By Michael Glenwood Gibbs
Illustrator and Designer
Sally Wern Comport drew her ﬁrst paycheck as a professional artist at the age of 15 when she began drawing furniture for newspaper ads for the local franchise of Ethan Allen.
Since then, she has worked for dozens of newspapers and magazines, illustrated books, curated and created large scale art, and developed aesthetic and branding concepts for her clients.
After 20 years working as an illustrator, this Summa Cum Laude graduate of the Columbus College of Art and Design returned to school and earned her graduate degree from Syracuse University, and then co-founded Art At Large, a design firm that creates and installs beautiful works of art in public places.
Needless to say, this was a giant departure for the illustrator, who — among other high-profile assignments — illustrated the Bible for a South American publishing company.
I recently sat down with Sally to talk about what made her take the risk, and how it is working out for her.
Michael Gibbs: You’ve been a successful, widely-known illustrator for many years, and yet you decided to take a somewhat risky path when you launched Art At Large.
Sally Wern Comport: I have had a fortunate run at the illustration business from the time I was a teenager. My Dad owned a small advertising agency in Ohio and I worked for him as a staff artist drawing furniture for the newspaper for the local Ethan Allen furniture store. Honestly, I was raised around a drawing board in the middle of the family living room.
I remember going up to New York to Simon and Schuster to present my first children’s book spreads after about ten years producing editorial and Institutional work. I took them up on the train with me in a portfolio case in sketch form and I remember the editor’s positive reaction to the presentation.
The publishing of the book itself, “Brave Margaret,” was only secondary to that experience. I could go on and on about the job experiences that, to me, although they are almost private moments, are more notable than the awards I’ve received, or any credentials.
So while I loved being an illustrator for magazines, books and newspaper articles, one of the fondest memories of my career was creating art for the walls of Howard Merrill Advertising in Raleigh N.C. It was the first large scale project I was hired for, where the pieces would not be printed on a page, but hung on a wall for years and the agency staff and clients from all over the world would be seeing them everyday they walked into the space.
Michael Gibbs: So it was that sort of experience that got you thinking about something other than the printed page? What can you tell us about the mission of Art At Large? How does it differ from illustration??
Sally Wern Comport: Well, the mission of Art at Large Inc. is actually exactly the same as working in illustration — so that made it easier to take the risk because it felt familiar.
It is visually communicating an idea or an aesthetic to engage the viewer in the meaning of the words on a page or the space where they stand. I am a visual interpreter for the message that my clients/audience are asked to understand. In that way, creative content is problem solving for the unspeakable dimension and depth of a subject.
Without that intent, I am not interested in creating art. I don’t do paintings in my “spare time” unless they are specifically for a client because, one, I don’t have any spare time. And secondly, being a problem solver is what motivates me.
Michael Gibbs: Did you have any fears about launching Art At Large?
Sally Wern Comport: Absolutely! But fear, to me, is the greatest motivator of all time. I never shy away from being afraid because there is a thing to be learned around every corner of the unknown.
I believe it is part thrill seeking and part undying curiosity — and I am convinced that those two things will keep me alive in my craft.
Also, I watched the illustration field fizzle and become anemic with the onset of cheap stock picture galleries, blatant copyright violations on the Internet, and younger cheaper talent that could do an adequate job and wanted a place to start.
I also watched all the art directors that I had worked with in the past be bypassed and marginalized for the bottom line. Increasingly, publishing houses were becoming short sighted in their practices. It really was a sad shift in the tide.
But I knew that unless I played to a new audience who could recognize and highlight the strengths that someone with experience and listening skills could bring to their projects, I would not be able to keep making art for a living.
So I feel like I literally gave birth to Art at Large one dark, early morning in 2000. I remember that I had sat up all night frantically considering my next move. Sparked by the fear was also the excitement of marrying the advancements in digital printing technology in the commercial sign industry.
I had kept up with all those advances because my brother Steve owns a large format print shop in Ohio. He has been a great resource for my learning curve in the craft part of Art at Large, and digital printing technology just keeps improving and moving forward, which is very inspiring to Art at Large Inc.
Michael Gibbs: One of your projects was Art Walk, in Annapolis. I know you ran into issues with bureaucracy, community groups, and others. How did that resolve itself?
Sally Wern Comport: Passion, tenacity, and focus. These are all a necessity – qualities required for any project that is bigger than you to survive and succeed.
Partnering with people that have a similar energy to get to a goal is the reason things get done. To be really effective, I believe you cannot act as the lone wolf artist — but artists have notoriously been adverse to team playing.
Thankfully, I have found another path and been enriched beyond any expectations for what that has brought to my experience as an artist.
Art Walk happened because I found a small team of partners that had the same dream – all gifted with a different skill. We set those skills in motion and I curated and managed a project that brought together talented artists, philanthropic smart people, and creative spirit that produced 13 pieces of large scale art on the exterior walls of buildings in a historic city that is not notable for accepting new ideas.
Michael Gibbs: Some of your art is in private settings, but much of it is in public spaces. How has it generally been received? And what do you see as the role of art in the public spaces?
Sally Wern Comport: I am not objective enough about my own work to understand reaction to it.
As with all forms of art , I am certain some appreciate how I do it and others, not so much. The best part of working with other talent in making public art is that you can, with an educated visual eye, make correct decisions about what art makes sense for where. I get as much joy (maybe more) in creating the correct aesthetic by choosing and arranging the graphic content for a space as I do creating the content myself.
Michael Gibbs: Looking back, would you say the risk paid off?
Sally Wern Comport: The fluctuation of working on Art at Large Inc. projects and illustration is, by design, weighing much more to the large-scale projects at this point. I have never been so fulfilled in my career as I am juggling the great variety of tasks that have arisen in trying to create for spaces that will be touched and viewed for many years. Illustration, especially editorial illustration has been a much more temporal application.
It seems as if it’s a greater responsibility, and maybe now that I have grown up a little, I am ready to accept that challenge.
Michael Gibbs: Can you give any advice to others who may be thinking of refocusing their energy and careers?
Sally Wern Comport: I don’t think there is ever a time to stop reevaluating your energy and the path you are treading on. A creative person needs to be as creative with their career as with their product. Risk is the juice to get to the next place and keep the vitality in creating.
About Illustrator and Designer Michael Glenwood Gibbs
An award-winning designer and illustrator, Michael 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-70’s.
His award-winning 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.
The illustration (shown above) was a poster created for the Virginia Opera Company’s production of I Pagliacci.