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A Conversation With Heidi Unkefer

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.

In “The Vine Dynamic”, a story I just did an illustration for, the plant is obviously the most prominent image, but there were also all these small details sprinkled throughout with the watch and the quilt that the protagonist’s mother made for him. I also included the bugs into the plant that I drew for the cover. My hope is to draw the reader into the story without ever giving too much of the plot away.

How would you compare your work for “The Vine Dynamic” with the art you created for “The Stem”?

The artwork for “The Stem” was a bit more challenging. I never like to do a literal translation of the story, which was definitely not a problem with that story. Since it is a time travel story told in a stream-of-conscious way, it was hard to find any literal imagery. So, instead, I depicted what I thought to be futuristic elements.

As a kid, I read a lot of science books that contained many diagrams and geometric shapes that would relate the idea of movement throughout space or how one thing is linked to another, so I thought I would draw a shape that represented this concept of movement while being open to interpretation. They do look like crystals on the cover, but it was never intentional to make them that specific object. The shape just happens to be reminiscent of crystals. The vines of the plant served as the glue to bind the image together.

What inspired the artwork for “Altenmoor, Where the Dogs Dance” and what made you decide to include the textured background?

The story of Altenmoor had more visible, tangible objects that I could relate to. Because the images of Altenmoor described in the story made it seem like such a magical, heavenly place, I tried to add fun elements to the cover. Although, the magic of the story is overshadowed with sadness, I wanted to keep the playful coming-of-age tone of the story in the art.

I wanted to give the interior of the printed story sort of an atmosphere without having to draw an entire background scene. Rather than painting out what Altenmoor looked like in my head, I wanted the reader to use their imagination.

How has your professional design work influenced your illustration?

My design work is often cleaner compared to my illustrations, which are more free-flowing and contain very busy line work. I love the juxtaposition of my work, because at times it allows me to marry my clean design sense with my busy illustrative skills to create something that I hope meshes harmoniously. At this point, the editorial design experience that I gained from working for the Columbia school newspaper and my time at The Onion have been instrumental in helping me develop this cleaner form of art.

My work for Workman Publishing in New York was another learning experience. I wasn’t doing book design, but rather, creating ads for the books. It was my job to take the design of the book, specifically the type faces and colors, and see how creative I could get with those restrictions. If I didn’t like what I had to work with—too bad.

That was a test for me, to see how creative I could be with limited materials. That was all strictly design work.

What was your experience like in New York?

I hope I don’t lose friends by saying this, but I loved New York. I have hopes to move back someday. I’m happy to be working for The Onion here, and the people in Chicago are friendlier and more welcoming, but work in New York is much easier to come by.

I found my first job out of college, I was able to do a little bit of freelance work, and in the process, lose a lot of money, because I’m not going to lie, it’s not cheap. Surprise: New York is expensive!

How often do you practice hand lettering?

I have not had a lot of experience with it. I really love typography and understanding letter forms. And I really love illustration and how I can connect the two. I took a class called Type as Image, which taught me how to take letter forms and use imagery to create legible type. I’m working on a personal project now to make my own hand letter typeface. For me to work on a big personal project like this, because I’m so busy with freelance work and my design work for The Onion, it has to be something I love. I’ll probably go home and work on it tonight, actually.

The lettering you did for the short story “Conjure” looks incredibly complex. How long did it take you to finish it?

Thank you. Something like this, just drawing it out, took maybe 30 minutes just sitting down and doing it all at once. It was probably an hour to an hour and a half to ink it, and then adding the details would probably take another half an hour. Yeah, something like two hours, total. I was afraid to add too much detail because of the size of the letters. If you add too much and then shrink it down, it would look like a solid black chunk.

What is next for you?

I just completed the mural in August, so I’m looking for similar opportunities, although they are not that easy to come by. Wintertime in Chicago is also not a good time to be painting outside, so I’ll have to hunt for those in the meantime.

I’ve been wanting to get my first studio show, even if it’s with somebody, just to have some sort of gallery showing for my personal work, but that also requires a lot of screen printing on my own. I’ve been dabbling in creating animated graphics, but I’m just starting to enter the realm of motion graphics. I’m splitting into two directions with the more advanced motion graphics and going back to screen printing, but I think I need the balance of both in my creative life.

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