Heidi Unkefer is a freelance designer and illustrator from Canton, OH, currently working and living in Chicago. Her illustrations and design work have apeared in a variety of editoral newspapers and magazines including The Onion, Halftone, Echo Magazine, and Flyleaf Journal. She has recently completed a mural called Slime Mountain located in Chicago's South Loop on the 623 S. Wabash building.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting up with this talented artist in the Old Town neighborhood to discuss a variety of topics ranging from the role education has played in her art to her brief experience living in New York City.
How long have you been drawing, and at what point did you decide that this was something you wanted to pursue as a career?
I’ve been a visual thinker pretty much my entire life. As a kid, I remember taking extra art classes whenever I could and staying after school for extracurricular art groups. In my high school in the small city of Canton, OH, I was definitely considered the weird art kid, and I always knew that one day I would move to a big city after graduating. I knew that illustration and design work was what I was most interested in and passionate about and was the only thing I could actually see myself doing for the rest of my life without going crazy.
How would you describe your illustrations?
A lot of my work has organic elements. Growing up in Ohio allowed me to be surrounded by nature, which naturally found its way in my drawings.
What does “organic” art mean to you?
To me it means the illustrations are less rigid. The lines are not perfectly formed and the shapes are slightly different from one another. There is a lot more line work, which gives off a gritty texture, and the colors can bleed into one another.
What was your experience like at Columbia College?
I was one of the rare cases at Columbia College Chicago where I didn’t change my major. I knew I enjoyed painting in high school, so I went to college to study illustration. Columbia has also presented me with a lot of opportunities that I may not have gotten otherwise. One of them being Columbia’s first alumna muralist to be included in the Wabash Arts Corridor initiative to fill the South Loop with murals.
What was that experience like, creating your own mural?
The Wabash Arts Corridor has attracted many renowned muralists from all over the world to display their street art for the thousands of pedestrians that traverse the area every day. Columbia College had set aside a wall specifically for an alumni, so I submitted several samples of my work and was selected as a finalist. However, they asked me to resubmit my work to take into consideration the windows that dot the wall. There were five windows scattered across the wall, and none of them were symmetrical. Working with the city’s renowned architectural landscape was extremely rewarding, but it also presented its own challenges. I couldn’t alter the size of the wall or the rough texture of the brick, and I couldn’t alter the location of the windows. But, looking back on the project, I think those set limits really added a fun challenge for me as an artist.
What was the process for creating the mural?
The first step was to place the illustration on a grid in Photoshop, with each square representing a two foot by two foot flat surface on the wall. The second step, getting the lines assembled on the wall, was the most challenging part of the process. I used a chalk line reel, which I had never used before, to help me create the straight lines. It’s a piece of twine that is covered in chalk, typically used in construction. When it’s snapped against a surface, it maps out perfectly straight lines, which was very effective for many of the linear shapes in the illustration.
Because there was a lot of symmetry in the picture, I spent several hours late at night projecting the image onto the wall, so I could mark the details just right. I would look at a point on the wall, compare it with the graph I created in Photoshop, and then placed a chalk line in the correct spot. There were a few moments when I realized that my math was slightly off and the lines didn’t connect, or there were a couple of feet without anything on it. In those instances, I would just wing it and interpreted the gaps however I wanted.
The final step was blocking in the colors, which was a lot like painting by numbers. I worked with one color at a time, spending hours filling in each section with that particular shade. Many of my friends helped me with this stage of the process, otherwise it would have taken months just to get the color filled in. I rented a scissor lift for this part, which was fine; I had used them before in helping others completing their murals. This was the first time, though, that I had to be in communication with construction companies and budget everything out.
Would you ever consider doing another mural in the future?
Absolutely! I would do it every day if I could. Ideally, I’d love to be a traveling street artist like Ben Eine. Although he’s based in London, I had the pleasure of working with him on his “Harmony” mural in the South Loop on Wabash near the Harrison and Wabash intersection. While I was helping him, I discovered that he didn’t get paid to paint the mural. He commented that it didn’t matter, though, because signing his name on it was like free advertising for him. He’s getting his name out there with thousands of people seeing it every day as they walked by or ride on the El.
I signed my name, H. Unkefer, at the bottom of the mural in small letters. But every other artist who’s painting has a cool street artist name.
Do you have one?
No, I don’t have one yet. I feel like it’s something you should have if you plan on painting more public art. One of my favorite muralists goes by the name of Never2501. He’s a very well-known travelling street artist. Ben Eine is actually a street name, too.
Do you have any ideas for a street name?
I’ve played around with a few considering my weird last name, but I haven’t come across one that has stuck yet.
You’ve created several cover illustrations for Flyleaf Journal, each of them defined by the complexity of the shapes and integrated colors. What is the illustrative process like for you to transform the narrative into conceptual art?
I was actually introduced to editorial illustration during my time working for the Columbia College school newspaper. I’ll sit down and read the story once through while thinking about what imagery sticks out to me. I work out the little details in my head as I read because a lot of my work can be somewhat mystical and have floating objects in them. During my second read through I write down key words, especially the phrases with vivid imagery.