Why draw the Line? Fine Art vs. Humor & Illustration vs. Cartoon

Why is this man smiling?

Fine Art makes you think, feel, change. It calls you to action, or draws out emotion…It opens doors for its viewers, helping them get someplace they may not be able to access by themselves.

Illustration tells a story, reflects a thought, a situation, emotion…It also opens doors for its viewers in the same ways.

I was 14 when my brother Doug took off from Kennedy Airport for Europe with the car keys in his pocket. My other brother Gordie and I were stranded on the wrong side of Manhattan with nothing but time.

I’m a big fan of people watching, and Kennedy is a great place to do it. While waiting for a new set of keys to arrive, I sketched. And sketched, for hours. My approach to drawing doesn’t generally compliment anyone, and in fact I prefer to draw people with more extreme features and details. So I did.

Later I gathered all those drawings together into a very large piece of black and white art that reflected a very diverse (and rather funny) crowd.

I entered this large piece in a juried art exhibit at a New Jersey College. It was accepted and I was delighted. After they hung the show, the judges got into a heated debate….Was my piece Fine Art, or was it (Say it isn’t SO!) ….Cartoon? They discussed removing it from the Fine Art Exhibit.

When I heard of the judges’ dilemma, I was perplexed…Who cares?

I believe in the wisdom of young people, especially very young people, when it comes to art. In the course of teaching, I see that self-consciousness, vanity and the desire for a polished and socially acceptable final product begins to get in the way of freedom of expression as a student becomes older. Emily begins to worry about what Michelangelo next to her thinks, and she stops thinking for herself. Fast forward thirty years…Adults judging art are like adults judging a lot of things…based on something someone once said with great authority and very little else, the rules were laid down and no one really knows why.

What would the issue be if the experts agreed that fine art could contain humor, even humorous “style” and still be respectable as fine art? What if illustration accepted into its hallowed halls “cartoon” work without labeling it so?

Illustration: Drew Friedman. New Yorker cover. January 26, 2009

There are places where the merging of humor and art are succeeding. The world of published imagery is quickly expanding with the emergence of new styles of graphic novels for middle readers and adults (American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang), and very painterly but funny picture books for young children (Interrupting Chicken, by David Ezra Stein). I collect picture books, often just because the art is fascinating. I see fine art that makes me howl, often done by artists who make their living both as illustrators and as fine artists, for example Hal Mayforth.

I’m now in my mid-fifties, and have always made art. All kinds of art. I haven’t always known how to label myself. For years I was an Illustrator. A Muralist. A Designer-of-This-and-of-That. Nowadays I just reply “Artist.” I still get occasional feedback “This art is cartoony.” I used to defend it, try to make it less so, make it fit in. As the years go by, I don’t see why the line can’t be erased between humor and the rest of art. What are people afraid of?

One of our strongest tools as artists for reaching out is humor. Humor breaks down barriers; makes content accessible and sometimes more provocative. Humor opens doors.

image credits:,

Why you need a corporate art consultant in this economy?

In this economy, you need a corporate art buyer more than ever. Here’s why:

  1. You are interested but you are too busy
  2. Your background doesn’t include an education or understanding of art
  3. Morale, productivity, or communication is lagging in your company
  4. The spaces your employees occupy do not reflect the feel or brand of the company
  5. Your spaces don’t reflect the quality of your company’s products or standards
Corporate Art at NRG: Acrobat

Corporate Art can be playful like this sculpture by Ruth Hamilton

Morale and the health of its employees is a major concern for NRG Systems in Hinesburg, Vermont, and they address it in all aspects of their environment. They just recently won another of many awards for having a healthy workplace. They offer incentives for employees who bike to work and make personal choices that reduce their carbon footprint. Healthy lunches are prepared on site so that employees not only make good dietary choices, but have the opportunity to gather daily and eat together, encouraging impromptu communication among the staff. Art throughout the site is another of these conscious choices to enrich the work environment, stimulate thought, and encourage communication.

Corporate Art at NRG: Forest Entry

Corporate Art can have a calming, welcoming effect. This painting by David Smith hangs in the employee entrance at NRG.

Worldview and sensitivity to the environment are important to NRG. They design and produce high-tech instruments that collect environmental data for wind energy sites. The owner, Jan Blittersdorf, a real “left brainer,” is also passionate about art. She claims to know little about the history, trends or movements in the fine art world, and so she respects and welcomes my knowledge and guidance regarding art. I am grateful for the flow of my own work into her buildings. However, a few years ago I asked her if she could begin to consider other artists’ work as well for her spaces (you may ask what am I, nuts?).

Let me say that these buildings are special. They are cutting edge works of LEEDS certified green engineering and architecture. The visuals are clean and modern, but not without a blend of stunning natural materials that reflect a sense of our place here in Vermont.

NRG uses my familiarity with both their world and the art world, to do something they lack the time or the knowledge to accomplish…To grace their workspace with visual elements that:

  • Express their priorities and missions in different ways
  • Improve the experience of their daily work environment
  • Offer a richer environment to frequent visitors to NRG
  • Bolster employee morale and productivity by providing a work environment in which employees like to spend time
  • Provide NRG an investment in fine art for the future
  • Connect NRG with its broader community by collecting the work of many Vermont artists

Good ideas in this economy.

Five reasons you should buy expensive art for your corporation…And five reasons you shouldn’t


5 Reasons Why You Should Buy Expensive Art for your Corporation:

  1. As a financial investment
  2. To impress and intrigue your customers
  3. To install pride among your employees
  4. To draw attention and admiration to your corporate spaces
  5. To emphasize or illustrate the feel or brand of your company

5 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Buy Expensive Art for your Corporation:

  1. Too expensive/No budget for it
  2. Too time-consuming
  3. You lack the knowledge or education to select art
  4. You don’t trust your sense of what makes art “good”
  5. You don’t see how it will prove its worth

Much “world class” art develops its value and public presence essentially by branding, in some ways like a corporation or a politician does.  Name recognition is key for an artist to rise to the top of the heap, and for art buyers to know that they are purchasing pieces that will be fine investments.

In fact, it can get ridiculous. Often collectors have buyers purchasing art based on an artist’s name recognition alone, nabbing pieces that they haven’t even seen for incredibly high figures. The gulch between those artists earning massive incomes and those barely making a living is deep. At this high level the fine art market is difficult to understand.

Vermont isn’t far from New York geographically. However the values, budgets, and tastes are worlds apart. So, although one aspect of my collecting is about making good investments for my client, other aspects are very important in the choices we make.

My clients have their own individual tastes. I am selecting art not only for them but for a diverse group of individuals who frequent the buildings.  Finding art that pleases everyone in that group would be impossible. Art that engages some and not others is inevitable.

When I purchase art for NRG I seek a broad variety, both meaningfully and visually, so that employees who live with this art every day may be in turn confronted, broadened, confounded, provoked, and comforted by different pieces.

I have learned as I add new art to the collection that a variety of feedback, not always positive or comfortable, is encouraging because it means that people are seeing the art, interpreting it, and responding to it. This is what art is about, to open doors for people and suggest new ways of looking at life…not always a comfortable thing.

Environmental activist and writer Bill McKibben spoke at the opening of the second building.  He said this about my own commissioned artwork there:

“Corporate art is usually chosen to be as bland and inoffensive as possible–decoration, not something integral to the mission of the company. To walk around the NRG buildings and see Sarah-Lee Terrat’s installations, is to understand that this is a company that really is on the cutting edge, that’s fighting for the future and not pulling punches. It’s brave stuff, as well as beautiful.”

I’ve never received a more meaningful response than that. I understand why art often has to risk offending no one. Seeking art for that purpose is not terribly challenging, and can be fun. To have the opportunity to create and purchase art that has meaning and emotion, tells stories, and provokes response is by comparison risky. But it is much more compelling to me and to the people for whom I provide art.

How to buy and commission corporate art: the NRG way

Corporate Art at NRGA long time Vermont artist, I am fairly new to corporate art consulting, but I do know how it’s done. The best way is the NRG way, from the ground up.

NRG Systems, Inc., a leading edge wind energy technology company in Hinesburg, Vermont, hired me over a period of ten years (to date) to design and construct several permanent fine art installations at their corporate headquarters. Over a decade their complex has doubled in size. They commissioned me to create new fine art pieces each time they planned new construction. A successful, forward thinking corporation, NRG utilizes art as part of its broad commitment to bolster morale, productivity, creativity and communication among its workforce.

Years of working through projects with NRG have produced a mutual trust, a knowledge of each others’ strengths, and a feel for their tastes and priorities.

NRG invited me to join a team of architects, engineers, and employees from the beginning of the planning process prior to construction of each of their buildings. My own design work developed in concert with all visual and technical elements of the project.

As a result, the final product, art and building, were conceived simultaneously and the art became an integral part of the building. This is an ideal situation for a commissioned artist, one that rarely happens because art is brought in as an afterthought.