New Illustration Chair Owen Smith: Cover to Cover

Owen Smith, the new chair of CCA's Illustration Program, got his first New Yorker cover commission when he was a senior at Art Center College of Design. "I'd entered a work in a juried competition, and it was published in American Illustration, and Françoise Mouly, the art director of the New Yorker, saw it and called me. I was lucky. But I suppose it's also true that you make your own luck, as they say."

So, what is Smith's advice for students looking to break into the field?

"They should enter their work in juried competitions, like those run by the Society of Illustrators, American Illustration, and Communication Arts. They have categories for unpublished work and student work. It is a great way to get your art seen alongside the art of very successful, senior professionals."

Plans for the Curriculum

As the new chair, Smith's plans for Illustration -- which is CCA's largest program, with Graphic Design, Architecture, and Industrial Design very close behind -- involve evolving the curriculum to respond to changes in the field.

"We've got students coming in now wanting to work in gaming, or sculpture, or graphic novels -- all fairly new applications of an education in illustration," he says. "It's daunting but exciting to have the responsibility of preparing them to become professionals."

The curriculum will be shifting from a primarily editorial and book focus toward a new paradigm in which the definition of "illustration" is both broader and blurrier. Rather than expecting students to choose a career track -- entertainment, fine art, editorial -- as they are at some schools, he envisions CCA's program as embracing an increasingly wide array of media and cross-disciplinary collaborations.

Preparing for Professional Work

He plans to steer the Illustration 1 through 5 courses into a more linear progression. And there will be new courses that enrich the existing curriculum, especially career-based courses devoted to the transition to independent professional practice, since, more and more, students are graduating into a world where they will run their own businesses rather than working in-house for a publisher or an advertising firm.

Smith also plans to more actively pursue collaborations with the fine art and writing programs as well as Graphic Design and Animation, since those are the kinds of interactions that the students will have in the real world.

"I want to make the curriculum as true and relevant as possible," he explains. "What is it like to work with an art director? Or an editor? Or the author of a children’s book? It's not worthwhile professional practice if the Illustration students are just art directing each other!

"And then of course there are the things we continue to cover and always will, such as dealing with clients, problem solving, narrative sequencing, and figuring out the underlying conceptual themes that tie your work together. Those are core skills."

CCA's Illustration Faculty

Smith's predecessor was Alexis Mahrus, who has been interim chair for the past two years. She took over when the highly esteemed Dugald Stermer, who began teaching at CCA in 1989 and was a legend in the field, passed away at the end of 2011. Stermer hired the majority of the current faculty, who include Robert Hunt, Bob Ciano, and Barron Storey.

"The faculty have very diverse skills, and we're going to be hiring a couple more, which means we can broaden our capabilities even further. So, all the pieces are there. I really want this program to become more visible on the national radar, but I want to do it in an organic, authentic way."

Some Personal Background

Smith has taught at CCA for 10 years now. He grew up in the Bay Area suburb of Fremont, then went to school at Art Center in Pasadena, where he met his wife, who is also an artist. They lived in New York for three years before deciding to settle in the town of Alameda.

"Today, it's possible to live anywhere and be in this business. In New York I would personally bring my portfolio to meet with art directors at their offices, and it was incredibly useful to have that face time when I was starting out. Now I just scan work and send clients JPGs!"

But it is of course important to maintain personal connections with colleagues in the design community, so he does still travel a lot, especially to New York and Los Angeles.

Field Trips

The department has a very popular field trip that takes a group of students from Robert Hunt's Professional Practice course to New York during spring break. They meet art directors, visit the studios of full-time working illustrators, and explore museums and the Society of Illustrators.

"We have also been making stronger connections to the local art community. And I'd love to take them on trips to L.A., too, and Europe. And organize more exchange programs with other schools."

Magazines & Murals

Smith's own career is reflective of a growing number of illustrators today, he explains, in that rather than exclusively doing client-based work and specializing in a particular medium (for instance editorial, or kids' books), he has a fine art practice, teaches, and, now, administrates.

He also undertakes public commissions. "I think illustrators are really well suited to public commissions," Smith muses, "since we are totally accustomed to working with clients. We even relish the challenge of pleasing them, operating within their constraints."

He's done 18 covers for the New Yorker alone, as well as covers for Sports Illustrated, Time, and Rolling Stone. Other clients have included the San Francisco Opera, BART, and the United Nations.

He recently completed work on his third children's book. His paintings have been featured in exhibitions in New York, Rome, and Milan, and he's had solo shows in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

His cover art and interior booklet illustrations for Aimee Mann's The Forgotten Arm CD helped it win a Grammy Award for best packaging.

If you're local, you may have seen Smith's work for the San Francisco Arts Commission: In 2007 he created a series of six large posters for their Art on Market Street program depicting characters and scenes from Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 book The Maltese Falcon.

Smith's lobby mural mosaics and relief sculptures can be seen at Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco. Several of his mosaic murals are permanently installed at the 36th Street subway station in Brooklyn.