Interview with Monika Aichele
Tell us a bit about your background, were you always interested in illustration?
I was always interested in drawing, crafting and designing things but at an early age I didn’t know what illustration was.
Tell us about your early schooling, did you always want to be an artist? Do you come from an artistic family?
My father was an engineer and inventor at the typical mid-size mechanical engineering firm you find in the south of Germany. I suspect I inherited his spirit of searching for solutions and approaching things differently. At school I was interested in swimming, the school choir, art, Spanish and French, and my computer class. My art teacher encouraged me to become a teacher, so I started looking into art education courses.
Where did you go to school? What was that experience like?
I attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart. During my first year I studied with a variety of students from different areas of design and fine art. Pursuing my interests in art, I ended up in the design department in a class taught by Heinz Edelmann; at that point everything started to make sense. Edelmann would combine illustration, advertising, design and animation with wit and humor—his main goal was to find the ideal idea. Other students in my class included Christoph Niemann, Thomas Fuchs, Isabel Klett and Lutz Widmaier; it was a fun but hardworking group. I have fond memories of listening to many of Edelmann's stories, and Isabel singing and reciting poetry.
What were your early impressions of illustration?
I was still not sure whether to concentrate on becoming an educator or to try to find a more exciting way as a freelance illustrator. As part of our studies we traveled to art museums all over Europe, and with that exposure to Renaissance artists I fell in love with creating art. Besides my studies, I was teaching art classes while working nights in the design department at a television station to pay for college. There came a point when I didn’t feel ready to pass on my far too little experience to students, I wanted to concentrate more on being an artist—I didn’t want to end up becoming a frustrated teacher, someone who hadn’t lived their dream.
Were there any particular artists who influenced your decision to become an illustrator?
Influences came from seeing the New American Pop exhibit in Rome where I was exposed to J. Otto Seibold, Tibor Kalman and Maira Kalman. Most of my fellow students were working professionally for clients in America including the New York Times and Rolling Stone.
What happened after graduation?
I opened a studio in Hamburg and started animating my illustrations for advertising agencies. My friends ended up in New York, Paris, Barcelona and Berlin so I decided to move to New York and started traveling; my studio now fits in a suitcase.
How did you get your first big break?
My first illustration was for the New York Times about a minister of the Green Party in Germany. Another nice project was the giant, white monkeys I developed for Stefan Sagmeister for the Six Cities Design Festival in Scotland.
How has your work progressed, how is today’s work different than when you were first starting out?
My work has shifted from analog-only paintings, to digitally-colored ink drawings to mostly vector work. But I still mix everything; I try to keep my work and techniques as diverse as possible. I still spend the bulk of my time on the idea—going to finish I’m almost on autopilot. My biggest challenge at the moment is to incorporate those happy accidents in my animation work.
Have you ever had an artist representative? If so, why; if not, why not? If so, when did that begin?
I was represented by the Heart Agency for a time in New York. It felt right in the beginning, but my diverse styles became an issue. I think representation makes sense in publishing and advertising projects, but don’t think it’s necessary in editorial assignments.
Let’s talk about your experiences as a teacher, how long have you been teaching?
My first teaching experience was at the School of Visual Arts substituting for a teacher along with various lecturing stints there. Back in Germany I joined the faculty at the University of Applied Sciences in Mainz, first as a teacher, then in 2017 I served as co-chair of the department for a year before becoming chair in 2018–2020, then co-chair again until August 2021; now I’m in an advising group to the dean and teaching.
What do you feel the role of an instructor is?
Simple. Opening up the possibilities. I always try to give students the time to find their own individual ways.
How are you able to juggle teaching and your work?
Teaching and illustration take place in different parts of my brain; I have to keep them separate. Teaching is like pulling a big elephant, there’s more agitation. Illustration needs a calmer environment in order to concentrate. Having the time to explore new things with self-initiated projects, though this is rare and still a daily challenge.
Do you feel there is anything missing in today’s education of an illustrator?
Time. Most programs, at least in Germany, are too short. It takes time to develop a personal language, to find interesting subjects to pursue, to have life experiences that make your art rich. It takes time to learn when illustration works, and when it doesn’t. The lack of shared studio space is also a problem. Sharing ideas about real work life, how to make money, how to support each other are the essence of progress.
What is your advice to graduates entering the field today?
Reach out, politely or humorously, for anything you want to know that is relevant. Ask for things you can’t research on your own. Grow your network of professionals in different fields. Keep your technical skills up to date; try new techniques as much as you can. Have a favorite sport that relaxes you, get as much sleep as you can and learn jokes by heart.
Final words to teachers?
Try to find the right words that appreciate a student’s qualities and not their deficits. Learn something new so you can empathize with the frustrations your students face.
Final words to practicing illustrators?
What is your second-favorite job besides being a freelance illustrator?
And finally, what’s in your future, personally and professionally?
I’m working with friends and colleagues on a project for the Ocean Space in Venice to explore marine conservation through art—I have this exciting feeling about starting something new; I have so many ideas, it’s exhilarating.