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Interview: Mark Heflin
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As Alice asked before beginning her adventures in Wonderland; “What is the use of a book without pictures?”

She wasn’t alone in her sentiment. To celebrate a quarter-century of American Illustration’s publication, the magazine’s director Mark Heflin asked 25 of America’s top illustrators to bring their talents to a commemorative timeline project. On display at the Hall Street Gallery, 212 West Hall St., the American Illustration “Timeline” exhibit will be open to the public through February 9.

We sat down with Heflin to discuss the importance of illustration, what’s hip now, and how Savannah fits in.

 What about illustration is so important?

Mark Heflin: Art helps us through traumatic situations. I mean, if nothing else there are always images.

They have art therapy at every rehab.

Mark Heflin: Exactly. It reports on our world, on our lives, on our emotions, our thoughts in a way that is very specific to visual arts. Illustration is such a noble profession. Besides its ability to facilitate communication, education, and documentation, it also just adds beauty to our lives. And it’s what lasts. In every culture what lasts is the art.

Is there a distinction between illustration and fine art?

Mark Heflin: Yeah there is a distinction. I mean, the line gets blurred sometimes and those industries are crashing into each other more and more in a great way. And I would even say that illustration can have more importance in our culture than museum pieces and gallery work. Illustrators are trained to communicate something. I’m a complete advocate for illustration. In fact, in many ways I wish it had a better place in our society, that it got more respect. But illustration is disposable. It’s made to be reproduced and then disposed of. It has a purpose and then it’s gone. So that’s really part of American Illustration’s mission, to preserve illustration and keep a record of this amazing art form.

Do the Timeline pieces bring illustration to the realm of fine art?

Mark Heflin: Absolutely. It’s what I’d like to do more of, really. I think the term ‘illustration’ is unfortunate to some degree. It’s probably lower on the rung than comic book art in the world. Over the past years comics have elevated themselves in value to the general public, but illustration really hasn’t done that. You ask people, ‘What is illustration?’ They’ll say, ‘oh, yeah, it’s on the cereal box,’ or ‘it’s a cartoon in a magazine.’ It accompanies something else. It is thought of as secondary. 

Has the increase in online readership diminished the need for illustration?

Mark Heflin: Well, that was the fear, sure, but it’s been just the opposite. There’s actually more work out there then there ever has been. I mean, we are always going to need images. More images are being created. And American Illustration actually has more submissions then ever before. And those are coming from print publications. It’s not all unpublished, personal work, though we do get some of that too.

How did the pieces on display come about?

Mark Heflin: It was very open-ended. I chose 25 of the top illustrators and assigned them each a year. What they decided to address in their work was basically up to them. Some of the works are very personal. There was one illustrator who I just happened to assign the year of his daughter’s birth, so he did a piece around that. But then there were also many works that addressed serious cultural happenings.

In particular, I’m proud of the work for the year 2001. Of course, that was the year of 9/11 and I was very interested to see how the artist would handle that. The assignment went to Guy Billout, who is French, and actually lived in Battery Park at the time of the World Trade Center attacks. He chose to show the scene just down from the Trade Centers. He literally just shifted the focus down a block to the River and a park bench. The scene is very still and everything seems to be covered in snow. But the snow is actually ash from the buildings and, if you look in the distance of the work, you can see the Statue of Liberty. From her torch, Billout has mimicked the smoke from the towers, as though the flame of Liberty has been extinguished. It is a powerful work, yet not sensational or in your face.

And that really encapsulates my philosophy. As an art director, I think you want to give the artists as much freedom as possible. That’s how you get the best work.

What’s the best work out there now? What’s hip and what are the trends in the art world?

Mark Heflin: The best work (laughs)! That’ll have to be off the record. But in terms of what is really hip now, well, one cool thing that I’ve been noticing in New York is that all these artists are making toys out of their work and selling them at specialty shops. They’re calling it ‘urban vinyl’ and a lot of the illustrators have really caught on to it. It’s really a cool way to collect art in an inexpensive way and sort of bring your work to the masses.

Do you think that New York is still the place you have to go to make it in the art world?

Mark Heflin: Yeah, I do. Well, New York or L.A. But really that’s only because New York is where the people are that are going to hire you. And you’d be amazed how much personal interactions and networking come in to play in terms of being a successful artist.

Are there any illustrators from Savannah right now that are particularly hot?

Mark Heflin: There are. There’s actually a graduate from SCAD who’s in the book this year. And there are at least two others that I can think of off hand. But it’s not like we care where the artists are from. I mean, we’re looking at the work. That’s what matters.