Elwood Smith is an award-winning, internationally known illustrator whose work has graced the pages and covers of TIME, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Barron's, American Heritage, Forbes, and Fortune, among other publications. Elwood was writer and artist for two recent children’s books, I'm Not a Pig in Underpants and How To Draw With Your Funny Bone.
Elwood: I’m honored to be interviewed for your blog, but I’m not sure I’m a good fit for a place that honors the power of a good memory. Mine is dreadful. Of course, my brain has the ability to retain the stuff needed to make art, but beyond that, I’m a bona-fide washout. And now, at age 74, I’m content for the most part to be one of those scatterbrained creative stereotypes.
Brent: I consider myself an “applied imagination consultant.” I believe conjuring up creative imagery is the key to memorization. As a career artist, you must have keener powers of observation than most.
Elwood: I don’t even notice stuff around me particularly well, except in a general, hazy way. Even my art is less informed by “reality” than by things in a more ethereal state floating about in an alternate reality.
Brent: Give an example of a favorite illustration that emerged from seeing an otherwise ordinary situation in an unusual way.
Elwood: Well, I’m not sure this illustration emerged from an ordinary situation, but it is one of my favorites. The story headline for this illustration was “A Scientist Takes On Gravity” for a New York Times science column on July 12, 2010.
Brent: When the Times asks you to do an illustration to accompany an article, what do you look for in the text for inspiration?
Elwood: I receive the story, or at least a rough outline of the story, from the art director at the New York Times and take it from there. I study the written material to absorb the gist of the story and then I reread it to seek a hook, something that offers up visual possibilities. Author and editor Dennis Overbye writes the “Out There” science column for the New York Times, and he is a most unusual editor.
Brent: How so?
Elwood: Most editors, in my experience, prefer that the illustrator hew closely to the story. Dennis, on the other hand, is happiest when I use his writing as a jumping-off point to create a fanciful piece, something that catches the eye of the reader, but doesn’t necessarily explain the story visually. The illustration above is a perfect example of the fun I can have when I’m given that extra support and freedom.
Brent: Dennis Overbye enjoys taking creative liberties in his own writing, as I recall.
Elwood: Without a doubt! Here are the first two paragraphs from his gravity article:
"It’s hard to imagine a more fundamental and ubiquitous aspect of life on the Earth than gravity, from the moment you first took a step and fell on your diapered bottom to the slow terminal sagging of flesh and dreams.
“But what if it’s all an illusion, a sort of cosmic frill, or a side effect of something else going on at deeper levels of reality?”
Brent: So how do you avoid getting overwhelmed by the scientific details?
Elwood: I love reading science articles, but I’m easily lost in the complexity of the writing. In this case, the gist of the story is that a famous physics professor, Erik Verlinde, doesn’t believe that gravity exists. Rather than try to grasp Verlinde’s concept that “gravity is a consequence of the venerable laws of thermodynamics,” I chose to show a street scene with gravity simply giving up the ghost.
Brent: Very easy to visualize!
Elwood: I picked a bunch of elements that I like drawing—cars, clowns, umbrellas, tin cans, manhole covers, etc.—and showed them floating above the street. I decided to anchor one person to the ground, the guy reading a newspaper with the headline, “Gravity Doesn’t Exist,” which made the whole thing absurd and, therefore, funny.
Brent: Your work is definitely humorous.
Elwood: I don’t think of my work as “ha ha” funny, but a more subtle, oddball funny. Most of my characters are anxious, just like I am. The world is a worrisome place. Particularly so, when we learn that gravity doesn’t exist.
Brent: You’re also a gifted musician and play guitar in various bands. How do your music and visual art interact?
Elwood: I’ve been asked this question before, and I used to say that my art and my music were separate art forms in my life. My view of that has changed in the past decade. Once I began making small animated videos, the two forms overlapped and were informed by each other. Writing, too, intersected with my art. And when I began writing songs, the words and music became necessary companions. I’ve also begun to see that my illustrated work, filled with motion and agitation, has a genuine musicality to it.
Brent: When you’re not constrained by a newspaper’s guidelines, what kind of drawings do you produce?
Elwood: I’ve been working on a series of drawings that are free of the restrictions that have existed my entire career as an illustrator. I like themes, so these current drawings are entitled, “Death at the Circus.”
Brent: That is a jarring juxtaposition, but certainly a memorable one. What spawned this combination?
Elwood: Death’s presence has always been a force in my life, even when I was a small child. It has haunted me even more since my wife’s untimely death from cancer a few years ago. I used to be more fearful of death than I am now, but I find it even harder to grasp the idea of a loved one disappearing from our lives forever. So my series is about the presence of death and the circus aspect of life—of my personal life, which includes my dear family and friends—but also of the clownish, nutty—and sometimes lovable—aspects of the world around me.
Brent: What’s the next step with this series?
Elwood: I’m about to make a short video putting my new artwork into motion in some way, which will feature some kind of soundtrack of my own creation. I’m not sure exactly how this project will unfold, but I’m excited about creating it.
Brent: You are a master of synesthesia, bringing together the visual and performing arts into a very coherent whole.
Elwood: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me and finding form somewhere in my ramblings.
Delve deeper into Elwood's world of imagination on his website.