Summer Interview Series Featuring Jesse Kuhn

I’m so excited to be able to kick off the Summer Interview Series with Jesse Kuhn of RawToastDesign. I first met Jesse while I was still a student at Missouri State and have been avidly following his work ever since. Art director, illustrator, children’s education advocate and publisher, Jesse produces some awesome work in addition to promoting children’s literacy through science with his book series, The Quirkles. (and you Know that’s right up my alley!)

The Quirkles

Give us some background information on The Quirkles. What gave you the idea for them? How did they go from being your senior practicum project to where they are today?

Hmmm, where to begin with The Quirkles 🙂 These little guys were my first major illustration project that actually stemmed from my final senior illustration practicum at Missouri State. In short, they are a 26 characters, one for each letter of the alphabet, that teach literacy skills through stories about science adventures with hands-on experiments for kids. Initially I did the character development for all 26 characters as my senior practicum project. After graduation, we discussed the serious potential in the marketplace for a series of children’s books that tackled science at the pre-k, kindergarten, and first grade level. There wasn’t any material at the time that was addressing the science needs directly for that age group in a practical way. From there, the potential was made more concrete for this science/literacy series through some great feedback from a couple major publishing houses. A partnership was then formed between myself and the co-developers, Terri Johnson and Sherry Cook, and we struck out on our own as a start-up educational publishing company. So for the next two years, many many late nights, and about 1,463 cups of coffee I brought 832 pages of children’s books to life. Which are now the foundation of The Quirkles product line that can be seen today.

Honestly, it’s really been an amazing journey so far. I’ve learned so much through this beyond the traditional role of being an illustrator/designer. Starting with the logistics of building and running a company from scratch. I’ve also become well versed in the elementary education community, and have had the opportunity to meet with so many inspirational educators and speakers at conferences all over the country. I’m actually doing educational workshops of my own now with teachers involving the integration of technology and the arts in the classroom as an offshoot of all this. The whole experience has really made me appreciate the value of how important it is to work on projects that bring deep personal gratification into my life. I want to leave this world knowing that it’s a better place because of the contributions I’ve made and the people I’ve helped. So far, The Quirkles have given me a nice introduction to that.

You recently moved from St. Louis to NYC. How has living in New York the past few years affected your work?

New York has really been an incredible place for me, things happen so much faster here. I feel like I’ve accomplished so much over the past two and a half years. (I can’t believe it’s been that long already!) It has been fundamental for my creative career, as well as personal exploration and growth. The pulse of this city is like no other that I know of: so many resources, culture, mixes of societal class, and mountains of inspiration packed so densely onto one little island. It’s definitely not an inexpensive place to live either, which forced me to reevaluate my business plan and also helped me get off the couch for more work. I suppose when more work *equals* drawing more pictures, things could definitely be worse. I’m grateful every morning for the city I live in and the work I get to choose to do in it.

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What advice do you have for aspiring illustrators that you wish someone had passed on to you?

Create, create, create…then promote, promote, promote… and then promote some more.

Take a business class, you are essentially in business for yourself. If you want this to be successful and lucrative, there are some business fundamentals that you really need to have a solid grasp on. Or get yourself a rep so you don’t have to deal with it. I, for one, like the mix: it allows me to shift modes when I’m not feeling so *creative*. Also, I think being comfortable when talking about money actually makes you more confident about the value of your work and pricing your services correctly too.

Last, but not least, taxes. Just remember that (depending on where you live) about 1/3 of each of those checks you’re cashing has to go to good ol’ Uncle Sam. Don’t spend it all. I actually have a separate bank account for this. After I deposit a check I write one to my self for 1/3 of the amount and then go to my other bank and deposit that right away so I’m not tempted to spend it all 🙂

How has social media affected the way you approach the illustration industry? Do you feel it makes it easier for illustrators to find potential clients?

I think it makes it easier for potential clients to find you. Most people now, immediately go to the web, and begin researching visually. There are so many great illustrators out their who understand the value of self promotion. You have to be realistic and know that it’s very easy to be quickly forgotten in this industry. Rest assured, if you aren’t sending out samples, posting your work on the web through multiple streams, and active socially (physically and virtually), other illustrators who are just as good or better than you *are* doing this and will most likely get the gigs. Promote a little… get a little. Promote a lot and it certainly increases your chances of making more connections, being seen, and getting more work…especially in the beginning.

It’s also an awesome way to get to know your peers. I’ve connected with so many other illustrators online that I’ve formed friendships with and met in person now too. It’s a great way to share resources, insight, ask questions, and get feedback. I had a couple unique jobs come through that I had to bid on, and I wasn’t exactly sure how to price them out. So I sent a few messages via twitter to other illustrators that I respect and got feedback on whether or not my estimates were realistic.

So…(in closing) I think there are many advantages to social media, and if you ignore it, you’re just ignoring other potential opportunities and professional relationships. I’ll be completely transparent though, and note that I do look forward to the day that I can retire from all this to a remote “unplugged” tree house in the woods…hopefully those places still exist then.

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I’ve seen you selling your art prints on the street in New York and at Chicago’s Renegade Craft Fair: where else can people buy your work and what festivals do you plan on attending this year?

I still remember the first time I sold my work and how awesome it felt knowing that someone really was going to hang it in their home. It has really been another great way to monetize existing illustration work and a way for The Republic of RTD to continue to expand. What started as a small little table over in Union Square down the street from my apartment has now grown to be a sizable part of my business offering archival quality limited edition prints of my illustrations. I now have several stores that carry my smaller sized prints and I’ve been licensing work too. Prints can be purchased on the website and some are available on shirts too over at Skreened.

Artists in New York City are very fortunate. Protected under the First Amendment of free speech, we are allowed to display and sell our work legally for free on the streets of the city as long as you comply with certain regulations. I’ve met and made a lot of connections through this and doing art markets/shows. It’s really a great way to move some business cards too. Fortunately/unfortunately I don’t make it out to the streets as much as I used to because work has been steady and also the competition has gotten steep for getting a spot over in Union Square (the recession had everyone and their brother out trying to sell something). I do try and make it to some of the bigger fairs and shows though. So far this spring RTD has done St. Louis with the CraftMafia, Philadelphia with ArtStar, and just did the big BUST Magazine Spring Craftacular and Renegade Craft Fair in Brooklyn. Also coming up this summer are Soulard Market Park Fair St. Louis, Renegade Craft Fair Los Angeles, and Renegade Craft Fair San Francisco this year. There are others that are currently being reviewed and applications are in the works for fall shows already too. Folks can checkout the store which lists the show schedule and gets updated as new ones are added.

I really have a great time doing these and wish I had time to do them full time. When you work alone in the studio the majority of the time it’s nice (and healthy) to get out and socialize with humans, and this gives me a nice dosage of that. 🙂

Also starting in June, 10% of all print sales will be going into a mini-grant fund for schools. The one thing that frustrates me the most with the educational community are the constant budget cuts and lack of funding for today’s youth. All to often this is the reason that children are unable to benefit from The Quirkles Science and Literacy book series. The requests for donations far outweigh what the company is able to fulfill. So initially, I will be personally awarding funding for full Quirkles book sets (including extras and the Teachers Guide) on a revolving basis and will hopefully then expand this into other funding eventually as well. Application details to be announced soon!

Everyone loves a contest, and you do one every month: details, please!

I give away a free signed 5×7 print of the winners choice each month and there is a grand prize drawing for one of my limited edition 16×20 prints at the end of the year as well. If you tweet it or post it to your blog or facebook (and send me the link) I’ll enter you twice for that month. Each month starts over, so people should enter every month if they want to be eligible for each monthly drawing. Only one entry during the year is needed for the grand prize drawing though. Blog shout outs will get you an extra entry for the grand prize too.

All images © RawToastDesign