Annual No.19: Educator/Illustrator of the Year: Marty Blake

Marty Blake is an illustrator, graphic designer, author, and educator. Influenced by both Dadaism and surrealism, especially the work of Hannah Höch and Max Ernst, her work in collage—both digital and traditional—has gained wide recognition. Marty’s illustrated and designed for practically every book publisher in America, as well as design firms and publications large and small. Her work has been honored by the Society of Illustrators, American Illustration, Print, 3x3, Graphis, Communication Arts, to name a few. With more than thirty years experience in teaching she is currently graduate program coordinator and assistant teaching professor in illustration at Syracuse University. A board member and Education Chair of ICON, the Illustration Conference for the past six years, Marty has met educators from all over the world absorbing a wealth of approaches in illustration education. Her first book, Drawn to Type: Lettering for Illustrators was published by Bloomsbury Visual Arts, London, in 2021. We are delighted to name Marty Blake as our 3x3 Educator of the Year 2022.

Interview with Marty Blake

Tell us a bit about your background, were you always interested in illustration?

Not just illustration, but I always loved art, crafts, and reading. My parents were great appreciators of the arts.

Tell us about your early schooling, did you always want to be an artist?

As a child my interests were narrow: art, art history, and books. Our parents were wonderful about supporting our hobbies. From the age of seven, I’d study painting on the weekends with an artistic friend of Mom’s, no matter where we lived. Since Dad’s job entailed travel, I went to 13 different schools before I got to college. My high school teacher, Norman Perryman, had a profound impact on me and my creative growth. He’s always been passionate about music, especially classical and he’d play music recordings and have us paint what we heard.

What were your early impressions of illustration?

As children, we had The Golden Book of Fairly Tales illustrated by Adrienne Segur. I could stare at those richly intricate paintings for hours. And I loved reading to my younger twin sisters and looking at their illustrated books: Richard Scarry and Maurice Sendak, of course, and Alice and Martin Provenson.

Where did you go to art school? What was that experience like?

I went to an experimental women’s college, Kirkland College in central New York state and majored in printmaking and minored in literature. My prints were always figurative, never abstract, often weird.

What happened after graduation?

Reality set in; I was now totally on my own financially, with a college loan to pay off. To delay reality, I applied to grad schools. A college teacher of mine suggested illustration, since my work had a figurative and narrative quality. It was either Parsons in New York City, where they offered only a partial scholarship in the most expensive city in the world, or Syracuse University, where I soon had a full graduate assistantship. This made it an easy choice.

Frankly, it was a hard transition from liberal arts into an illustration MFA. The other students had studied illustration and worked in the field before grad school. I struggled to find a way to make my drawings into illustrations. Inspired by my studies of Hannah Höch and Max Ernst, I began to make collages. Murray Tinkleman was visiting faculty there at the time and asked “Why aren’t you making collages as your assignments?” So I did.

How did you get your first big break?

I moved to New York City after getting my MFA and worked on the late shift setting headline type so I could truck my illustration portfolio around by day. I had an appointment with Carol Devine Carson, the art director for Savvy magazine, and flipping through my portfolio she said, “I love your collages; who are you working for?” “No one,” I replied, immediately kicking myself. Days later she called with a big assignment, a full-page fiction piece, plus numerous color and black-and-white spots. I quit my typesetting job.

How has your work progressed, how is today’s work different than when you were first starting out?

Over the years, my work transitioned from cut paper into digital collages. Several years ago I did a book cover for Doubleday about Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. For this I used cut paper, included approved stock imagery of Brecht, Weill, and others and scanned the collage with very little Photoshopping. It was a pleasure to step away from the computer and I’ve returned to making cut-paper collages for my own pleasure and for shows like at Giant Robot and fund-raisers through the Pen and Ink Brigade.

Let’s talk about your experiences as a teacher, how long have you been teaching?

As with much of my career, I backed into teaching sideways. When my husband David (now retired) was a staff photographer at Syracuse University, a professor at the Newhouse School of Public Communication asked him if he knew anyone who was a graphic designer who could teach. Though I’d never taught before, David said “I know someone.” My years as a headline typesetter had led to decades of working as a freelance, self-taught designer. I had a few days to read Philip B. Meggs’ History of Graphic Design and then go teach it. This was 30 years ago. I taught adjunct at Newhouse for eight years, and around the same time, I was asked to be a visiting teacher in the illustration program where I’d earned my MFA—the same class Murray Tinkleman had taught me years before. Since then, I’ve taught many classes in a variety of schools but for the last eight years, I’ve been teaching full time in the illustration program at Syracuse University. Recently I’ve been coordinator of the graduate program, teaching the thesis class among others, and with the help of colleagues, completely reinventing the curriculum that’s rolling out this fall.

What do you feel the role of an instructor is?

Part inspiration, part pragmatist, part story teller, part therapist. To listen, to guide, to be honest yet not unkind. One criteria in critique is that I try to distinguish between aspects of the student work that are wrong, that must be corrected, from instances where it is simply not to my taste, and why. I tell students that their ability to articulate about their work in critique is practice for their communication with art directors.

How are you able to juggle teaching and your work?

Honestly, during the pandemic some of my existing clientele went out of business or art directors retired, so my freelance load has shrunk. For the last couple of years the demands of being an administrator as well as faculty has put my focus more on teaching than my own work. My interests creatively have been on play and experimentation. My experience has been that eventually these passion projects lead to other opportunities.

What is your advice to graduates entering the field today?

The field of illustration has such a broad spectrum of employment opportunities and the teacher has to find a way to guide the student into an area that’s a good fit for them. It’s a blend of ‘what do I want to make?’ and ‘who will buy what I want to do?’

Since illustration can be about anything, illustrators need to know what in the world they’re interested in, beyond the field of illustration. Narratives? Science? Politics? If their work is tied to a subject that gets them excited, the visuals will be stronger and more interesting.

Final words to teachers?

Remain curious, keep open-minded, keep learning. On the flip side, trust the underlying principles and logic that you’ve learned over time that make sense; help your students to understand them. Some truths are enduring and not fads.

Final words to practicing illustrators?

Listen to the little voice in your head when you know which way you want to go. Be persistent and diligent, success doesn’t come quickly. Don’t forget that making pictures for a living sure beats being a short-order cook in a bowling alley (been there, done that.)

And finally, as you look back over your career what have you learned?

I call it my “improbable career.” In spite of my two college degrees, I’m not an academic, yet I’ve been teaching undergrad and grad courses for decades. Although I’ve never taken a design course, I’ve worked as a graphic designer most of my working life. Although I’m not a writer, I wrote a book—published last year by Bloomsbury Visual Arts in London. Somehow, through persistence and curiosity, I’ve made my working life work out in ways that I wanted, following opportunities and trusting my instincts.