Profile of Steven Guarnaccia
posted: September 24, 2007
In his office at Parsons....
The sensuous pen of Steven Guarnaccia, age 53, has led him through the world of illustration for decades, recently drawing him to Chair the Illustration Department at Parsons, where I met with him to discuss his passage thus far.

"Whenever anybody asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I told them I wanted to be an artist. But I never wanted to be a fine artist; I never fantasized about being a gallery painter. I wanted to do the stuff that gave me the most pleasure and the stuff that gave me the most pleasure was popular culture, comics, animation, so that’s what I figured I would end up doing. I only had a very brief crisis about the fine art/commercial art thing when I was in college at Brown University and I took classes at RISD and the kind of seriousness and dedication that the RISD students demonstrated made me think that maybe that was what being a real artist is.

"But the reality of the situation was that my essential self really was not like them. I took a class as a little kid in the back of an art store, painting in oils, and I didn’t like the smell of it and I never liked getting my hands dirty. The other thing was, that my favorite fine artists in high school were Paul Klee and George Grosz and they were guys whose work looked more like my work than Monet and Picasso. Seeing Paul Klee painting in a suit, to me, seemed to make perfect sense. I was not interested in wiping painted hands on baggy blue jeans. That just wasn’t who I was.

"There are three pieces to what I love about drawing. The central thing that provides the baseline for it all is drawing in my sketchbook, just for the pleasure of it. When I sit down with my sketchbook, it’s  basically high-end doodling. The pleasure is in surprising oneself, that kind of Paul Klee thing: taking a line for a walk, following it, seeing where it wants to go.

"Also, like a lot of artists, I had a childhood that was marked by a number of years of illness; in the third and fourth grade I had rheumatic fever, and I was bed ridden for a while, so I learned to provide my own entertainment, and when I'm alone and bored, if I take out my sketchbook, it disappears immediately.

"I sketch all the time. All the time. if I’m on the subway I’ll either be drawing for a job or drawing for pleasure. Over the years I’ve also realized that it’s a process of self-discovery, of figuring out who I am and what I’m interested in. I shock myself by some of the stuff I draw; it’s not always pleasant to realize that I like to draw these things. I've found that there are ugly things, disturbing, creepy things, that I am much happier to be drawing in my sketchbook than I would ever be willing to draw on assignment.

"The second piece – and this is where it comes into the commercial stuff – is that I just love the pure, sensual activity of the pen point against the paper. I use a fountain pen filled with waterproof ink on watercolor paper, and just the point sort of biting into the paper, and the way the lines start to spread and then stop spreading, and the watercolor and the way different brushes and different papers react ... there’s just a pure sensual quality to it.

"The third piece is the cerebral thing: conceptualizing, thinking up ideas, coming up with visual metaphors. That was the thing that I felt could justify this activity that’s very self-indulgent and maybe not considered that serious. What’s the absolute best or the most interesting or the one that nobody else has done yet, when expressing some abstract concept. Steve Heller was the very first person to give me a job, and his appreciation for the conceptual, and his very high standards, his sort of unwillingness to let his artists coast, really honed the cerebral piece for me.

"When I first started out, having come from a non-art school environment, I didn’t have a portfolio. I was one of those people who felt like the best stuff I did was done in the margins of notes for a class or things that I did when I wasn’t trying to do something good ... I need to backtrack a second:

"I took a leave of absence from Brown. I had  friend whose father had a shipping company and we were going to be merchant marines on a tramp steamer but somehow that all fell through.

"With my tail between my legs, I went back home and lived at my parents house. I had my own car and I paid them rent so that I felt like I could come and go as I pleased. I was kind of shadowing my mom as she went on her errands and one day I followed her to a travel agency – she was planning a trip with my father – and I started chatting with one of the agents who said, 'So what are you doing this summer and what do you want to do with yourself?' I said, 'Well I really want to be an illustrator.' The agent told me about her husband, Bert Dodson, a terrific guy who lived in town, who basically did textbook illustrations, who was looking for an assistant.

"'He needed someone to just color backgrounds, to go do picture research, and I worked in his home. He and I connected immediately and we became very good friends. He had been an instructor at the Famous Artists Schools, so he was a very traditional illustrator and I was anything but. But we had this mutual admiration partly based on recognizing in the other that which we didn’t have in ourselves. He kept trying to push me to show my work to art directors and I just didn’t feel ready. I worked with him off and on for a couple of years and finally I said, 'I think I’m ready.'

"Bert said, 'Go see Randy Enos.' Now, I loved Chicken Gutz and the National Lampoon, so this was like I was going to see a hero! And Randy was, and I’ve said this over the years, the single most generous artist I ever met. He was very encouraging, and we sat there with his address book and he introduced me to Steve Heller and to basically every major art director in New York.

"Between Bert and Randy, they kind of launched my career. Steve Heller was the first person I went to see, and when I went to pick up my portfolio, he said, 'Can you do a drawing for tomorrow?' And I said, 'OK.'

"I was totally in heaven. Steve basically hired me almost weekly to do stuff for the Book Review immediately and then Michael Valenti at the Magazine hired me once a month to do the Russell Baker column. And this was right at my very first appointments! Ever since, when I see a young illustrator, I try to call an art director or connect them directly with an art director.

"I’ve been trying to figure out what's going on in the field since December 2001. In my own career, but also the field in general. What affect was stock illustration having on it, what affect was the new media having on it; I kept clipping things like the new editor of Playboy saying that they have a lot more charts and graphs, that’s how young men get information, they don’t get it through illustration. And I realized that there were deeper cultural shifts than the swing that used to go back and forth between photo and illustration in magazines. Magazines were being read less, that there was less money to be made in there, that people were less interested in it. People were using found graphic material, stuff from flea markets and old graphics and old photographs and ads and this coincided with the rise in stock illustration and the fact that people were afraid of taking chances. People stopped wanting the personal and subjective.

"So when the position at Parsons was going to be open, I just thought, 'You might want to apply for it.' It had been on my list as a potential career goal anyway and I had been really thinking about reinventing the field and what this field needs, so when I wrote my application, I had ideas about what had happened to illustration, where it was going, and what we need to learn differently that we didn’t need to learn years ago. And it's been great. probably a third of the faculty were either my studio assistants or my students. And most of them I didn’t even hire, they already were here. I love working with them, and I've always liked working with students. I feel like we’re a huge, creative team.

"And I get more joy from my drawings now than ever: I have much more experience and much greater access to my internal self and many more arrows in my quiver. I'm also more comfortable with myself, more confident, so I’m happy to make a crappy drawing, which I never used to like to do. It’s similar in fun to when I was a little kid, but much more so, because there is so much more material and I have so much more capability to express it.