There’s a way to be a cartoonist without ever spilling a drop of ink. “Most comics are done completely digitally these days,” says Jamie Chase, a local illustrator who works with respected publishers such as Dark Horse Comics. He hasn’t hopped on the digital bandwagon, though. His propensity for putting pen to paper is linked to the other masks he wears: fine artist and gallerist.
Chase exhibits his figurative and abstract paintings at Mill Contemporary on Canyon Road. He also co-directs City of Mud (1114-A Hickox St., 954-1705), which opened in October 2015 to spotlight artists who eschew Santa Fe's notorious regional style for aesthetics that are making waves on the national contemporary art scene. The gallery's never done anything like Illustrated!, an exhibition of legendary comic artists showing off their fine art chops. Chase, who curated the show, still can't quite believe he's managed to assemble such a super group.
"This is like my fantasy superhero team," he says. "Except a couple of them have died." Chase's first friend in the larger comics community was Jeffrey Catherine Jones, a transgender artist whose remarkable career in comics stretched across five decades. Jones accepted Chase's first-ever Facebook friend request, and the two kept in contact on the social network until Jones' death in 2011. Through her, Chase met many of the career comic artists who appear in Illustrated!.
"The thing that connects these artists is that they all work in traditional materials," Chase says, strolling through the half-installed show on a Wednesday afternoon. "It represents a moment in illustration that may be dying, because it's being replaced by purely digital creators. I would like for those younger artists to come in and see what it looks like when an artist actually does it on paper."
The artists in Illustrated! sent Chase stacks of ink-on-paper sketches to frame, but they also offered up paintings that they worked on in their free time. Chase sifts through a cardboard box full of watercolors by George Pratt, a painter and illustrator known for his critically acclaimed graphic novel Enemy Ace: War Idyll from 1990. "Some of these watercolors look like work by John Singer Sargent," says Chase, evoking the early-1900s Edwardian portrait painter. Leaning against the wall nearby, there's an oil painting of a World War I soldier in a foxhole that captures the expressive energy of a great modernist canvas. "Anybody who thinks illustration can't be abstract hasn't looked up close at this thing," Chase says. "It's beautiful."
Around the corner, Chase has arranged a series of small ink-and-watercolor drawings by Scott Hampton in a frame. Each of these works is a panel from the Hampton-illustrated "A Haunted Island" (from the graphic novel compilation Spookhouse 2), but he worked on them as individual compositions. Chase illustrates comics in the same manner, carefully balancing details and abstract strokes within each panel to keep a viewer's eyes on the move. "We'll have the books on display during the show, so people can see how these panels look in context with the writing," Chase says.
Other notable artists in the show include Bill Sienkiewicz, an Eisner Award winner who has illustrated The New Mutants and Elektra: Assassin for Marvel Comics, as well as Bruce Jones, a writer and illustrator who's known for his racy 1980s retellings of sci-fi horror stories from the 1950s.
Albuquerque illustrator Andy Kuhn, who contributed several sketches to the show, was floored when he heard the list of artists. "I have a pretty clear-cut idea of where I am in the hierarchy of the comics world," Kuhn told SFR by phone. "Most of the guys who are in this show are well above my station. My teenage self is geeking out, and my 50-year-old self is geeking out." Kuhn's quarter century-long career is nothing to sneeze at: He's illustrated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mars Attacks for IDW Publishing, and co-authored FIREBREATHER, which was adapted into an Emmy Award-winning film for Cartoon Network in 2010.
Kuhn studied painting and drawing as an undergraduate student at Indiana University's Herron School of Art, but took up cartooning after art school and hasn't looked back. Participating in Illustrated! has inspired him to consider returning to his long-abandoned paint palette. "I am definitely going to be picking up a brush," he says.
That's exactly the sort of cross-pollination Chase is hoping to inspire. "These artists are amazingly talented, and it's exciting to introduce them to entirely new audiences," he says. "Being a commercial artist offers you the freedom to paint what you want in your free time, even if it wouldn't necessarily sell in a gallery." Unshackled from the pressures of the fine art market, these illustrators create imagery that soars—even if the title of "fine artist" is something of a secret identity.
Illustrated! Masters of Graphic Novel Art Opening Reception
5 pm Friday April 7. Free.
City of Mud,
1114-A Hickox St.,