As a top-shelf illustrator and art director, Maria Gonzalez ’08 draws attention with her graphics magic.
Story by KIM HILL Photo by LLOYD DEGRANE
Maria Gonzalez ’08 has been winning art contests since the second grade. That streak
continued at Illinois Wesleyan, where she took a “Best of Show” award in the annual
senior art exhibition. But even she was surprised by her latest win, taking the top
prize in an annual contest for illustrators sponsored by PRINT, the graphic design industry’s leading trade publication.
Karli Petrovic, who is PRINT’s associate editor, wrote in the magazine’s August issue that Gonzalez “stole the
show with a colorful, font-driven depiction of her mother’s home in Mexico.”
It was a contest she nearly missed. One Friday night at Arc Worldwide, an advertising
agency in Chicago where she was a senior art director, Gonzalez was desperately trying
to finish a project so she could make it to a much-anticipated concert with friends.
Her boss and creative director stopped by her desk and inquired about an intriguing
set of letters floating on her computer’s screensaver — letters which spelled out
“Mi Casa No Tu Casa” (My Home Not Your Home).
Gonzalez explained that the designs were inspired by a recent trip she took to her
mother’s hometown of Guanajuato, in a region known as Mexico’s heartland. Everywhere
Gonzalez and her mother went, local artisans were showing handmade alebrijes, a folk-art form originating with Pedro Linares. The Mexico City artist made papier-mâché
figurines of fantastical creatures inspired by dreamlike visions he saw while suffering
a high fever.
As an art major at IWU with a concentration in graphic design, Gonzalez had taken
several art history classes, yet she’d never seen work like the alebrijes. Wanting to introduce more people to the beauty of the art form, she says she “started
to draw them, playing around with phrases and thinking of everything that had inspired
me on the trip, from my mom’s memories of her home to all the art we had seen.”
When her boss caught a glimpse of her first experiment with the style, he encouraged
her to submit Mi Casa No Tu Casa to PRINT’s annual contest. According to Gonzalez, the rest of the conversation that Friday
evening went like this:
Gonzalez: “It’s not finished yet. I have all these other ideas for it.” Creative Director: “You’re overthinking it. It’s done. It’s beautiful. Submit it.” Gonzalez: “Well, okay, I’ll submit it later.” Creative Director: “No, the deadline for the contest is today. Submit it. Submit it
right now.” Gonzalez: “No, I have plans for tonight!” Creative Director: “What do you mean, you have plans for tonight? This could be your
career deal-breaker. Just submit it.”
And so Gonzalez postponed her evening plans to prepare her entry in the “Hand Drawn
Illustrations” category — and mostly forgot about it until she was informed she had
Sherri McElroy, professor of art/graphic design at IWU, says the selection of “Mi
Casa” for a top prize was no surprise to her. “Early in Maria’s career, her command
of bold graphic color and composition stood out. She’s always had the confidence to
communicate her narrative in an engaging manner.”
Gonzalez’s own narrative, from second-grade art contest winner to ad agency art director,
is mostly linear. She says one of her earliest memories was finding her mother’s sketchbook
in their Chicago home and demanding to know whose “coloring book” it was.
“I couldn’t believe it was hers because she’s my mom, not someone who makes art,”
Gonzalez laughs now. “Moms don’t do that.”
Although her mother regarded her art as strictly a hobby, she encouraged her daughter
to pursue her own artistic vision, with tips on ways to improve her early drawings.
Gonzalez’s parents often brought her to Chicago’s many art museums, and enrolled her
in city art programs. Even as a child, her work was exhibited in galleries. As she
began to think about college, however, Gonzalez was leery of enrolling at an art school.
“I never thought of art as a career,” she explains. “It was just something I enjoyed.
I had many interests and wasn’t sure of what I really wanted to do with my life, and
I felt that if I went to art school, that meant I had to do art.
“I was also really good at other things and as I looked at colleges, my first question
was always, ‘Can I double-major in separate schools?’ Illinois Wesleyan was one of
only a few colleges that would allow me to do that.”
Even though she didn’t really consider art as a career, Gonzalez declared the art
major quickly at Wesleyan. She loved the intimacy and collaboration of the graphic
design courses. Gonzalez recalls McElroy as a huge influence. “It was through her
that I even discovered design magazines like PRINT, which she made available to us
for inspiration,” says Gonzalez. “Sherri brought in people to look over our portfolios,
and she encouraged us to explore different design paths within graphic design.”
Yet Gonzalez, who had added a second major in business administration, was still unsure
of her own career path until former Assistant Professor of Business Carrie Trimble
suggested she try an internship at an advertising agency. In the summer of her junior
year, Gonzalez worked at the San Jose Group, a Chicago-based multicultural marketing
and advertising agency. Something clicked when she realized she was applying elements
from both her business and graphic design classes at the same job. “It just felt like
everything from all my coursework was fitting together.”
Gonzalez completed two more internships during her Wesleyan years, including one at
Chicago’s Instituto del Progreso Latino, headed by Juan Salgado ’91. In all her internships,
Gonzalez says she tried to do something memorable to make herself stand out. McElroy
notes that Gonzalez had a knack for combining her creativity with a strong work ethic.
“I recall one of her stories at an internship where she stayed up all night making
a skirt out of real fruit for a photo shoot the next day,” says McElroy. “I’m sure
her creative director at the time was quite impressed.”
After a senior-year internship at Wunderman — ranked by Advertising Age as the top global digital agency network — Gonzalez worked as a contract freelancer
for Wunderman for two years. When all freelancers were let go, her creative director
at Wunderman recommended her to a colleague at Arc Worldwide, the marketing-services
arm of the Leo Burnett Group. Recently she moved from Arc to Leo Burnett but retains
the title of senior art director.
Gonzalez describes her current job as “very fulfilling yet a learning experience every
day.” Working on high-profile accounts such as Whirlpool and Comcast, she must think
like her target consumer — where the customer shops, what she wears, what her home
looks like, even down to the details of her favorite color and the name of her dog.
“It’s interesting work because you really have to be her,” says Gonzalez. As an example of her determination to put herself in the customer’s
shoes, she attended NASCAR auto races one weekend to better understand the sport’s
rabid fan base while working on the account at Wunderman.
She says the rules and guidelines she must follow for a particular client can be exacting.
“If I must always put the logo in the right-hand corner, for example, it’s my job
as a designer to solve the challenge of creating something beautiful when I have all
these rules to follow,” she says. “That’s exciting, but it’s also exciting when I
have no rules,” as with her personal projects such as Mi Casa.
A good place to see Gonzalez work her unfettered magic is her website (www.theonlymaria.com), where colorful shapes, both familiar and fantastical, seem to burst from the screen.
Recent additions on her Facebook page include a GIF animation of a juggling kitten,
a snazzily attired “bull woman,” and designs for everything from t-shirts to throw
pillows. A gallery show of her work is also being planned.
Whether creating an effective brand concept for a corporate client or drawing fantastical
images inspired by her heritage, Gonzalez says it’s all an expression of “my love
for design. I’m fascinated by the idea of using design to tell a story.”