ICON8 Portland: Two years in the making.

Thank YOU, a perfect place to start. In full disclosure, I have no pictures of my own from ICON8 so these were pulled from our Facebook page and various blogs.
ICON8 was held July 9-12 in the great city of Portland, Oregon. The conference sold out months in advance with a record number of nearly 700 attendees. I was President of the ICON8 board, and this was my second and last term as an ICON board member, having served as Programming Chair of ICON7. This is monetarily an unpaid position but the compensation comes in the hundreds of people you meet and the many new skills one acquires in the process. I would highly recommend serving on the board to anyone who is willing to devote the time and energy to it.

For me, the four-day conference was a culmination of two years of planning, and with it a tremendous investment of time and creative capital. Since the conference, I have been enjoying attendees’ blog posts, all incredibly positive. It was a very positive experience for me as well. I got to meet and work with talented individuals, some of whom I had not met before. I also got to make some important creative decisions that helped shape the conference: the choice of Portland and the different venues, (Portland Art Museum, The Benson and The Crystal Ballroom) were selected by our terrific Vice-President, Robert Brinkerhoff and myself along with our Director Mark Heflin in our initial site check in the Fall of 2012. I established our theme of Work + Play which everyone was on board with, asked the tremendous talents Carson Ellis and Paul Buckley to establish our visual identity, (which I wrote about earlier) and worked with the hardest working board in show business.

I had the honor of delivering the Opening Address of the conference and introducing our opening keynote speaker, Paula Scher. I had a visual presentation that at first used the metaphor of an animal evolving, adapting and persevering to describe how illustration continues to change. Stated, “It’s a helluva time to be an Illustrator. This sentence under differing conditions will have different meanings.” I showed the various disciplines that illustration has “bred” with, using the animal metaphor: journalism, design, animation, public art, gallery work, comics, publishing, surface and product design to show possibilities. I also introduced our theme of Work + Play. A number of people have asked me to post my talk but I am hesitant to do so. It was composed to be heard and seen, not read and I don’t want to decontextualize it. I may however rewrite the thoughts as an essay. Although I have given many talks about my work and myself, delivering the opening address of a conference as its President is a unique experience. I thoroughly enjoyed my time on the ICON stage, which in hindsight, was the only time during the conference when I wasn’t multi-tasking.

Everyone on the board poured themselves into their roles, a few of which were more expansive than in the past. I wanted to expand our Education programming and asked our Education Chair; Rick Lovell early on if that was ok with him. Rick ran with it and did a fantastic job. I nominated Rod Hunt to the board in a new role as International PR to expand outreach and of course, Rod was the perfect choice. Jason Holley also embraced a new role dedicated to stage design and created a masterwork of the ICON stage which was constantly evolving. Melinda Beck organized a workshop program twice the size as previous ICONs in addition to serving as Advocacy Chair. Susie Gharemani and Esther Pearl Watson worked together and were able to bring their knowledge and expertise to their roles as co-chairs for the Bookstore and Roadshow, both of which were enormously successful. Mark Kaufman, who wrote a very funny summation of ICON7 was the perfect voice for PR. I’m not sure when Mark sleeps, as PR seems to run 24/7.  Matt Sundstrom, who came to us later through Robert, is not only a talented illustrator but works as a full time web designer and was able to bring his supreme talents to our website. Katherine Streeter is very organized and focused and made a great secretary. The minutes from our meetings are not only required by the by-laws, they serve as action items for the board as we plan. Owen Smith is very calm and objective, both important traits for the Programming Chair. Anyone who follows James Yang on social media knows he loves finance, which made him perfect for the role of Treasurer. Robert Brinkerhoff, as Vice-President worked with many of the logistics matters with full gusto, he even drove our van himself during conference week moving supplies between our locations. Robert also through John Maeda, former President of the Rhode Island School of Design brought Google Spotlight Stories to our program as a session and a sponsor. Melanie Reim organized and worked with our fantastic student volunteers who help with everything, this was her third ICON doing so. It’s an enormous task and Melanie does it with a smile on her face. I brought in Marc Scheff in a new role as Logistics Coordinator; he ran our  sponsor/bookstore salon like a boss. Mark Heflin as Director is tireless and handles all of the contracts, paperwork and logistics as well. None of us could manage our positions without Mark’s help; this was his third ICON in this role. Mark has also attended every ICON- he loves it that much.

There were a lot of managerial tasks and logistics that were far less fun but absolutely necessary, that we all engaged in. It’s the skeletal structure that supports everything else. Besides our committee jobs, everyone on the board also produced sessions and workshops, Increasing our workload. With multiple story lines occurring at once at a feverish pace, it felt at times like a Scorcese movie- if all the action of a Scorcese movie took place within emails and conference calls. There were also great moments of celebration. Getting great speakers on board was always a thrill, as was the resolution of a nagging problem, large victories and small victories. The morning I woke up to see we had sold out the conference, creating record attendance with the last ticket going to Matt Groening was a three time zone, virtual dance party for all of us.

Thyra Hartshorn, our fantastic Stage Manager not only had conference experience but she works with ballet companies and theaters and was able to bring all that expertise to work with Jason on the ICON stage. As I spoke to her during our interview, she was already one of the team. Thyra also helped work out the logistics for our mural project led by Brian Rea. I must add that there were many conversations between Thyra, Owen, Jason, Mark and myself and with Brian as well. For as many discussions as we had and even with looking at sketches, we had an inside joke that the scale would be off and the sets would look like the Stonehenge set from This is Spinal Tap. It was anything but. I was completely blown away by the grandeur of Jason and his crew’s stage and the mural created by ICON workshop attendees and Brian on site. Both are deserving of their own posts because I cannot do it justice here.

Acrobats from The Circus Project and the marching band, LoveBomb GoGo
Amongst the many moving pieces was the quest for an opening act for our opening night at PAM, something that we did at ICON7 and wanted to have at ICON8. Souther Salazaar had suggested the band LoveBomb GoGo and The Crystal had brought forward The Circus Project. I will add that this was after an exhaustive search that left me feeling like a talent scout. The two groups had never performed together before but after initial conversations fully embraced the ICON spirit of collaboration and worked together to create a special piece just for us.

Rick Lovell leading the Education symposium roundtable. Brian Rea and VooDoo donuts, what more could you want? Packed house for a cocktail party hosted by PNCA
Mark Heflin and I arrived a few days ahead of the rest of the board to meet with staff and get set up. Jason was already in Portland, working away on the stage. By Monday night, the full board was in and we all kicked into gear Tuesday morning. Our site checks at PAM Tuesday morning was the only time we saw Jason until Thursday at PAM. He was a man with a mission. Our workshops and Education Papers Presentations ran smoothly, thanks to Melinda and Rick. The Papers Presenters had a packed house throughout and everyone agreed it was an important addition to the program. An enormous thank you to PNCA and especially to Martin French and Chelsea Stephens for throwing a great party and working with us for months on the countless details we required. Martin French had been working with us since we first met during our initial site check.

Thursday was a beehive of activity in PAM. Downstairs, the roadshow exhibitors and sponsors were getting set up and in the Grand Ballroom, Jason and his crew were moving the stage in. Brian and the mural workshop artists were creating the mural onsite, Owen and Thyra were running tech and sound checks and the dancers for The Circus Project were practicing their routine. I asked their director, Jacki Ward, early on if some of the performers could be in street clothes and enter from the audience, they not only agreed to that idea but the women did their research: they were discussing Photoshop and sketchbooks as they rehearsed. It was one thing to envision this all in my head but another to see it really come together. I stepped out to watch our banner being hung and got choked up, it was really happening.

Jason bravely handling xacto knives after weeks of no sleep, Brian Rea and the mural artists, banner art by Carson Ellis.
Thursday night was our big kickoff at PAM. I sat in the front row next to Paula Scher as we each waited to go up on stage. The opening acts wowed everyone and got the crowd going. Mark Heflin was next, welcoming everyone, thanking sponsors and name checking Brian Rea (ICON wouldn’t be the same without it). Mark then introduced me and at the close of my address I had the honor of introducing our opening keynote speaker, Paula Scher.

Paula Scher was as expected, brilliant! She crafted her talk specifically for our audience and delivered so many pearls of wisdom. I wish I could see it again myself. One of the many points she made that resonated with everyone was on not quitting, if a relationship goes south to see it through and turn it around. I am paraphrasing but it was filled with wit, wisdom and beauty. I was thrilled when Paula Scher accepted my invitation to be our opening keynote speaker. I have loved her work since art school and knew she was a great speaker but never had the opportunity prior to ICON to meet her myself. She returned on Friday to attend the talks and told me she had a great time. My admiration for her is only deeper now because she is as warm and funny as she is wise and incredibly talented, a true giant in the industry in every sense of the word.

"Lessons From the Trade: Key experiences that changed the way I work and think about design."
The roadshow was packed and a huge success, thanks to Esther Pearl Watson and Susie Gharemani. Carson generously signed ICON posters for a long line of attendees. All in all, a great opening night. Jason’s incredible set was in place for our Friday morning start to all day talks. There were nine set changes in total, each one coming at a break. Jason’s crew decked out in white jumpsuits along with Jason himself made the changes and added and subtracted chairs throughout as a piece of performance art. It was majestic. Our Emcees, the cartoonists Vanessa Davis and Mimi Pond greeted the crowd with warmth and wit.

A packed Roadshow, speakers Sam Arthur of Nobrow and Andrea Dezso, Kate Bingaman-Burt and Jason Sturgill shared a table together. They were both presenters and local advisors who helped tremendously with our planning. Marshall Arisman and his lovely wife. Marshall was a Papers Presenter and a sponsor. And he's Marshall Arisman! Carson Ellis bravely risking a career ending wrist injury as she signed for hours, was assisted by one of our volunteers, my former RISD student, Esme Shapiro.
The talks (full schedule and speakers here) were all well delivered: every speaker brought their A game to the stage. We had over 50 speakers on the main stage. I was able to see all of them although I had a headset on the whole time connecting me with Owen and Thyra, who ran the show on time together fantastically and Marc Scheff, who was manning the fort in the lower ballroom. I think it’s better to experience it all as an attendee and there were some great blog posts (Jamie Hogan, illustrator, wrote a great one and Redbubble blog did too) and also follow our Twitter and Instagram feeds under #icon8pdx along with our Facebook page. The bookstore was going full blast downstairs along with pop up signings upstairs. We had food, coffee and alcohol (a key ingredient in every ICON, alcohol on site and lots of it) available downstairs and Marc kept that all going. Friday night was an opening at The Land Gallery for an exhibit featuring ICON attendees orchestrated by Susie Gharemani. The show was based on our theme of Work + Play.

Emcees Vanessa Davis and Mimi Pond introducing Owen and Aaron Smith, close up of the stage set, Jason and his mighty crew of: Cassie Zhang, AJ Dungo, Vance McDermott, Sarah Kindler, Jason Holley, Harrison Freeman and Leonardo Santamaria.
Saturday was another full day of sessions at PAM, with even more stage changes by Jason and company. One great talk after another. By now, the grand ballroom which on our initial visit, felt like an enormous space to fill was now an intimate cozy space with many people opting to stretch out on the floor and sketch away. I delivered closing remarks, which were an acknowledgement of the many, many people who gave to ICON and brought up on stage our volunteers and my fellow board members, Director, staff and advisors. I introduced Damian Kulash and I wasn’t kidding when I said that he called me on his way to the airport and the OK Go song, this too shall pass, is my ringtone, very Meta. I have been a fan of OK Go for a few years now. My friends Josh Gosfield and Camille Sweeney interviewed front man, Damian Kulash for their book “ How to be a Super Achiever” and I was able to contact Damian directly though them. He not only said yes to my invitation to be a keynote speaker right away but we had a lengthy phone conversation about his talk because he wanted to offer the audience something meaningful and relevant. I also want to add that we only covered travel for both Paula and Damian; they never asked for speaking fees and very generously gave of themselves. Damian wowed the crowd with his charisma and ability to connect his creativity to ours. He showed a few OK Go videos and described the free form process behind them. He also generously took Q + A from the crowd, which offered even more insight.

Thanking our student volunteers who represented 14 different schools and traveled from all over the country at their own expense to help out.
Then came our closing night party at The Crystal Ballroom. We promised a kick ass party and we delivered. Although I was able to participate and truly enjoy the conference as it unfolded, due to my cultural upbringing as a Jewish New Yorker, I couldn’t fully relax and celebrate until the party. Something. Could. Still. Go. Wrong, but it didn’t and celebrate I did! Portugal.The Man rocked an hour-long set that I danced in front of the stage to. I connected with the band through Jason Sturgill, who trusts his fellow illustrators so much he did a stage dive in the middle of their set. Jason also hooked us up with Will Bryant and Anton Pearson, our DJs who got the house dancing and I proceeded to drink and dance all night. When we were kicked out of the The Crystal at midnight, a number of us followed Damian to the smaller club on the second floor of the building and kept the dance party going there. Damian thanked me for inviting him and he truly enjoyed connecting with our creatives. The nicest guy, a true rock star inside and out!

Damian describing their early videos, Damian and me (exhausted but happy), Portugal.The Man, John Gourley front man and myself at the end of their set.
The next morning, which in reality was few hours later, guided by sonar and fueled by coffee I found my way to our boardroom and led our final in person meeting of the board of ICON8. We all hugged after and fighting back tears and the urge to pass out, I crawled back to bed where I remained for most of the day nursing a bad hangover.

Except for my final wrap up duties and working on the transition to ICON8, I have come to the end of my two-year journey as ICON President and four years as a board member. It was a ride that was simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting. Even now, my head is still spinning with “you know what would be great for ICON” thoughts, it’s going to be a hard habit to break but I will happily leave that for the next board.

Much of the exhaustion comes from the narrative of my own life. My father passed away last year, halfway through my two-year term. He was not a young man but the loss was profound and it was a life-changing event nonetheless. It also marked the beginning of what would be a yearlong struggle to secure care for my mother, who is pretty much in a wheelchair and needs support to remain at home. Anyone with aging parents knows what a full time job it can be to deal with lawyers, social workers and emergencies. I never took any time off or backed away from my duties during any of it. If anything, it helped to have something big and positive like ICON to focus on. In turn, because of the big, emotional issues in my life, I was able to have clarity and perspective in making the many decisions that were required as President. My husband, David Flaherty jumped in and took over handling the many issues with my parents, freeing me to focus on work, ICON and teaching, I am forever grateful for his support and generosity.

In his closing keynote, Damian described how OK Go’s videos wouldn’t be noticed if they were actually professional dancers. It’s because they pour their hearts into making this special piece of choreography as a gift to their audience that they resonate so much. I can say it’s the same for us as ICON board members. We are not professional conference planners. Most of us in fact find ourselves doing jobs that are far afield from our normal areas of expertise but we are pouring our hearts and souls into creating this special thing as a gift to you.

ICON is a non-profit organization, the board is all volunteer and unpaid (I was surprised how many people thought the contrary), we have no speaking fees, and this includes keynotes. In fact, many speakers cover their own fees as a contribution. Our workshop presenters covered their own travel and got a pass as compensation, our volunteers cover their own travel as well. Carson Ellis, Paul Buckley and Brianna Harden donated their immense talents to creating our visual identity. Mark Heflin, our tireless director gets a salary but it is slave wages for the amount of time he spends on it. Not to make this all about the Benjamins but it’s important to note the spirit of generosity and commitment everyone brings to the process, it’s truly a labor of love by all. It’s a victory shared by everyone connected to past, present and future ICONs that we broke all attendance records and that ICON8 was so well received. It’s a victory for everyone who loves illustration that so many people, nearly 700 in total wanted to spend their time and money on a conference devoted to illustration.

It was a privilege to serve as the President of ICON and work so closely alongside my fellow board of directors. I couldn’t be prouder of my job as President, my fellow board members and what we accomplished together. I’m excited now to turn my focus to other things. I am also looking forward to ICON9; I’ll be the first to buy a ticket and cheer on its success.

Final curtain call for the mighty ICON8 Board, Advisors and Director: ICON8 BOARD

  • Ellen Weinstein — President
  • Robert Brinkerhoff — Vice-President
  • Melinda Beck — Advocacy & Workshops
  • Matt Sundstrom — Technology & Design
  • Susie Ghahremani — Bookstore & Road Show
  • Jason Holley — Stage and Event Production
  • Rod Hunt — European PR & Development
  • Mark Kaufman — Public Relations
  • Rick Lovell — Education
  • Owen Smith — Programming
  • Katherine Streeter — Secretary
  • Esther Watson — Bookstore & Road Show
  • James Yang — Treasurer & Sponsor Relations
  • Mark Heflin — Director
  • Melanie Reim — Volunteer Coordinator
  • Marc Scheff- Logistics Coordinator
  • Martin French- Board Advisor