Featured artist Chris Sickles discusses the beginning of his career

The Department of Art & Design presented the diverse works of Indiana artist Chris Sickels with the “Curiouser and Curiouser: Chris Sickels” exhibition, which will be open from Nov. 19 to Dec. 14 in Christel DeHaan Fine Arts Center Gallery.

Photo by Kiara Conley
Made of wire, polymer clay, fabric, foam and paper, “Frame of Mind” was made in 2017. It was one of a series of figurines included in the exhibition at UIndy.

From puppetry to stop-motion animation, pieces in the gallery show the wide variety of mediums that Sickels used to express himself through his art. However, he would be the first to admit that this is not what he expected to do for a career while he was a student at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. In fact, Sickels said that his career began without having much success.

“As a student, even before I graduated, I would take my portfolio of paintings—this was before websites, before 1995—to any art director that would see me. It was all cold calls,” Sickels said. “A lot of the feedback was ‘This stuff is interesting but there is no use for it.’ Then I asked if there was another person I could take it to. I was relentless.”

While other students in Sickels’ program began to build their portfolios into careers, he struggled to find a job. He began looking for new options and exploring various fields, hoping to find an area that he could specialize in. This search led him to take a scientific illustration course at another university. The field had function and practicality that would serve as a safety net after college. It was not, however, as simple as he had initially hoped for, Sickels said.

Sickels was forced to take on side jobs alongside his artistic career to afford his rent and other amenities. He needed to find a better way of gaining publicity for his work to earn more money. After doing more research to how he could expand his work into a more sustainable career, he discovered illustration representatives.

According to Sickels, an illustration representative acts as an agent to connect artists with projects and work. They help promote artists and teach them skills necessary to establish a brand and build credibility. Sickels connected with a representative who helped him negotiate projects and scheduling, and the two have worked together for years—even during times when neither of them were profiting significantly.

Photo by Macy Judd
“The Village Voice,” a printed comic, was created last year. It featured Martha the pigeon, the last known passenger pigeon, who passed away in Sept. 1914.

“I started having serious conversations with my illustration agent when I was around six years out of college,” Sickels said. “The previous year I had only made $15,000 on illustration. I remember telling the rep, ‘I am only making this much money, your percentage would be this much. Why would you even bother with me?’ [But] she was much more interested in the work and where the work could potentially go.”

After having that conversation with his illustration representative, Sickels said he began to experiment using a style that was more three-dimensional based than his previous work.

“I started in illustration and now I focus on 3D and animation,” Sickels said.

With the new style changes, Sickels eventually went on to create his own studio based in Greenfield, Ind., called Red Nose Studio. His work with the studio has received recognition from organizations such as American Illustration, Communication Arts and HOW Magazine. He also received three gold medals and a silver medal from the Society of Illustrators for his illustrations and stop-motion work. Some of his stop-animation films have been presented at film festivals such as the Los Angeles International Short Film Festival and the Montreal Stop-Motion Film Festival. He also authors and illustrates children’s books.

This extensive portfolio caught the eye of Assistant Professor of Art & Design Randi Frye, who submitted an application for the exhibition to be featured in the University Series. She said she believed that Sickels’ work fit well with the theme of the series.

“The idea of grit, inventiveness and creativity are all on display in Chris Sickels’ work. From his sketches and drawings, to the puppets and final 3D illustrations and animations,” Frye said.

Frye also said that students can relate to Sickels’ story, even those who are not pursuing art as a career. His struggle to find his place in the workforce and make his passion into a career are important lessons for students who may believe they have their future all figured out, according to Frye.

“There are different paths and you may not always end up on the path that you had in mind in college,” Sickels said.