One of the greatest American illustrators of the twentieth century, an interview with Mark English

A Life Well Illustrated

Mark English is a name familiar to many a Kansas City-area art enthu-
siast, and for many reasons—he has been a world-class illustrator, induct-
ed into the Society of Illustrators’ Hall of Fame, an artist in residence at Hallmark and, most recently, a painter. In celebration of his storied career, the Eva Reynolds Fine Art Gallery at Prairiefire is hosting a retrospective of his work. We caught up with English for an introduction to the exhibit and, by extension, his career.

Kansas City Spaces: Tell us a bit about your background.

Mark English: I grew up in a little town in Texas. It was a cotton farming town at that time. I was picking cotton, which I hated. I started when I was 7 or 8 years old. My dad made me do it. He had five boys. I think he thought it was good for us.

One Saturday, I was working for my dad, who had a grocery store. At the time there were traveling sign painters. They’d come to town and paint signs for traveling rodeos, things like that. At the store that day, I saw a sign painter painting on the store windows, and I snuck away to watch him.

I was making $2 a day, sometimes less, picking cotton. At that time they paid a penny a pound, and it was hard for me to get a pound when I was very young. I saw the sign painter and I thought, “I could do that.”

I was about 15 when I started. You could get a driver’s license in Texas at age 15 if you proved a need or hardship—my dad used me and my car to deliver groceries for his store. I had a Model A Roadster at the time—that’ll date me. It was a 1930 model. I got in my car and started going to towns and painting signs. It changed my whole thought pattern of what I wanted to do.

KCS: Did you ever get formal training?

ME: I painted signs till I got out of high school. I went to the University of Texas for a year. I went into the Army and after the service, I went to art school. When I was in the service, I met a future movie director, Robert Benton. (He directed Places in the Heart.) He told me if I wanted to be an artist, I should go to the Art Center (College) in L.A. And lo and behold I got in. At that time it was the best art school in the country.

When I finished I was hired by an ad agency in Detroit as a designer—I painted the people around the cars (in car ads) and the backgrounds. But I realized the big time was in New York. I wanted to be a part of that. I got tired of painting people in cars. I moved to Connecticut since I knew some artists there.

I began my illustration career there. It took off pretty fast. I was amazed at how well I did in the beginning.

KCS: How did you break into magazines?

ME: The first job I had—I was in Connecticut four to five months before I landed a job, it was nerve-wracking—was for the Saturday Evening Post. It won awards at an illustration show, and from then on magazines started calling me. The work just came in. I didn’t have to hunt for it. When I quit, I was the most awarded illustrator at the Society of Illustrators in New York. I’ve been lucky to be successful.

KCS: Did you have a favorite client?

ME: The best was Sports Illustrated. They’d send me off and say, “Go find a story.” They sent me to Texas to chase rodeos. They sent me to a bullfight in Mexico between the number one Mexican and number one Spanish bullfighters.

My biggest jobs were story illustrations for Redbook, Ladies Home Journal, McCall’s, Boy’s Life. I did a lot of Eddie Bauer catalogs. I’ve done 15 stamps for the Postal Service. I worked for Time and did several of their covers—some of those are in the show. There’s a portrait of Ronald Reagan you’ll recognize.

Time would call and ask me to do a cover. They’d send a cab up (to Connecticut) on Saturday with the material, a synopsis of the story. Sunday they’d send a cab back to get the work. I usually worked straight through for 24 hours to get those jobs done. One thing you had to do as an illustrator is function fast—there were lots of deadlines. At least I don’t have that as a painter.

KCS: What else is different about painting?

ME: To me it’s all about entertaining myself and having fun. And I’m still trying to learn. That’s what a serious artist does.

 

English’s exhibit, “A Life Well Illustrated,” is on view at the Eva Reynolds Fine Art Gallery at Prairiefire through December 18. For more information go to evareynoldsfinearts.com.

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