By Michael Gibbs
Art Director, Be Inkandescent Magazine
Michael Gibbs Illustration & Design
Those of us in the illustration business have long known of Los Angeles-based Paul Rogers, who has been freelance illustrator and designer since his graduation in 1980 from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
So when Hope and Dylan Gibbs interviewed Bert and John Jacobs, founders of the Life is good! company this summer, I wasn’t surprised to hear that one of the brothers’ favorite books was “Forever Young,” a children’s book featuring Rogers’ illustration and design.
Published in the fall of 2008 by Simon & Schuster, “Forever Young” is a testimony to the brilliance of Bob Dylan’s poetic songwriting skills—as well as a tribute to Rogers’ ability to take great writing and turn it into clever, accessible, and intriguing art.
In addition to this fine book, Rogers also illustrated “Jazz ABZ,” with Wynton Marsalis, published by Candlewick Press in 2005. And, you are likely to have seen his work on other high-profile posters, such as the New Orleans Jazz Heritage Festival in 2002 and 2004, and Super Bowl XXXVII.
And coming in 2012, his illustrations will be featured on two United States Postal Service stamps, including the Cherry Blossom Centennial Stamp commemorating the anniversary of Japan’s gift of 3,020 cherry trees to DC.; and a holiday stamp featuring Santa and his sleigh.
Not surprisingly, dozens of awards line Rogers’ shelves, including those from the American Institute of Graphic Arts, the Association of Illustrators/London, the Society of Illustrators in New York, American Illustration, Communication Arts, Graphis Poster, and Print magazine.
It was great fun to interview Rogers for Be Inkandescent Magazine. Following is our Q&A.
Michael Gibbs: Since it first appeared on the 1974 album “Planet Waves,” “Forever Young” has been one of Bob Dylan’s most-beloved songs. As an illustrated children’s book, you provide a new interpretation of the lyrics. Tell us how you landed this great gig.
Paul Rogers: My job was to not screw it up. The intimidating thing about the book was that it had to fit into two worlds, the world of children’s books, and also it had to appeal to Dylan fans in a way that seemed authentic. The children’s book format required that we told a story even though the lyrics really had no real narrative.
The song is a prayer or blessing from a parent to a child, or from any person to a loved one. We came up with the story of a young boy who is given a guitar and we see him grow up, interact with other people, and give his guitar to a young girl at the end of the book.
I had the idea of setting the story in New York City as a way to connect to Dylan’s early years as a folk singer and as an artist who was just finding his way in the world. That setting allowed me to fill the illustrations with references to Dylan’s life, his music, and the people he admired.
When I started working on the book, I thought we might meet, but I soon realized there was no real reason for Dylan and me to talk. I had to send everything over to his office for approval and they always dug it, and never asked for any changes.
Michael Gibbs: The illustrations provide a bold and touching tribute to an anthem whose message will always stay forever young. Which of the spreads is your favorite, and why?
Paul Rogers: It’s hard to pick a favorite, but probably the spread that shows the boy’s bedroom, called “Know the Truth.” It’s loaded with cultural references: The Beatles, Cisco Houston, Sonny Terry, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, James Dean, Melville, Walt Whitman, artist and illustrator Milton Glaser, and Jack Kerouac.
Michael Gibbs: Congratulations on doing two postage stamps for the United States Postal Service, including the 2012 Cherry Blossom Centennial Stamp. As a Washington, DC-based illustrator, I also have drawn my share of cherry blossoms, including the 2011 Cherry Blossom Festival Poster. Are you looking forward to seeing your artwork appear on millions of envelopes?
Paul Rogers: I actually have done four stamps to date, including a Thanksgiving Parade series in 2009, and a jazz stamp that came out this year, plus the two that will be issued in 2012.
It’s always an honor to design postage stamps for the USPS because they cross into so many people’s lives.
Illustrators do a lot of projects that are very ephemeral—newspaper or magazine pieces don’t hang around too long. Stamps have a sense of history about them,
and even though their scale is tiny, the huge numbers of stamps issued are staggering. Fifty million of the jazz stamps were printed.
Michael Gibbs: You also illustrated “Jazz ABZ,” with Wynton Marsalis, back in 2005. Was this experience different?
Paul Rogers: That was a project that I started without a publisher. I had the idea to do 26 portraits of jazz musicians, one for each letter of the alphabet. Each piece was designed to give the viewer an idea of the musician’s music and also something about their personality and how they fit into the American 20th Century.
So I started with A for Louis Armstrong and just kept working on the series between illustration assignments. The whole thing took about eight years. Wynton Marsalis and I have been friends for a long time. When I showed him the illustrations, he offered to write something for it. He ended up writing 26 brilliant
poems that also capture the music and personality of each musician.
Candlewick Press published the book in 2005, and it’s still in print. Pretty amazing for an alphabet book about jazz.
Michael Gibbs: A lot of your work, especially your poster work, is reminiscent of the WPA-era artists. Were the artists of this era an influence? Who else has influenced you?
Paul Rogers: The list of artists who have inspired me is a very long one, and includes AM Cassandre, Alex Steinweiss, Paul Rand, Joseph Binder, Covarrubias, Ben Shahn, Stuart Davis, Juan Gris, Russell Patterson, Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, Paul Hogarth, Otis Shepard, Tom Purvis, McKnight Kauffer, Al Hirschfeld, Lester Beall, Alexey Brodovitch … It goes on and on.
Michael Gibbs: Tell us more about your medium. You started out in 1980, so you obviously began before the advent of digital art. Do you work in mediums other than digital? Are you working digitally now?
Paul Rogers: I do all of my work now on a computer, but there’s a lot of handmade parts that get scanned and placed in the digital files. I spent a lot of years making images with ink and paint and an airbrush, and I think that is a big advantage when working digitally. I try never to do something on a computer that I couldn’t do with paint given enough patience and time.
Michael Gibbs: What other projects are on the burner for this year and next?
Paul Rogers: I have two books that I’m finishing up that will be out in 2012. One is another book for Candlewick Press with Wynton Marsalis, a picture book about sounds for very young readers, called “Squeak, Rumble, Whoamp, Whoamp, Whoamp.” The other is a movie puzzle book for Chronicle Books called “Name That Movie,” which grew out of a series I’ve been doing on my blog.
I’m on the faculty at Art Center in Pasadena and it’s a great place to teach. The students are smart, talented, and trying hard to become illustrators. I learn new things from them every day, and my career has continued to grow and change because of their influence on me.
Michael Gibbs: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me, Paul. I wish you only the best, and look forward to seeing all of the exciting work you’ll be publishing in the years to come. Here’s to staying forever young.
For more information about Paul Rogers, visit www.paulrogersstudio.com.