5 Questions with an Emmy-Winning Illustrator
Norman Rockwell was horrified when a fellow illustrator suggested that their craft was a way to just make a living—"You do your job, you get your check, and nobody thinks it's art." He replied, "Oh no no no. How can you say that? No man with a conscience can just bat out illustrations. He's got to put all of his talent, all of his feelings into them."
Illustrators are image-makers. Their craft employs the imagination to create the visual equivalent of a verbal idea. When illustrators pick up their markers and draw "good" pictures, they bear the image of God as Creator. I recently corresponded with Amanda Geisinger, an Emmy Award-winning illustrator and interactive designer, currently on staff at Nickelodeon in New York City. We talked about how illustrations were a part of her journey from atheism to Christianity and about how her faith intersects with her work.
When did you first become interested in illustration and design?
I seem to have come pre-programmed with a super strong appetite for creating, which is odd, given that I was born blind. Fortunately, with time and a slew of surgeries, I gradually gained enough eyesight that my lifelong dream of becoming a visually impaired visual artist wasn't so absurd. I marched merrily off to college to study design, the major I had declared to my parents in kindergarten.
How were illustrations a part of your coming to faith?
When I graduated from art school, I fell into editing and production design for Nickelodeon Magazine's comic books. I knew very little about comics going in, and yet I was given the amazing opportunity to be involved in every step of the comic creation process with some of the best artists and editors in the field. The work I was seeing happen on a daily basis was so extraordinary (and so novel an art form to me) that I couldn't help but to start experimenting on my own with my newfound knowledge.
It just so happened that at the time I was exploring something else for the first time—Christianity. As an angry atheist who grew up completely outside the church, I was encountering an overwhelming amount of information that was super weird, generally incomprehensible, and extremely frustrating. Without realizing what was happening, I started processing this new world, in part, through my comics.
My distaste for this God-I-wasn't-sure-existed was pretty evident in those early wanderings. He showed up on the scene as a sullen, angry looking cloud who perpetually glared out of his furrowed brow with a frown (although I did give him the benefit of occasionally having a sense of humor).
They're not comics in the traditional sense, in that they usually aren't trying to be funny or clever. I was mostly interested in the process of creating my own highly efficient, clear visual language. The first drawings were just responses to things I encountered in church. I was also doing a ton of reading and note taking at the time. I kept a list of things that weren't necessarily compelling arguments for the existence of a God, but were things that I felt were not being successfully refuted by my compadres on Team Atheism. I started to accompany those with drawings, too.
Eventually, though, Cloud-God and Nail-Holes-in-His-Hands-Jesus were not necessarily appealing, but there were enough of these notes that I was ready to concede that the logical bet was that it was more likely than not that Jesus had literally risen from the dead. Sitting at home one night with that little notebook, I made the decision to switch cosmic teams.
Not much later Nickelodeon "exited the print industry," and our entire department was laid off. And as I left the world of print and comics at Nick Magazine for the world of interactive design at Nick Digital, and put away the notebook and picked up the Bible, I put the cap on my markers for a while. I'd occasionally draw, but for the most part I had lost interest in the visual processing.
But because I think visually rather than in words, these little pieces were actually pretty helpful in enhancing my comprehension and retention of what I was encountering. However, it wasn't me who noticed this. I was seeing a counselor at the time, and she asked me if I might meditate on Psalm 139 in pictures. I agreed to try.
It was here that cartoon Amanda appeared on the scene. For the first time, I was starting to explore what it meant for me to have a relationship with this character I was trying to understand.
I drew every verse, multiple times and ways, trying to understand every possible way each one could be represented visually.
The exercise helped me understand, spend time with, and think out the implications of what I was reading as I wandered through more of the Bible. I didn't realize it at the time, but I can see now that the more than 420 drawings helped me to document the progression of my conception of God's character. As you follow cartoon Amanda through her adventures, you can see God's character softening. You can see cloud-god start to act more like the real God.
Three years in, cloud-god finally cracked his first smile.
Jesus started showing up more, and he got a smile, too.
Gradually, cloud-god's fierce brow started to soften. And then he became empathetic. He delighted in me. He grieved with me. And I guess it was not really cloud-god that was softening.
So essentially, I found illustrations to be a language that helped me explore the claims of Christianity, and then the character of God, the practice of prayer, and the discipline of meditation. It helped me not only with my comprehension, but also my affections. I don't know if I will always find it this useful, but for now I'm keeping my markers handy.
Did your work (or how you approach your work) change after you became a Christian? If so, how?
Losing my dream job shortly after I became a Christian was a hard-and-fast lesson about attaching my hopes to my career instead of Christ. But shortly thereafter I landed my present gig, which I'm pretty sure is as close to an ideal work environment as you can get. I respect and enjoy all my colleagues (the combination of talent and character on our team is somehow extraordinary), our department takes seriously the issue of work-life balance (very rare for New York City), and, because we make stuff for kids, the integrity level of the content we produce is generally pretty high. I haven't encountered many situations where my ideals blatantly clash with what is happening in front of me.
The dangers of being too proud of your skill seem pretty obvious to a lot of people, but one of the less obvious temptations I see in the field of design, which I really fell into hard in art school, is pride in your formally cultivated taste. In order to refine my visual discernment skills and help me understand the rules behind what makes things aesthetically pleasing, I was taught how to recognize, diagnose, and fix bad design. As a highly analytical person, I easily got caught in an incessantly critical visual mindset that I somewhere along the way lost the capacity to shut down. But, unexpectedly, I also completely lost my ability to enjoy things that actually were beautiful. Also, when you've got a huge gap between your taste and your skill (which I don't think is uncommon) and excessive confidence in your taste, you tend to be devastated by all of the work you do because it never lives up. It took realizing that I had turned into something of a pride-monster and a pretty long time of deliberately choosing to focus on beauty rather than blemishes to get me some of my interest in art-seeing and art-making back and beat down some of the snobbery I was unaware I was mired in.
Can you tell me about the app for which you won an Emmy?
Our app, which won the Emmy for outstanding creative achievement in interactive media: user experience and visual design, was a huge undertaking. It has original short form content, games, blogs, polls, interactive elements, original animation, and all sorts of other content that is refreshed on a daily basis. It took more than two years and a large team of people to build. I was fortunate to get to be involved in the initial phases; I helped do a bunch of the first style guides (which evolved dramatically), and, like everyone else on our team, have worked pretty extensively on a whole ton of different aspects of it since. We are still engaged in the daily content updates now.
What's it like to win an Emmy?
Winning an Emmy, for me, was pretty weird. Fun-weird, but still weird. It's one of those things that I never actually imagined intersecting with my experience when I trotted off to be a graphic designer. My favorite part, I think, was that my art director got to go to the ceremony in Los Angeles. I admire her so much, and it was super cool to get to see her go get our statue. It was also pretty fun for all of us to take selfies with it in the office the next day.
I don't know if this is a rule for every designer, or it's just me that happens to think this way, but it's hard to draw too much of your significance from your awards. Because we produce tangible things where our skill, or lack thereof, is pretty obviously displayed, designers tend to judge other designers primarily on the quality of the actual work that they produce. It's, therefore, much easier to get your identity caught up in what your work actually looks like rather than what awards you've won for it.
I still think it's pretty neat though.