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  • maria 1:21 pm on June 2, 2014 Permalink  

    ugly duckling 

    Cameo_Joy-of-ChemestryWe knew exactly how we were going to illustrate “Joy of Chemistry” about CAS professor Matthew Hartings’s class on the science behind food. It was going to be easy as pie.

    Adrienne and I hit up five different stores looking for the best jumbo blueberry muffins we could find. They needed to have round, sky-high tops with crumbles, and fat blueberries. Starbucks was the clear winner.

    We waited until the day of the shoot for peak freshness. We didn’t know that we needed to buy them before 7 a.m. if we wanted to be that picky (annoying) customer behind the glass pointing at the specific muffins we wanted. We had to take what we got. We bought the last three—the third one being our “just in case” muffin as it was, frankly, ugly.  Its top was amoeba shaped, flat, and had a skimpy crumble covering. When we met our photographer, Jeff Watts, in the studio for the shoot I left it in the paper bag in my office thinking I’d take it home for my son to enjoy.

    This shoot should have been quick—maybe a half an hour. But food stylists we are not. We quickly discovered that we shouldn’t have used the most beautiful muffin first. We pinched off part of its perfect top to simulate how one might begin to eat such a lovely, fluffy muffin. Though we could picture it in our heads, we spent 15 minutes trying to style a mangled mess into something attractive—to no avail. We moved on to our second best-looking muffin and spent even more time to get worse results.

    123We only had the ugly muffin left. We decided to go Seinfeld and “break free” the muffin top from the stump. This was definitely the better way to go but the irregularity of the muffin top was pronounced in Jeff’s images. Our stomachs dropped. We were resigned to the fact this photo illustration was not going to be our best. We were ready to call it quits when I thought to lift up the muffin top to the same level as the muffin bottom. In a feet of engineering (if I do say so myself), I propped up the top with stray blueberries. After strategically placing some crumbs, Jeff took a few shots and ta-da, we had our picture. Our ugly duckling came through.

    blueberry-stiltsI will never look at or eat a blueberry muffin the same way again.

  • maria 1:08 pm on May 12, 2014 Permalink  

    Esty and me 

    linedrawing_brownstonesI am not an illustrator, but sometimes I have no choice. This usually happens when a portrait of the subject doesn’t tell enough of the story, and there’s no time or money to hire a professional illustrator. Although I may be smiling on the outside when I find myself in this position, I’m usually filled with self-doubt and, frankly, fear.

    “The Writer’s Block” came in very late. Twelve days before we were to go to press, actually. Another story didn’t pan out, but writer Mike Unger was able to tap into an interesting alumna, Julia Fierro, author of the forthcoming Cutting Teeth and founder of the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop in Brooklyn. Mike didn’t know how the story was going to flesh out so I couldn’t do any pre-planning. I had to wait for the story.

    Freelancer Amanda Stevenson Lupke took some wonderful portraits of Julia but when I read Mike’s story I knew we needed to tap into Brooklyn, which is a major character in Julia’s story. We had to get a brownstone image and it had to be whimsical. It was Friday. I needed the layout done by Monday.

    istock_brownstonesI searched my go-to stock image websites feeling a little sick until I came across a row of typical brownstones on iStock.com. I could use it as reference. All I needed was a light table—which, of course, I didn’t have. I may not be an illustrator, but I am resourceful. I took a flat lantern we had in our basement and glass from a frame hanging on our hallway wall to create a small, primitive light table. I purchased the iStock image and went to work. I found myself getting excited as the drawing was coming together. The iStock image only had two stories, but I could make three! I started to feel confident. I wanted to create matching art—street sign, crumbled paper, pencil, envelope, and Julia’s book—for the layout. The New Yorker popped into my mind and I decided to put my little black and white “doodles” in the text. I was pumped. I’d draw a frame for Julia’s portrait!

    When I came into work on Monday, I showed my coworkers the drawings. I was so tickled and ignored my usual M.O. to lay low. One of my coworkers looked at the iStock image and my drawing and said, “You Etsy-fied it!”

    I love Etsy so I took that as a compliment.

  • maria 1:13 am on April 28, 2014 Permalink  

    where’s Waldo? 

    Untitled-1It’s hard to believe we’ve produced five issues of the redesigned magazine—enough to start seeing patterns in our work. Adrienne and I didn’t intend to be in all the Metrocentered photographs. In our first Metrocentered (Gallery Place-Chinatown), I was crossing the street behind our subjects, who made loop after loop around the intersection. Adrienne is with her 3 month old baby, Owen, waiting until the shoot was finished to thank the subjects with a $5 Starbucks card. If you look closely you can see them in the background.

    xgalleryplaceWhen shooting the second Metrocentered (Columbia Heights), we thought balloons would be a cheery touch (we saw a woman with balloons when we scouted the location weeks before the shoot), so Adrienne attached some to Owen’s stroller. We knew she would be in the shot.


    By the third (Dupont Circle), we decided it would be fun if both of us were in the photo but in the final image Adrienne is blocked by a subject. In the fourth (Union Station) I had to stay back to watch the subjects’ belongings.

    xdupontxunionFinally, as planned, for the fifth and latest (Georgia Ave.-Petworth) we are both visible. (Though Adrienne thinks it’s pretty neat that she can document Owen’s childhood through these photos, he didn’t attend this particular shoot.) Can you spot us?

    xgeorgia D14_296_048We’d love to feature your Metro stop in an upcoming issue. Email suggestions to magazine@american.edu.

  • maria 1:12 pm on April 14, 2014 Permalink  

    click, color, and learn 


    There are exactly 3,141 counties in the United States and I colored in every single one of them for “Beyond Red and Blue,” including the 11 that I have lived in so far: Hampshire, Massachusetts; Providence, Rhode Island; and Montgomery, Maryland among them. I have only lived in very blue, liberal counties and, prior to this story, felt I couldn’t live in or identify with any red state. I now realize that was very narrow-minded.

    The map on SPA’s American Communities Projects (ACP) site is nice. I thought I would just enhance it by highlighting characteristics of the 15 community types that ACP director Dante Chinni identified. Unfortunately, ACP’s map was created for the web and not suited for print so I was going to have to recreate it. Argh.

    I had a key. I had the colors. And I had plenty of time set aside for my task. The West Coast was a breeze with fewer and larger counties but as I progressed towards the Atlantic Ocean it got more challenging. Kentucky and Indiana have lot of little, organically shaped counties, and Maryland and Virginia were hard to tell apart. What a headache.

    Despite my eyes crossing, something started changing as the map was filling up. As I was clicking and coloring I started to feel differently about areas of the country I always thought were too red for me. Right there in Tennessee is an “orange” county (Hamilton), the same type (Urban Suburbs) as my current county of residence, Montgomery County, Maryland.  In Mississippi there are two “gold” counties (Oktibbeha and Lafayette), the same type (College Towns) as where I grew up, Hampshire, Massachusetts. My cut and dry notions were starting to crumble.

    Once the map was finished I went to work identifying counties that illustrate each category’s characteristics. I searched quickfacts.census.gov for all sorts of interesting facts. For example, Borden County, Texas, has only 616 people, while Fergus County, Montana, is only .3% African American. I was getting to know my country for its diversity, not for its political points of view. Sometimes that’s hard to do when you live inside the Beltway. I do know this: election night will never be the same.

  • maria 1:16 pm on April 7, 2014 Permalink  

    memory mantle 

    lighting-the-candleD14_420_032I’ve been an AU staffer for 23 years—a long tenure to be sure, but not nearly as long as the late Don Myers, who served as AU’s CFO, vice president and treasurer for 45 years. I was fortunate to work with him on several annual reports throughout the years. He always knew exactly what he wanted and was very complimentary of my work. I was honored when I was tapped to design the program for Don’s memorial service (he passed away in January after a long and courageous battle with cancer).

    I listened intently during the planning meetings, hoping that I would glean insights into his personality in order to make his program more personal. I learned he loved orchids.

    When it came time to design the magazine story on Don’s legacy, I wanted it to be more than columns of text and a few photos. There needed to be an orchid in the layout. A mantle with objects that represented Don’s professional accomplishments and personal life popped into my mind.

    Identifying items to go with a story is easy—finding them can be tricky. With a little help from our coworkers and some shopping, we found most of the items. But one important item—a mini-golden shovel—proved to be more difficult. Don broke a lot of ground on campus and he just had to have a mini-golden shovel on his mantle. I was on a mission.

    After searching several stores, I sent a typo-ridden text to Adrienne:1

    2 33

    It was totally worth the effort. Don was an impressive man who did a lot for the AU community and I wanted his mantle to be just right.

    When everything was perfectly arranged I lit the candle and wondered aloud what would be on my “memory mantle.” I drew a blank, then Adrienne chimed in: “Oh, you’d have Good & Plenty on your mantle.” (The candies are my vice.) Um, not very prestigious but at least they are easy to find.

  • maria 2:39 pm on November 30, 2013 Permalink  

    bat’s out of the bag 

    This-I-Know_vampireSenior editor Adrienne Frank and I were in search of a good pair of vampire teeth for this issue’s “This I Know.” Our subject, Katharina Vester, teaches a class on vampire narratives. Though it’s a rigorous literature survey, Katharina was up for doing something fun with the image. So, we decided to top a stack of “required reading” with the vampire teeth.

    We had to drive 40 minutes to a pop-up Halloween store in suburban Maryland to find a pair of teeth (who knew they’d be so difficult to find!).  At the checkout counter, a rubber bat caught my eye. Vampires turn into bats, right? I imagined it flying near Katharina, adding a little more life (and fun!) to the photo.

    D14_207_001Of course I didn’t think it through. When I got back to the office and took the bat out of the bag, I saw that I was in trouble. The bat was very floppy and rubbery. How were we going to make it fly?







    Photographer Jeff Watts to the rescue! He took the bat and disappeared for a while. He then called me in to his studio and proudly showed off his rig—there was the bat flying, waiting for its photo to be snapped.

  • maria 5:02 pm on November 25, 2013 Permalink  

    a nod to Warhol 

    When I learned that we were profiling alumnus Alice Denney, a 91 year old lady who counts the who’s who of the pop art world among her closest friends, my first question to the editor, Adrienne Frank, was, “What does she look like?”

    Adrienne didn’t have any visuals yet . . . time for me to Google! There weren’t many images of Alice, but of the ones I could find, there was no escaping her signature glasses—they were huge. So I was prepared when Alice opened the door to let “the team” into her house to take her photograph. She was wearing an enormous pair of funky glasses.

    andy-warhol-marilyn-monroe-1960sAfter our brief time in her house, filled to the brim with the most wonderful and crazy art, and reading Lee Fleming’s story, it was time for me to figure out how to illustrate the article. Alice has such a long list of connections with cool artists like Jim Dine and Jasper Johns but it was the iconic Andy Warhol that jumped out at me. He’s always been one of my favorites. Everyone knows his silk screen of Marilyn Monroe—the same portrait repeated in multiple squares and in different colors. What a perfect way to show off Alice’s glasses!

    denneyOnce I created my first “Alice Denney,” it was a blast experimenting with changing the color of her glasses (and her jacket, buttons, and lips). It was hard for me to stop at nine. It was nice for me to go loud and bright—and out of my comfort zone.

    Although I know I’m not any kind of pop artist, it was thrilling to pretend for a little while.

  • maria 2:42 pm on November 19, 2013 Permalink  

    from nothing to something 

    Although I don’t conceive or write feature stories for American, I am privy to their origins. I sit in the editorial meetings listening to the editor and writers talk about story ideas. Sometimes while I listen I feel panicked and think, “How am I going to illustrate that? I’m doomed!” But other times, images pop into my head immediately and I want to get started right then and there—not knowing if the story is even going to pan out.

    new-american-shootThe story “Swearing In” was just one of those “I got it!” moments when writer Mike Unger first pitched the story eight months ago. I immediately envisioned a hallway wall with ornately framed black and white portraits, under thick glass hung on large patterned, flowery wallpaper of an immigrant family’s early- or mid-twentieth century home. As Mike was talking I began imagining. I had already moved on—thinking about the logistics of collecting frames, where to get vintage wallpaper, and how to photograph the subjects (not even identified yet!).

    Luckily Mike’s story became a reality so I could realize my vision. And unlike some stories there was plenty of time to find frames and neat wallpaper (Etsy’s Hannah’s Treasures had just what we needed) and take the pictures of the new (and not so new) citizens Mike interviewed.

    Now it was time for the fun part! I enjoy the challenges that often come with my “big ideas.” How was I going to wallpaper and on what? How was I going to organize and hang the frames? With the help of our photographer, Jeff Watts, I decided to use the studio floor. Even after a week of being under weights the wallpaper wouldn’t unfurl. It was tough lining up the flourishes without the wallpaper rolling back over on me. Once secured, I was able to move the frames around (no holes!) and adjust accordingly so all would fit correctly in the final layout.D14_242_031When I look at the final image in the magazine I remember the wonderful subjects I got to meet, their willingness to stand in front of a huge American flag, put their hands over their hearts, and smile. It was an honor to put their portraits in frames, “hang” them on the floor, and make them part of the American family.

    Check out “Swearing In” in the new issue of American magazine.

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