Illustrator Mike Eagle: Illuminating the Word
by Barbara Malinsky
Mike Eagle made a career decision when he was nine years old. “I always loved Disney cartoons so one day I played hokey from school. I just decided that I wanted to draw Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters all day and I thoroughly enjoyed doing it. I then announced to my mother that I was going to be an artist.”
He promptly wrote to Disney and asked how he could be a Disney animator. A sympathetic Joe Reddy actually responded to the youngster’s query. “He told me to go to art school, study drawing, anatomy, and design.” Eagle never deviated from this pathway. Art would always remain his passion.
At Middletown High School, his art teacher John Sweeney who was a watercolorist suggested that he attend the Hartford Art School of the University of Hartford. This was the perfect match for him because the faculty there was grounded in Realism, which by definition is anything identifiable whatever the form. “Realism is any recognizable image from Peanuts, Da Vinci, to Michelangelo,” he explained. He studied under the tutelage of Henrik Mayer, Alan Tompkins, Rudolph Zallinger, Ted Biel, Paul Zimmerman and many other notable artists and instructors.
They provided the basics that are missing in many arts curricula today. “We each had our own stalls. We were taught basic drawing, painting, color theory, calligraphy, and perspective. I have a knack for perspective; one, two, and three point. I’m good at it!” This was a great asset when he embarked on his career as an illustrator. One of his major teachers Hank Mayer prodded him about his aspirations. “He would ask me what were my interests and what did I want to do with my life. His main point was that if you love art you should make your living from it.”
While fine arts particularly easel painting was Eagle’s main pursuit in school, he also had his eye on the art of illustration. In 1963, he was awarded the First Award and Medal from the Society of Illustrators National Collegiate Competition for his carbon pencil illustrations based on Franz Kafka’s classic novel The Trial. The following year he based his fourth year thesis portfolio work on a series of drawings and paintings illustrating Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick. He thoroughly researched the project frequenting Mystic Seaport and exploring the ship Morgan. One of his paintings for this series was purchased by a regent of the Hartford Art School and donated to The Collection at Mystic Seaport.
“Another event which shaped my career was working on the murals for the National Catholic Shrine. In 1964, and through the last year of art school I apprenticed with Austin Purves, a nationally known muralist, in the creation of cartoons or working drawings for a mosaic mural depicting Saint Joseph, Patron Saint of the family and working people which was ultimately installed in the East Apse Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. I was given the responsibility of creating the designs and drawings of “Egypt” and “Galilee”, two large vignettes that are part of the soffit framing the main mural.”
In 1965, Eagle graduated cum laude from the Hartford Art School with a BFA in Fine Arts and received the Regents’ Honor Award for overall academic achievement. He also received The Honorable Mention in The United States for his entries in the Edwin Austin Abbey Mural Scholarship Competition conducted through The Nation Academy of Design in New York City.
“There is an interesting story about that award. Winning first place in that competition would have meant spending a year at the American Academy in Rome, Italy. A friend and colleague Bill Patterson didn’t want to apply so I encouraged him to enter and he won!”
After gradation, Eagle joined the staff of The Aetna Life and Casualty Company as an illustrator. While there he worked on numerous projects for a host of company divisions. However, with the rise of the United States involvement in Southeast Asia, he enlisted in The U. S. Army as a volunteer for O.C.S. After graduation and commissioning as a Lieutenant in the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1966, he saw action as a line officer with The 100th Engineers Float Bridge in Vietnam in 1968-69. He was awarded The Bronze Star for Meritorious Service against Hostile Ground Forces upon release from active duty. “I came pretty close to being captured or killed many times!”
During this time, his wife Mary Grace was teaching at the Bertrand E. Spencer Elementary School in Middletown. “With her blessing, I became a freelance illustrator!” Mary Grace was able to support them while he explored creative possibilities. He bounced about a bit taking minor assignments and making inroads and connections to publishers and other possible outlets for his work. His first major assignment was a full-color treatment of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Child from Far Away for Addison-Wesley Publishers. Other publications followed. Most major publishing houses that include Addison-Wesley, Ginn, Houghton Mifflin, Xerox Education Publications, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Warner, Random House, Atheneum, William Morrow, Follet, Scott Foresman, and Henry Holt have used his work. Illustrating for these publishers has been mostly for children’s books; The Child From Far Away, Where Can Cattails Grow?, Fishes that Travel, Explosives, Buccaneer, The Twelve Days of Christmas, Tunnels, Pompeii, Louis and Clark, and numerous others.”
“I’ve also written a short children’s story The Wolf From the Sea that was based on an actual experience of local boys who encountered sharks here at the Indian Town Beach in Old Saybrook. It originally appeared in Cricket Magazine and has been reprinted both here and abroad by several other houses. My first authored children’s book The Marathon Rabbit was recently published by Henry Holt.”
“In the past several years I’ve illustrated several major works including The Clash of The Titans for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. I’ve also completed illustration assignments for many advertising clients like Avco-Lycoming, Teleco, United Technologies, Aetna, Travelers, CIGNA, Hertz, General Electric, CBT, the Big E, ABC TV and The Connecticut Travel Commission, among many others. My editorial work has been for magazines like Argosy, Sports Illustrated, and McCall’s Publications.”
Eagle has also been involved in museum exhibit and mural design having completed assignments for The Nautilus, The Connecticut River and Mystic Seaport Museum, the Amistad Traveling Exhibit, and a traveling exhibit commemorating the tragic events of 9/11.
His wrk parallels the development of the art of illustration itself. “I came in at a time when pre-separated color was still in vogue. You drew a basic drawing in black and white and the color was added afterwards. It was an inexpensive way of producing color. Later, the technology improved so that you could have a pen and ink line wash.”
His one regret is the emergence of the computer presence in illustration. “The computer revolution altered art design forever! What they do now is program the computer that generates a mind-numbing sameness. There will be no famous computers designers – no artists like Norman Rockwell, Disney, Rauschenberg, or Michelangelo. It has even affected the movie industry. Today a design for a film may go to a storyboard but then that goes to a computer operator to produce it. The computer usurps the creative vision of the producer.”
Early in his career, Mike Eagle’s talent was already recognized. In 1970, he was inducted into the Society of Illustrators in New York City. He is very much involved in the local as well as international scene. He is a board member of The Madison Art Society where he is guest critic this year. Two of his works are currently in The Lyme Art Association Associate Members’ Exhibition. He has been represented in the Guilford Art League. In 2008, he had a major exhibition of his watercolors at The UCONN Health Center in Farmington, CT. He is a member of the Niagara Frontier Watercolor Society. In recent years he has had his work included in The Mystic International, The Pittsburgh Watercolor Society Aqueous Medium International, and The Philadelphia Watercolor Society’s International Works on Paper Exhibition. He was also an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at Quinnipiac University where he lectured on Graphic or Applied Design.
Some artists relinquish their dreams while others like Mike Eagle persevere. He has had an impressive career as an artist. Aside from the awards and accolades, he derives the most satisfaction from the fact that he works as an artist every day and enjoys the journey. He did the one thing is mentor Hank Mayer advised, he made a living as an artist. He proudly says, “I did it!”
One of his inspirations is a quote by James Graham.
“He either fears his fate too much
Or his deserts are small
That dares not put it to the touch
To gain or lose it all…”