Solving a Problem

"I had strong creative urges at an early age. When I was about nine years old I drew a landscape using hand-picked stones on a slate sidewalk section in front of my house—a process that took all day."

Kathy Rooney, featured in issue #45, has been a Pittsburgh freelance illustrator since 2000. Her business took off when she was commissioned by the Pittsburgh Steelers to create a 62’ by 13’ digital mural for the Practice Facility building on the South Side, featuring a Pittsburgh landscape with past and present sports venues.


Artists who collaborate with Creative Nonfiction generally read the essays first, then come up with their illustrations. How did this process work for you? Did certain phrases or ideas stick out? Do you have a favorite essay in this issue?

In two of the stories I felt I really needed input from the authors. The first essay I read was Grave Robber: A Love Story and I knew I wanted to connect with the author, Joyce Marcel. Her intriguing story hit a home run for me. I did contact Joyce and she sent me some images directly relating to her story which helped wonderfully in creating the illustrations. Leviathan was another story I could not put down once I began reading it. The author, David McGlynn, also helped me with my concept of his story. It was very exciting to speak with both the authors. I would say both these stories are equally my favorites of the True Crime essays.

What relationship do you see between the creation of literary and visual works of art?

Illustration requires the telling of a story; it is a perfect medium for literature. Illustration is also created for a client, whereas visual works of art are created for the artist.

Can you clarify the definitions you’re using? As in, what’s the functional distinction between visual works of art versus illustrations for you?

Illustration is made for the general masses: it tells a story, promotes a product. Whereas fine art is one of a kind and is meant for each viewer to have their own emotional response to. Fine artists begin their work by “creating” a problem; illustrators begin their work by “solving” a problem. In other words, when a fine artist begins his work, he starts with a blank canvas and an idea. When an illustrator begins his work, he starts with an assignment that necessitates adhering to parameters set by the client. Illustration is for promotion and fine art is for emotion.   

Fine art was used to record a person, place, thing, or event before the arrival of photography. When photography arrived, it caused fine art to transition in a new direction, i.e., impressionism which portrayed emotion and feeling instead of recording a person, place, or thing.

What’s your creative process usually like? If you had to give it a label (something like evolving doodles, energetic emission) what would it be?

My creative process includes finding a “visual hook” that will compel someone to read a story.

Much of your art is made specifically for clients. How do you collaborate with people who might not have the language to talk about visual art?

I use creative communication skills via emails and sketches to show the client how the work is evolving. Ideally, I like to inspire the client to provide good input and to have confidence in me so that I can provide the best result.

Can you give an example of “good input” from clients?

Clients are usually creative wannabes. This can present either a problem or a positive for the illustrator, depending on how much the client wants to be a participant in the process as the client also identifies with the product as being theirs. Keeping that in mind, it is essential to bring the client into the concept of the piece so they can participate in its creation. I like my clients to enjoy the process along with me. I also like it when the client gives me artistic freedom within their specifications. Working in collaboration with the client is a direction towards a goal to the final product.

In six words, give us your artist statement, world view, or life’s story.

“Let each man exercise the art he knows,” Aristophanes, 422 B.C., an inscription I discovered on a bronze floor plaque in the entrance of the Guggenheim Art Museum in New York City.

What initially drew you to illustration?

I had strong creative urges at an early age. When I was about nine years old I drew a landscape using hand-picked stones on a slate sidewalk section in front of my house—a process that took all day. My mother came out and she was very surprised by my artwork. Her first recognition of my work and subsequent support fueled my intent to become an artist.

What book or work of art do you find yourself returning to?

Works by Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe.

What art forms or artists do you wish more people knew about?

I act as an agent for my partner/husband who is a painter and sculptor. I wish more people in Pittsburgh would purchase original art, especially from the tons of talented creatives we have here. And I’d like people to understand the value of artwork in their home is important because it defines who they are.

Can you elaborate on that? Does being surrounded by art have a particular effect?  Does it illuminate parts of our personality that might not be apparent  otherwise?

Artwork that we choose to live with and put on display definitely illuminates parts of our personality. As in the way we dress, it’s who we are. My partner and I have sold and hung many paintings for clients in their homes and it’s amazing how art can change the atmosphere of a room. In the same way, illustration can be used to create a motif, a logo or a brand for a product.

Everyone has different qualifications for what makes a piece of art great. What are yours?

To me, a great piece of art would be that which I can relate to and feel inspired by based on my own experience of art and life.

Of your own work, what’s your favorite piece?  Why?

The Pittsburgh Steelers Mural commission was an astounding opportunity that enabled me to create a Pittsburgh landscape designed specifically for a 62 ft. x 13 ft. wall. And it was also an honor to work with my cousin and Steelers owner, Dan Rooney, who first conceptualized the piece. The further amazing result was how the work was embraced by homesick Steelers fans nationwide via my web site. This resulted in thousands of web hits and 223 reproduction prints sold to date. It wasn’t until Ben Roethlisberger became a sensation on Heinz Field that the mural became very popular among Steeler fans, two years after the mural was created.

In what ways can visual art tell viewers a story?

A good example of how I ensure that my illustration tells a story is in my creative process where I apply my own litmus test to my work-in-progress. I ask myself via an ancient Chinese proverb “Is this picture worth ten thousand words?”

Do most of your art pieces have stories behind them or do you start creating and see what happens?

My artwork, created digitally, starts with a mission to explain something in a captivating way.

Are you ever surprised by the results when your work goes from screen to print?

I almost hope not to be surprised. While I create the work, I make a series of prints to see how it will look on paper and then I present the final art to the client on CD. Sometimes the end result is out of my control when the art director and the print supplier take over, however. I usually ask to be present for press checks during the printing process to insure the quality of the print.

You designed a large mural for the Steelers Practice Facility on the South Side a while ago. What kind of challenges and considerations come up in large pieces versus smaller works?

Working digitally large, it is extremely important to confirm the final print specifications even before designing the work and in the case of the mural, we had to measure using a ladder and a big ruler. Other than that, it was incredibly easy for the print provider to produce my artwork as a 64 ft. x 13 ft. mural which was output in sections on high quality 14 ft. wide adhesive-backed vinyl sheets. My digital art work is highly conducive to this process. As a result, the mural took several months to complete but less than a day to install.

How can artist groups like the Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators benefit each other and the local community?

The Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators share great diversity, expertise and kinship with each other. As the nation’s second largest illustrators group, we are an alliance of an extremely talented body of people who are noted illustrators living and working in the Pittsburgh area. PSI plays an integral part in Pittsburgh’s creative society where we serve as an inspiration to aspiring artists and to the general public through programs & exhibitions.

And finally, what’s in your sketchbook?

An actual, hard sketch book? Nothing. All my work exists in cyberspace. However, I am currently illustrating a series of true stories by Peter “Jahfish” Martone about a young and feisty commercial fisherman working between Gloucester and Jamaica.


Robyn Jodlowski is an editorial assistant at Creative Nonfiction. She also teaches at the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her MFA in nonfiction writing, and she tweets @RoJoOhNo.

About the Author

Kathy Rooney

Kathy Rooney has been a Pittsburgh freelance illustrator since 2000. Her business took off when she was commissioned by the Pittsburgh Steelers to create a 62' by 13' digital mural for the Practice Facility Building on the South Side featuring a Pittsburgh landscape with past and present sports venues.

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