There are two turning points in my professional life that I credit with pointing me (and kicking me) down the right path towards my eventual career, such as it is. The first was getting a job drawing caricatures at a theme park near Chicago in 1985 while a freshman in college at the University of Minnesota. Prior to that job, being from a very small town in Minnesota, I had not been exposed to the kind of talents and abilities I would need to be on par with if I ever wanted to make a living as a commercial artist. Thus I had never really been challenged or pushed to work harder nor inspired to reach farther than what was comfortable and easy. After a summer working with artists that would eventually become prominent animators, comic book artists, children’s book illustrators and freelance illustrators I got that push and inspiration… as well as a love of caricature that shaped my path. It is no exaggeration to say getting that summer job changed my life.
The second turning point was joining the National Caricaturist Network (NCN). Before I tell that story, let me tell you what the NCN is all about.
The National Caricaturist Network is a trade association of professional caricature artists from all over the world. Currently over 500 strong, it boasts members from as far away as Japan, Australia, Belgium, Singapore, Israel and many other countries as well as nearby Canada and of course the United States, where it is based. The purpose of the NCN is “to promote the art of caricature, educate the public and the media about the art of caricature and to provide its members with helpful information about caricature as an as art form as well as a profession.” It’s members pay yearly dues (currently $55 USD) and for this they get listed in the searchable NCN directory, access to the members only online forum where they exchange ideas, artwork, critiques, advice and knowledge as well as “network” and they receive the terrific quarterly, members only magazine Exaggerated Features.
Members are also able to attend a yearly “convention” of caricaturists that takes place currently in early November in various locations. I just returned from attending part of the 5 day event that was held this year in Raleigh, North Carolina. The convention is also a competition, where between 150 and 200 artists draw caricatures of each other in almost every imaginable medium in a single, giant convention room and literally cover the walls with their caricature art. At the end of the event, which also includes big name guest speakers, workshops and classes in caricature techniques, mediums and business issues, there is a big banquet where awards voted on by the competing members are bestowed upon the best artists in many categories. These awards culminate in the announcement of the top ten “Caricaturists of the Year”, the top three of which win a bronze, silver and gold “Nosey”… a weird trophy shaped like a nose. First place, or “Caricaturist of the Year”, gets the coveted “Golden Nosey”.
The 2008 awards banquet
Sounds interesting but pretty bizarre, doesn’t it? This year 180 plus artists sat about for 5 days drawing each other silly in between attending seminars and workshops on caricature theory, digital illustration, drawing techniques, exaggeration and even the legal issues that concern caricaturists like “right of publicity” and “The Orphan Works Act”. I did a seminar on caricature and freelance illustration.
Me boring everybody at my seminar on “Caricatures in Freelance Illustration”
Me and 2008 guest of honor Ismael Roldan
Bizarre it may be to the uninitiated, but within there is something almost magical about these conventions. The attending artists bond though the sheer joy and love of the art of caricature. Artists come away from the convention with a renewed sense of creative energy and inspiration. You cannot help but be humbled by the mind-blowing talent in that competition room, and yet rather than getting depressed and down on your work you become invigorated and determined to expand your skills. The exposure to styles and thought processes that are completely alien to your own way of doing things forces your brain and your eyes to open up a wider than before… and that leaves you open to a whole new world of possibilities.
I joined the NCN in 1997 in a round-about kind of way. I had read some internet comments by a local Minnesota party/event caricaturist that denigrated theme park caricatures as being of low skill and talent, specifically talking about my artists at Valleyfair. I took offense to that, and promptly wrote him a letter putting him in his place. A little chagrined, the artist invited me to join a listserv emailing list (an early ancestor of the modern forum or message board) called “The Loop”, which was for and about the art of caricature. There I learned about the NCN, which at the time was about 200 or so members. The organization interested me so I applied for membership and paid my dues.
One of the principal things that interested me was the convention, that year to be held in March (1998) in Las Vegas. The scheduled guest of honor was to be the legendary Mort Drucker. I wanted very much to meet Mort, and didn’t really care a great deal about the competition. To be honest, I had been drawing caricatures professionally for 11 years at that time, had owned and run my own operations for 7 years and had trained some hundred or more artists how to draw. I was doing comic books and magazine illustration, however small time it was. I was a big fish in a little pond, and frankly thought I was pretty damn good. I thought I was a shoe-in for this “Golden Nosey” thing. I got my tickets to Vegas and paid my convention fees. Shortly before the event, it was announced that Mort was not going to be able to come due to a family emergency. Sergio Aragon?¬©s was going to fill in for him. I loved Sergio’s work, but he wasn’t a caricaturist and so I nearly canceled my trip. Knowing literally no one at this convention, I went anyway.
To say I was blown away would be to put it mildly. By the end of the first day I thought my chances of winning ANY award, let alone the “Golden Nosey” was slim to none, and Slim had left town. Yet something strange was happening. Yes, my overinflated ego was being crushed… but that did not get me down. In fact, it did quite the opposite. I was more enthusiastic about drawing caricatures than I had been in some years. I saw the stagnation I had been mired in and looked at my work in a way I had not in some time. I was reinvigorated in my work and my goals. That was a second life changing event. It is again no exaggeration to say that without the NCN I would not be working as a freelance illustrator today, and certainly not for MAD. Never since have I felt comfortable with the level of my work. Confident, yes, but not complacent. That lesson alone shaped me more as an artist than 4 years of art school ever had.
The funny thing is, despite all the ego shattering I experienced at that convention, I actually did win “Caricaturist of the Year” that year, and again the next year in 1999. After that I became president of the NCN and served for two years to give back to the organization that had given me so much, putting on conventions in San Diego in 2000 and Atlanta in 2001. I have contributed mostly behind the scenes since then in small ways to help when I can.
8 of the 18 past winners of the NCN “Golden Nosey” as Caricaturist of the Year.
R to L: Me, Stephen Silver, Paul Gaunt, Joe Bluhm, Roger Hurtado, Court Jones
Chris Rommell and Kage Nakanishi
Me and 2008 “Golden Nosey” winner Jason Seiler
The NCN has grown a lot since those days, and the level of talent has grown as well. I realized as I spent just a few days there last week that I really need to attend these events every year, because I still leave there humbled and with a bruised ego in the wake of some of the enormous talent that fills that room… but it has always been amid the process of being humbled that I have been the most enthusiastic and motivated to break out of the box and grow as an artist. Challenge is good. It’s NECESSARY. If you are a caricaturist and not a member of the NCN, you are missing out.
Here’s a video by member Brian Vasilik that will give you a small peek into the crazy creative environment that is an NCN convention:
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