Notables: A Fit for Found Pieces

How illustrator Steve Skelton reignited his passion for art through puzzle making.

Steve Skelton

Completing a puzzle is as close as one can get to completing a work of art without creating it. Having a clear view of a picture in one’s mind and seeing it manifest provides a deep sense of fulfillment, of clarity. So, then, one wonders if the opposite is true. If a complete image begins to fragment into nothing, does that create the want to be made whole again? This is the journey of Steve Skelton, an illustrator who lives in Longmont, Colorado. He has worked in nearly every aspect of commercial visual arts for over 20 years, endured tragedy, lost his passion, and found himself again through puzzles.

Locating the edges of inspiration

The roots of Skelton’s style reach back to painters like Hieronymus Bosch or Pieter Bruegel the Elder, both known for the “Wimmelbilderbuch,” or hidden picture book style, that fills a large landscape with busy, highly detailed images depicting a scene that has the energy of a large event. Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” depicting Eden with bodies upon bodies celebrating in bacchanal fashion, embodies this concept.

Skelton’s work follows the evolution of picture book format by featuring whimsical concepts with a cartoonish influence while keeping the “busy” feel to the image. He described his style as MAD magazine meets “Where’s Waldo?”

“I like silliness and whimsy. I think we can use a bit more of that.” Although he marks Gary Larson, who created “The Far Side,” and Bill Waterson, creator of “Calvin and Hobbes,” among his influences, the bedrock of his inspiration was built upon the work of Don Martin, one of the MADdest of MAD illustrators.

Skelton started out pursuing this world of whimsy by becoming an illustrator for newspapers, which afforded him a chance to work with Hallmark, Playboy, and Time magazine. His most prized work was his own comic strip, “2 Cows and a Chicken,” which won him the FineToon Fellowship from the Washington Post in 2004.

The rise of the internet

As much of Skelton’s success was in the early 2000s, the turn south was sharper than expected when the internet came around. “I grew up wanting to be a syndicated cartoonist in the newspaper. And, so, I was pursuing that for a lot of years. I did a panel. The last one was carried by the Times-Call for over three years. “That had success, but right then newspapers started to really struggle. I think Craigslist pretty much killed the local newspapers.”

The decline in local papers and, by proxy, the space to print illustrated cartoon strips, was just the beginning of closing avenues of income. Skelton’s work with Hallmark would also dry up, a loss that Skelton also attributes to the rise of the internet.

Camping Puzzle

The negative space

An important element of visual art is the ability to manipulate positive and negative space, giving a sense of positioning and shape by what is present within the image as much as what isn’t. Empty space begs to be filled. Understanding how to fill that negative space can be a long and daunting prospect.

Skelton had surgery go sideways on him years back. He didn’t give too many details on the procedure, and I didn’t want to pry. He did admit the most important part: The surgery and the unexpected recovery kept him out of work for almost two years.

This took a toll. When he found enough strength to get back to work, one of his most steady streams of income had unexpectedly closed. Ceaco, an off-brand puzzle-making company, informed Skelton that his “Tooniverse” line of puzzles had run its course. Further, despite all his efforts, his comic strip, “2 Cows and a Chicken,” was discontinued. “For the last 15 years, I’ve been doing whiteboard explainer videos that are business to business or business to consumer or PSAs that are kinda cool. But, I lost my identity in doing that because — it took me like 10 years to realize that my name wasn’t on any of them. I had lost control of my identity, made me kind of sad, doing this kind of work made me unfulfilled.”

In an interesting parallel, Don Martin, a primary influence for Skelton’s work, had to also go through some excruciating hardships as he battled blindness for most of his adult life. One hesitates to mark such events as part of the “journey,” the negative space one must explore in daily life in order to find purpose. But, perhaps Skelton himself would be heartened to know that even his idol suffered great hardships and despite it all, produced memorable art.

Gaining a new perspective

As avenues for income were dwindling, Skelton knew he had to come up with a novel idea. Motivated by his experiences and losses during the 2-year span he couldn’t work, he wanted his next project to be something that was truly his. The project ended up being an extension of his Tooniverse puzzle concept called “Name That Toon.” During this process, he not only reignited his passion for creation but began to learn what it meant to be an independent artist in the internet age.

“The secret to making it as an artist, almost, is that if you can make something that you can sell over and over — it’s called passive income, but it’s not really passive if you’re working your butt off!”

The concept of putting Skelton’s original artwork and making it a puzzle game worked well in concert with one another. His successful Kickstarter campaign proved it.

Noah’s Ark

“When you go to a museum, you may look at the greatest painting in the world for about five minutes then walk away. So, in doing jigsaw puzzles, I don’t know if there’s anything where someone’s going to experience your artwork intensely for that long. I didn’t go into it because of that, but that’s kind of a neat thing that happens,” he pointed out.

Turning his original illustrations into a puzzle makes it tangible, allowing the audience to interact with the work, something that’s also not allowed in museums unless given explicit instruction. In many ways, Skelton’s new venture is a kind of modern art, something that takes the mixed-media approach from the Pop Art movement of the ‘50s and combines those elements with modern technology to create a unique experience.

Whether Skelton intended to or not, by using a mixed-media approach, he may have discovered an evolution of the modern art experience.

The advance of technology, the loss of art

As for artificial intelligence and art, “I think it’s great for science and medicine and stuff like that. Even logistics, I mean, oh my gosh. It’s going to be good for a lot of things, but for art, it will just be troublesome. Whether you’re talking music, writing, photography, illustration, graphic design — all of them will be impacted negatively.”

“AI will be good for mankind, but a lot of people will be displaced by it,” he noted poignantly. An article written by Sarah Shaffi in The Guardian revealed that even the prospective best-case scenarios with AI art come with sizable sacrifices. Among the many issues covered, an idea was proposed that would stop these programs from stealing work they don’t have the rights to use. This would at least stop programs from making money off other people’s works by adding measures for opt-in laws that would allow artists authority and give them say as to what specific AI programs have access to use their art. This would limit the automated aspect of AI. Sadly, this will still negatively influence small artists because the AI program would be used for small, low-paying jobs that are commonly used to build portfolios.

At a certain point the fight with AI feels akin to the folktale of John Henry competing against the drilling machine. One wonders how long the artist fights to keep up. A point that Skelton noted, “I wanted to draw like Don Martin, like Mort Drucker. It took me years to get better with all of it, and with AI all of that time goes away.”

Dog Park

Art needs the human condition

The life of Vincent Van Gogh, the unofficial saint of art and suffering, was the focus of an episode of the BBC’s “Doctor Who.” The episode ends when Van Gogh — famous for his art as his poor mental health and poverty — sees his own artwork on display in a museum. Van Gogh, who had only sold one painting his entire life, weeps as mobs of people clamor to get a glimpse of his work. Watching this version of himself getting to see the impact his art made on the world was sublimely rewarding.

The struggle of the artist’s search for validation, one ventures to assume, isn’t something that is lost on Skelton. However, now that he has reached his 60s, he’s finally found something that is truly his: “It’s always a fight between trying to make something that comes from within you as [opposed to] making something that’s for a client. It’s a different thing. I think we all become writers, artists, and musicians to explore what’s inside of us. And bring it out, nurture it.”

One can’t help but think back to Skelton’s statements describing the loss he felt when he was bedridden, a feeling that compounded later when he wasn’t able to write his name on his animated whiteboards. So much depends on the signature, the human-to-human contact stipulating that the artists will put their all into a piece. Even if that change is a little more whimsy and silliness, without the name, a space is left between the curator and audience, leaving no acknowledgment of the time, sweat, and pain endured to bring the piece of art into the world.

Skelton admits that he still must do work outside of his puzzles to make ends meet. But, he has “Name That Toon” in perpetuity. The project is his. It’s the culmination of all the things in life that he loves while also creating a unique take on modern art. This is the foundation for his legacy — one he can proudly sign his name to.

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