Michael Gibbs: An Artist Born & Bred [HalfBleed magazine]
by Hope Katz Gibbs
HalfBleed: The Newsletter for Members of the Art Directors Club of Metropolitan Washington
IS AN ARTIST BORN AN artist? Or, is art a learned skill, a studied craft, a career that comes from a conscious decision? Or, is it destiny?
For, Alexandria illustrator Michael Gibbs, 43, it is all of the above.
An illustrator of magazines, book covers, and annual reports for clients from American Airlines, to Ziff-Davis, Gibbs says he never considered being an artist when he was a kid—even though he was known in elementary school as the “kid who could draw,” and even won an art contest in 8th grade for drawing the best Christmas card at the Holy Redeemer School in Kensington, Maryland.
Still, his creative spirit wasn’t nourished at Catholic school. Once, he was even called to the principal’s office for his drawing ability—when a nun turned him in for adding a mustache and other embellishments to a photograph of a pagan baby on the cover of Crusader, a Catholic magazine handed out in class.
At age 14, though, Gibbs discovered Maxfield Parrish. On a trip with his parents to an auction at an old farmhouse in rural Maryland, Gibbs spotted an old children’s book called The Arabian Nights, illustrated by Parrish. It was a forgotten antique, something stashed away, decades ago. To Gibbs, though, it was a treasure.
“The artwork was just stunning,” he says. “It really turned me on to illustration.”
Though he didn’t imagine he’d ever be an illustrator, he did fancy a career that would let him be creative. He thought maybe he’d be an architect, archaeologist or professional photographer. He went with the photo option, and then he was accepted to Pratt institute in 1973 as a photography major. By Christmas he had reconsidered.
“The photography professors were more into teaching photo journalism, and I was into composing pictures full of light and shadow,” he says. “They really hated my work and 1 wasn’t so crazy about theirs, either.”
He switched his major to illustration, with a minor in design. Before his senior year, however, Gibbs ran out of money and had to leave Pratt. He moved back to Washington and took a job in the graphics department at AT&T.
“AT&T was a lot like Catholic school,” he says. “There were so many rules and regulations, plus there were all those style manuals to deal with. I remember one Spring day it was beautiful outside but you couldn’t tell from my desk because the windows has this dull greenish gray film on them. It was just stifling.”
He quit that day. When he got home that afternoon, a call about a freelance assignment was waiting on his answering machine. The client: the American Cemetery Association. “It wasn’t the ‘Arabian Nights,’ but it was a start,” he says.
Today, his illustration clients include United Airlines, American Airlines, Ziff-Davis, Sears, and Sandoz Pharmaceuticals. He also designs brochures and publications for Lucent Technologies, the Association of School Curriculum Development, Inter-Ski Associates, and even his old employer, AT&T.
He has received awards for his work from Communications Arts, Print Magazine, the Art Director’s Club of New Jersey, and locally from the ADCNIW and the Illustrators Club.
The Society of Illustrators also gave his work a nod last year when it displayed one of Gibbs’ illustrations at its national exhibit. Two more pieces were accepted this year, and displayed at the show in March.
His art has evolved over the years from pen and ink to acrylic and now he works in Photoshop as well. And lately, he’s been incorporating his skills as a printmaker into handmade books.
“The computer gives me tremendous versatility, enabling me to add collage elements to my work or make art look like a print,” he says. “For me the big difference between fine art and illustration is that as an illustrator I’m always illustrating someone else’s point of view. As much as I love illustration, there can be an emptiness to that. So I try to use my skills in new ways, and that has been very rewarding.”
10 of Michael’s Favorite Things
• Favorite Color: Raw sienna
• Favorite Artist: Maxfield Parish, and the 1930s printmaker Martin Lewis
• Most Inspirational Artist / Person: My uncle, Richard Gibbs (He is a commercial artist who moved to Seattle to do artwork for the World’s Fair in 1959. I was 5 when he left, and before he did I asked him to draw things for me—like a gas station and palm trees. He’d always do it, and I thought it was the coolest thing.)
• Favorite Illustration (of your own): Multi-colored giraffes called “I’m Red, You’re Green.” Pictured here, they are an illustration about the importance of diversity for the Bermuda Royal Gazette
• If you could be an animal: A fly on the wall.
• Favorite Book & Author: The Man Who Turned Into Himself, by Martin Ambrose
• Favorite Musician: Beatles, Dylan, Nirvana, SRV
• Favorite Ice Cream: Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough
• Vitals: Married to Hope Katz Gibbs; daughter Anna, 2; and a baby on the way.