Last year, at an art exhibit, I was stopped dead in my tracks by a giant, snarling, powerful bull. But it wasn’t really a bull, it was the Greek god Zeus who had disguised himself as a bull. But it wasn’t really Zeus, it was an 8-foot tall woodcut print created by artist Neal Harrington. I’ve always been fascinated by the technique and appearance of woodcuts, but this was something different, this was an elegantly rendered scene of both beauty and monstrosity, crystal-clear forms and murky mythology. And right beside it was another print of the same size (8’ x 4’), this one about another Greek myth, Daphne being pursued by Apollo.
Wait, isn’t this a blog about marketing? Don’t worry. You are in the right place, but after that initial experience, I’ve sought out more of Neal’s work, and have become interested in the similarities between the art of art and the art of marketing, especially as it relates to a viewer’s response. A good designer or marketer must draw upon culture to be able to have any connection with the people they are marketing to, and these explorations give us a chance to learn from and incorporate good ideas and habits. So I visited Neal in his studio to see what I could learn.
Growing up a talented and free-spirited kid in South Dakota, “There wasn’t much to do there, so I ended up drawing all the time,” Harrington says. One of his key influences was comic books, especially the work of Ernie Chan, whose signature style for comics like “The Savage Sword of Conan” included intricately rendered forms of shadow and musculature. “I was just mesmerized by what he could do with just black and white.” His route to a painting degree from the University of South Dakota included stops in the English, Graphic Design, and Criminal Justice departments (Neal loves the tv show Cops). Woodcuts and printmaking became his primary artistic focus because the process appealed to him: “It made me a better artist, I had to resolve issues early on and plan things out. It appeals to me because it involves inspiration, then planning, then you just get down to the work of carving.” In addition to being a working artist, he is an Associate Professor of Art at Arkansas Tech University.
Neal’s personal work is heavily influenced by mythology and tall tales with a distinctly Americana flavor: “I’ve always been drawn to the rich visual history of the South and to blues and bluegrass music, and I try to visually express that.”
One of the parallels I was able to draw from listening to Neal talk about his working process was the relationship between the inception of the idea, the planning of its execution, and the journey towards making that plan a reality. “Making a print is like recording a song in the studio,” Harrington says. “You lay down a track, then you come back and do the fills and the overdubs later.” This is a very important reality of the creative process in the marketing industry as well. Planning is vital, we make strategic plans for brand positioning, we make action plans for getting the work done, and we make media plans that control how and when our message is consumed. Then once we plan what to make and how to make it, it’s time to actually make it. In our business, just like in art or music, this can be where the real magic happens. Even though the track is in place, the producer might suggest a different arrangement, some new sounds, maybe a gospel choir in the background. A printmaker might carve out an unintended mark in the wood that leads to a new visual effect. It’s important, as a creator, to be open to new ideas and new avenues at this stage. To remain rigidly locked into your original plan can cause you to miss something wonderful, something in-the-moment that can make all the difference in the audience’s reaction to it.
A Big Story, a Single Image
One of the things about Neal’s work that made me stop in the first place was sheer curiosity; what on earth was happening in this picture? Greek mythology is not one of the more easily-accessed topics in my brain, so I enjoyed reading the titles of the pieces then later looking up what stories they referenced. If there is one thing human beings love more than stories, it’s the resolution to those stories. That’s what draws us in, to know more, to learn the conclusion, to resolve the conflict. “I was always disappointed when the covers of comic books had nothing to do with the story inside. But even so, the single image on the cover told a different and wonderful story in a single frame,” Harrington says.
Advertising and design in culture just happen to people, they are rarely sought-out or given much more than a fleeting glance. Which is why good ads usually include a compelling visual or headline, a strong opening chapter that makes people want to finish the book.
One of the prints in Neal’s studio began with a birdcage: “We have a fake plastic birdcage in my house and I look at it every morning while I’m eating breakfast. I thought ‘It would be neat to do a print with a birdcage in it. What would a guy do with a birdcage? Maybe he’s running booze down some back stream and the releasing of a bird from the cage is a signal to some other guys to come make the pick-up. Or maybe it’s a bad signal. I want the person who sees it to draw their own conclusions.” A story doesn’t have to spoon-feed you the resolution, sometimes the viewer will complete the journey themselves.
Busyness and Inspiration
In addition to holding down a teaching job, making art, showing art in galleries, and submitting art to exhibitions, Neal has a wife and two children. “When my kids got a little older, I just couldn’t wait, I thought ‘Man, I’ll just be able to make art all the time,’ and when I got all that time during the summer……nothing. No ideas. I thought ‘It’s over, I’m tapped out.’ Then school started, I got busy, I’m coaching my son’s football team, taking my daughter to dance and gymnastics, doing a million other things, then bam, I had like nine ideas.”
Creativity and art are powerful expressions of how one person or one group of people view the world. But this singular expression must be constantly fed with outside stimuli, or the well will inevitably dry up. Neal surrounds himself with the stimuli of music, folklore, storytelling, and Americana, and from that his own voice emerges. Designers and marketers are no different. Only by being students of culture can our messages reflect and build upon that culture to create meaningful and interesting stories.
You can learn more about Neal and his work at nealkharrington.com.