December 20, 2009

Never Grow Old, Just Keep Growing

An Interview with Jack Harris, designer and illustrator

Part 1 of 2 (link to Part 2)
Click on any image to enlarge it to original size

In his own words,
Jack Harris likes to talk. And to be honest, he’s a lot of fun to talk to. At the risk of running through my monthly allotment of clichés at one go, one of the best parts of getting to talk to Jack is that he not only has a great sense of humor, but he also has a truly infectious laugh. We found ourselves more than once having a good giggle over many of the topics we spoke and even reminisced about, including such wide ranging topics as our mutual love of comics, music (‘hey, have you heard of that band called ‘Pink Floyd’?), hair styles in the late 70’s and early 80’s (don’t ask), and even how old we both are (+/-) in comparison to maybe how old we both feel (++/+++).

Another thing you notice about Jack is that he often takes significant, even what you might call ‘pregnant pauses’ before he answers a question. But you don’t get the feeling that he’s doing like way too many people do these days, that is, trying to come up with any kind of ‘politically correct’ answer or some other non-threatening format; instead, you feel like he is running through a couple of variations to see which will best solve the question you’re asking him. He is after all an ‘idea man’, both in the way he approaches his ‘professional’ business as well as his illustration and design. Not that the difference between these two areas is black and white at all.

We’re glad then to share our conversation with Jack Harris, designer, illustrator, painter and more (age somewhere between 14 and 49):

ZN: Jack, welcome to the show. Before we get ‘started’, I just have to get something off my chest so that we can move forward: should you wish your name to be remembered forever more in the realms of the creative, please, please change it! For example, I desperately wanted to look into your experiences and/or contributions to the world of comics and graphic novels (said as an equally unabashed fan of same, who is desperate to find like-minded souls to commiserate and perhaps even, uh, fanannate with).

However, are you Jack Harris (no middle initial), Jack C. Harris or Jack S. Harris? Or maybe you’re an Australian poet? Free mason or even evangelical crusader? Or
one of the best brains under the age of 40?!? Even Wikipedia – the modern source of all knowledge that is good and benevolent and most importantly, free – was of no help! In the words of the immortal (and equally round-headed [to me I mean]) Charlie Brown: “AaaAAAaahhHHH!”
Sorry about that Ziggy! Jack Harris is correct (though very rarely my middle initial will appear “F.”)

Funny enough, Jack C. Harris is a friend of mine and he and others have strongly suggested I change my name. I have given it serious thought. My place in comic history, however, is relatively (very relatively) inconsequential. However, you can find me on the web as the
cover artist for ‘Version’, an anime title published by Dark Horse. All of my other comics work has been graphic design related (where we actually get paid).

I’m not Australian, however, my sister does live in Australia. But she doesn’t write. I am the world’s only Jewish freemason and I was voted ‘Designer to Watch’ in 2000 by Graphic Design Magazine. So, I think that makes me one of the best minds under 50. Or over 40.

ZN: Sorry, what was that about being a Jewish freemason?
Sorry, inside joke. Curiously enough my logo (called an
ambigram) was designed by a terrific typographic designer and artist named John Langdon. The character in Dan Brown’s novels were named after John, who created ambigrams for Dan’s book covers, among other things.

ZN: Oh...kay. Moving on. As it says on your email signature, namely, ‘Jack Harris – Diabolical Creative Director’: are you a diabolical person per se or is your creativity in some way hell-bent?
I think both. But the “diabolical” reference is an attempt to describe a way of thinking that transcends the mundane and yields ideas (for design, books, my paintings) that have a hint of ‘mad genius’.

Arrogant fantasy? Perhaps. But, if I don’t believe it, no one else will either.

ZN: You mention that you were involved ‘early in the Internet development (and that you) published an online magazine called ‘Buzzcutt’’, which has not only been referred to as ‘pioneering’ but was devoted to among other things comics, film and pop culture.
Yes. It was a blog, long before there were blogs.
Jim Steranko was our feature for the first issue. Worthless name-dropping trivia: I gave Jim his first Wacom Tablet.

ZN: Just briefly, if I could ask a few more questions to that topic: What is Al Gore – as one of the self-proclaimed inventors of the Internet, of course – like in person?
I don’t know. Of course, he didn’t invent the Internet. I did.

ZN: What was life like back then, before Internet? Did you have running water and telephones?
I actually had a cartoon telephone that was posed in a running position. And we did have indoor plumbing. A hole really. In the kitchen. So, yes?

ZN: How did you socialize at all?
I didn’t actually. Sadly, that’s not a joke.

ZN: And gosh, what did you do on ‘Friday Porn Surfing’ nights?
We had access to lo-tech, hi-touch porn.

ZN: All kidding aside (hardly): What was it like running a ‘zine? You must have just been ‘winging it’ in a lot of ways, no?
No. We actually had a lot of experience with magazine publishing. Just not how to make money. So we didn’t try. We just tried to have fun.

ZN: Are there any ‘remains’ of ‘Buzzcutt’ left on-line? I’m going to go out on a limb and just say that some of the more UN-usual links I found did NOT originate from you... and those are the only ones that made it through our parental controls, yikes!
Try here:*/

ZN: Whew, okay, we’ve got all that our of our systems. Jack, you’ve made the admirable statement that you ‘still collect comic books and (aren’t) afraid to say so’. Do you find yourself particularly comfortable around people – including former ‘Eureka-ist’
Charley Parker – that feel the same way? On the other hand, how do you explain your interest in this medium to so-called ‘non-believers’?
I grew up with comics. I started out probably at about age 7 copying comic books. I’ve always loved them, and I still do. Although I will say what I purchase is considerably different.

I actually do – well, I don’t know if I want to say prefer – but I do like hanging out with other illustrators and comic book artists and that sort of person. But you have to be kind of careful sometimes because they have a tendency to stand around and talk about who could beat up who (ZN: or even whom). I try to stay away from those conversations. But yeah, we like talking about things like story telling techniques and the great artists that we were influenced by and that we admire.

On the other hand, I’m also working right now as a professor at a University in Long Island, New York, and they’re very serious about academic art. I don’t talk comics there as I don’t think this would necessarily fit very well into their vernacular and also just because I don’t want to sound like I’m not academic enough. So I do like to hang out or talk to people that still love the medium whenever I can.

However, that said, I do think it’s still the best possible medium through which to tell a story. I think it’s even better than films. There’s just nothing like it in terms of engaging the viewer. Having to read the text and also having to read the images is an intellectual activity that I think you don’t get anywhere else. It’s hard to explain to someone that’s not in this world. It’s kind of like talking to my wife about it. She hates it! She hates this stuff!

You know, since you brought it up, I’m trying to think if I’ve ever been successful talking to someone about it that isn’t as passionate about it as I am. Hm. But one thing I am convinced of is that it can be a great way to learn how to read for younger people. This is, well, obviously because it has actual reading of words. However, it also requires reading of pictures and it requires understanding of what’s called closure (if you’ve ever read ‘Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art’ by Scott McCloud, you’ll know what I mean). This means being able to understand what happens ‘between’ panels. That’s an important cognitive ability and again I believe a very strong tool for learning to read.

I’ll quite often try to explain it from that point of view. Because if you try to talk about comics from the angle of just Batman or Superman or any of your other favorites then a lot of people react and will just say ‘oh what a childish kind of thing.’ But I would note that I happen to love Batman. I actually just had the Batman symbol tattooed on my right shoulder. I mean, should I tell you how old I am?

ZN: Sure, go ahead, I can always clean it up later in editing.
Well, I’m 47 and just got my Batman tattoo like 5 months ago. That just goes to show that part of me is still just about 14 years old.

ZN: You say your wife hates the comics world, but she is quite active in the company’s design endeavours? Is there any conflict in that regard?
Well, my wife – Lisa – is originally trained as an interior designer. That’s part of why she does so well. Plus, I think it’s also that she’s convinced that men are well...

ZN: Idiots?
Actually, now that you mention it, I’ve just been handed a note by my wife that says I’m 49, not 47. That gives you some idea of how it can really get. I’ve lost a couple of years somewhere in my drug-induced haze. But I do know that I did get a tattoo. And it doesn’t wash off.

My wife is convinced that men are much less mature than women. Ha, and as you heard, what just happened is a great way to confirm that she’s in charge and I’m just a silly child.

ZN: In the 25 years or so that you’ve been illustrating, how has your style and your methods evolved?
I majored in both illustration and design as an undergraduate and once I got out of college, I started working in both areas. But at this time, we were right in the middle of the Reagan years – which was not a good time for our industry. With that in my face, I kind of drifted towards art direction and design, you know just to be able to make a living. Lisa and I got married right out of college so I had to make some money. But between 1982 and 1987, I did very little illustration.
1987 is when the computer – at least for me – started to become a major part of how we were working. It didn’t catch on in a big way until ‘92 or ‘93 for the larger companies. But for a small place like ours, we would use that to differentiate ourselves from other companies. For us, working with computers just opened up a whole world of possibilities.

Before that I did everything with an airbrush. For me, when I first starting using
Illustrator, it was like using a giant airbrush. It was really kind of a natural extension. From there I moved into 3D work which I just loved. I loved building models and working in 3D. That actually kept me really busy and we actually did very well with that.

But I decided to go back to school in 1998 and that changed what I did and how I did it very dramatically. I had actually never painted before, you know, with actual paints and a brush. Again, I had always airbrushed everything in my analog past. I went back to get a Master’s Degree with the goal of learning how to work in that sort of classic, sort of golden age illustration mode. Plus, I really wanted to work in different areas of illustration. I was particularly interested in getting a chance to do more illustration for books. As such, I went back to school and I just started to paint.

During this period I had to spend more time writing for my thesis than I did illustrating. Still, we (the company) did have illustrations to do. So I started to paint in oils, which I’d never done before. I found it to be much more difficult than I ever imagined. But since that time, I’ve painted primarily in oils. I’ve created a working process that involves grisaille – which is basically a grey or umber under-painting with the final values in place in terms of ‘darkness’. I get that ready on the computer and then I output it on illustration board or canvas or whatever. Then I paint on top of that.

Really, I use the computer to work on the basic things, you know, where I can still use the good old ‘Undo’ button. But somehow with all this going on, I’ve been learning and teaching myself how to paint. At the same time, I’m combining these new skills with the digital skills that I already have. That’s really how then my style has developed and how my methods have changed over the years.

ZN: Where do you find yourself now in terms of having a definitive or even recognizable style?
Where I am right now is trying to develop a children’s book style that’s much more – I don’t know – I guess you could call it ‘child-friendly’. I think you can sort of see that a lot of my children’s stuff is dark or maybe darker than what you often see. I’ve decided – for me anyway – that it’s way too realistic. I’d like to get something that is much more stylized and has a happier kind of tone to it.

This is the first time I think I’ve tried to sit down and consciously invent a style. Which most people would tell you anyway is kind of impossible. That styles evolve.

ZN: Are you inventing a style or avoiding a style?
Slightly both it sounds like. Again, I’m consciously trying not to use a very realistic style. I mean, a lot of people say anyway ‘OK, these are photographs’. Well, they’re not photographs but admittedly I have a desire to make things look as real as possible. That’s been built in since I left college.

In college my stuff was much, much different. It was much more stylized, mostly because I had just come from spending most of my life drawing comic books. What I’m doing now is a conscious decision to develop a style that is more commercial in certain ways to a certain part of the children’s book industry.

ZN: In terms of your desire to illustrate very realistically, do you ever get criticised for being too realistic?
Sure, lots of people say ‘what’s the point basically? What’s the point of painting this way if I can just take a photograph?’ Hopefully, the point is that there is a certain kind of life to it even though it’s painted very realistically – which you couldn’t get otherwise in a photograph.

And I think I’ve been successful with that... most of the time. I don’t know if I can say all of the time and I certainly wouldn’t claim to be a brilliant illustrator. But I think that I’ve done reasonably well with that kind of style. But it’s also a competitive issue. There are a lot of people that work that way and are better at it than I am. it’s extremely competitive – which means there are quite a bit fewer work and project opportunities. You definitely need to find a competitive edge.

Continued in Part 2


All pictures, videos and other media are used with written permission of Jack Harris, or are available in the public domain (noting copyright and other restrictions, accordingly). No further reproduction or duplication is permitted without contacting the artist directly. For further details to illustrations, commercially available pieces, and much more, please visit .

Never Grow Old, Just Keep Growing

An Interview with Jack Harris, designer and illustrator

Part 2 of 2 (link to Part 1)
Click on any image to enlarge it to original size

ZN: Jack, with no omens intended here, can you take us a bit more through the timing then of the different stages of your computer skills development?
I was a beta tester on Illustrator ’88. I started working with Illustrator back then but it was horrible. There was no color preview. We used a Mac SE at the time, so you also had to deal with the postage stamp-sized screen. It was terrible.

But I loved creating the blends and getting that airbrushed look. In comparison to today, it really took a long time to get everything just right though. I don’t know if you experienced Illustrator in the digital dark ages, but back then it was almost a mathematical exercise. To create a blend, you had to calculate how many steps you needed across the linear distance you were working on. Get it right, and you had a fairly smooth blend. Get it wrong and you had a series of abrupt value changes. Not like now when you can just drag your cursor and automatically get a beautiful blend.

I started with the vector stuff in ’88 and I’ve worked with Illustrator since then. I do almost all my design in Illustrator. If I need to bring it into Photoshop along the way, then I will. Or, for example, I also design a publication every few months and obviously I design most of the pages with InDesign. But I still spend a lot of time in Illustrator for certain different types of typography and other things. Really almost everything else is designed in Illustrator. Plus, I did a lot of logo design earlier in my career – ideal work for a vector application.

ZN: You mention typography. This is one of my own personal favorite topics with design. I’m wondering then: do you think a designer can separate himself from typography?
Well, the answer to that is ‘absolutely not.’ I mean, design is words. There’s a real focus these days on what I’d call Photoshop ‘pyrotechnics’ and that sort of thing. But real design is about clarity of message which requires words and obviously leads to good typography or perhaps better said, a need for good typography to be used.

In college, because I took an emphasis on both design and illustration, it required 3 typography classes, which were just wonderful. I love type, I just think it’s beautiful. To me, each letter is a work of art by itself. Definitely then, my interest in type comes from school, using type for logos, and just really appreciating it.

I like to write myself. I don’t know how good I am, but I do write and I at least understand the importance of the word. But clearly, a designer uses good type to make something easier to read. That’s our job and a good type-face can make things even better than you could hope for. I guess that’s what led me then to this sensitivity to type.

ZN: With all the hands-on or even technological skills you have at your disposal, do you do any other kind of free-wheeling inventing in terms of methodologies?
Sure, but a lot of it is by accident. Because I still don’t know that much about how to technically paint. I’m sure you’ve heard of people that paint, then scan it into the computer, output it again and the continue to work on it. There are times when I’ve painted something and done the same thing, sometimes several times over. I don’t know if that’s all that radical but I like to try and keep it as close to the ‘human hand’ as possible at any given time. Although I still do a lot of painting on the computer. There are just times when it seems better suited to paint on the computer than by hand. Plus, it’s faster for me.

I think everything I do with the computer and painting is trying to overcome the things I don’t know about painting. In the beginning, when I started combining the two, I had never heard of anyone doing that. I started painting on the computer, outputting it and finishing it by hand. That’s no doubt pretty common now, but back in 1998 I think it was pretty unusual. Still, it just seemed like a natural extension of what I did before.

I guess then my direct answer to your question is: I don’t think I’m doing anything too unusual or too radical now. But I have done other things as well. Recently, I was doing a series of paintings and started using
spray-gesso through lace which makes a neat kind of texture as you overlap the patterns. Maybe lace isn’t the right word? I was using the kind of doilies like your grandmother used to have. Anyway, I’ve also done things like soaking paper in coffee or tea which gives a really neat surface to paint on.

ZN: Jumping back a bit again: you went back to school in 1998 to learn how to paint. What prompted you to go back to school?

I was 16 years into a career. I was 38 and we were doing really well, where I sort of felt like we had achieved what I wanted us to achieve. I mean, we had been in all the design annuals and more. You know, the kind of milestones that I thought were important when I was in school: to be well-known in the communication and graphic design world, even acknowledged by Graphis, you name it. We had won lots of awards for web-sites and multi-media presentations and I don’t know what else...

I just sort of felt like, well, that I had set these goals and I had reached them, but then I kind of realized that they were kind of shallow goals. Sure, we were doing well financially. But I started to think back to what I really wanted to be at age 7 and that was to be a famous comic book artist. I knew THAT wasn’t happening but I really wanted to go back to what I felt was my roots. As such, I went back to school and I got my MA in Illustration. Then I kept on going and got a Masters of Fine Arts, where I finished up in 2006, I guess. In many ways, this was really a hedge against economic disaster. You know, if I ever needed to make extra money as an educator.

By then, sadly, the business had shrunk considerably. The economy after 9-11 really hurt us a lot. I mean, we went from being a company with 3 million dollars a year in billings to 1/8th of that in the course of a year. That was very painful. Business almost ceased to exist after 9-11. Literally in a day. We tried to hang on and not lay off because you hate to do that because it’s so very, very painful. But business just didn’t get better.

I mean, even after a while everyone in the US was saying ‘oh things are great’ because the stock market was going back up. But as we know now, that was all smoke and mirrors. It wasn’t helping those of us at the sort of normal, human level. Those of us that weren’t billionaires weren’t sharing in this renewed growth and optimism in any sense of the word.

In part then, I wanted to finish the degree for financial security reasons, as well as for my own self-fulfilment I guess. Plus, I thought it would give me the opportunity to teach – if I wanted to teach – at a level that was commensurate with my interests.

ZN: Looking at your various works, I am curious if you approach the process of creating a portrait of an actual person differently that say a painting for a children’s story?
If it’s a portrait, yes. If you look at any of the portraits, you can see that the focus is trying to make that person seem ‘alive’. To get that, well, to me it’s in some ways like film, I guess, where you’re trying to suspend disbelief. You’re trying to take something and to get an emotion out of it.

With the children’s illustrations, you’re looking for movement, real action. A real sense of something that’s kinetic. Having said that, I’m trying to think of the children’s stuff I display on my web-site. I’m not sure that the examples I include exhibit that really as much as I’d like! But that is becoming more apparent as I’ve worked and spoken with art directors in the field. That this sense of movement is extremely important. As such, I’ve been looking for a much more active sense, much more active pictures.

ZN: Again, looking at many of the examples you do have up, several of the children’s illustrations are very dark or very realistic. In many ways at least to me, the children’s illustrations call forth the most emotion, perhaps because they call out to some of the stronger memories I have from my own childhood (being sick, being scared, etc.).
I guess something like that isn’t approached too much differently. The children’s illustrations I have up are indeed in many ways portraits – albeit perhaps a portrait of a sick kid or something else we can all perhaps more readily identify with. For example, when I illustrated the kid with the sarcophagus, I approached that in a way where I was trying to put in a real sense of action and mystery. From that perspective, I think it has a different approach compared to the portraits.

For example, I did some illustrations one time for a book where a little white boy (during the Civil War) tries to sneak his best friend, a little black boy, out of slavery. At one point, he’s caught by bounty hunters and there’s a scene where the bad guy has a gun up to the little kid’s head. That image is as much a portrait as anything else. But I was hoping for something that at least had more ‘implied’ action. You know, getting across that the kids just been grabbed and here’s this guy trying to put a gun up to his head, that moment of intense action.

I really liked that idea for a painting. But I guess for obvious reasons that image was rejected. It was just too dark and maybe a little too real for a kid’s book.

ZN: When you are however painting portraits, what criteria do you use to decide on the level of caricaturization compared to a more realistic depiction?
I think by their personalities, first of all. Like the portraits of Mike Tyson and Osama Bin Laden are very strongly intended to be caricatures, although for very different reasons. I mean, in the case of Tyson, he is a caricature. I felt like painting him relatively ‘straight’ was keeping in line with his personality.

In the case of the Bin Laden piece, well, I’ve had a lot of people react very unfavorably to this piece. Some just think I’ve painted him in a way that he is too sympathetic, even though this was not my intention at all. I mean, he’s caricatured simply because people see him already in a certain way. In so many ways, he’s bigger than life albeit for a very evil reason. It’s just that many people simply don’t think of him as human. Instead, I caricatured him looking somewhat... well, let’s say I didn’t do it in what I think was an obvious way. I didn’t paint him looking like Satan or something, because people already see him that way. There’s no point in trying to do it that way. Instead, I tried painting him relatively straight and have people project into him their own point of view.

Unfortunately, a lot of people projected into it this idea that I had tried to make Bin Laden look compassionate. But that wasn’t it at all. My point is simply: people already hate him. There’s no point in trying to make him look like more of a bad guy, because he already is THE bad guy.

ZN: Looking at your political paintings: John McCain’s portrait is an obvious caricature, but with Hillary Clinton, I’m not sure. She seems to be slightly ‘swollen’ and with the strong orange background, I find myself thinking she looks like the spokesperson for Pumpkin Growers of America. Then again, Barack Obama is just, well, there.
Each of those are very calculated political statements on my part. During the last election, I really felt strongly about Obama, I was a little bit ambivalent about Mrs. Clinton and McCain, well... Though I will say that I actually liked McCain from his 2000 run for the Presidency. Back then I though he was really out to do the right thing. Then in 2008, he was just basically a straw man. He was in search of a brain in the worst kind of way.

I’m very political, and my wife and I are both very politically active. These were therefore paintings that I approached very much in order to express my own political views.

ZN: What is the difference in your approach to a children’s book vs. something like ‘Packed with Poisons’? Granted, I’m sure my own kids would much prefer the latter to a good, ‘innocent’ bed-time story...
Yeah, for little boys, the ‘Poisons’ book was great. And in this case – well, let me preface my answer by saying I love animals. But I have a horrible fear of spiders so painting those was really no fun.

I would say though that in terms of my approach, the biggest difference is really a practical one. The poisonous animals project required a lot of research. I think I had 9 months to complete my work and literally 6 months of that was spent doing nothing else but research. Which is really not all that much fun. it’s not really what I want to do. On the other hand, with an illustration for a story, okay, there may be some research involved – but for the most part you’re just getting in there and trying to make a great picture.

ZN: Looking back again – whether it was 40 or 42 years ago is really immaterial – but did you have any main influences in terms of starting out in illustration? For example, you wrote a few years back a
really nice review of the career of Andrew Loomis. Was he a major influence on you?
I wasn’t influenced by him, no. I discovered Andrew Loomis in my Masters program, I had never heard of him before that. I actually learned of him through a couple of different people from the comics side of my life. They first introduced me and I became more and more interested in both him and his work, which is how he became the subject of my paper.

But my real influences – probably starting at age 14, I guess – came about when a friend of the family gave me a book on
J.C. Leyendecker. I copied his work over and over for years. I just love it, even to this day. It’s realistic but it’s also very stylized and graphic. His work was always a huge influence.

I don’t know though if you can look at my work and say that you can see that, but that was all I thought about when I drew a picture, was his work. I was influenced I guess a little bit as well by Norman Rockwell. Well, maybe. Although I like the stylized work of Leyendecker much better. He would be for me the proverbial ‘One’ really and I still admire his work so much. A definitive book of his work is pretty much always open in my studio.

As far as influences from the comics world go, well, definitely
Jack ‘King’ Kirby for sure. Kirby was and still is the greatest. At one point, I had quite a few of his originals, before they were worth anything, many of which I’ve given some of these away over the years as gifts. But his work with things like the Fantastic Four and especially the very early part of his run at DC were huge for me, especially ‘The Demon’ (ZN: ditto).

And Jack Kirby also just seemed to be a great person, too, even though I never met him. Plus, I just think that he – and now his family, too – never got the credit he was due. Especially now when you see how much money these franchises bring in. I guess though that everybody, every comic book artists says at some point that Kirby influenced them.

Another influence would be a kind of weird one. I don’t know if you’ve heard of
George Wunder, but he too over for Milton Caniff on ‘Terry and the Pirates’ when Caniff left to do ‘Steve Canyon’. But Wunder had this very, very strange drawing style. I mean, my wife just thinks it’s absolutely one of the ugliest things she’s ever seen. But he was a virtuoso inker, he did just incredible inking. I think I have about 30 or 35 originals of his and I love how bizarre the drawing is. I don’t know how he did it, it’s such an uncontrolled style. it’s definitely nothing like Kirby, who sort of designed his illustrations. Wunder just seems like he’s somebody that couldn’t draw that well, but he could ink incredibly well. I just think it’s beautiful even if it is peculiar looking.

ZN: What moved you to co-author the book, ‘
Vector Graphics and Illustration: A Master Class in Digital Image-making’?
Steven Withrow, who has done other books as well on the subject of illustration, actually called Charley Parker and asked if he knew anyone who knew anything about Illustrator, so he recommended me. I guess there’s not really an interesting story in that regard in terms of how I got involved.

Doing the book itself was really a [long pause, even for Jack]... it wasn’t any fun, I’ll say that. The amount of work required and the compensation for doing that were so out of whack, that I really got frustrated as I went along. When we started the thing and agreed on a price to do it, I didn’t have any idea that I’d be doing what I did there. Which was essentially illustrating AND demonstrating every aspect of that program. It was much more involved than I could have ever anticipated.

Now that it’s done and I have a year or 2 years, I guess, distance from finishing it, I’m really glad that I did it. But boy, it was a chore. Still, it’s cool to know that I have a couple of colleagues that use it in their classrooms.

It’s like this: one of the frustrations of doing it is that it was really supposed to be for beginners and just an introduction to this stuff. But as we went along it got changed to like it says in the title: ‘A Master Class ...’. But it was never supposed to be anything close to being intended for a ‘master’s class’. It was really just supposed to help people get started off. And sure, it starts off that way and describes what the differences are between a bitmap and vector graphics. That was really supposed to be it’s job, to make a strong differentiation between the two forms and show what vectors could do differently to bitmaps. But it ended up being a feature-by-feature demonstration essentially of Illustrator.

ZN: But it still seems to be quite popular.
Yeah, it does. I’m really glad that people use it and find it useful. I’m proud of it. Again, I’m glad that we did it. It’s just... it’s one of those things that the process was somewhat painful, I guess. When you spend a year and a half doing something, you’d like the process to be somewhat more enjoyable.

ZN: Looking at your ‘professional’ ventures, what were your main targets in forming Eureka in 1987?
Eureka was actually born after 2001. The actual design firm that we founded and started was called ‘Orbit Integrated’. We had a large staff and a very different kind of focus that I couldn’t do anymore without the resources we had within that organization. However, like I said, sadly that company essentially ceased to exist after 9-11. So I decided to change things and refocus more on an area I thought we could compete in more readily. Where Orbit did full branding campaigns and very, very large web-sites and programs, we just couldn’t keep doing that and weren’t able to it anymore, even if we wanted to.

Instead, we wanted to focus on what I felt was my strongest suit which was good ideas that were applied with real imagination. The concept of applied imagination actually comes from a book by
Alex F. Osborne, who was really the guy that kind of originated the whole idea of brain-storming. He was an account executive that kind of set up the rules of brainstorming in the 1950’s and really set up the process of formal idea generation within an ad agency. In fact he wrote a book called ‘Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Problem Solving’.

Our concept was that the company would just focus on great ideas. That’s what prompted Eureka: the smaller size and the desire – and need – to re-focus.

ZN: I’m curious then: how does one go about selling great ideas?
I hope by demonstration. If we’re not able to do that, they we’re really in trouble! In terms of our ‘sales pitch’, well, my wife Lisa does a lot of networking basically. When you get right down to it – and I’m sure everyone experiences this as well in their own endeavours – everything is based on relationships. It’s no mystery.

It doesn’t matter then what I say about the work we do, it’s more important that we have the relationships that we have built. Lisa is simply a master relationship builder and that’s really the secret behind any kind of success we’ve ever had. She is gregarious and friendly and she’s just a really nice person. And that comes across whenever she meets people.

ZN: She’s not standing there with another PostIt note for you, is she?
No, no, that’s my own answer and it’s definitely sincere and from the heart!

It really is true, though. Her sister, Linda, also worked with us for about 6 years and she’s the same way. She’s just great with people. In many ways, I guess you could probably consider me to be the dancing monkey around here that does some design work – which they are still able to sell somehow.

ZN: On your ‘corporate’ web-site, you state that when the company was founded, that you ‘believed firmly in three things: the power of integrated marketing communications, the value of great ideas, and the potential of technology.’ How well do you think you and your team have been able to stick with these ideals?
I think really, really well. Especially up until I’d say just after the Y2K ‘crisis’ where our technological interests really had a tremendous impact on what we did and what we recommended to people relative to their web-sites. Back then we were always one step ahead of other companies in terms of what we understood about the technology, which really gave us a competitive edge. Just as when I started the business, my knowledge, understanding and passion for the technology gave me an edge because I was the only person out there working on a computer. This served very well until everybody else caught up.

Now though I think one of the things I try to get across with Eureka is that it’s not enough to have the technology: you need to have the imagination to use it as well. Anybody today could take a course in Photoshop and create nice blends or use (and abuse) endless filters. But it takes something much more involved than that to do anything meaningful with it!

It’s just gotten to the point though where technology in and of itself – even the knowledge of the technology – really doesn’t matter that much anymore.

ZN: And that’s why it boils down to great ideas?
I think so. At some point or another, the software and the hardware and all of that kind of stuff becomes self-limiting. If I don’t have a good idea, it doesn’t matter how shiny I can make something.

ZN: How have you managed over the years then to balance your professional interests with your own personal creative targets?
Hm, not very well. I haven’t gotten nearly as much ‘creative stuff’ done as I would have liked. But really, usually I’ve managed to balance the two pretty well. I work a long day and I do try to schedule the day between the two things: you know, work until about 4 o’clock in the afternoon on design, eat something, and then go back and work on an illustration.

I think it’s basically the same way we all try to organize our lives. You do what you kind of have to do and then you set that aside and do what you want to do. I try to strike then as much of a balance as I can. Unfortunately, in the last year I haven’t been successful at that. But again, in order to try and make up for that, I’ve been taking some painting classes so that I’m forced to set aside that time. I’m also hoping that in the process I’ll actually learn how to paint.

ZN: Jack, one last question: If you had to chose between your different ‘lives’ – that is, between being a globe-trotting creative director, a well-recognized illustrator, or a respected instructor in your region – which would you choose and why?
I’d definitely choose to be the illustrator. I mean, I just love the idea of telling stories. I’ve always been a story-teller. It seems to run in my family, too, because my brother’s a writer, as is my daughter. I just love that process.

Add to that then my love for experiencing the tactile process as well, of actually working on a piece of paper and painting or drawing. That’s really all I’ve ever thought of and wanted to do.


Jack Harris is a member of the Society of Illustrators with a BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University, an MA from Syracuse University and an MFA from Hartford Art School. Despite appearances, he is not a professional student. Throughout his 25 years or so of illustration, he has worked with a number of 3D and drawing applications, ranging from Maya, Cinema4D, Strata, Illustrator, Photoshop, Painter and anything else he could get his eager hands on. These days he is trying to learn (ha!) ‘real’ painting with oils on real paper, complimented of course by his wealth of knowledge and experience with the high-tech bits as well. We could also fill another half-page with a list of his clients and accomplishments, but we have to leave you something to search for when you visit
his site.

If Jack could leave you with anything, it would be that he remains dedicated to his one true professional love, illustration, and to his private love, his very supportive, beautiful and frighteningly good-hearing wife Lisa. Together they run Eureka and have somewhere during this wild ride also managed to produce two very talented children. When Jack is not working – whatever that might possibly entail – he likes to paint robots. Ziggy Nixon is pushing him in fact to get some of these up on the Internet as well, because quite frankly, if the office blocks YourTubesRTied, then looking at robots all day is in our humble opinion about the best way to make it through the week.


All pictures, videos and other media are used with written permission of Jack Harris, or are available in the public domain (noting copyright and other restrictions, accordingly). No further reproduction or duplication is permitted without contacting the artist directly. For further details to illustrations, commercially available pieces, and much more, please visit .

December 6, 2009

Creations to Make You Go ‘Ooh, Neat’!

An interview with plush toy and yummy bento maker, AnnaTheRed

Part 1 of 2 (Link to Part 2)
Click any picture to enlarge to original size

Unlike many of the interviews we’ve featured here at Homeland Insecurity – uh, we mean – Ziggy Nixon, today’s feature is not going to include a great amount of details about the private life and/or adventures of our featured artist, ‘Anna The Red’ or as she writes it, in line with her web-site or on-line warrior ID:
AnnaTheRed. This is simply because Ms. TheRed prefers her animalous... her amoebadiversi... her ayenonnynonny... her privacy. Instead, what we will feature today are just some really cool and fun creations that Anna has been producing over the past few years, including in Part 2 of the interview so ‘How To’ bits she recently posted. And if in the process you find yourself saying ‘ooh, neat’, well, then as they say, her work here is done.

What we have managed to gather about Anna comes in large part from her own, really-fun-to-explore personal blog: she was born in Japan and moved to the United States in 1994. Since then, she has been living and/or moving around in the state of New York, including for her art school education (more later). Like oh-so-many of her fellow classmates, she finds herself these days working in a non-art related job. But perhaps unlike oh-so-many people these days, she really enjoys what she does. However, at first glance, you may not guess correctly what it is that a full-time GM for an on-line card game called
Alteil does. Again, more later to these mysteries.

In her free time, she loves creating stuff with her hands, enjoying such cool craft-oriented hobbies as sewing, cooking, and drawing. Perhaps you’ve seen Anna’s works as she has made, quote, tons of plush toys, which she usually anyway just gives away as gifts or other little memento’s. Still, her most recent claim to fame has arisen from her new-found love for making bentos, meaning ‘lunchbox’ in Japanese, noting that apparently in the land of the Rising Son, lots of moms wake up early to make bento for their kids and their husbands. Quite often, these lunchbox treats are made to look like cute animals or characters from anime shows, so that their kids or marital units will enjoy eating healthy food. Such bento are also called either
kyaraben or charaben (character bento). Several of Anna’s creations have either found their way onto Flickr or again are presented for all to enjoy on her blog, duly noting both creation and consumption dates!

So do enjoy getting to know the fun stuff that AnnaTheRed fills her time with, and remember: every single reference, picture, character and most likely even word of this interview is copyrighted by someone else, and should in no way be used otherwise for your own financial gain! Including that. And that, too.

Ziggy Nixon: Hi Anna. I’m curious as well where your alias middle and last name’s came from, namely, ‘The’ and ‘Red’? Call me crazy (go ahead, I’ll wait) but I don’t usually associate anyone of Japanese heritage with monikers along the lines of ‘The Red’ (axe-wielding, grog-drinking Viking invaders, yes, but not anyone who is pictured on-line standing with a large pink bunny, no)?

AnnaTheRed: I have a full-time job as a translator/creative producer at my company, and I just want to keep my professional and creative side separate. Besides, the Internet is a scary place...

As for the origin of the name ... well, let's just say it's got something to do with

Ziggy Nixon: Can you share a little more about your studies in New York?
AnnaTheRed: I studied Fine Arts / Sculpture at the
School of Visual Arts in New York City, majoring in sculpture and video installation. I love NYC, and I picked SVA because it was simply cheaper than other art schools for Fine Arts.

Ziggy Nixon: Granted you’ve stated that you did not wind up in an ‘art-related’ job, but with your work with ‘bento’ – which I’ll use for the sake of brevity to encompass both ‘kyaraben’ or ‘charaben’ in this set of questions – and also plush toys, do you not (still) consider yourself a ‘designer’ or ‘artist’ in some / many ways?
AnnaTheRed: I don't consider myself an artist. I'm just crafty. But, I also consider myself to be very lazy.

You see, I don’t think I'm very good at creating something original, but I'm good at making stuff based on something. This is probably because I went to an art academy in Japan – which was a school where you studied very hard for your entrance exams for college – and all I did there was to draw Greek busts and still-life’s all day long, 5 days a week for a year and a half.

Ziggy Nixon: How has then your background-slash-education in sculpture and video installation influenced your various hobbies and / or day job?
AnnaTheRed: I loved art school, but I realized that I was more crafty than artsy. I always preferred something that actually had a shape rather than paintings. I like figuring out how the shape is formed.

That's why most of my bento is 3D and not 2D. I also made video installations but I don't do any video editing anymore now. At the art school, I had to use Final Cut Pro on Mac (I'm a PC person) and when I applied for the job at my current company, they needed someone who knew a little bit of Japanese and Final Cut Pro. So you can say that my video installation experience helped me get a job.

Ziggy Nixon: Also, ‘sculpture and video installation’ – that’s an interesting pair of study areas to be sure. How did you come to go in this direction(s)?
AnnaTheRed: As I mentioned before, I like making something that has a shape and figuring out how the shape is formed.

Still, I started doing video installation because I just couldn't afford the materials to make sculptures. I was very broke when I was in school and was living off the money my parents sent me. However, since I was a foreign student, I wasn't legally allowed to have a job off campus. I thought I'd rather spend the time on actually making stuff than working at a library or cafeteria. So I used to use most of my food money to buy materials.

But one day, I learned that the sculpture studio had a projector. I thought it'd be cheaper to make a video and project it onto something or perform in the video. This wound up being really fortunate for me, because performance was accepted in my sculpture major. It turned out I was pretty good with video installations.
So, my friend at school and I started a video club in SVA, and the school started putting more money into video equipment in the sculpture studio. My works at the senior year open studio were both video installations.

Ziggy Nixon: How did you get started making ‘bento’s’?
AnnaTheRed: One day I made a chicken made out of a hard boiled egg, and octopus made out of a sausage, and put them in my boyfriend's lunch box. He went "awwwwww" when he saw it, and that's how it started.

Ziggy Nixon: Has this ever had a commercial side to it for you?
AnnaTheRed: I've never made bentos for sale. I’m not saying that I won’t ever do it, though.

Ziggy Nixon: Making sculptures which are then to be eaten seems to lack a sense of permanence that most sculptors seek. Is there anyway that you could, I don’t know, preserve them for posterity? Freeze them in Transparent Carbonite maybe?
AnnaTheRed: NEVER. Food is meant to be eaten! And I don't like wasting food.

Ziggy Nixon: Why do you focus so much on anime or science fiction themes?
AnnaTheRed: Because that's what my boyfriend likes. Fortunately, I like them as well and it makes it easier for me to make them.

Ziggy Nixon: Is that similar as well in Japan or what would be the main themes in use there?
AnnaTheRed: I'm sure everyone in Japan loves
Totoro, and it's used very often in bento.

But my other bento that are based on games which are rated for mature audiences including BioShock, Half-Life, Portal, etc. ... are definitely not the popular themes in Japan.

Since kyaraben (bento with characters like my bento) is usually intended more for kindergarten aged children, then characters from
Pokemon, Disney, and Kamen Rider seem to be much more popular.

Ziggy Nixon: I don’t want to stay too serious about the topic for too long – it just seems to be so fun is why – but how focused are you on the overall nutrition of the lunch set-ups?
AnnaTheRed: Nutrition is probably the most important thing for the bento I make. Bento is all about nutrition and portion.

I always try to put the right amount of rice, veggies, meat or fish in the bentos I make for my boyfriend.

Ziggy Nixon: What about publishing your work into a book? Has this avenue opened itself up to you yet?
AnnaTheRed: Yes it has, in fact, I’ve received several offers. But it seems like the publishers and/or editors in the United States have no clue when it comes to publishing, quote, a ‘book of creations based on copyright protected characters.’

You see, I work for a company which deals with licensing Japanese anime. So I'm very, very aware of the consequences of making profits off from copyright characters without any permission from the original creator of the character or the copyright holder. In the case of getting asked to make a book, I always ask the publishers what they will do about the copyright. However, they usually say ‘It should be fine’ ... and that's not good enough for me.

If you look at Japanese kyaraben books (not bento books), they always have copyright information below the pictures. Some say it's probably a different case in the U.S.; but the last thing I want to do is to tick off
Miyazaki with my bento. If I ever do publish a book I want the publishers/editors to be 200% sure about the copyright.

Ziggy Nixon: Whereas the bento boxes seem to gain the most publicity, I am absolutely enthralled with your fantastic plush characters! How did these come about?
AnnaTheRed: My mom used to collect teddy bears, so I used to make them for her. One time I made the character my friend liked for her as a Christmas present. She really loved it, and that's how I started making different plushes for my friends. Nothing more, really. It's like baking a cake for a special occasion.

Ziggy Nixon: Again – and I mean no disrespect to you or your friendly neighbourhood
Nerd Blogger – a lot of these are very fantasy game and / or anime oriented in theme. Why is that?
AnnaTheRed: Most of my plushes are based on characters from American cartoons, actually. Many of my early plushes were the characters designed by
Jhonen Vasquez, and now I'm very in to the characters designed by Dan Paladin, the art director of the game company, The Behemoth.

Also, I seem to really like characters that have a huge head and big eyes (huge eyes + big eyes being the main ingredients of cuteness). I got to meet Dan at a convention. He and everyone at the Behemoth were super nice, so I made plushes for Dan's birthday.

I also made prototypes of four anime characters my company holds the license of to be mass produced before, but that was just a business, and it wasn't a very fun process.

Ziggy Nixon: Again (Part 2, ‘Again’s Revenge’) – I also see that you rarely (never?) offer these plush creatures – or to use the proper vernacular – ‘plush stuff’ for commercial promotion. Why is that?
AnnaTheRed (shown here at left relaxing after a day of battling, with her equally approachable boyfriend below): If you're talking about selling my plushes I make to someone, I have one word for you, and that word is again COPYRIGHT. Say if I ever decide to sell a ‘Master Chief’ plush to someone, it's very possible that I'll be fined and sued by Microsoft BIG TIME.

A lot of people take copyright law very lightly (as you can see on Etsy), but it can really be scary and may cost you a lot of money. Some characters are owned by many different people and companies too. So, if one person said it's okay, that really doesn't mean I have the legal right to sell them.

Another thing is that it's just not respectful for the original creator to make profit that way. That's why I give them away to the people who I know for sure that won't sell them on eBay later.

Ziggy Nixon: Again (Part 3, ‘The Final Tolerated Usage of This Bloody Word’) – it seems at least from your blog entry about same, that these are produced using a very much design-oriented and structured process. Is this more of a hobby for you or is your inner creative side trying to free itself from the shackles of whatever kind of shackles you might be wearing?
AnnaTheRed: It's both my hobby and a way to stay creative.

Ziggy Nixon: As a pretty well-trained lazy person myself (I indeed have a black pillow in Aey Lai Dowan), I know something about the art form. Why do you consider yourself so ‘lazy’, which seems in contradiction for your non-idle handiwork and blog updates?
AnnaTheRed: I really am, otherwise I'd be blogging everyday.

Ziggy Nixon: I’m also curious about your day job. Can you explain to the uninitiated what is offered by an ‘on-line card game’ company like Alteil?
AnnaTheRed: Like you said, it's an on-line card game (no trading) which my company brought to the U.S. from Japan a little more than a year ago. It runs in Flash, so nothing to download, and anyone can get a free account with 50 cards. You can also earn in-game money by playing a mini-game. The card art on Alteil is done by various talented Japanese artists.

Ziggy Nixon: Concerning this, when I read your biography, I naturally assumed that you were the GM = General Manager of same. However, I instead see that this is apparently a shared-duty that you participate in along with such characters such as Lupos, GaoGaiGirl, Logress, DWildstar, EdgarFigaro and Arakis. To my questions: what is it that exactly you and this interestingly monikered group of compatriots do?

AnnaTheRed: ‘GM’ stands for ‘Game Master’. GMs act as the organizers, arbitrators, and officials in rules situations in the game.

Everyone on the Alteil staff have multiple tasks, and one of them is to be a GM. So we have to do regular work and play the game as well. However, I have to point out that it’s not as fun as it sounds though.

Ziggy Nixon: Granted you’re having fun and doing well at Alteil, but have you ever considered switching to a career more focused on your obvious creative skills?
AnnaTheRed: I’m not sure if I would want to make a living using my creative skills. I like what I do. I've been working for the same company for 8 years now, and I'm very comfortable with the people I work with.

But if I had to pick, I think I’d like to maybe work as a plush prototype maker for cartoons or games. Hm, still, that would probably be freelance and as such not very stable financially.

Ziggy Nixon: Just as a little game, let’s say you’ve just won the Nobel Peace Prize in the new field of ‘Improving Mankind Through Bento and Soft Cute Things.’ What would you do with your prize money and why?
AnnaTheRed: I should say stuff like ‘buy a life sized Gundam’ or something silly like that. But in reality, I'd just take my boyfriend to Japan in the first class, you know, and just travel all around Japan. I've never travelled that much in Japan, and there are so much more to see and eat there.

So yeah, I'd rather use the money for experiencing and eating different things than buying stuff. I'm sure we could blow away a LOT of money really fast in Japan.

Ziggy Nixon: Finally, what could you tell us that you’ve never mentioned before in an interview that will neither ruin your career nor relationship, land you in jail, get you deported, etc. (not necessarily in that order)?
AnnaTheRed: Anything red is 3 times faster!

Continued in Part 2, including details on ‘How To’ for plush doll making and also bento preparation!

Extra Credit:
See her slice, see her dice!!

A little while ago, Anna was asked to make a promotional bento video for ‘Create a video of you building the Google Chrome Icon’ event by Google. So here she is making a Google Chrome Icon bento, noting she really does work this fast! (Additional Editor’s note: kids, do not try this at home without proper supervision by an adult or otherwise primarily sober person!)

All pictures and images used in this interview are the sole property of AnnaTheRed and/or the original copyright holders. No further use or other reproduction of this material is allowed without expressed written consent of AnnaTheRed. No financial gain or other promotional benefits were obtained through this publication. Microsoft has people that will come into your house at night and steal your harddrive if you copy any of this stuff. Seriously. And don't even get me started about the Japanese gaming folks, that's way to scary to even begin to describe.