The Strange + Interesting Life Of Blake Himsl-Hunter
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Surely you remember this old spot. The little art test? With the pirate and the turtle?
And Tom Stuart! Plant-based president of the Art Instructional Schools, pleading with you to call his toll-free number today. (Have you called yet? Have you?!) with all the enthusiasm and personality of a ziplock bag full of white, room-temperature whole milk.
Two things to note about this spot:
“…chances are you have the interest needed to be a serious art student.” Not artist. Not professional. Just student. Being a serious student mostly requires you to sit still and listen, which means you may also have an equally good chance of being a serious piece of patio furniture.
Of more significance though, especially as it applies to this story, is this line:
“Our experts will review and grade your test…”
The expert Stuart was referencing? It was Blake Himsl-Hunter.
That was back in 2000. Today he’s EPIC Creative’s production artist (emphasis on the artist) and has been primarily responsible for the illustration work accompanying these blogs.
Blake is one of the kindest individuals I’ve ever come to know and he is immensely generous with his talents … especially his skills as an adept and gifted illustrator.
We felt it was high time someone told his story, and this is our attempt at capturing it.
[Author’s Aside: as I dug into things, it became almost immediately clear I’d have as much success capturing Blake’s story as I would hunting and capturing a Snipe, but I still wandered into the woods, banging my drum.]
The Origin Story Behind The Beard
Blake was born to human parents, but if you told me he was crafted by Jim Henson Studios, I wouldn’t be shocked. At 5’ 10” he looks like the love-child of Dr. Teeth and Sweetums. What I’m trying to articulate is that he’s all beard. It seems to grow with the same automated rapidity of the paper towel dispenser in the men’s room.
This is Blake now … but back then?
“In first grade I had to have ear tubes put in, so my mom got a three-pack of comics at Safeway,” says Blake. “She gave my older brother the Thor comic. I got the Invincible Iron Man, and my younger brother got an Amazing Spiderman. I just loved comic books early on. I started seriously collecting them when I was 11 or 12.”
“I always liked the Super Friends cartoon when I was a kid. I remember being infatuated with the comic book pages in the newspaper. Comics, then sports, then the front page … that was my routine in junior high. We were in a smaller market, so we’d get Calvin and Hobbes two years after it first ran.”
He began drawing around the same time, and with a penchant and talent for mark-making, he went on to attend the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities.
“I majored in fine arts with an emphasis in painting. I took design classes and all that, but I was really drawn to painting because that’s where I was getting more lessons in how to be creative, and in the creative process in general.”
Despite pursuing fine arts, Blake never broke away from his comic-book-inspired upbringing. And he took his cues from some of the greats: Mike Mignola, the visionary behind the Hellboy franchise. Brian Bolland, the artist on the acclaimed Batman one-off written by Alan Moore, The Killing Joke. And Jamie Hewlett, the mastermind behind the gritty, sugar-pop Tank Girl.
Getting A Big Break… And Turning It Down
“My art instructors liked what I was doing, but didn’t know how to talk about it. I’d do stupid shit. One of my main motivators—but kinda a detriment—was…is…if I get bored, I’ll do something stupid. Like, I remember taking a painting of Chester The Cheetah to a critique…and it was on cardboard and half-assed.”
So like all brilliant creatives faced with boredom, Blake found a way to amuse himself. In his last quarter of college, he created a comic strip for the university student paper.
“It was about two sock puppets who lived in a dumpster. It was called “Happy on a Stick.” They made a robot out of beer cans. There were aliens. Like, the tattoo on my leg was the last strip, it’s just a one-eyed alien dancing around in his underwear. Whatever.”
And it’s also around this time he gets his first significant opportunity.
“A friend of my older brothers had an idea for a comic book, I illustrated it, and he pitched it to Malibu comics. And they had some interest in me, but not him.”
I’m stunned. But Blake waves it off.
See, Malibu Comics is nothing to shrug your shoulders at. In the ’80s and ’90s there was something of a revolution in the comic book industry. There was a proverbial storming of the gates by an army of small upstart publishers bent on winning a place for creator-owned comics.
Huge characters were being created and developed by talented minds: Venom was a Todd McFarlane concept, Cable came from industry veteran Rob Liefeld, and Gambit—the X-men icon—was created by Jim Lee. And while each of these characters would go on to huge success and be seen on the silver screen, their creators reaped none of the benefits or accolades for their brain-children. Publishers like Valiant, Image, and Malibu wanted to change that, and take their place alongside Marvel and DC. To be courted by any of them was a recognition of your talent and ability. You’re THE next big thing. Had Blake said “yes,” he’d undoubtedly be walking the red carpet for his latest Netflix series today.
What Happens In Vegas …
“At that point I wasn’t interested in working in comic books…it’s a tough business…”
And this is the first glimpse of the magic of Blake’s charm and undeniable likeability. When given the chance at fame and fortune it’s often met with a shoulder shrug. “Whatever,” as he likes to say. Blake would rather be happy. He’d rather just be. And what we perceive as success doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with being happy. There are plenty of obnoxious loopy-cursive memes out there that articulate this point precisely. (See: “Live. Laugh. Love.” Eyeroll.) And posting and sharing them is one thing; it’s quite another to truly embrace the choose-happy sentiment and live it. Blake lives it.
“I had written a couple of screenplays in college, and a guy that wasn’t really a friend convinced me to let him read them. And he told me, ‘Hey, I’m moving to Vegas and I want to be a film director. You should move out here with me and we’ll film this!’ And I’m the idiot who said, ‘Sure, that sounds realistic.’ And that’s how I wound up moving to Vegas. But when I got there and called him up he said, ‘Oh yeah, I should have told you … I’m not doing that. I moved to San Diego.’”
“And the screenplay was horrible…no ending, barely a middle, no character development…not a movie. A poorly done version of a Russ Meyer film. We’re all lucky that didn’t work out.”
The Shinders Years
Blake is only in Vegas for two months. This is two months too long. He moves back to Minneapolis and works odd jobs at a one-hour photo place and then at a bodega that sold comic books called Shinders at the corner of 8th and Hennepin.
Let’s pause here.
At this point, go ahead and call up “I Am The Walrus” on your favorite streaming service and play it appropriately loud.
I looked up Shinders. Here are some of the things I found:
A description of the store on Google reads: “Shinders was a well-known Minnesota brand selling newspapers, magazines, comic books, sports cards, and additional…collectibles.” I came to learn that the ellipsis was taking the place of the words “lots of” and the word “collectibles” was a placeholder for the words “adult material.”
Additionally, I found several articles about the owner of Shinders, including one that detailed a police report of the owner’s arrest and the subsequent search of his vehicle—courtesy of the Twin Cities Pioneer Press, December 17, 2007: “During the search, officers found methamphetamine, ecstasy, a submachine gun, ammunition, a police scanner, and other items.”
San Francisco had Haight-Ashbury, New York had the East Village, and Minneapolis had 8th and Hennepin and Shinders—a center of gravity and draw for drunks, addicts, hippies, weirdos, burnouts, crazies, upstarts, and anarchists. The whole thing was a condensed, live reenactment of a Hunter S. Thompson short story every night. And here’s our bearded hero in the middle of it. “I had green hair and a mohawk at the time,” says Blake.
It was like an old-timey newsstand,” Blake recounts. “The clientele was weird, and we were next door to a topless bar. Whatever. Everyone there was super-smart, overly educated, had radical political views, and we were all just in this space trying to make chaos seem normal.”
It had to have been exhausting. I’m exhausted thinking about it. Blake explains that the nightly routine involved winos and drunks cascading in to purchase [see: steal] cigarettes and trash the place around midnight. And after that? An intervention/brawl from/with the local police department, closing up around 1am, cleaning up, then heading home only to do it all over again the next day. The whole mess sounds like Dante’s take on the Groundhog Day script.
“After three years, I was done with surreal. I needed something normal.”
Drawn Back To His Passion
And so, with the help of a connection, Blake finds himself applying to—and landing—a gig with the Art Instructional Schools. Now the thing you need to understand is that the Art Instructional schools pre-dated the internet, so prior to that and 1-800 numbers, the course was sold much the same way Willy Loman peddled his thingamabobs, or Shelley “The Machine” Levene sold real estate: door-to-door. The Art Instructional Schools course was composed of 26 textbooks. Why 26?
“The salespeople were all old Encyclopedia salesmen, and they only knew how to sell 26 books, and they didn’t want to change their pitch. So it had to be 26,” Blake recounts, and then confirms what you’re thinking: “This is dumb.”
“So I wrote and managed the cartooning books and the drawing object books… Students would get their lessons in the mail, do the assignment, send it back, and then we’d grade it. I’d grade 15 of those a week.”
Blake tells me all of this casually. NBD. Whatever. But stop for a moment to consider the magnitude of the sentiment. There is a whole generation of artists out there who learned about creating depth and weight and shadow and light and linework from Blake’s texts and feedback. He wrote books! Plural! Writing one book is maddening; Blake has multiple titles under his belt. And yet he relates all of this with the same banal tone and demeanor of me burping some pleasantries about how it’s supposed to rain tomorrow as I stall for time on a Zoom call. He is the epitome of familiarity and the antithesis of ego.
It was a weird, cool job—which is kinda my wheelhouse. And then I got laid off.”
There’s no remorse, or anger, or regret, or euphoria in Blake’s voice. This is just a thing that happened. It’s another glimpse at Blake’s charm. He’s unflappable. He’s a magnificent log on the mighty river of life, bumping and banging his way off the sides, shaping the shoreline as he goes, but never stopping to admire his work. He’s just so damn likable.
The Most EPIC Chapter… So Far
What follows are a series of odd jobs semi-related to his skill set. He’s recruited by Target to design boys’ t-shirts. He’s recruited by Pixar—Yes, THAT Pixar!—to be a part of their commercial division. (“It didn’t work out…whatever.”) He does design work for a darts-billiards-and-tabletop-games store. And—like all designers living in Southeastern Wisconsin—he spends a little time at Kohl’s Corp. And it’s with the same sort of antithetical fanfare that Blake arrives at EPIC.
How this story concludes isn’t nearly as dramatic as, say, a tire engulfed in flames rolled through the front door of a Minneapolis bodega. Nor is it as significant as honing the talents of hundreds, maybe thousands, of student illustrators. But still, it’s befittingly charming.
Blake submits his resume for a Senior Designer position and goes through a routine battery of interviews. The talent pool for the position is deep, and we only have one position open. He doesn’t get the job. Or rather, he doesn’t get that job.
At this point, if I’ve done my job here correctly, you’re probably thinking what everyone who interviewed him thought: “Wow, I wanna hang out with that guy.”
And that was the sentiment that permeated the office late in the chilly month of October 2017. I remember walking outside behind the studio with our traffic manager. He was assuring me that Nick, the new Senior Designer we’d made an offer to, was going to do great things. But there was still the matter of that other candidate.
Here is our conversation word for word:
“We gotta hire him. That Blake guy … we gotta hire him!”
“For what?” I asked.
“Doesn’t matter. Whatever. We just gotta hire him.”