Thursday, April 20, 2006

Mainstreaming in art

I received an interresting question in response to an illustration that I posted a few days ago. Miss P AKA Her Royal Cliqueness — as tactfully as possible — asked: "when illustrating for work, knowing the reader of the paper you work for, was it assumed when you got the assignment that the illustration would depict a certain race?"

I'm reticent to discuss much about my full-time gig on this blog. This blog is primarily my spot to discuss children's publishing, and besides that, I don't want to give anyone any reason to me. But, it was a very good question, deserving a full post.

I've been asked this question many times, many ways. In general, it goes something like this: when it comes to your newspaper art, why's a black illustrator always illustrating white folks?

My answer: Well, I don't have a good answer, and the following probably wimps out.

Back home in Iowa, I worked for a Ganette paper. They had a term used for promoting diversity in the paper: mainstreaming. Mainstreaming wasn't particularly about race, per se, but included gender, age, religion and sexual orientation. It simply promoted the goal of getting diverse voices, images, and sources into the paper. As it related to me, an artist creating images for the paper, it meant including black people (or, least non-whites) in my art whenever possible, unless a story specifically called for a white person. I mean, if a story was about Bill Clinton, obviously, I couldn't illustrate him as a black man. If a story was about flying kites at the park, I would illustrate that story with people of color.

Mainstreaming was mandated from the top down, so whenever I created illustrations, I pretty much created images of black people exclusively. With seven other white artists on staff, there was no shortage of Caucasion images going into the paper. Mainstreaming gave me permission to do what I knew was right, but was too uncomfortable to voice with my higher-ups. And, don't misunderstand, mainstreaming wasn't meant to exclude white people; it simply challenged people to think diverse.

Mainstreaming isn't a term used at my current full-time gig, at least I've never heard it used. Now, let me CYA — another term I learned at a past full-time gig. I'm not saying that my current full-time gig isn't concerned with mainstreaming, or racial diversity in illustrated images, I'm sure they are... at some level. But, for me personally, it hasn't been an in-your-face-issue the same as it was in my past experiences, so I simply choose to leave it alone.

Most times, without thinking, I'll simply illustrate white people in my newspaper art because it draws the least amount of undesired attention. Unfortunately race adds a whole separate conversation to an illustration. Putting a black face on a generic story suddenly communicates something that may be unintended, particularly for nonblacks. The illustration that I posted earlier this week, which featured a white person, had to do with politics, and legislators. Though, I'm sure there are black state legislators (I think, I might be wrong), had I used a black face, there may have been some questions as to why, or who does he represent, or why is he black, or what are you trying to say?

I'm not trying to move mountains, I'm just trying to make a living from them.

Besides that, I get plenty of opportunities to illustrate people of color in the realm of children's publishing. Wimpy? Maybe. This issue just isn't my fight.


ShellyP said...

Interesting issue. I don't think your response is a wimpy one. We have to choose our battles wisely because we couldn't possibly foght them all.

Miss P AKA Her Royal Cliqueness said...

Don, thanks for your candor.

I don't think your answer wimped out. I appreciate your dedicating a full post to answer.

I don't even have to hesitate to answer my own question - if that were me I'd be doing the same.

The cool thing is you have your non-newsy artwork to satisfy the other sides of you.