John Craig was an early adopter of the Drifltess Region, having bought a farm near Soliders Grove in the 1970s while he maintained his steady commercial work in commercial illustration and design in the recording industry and national publications. John took his early love of art and balanced a commerical career while maintaining his artistic eye.
[Koziol]: Welcome to the next edition of the Driftless Makers podcast. This is Kate Koziol, and I have the pleasure today of speaking with John Craig, who is a renowned illustrationist artist all around good guy. So welcome, John.
[Craig]: Thank you. Nice to be here.
[Koziol]: Yes. So tell me a little bit about your career. Like, how do you sum up a couple of years in a few sentences?
[Craig]: I don't know if I even look at it that way. It's like because I knew what I wanted to do in the third grade. It's just kind of, you know, I think I've always been in the same frame of mind. It probably didn't help me going through high school because I didn't pay attention to everything else I was supposed to. I just wanted to go do what I did.
[Koziol]: Did it all just kind of like, come together and you're like, bingo, this is what I want.
[Craig]: Yeah, it actually happened in the second grade. But I didn't, no, I didn't know about it until the 3rd grade, I don't think. I didn't put it together. We had to do silhouettes, which everybody probably does at some of those early years. The one of the other classmates sits in front of you and you draw this thing and cut it out of black paper and paste it down, but this particular teacher seemed to like how I was doing them or what I did. So she had me do the whole class, including her, and then she put them up around the room, around the top of the room where the alphabets are. She made me there, you know, I mean, that's the best the teachers can do, is turn somebody into themselves. And I knew that's what I wanted to do from there. I mean, I have friends that are retired and still don't know who they are or what they want to do.
[Koziol]: Right. I love that phrase. “Turn somebody into themselves”. Like, really just tap into that moment. So many artists have shows and here and there. And you've had many shows, but you had your first show in second grade. That is pretty good.
[Craig]: That's good. I've never thought of it quite like that. I like that. I'll put that on my resume.
[Koziol]: OK, Very good. You know Mrs. Polkington’s class.
[Craig]: Ms. McDonald. Thank you. Thank you for your work.
[Koziol]: So it's interesting. I mean, many people have a spark, whether it's in grade school or high school or something, but it doesn't really come to fruition for them. What advice can you give to someone who has a passion for, whether it's auto mechanics or art or engineering, what's kept you on that course?
[Craig]: Well, I've heard other people say, believe in yourself. You know, and, you know, go after that thing that really is where you see yourself. And no matter how many people discourage you, and I had plenty of that. I mean, people would say, well, there's no money in that. But you know, the one thing that I was fortunate in is my parents didn't know how to encourage me. They didn't know how to discourage me either. They let me play and that was probably the biggest positive thing that happened for me. I mean I think parents can tend to over guide their kids and push them in a certain direction and they have to find themselves and each kid is so different.
[Koziol]: Like you get kids and you're like oh this is a cookie cutter and they're not they're just all these wild weird beasts. My mom wanted me to be a nurse and I hate blood and I don't think that would have been a good path for me. So tell me of a few of your highlights. I know a little bit about them but share them with the audience. A few of the highlights or maybe well known pieces that perhaps people have seen of your work.
[Craig]: Well, I'll start with like I've only had one real job and that came out of while I was going to Graduate School at the Art Institute in Chicago and they were looking for people that could do a budget line of classical albums at Mercury Records. And so I went over there and started to, you know, you get a few 100 bucks for doing an album cover, which was a lot of money for an art student in those days. They were repackaging old recordings, and by the time I graduated, the guy offered me a job there. So I never had that moment of “now what do I do?” Once they hand you that diploma, and in an art school, they don't teach you how to make a living, they just let's shut you out the door. So that was very fortunate. I think so much of everything is in success is luck and timing. It's who you bump into, who leads you to somebody else. And people are very helpful that way. You know, they can open a lot of doors for you just simply by pointing you in that direction. I don't know why I've been so lucky, really. I mean it. I could probably count them the turning points or the tipping points for myself that starting in the second grade. You know, a lot of it depends on that. I mean, I'm sure there I always felt like there were people that were much more talented than I was, especially in high school or college, but they just didn't have that same desire. You know, they didn't have that passion that you mentioned. I think that's what I still have. I don't think I feel any different than I felt in the second or third grade because I still want to do those pieces.
[Koziol]: Your current works that I've seen recently…is it called the Driftless series or what is it called? Is there something named?
[Craig]: Yeah, that came about. There's 40 different images of things that I had collected, all these old photos of the area in the Driftless, up and down the Kickapoo River, mostly and just as a hobby, you know, and as a historical sort of a project. Never thinking that I could and I should have known better, I should. I can't leave things alone, so I had to do something with them and make it a twist. As we were living in the country, there were a lot of people that were using their environment. You know, there were plenty of artists in the area and our artists in the area that work with natural materials, the wood, the stone, the jewelry and what they paint, they go out and they paint in the fields and I wanted to participate in that in some way. I wasn't going to paint. I wasn't going to make a piece of furniture out of local wood, but I had this idea of taking these old photos and making these hand colored prints from them, but with a twist. So there's a little bit of a “did that really happen” kind of thing about them?
[Koziol]: I love them.
[Koziol]: They're hysterical. They're so well played and maybe one of my favorites is the Boaz one about the Mastodon and then he caused havoc. And can people buy them online or where do they have to?
[Craig]: Well, eventually I have a site on arts band where I have other prints available, and I haven't just gotten myself together to sit down and do the busy work of putting those online yet. The Boaz one is a good example because here's this beautiful photograph of these children and people standing on the streets. And I put this Mastodon in there like it was a baby Mastodon. And it was like, they're still around, you know? And so it's just everything has some connection to it because that actually that Boaz Mastodon thing, they found a Mastodon bones and it's at the University of Wisconsin in their geological museum. Little things like that, just little legends and stories that I've come across of living here for 50 years that I like to play with there in some ways. You know, I've looked at them as cartoons in a way. It's the first thing that I've ever tried to do some writing attached to it and I didn't know if people would like that at first. But everybody said they belong together. It's good because it's a fresh take. You know, it's a little bit of history. It's a little bit of humor. It's a little double take in the image.
[Koziol]: Yeah, I was, I'm intrigued by them. We happen to have a couple. I think Dave may become a collector. We may have to get all of them. I'm not sure.
[Craig]: Oh 40s a lot,sure. No.
[Koziol]: He's, you know, he when he gets on a track, he kind of runs.
[Craig]: I'll take that check. The 40, actually, this year I thought I was gonna have it together, but my printer didn't seem to come together with it. So it's gonna be a book.
[Craig]: So I've got it in works and it really is pretty much all the work is done. It's just these other things that go with it and actually making it happen.
[Koziol]: Yes. It's a couple of steps. Yeah. So you've done work for album covers for Mercury Records, Smashing Pumpkins, Rod Stewart. Your work has appeared in Time and Newsweek and Playboy. And But all of that aside, which is amazing, what about the crackerjack? Tell me, did you design a crackerjack piece? Did you design the box? Tell us. We're dying to know.
[Craig]: Well, you know, I'm a collector too. I mean you have to be a collector to be a collagist, which is my media. That's how I put things together. I don't draw, I don't paint. I find images, especially older images, and I repurpose them, I cut them out and I rearrange them and that's what's and and collage is a French term for paste to paste. And so it's basically that and it's fun and that's my media. So while I was working at Mercury Records and I was collecting, I came across some really old crackerjack toys made out of tin and they'd been around for 100 years and I gave them a call and I said I was just curious about those pieces. You know, do you have other examples or anything like that I could see out there. So they let me come out to the Crackerjack, which at the time was out near Midway Airport in Chicago. And the first thing you see is this large smokestack made out of bricks. It says crackerjack up the whole length of the the smokestack in bricks. Beautiful thing. It's gone now. So I went out there and they showed me the vaults and they had all this archive of all these things. They had these drawers and drawers of all these prizes that were designed over the years from the 20s or 30s. And they were all labeled and, you know, when they wanted to reorder them, I mean, it was just fascinating. Nothing under 2 inches, you know. So I got to know the people out there and they knew I was a graphic artist and would I be interested in designing some toys. So I said sure, why not? You know, I love those little esoteric corners of things that I want to, I want to do this or I want to do that just because. Yeah, I like that stuff. I collect that stuff. So I did a couple of series of prizes, you know, By that time though, they were down to plastics and cardboard. But still, there's a lot of possibilities.
[Koziol]: That's cool, yeah.
[Craig]: And it it turned out to be a much bigger project because they sort of like me. I felt like I was the only artist they knew. So when Crackerjack was sold to Bordens, the chief of Bordens came to visit, and he thought the place just looked dull and blank and it wasn't very interesting. And so Crackerjack asked if I could do something like put a mural in the lobby, you know, or do these other things. So I made a proposal and we did this giant box with prizes spilling out of it in the lobby with the old Crackerjack boy standing over it and his sailor Jack and bingo of this dog sitting on the box. And it was all, you know, it's like a 10 by 10 size unit, and they like that. And it led to a whole interior design project. And basically all I did was give them back their own identity because they had all this stuff in the vaults with nobody was seeing. They had all these great posters and images and their old boxes and those prize toys and I ended up making a display where you could using old type cases where you could see a lot of these. The best of those toys, they also are Campfire Marshmallow. And so there was this reception desk that you came in as soon as you went in there and so I had him turn that into a Campfire Marshmallow tin from that.
[Koziol]: I love it.
[Craig]: So we just, I just then I made some giant hand colored images from some of the best photographs that they had in their archives too. So I only all I did was give them back their own identity.
[Koziol]: Yeah, but they had forgotten it or it was in a vault and you brought it back to life.
[Craig]: You know, people come and go in that business a lot. You know and move on and they probably don't even know it themselves. When they come to work there, they do that portion of the work they do, but they really don't know about the history of the company.
[Koziol]: That's amazing to bring an artist's eye back to a business setting where they're just running a spreadsheet or getting production or whatever. So how does an artist work in the business world? Is it difficult? Do you have to bend a lot? Do people not get it? I mean, what advice could you give someone who wants to keep that artistic flavor of their work but not get stomped on by people that don't quite get it?
[Craig]: Well, I think it was easier for me because I felt like I didn't have a lot of ego involved in the pieces that I was doing personally, and I felt like I was a problem solver more than anything else. So if I would get an assignment from a magazine, let's say, or an interior project or something, I was thinking about how to give them the best of what they are looking for. And I think that's it led me into arenas that I never would go to myself. I I figured it was really kind of in a way, a lot of training because it is, you know, I was certainly honing my skills with every job that came along and eventually I knew I'd be doing my own stuff. Fortunately or unfortunately, I was busy enough that I never had time to do anything for myself. That was good. I have known a lot of illustrators that struggled with that because their ego would get in the way of making it happen for themselves. The other half of being successful for me was that I had several styles that I worked in, so I was able to present myself this way or that way. I had a Rep, an agent in Chicago or a couple of them actually, and they would actually get these jobs from agencies or corporations. Most of the work that I would get for myself would be through magazines where the budgets were pretty standard. So you're creating one-of-a-kind images and maybe they're in a magazine and they have a shorter shelf life or maybe they're on a record cover and it lasts for decades and people look at it years upon years and it becomes iconic.
[Koziol]: How do you protect your rights to those kinds of things?
[Craig]: Well, I'm going through that right now in a lot of ways. When the original copyright laws were changed in 1978, a lot of companies either did a buyout or or what was it? Let's see, you were work for hire and if they work, if you were work for hire, then you only did a piece of work for them. They had the rights to it for a year and everything was returned to you, the original art and the copyright. Then there were the places that if you, if you worked for them and it'd be like Playboy or Encyclopedia Britannica, they would want all rights and you had to just you had to sign away those rights to those images. I did a little of both. I don't think there's anything I did that I lost on that way. I'm going through a thing right now where I'm seeing stolen imagery on items that I'm not getting anything for, and I have people working on that right now.
[Koziol]: Good. Well, you deserve to have your work and be compensated for that. You've been in this line of work for a couple of years.
[Craig]: I have 40.
[Koziol]: Do you think it's going to work out? Do you have like one or two pieces of advice? You talked a little bit early on about telling people to believe in yourself and what not. Is there, is there anything else that, you know, someone's trying to get a start, any any pivots that you've had to make or any work that you've had to do that you think, man, I wish I would have done that differently or I wish I would have, you know, channel things in a different way. So any advice you have for anyone else who's thinking about starting their business or is currently running their business?
[Craig]: You know, I didn't come up with this, but I've heard other people say it and I really appreciate that idea that don't apologize for what you have there. If you're presenting your portfolio and showing some imagery, don't say, well, this could have been better or this, you know, I could have worked on this a little longer or things like that. Don't, don't do that. You sort of defeat yourself when you do that. I mean let them come up with what they want to say about it and be positive about the whole thing. And that's hard in the beginning. I wouldn't even have advice for anybody that was entering that field now because schools are so different and the Internet has changed. Everything. I used to work with paste and exacto knives and T squares, but nobody knows what those are anymore.
[Koziol]: So maybe Exacto knives.
[Craig]: Maybe exacto knives. Yeah, they might still be around. But I got to go through that whole change and I really embraced the whole computer part of it. It solved a lot of problems for me visually, yeah, they have that manual work and who knows? AI is coming down the Pike and all sorts of other things are happening. So we just don't know what's next.
[Koziol]: As I said sort of early in the conversation, John, I really, I could probably talk to you for two hours. I want to know, like, you know, what's your process? How do you come up with it? When you first told me, I don't know, a year or two ago that you worked in collage, I really like. I didn't even understand what that meant. Like, I'm thinking clippings out of newspapers and it's, Glamour magazine, you know, shredded up. And yeah, so what you do and what that word is, you're so much more than that. But I understand that you are collecting, but you're really reinventing it, I think, at the same time, that's very cool.
[Craig:] Well, I think that found imagery really is my palette, you know, And I'm always looking for unusual and obscure imagery that I can use that people aren't going to say they've seen it before.
[Craig]: The other thing I like about collage is the familiarity. There's always something about it that everybody can relate to. It's like, Oh yeah, I don't know what it is here, but it's, it's familiar somehow.
[Koziol]: Yeah. So in closing, a final question. What would you tell your younger self? Like who-rah or...
[Craig]: Yeah, I think I would actually. You know, I think I still do. I think he's still with me.
[Koziol]: So nice. Yeah, that's hard to keep that younger spirit alive.
[Craig]: I think so too. I didn't ever wanted to grow up, so I think I'm somewhere around 12 and just lock and hold on 12 because why not? Let's try. Let's feel safe and let's explore. And it doesn't really matter. Yeah, my parents are still letting me play and you're still letting you play.
[Koziol]: Any closing thoughts before we let you get back to the rest of your day?
[Craig]: Gosh, no, Let's just keep going.
[Koziol]: Yeah, let's. Let's do Chapter 2. So we're going to close John Craig's interview and he's an amazing artist. Look him up, John, what is it, johncraig.com or something? Don't you have a site? Johncraigprints.com. Find him at the Driftless Art Festival.
[Craig]: You can Google John Craig illustration, OK, some sites will come up. Check that stuff out.
[Koziol]: He's really like, he is a delight to hang out with. He's interesting and fun, he's very talented, and he makes up just one another of the collage of the driftless market that we have here. We're just so lucky to be surrounded by music and arts and talented people in all spectrums. You're listening to the Driftless Makers podcast on Kate Koziol, your host coming to you from Platteville Business Incubator. Please join us at any time if you want to start a business. We'd be happy to get you going. Thanks again, John. And we're going to let you go and we look forward to our next conversation.
[Craig]: Well, thank you. I enjoyed it.