Bill Morris in Board Operations on October 4, 2018
It’s impossible to miss the similarities between the covers of the current issues of Habitat and The New Yorker. Both watercolors share a whimsical take on New Yorkers going about the business of being New Yorkers: Habitat’s cover on the fiscal fitness of apartment buyers features three people running on treadmills made of dollar bills; and The New Yorker’s cover, entitled “Lower East Side,” is a neighborhood portrait featuring skateboarders, bike-riders, baby stroller-pushers, dog-walkers, cafe-goers, hoops-players, stoop-sitters, and a dapper gentleman sitting on a bench drinking in the scene.
The creator of both of these delicious slices of city life is Marcellus Hall, a prolific illustrator with a cloud of orange hair who has been contributing to Habitat for years. In addition to The New Yorker, his work has also appeared in the New York Times, Time magazine, the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, and the late, lamented Village Voice. He has also published a graphic novel, Kaleidoscope City, illustrated children’s books, postcards, and book covers, and produced a series on New York City street fashion. For good measure, he writes songs and plays acoustic guitar with a trio called Marcellus Hall and the Hostages.
“I’ve been lucky,” says Hall, who grew up in Minneapolis and came to New York after earning a bachelor of fine arts degree at the Rhode Island School of Design. “When I first got to town I pounded the pavement with my portfolio. I had day jobs at an art-supplies store and the Rizzoli bookstore. Then, after several years, I got enough freelance illustration work to be able to quit my day jobs.”
Hall now lives in a co-op on the Lower East Side, so he’s deeply familiar with the characters who populate the current cover of The New Yorker. It’s his fifth cover for the magazine, which he calls the “Holy Grail” of illustration gigs, but he finds something to enjoy in all of his varied assignments.
“I love doing the Habitat stuff,” he says, “and I’m happy that the magazine appreciates my work enough to use it regularly. There’s a lot of freedom. A lot of times the art director, Chad Townsend, and an editor come up with a concept. We brainstorm. Then I’m given free rein on how I interpret the concept.”
An illustration inside the current issue of Habitat illustrates the point. For a story about how co-op boards can determine the optimal time to refinance their underlying mortgage, the working headline was “When to Take the Refi Plunge.” Hall delivered an illustration that perfectly captures the concept: a group of people (along with one of Hall’s trademark dogs) on a high diving board, peering anxiously down at a swimming pool whose waves form squiggly dollar signs.
As anyone who has freelanced in New York City knows, it’s a dog-eat-dog world. And with each passing year, there seem to be more dogs – and fewer bones to go around. “As a freelancer, it’s always up and down,” Hall says. “What I’m hearing from other illustrators is that there are fewer jobs and more illustrators. So there’s a little panic. I’m looking at doing exhibitions, and I’m taking on private commissions painting portraits of people, and even their dogs. The next step for me is to be more creative about finding work instead of the traditional route of magazines.”
He’ll take a big step in that direction later this year. “I’m getting ready to exhibit my work at a comic book store in Porto, Portugal, called Mundo Fantasmo,” Hall says. “I’m not sure yet which pieces we’re going to show, but it’s an exciting opportunity.”
Maybe an illustration from the pages of Habitat will make the trip to Porto.
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