|By Paul Grondahl
Originally published in 2003 and has been edited
“What’s the point of growing up? asks Jeff, a Times Union graphic artist and children’s book illustrator. “Life’s hard enough. I guess being childlike just comes naturally.”
Those who hear his full-throated chortle reverberating down the second-floor hallway or telling animated tales in the cafeteria at the paper won’t argue with the fact that Jeff’s just a big kid. From his shiny shaved head to his black PT Cruiser to his zany sense of humor, Jeff has no problem letting his inner-child roam around out in public.
He’s made a career out of an acute case of arrested development. Jeff has illustrated 11 children’s books, nine of them with Scholastic — including a four-book series, “Bug Bunch.” His books are geared to kindergartners and first graders. His lively, cartoonish style finds its outlet in funny animals and other whimsical critters. His first children’s book, about a hibernating bear, was published by Scholastic in 1994, titled “Wake Me In Spring.” Eight more followed with the children’s book publishing giant. “I call our house the house that Scholastic built,” says Jeff, who lives in Voorheesville with his two daughters.
Growing up, Jeff was never far from a sketch pad and he drew incessantly. He was a comic book fanatic who devoured anything by Jack Kirby, including The Fantastic Four, The Hulk and Captain America. “Jack Kirby was a god,” Jeff says. “I was trying to draw superheroes like him. When I was 12 or 13 I invented a character called Kung Fu Kitty.”
Jeff’s artistic epiphany came at 15 courtesy of an anthropomorphic opossum. “I went to Montreal with my dad, we were in a bookstore and I saw a Pogo book by Walt Kelly,” Jeff recalls. “It was like I had a heart attack. Everything changed. It spoke to me. I have no idea why.”
It was also a process of elimination in making animals his artistic metier. “I like the line in animals and I can draw them well,” Jeff says. “Besides, I’m terrible at drawing people.”
Eventually his childhood penchant for superheroes was eclipsed by adoration for Walt Kelly’s “Pogo” comic strip and “Krazy Kat” by George Herriman. Weirdly comic animals stirred something in Jeff’s imagination, as did learning more about the artistic process of Kelly, who worked as a newspaperman. After spending two years at the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon Art in Dover, N.J., Jeff graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York City with a major in illustration.
He joined the Times Union as a graphic artist in the editorial art department in 1989, where he won several awards for design and created a weekly illustration for the Kid’s Page — which he helped launch in 1992. Jeff moved to the advertising art department as a graphic artist two years ago and was recently named coordinator of Flash, a Web animating program used in ads.
“One thing I really like about my job is keeping up-to-date on the latest technology,” says Jeff, who no longer draws his children’s book illustrations at a drafting board with pen and ink. Now, he creates all his illustrations on a Mac computer.
In his studio at home, where Jeff works late on illustrations while his family sleeps — it typically takes six months to complete the 20 drawings for a children’s book — he always keeps the TV on. “I don’t really watch it. I just put it o for company,” he says.
On the sill over the door at the entrance to the studio, Jeff has lined up 31 plastic gorillas he won playing Skeeball at Hoffman’s Playland and in Cape May, N.J. arcades. “They ward off evil spirits,” he says of the puny primates. His cluttered studio space includes a collection of Pogo figurines and a kind of rotating exhibit of kids’ junk. “I still have everything from when I was a kid. I never throw anything out,” he says.
Jeff also regularly contributes illustrations for the National Wildlife Federation’s Wild Animal Baby and Your Big Backyard. Jeff also illustrates a comic strip, “Finest Amphibians” (www.finestamhibians.com). The edgy, acerbic take on everyday life between a frog and toad is written by former Times Union feature editor Mike Virtanen, who’s now a writer and editor with Associated Press on the second-floor of the T.U. building. The creators are shopping the strip at the Washington Post Syndicate and exploring other outlets. For now, it’s a labor of love posted on their Web site for free.
When he’s not drawing, Jeff is playing with his kids and cheering maniacally for his favorite baseball team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. Family vacations often include side trips to National Parks for bird watching — Jeff having surpassed sightings of more than 400 bird species in North America. Bird watching is part research, part joyful diversion. That’s the sort of balance Jeff seeks in work and play. It’s a perpetual kid’s prerogative.
“Ultimately, I guess I draw for myself,” Jeff says. “I want the kid looking at the books to be entertained. But all I’m really thinking about is trying to make a good picture.”