E.W. Thomason is an illustrator whose exuberant and quirky work is shaped and influenced by growing up in a small town in Alabama. An exciting and award-winning design career stirred Thomason’s love of illustration. As an occasional skeptic of the idea that less is more, E.W. set about creating an art style that favors abundance and excess over economy and restraint. On this page, the masthead phrase “Yes & No” reflects an attempt to purge that ambiguous expression from the artist’s phraseology.
E.W. currently lives in Atlanta, GA (with a left-brained spouse/partner-in-crime who helps keeps the balance).
When we set out to interview E.W. Thomason, we knew little about the illustrator whose work left our imaginations brimming with curiosity. After all, we didn’t even know if E.W. was a he or a she. So, we jumped down the rabbit hole, had a lovely chat, and discovered that Thomason really is as quick-witted and thoughtful as the work suggests. Take the journey with us as Thomason shares about memories of growing up in rural Alabama, taking a risk to pursue design, and the never-ending search to be satisfied creatively. Oh, and as for E.W.’s identity? We’ve been sworn to secrecy.
Interview date: September 12, 2011
Describe your path to becoming an illustrator. We know you were a designer first, so if you want to speak to that as well…
Totally. I’m still a designer. I have a design job 3 days a week. So my paths to becoming a designer and an illustrator are intertwined. As a kid, I always knew that I wanted to do something with art. Toward the end of high school I learned that there was something that I thought was called “commercial art” or “graphics” that you could make a living doing. I learned later that it’s called graphic design. But, there has always been a force nudging me to create more illustrations. That’s a part of how I solve design problems - through illustration. It’s something I’ve wanted more of in my creative life.
What about your background? Did you go to college or were you self-taught?
Okay, let me back up. I’m from a small, wonderful town in Alabama. It was a great place to grow up. But, in grade school, the circumstance was that we didn’t have art class after second grade. So, I was largely on my own for a lot of years and was creating pictures by myself with art lessons here and there. I think that’s why I was a little bit clueless that you could actually make a living doing art. Then, I found out that you could so I went to college and studied graphic design and illustration. I got a job doing graphic design right after college, but I’ve continued to feel that pull toward illustration. Creating images is my favorite part of the design process.
Do you have a BFA?
Yes, I have a BFA in Visual Communication from Auburn University. It was there that I was pointed in the right direction and given a lot of great instruction.
Was creativity a part of your childhood?
I was an only child, no siblings at all, so I think my creativity started with a desire to entertain myself. There were long stretches where I’d be at home with no other kids around, so making pictures was a way to experience the outside world without actually leaving my house or having a brother or sister to talk to all the time. I think that drew me to creative pursuits.
Art was something that I always came back to whenever I felt anxious as a child. It was my problem-solving device for anything I was going through as a kid. I presume that’s how a lot of creative people work through things.
Did you have an “aha” moment where you knew you wanted to do design or illustration?
I did, actually. I went on my first airplane vacation with my family when I was 8 years old. We went to Wyoming and flew on Northwest Airlines. At that time, Northwest had a really fantastic logo - I’d never really thought much about any logo before. I saw that logo at the ticket counter, an italic “N” next to a “W” with a compass pointing in the direction of Northwest. I thought, “Somebody really smart made that.” I remember tugging at my mom’s purse and telling her to look. That was when a light bulb turned on in my head about design.
My illustration “aha” moment was in childhood. My favorite book was Ferdinand the Bull,1 a classic book with beautiful black and white illustrations. The book is about a really gentle, giant bull in Spain. The whole arc of the story is that it’s okay to be different and creative and to just be happy with who you are. The illustrations and story are beautiful and it has always stayed with me. If I could give to kids one day what that book gave to me, that’s something I’d be really excited about.
“Art was something that I always came back to whenever I felt anxious as a child. It was my problem-solving device for anything I was going through as a kid.”
Did you or do you have a mentor? Who was it and how did they inspire you?
I’ve been lucky enough to have several important mentors. Some early ones were my high school music teachers. Since we didn’t have art, I played music in high school. What I learned from them is the power of hard work. Through their influence, I learned that I could take something I wasn’t really a “natural” at, like music, and do pretty well at it if I worked very hard. So that experience made me ask myself, “What if I took something I actually have a natural inclination toward, like art, and worked really, really hard at that?” It just showed me I could do it.
My other most important mentor was an amazing college professor in graphic design and illustration. He really believed in me and my work and helped me realize that I shouldn’t settle for the first job opportunity that came my way, or for work that wasn’t inspiring to me. He helped me place a bigger value on the work I do. I was lucky to have such a great teacher.
That’s awesome. Was there a point in your life when you decided you had to take a big risk to move forward?
Yeah… probably at a couple of points. My parents were really supportive, but I think that most anyone’s parents are a little nervous when you first say, “Mom and Dad, I’m going to be a graphic designer, or illustrator, or artist, or writer.” There’s an ounce of trepidation that people who love you might feel about you making a career choice that may or may not be secure. So that was a risk. I think that being from a small town, I might have had fewer role models in visual arts professions. Pursuing design felt like going against the grain a little bit. I think that was good for me.
The other risk was when I was in college and had an internship at an ad agency in Birmingham, AL. They were great to me and they asked me to leave school and become part of the agency. So what had seemed like my default path - finishing college - suddenly seemed like a risky path: I could accept this job that might not have been the perfect fit for me, but I would’ve had the security of a good job, or I could go back to school and take my chances at getting a job afterward. I decided to roll the dice and go back to school to finish my education without any guarantees about what would happen when I graduated. That was a risk.
What about your family and friends? Are they supportive of you?
Totally. Luckily my folks are behind me. They are relieved that I was employable after college. My partner is an engineer and is super supportive. Between the two of us, we have the left brain (my partner) and the right brain (me). My spouse isn’t an artist but does support what I do and helps me believe in myself. I can sometimes undervalue what I’m doing or believe that it’s not as good as it should be. The truth is, it isn’t. All creative work can be improved, but my partner helps me to not obsess and to move toward action rather than self-doubt.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?
Ha. Yes. I kind of wish that I didn’t. Eventually, I think that responsibility is going to chase me down and I’ll find myself giving back more than I’ve given back thus far. Maybe one day I’d like to do some teaching. I’m not someone who thinks design or illustration can save the world. I think there’s a little vanity in that. But if I can help other people to learn to perfect their craft, feel better about their work, and actually do better work, then that’s something I can give back beyond what I can create as an artist.
Are you satisfied creatively and where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years?
Uh, no. Who is? I think that I’d be kidding myself if I said I was satisfied creatively. But, I think that’s the point. You know, I’ve tried to suss out the title of your website, The Great Discontent. I don’t know what that means to you, but to me it immediately speaks to the fire in my belly that I feel when I’m tugged by a force that I can’t see or touch. It has an intense gravitational pull, yet I can never get to it. I don’t know what that creative utopia is, but no, I’m not there. I’m taking it one day at a time. It feels good to be making more imagery than I’ve made in the past, but that only makes me want more.
As far as where I see myself in 5 to 10 years, I would be making a lot more imagery and doing it as a bigger part of my creative life. Also, I could see that fire flaring up in me and asking me to create something totally different. I don’t know if that would be fine art or if that would be an alter ego - another illustrator whose work looks and feels completely different and who goes by a different name (all laughing). I want to be doing a greater variety of creative things, putting myself out there, and taking bigger risks. I’m taking baby steps right now and I’d like to put more on the line in the next 5 to 10 years. If I can keep learning and feeling challenged that’s the best I can ask for.
If you could go back and do one thing differently, what would it be?
Huh. I know I’ve done plenty wrong. This might sound trivial, but when I look back at college and the time right after, I wish I’d made a way to study abroad or take time off. I feel like I was really in a hurry to take a conventional path through college and early into my career. I wish I had set out on an adventure that would have made me really uncomfortable. I wish somebody would have pulled me aside and told me that it will never get easier to do that just because you have an income. That actually makes it harder. My 22 year old self didn’t know that.
“I was really in a hurry to take a conventional path through college and early into my career. I wish I had set out on an adventure that would have made me really uncomfortable. I wish somebody would have pulled me aside and told me that it will never get easier to do that just because you have an income.”
If you could give one piece of advice to another creative person starting out, what would it be?
I think I would tell them to keep their pencil moving. What I mean by that is this: I think the more you stop and assess and compare your work to the work of others, the more you set up the potential to not feel good about your work. Whereas if you don’t over-think it and keep your mouse or pencil moving all the time, you allow your subconscious to bubble up to the surface and come out through your work. You have a greater chance of doing something really original if you don’t stop too much and question whether it’s good or not. Sure, a lot of it’s bad, but just move on. Keep sketching, keep drawing, keep creating. Don’t be afraid to kill your latest, dearest piece and move on from it... because the next thing you create might shatter some of the boundaries you had set for yourself on the previous thing.
That’s really good. How does where you live impact your creativity?
Well, I live in Atlanta. Oddly, I don’t think Atlanta specifically impacts my creativity. The place I draw from creatively has much more to do with where I grew up. As I said earlier, I’m from a rural area in Alabama and that aesthetic has stayed with me. I love advertising that’s sort of gaudy and unsophisticated, almost like ads in the yellow pages, or hand-made signs, or things that have a dilapidated charm. I don’t see that as much in my life in Atlanta where everything is in good condition, gleaming and new. My aesthetic definitely has a lot more to do with being from the country.
Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people?
I’ve always had a really great relationship with the other designers I work with. What I would like is to know more illustrators. I feel a little bit like I’m on an island. It’s partly because I’m newer to the world of illustration than I am to design, but I would like to know more people who make images who I could reach out to. I’d like to glean wisdom from them, learn about their process of creation, how they keep drawing from the well, and where they get their muse.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Well, it depends on what day of the week it is. If I’m doing design, I’m at the office at 8am and working on fun projects for a variety of clients and enjoying collaboration with my colleagues. If I’m my illustrator self, then I’m locked in an echo chamber all day trying to make something new and not overanalyze what I’m creating. The day involves a lot of quiet time, sketching, creating, but not a lot of interaction. I like the mixture of solitude and interaction that I’m getting.
Are you more of a night owl or an early riser? Especially when it comes to illustration, when do you do your best work?
Well, unfortunately, I work better in the morning even though I hate getting up. I can do my best work when I’m fresh and my mind’s not cluttered with other things that have accumulated over the day that I’m worried about. As much as I would like to sleep in sometime during the week, it never happens (laughing).
Ha ha. Alright, on to some lighter questions. What’s your current album on repeat right now?
I go through weird phases that last 6 months to a year where I won’t listen to any music, but I’ll listen to podcasts and spoken word and things like that. Right now I’m on that side of the coin and not listening to any music. I’m bingeing on things like Radiolab and This American Life. Also, I’m listening to some of my favorite audio books and just anything informational or story-based that I can get my hands on. I go through some extreme music dry spells. That might be a disappointing answer.
No, not at all. There’s no right or wrong answer. We’re just curious.
Also, I think that when I’m making images, it goes really well with words. I know music has words but I just really enjoy learning something new while I make an image. I feel like it helps to enrich the process.
One thing that might have something to do with it for me is that I have a slight neurological disorder called synesthesia. It’s actually pretty common. It causes me to see letters and numbers in color. That effect is a little stronger when I’m listening to vocals in music, so music can actually be a little distracting for me because I get a really colorful experience.
Wow, that’s cool. You mentioned that you listen to audiobooks. Do you have any favorites?
My favorite book that I’ve read is A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but it’s a science book that came out in 2003 and is written for a general audience, for non-scientists. It’s a beautiful narrative about the history of science and the universe woven together. That book impacted my life by reawakening my curiosity about science. It’s nice to have that interest renewed in me. Now I’m a super nerd and can’t wait for The Scientific American podcast to come on. It has to do with that book stirring my enthusiasm for the creativity of science.
Any favorite movies, television?
Oh, sure. I have super unsophisticated taste in movies. I wish that I could name off some really cool French film that no one has ever heard of (all laughing). Coming to America is probably my favorite movie. Do you guys remember that movie?
[Tina] Wait, who’s in it?
[Tina] Yes, that movie’s so funny.
It’s really great. You know, it’s nothing to brag about, but I can see that movie an infinite number of times.
Wow, that’s a crazy question. Okay, my favorite food is connected to a time and place that was an altogether more innocent age. We always used to go down to the Gulf Coast of Florida when I was a kid and there was a restaurant that I might not even like now, but they served fresh amberjack out of the Gulf with tartar sauce and lemon pepper. I still think about that to this day. You can have a lot of great restaurant experiences in your adult life, but it’s almost like you have to keep upping the ante to be impressed. So I think that big hunk of fish they served at that restaurant represents purity in appreciating the world at a time when everything was new. It’s something I can never get back. That’s my favorite food in its time and place and nothing can ever top it.
Alright, one last deep question. What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
Oh… I thought it was all downhill from here…
Surprise. We just snuck up on you.
I hope that the people around me who I love and are part of my life can feel like I was there for them when they needed me. I think that includes helping other creative people find their voice in the course of their lives. I hope that when the curtains close, there will be people who feel that I was in their corner and who believe that I was a good influence in their lives. When I look at the people who were that for me, they are by far the most important people I’ve ever known. If I can just be that for somebody, then I’ll be satisfied.
“I’m not someone who thinks design or illustration can save the world. I think there’s a little vanity in that. But if I can help other people to learn to perfect their craft, feel better about their work, and actually do better work, then that’s something I can give back beyond what I can create as an artist.”