the magazine is about women and power. Art can certainly be a powerful force, as your Breast Cancer stamp illustrates. What are your observations on the power of art?
Whitney Sherman: As I’d mentioned, the USPS engaged me in only a few events relating to the stamp, but in the few I did do, I met so many women who told me how much the image affected them emotionally. I had decided to create a figure that lived outside the usual nationalistic or ethnic boundaries, using Greek mythology as my inspiration.
The goddess Artemis embodies independence, strength, and courage. She was the right archetype for the topic. The coloring of the figure also allowed the viewer to make their own associations, yet directed the viewers eye around the figure to notice things like the hand holding the bow, or her arm positioned over her head [like when you get a breast exam] reaching for the arrow. I wanted the figure to be active—without it being an action figure!
Michael Gibbs: Just as art can be powerful in communicating an idea, teaching can powerful in shaping young minds and lives, and, in the case of art, nurturing creativity. Again, what observations do you have on education and its power to shape lives?
Whitney Sherman: Teaching is a pretty awesome thing when it’s working, but there are times when it seems as if you are not getting through and then you get a phone call, like I did, 11 years later from a student who calls to tell you he has finally realized what I was talking about. Or you read an interview of a student who has made a name for themselves, and they mention you are a role-model or influence! That brings a level of satisfaction that gets you coming back year after year. It’s also nice to get out of the studio, to have to codify what you know to transmit it, and to see excitement, fresh creativity, and the “aha” moment happen.
Michael Gibbs: You’ve won awards for your illustration work from just about every organization there is, and you’ve ascended to the role of an MFA director at MICA. You’re clearly accomplished as both a doer and a teacher, disproving the old saw, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” How do you balance your career as an illustrator with your career as an educator? Is that a tough balance? Does one affect the other?
Whitney Sherman: It’s really tough to do both, and you’d have to ask my husband and daughter how much they feel short-changed. I hope not too much, but I like to have a lot going on. I also like to accomplish things, to make improvements, and to develop ideas I have, so both avenues provide certain satisfactions. That old saw may be true for some, but it’s always a matter of how you go into doing both. The other old saw is, “If you do what you like, you never work a day in your life.”
Academic life isn’t easy or necessarily friendly, but neither is freelance illustration, so maybe for me when one was on the downward slide, I had the other. You can always bring your daily work experience to teaching; as a matter of fact, I believe you have to continue working professionally to be viable as a teacher. Also, teaching exposes you to situations that challenge your knowledge base—you have to be on your toes. You also get an exchange of ideas and resources, so in some ways it’s like having a mini research team at your fingertips!
Michael Gibbs: Okay, an easy one. Not “what-is-your-favorite-color” easy, but what was your favorite illustration job, and why? Any funny anecdotes about illustration or teaching?
Whitney Sherman: I don’t think I have one favorite, but I have a number of favorites, like the first job that got into to the Society of Illustrators, or the first piece in American Illustration. Both of those were fantastic experiences. Also my first book jacket, then my first book. My neighbor was an avid reader and she would come over, ring the bell to tell me she saw one of my jackets in the library and would tell the librarian she lived next door to me.
It was really something to see the pride she had in that, which confirmed that what I do has a real effect on people. Even after my first book was out of print, I would get calls from people who would find them on the dollar table at a chain book store, buy them, and send them to me so I could use them for promo mailings.
Another favorite was when I got my first project outside the Mid-Atlantic region, a piece for Mark Ulriksen when he was art director of San Francisco Focus magazine. That piece led to 10 years’ worth of work on the West Coast and in Chicago, New York, and Boston. I was telling one of my students the other day that I could quote the job brief, art director’s name, client, and a backstory on every job I’d done up until a few years ago where I hit some kind of mental limit on number of projects. Just too many projects.
I had worked freelance for a number of years before taking a design position and became creative director at the Baltimore firm of Ashton-Worthington. While there I missed doing illustration work and fortunately was assigned the back page column illustration for the new Warfield’s Magazine, a tabloid-sized business magazine with an edge. I had complete freedom to read the manuscript and do the illustration. Was never edited. It was my dream job.
The writer loved it, so did the editor and art director. That lasted for a few years and totally spoiled me for anyone who wanted to over-art-direct. I always did my best work for art directors who gave that kind of freedom. That wasn’t to say I never needed to hear from them … that was necessary if I missed the point of the story or some detail that was essential. In those cases, I’d get the information and rework the piece happily, more often than not making a better piece. I liked being hired for the way I thought rather than my style.
Learn more about the artist here: whitneysherman.com.
About illustrator and designer Michael Glenwood Gibbs
An award-winning designer and illustrator, Gibbs has been freelancing for some of the nation’s most well-known publications and companies since attending Pratt Institute as a photography and illustration major in the mid-70s.
His artwork has appeared in Newsweek, Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Worth Magazine, Consumer Reports, Harvard Business Review, and publications for United Airlines, Verizon, IBM, Sears, and American Airlines, as well as many book covers and posters.
Need a stock illustration? View Gibbs images, available as stock, at www.stockillustration.com.