Interview with John Hendrix
Tell us a bit about your background, were you always interested in illustration?
I can’t remember a time in my life before drawing. The act of drawing is a foundational part of my identity and how I process the world. But, the notion of “illustration” as a category of picture or creative activity didn’t really register until, embarrassingly, during my undergraduate design education, it was something I had to be taught to see.
Do you come from an artistic family?
My parents were always very supportive of my creativity, even though I think I was a bit of an odd duck as a kid. Both my sister and I grew up to be artists and teachers of art.
Where did you attend college?
My undergraduate experience was at the University of Kansas, where I studied visual communications. After a few years, I attended the MFA Illustration and Visual Essay program at School of Visual Arts.
Were there any particular artists who influenced your decision to become an illustrator?
I loved anything that told a visual story or explained something visually. David Macauley’s books *Cathedral and The Way Things Worked* were critical influences. *Star Wars*, as both a visual idea and a story, are so critical to my love of art making.
What happened after graduation?
Like most young artists, nothing happened the way I had imagined. “Becoming an illustrator” was a much longer process than I expected. I started working as a junior designer in a PR firm in Kansas City—I only lasted 10 months in corporate America. After that, I joined a smaller boutique design firm in Lawrence, Kansas. That was a much better fit for me, but it was still not what I had dreamed of doing, which was drawing for a living.
What brought you to the School of Visual Arts graduate program?
One particularly hard day, I remember my wife Andrea saying, “we should just go to New York, we should do it, you should go back to school.” Seems crazy, but I felt I had ‘missed’ my chance to be an illustrator at age 25. So, I only applied to one school: School of Visual Arts, because to me it was NYC or bust.
How did you get your first big break?
My first real job came from Minh Uong, at the *Village Voice*—and it was a total disaster. I got a few big jobs my first year, a four-page gate-fold from *Sports Illustrated* and an album review for *Rolling Stone*. But, when I think about my big break, it is clearly that I somehow was hired as an assistant art director on the Op-Ed page of the *New York Times*. I met so many artists and art directors; importantly, I learned how to think quickly and work with editors and major deadlines. It was like the ‘extreme sport’ version of illustration and I loved every minute.
In addition to your editorial work, you have also published a number of children’s books. How is your approach different from other illustrator’s books for young readers?
My books that I have written and illustrated usually focus on moments of moral gravity. I’ve used biography as a narrative vessel to unpack ideas of ethics, citizenship, theology, and history. I am not sure my approach is totally unique, but I have carved out a very clear space in the book industry.
As an author/illustrator what do you feel your responsibilities are telling stories that might be considered controversial for young children, i.e. John Brown?
Yes, I do think there is a responsibility to all storytelling, especially history. We should not shield children from engaging moral complexity or conversations about purpose, meaning and ethics. We must tell the truth, the hard truth, but in ways that protect young minds from disturbing details they are not ready to engage.
Your current work includes images coupled with quite a bit of hand lettering, why?
I love type. I enjoy letterforms as a formal element to activate my drawings for this reason: when we see type, we read the word, rather than see its physical form. By drawing this unity of word + image creates a new third space that neither type nor image can accomplish on its own. Occasionally I’ll have an art director ask me not to put words in my pictures and I find it harder to come up with ideas. Usually I just ignore it, removing the letters later. My generative process actually relies on the ballet of word and image relationships.
Let’s talk about your experiences as a teacher, how long have you been teaching?
I am beginning my 16th year teaching at Washington University in St. Louis, in the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts. I taught one semester at Parsons before teaching at WashU, but those students should ask for a refund, I didn’t know what I was doing at all!
I hear there's a new program at WashU.
Last year, along with fellow professor, D.B. Dowd, we started a new graduate school in illustration, MFA Illustration and Visual Culture. The program is completely unique. It explores the idea of illustration authorship by combining studio practice in illustration with curatorial training in visual and material culture. Students immerse themselves in the campus D.B Dowd Modern Graphic History Library, which is a vast repository of original illustrations, magazine, comics and visual ephemera. We focus on good writing, attracting students with a lens towards studio practice, authorship and academia.
What do you feel the role of an instructor is?
I think there are twin roles of a professor in a design classroom: challenge and nurture. I strive to both critique the ‘thing’ on the wall, and also listen to what the student’s goals and ideas are at the same time. Time should really be spent closing that gap between a student’s intended goals and what the object is actually communicating. The outcome of the work they make should be a process of self-discovery.
How are you able to juggle teaching with your editorial work and books?
Ha, when I figure it out I’ll let you know. I’ve been taking less editorial work as I’ve been focused more on my long-format authored works, but I really do love editorial and miss it!
Do you feel there is anything missing in today’s education of an illustrator?
Yes, I think there needs to be a massive realignment in design education as it relates to diversity in our field, and specifically the African-American experience. It should go beyond being merely inclusive, but actively celebrating black voices and creative expressions that may not fit within what design education has seen as normative.
What is your advice to graduates entering the field today?
I wish that when I left school I realized how long a career in illustration really can be. I was so eager to have instant success—and by instant, I thought a year or two was an eternity. But, the truth is that to have success as an illustrator you have to have patience and persistence. It just takes awhile to learn how to master your craft and to be able to know what you have to offer to the world. You have to make work that you enjoy, even it doesn’t seem particularly ‘marketable.’ Also, remember, to get a big break you don’t have to convince 1,000 people...just one person. One person can take a chance on your work that will break the field open for you.
Any last words to teachers?
Most students are not primarily looking for data and information, but mentorship and a relationship with a credible role model. We often feel like we have a duty to provide “answers” to our students, but if you answer their questions with a question back to them, and interrogate not just what they made but how they made it, and finally why they made it, self-discovery will follow. Ultimately, art school should not give students a great portfolio alone, the real thing they take with them is a process. The portfolio will be outdated in a year or two, but it is a healthy process that allows them to continue discovering themselves for the rest of their lives.
And finally, what’s in your future, personally and professionally?
I am chairing the MFA Illustration and Visual Culture, and actively teaching (and recruiting!) in that program in the near future. I have a few books in the pipeline: my next book is coming out at the end of the year, a retelling of some Jesus’ parables called *Go and Do Likewise!* My next long form graphic novel is called *Mythmakers: The Remarkable Fellowship of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis*, which is scheduled to come out in Fall of 2022, both books are from Abrams Books for Young Readers.