Tuesday, April 2, 2019

An Interview with Fine Artist Erica Magnus

An Interview with Fine Artist Erica Magnus
by Gina McKnight

In 2018, I had the great opportunity to work with Fine Artist Erica Magnus. She designed and created a full-color book cover for new author T.W.Harvey, for his historical fiction Seeing the Elephant: One Man's Return to the Horror's of the Civil War. After many months of research, sketches, collaboration, and hard work, Erica finished Harvey's cover, which is dynamic in all respects, representing an historic scenario from the Civil War. 

Erica, an author and illustrator of her own books, shares her biography in brief...

Erica Magnus majored in Painting, earning her BFA from The Minneapolis College of Art & Design, Minneapolis, Minnesota, during which time she also studied Painting and Sculpture abroad for two years at Atelier ’63, Stichting Academe, in Haarlem, The Netherlands. She went on to complete her MFA at the School of Art in Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Illinois, where she had first moved to work with Buckminster Fuller’s World Game Workshop. Her professional careers span multiple years of applying her art to freelance work in publishing as author and illustrator of children’s books and book covers, as well as graphic novel design and development. In Los Angeles she worked in pre-production art for film and television as storyboard, concept, and creature design artist and illustrator. Throughout her years of freelancing she consistently taught, and continues to teach, art classes to students of all ages with the majority held in art centers throughout the country.  She also teaches private art lessons to gifted children and highly motivated art students of every age.  Sharing her skills directly in collaboration with other professionals and teaching others how to develop their own skills have always brought and continue to bring her a great sense of fulfillment and enjoyment.

Welcome, Erica!

GM: Erica, I adore your art. When did you realize you wanted to become a full-time fine artist?
EM: It was never a decision made in my mind; it was an inner recognition of something that was Real with a capital R; a connection of what was outside me with what was inside me. I had no name for it. Very simply, I drew pictures as most kids do, with crayons on whatever paper was around. When I was about to draw I felt scared and excited and full of wonder, like anyone facing the unknown, which is what the empty paper held. Pure potential. Then I would choose intuitively which color was inside me and make the colors move across the paper so I could see them outside me. That potential and I would play together. I felt very real, very whole, and in touch with something that came through me and was me at the same time. That feeling was something I never wanted to give up so I stayed with the activity of drawing which later became painting so I could keep finding it again and again. Still doing it, so I guess that could mean I am still a “full-time” fine artist, but like for most people I didn’t have the luxury of full-time focus on just my artwork; Life has her own purposes for us, and the more I live the more I agree with Her. But earlier, when that felt like an interruption of my own plans and I lived with people, to meet my basic human needs, and contribute something others needed, I chose to apply my art skills as a freelancer. I said yes to anything and everything that would let me keep drawing. It drew on my skills and helped me learn new skills which I also value. But applying your skills is not the same thing as directly engaging them and building a relationship with the act of painting, drawing, or with any of the art forms we know. As may who make this choice discover, if that original personal connection is neglected, it can gradually be starved of its oxygen and sometimes it may seem like you have “lost it”. I don’t believe that is true, but I recognize the fear that it is. You really have to put yourself back in the relationship and work with it. Its sort of a combination of a reclamation project and panning for the gold of your own life with only your own self. Maybe it is a kind of alchemy.

Now, after a lifetime of freelance artwork supporting and giving form to the visions of many, many other people, I can say that it feels really good to have made room in my life again for this original relationship I felt so powerfully at three.

GM: The book cover you designed and painted for T.W. Harvey's Seeing the Elephant: One Man's Return to the Civil War is stunning. What mediums did you use to make the cover? How long did it take you to finish the artwork?
EM: I appreciate the kind words about the cover design and artwork. However, I am very aware that no matter how well done or beautiful the art for a cover is, it is only a step in the process of making a book, and in the end is only good if it helps sell the book. In publishing the cover is a marketing device charged with drawing attention to the book, attracting the interest of potential readers, and encouraging them to buy it. If the author is well known his or her name appears in big bold print of some kind and illustrations are rarely used because the author’s reputation already sells the book and the name recognition is all that is needed.

The choice I made for the book design; a wraparound cover was specifically done to draw attention to a first-time novelist’s book in the very crowded genre of American Civil War literature. I decided that it had to be a work of fine art and not an illustration because the personal nature of the source material would be important to get across clearly and at a glance. The Editor agreed with me that a full-color original drawing to be used as a wraparound cover rather than a single front cover generic image of southern and northern soldiers clashing would draw the most attention and invite people to take a closer look.

I felt watercolor with watercolor pencil on a 300 lb. watercolor paper would be best. My experience with that medium showed it translates well to printed materials and can be very flexible when changes and adjustments might be needed. This turned out was very important as the way of making the cover. Over the course of preparing the book for publication, the editing of the initially large manuscript continued to change the original dimensions of the spine width initially provided me. It took the editor much longer than originally expected, so while I had completely worked out the cover art in thumbnail form, I could not complete the final art until the spine width was firmly established. This is because the spine width would determine the final placement of figures on the front and back of the cover. Quite tricky when you have committed to a wraparound design and probably why you don’t see it done very often. Once the final dimensions were given I readjusted the layout of all the figure placement so finishing the final art took almost a month.

During the months I waited to get the go ahead to the art, I continued to do many thumbnail sketches based on extensive research into all things civil war; the clothing, equipment, weapons, buttons, insignia of both sides and more; on every detail that would make the scene the most believable. Even though most of it would not appear in the final art, I knew I had to be very aware of the details so as not step on those many civil war enthusiast’s toes who are extremely knowledgeable on this subject.

GM: Spending days at the library and online researching your subject(s) is evident in the final art. The cover is definitely a perfect fit for the manuscript and readers will recognize the scene after reading the book. What type of character/scene research was required?
EM: The author had chosen the subject he wanted to see used and I completely agreed it was the best choice for the cover art. He provided me with several manuscript pages that described the moment of the Union surrender to the Confederate Army at the 2nd Battle of Winchester in Northern Virginia. Everything I included on the cover was based on his two manuscript pages and some of his notes regarding rank, dress, and ages of the main characters. This included descriptions and insights on his relative, the Union 2nd Lieutenant, learned from the letters he had found. He was very helpful throughout my process, answering many questions I had on details of dress and equipment quickly and to the point.

From this manuscript platform however, I had to take a free-fall dive into very unfamiliar territory. My family came to America in 1923 and as a first-generation American of Norwegian immigrants raised to be European and with plans to return there, I had very little knowledge of and no Southern or Northern allegiances based on a Civil War legacy as many people here do have.

In all my work involving illustrations from children’s books to TV monsters, I do massive amounts of research and this cover demanded far more than anything I had done before. I was overwhelmed with the sheer volume of people who are involved in this sub-culture that clusters around this important event in America’s existence. Realizing this put me on the spot to get more than one man’s personal story visually correctly but everything else that it touched upon. The characters were not limited to the ones in the book, but included the time of day of the actually historical event, the weather, the landscape and the placement of the soldiers within it, what stage of the war had been reached and how that determined how each army, each soldier within that army might look at that point in the conflict, to name just a few. You always research much more than you ever use and I worked hard to keep the focus on the concept the book is bringing to readers. In this case, everything I chose to include, and all the things I did not include, had to work together to keep the context of the story clear for potential readers. I did an enormous number of quick sketches, thumbnails and character studies throughout my research.

GM: Describe your studio...
EM: Oddly, this winter I now have studio spaces instead of working at my actual studio in the Amesville ACRE (Amesville Community Resource for Entrepreneurs) building, which is too big for me to heat and hovers around 34ยบ F in the winter months, The wonderful wall of old single pane glass windows goes from waist high to the ceiling and the north light is great…once it warms up sometime on May. The cinderblocks hold in the cold for quite a while, which can be a plus in a hot summer and I can work well in there throughout the fall. Now not so much! It was originally the Amesville Elementary School and I have met quite a few local people who went to school there. My room was once the first-grade classroom. I really love being part of the Amesville community and still consider myself a “resident” (as once I was for six months when I had only my studio to live in).

One of my other studio spaces is my tiny home which I call my “cabin” where I live between Athens and Amesville about two miles from Strouds Run.

GM: Who is your favorite artist(s)?
EM: I will limit my response to favorite visual artists.
No matter if the artists are well known or unknown, I am most attracted to works that let me feel I can breathe. I mean by this they create a believable space I can enter, either a physical, imagined, or emotional place where the language of color supports the context in which it appears.

I am very fond of Alice Neel’s paintings; many of her works are oil portraits. She seems to paint the inside of people as she experiences their energy. I really like Edvard Munch, a Norwegian painter whose color palette really captures the light, the feel of that country. I also like seeing how his work changes and becomes freer, more exuberant in his later years. When I saw pieces of Japanese sculptor Isamu Naguchi’s beautiful simple stone pieces; so elegant and serene, they resonated deeply with me. The Ohio University Art Professor, Abner Jonas prints, and many other local artists around the country as I moved with my family, have made art where that special connection shines. However, in all honesty, I have to say that it is the work of Hermine Magnus, my mother, that has affected me the most profoundly as I watched her painting throughout my childhood. On visits in those years after I left home, and over the span of her lifetime of painting, I witnessed her whole journey as an artist so intimately. It helped me understand how art is a relationship with one’s inmost self and is not a smooth road She was a powerful and passionate painter who suffered her own deep self-doubts, as a woman and as an artist. who lived 101 years, Her work can hold its own anywhere even though she did not get involved with galleries and gave most of her art to family members. Because painting was my own choice as well, living with her did not make anything easier and often increased my own self-doubts. Still, having watched her painting process my whole life I will have to say as I live and keep working, the benefits of this personal exposure are now outweighing the problems it brought me earlier in my life and she is way up at the top of my favorite artist list.

GM: What are you currently working on/creating?
EM: I am happy to say I am clearing away old mostly paper debris from my art spaces which include past freelance work and taking a fresh look at a number of paintings already started to see if I still want to work on them.

As for what I am currently working on, from the many years of signing book, film, and television contracts, I got in the habit of not discussing actual works in process. That habit has set in so to speak, especially when I am at the beginning of a new piece or series. Suffice it to say I am happy to be returning to my original passion for drawing and painting and re-grounding myself in a fine arts direction after decades of freelancing were the focus necessarily had to be on developing and manifesting the visions of other people through the skills I have acquired so far.

GM: As an art instructor, where are you teaching and do you have room for new artists?
EM: I’ve been spending most of my time this year developing several painting and drawing classes for the Dairy Barn Art Center in Athens. The Education Director there, Lyn Stanton, has done a brilliant job helping me find ways to present what I can offer in ways that reach people throughout this region. I am currently teaching a new portrait drawing class as well as repeating the painting class form the winter session in their spring session.

I am also teaching private drawing lessons including but not limited to gifted students in the Athens area. Several have been junior high and high school teenagers wanting to qualify for summer art programs offered by art schools around the country. Other very driven students know they want to get into an art school and are deeply committed to honing their skills. I teach them strong foundational drawing basics based on an initial assessment of their artwork; everything from doodles to paintings, ceramics;, whatever they choose to bring to the meeting. I work with them in the skill areas I feel they need to strengthen to produce a good, solid portfolio where their work will stand out with confidence. I am impressed with every one of these focused creative people.

I am not teaching in the summer but will continue to offer painting and other classes at the Dairy Barn during their fall, winter and spring sessions. Private lessons will also be available as requested and often people find me by word of mouth. I was fortunate to teach in the excellent space available at Arts West which a parent rented for our two-hour drawing lessons that worked well for the family’s needs, and mine. This solved the problem of little space at their home, the current heating logistics at my studio in the winter months, and provided a convenient central location for the student who went on to other commitments after our classes.

Currently, I have been asked to help set up an exciting new series of “how to” workshops with Village Productions in Amesville, some of which will include several skills based on my publishing experiences with books, film and television preproduction work and Stills.

I count myself very fortunate to live in this beautiful area and to be surrounded by so many people from all kinds of backgrounds, so rich in every kind of experience and motivated to innovate. Teaching allows me to keep affirming this quality in people as all of us work to value and express our humanity and build respect for the resourcefulness of humans and our human resources.

GM: You have written and illustrated several children's books. Do you see another children's lit in your future?
EM: Ideas for books do keep popping up from time to time, and I still have several proposals that might see the light of day eventually, but I have no immediate plans to go in that direction at this time. If I do decide to publish again, I would go through the submission process I know best and send my work to the established trade publishing houses as I have done in the past.

I recognize that the online publishing world moves very quickly and has many ways to put work out that can draw the attention of far larger audiences at a phenomenal pace than the one worked in as an author and illustrator. It has certainly had very big repercussions in the established publishing world, on everything from marketing and distribution. But in the end, all I care about is putting out the highest quality of work I possibly can, working with good people of integrity who also want to make the very best book or film or painting or anything that they can, individually and collectively, in any creative collaboration.

GM: Do you have advice for novice artists/illustrators?
EM: My advice is to not load yourself up or down with too much advice, including mine. I can share what works for me but I don’t pretend that I can advise anyone else on how to approach their work. That said…

I recommend you jump in completely with both feet and use whatever tools, including crayons and paper bags that are handy and already available. We never asked these kinds of questions when we were kids, right? And, that is exactly the “you” that you need to get in touch with. I am not talking about “imitating” the way you perceive kids draw, but really get in touch with the feeling you had when you were first just drawing because you felt like doing it.

The art process of each person is so personal and connected to the individual’s experience of themselves and their lives, that I believe they probably have the best advice inside their own selves, meaning their real authentic selves, not their egos. accessing that will pull you to the right information, the right class for you, or some media that feels right for how you want to express whatever it is you feel you have to say.

On a practical level, if you are already committed to making art, here is a bit of what works for me.

If you are involved in drawing or painting and either have never done it before or are trying to restart after an absence from it, I find that to begin, setting aside a minimum of two uninterrupted hours a day works. Ideally, you have a studio space or room in your home that you have to yourself. If that is not possible, claim a space for the two hours you will be focusing on what you want to do and make it clear you should not be interrupted. Just be with the activity, even if nothing seems to happen. Set up some objects to draw, like a bowl, a fruit, something from nature. Or just doodle and see what comes out of it. Sticking to this, even if you do not like the results, or don’t believe anything will come of it, will keep that door open. You are creating the habit of working consistently. Think of it as flossing your art skills and before long three, then four or more hours will fly by. You are building a relationship, a partnership with your materials and the process is just as much the medium telling you what it wants as it is you steering it.

Connect with Erica...
Monday Creek Publishing
Ohio University Swallow Press

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