Profile of Donald Kilpatrick
posted: June 4, 2007
From forging sick notes in elementary school to being a Mormon Missionary in Ukraine to teaching at art college, Donald Kilpatrick, age 32, has played out a long family tradition that includes both sinners and saints.
"I grew up in Salt Lake in a family that's a mix of Mormon pioneers and outlaws; one of my ancestors was in Butch Cassidy's Hole in the Wall Gang. My first introduction to drawing was when I was like three or four, when my father used to draw for me in church -- there'd be a sermon going on, and he would be drawing a fighter plane or a tank, blowing things up. It was very exciting!
"I started drawing partly because of my dad and partly because of competing with my older sister; she was an artist and when she would draw something, then I had to draw it; when she would paint something, then I would have to paint it, and my interest in drawing just kind of grew out of that.
"I first started making money off of drawing with a racket I had in elementary school: I used to forge sick notes for $2 or $3 a pop. I never got caught once; it was awesome. Then, in junior high, all of the stoner kids started having me draw stuff like Iron Maiden on the back of a Levi jacket, and that was where I got the good money. One kid wanted me to draw a tattoo for him. He and his brother had figured out how to take a Remington razor and make it into a tattoo gun and he showed me the tattoo they'd already made on him, which was a jagged mess and all infected, and I was like, "Oh my Gosh! Like, you need to go see a doctor!" But I did this tattoo for this Remington Razor thing and I don’t know ... who knows what happened. There's the State Penitentiary in Utah, and I swear that guy’s in there somewhere. So, those were some of my first real illustration jobs and I loved it. That and drawing naked ladies and football guys.
"I was also really interested in Russian history. In my last year of junior high, a teacher of mine had gone to Moscow State University, and done translation work for the CIA, and had gone back and forth to Russia from ’68 on, and he would always take trips of students over there. He would go to to East and West Berlin and then to the Soviet Union, so when I turned 15 years old, on my birthday, I was walking through Lenin’s Mausoleum. That was a trip. 15 years old and I went through Checkpoint Charlie and all that kind of stuff. It was really cool.
"My interest in that part of the world continued. I went to Ukraine for two years, as a Mormon missionary, when I was 19. For me, doing missionary work wasn't only a spiritual and proselytizing type thing, it was also a huge humanitarian thing. I'm really proud to have been there. The Soviet Union had collapsed, and the society over there had collapsed both economically and socially. We helped set up a school for children with mental disabilities and developmental disabilities, which was the first of its kind there.
"When I got back from Ukraine, I went to college at Utah State University, and right after school I got a job working as an in-house illustrator for a design firm. It was a good place to cut my teeth and really learn the business, but after a few years, I had hit kind of a dead end in my life. I felt I had something to say, and I wasn't getting a chance to say it. Meanwhile, my wife had begun applying for jobs as a social worker out in California. She grew up in California, about 40 minutes east of San Francisco, and we'd always talked about moving there. She didn't tell me she was applying for jobs, though, because she knew I'd freak out and get all neurotic about quitting my job and moving. So, we wound up moving to California.
"Going from working for a design firm to being a full time freelancer was stressful. I had gotten accustomed to somebody else calling the shots for me, someone else getting the work for me and someone else giving me a check every couple of weeks. But I knew I could do it. I wasn't being cocky, but I really felt that if I set my mind to doing something, I can do it. That ties into my mission, because it was a huge struggle for me to learn to speak Russian fluently, and when I did finally grasp onto that language, I felt I could do anything. I felt indestructible. So I always draw on that experience for strength.
"And my wife, of course, she’s a huge strength to me. I mean, Kate’s been so supportive; like I’d be up late drawing and we’d want to spend time together, so she learned to knit so we could be together while I work. And she looked for work out in California to get me out of that studio. My confidence had been shot, because in the studio setting I was over-art directed to death, and I was always doing this uninspired stuff that never saw the light of day. The creative director himself was a failed illustrator and I think that kind of played in there a little bit. He’s a great guy and he’s a very creative guy, but I think he was always taking it out on me because I was an actual illustrator. You know what I’m saying?
"So we moved to California, and my freelance work was going well, and I did some guest lectures for Owen Smith's class at the California College of Art, and I had taught at the University of Utah when I was still in Salt Lake, and I was wanting to teach more. So I went for a Masters of Fine Arts, and started teaching more and more.
"Now we're moving again, this time to Detroit where I'm teaching at the College for Creative Studies. I think teaching appeals to the crusader in me, or maybe the religion in me, or just caring about people; it's about trying to make a positive impact and I guess trying to save people, in a way. I haven’t really thought about it, but I think it has to do with the missionary in me. In fact, painting and drawing is like a communion for me. And you get to create! How great is that?"