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An Illustrious Life

Eyewitness: Hal Mayforth


Published September 7, 2011 at 6:54 a.m.

From his rural studio in East Montpelier, artist Hal Mayforth has issued a veritable army of little people. They’ve populated the print world for more than three decades, and, unless you never read, you’ve probably encountered his distinctive brood of excitable, big-eyed, bulbous-nosed characters. Mayforth’s quirky, brightly colored illustrations have appeared in publications as varied as the Wall Street Journal, the AARP magazine, the New York Times, Outside, Road & Track and a host of computer, science and health magazines.

Mayforth’s prolific, one-man art factory also produces whimsical pen-and-ink and watercolor works for calendars, postcards, giclée prints and light-switch covers, as well as larger acrylic paintings. He further satisfies his artistic soul playing guitar in central Vermont blues band the Heckhounds.

At this weekend’s South End Art Hop in Burlington, thousands of viewers will be able to see a selection of works by Mayforth, one of Vermont’s best-known comic artists … outside the state.

The exhibit marks a return to the Hop, and to home, for this Burlington native. Mayforth will show at the Brickels Gallery in the Soda Plant, sharing quarters with John Brickels’ clever clay sculptures of vintage vehicles and entropic buildings.

“I grew up literally around the corner from it,” says Mayforth of the Pine Street venue. His childhood on Locust Street was imprinted with aromas from the Maltex Building, a former cereal factory. Mayforth’s father, now 90, was a car racer and auto importer whose dealership, Carpenter and Mayforth, introduced Vermonters to then-exotic Saabs, Volvos and MGs in the 1960s.

Square jawed, with a burly build and short-cropped hair, Mayforth, 60, is driven by both artistic and basic make-a-living impulses — “to keep the wolves at bay,” as he puts it.

“If you’re freelancing, you’re always wondering where the next job is coming from,” he says. Perhaps so, but Mayforth is in the echelon of illustrators whose work is so well known that art directors call them.

“I’ve been doing it so long, people know me,” he says modestly. “I have a lot of recurring customers.”

Mayforth’s cluttered studio, located above his garage with a wonderful view of Plainfield’s Spruce Mountain, is zoned for the different parts of his day, and life: There’s a paint-spattered corner with an easel and jumbled tubes of acrylic paint; a corner desktop with a large computer monitor and work table; a table where he draws his characters and works in his sketchbook; an array of guitar cases tucked in a corner.

At the heart of Mayforth’s art is his sketchbook discipline. He uses a Crow Quill pen to draw for an hour every morning, after first sitting quietly for 20 minutes.

“I find meditation clears my mind and often allows the good stuff to come in,” he says.

In the sketchbook he pens a mix of whimsy, topical subjects, “off-kilter” humor, clever captions and characters, which sometimes evolve into semifinished works. At this point Mayforth has hundreds of sketchbooks, each of them providing snapshots of his mind at work.

“This is where all my ideas come from,” he explains. “These are my points of departure.”

In one recent example, a big-eyed, bearded character wearing a Boston Bruins jersey struggles to hoist the Stanley Cup. It’s goalie Tim Thomas, who recently received a hero’s welcome in Burlington. The caption reads: “Damn, this thing is heavy.”

Because Mayforth’s illustrations are humorous and easily scalable, he’s on speed dial when art directors need illustrations to enliven complex or lengthy articles.

“The illustration business is how I make money, how I pay the bills,” Mayforth says.

Last week he was playing with ideas to accompany a magazine article on human organs. Not easy. But Mayforth enjoys the challenge of what he calls “problem solving.”

His fertile imagination scampers in all sorts of topical and artistic directions. In a comical-but-trenchant poster created after the BP Deep water Horizon well blowout, two herons drip with oil. In the caption, one bird reasons: “On the plus side, my flaky, itchy skin seems to have subsided.”

Some of Mayforth’s ideas are silly non sequiturs — such as “Bad Math Man,” in which a red-caped superhero wears a shirt emblazoned with “4 + 2 = 8.”

Mayforth’s acrylic paintings generally contain a bright mix of symbolic, almost hieroglyphic features and idiosyncratic lettering. Conceptually, his subjects are “all over the map,” he notes in “the dreaded artist’s statement.” As for his colorful, zany watercolor characters, imagine Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” stoned and warped in a fun-house mirror.

Mayforth attended the University of Vermont for two years and then switched to Skidmore College, where an art instructor told him to start keeping a sketchbook. He’s been doing it ever since. Mayforth’s drawing career took off when he landed in the Bay State, just as the use of computers was spawning related technology magazines — all of them looking for art.

“When I was in Boston, it was like the perfect storm,” he says.

Mayforth later moved to New Hampshire. In 1992, a stroke of luck led him to his current property in East Montpelier, where he has raised three boys with his wife, Ellen.

Living the solitary artist’s life, Mayforth says he’s excited to reconnect with his hometown and the Hop, and to display his art to Vermonters. But he explains that it’s not about feeding an artist’s ego. “It just feels good,” Mayforth says.