The First Thing I Ever Designed: Zeloot's First New Yorker Editorial Illustration

Dutch illustrator, silk screener, and designer Eline Van Dam (Zeloot to her clients and fans) stands out for her psychedelic approach to type, vibrant and unexpected use of color, whimsical characters, and a versatile approach to form. Her music posters are beautiful—an early Sonic Youth drawing of hers was a continual source of tears of amazement for my teen years. While other posters came and went, Zeloot’s dreamscapes never moved an inch.

With her unique combination of a Dutch design sensibility and hallucinatory, ’70s-inspired patterns, Zeloot is a continued favorite for clients The New Yorker, the New York Times, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Vrij Nederland, and Esquire. Today, she predominately draws surreal children’s picture books and lives in a small village in Germany called Gruiten. We caught up with Zeloot to hear the story of how she first stumbled into the world of editorial illustration, and learned her first lesson about the power and impact that a single drawing can make.

The First Thing I Ever Designed: Zeloot’s First New Yorker commission, the initial sketches

“I was living in Berlin with my one-year-old son. Before his birth, I had been organizing experimental music concerts in Den Haag in The Netherlands with a friend, for which I partly designed and silkscreened posters. I was my own art director.

“I had only illustrated for commercial reasons, leaving me feeling miserable and overworked. I had been drawing under the great pressure of an illustration agency, killing deadline after deadline, and endlessly reworking my drawings until bright in the morning when nothing of the original was left. I felt like a tool. And then there were all of these big brands trying to catch me–one of those young “underground” artists—ready to launch you, exploit you, and then spit you out again.

“Drawing only for money didn’t work as a motivation for me. I thought I hated illustration. What I loved was making posters for an underground venue in my city, which I did while working in a kitchen and waiting tables for income. I had studied painting at art school, but it had left me feeling disillusioned even though I’d wanted to paint my entire youth. So by 2009, in Berlin, I was making a living designing posters for bands like Sonic Youth, The Decembrists, etc. I didn’t consider myself an illustrator; I was a poster designer.

“Then suddenly I got an email from an art director at The New Yorker. He requested an illustration for an article. I wanted to reply that I wasn’t an illustrator and never had experience with editorial illustrations, but I realised that this was probably the only attractive and realistic option for me, being a single mother with fading connections to the music scene as I could hardly go out in the evenings. So I said yes. And then panicked.

“What was editorial illustration? Why did they pick me? What did they expect? Wait… The New Yorker had a distribution of more than a million.

“I thought about rejecting the job many times before I just sat myself down and seriously started to read the article. It was about obesity, about the fact that portions in fast food restaurants were becoming bigger. I don’t know how many hours I worked, but I made seven sketches to send. Overwhelmed by insecurity, I then quickly doodled one more. Obviously, that was the one that was picked.

“The illustration was then seen by other people. On the one hand, by people that liked it and offered me other jobs, which made me realize the reach of a magazine like the The New Yorker. On the other hand, the article AND illustration was picked up by someone writing for bigfatblog.com, a site devoted to fat acceptance. They publish and comment on issues affecting social justice for fat people.

“It attacked the image, my doodle. They accused me of racializing, sexualizing, and dehumanizing fatness. To give you an idea, it said: ‘It’s the monster aesthetic–huge mouth, no eyes, disproportionate body, i.e. not human–and the woman-of-color harlot allusions all wrapped together that especially bother me. The dehumanization and fear-mongering is self-explanatory. The racialization is also pretty clear. The Jezebel stereotype as part of that racializaiton really stands out to me. They don’t paint the fingernails of a fat-woman-of-color monster and put her in heels for nothing.’

“Also, in the comment section the image was extensively discussed.

“Wow! I was flabbergasted.

“Without agreeing or not with the critics, I realised that I had not been aware of how this image could be read both with and without the context of the article. Damn. I had set a tone with the image, and a wrong tone for some. And although I didn’t agree with the racial accusations (for me, the choice of color, red, and the hair was not inclining any race), I had to agree that I had not considered the choices for my image well enough.

“But then I thought… Wow! Illustration can have an impact, can cause discussions… I was immediately fully aware of the power of an image, and my responsibility as an illustrator. That seemed meaningful–being able to empower a message, a story… I wanted to become an editorial illustrator!

“So somehow I slowly managed to move into that direction, and I became an editorial illustrator for the more critical, progressive newspapers and magazines around today. And I am now always more than aware of how my image might be seen by others.”