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3x3 Magazine: Artist / Educator of the Year Interview
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Lunch with Scott Bakal - By Charles Hively, 3x3 (external)

3x3 Magazine's Illustrator & Educator of the Year 2010

From the announcementScott is being recognized for his many artistic accomplishments as well as his devotion to students. Scott is on the Board of Directors at the Society of Illustrators in New York City and besides his position as Treasurer, he chairs the Student Scholarship Competition and Zankel Scholarship which are the largest illustration student competitions in the world. In 2009, he was also elected to the Sanford B.D. Low Illustration Collection as a Committee Member at the New Britain Museum of American Art.

Interview: Scott Bakal’s parents – his father an intrastate bus driver, his mother a data processor – were not overjoyed by Scott’s choice to be an illustrator but they didn’t offer any obstacles either.  Working two jobs, taking a full class load at the School of Visual Arts and commuting to class from Long Island didn’t leave much time for socializing. Today, his life is filled with more assignments than he can sometimes handle – commissions and gallery exhibits, the new full-time teaching position in Boston, his board duties at the Society of Illustrators in New York as well as organizing their student scholarship program yet all the while leaving a door open to his young illustrators.  He has been able to balance a dedication to his craft and an earnest responsibility to his students’ growth. Throughout it all, Scott remains focused.  In fact, you get a sense that he pretty much well thought out the rest of his life – he has a plan while others of us just live day-to-day. You hear the passion when he talks about illustration especially when its about the next generation. You sense his involvement with these young kids is perhaps a replacement for the classmates he didn’t have time to enjoy in his college experience.  It is a pleasure to name Scott Bakal as our 3x3 Artist / Educator of the Year, 2010.

Tell us about your early schooling, did you always want to be an artist? Do you come from an artistic family?

I didn't come from an artistic family at all; no one really knows where 'the art thing' came from.

I went to elementary school in Connecticut then later when I was eleven in New York. My Mom saw that I loved to make pictures all the time and would bring home some paper from her data processing job so I had something to draw on. She recalls one of those parent-teacher nights when the art teacher asked if I had any art training.  She replied. “No.”  He then asked, “Then how does he know about light source and shading?”  To answer that nearly 30 years later, I guess I just was really good at observing things.

When I was around ten I took a course that lasted a couple of weeks with a local cartoonist—I’ve forgotten his name—and learned how to draw some of his cartoons.  But I was already copying Beetle Bailey and the cartoons in Mad Magazine so while I was learning something, I wanted to go beyond what he was doing.  Even so, I remember going to that class as one of the most enjoyable times in that part of my life.

When I had to start thinking about college, I thought about the usual jobs; doctor, lawyer, and plumber--I wasn’t interested in any of them.  I purposely took English in summer school before my senior year so I could open up room for more art classes.  Those classes gave me the courage to make the decision to go to art school.

Your parents seemed to have instilled a strong work-ethic, what was behind that?

That’s from my Mom.  Raising three kids on her own was tough and since I was the oldest, I had to help keep the family functioning while my mother worked two jobs.  I sort of became caretaker of my brother and sister making lunches and dinners sometimes. When I was able to get a job, I contributed money to the household to pay for food and even the mortgage.  Our family had nothing so the only way to survive was to work hard and get things done.

Now that I am older, I work as hard as ever and enjoy it.  Making art really isn’t a job to me anyway; it’s just what I do as part of my day-to-day life.

What were some of your early influences? Other artists you admired? That you admire today?

It all depends on the time frame.  Before college I really had a limited knowledge about artists. The artists who did the Dungeons & Dragons hardcover game books made an impression and I started collecting Weird Wheels trading cards when I was ten. I had no idea who the artist was until about two years ago; it turned out to be Norman Saunders. And I remember being exposed to Matisse in high school.

You have to realize that I came from an environment where there wasn’t art in any form other than what popular culture was around me. I remember being embarrassed hanging out with my college friends who rattled off artists names I’d never heard of. It was the same for classical music, I maybe knew one of Beethoven’s symphonies but these guys knew so much more. I found myself constantly trying to keep up because they’d come from a home environment where they were exposed to so much more than I. Now it is sort of an addiction, I‘m always searching for information about things that interest me: art, illustration, music.

What were your early impressions of illustration? Were there any particular artists who influenced your decision to become an illustrator?

I am not sure I really understood what it was to be an illustrator up until I actually started college. Going through my foundation year into my second year at SVA, I started learning the names of some illustrators but couldn’t identify their work.  Fortunately I’d get a copy of one of the Society of Illustrator annuals and could start connecting names with the work.  Remember, this was pre-Google so it wasn’t as easy to find what someone’s work looked like.  You really had to dig for the information.

The first illustrator I actually met in person was Lisa Desimini; she came to my sophomore class to give a demonstration. Her stories and description of her various projects confirmed that illustration was the right track for me. Years later I met her again along with her husband, illustrator Matt Mahurin, at a group show I was in and it reminded me how her talk had set me on my path.

I understand you applied at several art schools, what was your portfolio like back then?

I put together a twenty-two-piece portfolio to get into art school.  I used the same portfolio to apply to the University of Hartford, Fashion Institute of Technology and School of Visual Arts.  The first half of the portfolio was the basics:  Rendering spheres and other 3-d shapes, figure drawings and still life drawings using different media--mostly pencil and charcoal.  The second half was book covers, album covers and posters that I both designed and illustrated. As I mentioned earlier I didn’t realize just what an illustrator did so I applied as advertising major. Looking back it was much more of an illustrator-focused book, I just didn’t realize it.

Did you become an illustration major right away?

During the college application process the woman who reviewed my portfolio asked me if I’d rather be a painter or someone who worked in an office on advertising campaigns. Naturally, I chose the former so I became an illustration major.

Why did you end up at the School of Visual Arts instead?

The University of Hartford art school accepted me but the university didn’t because my SAT scores were dismal.  They were afraid I couldn’t keep up with the academic part of the curriculum. I ended up taking the ACT, which schools also accepted and did pretty well on that one.  The whole University of Hartford-thing was actually to placate my Mom who had plans on moving back to Connecticut.  But I really wanted to go to school in New York City.

I was accepted into both the FIT and SVA undergraduate programs. It was a no-brainer. I remember seeing bumper stickers that said: America’s Leading College of Art – School of Visual Arts.  I bought into it and honestly, I still think it is one of the best art schools out there.

Not being a state school, SVA must have been expensive?

You’re right, thanks to loans, loans, loans I was able to get in. My mom took out parent loans herself and even my sister who was just starting working at the time sent me money to help pay for transportation and food when things got tough.

For the first year I ended up living at home in Long Island, working at two supermarkets and commuting into the city for school and doing a work/study thing at SVA a couple of days a week. My Mom moved back to Connecticut during my second year so I had to find a place--still out in Long Island and pay rent and all the things that comes with that.

Working in supermarkets did have its perks. I’d worked in the produce department since I was sixteen and it happened to be next to the meat department so not only did I have a steady income I also had a ready food supply as well.  I’d like to personally thank those markets for unknowingly keeping me well-fed.

How did you get your first big break?

I’m not sure there’s such a thing as ‘big break’ in illustration. But getting my first paying job was pretty easy.  About 3 months after graduating I sent out about 50-100 postcards and within a month I got a call back from ABA Banking Journal for two black and white spots; I look at that moment fondly even today. I got a few other jobs—I think I made somewhere around $1400 that first year out of school.  The following year I made over $4000.  It kept going up from there with a few big dips especially around 2001.

Your work is mostly editorial, have you had any opportunity to work in advertising?

I’ve been focusing on editorial the last few years on purpose with a plan to move to other markets when I feel its right.  I did book jobs and advertising projects in the 90s and would certainly like to get back on those horses again.

How has your work progressed, how is today’s work different than when you were first starting out?

My work is much more personal now. The images and elements I make sometimes come from abstract thoughts or from the world around me just twisted slightly to work within my mindset.  Starting out I had what I call it the ‘little guy on the globe’ way of thinking. I was too wrapped up in marketing and trying to tailor my work to the markets that left me feeling miserable about being an illustrator for a while.

Talk with us a bit about your process? What type of sketches do you provide the art director?

When doing a job, I don’t like being prompted by the art director initially but love input once things get rolling.  The problem is that once a visual direction is implied, it pulls me away from exploring other ideas that may solve the problem better. It becomes problematic if I’m treated like a hired-hand.

After I read a manuscript, I think-- a lot--sometimes just in my head, sometimes on paper.  I try to understand what I am illustrating by putting myself in the situation of the subjects in the article. And most often I’m trying to find the emotion behind it. The sketches I send art directors are usually nothing more than thumbnails.  The art director and I have a dialog about the direction.  Most times, they just pick one and I am on my way. I create a final sketch for myself in which I work out the proper composition and elements in the art.  Then I go to final.

Someone recently posted an observation on Drawger about my work. He said that when he first sees my illustration, he feelswhat the article is about before he understands it. To me that’s okay, I know that sometimes people ‘get it’ right away and sometimes it takes time.

Do you find people hiring you just for your style?

When someone hires me, they’ve obviously looked at my portfolio and the one thing they should realize is that every idea on my site was generated by me.  There may have been collaboration after they receive my original idea, but that's not usually the case. Dictating a direction happens once in a while but that project never gets into competitions and are usually my worst pieces because I'm trying to paint someone else's image, not mine, which is near impossible.

What do you think about the current state of illustration?

It depends on what you are talking about.  Personally, I’ve done over 100 jobs this year and been part of a few good exhibitions so it’s going pretty good.  If we’re talking about the illustration business as a whole, I think it has seen better times.

It’s a frustrating topic for me because I watch the industry lose control of itself more and more over the years.  Contractual terms and stagnant fees are the biggest issues.  The fact that artists take these sorts of jobs regularly just frustrates me more.  I know we don’t live in an idealized world, people need to do what they need to do and we’re all independent contractors but artists should think carefully before they sign a contract and take a low fee offer.  It sets precedents that are hard to retract.

The last thing I want to be is preachy or tell anyone what to do.  I just sometimes think artists don’t really know how valuable they actually are in the industry and don’t treat themselves or their businesses as importantly as they should.  I guess that’s why I focus on the new generation and trust that I can somehow help change the industry through them and get them to know their value as artists.  One can hope.

You’ve been in more gallery exhibits lately; do you approach your personal work differently than your commercial work?

It is different.  When I do an assignment, there’s already an underlying idea embedded into it that I have to work off of to create an image. My gallery work is completely free of that.  I just paint what I think is fun or if I have something to say, I’ll say it.

When do you find time for your gallery work?

I actually had to cancel some exhibitions because I ran out of time; even with an intern handling my busy-work I just couldn’t pump out enough art and deal with my regular life.

You recently moved from New York to Boston, what prompted that move? Have you gained more business by being in Boston, or lost business by not being in New York?

I moved to Boston because the Massachusetts College of Art and Design hired me as a full time professor and it’s been a great experience.  I haven’t lost any business moving to Boston although I have lost my day-to-day connection with the city and state I love.  It was a big decision that I didn’t take lightly but I needed a new adventure.  Plus, even with all my successes my mother hasn’t really thought I had a real job for the last 18 years until this current teaching gig. I’ve got great health insurance now so she thinks I have a “real” job.

Have you ever had an artist representative? If so, why; if not, why not?

Yes, I’ve had two, both for one year. After about ten years of running the business myself I wanted to see if they could make me more money. I was disappointed that they didn't do much for me so I dropped them. I’m not against the idea of getting another rep but the arrangement would be much different.  Since my work is mainly editorial now, I really don’t need an agent to get me that type of work.  I just don’t understand the concept of giving someone 30% of a $1000 job that illustrators can get themselves.

When did you become a member of the Society of Illustrators? What prompted that decision?

I became a member in 2005 but have been going to various receptions and events there since 1993.

To me, the Society is the hub of contemporary illustration in the world and it is incredibly important. I can imagine a huge hole in the industry if the organization didn’t exist.  It’s a big part of my life because of its wonderful history, the people I work with there and how the things I do as a volunteer and member can affect the illustration world in a positive way.

And you’re very active in the Society.

As soon as I was accepted, I joined the Student Scholarship Committee; a year later, I became its chair and still hold that title.

There is nothing more satisfying to me than standing on stage during the Student Scholarship Gala in May announcing which student won a $5,000 award. Then shake his or her hand and give them a check just because they made an amazing piece of art.  That check can change a student’s life. 

I’ve also been on the Executive Committee since 2006 and currently I serve as the Board’s Treasurer.

Let’s talk about your experiences as a teacher, what do you feel the role is of an instructor?

I’d like to think that the role of an instructor (in part) is to incite learning, especially self-learning.  It is one thing to walk into a classroom and ‘teach’ meaning talking about whatever subject is on the table and then leave the room.  To me that is talking at the students instead of talking with the students.  In my classes I ask students questions to try to get them to think about what they are shooting for and why. Telling students what to do and how to do it is one thing, and viable but getting them to take that information and apply it to themselves is my goal.

Also I try to teach by example. I don’t claim to know everything about art or design and if I don’t know the answer to something, I don’t bullshit them.  I say ‘let’s figure that out together’ and engage them and help them through solving the problem.  What I teach, I do.  I constantly bring in books, information and often tell horror stories or success stories about projects I’m doing. I’m pretty open about my feelings and opinions and try not to gloss things over.  That’s real.  That’s what the students deserve.

What is your advice to graduates entering the field today?

I think too often, new artists and illustrators don’t believe their value is as important as it actually is in popular culture.  Far too often the illustrator is expected to take on low-paying jobs with the dream that ‘exposure’ will somehow make up the difference. 

For example, the illustrator has been made to feel grateful for the opportunity to have their work printed on a box of tea and is expected to cower to the client’s terms and prices.  What many illustrators don’t take into account is that their work is what helps promote, sell and increase profits for whatever is being sold. Whether it’s for billboards, book covers, newspapers, magazine covers, album covers, movies, animations or packaging, know your value in the market and never short change yourself and never have a client dictate how you run your business.

Final words to teachers?

More and more often I hear about programs and curriculum that seem to lose focus on the goal: to create excellent illustrators. Creating courses because they’re ‘fun’, fulfill the whims of faculty or the administration, or to make sure students have jobs when they graduate in a field that isn’t related to their major is a disservice to the student and the program.  The heart of being an illustrator is a good drawing, thinking and picture-making ability.  The students are there to become illustrators.  Make them great illustrators. 

Final words to practicing illustrators?

Know your value.

And finally, what’s in your future, personally and professionally?

I have a bunch of projects in mind.  I’ve been obsessing over the American Revolution lately, especially the years leading up to it.  Since I live in Boston now where it all started there‘s a lot of that history around me.  Maybe something will come from that. I just glued down pages from a 1959 German book on eight small canvases for an upcoming show in Los Angeles—I’m not sure where I am going with it but I am having fun exploring where it might go. Mostly, I just want to enjoy life and experience whatever I can.  It’s a short life we have and there is a lot to fill it up with.