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Alumnus Erin Wells Recognized by Society of Illustrators

The Academy of Art University is proud to announce that MFA Illustration graduate Erin Wells has received recognition from the LA Society of Illustrators (Illustration West 44) for two of her watercolor illustrations, entitled "Yellow Carousel Horse" and "Arrival of the Train." Both illustrations were part of Erin's MFA thesis, and now carry the Society of Illustrators' "Certificate of Merit."

The paintings will be shown at the Society's show at the Billy Shire Gallery in Culver City, which will run in the first week of April 2006. We spoke to Erin about the honor, her time at the Academy, and her plans for the future:

Yellow Carousel Horse
"Yellow Carousel Horse"
Arrival of the Train
"Arrival of the Train"

Can you describe the winning paintings? How did you develop them, from concept to execution?

My MFA project was a series of watercolors inspired by Ray Bradbury's novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes. In the early stages of development of the carousel horse, I drew skulls, hourglasses, and clockfaces in a border around the carousel to suggest the idea of passing time and mortality; in Bradbury's novel, the carousel runs forward to make people older and backward to make them younger. However, in Directed Study sessions the border was abandoned; my advisors Bill Maughan and Stephen Player steered me toward less literal interpretations.

Stephen suggested that the carousel horses themselves could carry the menace and mystery of the October carnival in the book, so that's when the horse got its skull face. The same process applied to the train, really. I was looking for a way to describe the impression of the written scene in an interesting image. I wanted to express the sound of the whistle as described in Bradbury's writing, which brought to mind ghosts escaping with the steam as the carnival arrives at 3am to work its evil.

I really like the way these two paintings turned out; the combination of humor and good cheer (the frisky angle of the horse's head, its happy colors and ridiculous mane) and the frightful aspects of its empty eyes and eerie lighting really pleases me. That's something that pops up in a lot of my favorite work: the combination of humor and horror.

How did your paintings come to be considered by the LA Society of Illustrators?

I knew of the Society of Illustrators in New York and L.A., as I'd seen Academy students' award-winning work displayed in the Academy's School of Illustration building. Academy instructors and the Career Services office encourage entering these contests to gain experience and exposure, so I got the application from the Society's Web site and sent the materials to see what would happen. In October, the Society responded via e-mail to let me know that these two works had been given "Certificates of Merit" (akin to an honorable mention) in the upcoming Illustration West 44.

The acknowledgment suggests to me that I'm on the right track and perhaps I should continue in this genre and method of painting. Prior to starting this project, watercolor was a medium I hadn't tried other than to apply flat washes to pencil or ink drawings. Before enrolling at the Academy, I used pencil and ink almost exclusively; instructors recommended that I learn to use paint to introduce color into my work rather than continue to draw monochromatically, or use watercolor merely to colorize drawings.

I have a lot of work to do in order to learn how to paint really well, but this recognition is encouraging and I'm very happy to be pursuing illustration as a career.

How would you describe your painting style?

Although it changes depending on the project at hand, I think the painting style could be likened to old-fashioned illustrations. They aren't edgy or bright; rather, I like to play with delicacy of line and color and infuse the images with a definite mood. In my favorite pieces, the delicacy of line and color is combined with (or counterbalanced by) an underlying, opposing force.

I love horror comics, science fiction (particularly works with a vivid visual aspect, like Bradbury or Caitlin Kiernan), horror movies, and the work of many artists (ranging from Doré, Pyle, all the Wyeths, Nick Bantock, Gary Kelley, Marshall Arisman, Phil Hale, Kent Williams, Bernie Wrightson, John R. Neill... my list of "favorites" is long). Their works all come together in various ways to influence me. My style is still evolving; I started this career later in life than many of my peers, so it's exciting to dream about where it might lead.

What is your impression of the Academy, its teachers, and its students?

In May of 2005, I graduated from the Academy with an MFA in Traditional Illustration. I expected graduate school to be cutthroat: competitive, fast-paced, and anything but warm and fuzzy. It was a surprise to find that the experience was great. Students, for the most part, were supportive of one another, accepted a wide variety of styles and approaches, and were genuinely friendly. The instructors I encountered were all excellent.

Sometimes it was difficult for me to pick up on different philosophies or methods in making art, but I learned that there are many valid techniques and approaches, both intellectual and technical, from which one can learn for a lifetime.

I'd be lying if I said there weren't days when I was exhausted, or emotional, or stressed out, or discouraged, but completing the MFA program was a great experience. Painting classes were particularly challenging for me as I had not used oil paint before, and that's a skill I'd still like to improve. Graduation seemed to arrive quickly, and I feel like I still have so much to learn. I wish I could keep going to school for a while.

What are your plans for the future?

One of my ultimate goals is to become an established illustrator of books. However, I realize that book illustration can be a difficult field in which to establish one's self, so I expect to learn patience and perseverance as well as the necessary technical skills. My plans for the future include working to better my drawing and painting, while pursuing work for magazines, book publishers, and other clients, such as music-industry projects like CD cover illustrations (music is another of my interests).

Eventually I'd like to find an agent so I can concentrate more on artwork and less on business issues. For the moment, I'm sending out promotional materials to a list of about thirty contacts. I'm participating in gallery shows as they come along (two so far) and hope that I can make some contacts that way. In researching publications, I've discovered new authors, other illustrators I admire, and met new colleagues; it all comes back to inspire me.

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