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Sarasota illustrator John Pirman gets career retrospective with Selby Gardens exhibit

Over the last decade, artist and graphic designer John Pirman has been capturing slices of life in Sarasota with colorful and moody illustrations featured in Sarasota magazine. This summer, Selby Botanical Gardens is offering visitors a peek into Pirman’s career and creative process.

“John Pirman: Diving Into Nature” will be an indoor and outdoor exhibit and the first retrospective of his career as part of Selby’s 50th-anniversary celebration. Previous Sarasota exhibitions have been more focused.

“I was honored, flattered, and overjoyed that they asked me to do this,” Pirman said during a conversation in his North Sarasota home. “And very surprised.”

John Pirman’s 2013 illustration of the Selby Gardens Koi Pond will be displayed on a large aluminum panel during the gardens’ exhibition “John Pirman: Diving Into Nature.”

John Pirman’s 2013 illustration of the Selby Gardens Koi Pond will be displayed on a large aluminum panel during the gardens’ exhibition “John Pirman: Diving Into Nature.”

The invitation from CEO and President Jennifer Rominiecki and David Berry, Selby’s vice president for visitor engagement and chief museum curator, began with a plan to showcase 10 years of Pirman’s magazine images, some of which captured Selby Gardens. Others depict a boat on the water, iconic and historic homes, the legendary Bahai Hut, and a flamboyance of flamingos.

The exhibit, which runs July 22-Sept. 17, grew to include more examples from his years as a student at Kent State University and a professional career that has included illustrations for major magazines, holiday cards for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He also helped designs icons for different parts of the Ringling Museum complex that are seen on the grounds, on its website, membership cards and mailings.

The exhibit will feature some of his magazine images printed on large aluminum panels “in the landscape next to where I drew them,” Pirman said. “The koi pond might be in the koi pond or next to it. And the Selby House will be in the show right when you’re looking at it, there’s my drawing.” The same is true for the large morton fig or banyan tree.

In announcing the exhibition, Rominiecki described Pirman as “a beloved treasure locally and a renowned artist nationally.” She said his work “celebrates Sarasota and its world-class attributes in such a fun and alluring way.”

John Pirman’s “Geometric Dog,” created when he was in kindergarten, brought him attention at his elementary school and gave him the confidence to pursue a career as an illustrator and graphic designer.

John Pirman’s “Geometric Dog,” created when he was in kindergarten, brought him attention at his elementary school and gave him the confidence to pursue a career as an illustrator and graphic designer.

An early start to a creative life

The exhibition will feature eight or nine outdoor panels, Pirman said.

The rest of the show will be on display inside Selby’s Museum of Botany and the Arts, where visitors will get a sense of the trajectory of a career that got its start when Pirman was in kindergarten at Valley View Elementary School in Wadsworth, Ohio. It was one of two major early impacts on the path of his life and career.

When he was 5, he created a geometric dog that was put in a school showcase. “It gave me a lot of confidence as an artist. I was proud it was shown in the main showcase at school,” he said.

He still has the dog, which will be displayed in the exhibit.

In second grade, a drawing he made of Thanksgiving dinner was sent by his mother to Highlights magazine. “And it was published,” he says, still sounding surprised by the recognition. “When that was published, the magazine was passed around the entire school and that gave me more confidence. I was assigned to create hallway bulletin boards and other artistic things. I was given prop jobs. I created solutions and was very comfortable with that at an early age:”

Illustrator and graphic designer John Pirman in his home studio in Sarasota.

Illustrator and graphic designer John Pirman in his home studio in Sarasota.

Following a family path

Perhaps his skill and eye were hereditary. His father was a mechanical draftsman and his uncle was a package designer.

“My uncle would supply us with stacks of paper and that’s where paper comes into this. He was always constructing packaging and he’d bring all the leftovers to our house,” Pirman said. “I have an older brother and we were constantly making things and drawing on paper.” His brother, Rick, is a graphic designer in San Francisco.

Pirman said he can’t recall a time when he wasn’t drawing, and the dog he created in kindergarten shaped his love of geometry, which taught him “more about what shapes were about.”

During a college field trip to New York from Kent State, he visited the offices of GQ magazine. “When I came home, they called me to do a three-page travel spread. I did it in the basement of my parent’s house.”

Editors were interested in hiring him, but Pirman’s parents insisted he finished college.

An illustration of the Dolphin Fountain along the Sarasota Bayfront created by John Pirman for Sarasota Magazine.

An illustration of the Dolphin Fountain along the Sarasota Bayfront created by John Pirman for Sarasota Magazine.

He lived in New York from 1979 to 2008 but never had a serious full-time job. “I was always a freelancer. I had a few beginning jobs at an ad agency, but I never wanted to stay at an ad agency.”

Instead, he picked up stacks of magazines and reached out to their art directors, who began offering him jobs. One of his steady freelance assignments was working for Fortune magazine. Every two weeks, he illustrated the personal investment column, work that paid well enough for him to afford his first apartment.

But he said the work was “cut and dried,” requiring images for stories about money, banking, and insurance or specific companies. “I don’t know how many times I had to do a bull smoking a cigarette, or lightning falling on a house. I did that for years.”

As a freelancer he was open to other work, creating images for Coca-Cola, 3-M, and other companies “before icons and dingbats existed.”

He created promotional material for different companies, including a fan that caught the attention of cosmetics maker Estée Lauder. “They asked me to do a shopping bag for their suntan products line called Sun.”

John Pirman's 1988 illustration “Pool Drivers,” which has been used for promotional material for the Selby Botanical Gardens exhibition "John Pirman: Diving Into Nature."

John Pirman’s 1988 illustration “Pool Drivers,” which has been used for promotional material for the Selby Botanical Gardens exhibition “John Pirman: Diving Into Nature.”

A clear style

Like that childhood dog, he spent years creating his illustrations from cut paper, which he would shape into whatever images he was looking for. Even as did a slow transition to working on computers, the style remained.

“It’s a way of seeing simple shapes of color and that transitioned into my realistic illustrations. When you get up close they’re all simple shapes of color. There are no outlines in my drawing. It’s all done on the computer. There’s such a connection with my past and cut paper and the way my work looks today. That’s what you’ll see in this show.”

One of his favorite projects was working for Viacom, which asked him to redesign the on-air promotions for Nick at Nite.

“It was a freelance position over two years. I designed those 10-second spots before shows came on. It would be animated, go to production houses where they created stop action, images of photos to art, and all kinds of illusions. I started doing paper cutouts and then they gave me the Mac when I was there. That was when I first learned to draw on a Mac. I said I would never do it because it gave me a headache.”

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An illustration by John Pirman, whose work will be featured in a retrospective opening in July at Selby Gardens’ downtown Sarasota campus.

An illustration by John Pirman, whose work will be featured in a retrospective opening in July at Selby Gardens’ downtown Sarasota campus.

Depicting Sarasota through illustrations

Sarasota Magazine founder Dan Denton said the publication had used Pirman for some illustrations periodically but he wanted more.

“He had this really crisp style, very distinctive and we wanted to use him a lot,” he said. “I felt we should have him in every issue on the back page,” Denton said. They called it “Only in Sarasota,” a name that has stuck for more than a decade.

“I just thought he zeroed in on this cool, modern aesthetic in Sarasota that really needed to be highlighted.,” Denton said. “John found it wherever he looked in nature, in architecture, in everything. I thought it deserved to be brought to light and made a new aesthetic of Sarasota.”

Pirman said he takes pictures with his phone whenever something catches his eye and uses the photographs to start his illustration. His style and direction “changed dramatically” when he came to Sarasota in 2008. His work became more realistic. “I was inspired by the design of the buildings, the shape.”

It was reflected in the work he did for the magazine and the organization Architecture Sarasota.

He takes multiple images with his iPhone and “edit and minimize and stylize and bring the shapes to their essence and let light define my images.”

Pirman said he takes pictures with his iPhone “multiple pictures, I edit and minimize and stylize and bring the shapes to their essence and let light define my images.”

‘John Pirman: Diving Into Nature’

On display July 22-Sept. 17 at Selby Botanical Gardens, 1534 Mound St., Sarasota. 941-366-5731; selby.org

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This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Selby Gardens is ‘Diving Into Nature’ with John Pirman exhibition

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