Group shows its 'Hire Purpose'

Kurt Shaw
| Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013, 6:02 p.m.

With 90 pieces snugly fit into the lobby of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Downtown, the Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators' latest exhibit, “Art for a Hire Purpose,” is their largest group exhibition to date.

That's no surprise: The group, a chapter of the national Society of Illustrators, is the second largest in the country.

“New York Society of Illustrators is the largest by far,” says Fred Carlson, past president of Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators. “We used to be fourth largest around 2005, but passed the L.A. Society of Illustrators and D.C. Illustrators Club between 2007 and 2009 largely due to the recession shooting holes in their membership numbers while we kept up good contact with our members and encouraged holding on through the recession.”

Currently, the Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators boasts 152 members (126 full, 26 affiliate) within a 50-mile radius of Pittsburgh. That's a lot of illustrators, which makes for a whole lot of pieces in this exhibit.

To accommodate all of that work, the show was hung salon style, side by side and one atop another. And with such a wide variety of art, the group decided to hang it in nine categories: Humor, Editorial, Children's, Nature, Portrait, Fantasy/Sci-fi, Corporate, Technical/Medical and Advertising.

As visitors will see, in each category, the illustrators have brought forth their unique visual voices that communicate to a specific audience.

For example, “Late Night: Southside,” an intimate portrait of a pensive young woman in a booth at a Southside eatery, by another society past president, Rick Antolic, looms large in the portrait category. In the children's category, “Marcellus and the King” by Mike Malle grabs attention for its lush colors and magnificent detail. And “Marblehead 1903” by Rick Henkel, a digital drawing that is a schematic of an old lighthouse, shows that technical skill is not lagging among the group.

As in previous exhibits, the range of contributors runs from newer talent to some of the most seasoned illustrators in the business.

With 36 years behind him, Carlson is among the latter. His “PA Wetlands” piece is one of several pieces in the Nature category that show how illustration is sometimes used in the most unlikely of places.

Depicting more than 30 Western Pennsylvania animal species and 10 plant species, it was commissioned in 2003 by Bally Design for the Pennsylvania Department of Natural Resources, which used it for an 8-foot-wide permanent educational exhibit at the Jennings Nature Center at Moraine State Park.

“It had the species' names dropped in with small text, then this was blown up, embedded in fiberglass to make it lightfast and protect it,” Carlson says.

Since 1998, Carlson has had a nice niche market illustrating permanent educational installation art pieces like this, including commissions for the Smithsonian National Zoo, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, the Okeeheelee Nature Center near West Palm Beach, Fla., and the Arizona Fish and Wildlife Service.

Another seasoned illustrator, John Blumen, has a piece in the Fantasy/Sci-fi category that is a real standout. Titled “Cutlass,” it's a digital illustration Blumen created for an English company, Black Scorpion Miniatures, that designs and produces miniatures and games.

“They saw my work on the web and commissioned the piece for promotional materials for a new game that they were producing,” Blumen says. “The image represents the spirit and the characters involved in the game. A special-edition miniature, based on my design of the main figure in the illustration, was also produced for the game's launching.”

Not a commissioned piece, but rather a work of pure fantasy, is “Innovasion,” a giclee print of a digital drawing on display in the Editorial portion of the exhibit by Ilene Winn-Lederer.

On a recent trip to a Chinese restaurant where she had a choice between chopsticks and a fork, Winn-Lederer began wondering why a four-pronged fork isn't called a “fourk” and a spoon-shaped fork is called a “spork.”

“It got me thinking about the design and taxonomy of gastronomic utensils in general,” Winn-Lederer says. That led to this whimsical piece, which depicts a Chinese man among a variety of odd eating utensils real and imagined.

A work that is merely a byproduct of personal exploration, it even includes an image of a stinkbug, which Winn-Lederer says was inspired by “a brown marmorated stink bug staring down at me from atop my computer monitor” while she worked on the piece.

Ashley Cecil, the vice president of the group, is among the younger talent whose works are on display. Her piece “Blue Jays on Gray,” also in the Nature category, is a marriage of her technical training and experience in painting the illusion of three-dimensional form with her love of two-dimensional pattern.

Though she can count among her clients the maker of Jack Daniels whiskey and nonprofits like Oxfam America, this piece was made for personal exploration.

The remaining works are just as interesting, each in their own way, making for a full and varied exhibit experience worth seeking out.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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