Scott McKowen was like most little rug rats growing up: His parents would take him to a restaurant, and, to keep him occupied, give him what he calls the “proverbial” crayons and overturned placemat.
Nearly a half-century later, McKowen is still drawing, but he’s stepped up his output from placemats to world-renowned theater posters and classic children’s book dust jackets.
“I was drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil,” said McKowen during a phone interview from his studio in Stratford, Ontario. He’s a long way from his boyhood home on Lansing’s southwest side, but from his studio in Canada, he’s made a name for himself.
McKowen, 52, attended Elmhurst Elementary School in Lansing, just a few blocks from his home. He went to Dwight Rich Junior High School and then Sexton High School, where his dad was a teacher. “My father directed musicals, and I think that’s where I got the theater bug,” he said.
While in high school, McKowen took art classes, but he focused on world literature, which he later declared as his major during his first year at the University of Michigan.
As a U-M freshman, he began working with a senior art student to help turn out silk screened posters for the theater department. His senior mentor was Sam Ziviano, who today works as the art director at Mad Magazine in New York City.
“When he left, I took over and started doing posters,” McKowen said. “I was able to dabble in all things,” including, he said, his mother’s love: calligraphy and type. McKowen’s mother was a professional sign painter, and she helped him appreciate typography and ways to use it.
McKowen said he didn’t even know there was a course of study called “graphic design” at the time. He especially recalls Professor Doug Haseltine’s graphic design production workshop, where they would work on real projects for U-M. After college, McKowen freelanced for a few years in Ann Arbor. On weekends, he and his friends would make the 200-mile trek to Stratford for theater outings.
“On one visit, I took my portfolio and was offered a job in the studio that did all the graphics for Stratford at the time,” he said. It was his break into what would become his specialty: designing theater posters.
McKowen said theater posters are unique in the world of graphic design. “You have to sum up the whole content with an image and text, but the underlying message is, ‘Buy a ticket.’”
You can already see him perfecting that message in his early work. As a freelance, McKowen designed posters for Michigan State University’s Wharton Center. One poster for a Beethoven concert shows a wobbly likeness of the classical composer, pedaling a bicycle as his music flies every which way. McKowen said the image came to him as one of those “first ideas scribbled on a napkin in a bar.”
The imagery was meant to convey that chamber music was not stuffy or boring. Beethoven’s cycle is the perfect vehicle. The poster also gently poked fun at the serious, classical music icon and program: “Beethoven Quartet Cycle.”
His Wharton work was a precursor of what was to come. In an illustration for the Washington Post Book World, McKowen depicted Walt Whitman in repose, reading a book titled “Emily Dickinson.” The illustration was controversial. “I learned that you don’t make fun of American literary icons,” he said.
McKowen has been able to convey simple messages while also perfecting a distinct art form. Using a technique called scratchboard, McKowen does work for the Shaw Festival, New York’s Roundabout Theatre and regional theaters in major cities in the United States and Canada. Scratchboard is a relief process, like engraving or woodcutting, in which images are formed by carving white lines into a black surface.
He said the scratchboard tech- Scott McKowen nique he uses is demanding, and it usually requires two to three days of engraving for a single illustration. “It ain’t fast,” he said. “Sometimes I wished I picked something else.”
There are still times the artist said he looks at his work and asks, “How did I do that? I could never do that again.”
Four decades of the artist’s scratchboard works are collected in a new book, “A Fine Line: Scratchboard Illustrations by Scott McKowen,” which has just been released by Firefly Books.
The book contains more than 200 of his illustrations and designs for theatrical presentations, as well as designs for the dust jackets for a series of classic children’s books, such as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Alice in Wonderland.”
The book also contains insightful descriptions of the creative process for the numerous posters and covers McKowen has executed, including those for noted author and illustrator Neil Gaiman’s Marvel Comics series “1602.”
McKowen, who was surprised to be chosen for the project, said Gaiman and the art directors at Marvel came to him, because he works with a 17th century engraving style. “And there had never been a scratchboard comic book cover,” he said.
Gaiman was closely involved in the final products. “I often had phone conversations with him, and he saw all the pencil sketches,” McKowen said.
Over the course of his career, McKowen has often been thrown into the role of art historian and biblio-detective. In order to create the best possible posters and programs, McKowen and his wife/ business partner, Christina Poddubiuk, vis it England for 10 days each year to do research. He and Poddubiuk have joint responsibility for their design company, Punch & Judy. (They use the same w h i m s i c a l approach for their b u s i n e s s cards that they do for their design projec ts; the couple’s “his and her” cards show a boxing glove for Scott and a wire mannequin for Christina, who works as a theater designer.)
Research trips involve sorting through bins of old documents and photographs for ideas for their work. Photographs and ephemera often serve as inspiration. A poster for George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” shows the scratchboard silhouette of a naked woman super imposed over an actual ledger sheet from the Victorian era. The illustration was from a photo, now in a museum, of a prostitute taken in 1912.
McKowen spends a similar amount of time developing dramatic covers for children’s books series, for which he has completed 30 titles. His covers make big statements, which he said is a requisite for children’s books, with characters flying through the air, jumping off of the pages and exhibiting childlike magic.
McKowen sees the jackets as a badge of honor. “There is such a tradition with these titles,” he said. “I make a conscious effort not to look at the original version until I am finished. It would be easy to say, ‘How could I do the original ‘Treasure Island,’ which is illustrated by N.C. Wyeth, better?’”
Getting the Hollywood version of the book out of his head is often a big step in the process. For example, take the cover he made for Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” The majority of covers for this classic show the traditional image of Tom painting a fence, but not McKowen’s. “The fence had to be in there, but I showed him vaulting the fence into an adventure,” he said. “ It’s, ‘Off we go to someplace unknown.’”
McKowen said his influences are many and varied. It’s easy to spot the whimsy and surrealism of Salvador Dali, but one artist that he immediately points to is leg endary poster artist Milton Glaser, from his “Dylan” (perhaps the first psychedelic poster) to his protest posters for Cesar Chavez to his corporate illustrations for Olivetti. “He stretches your brain and puts words and images together in the right way,” McKowen said. “You say, ‘Oh, this is powerful.’”
Several years ago, McKowen curated a show of Glaser’s work, and the artist sent originals of the art he had done for the Penguin series of Shakespeare’s work. They became a centerpiece of the show.
Glaser provided a blurb for the jacket of McKowen’s book, which, says, “Scott McKowen is one of the great illustrators of our time” “It was amazing.
It was the single biggest thrill of the entire book project,” McKowen said of the blurb.
That’s saying a lot, considering the book’s amazing breadth, featuring page after page of dramatic posters with vivid descriptions of the thought process and research that went into creating them. The collection is a throwback to subtler times, when posters didn’t scream but whispered to you, often in black and white images or gently colored scenes.
McKowen said, in his opinion, modern design is too literal, which may be an influence of too much television. “I often think TV is about passive consumption with nothing left to the imagination,” he said.
In his own work, McKowen said when he starts getting to literal, he knows he is “going down the wrong path.” “The question you ask is, ‘How do you distill the play into a simple image that describes what the author intended. I’m always looking for a metaphor.”
Last Sunday, McKowen returned to his hometown for a talk and signing at Schuler Books & Music in the Eastwood Towne Center. Before an audience of about 40 friends and admirers, McKowen talked about some of his earliest work, his techniques, trends in design and the poster’s place as one of the few tangible remnants of a show after it moves on.
As if she was planted in the audience to prove his point, local resident Diane Gracia-Wing stepped in from stage right and placed on an easel what might be his earliest theater poster from a 1975-‘76 Sexton High School production of “Once Upon a Mattress.” Gracia-Wing said she had three different roles in the musical, which was produced by McKowen’s father. She is still involved in theater at Riverwalk, where she does costuming and props.
“I’ve always saved the poster,” said the 1977 Sexton graduate. And it’s likely to be framed now, with McKowen’s signature affixed.
Earlier this summer, McKowen had another blast from the past, when he returned to Lansing to help his mom move from his childhood home, where he came across some of his childhood and other early work, which she had saved. “None of it was very good, but it was wildly inventive,” he said.