Making It: 3 Wildly Creative Northern Michigan Illustrators

Meet three illustrators keeping their creative spirits alive by being in the right place (Northern Michigan) at the right time (now).

Featured in the December 2019 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy.

EM RANDALL

“Grateful feels like such a small word,” says Em Randall, a Traverse City-based artist. We’re sitting at a lime green table outside of BLK \\ MRKT, a coffee shop in TC’s Warehouse District. On the wall across from us, there’s a large mural featuring a woman’s face in black and white. Her cheeks are two bright red circles. The painting is one of Em’s.

Last year, she showed her work at 13 different art shows and markets. This year, it’s down to two. While she’s still hustling to build her business, her work has developed a more mature tone. The time and energy she once put into making, displaying and tediously transporting her work from show to show are now focused on larger custom projects like the mural at Warehouse MRKT or a brand redesign for Pleasanton Bakery.

“All that fighting. All that waiting patiently for people to care. It just slowly started happening. I feel like sometimes I’m an imposter and people are going to say ‘We’re sick of you!’ ” she laughs. While it may seem like it from the outside, her path to established artistdom was not a straight line.

Originally from Bear Lake, Em and her husband lived in Seattle and Olympia, Washington for five years before making the move back to Traverse City in 2016. While out West, she created her first company called Happy Grey Skies. Em made whimsical plush creatures and dolls such as a piece of buttered toast with a face and a grinning rain cloud. The business resonated with her Washington audience but unfortunately fell flat in Traverse City.

“That was a big shock for me,” she says. “I gave up everything to do this for a living, thinking it was so successful, but then I came here and it was a hard halt.”

She had to make a choice. “Either I give up, and I find something else to do, or I give it another push and really change how I do things.” She chose the latter path and went back to her roots: illustration.

At first, she tried making pieces that reflected the style of Happy Grey Skies. She used pastels and soft colors reminiscent of childhood and her personal inspirations like Polly Pocket and Hayao Miyazaki films.

“I was really trying to mimic the things I saw other illustrators doing,” she says. “For the longest time, I thought about other people and how they were going to respond.”

Still, the new business wasn’t clicking. Her audience admired her skill and style, but they weren’t buying. Something needed to change. While preparing for a show at Warehouse MRKT in spring 2018, she decided to do something completely different.

Em limited her paintings to three colors: black, white and red. The pared-down paintings revealed a sharp yet still whimsical world in her art. She laid the new series out on the floor of her living room and thought, “This is it.”

The new style was a hit. Ever since that moment, the focus of each piece is to expand her world.

“What window can I open for people to see?” she asks. “What slice can I carve out for people to peek inside?”

In a world where artists and inspiration are more accessible than ever before, it’s incredibly difficult for an artist to find their unique voice. Em uses limitations and boundaries to push herself and her art. Is it okay to use different shades of red? Is it okay to stop selling prints?

“For me, it was not trying to do everything. You don’t have to be the artist who does wall plants in illustrations. You don’t have to be the one who does cute sayings. You don’t have to be the one who bootlegs things to be successful. I don’t have to do an illustration of Amelia Earhart to be successful. You don’t have to. You can say no to doing it all. It really carves out your place.”

Em’s Pro Tip: Testing out a drawing idea? Em Randall uses the app “Autodesk SketchBook.” Use it to make full illustrations, or do what Em does: take process pictures of your work and digitally sketch in possible elements to determine what works best.

BRIANNE FARLEY

Traverse City-based picture book author and illustrator Brianne Farley is usually painting images of a young scientist (who happens to be a rabbit) or adventures in a secret tree fort. Brianne moved back to her hometown of Traverse City in 2015, after stints in Chicago and Savannah—where she earned an MFA in illustration at the Savannah College of Art and Design. After graduating from SCAD, Brianne moved to New York City to be a design assistant for Random House Books for Young Readers. All the while, she continually worked to get her first book published. “It was so cool because I got to see both sides of the coin at the same time,” she says. “I was a double agent.”

She published her first book, Ike’s Incredible Ink , in 2013. Thanks to its success and a lot of hard work behind the scenes, Brianne now has her dream job: book author and illustrator. “There’s no greater gift than to have someone take your work seriously,” she says. “People will ask you questions like, ‘What does this bear actually think about this donut?’”

With personal projects, however, Brianne opens up beyond the arena of children’s books. For a recent show at Higher Art Gallery, “Drawn To,” featuring women in contemporary illustration, Brianne’s work took on a more personal tone.

She first started her series “Universe People” as a reaction to President Trump’s announcements regarding transgender people in the military. “I’m not very good at making negative art,” Brianne says. “This seemed like a positive way to celebrate bodies and show support.”

The Universe People are a series of deep blue watercolor and gouache paintings of couples and groups of people holding hands. Each of the figures has gold painted features that make their gender and sexuality ambiguous. Golden stars within the radiant blue bodies give the figures a celestial appearance. “It’s not really meant to be any one skin color—it’s not supposed to be a person. It’s supposed to be people,” Brianne explains.

Shanny Brooke, an artist and the owner/director of Higher Art Gallery, uses the same art framer as Brianne. She first saw pieces from Universe People at the frame shop last year. “I love the simplicity of them,” Shanny says. “I love what they stand for.

“Right now, we’re putting so many labels and definitions on ourselves. It’s so nice to see something that’s universal. I was excited to have Brianne as part of the show. I really think she’s going to go far.”

While it is a dream job, Brianne is hard at work illustrating two new books for other authors and is looking to both write and illustrate her own book after these projects are completed. “I finally found another book idea that I’m really excited about,” she says.

HELLO, BRIANNE

What should parents read their kids?
Death, Duck and the Tulip. It’s beautiful and amazing and I love it. It does everything right.

Who are some authors/illustrators we should check out?
Dasha Tolstikova, Ruth Chan, Thyra Heder. (Friends from Brianne’s New York days who were also bridesmaids in her recent wedding.)

What do you listen to while you work?
It depends on what stage of the project I’m in. If it’s final art, then it’s all podcasts all the time. I become the most obnoxious person on the planet because I’ve been working for eight hours a day listening to informational podcasts. I emerge from my cave saying, “DID YOU KNOW THIS ABOUT WHALES?!”

If you were a prizefighter, what song would play as you walked into the ring?
“Psycho Killer” or “Girlfriend is Better” by Talking Heads.

DANI KNOPH

Dani Knoph’s wildlife paintings are beautiful. The details and anatomical positioning gives them a sense of gravitas, but there is also kindness and familiarity. These are the creatures that she, and so many of us in Northern Michigan, grew up with. Playing in the water—whether it’s fishing, canoeing or walking the shore—means interacting and developing a relationship with these animals.

As a child, Dani had a little red kayak at her family’s cabin in Gaylord. She’d take the kayak out for missions on the lake to find fish. Not to catch them. Just to observe. Eventually, they started following along in her wake.

Today, Dani is a wildlife conservation artist. Despite copious time exploring the outdoors as a child she says, “Conservation is something I didn’t grow up knowing about. It’s an unfolding field for me right now.”

After painting cold water fish for the better part of the last decade, Dani’s newest collection is a shift to a more terrestrial aquatic species: turtles. “The turtles are a personal reminder to slow down,” says Dani, “and hopefully they will remind others.”

The beginning of this series includes four species of turtles native to Michigan: the spotted turtle, the Blanding’s turtle, the Eastern box turtle and the wood turtle. The Blanding’s, Eastern box and wood turtles are all listed as a species of special concern, which means they are quite rare, yet have no legal protections. The spotted turtle, Dani’s favorite, is categorized as “threatened” and is therefore even rarer and must have legal protections.

“Every time I start illustrating a new species, I geek out about learning about that species,” laughs Dani. She’s quick to rattle off facts like the size of a spotted turtle (only about five inches), or that the temperature of a turtle’s nest can determine the sex of the hatchlings. “Every species is a little different,” she says. “For example, with box turtles, their eye color correlates to their gender.”

Each painting is made with pen and ink and watercolor. Dani uses old-fashioned nibs for her pens to sketch the outline of the illustration then fills in layers of watercolor to create detailed texture. “The most difficult part of each one is just layering the color and knowing when to stop,” Dani says. “Sometimes I stop too early or stop too late.”

Her turtles look the way you might see them in the wild, not stuffed behind glass at a museum. The heads, legs and tails each take a different position on the paper. “That’s why I chose the anatomical view that I did—looking down at the shell, so people can really get a sense of how beautiful these creatures are,” Dani says.

In order to bring the turtles to life, she looks for the details. “I love looking at the shell. The symmetry, shapes and patterns.” She painted the spotted turtle first, and found something striking. “It’s a small turtle, but the pattern on its shell reminded me of constellations. They inspired me.”

Dani and her paintings bring a unique edge to conservation in the area. But what can an artist do in the face of the exhausting odds currently facing conservationists? “The root of conservation is natural beauty,” Dani says. “It reminds us of childhood. Exploring the outdoors. Curiosity. Sometimes, when we get older we lose touch with that, and it’s important to stay in touch with our curious side.”

INTO THE WILD WITH DANI

Lake Sturgeon // Threatened Species // These prehistoric giants once prevailed in the Great Lakes. They can grow up to 7 feet in length, weigh up to 200 pounds and some females live 100 years! This year, nearly 20,000 juvenile Lake Sturgeon were released into Michigan waters, part of an effort to rehabilitate this culturally significant species.

Spotted Turtle // Threatened Species // These tiny creatures grow up to 5 inches in length and live in sedge meadows, boggy ponds, marshes and swamps. Road mortality, nest predation, illegal collection and wetland drainage threaten the survival of this rare species. If you help a turtle cross the road, be sure to put it on the side of the road to which it’s heading, otherwise, it might try to cross again.

Arctic Grayling // Extirpated in Michigan by the 1930s // Northern Michigan’s once predominant salmonid species was wiped out by habitat destruction from the logging industry, overfishing and the introduction of non-native species. However, modern science and conservation practices are providing new models for restoring this beautiful species and sustaining naturally reproducing wild populations. Reintroduction efforts are underway. 

Molly Korroch is a freelance writer based in Suttons Bay. Find her at mollyhunterkorroch.com // Michael Poehlman is a Traverse City-based commercial, portrait and fine art photographer. Check out some highlights at michaelpoehlman.com