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Life as Art 

Artist and illustrator Sterling Hundley is doing his best to make sure young artists have something to say by engaging in the real world.

click to enlarge art44_sterling_hundley.jpg

Scott Elmquist

The U.S. trade war with China means that delivery of Sterling Hundley’s collection of sketchbooks is in limbo. So while the Kickstarter-funded books were due to arrive this month, he has no idea when he’ll see them.

But ask to see his current sketchbooks and you’re as likely to see illustrations of whales for a children’s book as drawings of burn patients done at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Medical Center. You might see sketches of his children or scenes from an unmanned space launch he witnessed.

Hundley, a professor at the university’s communication arts department, has a hard time saying no to projects that pique his interest.

After making his name as an illustrator doing work for Rolling Stone, the New Yorker and the Los Angeles Times, among others, Hundley felt like it was finally time to do what he wanted to do. That, it turned out, was painting. Four solo shows and representation by the Principle Gallery in Washington followed.

But it wasn’t enough. Through his teaching, he began to realize that students with no life experience were trying to write comics or design video games.

“I wanted to figure out a way to embed artists back into the world, to step away from their screens,” he explains of his desire in 2013 to somehow combine health, relationships, business and recreation. The result was the Legendeer Project, which he refers to as “the touchstone of everything.”

Over the past six years, Legendeer expeditions and workshops have led groups of between 20 and 60 artists from San Francisco to Yosemite, Banff to Calgary, Las Vegas to Zion, as well as to Bogota, Colombia and Oslo, Norway, as a way to get them to engage in the world and chronicle it.

“Where it’s different from photojournalism is we want to observe, participate and document what we experience to understand our place and our role in that,” he says. “Life is story and this is story through experience.”

After submitting a proposal to the university to send him to document an unmanned space launch, he was hooked.

“Seeing the launch was so cool. My intention is to go back for a manned crew launch and continue to get exposure to where it’s happening,” he says. “I’m so curious about what it holds for humanity.” As a new project, NASA offered Hundley a paid appointment to design the Autonomous Drone Challenge course to be built at Langley. Now he’s awaiting finalization of a budget proposal and the course design, which would fund a cross-disciplinary course in the communication arts department next summer to build the course.

As the first artist-in-residence in 50 years at the university’s medical school, Hundley is also an affiliate professor in the department of surgery, shadowing surgeons in clinicals, research and the operating room, observing doctor and patient interactions through drawing.

“The thesis for me being there is the connection between the scientific method and the creative process,” he says of his job identifying patterns in a universal language between arts and science, which, he points out, are often treated as separate but are really two sides of the same coin.

“I found a place where my ability to visualize cuts out the need to go back to the computer,” he explains. “It’s direct application to solve problems.”

As the father of two young children, Hundley was understandably drawn to a children’s book project. Written for kids 10 and older, “O Captain, My Captain: Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil War,” was released earlier this year with a story by Robert Burleigh and illustrations by Hundley, who capture an ultra-realistic Lincoln, imagining him larger than life. He’s currently working on illustrating two other children’s book and one of his own that he’s writing with his children. In his nonartistic moments, he’s an assistant coach for his son’s baseball team and his daughter’s softball team.

Hundley credits TyRuben Ellingson, chairman of communications arts, for lighting a fire under him, telling him to dream big by developing pitches and projects.

“I learned so much from him,” he says. “Still, I was shocked at so many responses offering me work. It’s immensely empowering.” It also limits the amount of time he has to sleep.

One thing he knows for sure as an artist is that humanity suffers in our technological world, a fact that causes him to seek out those who radiate light through generosity and kindness.

“Starting Legendeer was a way of doing my own activism, a response to sitting on my ass in front of a computer so much,” Hundley says. He makes it a point to tell students they need to get out and struggle and get their hands dirty in order to be creative.

“You need to move beyond the artificial and meet people in real life and move beyond the known because authenticity and creative innovation live in the unknown,” he insists. “Our idea of reality changes when we sit down and have a conversation with someone.”

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