epic ICON8 recap

Posted by on Jul 18, 2014 in Illustration, travels | 11 comments


For those who were at ICON8, the biennial illustration conference, this drawing by Souther Salazar pretty much sums up the corps d’esprit of the whole shebang. For those who weren’t, beware a long and detailed report follows. Too much delicious to leave a crumb out. The Student Council secretary still lives inside me.

Bitten two years ago by ICON7 and the blood, sweat, and tears that an all-volunteer posse brings to life, I could barely wait for this one. We made our way July 8 from Portland to Portland and crashed at the Benson Hotel. The schedule on July 9, held at Pacific Northwest College of Art, was crazy full of every damn thing you could possibly want to do.


I only picked one workshop (extra fee.) But it was all about Chronicle Books, so I chose wisely. Here’s my sketch of art book editor Bridget Watson Payne in her drop-dead Marimekko dress.


She talked about finding one’s aesthetic voice and the alchemical appeal of a book. What’s the impulse to buy it? She brought a stack of actual book proposals and split us into groups to evaluate them, a truly effective exercise in walking in her shoes. Which were a lovely mint green.

I skipped a ton of cool things to go meet up with my local author, Susan Blackaby of Nest, Nook & Cranny. Marty and Daisy joined us at the Daily Cafe to catch up before we roamed around finding all manner of Portland wonders. Such as public typing at Oblations where my sweaty haiku made Suz laugh.


I just about melted at Cargo, a paper lover’s heaven. I gave one of my zines to the cheery cashier, Calli, and she gifted me with an adorable paper doll set of hers! Portlanders are pretty sweet!


July 10 I went back to PNCA for a half dozen education presenters, including Wendy McNaughton’s “Illustrated Journalism.” She shared a brilliant history of the genre, wowing us with drawn reportage from the Civil War and various illustrated newspapers. She makes a strong argument for adding visual journalism back into the illustration curriculum, given the saturation of photography online. Yes, ma’am.

Later, at the Portland Art Museum for the opening ceremonies, we ran right into Hugh D’Andrade, who we hadn’t seen in years.


ICON knows how to fire things up. The Circus Project teamed with Love Bomb Go-Go. Check out Rick Lovell’s take here.

I finally met an illustrator I’ve admired forever, Jean Tuttle. We swapped zines, since she was a lucky duck in the zine-making workshop.

ICON president Ellen Weinstein declared, “The beast is adapting. It was supposed to be extinct years ago, but it’s a helluva time to be an illustrator.” Keynote speaker Paula Scher shared her lessons from the field. My favorite: go the distance. As one who’s been illustrating for 34 years, it was good to hear, knowing too well her diagram for “creativity is a surreal staircase,” holds a wobbly path for us oldies.

We fell in love with the collaborative tape mural conducted by Brian Rea. My ICON7 friend, Moira, played her part. Watch it here.


Next: the Road Show, so PACKED it was a little unbearable.


But I met Lisa Congdon!


I bought cool things from others, too: Jaime Zollars and Jensine Eckwall and Matt Sundstrom. And Allison Krumwiede who I met in Providence at ICON7. The Danish Cartoonist Group gave me a bounty of their free stuff, too. It was dizzying.

July 11 marked the first full day of conference magic, all at the PAM.  An ever-changing narrative by Jason Holley greeted us.


Emcees were clever cartoonists Vanessa Davis and Mimi Pond. They announced two new workshops: Complaining About Having an Illustration Assignment, directly followed by Complaining About Not Having an Illustration Assignment. Which were undoubtedly full.


Things got off to a chatty start with Justin Morrison asking a panel of creatives, “so what’s up with this?” I liked his beard. My sketch from the third row.


Next the Clayton Brothers talked about working on each other’s work. Who decides when it’s done? Loved that they hang around the local thrift shop for inspiration, not just the junk, but the folks who shop there. Doesn’t it look like the girl behind is drawing him in my photo? The good thing about their collaboration: alone, you talk yourself out of things, but together, they talk each other INTO anything.


Award-winning animator Jan Pinkava blew us away with a breezy story we watched from his phone, projected onto the big screen. You will WANT THIS.


Jennifer Daniel and Alicia DeSantis from the New York Times talked about infographics and how they kinda loathe them but love them.

Alicia does the writing, Jennifer does the art direction. They do a TON of research and listening. “We’re both magpies,” Jennifer confessed.

Here’s a chart that hit a chord with the crowd.


Linda Joy Kattwinkel, an artist and intellectual property lawyer, gave a super informative and sobering talk about protecting our work, specifically the ownership of on-line posting. I sketched her as she discussed Terms of Service and Best Practices. She resembles an Elizabethan queen. And deserves our undying loyalty.



Super diva Lila Rogers talked about all kinds of ways to license work. Here’s my sketch:


I bought her sparkly I Just Like to Make Things, and enjoyed seeing my cousin Mati’s work (on left, below) on the big screen.


Nelson Lowry of local LAIKA fame shared his history and behind-the-scenes work on Paranorman and the upcoming Box Trolls. He reminded us, “There’s nothing quite like the real thing,” and showed us exquisite paper models for sets crafted from edgy sketches. In his spare time, he makes robots from recycled cardboard. “Not to save the earth, but because it’s FREE.”

Sam Arthur from Nobrow talked about books as objects that smell good. And look smart. Which he did with his stripes all simpatico with the podium. He said, “We love illustration because you can lie to people.”


Ann Field and David Tillinghast from Art Center College of Design shared their project Uncool: The Anti-Gun Violence Project, a series of children’s books and a teacher kit for sparking discussion at an elementary level. In memory of their colleague Norm Sherman, who tragically died from gunshot wounds at the hands of a drunken party guest, the project seeks to counter the glamorization of guns. Two students shared their stories. I was too choked up to sketch. David said, “It’s a drop in the ocean, but illustration has the power to change perceptions.” Amen.

During the cookie break, the set changed again, directed by Jason’s crew of handlers.


Carson Ellis is the real reason we went across the map. She just..rules.


Thanks to hippie parents, she grew up with a strong sense of freedom, drawing weeping unicorns with telepathic rainbows. In college in Missoula, MT she made sharpie posters for band friends. “There’s no shame in working for beer, guys.” She discovered a Speedball 103 nib well after college and has made magic ever since. The notions of work and play bear no distinction for her: all in a day she will create Middle Earth themed decorations for her 8 year-old’s birthday party with the same vigor as a wallpaper design or a quilt. She’ll take the van and a can of chili sometimes for a solo overnight, just to sketch to her heart’s content. Let’s all take that cue.

Robert Priest and Grace Lee of 8 x 8 shared complete zeal for their dynamic soccer magazine. They took a risk putting an Argentinian on the cover, didn’t they?


Next up was Calef Brown, my former colleague at Maine College of Art. He literally was on fire, delivering his tongue-twisting verse like a rapping Edward Lear. Hot damn.


He was followed by the soft-spoken twang of Georgeanne Deen, a veteran of the field who started right out admitting she once struggled with depression. It was a brave departure from all the upbeat success on stage.



Her vulnerability was matched by a resigned wit, attempting to explain the allegory in her work with a wry “pretty fuckin’ deep.” The titles of her paintings are loaded, like “It Can Take Six Years to Digest a Man.” She’s working on a children’s book idea in which a nurse cat dispenses flower remedies, “so children can recognize their feelings and know there’s help.” Just wanted to hug her so hard.

Craig Bartlett was next, famous in my book for creating Penny on Pee Wee’s Playhouse. But also Hey Arnold and lots of other fun stuff.

At this point my eyes melted and I had to leave. ICON, you are KILLER.

Are you still with me? There’s another WHOLE DAY LIKE THIS. There should be ICON fitness training. In order to take all this in, one must lift weights by staring at them for like 4 weeks in advance of ICON.

July 12 was a total fanfest blowout, starting with a panel about Chronicle Books with illustrators Susie Ghahremani and Lisa Congdon and editorial director Christina Amini and design director Kristen Hewitt. They are all in love with each other. Their message was: love what you’re making! It shows, and people pick up on that. Like art directors hunting for that passion, a word which came up a LOT.


I drew Lisa.


The next panel was all illustrators, James Yang, Victo Ngai, and Leo Espinoza.They razzed each other like sibs and it was fun to watch.

Victo said, “Artists are so emo. One bad drawing, and it’s OVER.” They agreed that amateurs look for a big break, but professionals look for lots of little breakthroughs. Leo said, “We haven’t quit. We haven’t killed the kid that loves to draw. Embrace failure. Embrace anything that comes along, really.”


Victo is a RISD rock star and I couldn’t resist sketching her.


During the next panel, Irishman Steve Simpson interviewed art directors from worthy publishing houses: Eric Skillman of Criterion, Diane Chonette of Tin House, and Len Small of Nautilus. Great discussion of how and why they use illustration. You shoulda been there!


During the coffee break, the set changed again. I found another ICON7 friend, Natalya Zahn. We got up the nerve to talk to Len Small. I gave a zine to him and discovered he has been to Peaks Island! My rock! Seeing this ship made me realize we are all in the same boat, right?


There was a memorial slideshow of all the illustrators who have passed since the last ICON. This was remarkably touching. The circle of talent keeps going round.

Next up was the Smith Brothers. Twins! With beards! Introduced by bearded ladies! Swoon.


I’ve admired Owen Smith’s work for years, but didn’t know about Aaron. He’s a painter also, but pretty opposite in his approach. They both shared their influences and collections. My recent research on John Muir and beards caused my heart to skip upon seeing his collection of photos of Edwardian men. He also collects Oceanic art, and said, “This is our tribal gathering.” Owen’s interest in nostalgia drives the social realism of his work. Both are united in “nerd-dom.” Count me in.


Aaron’s painting has evolved from exquisite realism to impressionistic gusto. Oh my.


Janet Hamlin and Victor Juhasz talked about working in the courts on 9/11 trials and places where no camera can go. Janet’s been installed at Guantanamo 5 times by ABC News, and Victor spent 3 weeks embedded with troops in Afghanistan for the New York Observer.

Both believe in the power of illustration over photography, in which a feeling and character can be captured. Notes on conversations that take place while drawing add gravitas. The story unravels slowly, with patience and respect. I bow deeply to them. It’s a brave calling, bearing witness in urgent situations. Their drawings are so ALIVE.


The next Kaleidoscope of really short talks by illustrators chosen from the ranks was brilliant. Julie Murphy, stuck in a loathsome office job, furtively drew her colleagues, who spent too much time at desks, they resembled “question marks.” Her canon of doodles became a show, Escape to Absurdity, and she was able to quit that job. Andy J. Miller shared his 17 Secret Spices which included such nuggets as #15: Don’t Skip Levels, and #10: Play First, Edit Later, and #7: Keep Your Eyes on Your Own Paper. Students and grown-ups, listen up. Lisa Brown creates pithy 3 panel book reviews which all reinforce the reality: Someone Always Dies. Mike Kerr and Renata Liswska live and learn side-by-side, hosting a Sketch Club. Whaaattt??? Let’s do that. Mike so believes in sketchbooks, he suggested, let’s just throw out the illustration curriculum and only do sketchbooks. Any votes on that, MECA?

During lunch we caught up with Bill Russell, a former neighbor in SF, while enjoying a little entertainment from a unicycling Darth Vader playing a bagpipe with flames (draw that, GO!) Then we came back for MORE.

Brian McMullen gave us perspective on what led to his charmed years at McSweeney’s and voluntarily leaving said dream job. Way back when he killed his 5th grade science teacher in his cartoons and made zines in high school in Toledo. Nostalgic evidence of early art never fails to charm me.

This was done before the internet was a thing, in college.


You can see how this sort of thing leads to creating a sloth pinata for a book launch. His message, Weird Books for Weird Kids did not disappoint.

Souther Salazar was a surprise. I only knew his work a little, but his entire ethos is a new universe for me. He said, “I love how blurry things are between what people do.” He makes zines, too. His view of play is “an interaction with life that relates to the universe. Everything’s a game. We grow up and stop playing, you build your chair and sit in it. But play defines the world anew. And our work gives it purpose.” He believes in a collective impulse which helped his project, the Trading Tortoise, a 6 month road trip through 33 cities collecting stories. He collects junk and builds worlds with it. Beauty from discards. Souvenirs for the soul.


My student, Liz Long, freshly graduated from Maine College of Art, was on hand, thanks to a grant from MECA’s Artist at Work program. I’m so proud of her!


Designer Lisa Wagner and illustrator Jason Holley are partners, here discussing the Domestic Blitz they encounter. Their first date was a six-week long road trip in her Ford Ranchero.


She was too gorgeous to ignore. So I drew this sketch.


I don’t remember the context of this slide, but who cares? It’s just good.


I’ve been a fan of Andrea Dezso’s paper cut illustrations but learned also about her momentous murals in mosaics. She has a solemn face like this:


But just look at this, will you?


Comic artist Justin Hall talked about No Straight Lines and gave a rousing history of queer comics. Who knew Archie would take a bullet for his gay friend? Robynne Raye spun the tale of her odyssey against Disney, trying to get away with pirating dog drawings for their merchandise. It’s a classic David vs. Goliath story with the best ending. Read it all HERE.

Jon Classen and Mac Barnett were like a pair of stand-up comedians showing the development of their recent collaborations. They’re about as hot as can be, but so nonchalant about it. Mac generously considers “picture book writing a visual act, and creates opportunities for illustrators to look good.” And we are all the grander for it, thank you. “Picture book writing is a lot of taking things OUT.”


The next panel featured 3 vixens of illustration, Kelsey Dake, Kate Bingaman-Burt, and Vivienne Flesher, moderated by Thomas James.

Each talked about how they began, how they keep it goin’ on. I’d met Kate a few years ago when she visited MECA, and have always loved her vivacious spirit. She started drawing as penance for a $24,000. credit card debt. Drawing every statement, and then everything she ever bought. Her Obsessive Consumption caught notice of art directors and many others. I never knew she met her husband at a yard sale. She also revealed that her grandmother was an illustrator and it brings her great satisfaction to draw at her grandmother’s drawing table, which thankfully didn’t go in a yard sale.

Do you need full bios of all these stars? Go HERE.

At this point, my eyes melted again and we left. Does ICON know that some of us are introverts? I needed an isolation tank for just a bit. I said farewell to my ICON7 friend and RISD classmate Michele Noiset, and headed for some privacy at the Benson. But seeing Captain America on the way boosted me no end.


The full moonrise over Portland gave me renewed powers.


Marty, Daisy and I danced together, a rare event. Thanks to Portugal. The Man.


Bottomless thanks to ICON8. Our DNA is altered forever. We imbibed yet more of Portland, going to the Portland Zine Symposium the next day, but that’s enough for this post.

I’m angling for ICON9 to be in Portland, Maine. Who’s in?


  1. O la la, Jamieee–tu es la diva de la blog post mode. I want a book of your blogs. Even as I take this respite in Pubnico from all things technological, I’m glad I clicked on your site. Lessez le bon temps et colours et sketches et papier joie de vie rolle.

  2. Epic summary. I’m exhausted and I wasn’t even there!

  3. Thanks for the thorough recap. Glad you enjoyed this version of ICON. For the record, Leo said the “We haven’t killed the kid who loves to draw” line, but thanks for attributing it to me and making me sound smarter.

    • James, thanks for reading and the correction; the conversation you three had was so enjoyable and insightful. Pardon my error.

  4. What a great recap and synopsis of the whole incredible ICON event.
    You hit all the high points (probably because there were NO low points!) Nicely done Jamie!!!

  5. thank you for coming to ICON and for this amazing recap!

  6. Thank you for this amazing recap of ICON8, I’m going to share it on my blog as well. Too bad we didn’t get to meet but we will next time!

  7. Jamie, as an alum of past ICONs I enjoyed your colorful recap of the event. Wonderful job!

  8. Great recap, Jamie! I’ve been to past ICONs but just couldn’t swing it this year (big sad face). No matter- this is just like being there! Thank you!

  9. Gosh, glad my report could be of service. I’m still going over my notes, there was SO MUCH revealed.

  10. oh my goodness! I just stumbled upon this and am HUGELY flattered by your lovely drawing of me, and the nice things you said about my talk as well. ICON was a blast! Thanks so much for the kind words and images.

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