Q&A: Jim Tierney’s Inspired Illustrations

Kevin Larimer
From the January/February 2011 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

While putting together this year’s Inspiration Issue, we were faced with two unique and enviable challenges. First, how could we follow up last year’s cover, created by veteran designer Chip Kidd? And second, how could we take advantage of the addition of color—ah, soul-refreshing color—to forty of our interior pages? The answer to both questions lay in the absolutely stunning work of Jim Tierney, an illustrator and designer who, after graduating from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts last year, was quickly hired as a junior designer at Penguin. A day after he finalized the last of his illustrations for this issue, Tierney spoke about the inspiration behind his work.

Tell me about your thinking behind the illustration on the cover.
I usually have the toughest time with assignments that are really open and not specific, so when I got the prompt to do something having to do with inspiration it took me a little while to kind of get rolling with that…I started thinking about, obviously, myself—which is all I can really think about in terms of this—What inspires me? So I came up with a few initial ideas about where I get my inspiration from, thinking that it might be universal.… And the cover, I think, works on a couple of different levels. First of all, the stars and astronomy has inspired people forever. At the beginning people had no idea what was going on and they made up fabulous stories and Greek myths and all of this originated in nothing but people drawing lines to connect stars. And personally I find that amazing…It’s still inspiring and it’s still amazing now that we know what stars are, and it’s even more fabulous than the myths that we made up about them. And also it reminds me of being at home, because I grew up on a farm where you can just look out at the stars for hours over the cornfields and whatnot. So that really resonated with me.

Was this a unique job for you or did it follow the usual course?
It was unique, because usually I’ll get a magazine assignment and they have a box for me to fill in, and they say, “Make a complete image to go in the box—it has to do with this article.” And it’s usually something specific. But for this, all the ideas were pretty broad. I had a vague theme to work with, and I didn’t have just one box to work in. The art would flow around the type, I could do my own titles, there was a lot of freedom, and I really had a lot of fun with it—more than I would with something that was more constrictive.

How integral is the written word, the text, to what you’re doing?
My work is supposed to be supplemental to the main work, which is the text. And so I have to have a lot of respect for it. I have to serve the content rather than just do my own thing and say, “This is my vision, this is my thing.” It takes a lot of the ego out of it, which might make it easier to do revisions, because I’m not…my ego is gone. I’m now serving the client. But it’s fun to do illustrations for publications, because it involves a lot of research—every week I’m doing something different. This week I’ll do a book on the role of communism; next week I’ll do a magazine article on the newest technology of nanocomputers, or something like that. And I love to read, so I guess it’s a convenient way to tie my interests together.

What do you read for pleasure?
Right now I’m interested in the work of Calvino and Borges—and this new author whose book I just read, Terrence Holt. He’s sort of in the same genre as they are. And I love science books for some reason, so I love reading things by Steven Pinker and Carl Sagan.

Is there an author whose books you’ve always wanted to illustrate?
That’s a good question because it’s not the same as asking who my favorite author is. I would love to illustrate Calvino’s books. He has a really interesting way of being existential and still folksy and absurd and surreal, which I think is what my work comes across as.

Kevin Larimer is the editor of Poets & Writers Magazine

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