Monday, July 2, 2012

ICON, as The Illustration Conference, review by Anne Telford

ICON, as The Illustration Conference has now come to be known, always offers a plethora of opportunities to connect, reconnect, and learn. ICON 7, “Drawn Together,” was held in Providence, RI, at the Renaissance Downtown, a beautiful old hotel with a lively downstairs bar and a rich Masonic history. This conference, or convocation of creativity as I like to think of it, was nearly perfect. The blend of speakers and topics was engaging, heartfelt, and humorous, and the charming theatre in which the main sessions were held was cozy and colorful—no freezing hotel ballrooms with blinding crystal chandeliers but a real theatre that held one’s respect and interest.

Rather than go into depth about any one presentation, I’ve searched my notes to glean some words of wisdom from a wealth of inspiring speakers.

ICON president Jon Hendrix informed the rapt audience on the first day, “illustration is culture.” Further, he said that illustration is a powerful, profound, and unpretentious shaper of our visual lives, and that illustrators should think of themselves as nothing less than a “lethal cultural chisel”!

Vanessa Bertozzi of Etsy, in the opening night keynote panel—“Power of Communities”—said that today’s illustrator must be a PR, marketing entrepreneur as well. Charles Adler of Kickstarter, the funding platform for creative projects, said it has successfully funded 24,000 projects totaling $250 million dollars. This inclusive topic got things off to a great start, and the mingling began when the audience was invited onstage to party with Big Nazo and the What Cheer! Brigade—a crazed local ensemble of outrageously costumed performers and musical troupe heavy on the horns.

Several speakers reiterated the advice to “put your name on it”. Be sure to identify yourself to new viewers, e.g., Twitter. This went hand in hand with the caveat: Leverage your playing field. If you are playing in lots of sandboxes, make sure the return is worth the effort.

The delightful Jessica Hische (always fashionable, and swears like a sailor) exhorted, “Learn what you need to learn to make what you want to make.” And, “Make things you wish existed.” She also gave valuable tips on organizing the avalanche of emails that many of us find overwhelming. She divides hers into four categories: Client/Worky/Lifey/Friendly. I’m still trying to figure out my categories …

One of the most informative speakers was attorney Linda Joy Kattwinkel who spoke on “Inspiration or Infringement.” The subject of copyright infringement can put a caffeinated audience to sleep if left to the wrong speaker. Ms. Kattwinkel has the enviable title of Hello Kitty’s litigator, so you know she doesn’t mess around! For something to be fair use, it must be a parody or comment on or criticism of the copyrighted work. To be transformative, something new must be added that has a further purpose or different character. Ask yourself, what’s the nature of your work? Is it commercial? 

Tommy Lee Edwards urged attendees to “learn new languages and broaden your horizons. Create your own content. Drawing is your language, learn to speak fluently.” 

Writer Matthew Swanson and illustrator Robbi Behr, the folks from Idiots’ Books, were wonderful. They were funny, inspiring, and cogently presented their business model which is based on subscriptions = no debt and artistic freedom. They found that saying yes provided them with unexpected opportunity. They also equate doggedness with success. Check out

The closing party, The Moth Ball (named in honor of Chris Buzelli’s gorgeous conference poster sporting fanciful moths over downtown Providence) drew the masses back on stage to dance to Moon Hooch, the funky New York City jazz trio, whose drummer, James Muschler, is ICON past-president Cathie Bleck’s talented son. The band, blowing up in NYC due to amazing busking performances gone viral, were booked by ICON executive director Mark Heflin, with no knowledge of the band’s illustration world ties. Serendipity all the way around.

Happy, exhausted people scattered to train home, or fly to far-flung destinations. Some, reluctant to leave, stayed on to visit friends and explore the coast. All took away good memories, new information, and new friends. Old friendships blossomed over dinners and drinks and late night conversations at the bar. ICON, once again, brought hundreds away from drawing tables and computers and out of their studios and homes to gather together to celebrate the role that illustration plays in our world, and to honor creativity and originality. 

Matt Groening, creator of the Simpsons, and Jo Ann

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