In his basement corner “studio,” Evan Olinger colors his world with pencils, some humor and a lot of heart.
There, surrounded by figures and images from the Peanuts comic strip and the Batman franchise, the Sellersburg seventh grader expresses life through his own eyes and — in and through — the eyes of the characters he creates and so adeptly illustrates.
Evan said it is the faces — and especially the eyes — he likes to concentrate on. “You can express more in faces,” he said. “I always try to focus on the eyes. They show the most emotion.”
The eyes certainly have “it” in one of his latest illustrations. The blue sparkling eyes of a girl, her face painted with the American flag, arriving at a Fourth of July festival, and the overall rendering and feel of the color pencil illustration caught the eyes of the judges of the most recent Cooperative Calendar of Student Art contest.
The work earned Evan first place in his grade division. It will illustrate July in the 2016 calendar. But what’s more, it was judged “Best of Show” — making Evan the “Artist of the Year.” Both awards earned Evan a total of $300.
For the contest that will illustrate next year’s 2016 calendar, students were asked to not only depict their assigned month, but to also incorporate an element of Indiana history, culture, landscape or location. Indiana celebrates its bicentennial in 2016 (Dec. 11, 2016, to be exact), and the 18th edition of the student art calendar sought to celebrate the special year with a special look and feel. The contest and calendar were accepted as an Indiana Bicentennial Legacy project by the state’s Bicentennial Commission. (Click here to view our 2016 Gallery.)
Evan said the history aspect was a twist on the previous cooperative calendar contests he’d entered. Evan won his grade division last year as a sixth grader depicting June in the 2015 calendar. From first grade through fourth grade, he’d earned “Award of Merit” certificates for his entries.
For July, the assigned month for seventh graders, Evan turned to a history teacher at his school, Silver Creek Middle School, for ideas. “Since it was about Indiana history, it was kind of challenging,” he said. “She told me about New Pekin. So I searched it and learned about it.”
New Pekin is a small town in southeastern Washington County, just about a 20-mile drive up Ind. 60 from Sellersburg. New Pekin claims to have the oldest, consecutive Independence Day celebration in the United States, dating back to 1830. (The city of Bristol, R.I., says it has the oldest, dating back to 1785.)
“So, I thought it would be kind of neat to incorporate New Pekin,” Evan said.
Evan perhaps passed over more obvious ideas right there in the basement. His dad, Scott, and older brother, Alec, have collections of baseball figures. His mom, Andrea, has patriotic regalia in red, white and blue adorning an area around the TV set and sitting area. Coincidentally, yet most appropriate as it turned out, Evan celebrates his birthday with Uncle Sam; he was born July 4 and turns 14 this Independence Day. But he said he’s never celebrated his birthday at New Pekin.
New Pekin’s celebration includes a parade with 200-plus entries, a reading of the Declaration of Independence, fireworks, a carnival, a queen competition and more.
Evan found images online of the town’s sign noting it’s July 4 celebration. The clincher was finding a photo of girls celebrating Independence Day with painted faces.
“When I saw it, I thought, ‘I’ve got to do this.’”
He said he wanted the girl he drew to express patriotism … and the excitement he would feel arriving at the celebration. “I do try to express my feelings through art,” he said. “I can do that through the people I draw.”
While the face painting attracted his attention, he notes that’s one thing he’ll just have to live vicariously through his characters. “I would paint on my face, … but my face would break out,” he said, mildly pausing for effect.
Instead, he put the paint on other familiar faces. “I tried to make it a combination between two of my friends,” he said, of the girl in his illustration.
Evan said he spent about eight hours on the illustration. His technique is to start with one eye, and meticulously work clockwise, or counter-clockwise around the face. “I like to start with facial features because if I mess up the facial features, I know then to just restart. I always start with one of the eyes.”
Evan has also expressed his view of the world, which he admits is sometimes quirky, through a comic strip character he created named “Todd.” In some 200 strips of “The Adventures of Todd,” Todd and his cohorts, akin to Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang, deal with parents and the typical elementary school world. Evan said Todd is modeled after himself “… if I went crazy.”
Todd, for instance, occasionally does things an easier-going guy like Evan only wishes he could do.
An example, he noted, was from a few years ago. Evan said he was frustrated often by the unruliness of some of his classmates. During tests that year, his classroom teacher allowed students to draw on the backside of the test if they had finished before time was up and other students were still working. Evan once sketched Todd tossing a school desk in frustration, saying, “I can’t take it anymore!”
Todd has been shelved the past couple of years, Evan said, so he could concentrate on more “sophisticated” works. Just before retiring Todd, Evan sent off for and received a copyright for the strip and its characters.
Along with the success of now twice winning his grade division in the calendar contest, Evan has recently won two other art contests. One was an anti-drug message for a safety calendar. The other was to illustrate what Martin Luther King Jr. might say today about race relations.
He depicted the slain civil rights leader with the words “Progress, not perfection.”
Though he noted he’s still young and pretty much self-taught in art, he is thinking graphic design might be in his future. The Martin Luther King contest definitely shows Evan’s talent of concisely combining words and images.
When asked what he likes about art, he answered with the dry, self-deprecating humor that he seems to carry about him. “I can draw,” he said. “I can’t do anything else.”
But his mom notes Evan does have a first-degree black belt in karate, revealing a dedicated and disciplined nature that is displayed in his art exploration. “I spend a lot of time looking at other art and just trying to learn different techniques and try new things,” he said.
“When I put my mind to something, I like to spend a lot of time on it. Right when I get my homework done, I’m just down here,” he said, sitting in his basement studio. “I’ll come down here at 4 o’clock, … and I’ll come up, and it’ll already be my bedtime.”
On the wall near where he brings to life characters he creates on paper is a framed poster with the words: “Life is Art: Live yours in COLOR.” Evan seems to have taken those words to heart — and to mind … mind’s eye, that is. …
Richard G. Biever is senior editor of Electric Consumer.