VCU grads start a ripple in editorial illustration

By Jose Davila.

Chris Kindred and Shannon Wright are a freelancing power-couple who got their start at VCU and now are making their mark in the world of creative illustration.

“If we weren’t both bad at sculpture at the exact same time and [weren’t] at the exact workshop we wouldn’t have met,” Kindred said.

Kindred served as the first Commonwealth Times Illustrations Editor, beginning in 2013 and Wright took over in August 2015. Kindred graduated from VCU in December of 2015 and Wright followed in May of 2016. Both of them occasionally did freelance illustrations before departing VCU; now, “business is good,” Kindred said.

The two of them serve as each other’s art directors, Wright said. This informal collaboration serves them well, as they always have a pair of “fresh eyes” to look over a piece. As their relationship has progressed, the quality of their work has improved.

“We’re not stuck in our own heads. I can very much notice how my work is improved after moving in [with Wright],” Kindred said.

Kindred has done illustrations published in The New York Times, NPR and Buzzfeed. His illustrations for The Atlantic article, “The Nationalist’s Delusion,” has gotten widespread attention. He said he knew it was a piece that was going to be talked about.

“It didn’t pick up [attention] immediately, I saw a lot of people in journalism that I had worked with or had worked for share it and they looked back and they’re like, ‘Oh! Chris illustrated that,’” Kindred said.

The techniques Kindred used in his piece for The Atlantic show how much can be conveyed through an illustration. He said the the colors and warped feel make the image foreboding and unsettling.

Illustration allows for the visualization of topics that can’t necessarily be photographed, like sexual harassment, Wright said.

“Illustrators come in and we’re able to exaggerate,” Wright said. “We use a lot of symbolisms and metaphors.”

Wright has work published with TIME Magazine, The Guardian and BBC News. Recently, she began illustrating children’s books, which include “Betty Before X,” which is co-authored by Malcolm X’s daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz. Another one of her projects will be published with Arthur A. Levine Books, the imprint of Scholastic Press that published Harry Potter books in the U.S.

“I’m doing work that is in the sphere of what I’ve always wanted to do, which is just observing what it means to be human,” Wright said.

Wright said she enjoys “whimsical,” slice-of-life pieces that show characters “being who they are.” She was inspired by the expressive, multi-dimensional characters in manga and anime.

Kindred was also inspired by the over-the-top, yet heartfelt, aspects of manga — he still carries a Yu-Gi-Oh! card in his wallet.

“I read my first comic book, American comic book, and then I put it down and picked up an issue of Dragon Ball Z,” Kindred said.

In fact, Kindred and Wright speculate many illustrators of their generation were inspired by manga.

Despite the fact Wright and Kindred do different kinds of work and have developed different styles, the intersections between their personal and professional relationship benefit their careers.

“Chris’s presence as proven to be not only mentally and emotionally supportive but definitely professionally supportive too which goes back this idea of a partnership,” Wright said.

The collaboration between the pair reached beyond the benefits of a traditional art director, being that they know each other’s work, Kindred said. They go over concepts and presentation in a way that a third party might not have time to do.

“[Peer reviewing] is the strongest aspect of our relationship in our professional career. We call it being professional in our relationship,” Kindred said.

The pair’s arrival into the professional arena comes at a time when artists are using social media in new ways.

“After graduation, once we were able to promote a little harder, at least in my experience, the jobs kept getting more steady and would kind of multiply,” Kindred said.

This promotion comes in the form of social media engagement.

Many artists have turned to Twitter after a “collective exhaustion” with Tumblr, Kindred said. Wright speculates the exodus has to do with some of the toxic tendencies of Tumblr users who degraded artists’ work. More recently, she says, algorithms on Twitter and Instagram have made it more difficult for artists to promote work.

“I feel like there’s definitely been some illustrations that I’ve done that I thought were very powerful that didn’t get the same attention as maybe a piece of fan art I’ve made,” Wright said. “Sometimes [the algorithm] screws people over, sometimes it doesn’t.”

This is one of the challenges faced by many illustrators — they have to be their own social media managers, Kindred said. The decentralization of the industry means there aren’t a lot of protections in place for artists.

The lack of centralization brings an additional challenge for editorial illustrators. Unlike journalists, they don’t have a guiding system of ethics to turn to when sensitive moments or topics arise.

“[As a result] you might be able to build an entire career on not necessarily unethical illustration, but illustration that isn’t socially responsible,” Kindred said.

Kindred said many illustrations surrounding the topic of police brutality towards Black people lacked social responsibility; many illustrators were commissioned to draw corpses. Once Black illustrators began to take a more active role in creating these pieces, Kindred said the visuals changed to represent the community as a whole, or the “depravity of the people causing the hurt.”

For Wright, constantly creating such serious work was challenging. As a Black woman, she said she ended up with many assignments depicting the struggle of women, Black people and Black women.

“When I first got out of school, or when I was first in school, I was doing a lot of socially-conscious racially-based pieces and they’re fine. I love taking those because a person with that experience needs to be taking those pieces in order for it to be genuine, true,” Wright said. “But after a while you get pigeon-holed into the Black artist who does Black pieces.”

There are few Black illustrators, and even fewer Black editorial illustrators. For this reason, many end up with a high number of assignments depicting the struggles of Black people, especially since most of the coverage of Black people is related to those struggles, Kindred said.

“We’re in a hard place because that is our means of income,” Kindred said. “A lot of our jobs have come through talking about that struggle. We’ve made a lot of money on mining our experiences and traumas.”  

Kindred emphasizes that illustrators’ work exists in context and they must be responsible for how subjects are portrayed. Wright said that illustrators should be aware of the impact that their work can have because it can “ripple.”

“Whether it be a positive or a negative ripple, you have to be conscious of what content you’re putting out,” Wright said.


Georgia Geen, Staff Writer 

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