By Michael Kinney
When Tim Jessell explains to school students his most famous work of art, they often look at with a quizzical look. Trying to explain the connection between NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley and Godzilla often garners him confused stares.
In the late 1990s Jessell was one of the hottest names in illustrations and he was part of a wildly popular Nike marketing campaign called Godzilla vs Charles Barkley. It was his illustrations featured on the posters t-shirts that sprang up around the country at malls, shoe stores that were promoting Barkley’s newest sneaker at the time. His work was everywhere and it was recognizable.
However, by the 2010s, the illustration world had change. Freehand drawing had disappeared and the names who had helped take graphic artist famous were also vanishing.
But after more than 30 years in the game, Jessell has managed to stay relevant and busy for one simple reason. He can do whatever a client needs him to do.
Jessell knew early on that art was going to be the path he would. Well, actually it was his mother who first saw his potential t when he was four years old and allowed him to develop it.
“She taught math and art, believe it or not. And she painted Mighty Mouse cartoons for Terrytoons while she was in college for extra money,” Jessell said. “So whatever my ability I have, I got from her, and she was very encouraging. She would call it a gift from God.”
Jessell said he could always draw better than anybody around him when he was growing up. That was the first sign to him that it would lead him somewhere.
Even then, Jessell gravitated toward illustrations and graphic art. He said there was no difference between fine art and pictures he saw in children’s books.
“Maurice Sendak’s ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ that was epitome of high art to me,” Jessell said. “Pictures telling a story. I never had that, “Oh, I want to be a fine artist versus a… ” I just never saw a difference. I just always knew, I don’t know why, just was always drawn to illustration.”
Jessell carried that passion with him throughout his youth. But it wasn’t until he was 17 years old and was introduced to John Martin that it finally crystalized he could actually make illustrations a career.
Martin was a painter, but also dabbled in design and illustration. Jessell was at Martin’s studio in Kansas City and his eyes were opened to the possibilities.
“This was way before the digital had ravaged publishing and all that stuff, so illustrators were paid pretty well,” Jessell said. “I think I turned my head and there on the wall was a portrait of Lenny Dawson, the Kansas City quarterback, but it was painted on literally stretched pigskin football. And of course I love sports, absolutely love sports. So I just thought this looks like a heck of a way to make a living.”
After graduating from Terre Haute South Vigo High School, Jessell earned a scholarship to the University of Tulsa.
Even though Jessell had yet to dive headfirst into a career in illustration he was able to pick up side jobs and projects. This did not go over well with those who saw looked down on graphic artists compared to the other artistic disciplines. That included faculty members.
“I had a ceramics professor walk down the hall one day and said to me, “Tim, Why do you want to prostitute yourself?” Most times in life we think of our comebacks three days later,” Jessell said. “Well, this was one of the few times in my life I had it right there and I was ready. I said, “Tom, just because I have a client beforehand and not after it doesn’t make me a prostitute.” And he took a drag on his cigarette and his cup of coffee and he just looked at me sideways, and that was the last time he ever said that to me.”
Jessell earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree while graduating cum laude in commercial design from Tulsa in 1987. At that time he thought he would have to leave Oklahoma and headed to a bigger market to get his career started.
However, it turned out Jessell wouldn’t have to travel too far at all. He became the first employee of an upstart of The Turner Group, which was going to specialize in illustrations. It was founded by Clay Turner in Tulsa.
“My job was to build up my own portfolio of the kind of clients I wanted,” Jessell said. “Being able to start in just pure illustration right from the get go was a rare deal. A design firm specializing in illustration in Tulsa was a rare deal. There was barely any of those in Dallas.”
From there Jessell’s career blossomed. He signed with a firm out of New York started winning awards for his illustrations. That includes taking home the coveted Gold Medal from the Society of Illustrators the first time he entered.
“It’s kind of like directing your first movie and winning an Oscar,” Jessell said. “That kind of blew things up.”
It wasn’t until 1992 that Jessell stopped working for others and began working for himself when he became a freelance illustrator, a title he has held ever since.
However, as the years have gone on, Jessell has become the last of a dying breed of freelance illustrators. He says there were once around five or six in Oklahoma who made their living strictly on illustrations. But now, according to Jessell he is the last one standing
“The internet was not kind to illustrators because the bread and butter were publications and ad agencies,” Jessell said. “You could just feel it starting to change little by little. “Luckily my work has varied. Children’s publishing kept the lights on for a long time.”
Jessell’s children books resume includes Dog Diaries, Secrets of Droon and Amare Stoudemire’s STAT. He also worked on Stan Lee’s Superhero Christmas.
Yet, it may be the book that got away that Jessell looks back on the most.
“You are talking to the second choice for the Harry Potter series. I lost out to Mary GrandPré, who is an excellent illustrator,” Jessell said. “They let J.K. Rowling break the tie. An author never does that. That’s why I know the story because it’s so unusual. But at the time I didn’t know who Harry Potter was. I remember the art director at the time said “we think it might do well over here.’”
Even though Jessell lost out on illustrating for Harry Potter, he was given the series The Secrets of Droon instead. While it didn’t have the world-wide acclaim of the seven Potter books, it still paid the bills.
“I ended up doing 35 books,” Jessell said. “Honestly, I probably made more money doing than Harry Potter. She was paid the same as I was, because who knew? Nobody knew. That was my big fish that got away.”
Despite missing out on Harry Potter fame, Jessell has done alright by himself. A partial lists of clients include Southwest Airlines, USAA, Nike, Polaroid, AT&T, Apple and Nintendo.
“I believe the client and the purpose should influence the direction you go as much as anything, not so much well, you hired me, so I’m going to put my stamp on this,” Jessell said. “This is exactly what it should be. And not that that’s right or wrong. There are illustrators like that, and they know that’s why they got hired, especially if they’re very distinctive style. Form follows function, so that’s why they got called in the first place. People wanted their style that stretches this, or is unrealistic on purpose for that.”
Story first appeared in The Herbage