Last year, when I was on my Art Inc book tour, I made a stop at the Powerhouse Arena in Dumbo, Brooklyn for a Q&A with my friend Grace Bonney, followed by a book signing. Usually when I sign books on my tours, especially on my Art Inc tour, the attendees tend to be fellow artists, many starting out, and others hoping to recharge their careers. I like to say hello to people and chat for a few minutes with each person. Sometimes I remember the people whose books I sign, often because they tell me their names (and somehow I remember them), but mostly because they hand me their card. I can’t remember if Sam Kalda gave me his card or I simply remembered his name that night at Powerhouse Arena, but what I do remember is that I looked him up the next day, as I often do when I meet people, and was blown away by his work. I started following him on Instagram and am continually impressed by his illustrations.
Sam, who you’ll get to know a little bit here, and who is still relatively new to the illustration scene, already works for an impressive roster of clients like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Pentagram, West Elm, Buzzfeed, Ebony, WWD, Groundwood Books, The New Republic, The Boston Globe, Wired, ASOS, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Johns Hopkins University, among many others. I love the mixture of clean and modern in his work with warm, textured and colorful details.
Lisa: You are a self described cat fancier! Before we get into talking about your work, let’s break that down. What’s a cat fancier? How is being a cat fancier reflected in your daily life?
Sam: Fancier is a fancy word for appreciator. I’ve always been a cat person and, as a subject matter, cats have been something people have really gravitated towards in my work. On a day to day level, being a cat fancier means taking care of a sweet but demanding house cat.
Lisa: You are from South Dakota! I have never met anyone in my 47 years from South Dakota. Tell me what it’s like there.
Sam: That’s not an uncommon response! I’d like to think it makes us South Dakotans rare like some kind of exotic bird. While it varies quite a bit where you are from in the state (we take the Missouri river divide quite seriously), I’m from Sioux Falls, which is the biggest city in SD. It sounds a little generic, but it’s a great place to grow up. I’m gay and live in New York now, so often times people assume a default narrative about needing to escape a restrictive environment and discover myself in a big city, yadayada. Basically like Jo from Little Women. But I really love being from South Dakota. I feel there’s a certain laid back level-headedness and strong work ethic that I’m thankful for.
Lisa: When did you know you wanted to be an artist? How did you decide to make your way to SUNY Purchase?
Sam: I’ve always loved to draw—it’s just been a thing that I did and was known for doing since I was a kid. I’m fortunate in that my parents were (and are) very supportive of my creative pursuits. My parents both work in the medical field, but they both are very creative in their hobbies (wood working, quilting, needlepoint, mold making, etc.), so there was always an importance placed on working with your hands. Regarding college, I actually picked SUNY Purchase sight unseen. I wanted an art school in a small liberal arts college environment that was affordable and close to NYC. Purchase checked all the boxes.
Lisa: You started off studying painting, got your MFA at FIT and now you’re an illustrator. Talk about how one thing led to the next and the connections between all of those things.
Sam: I went from studying oil painting in early undergrad to making sculptures and installation work near the end of college. For a year after school, I helped a friend on a documentary about artist-led AIDS activism in NYC in the 80s and early 90s. After deciding film was not the path for me, I began working on a picture book idea I’d had for a number of years. In the process of making the book—and being thoroughly overwhelmed by the process—I was accepted into the MFA program at FIT. I made the decision to go back to school kind of impulsively, but it really changed my career.
I’m not sure if there’s a direct connection between all those things! I think what interests me in a broad sense is visual storytelling, be it through a book, movie, or painting. Illustration is a great cross section of many disciplines.
Lisa: Obviously some of your work is hand painted. But some of your work appears to be digital? Describe your process. Do you start by drawing by hand? Do you work in illustrator? Give us the info.
Sam: I always sketch with a pencil. If it’s an editorial job with a tight deadline, I work digitally. Typically, I digitally paint the background in Photoshop, using the pencil sketch as a reference. From there, I add scanned in pencil drawings, paint textures and whatever else I’m feeling for the piece. It’s a hybrid of digital painting and hand-drawing. For my personal work, I usually either paint with ink on Bristol board, or with acrylics on wooden panels. I really see the technique as a means to an end and I like switching up the way I work from time to time.
Lisa: You do lots of editorial illustration. I am amazed at people who do lots of it because it requires a lot of skill in problem solving, thinking outside the box & concepting ideas, not to mention short deadlines. Why do you enjoy it? What draws you to it?
Sam: I like the fact that I never know what to expect. Also, there’s a certain high you get after completing a piece on a short deadline that can be addictive. That being said, there’s always panic in the concept phase!
I think editorial illustration demands a certain level of organization, preparation and focus that has bled into my own studio practice. So many of these qualities don’t come naturally to artists—myself most certainly included. Thankfully, these things can be learned through practice.
Lisa: Who/what are your most treasured inspirations and why?
Sam: I’ll just do a quick, stream of consciousness list: Edward Bawden, Maira Kalman, Peewee’s Playhouse, vintage picture books, Memphis design, Wiener Werkstätte postcards, Bloomsbury/Omega workshop interiors, midcentury furniture, collecting chairs, brass menageries, art deco posters, well-curated bookshelves, old interior design magazines, Will Barnet, patterned rugs. I think I should make a list like this monthly to see how my interests both evolve and stay the same over time.
Lisa: You are quite a fabulously recognized young illustrator and your client list is very impressive. Your talent is clear, but you are obviously ALSO a hard worker. Have you always been a hustler or is that something you’ve learned as you’ve gotten older or entered the profession?
Sam: Thank you! I definitely feel that I’ve learned to hustle and be organized as I got older. Like I touched on earlier, I had to work a lot on my time-management habits and organization. Before becoming a full-time illustrator, I worked for a museum in the design retail department for a number of years. I learned a tremendous amount about being professional and a good deal about basic business practices. That was as important as my illustration training to my career now. For whatever reason, I’ve always enjoyed the hunt of finding new work, tracking down art directors, and submitting my work to blogs, competitions, etc.
As a kid, I wasn’t a very serious student and never really saw myself as a “hard worker” in school—-it just wasn’t my thing. But when it came to creative pursuits (art-making, drumming, high school theater) I really could go into a kind of hyper-focus. Near the end of high school and into college, I really started to take art-making and education seriously. I’ve slowly been trying to tame my inner couch potato ever since.
Lisa: One piece of advice you’d give to a young aspiring illustrator trying to make it.
Sam: There are so many platitudes to choose from! Honestly, the most useful advice I was ever given was by my thesis adviser in college: You have to make work for yourself before you can make it for anyone else. Stay engaged, discover things that inspire you, and don’t fear experimentation or change. Oh, and write polite, personalized emails without insane punctuation!
Lisa: Where can people find you on the Internets?
and my agency: folioart.co.uk/
Lisa: Thank you, Sam! You are awesome. <3