"I've done a whole lot; I've sold insurance, had a clothing shop, I was a chauffeur, I did construction work - and nothing was as good as art. Plus," he adds with a hearty laugh, "a pencil is a hell of lot lighter than a 2x4."
In Studio 6, Chris Sharp sits at a tabletop covered in pencil drawings, rendered illustrations, and various doodles. He is surrounded by whimsical and colorful paintings of his own imaginative, friendly creatures - a bison-type animal with a giant grin, a friendly insect with a towering top hat, even a menacing pumpkin-headed figure still manages to be inviting and fun.
Chris is driven by his own imagination. "I can get inspiration from a bookstore or a spark plug," Chris chuckled, "even a title or a word. Nature, too! Certain times of year - I love gloomy, cloudy days. Really cool stuff hides in the gloominess."
It is Chris' own determination and drive that has helped him achieve his dream of being an illustrator. With no formal art-training, his self-discipline is what guided him toward his successful illustration career.
"There was only one way to make it work: practice. I studied major cartoonists and I found every drawing of theirs I could," said Chris. "Along with passion, I had persistence. I made myself work at least a half hour every day, seven days a week - I still do to this day."
He credits his favorite illustrators for teaching him to develop his own style, directly or indirectly. His biggest influence, especially in design, is Mad Magazine illustrator Paul Coker, Jr. Inspiration is also found in children's book artists Mercer Mayer, best known for his "Little Creatures" books, and the renowned Maurice Sendak. His mentors included two Saint Louis artists, Stephen Sheldon (illustrator, animator) as well as Bill Vann (illustrator, advertising). "Bill could do everything," Chris recalls, "Sports illustrations, advertising - a lot of it was airbrushed back then. He could use every medium well. I was in awe every time I saw his work and truly humbled."
Piles of animated, colorful sketches and paintings line the shelves in his studio, glimpses of the many projects Chris has worked on. With over 400 books illustrated in his career, Chris has no plans to slow down. He illustrates for publishing houses, private projects, clients, and is co-owner of Smart Kidz Media.
Chris wants to focus on his own stories and books, as well as art prints, over the next year. At the Foundry Art Centre, Studio 6 is not only home to Chris but also functions as the headquarters for his personal illustration business, Ah Ha Studios STL.
Chris found the Foundry Art Centre three years ago from an ad in the newspaper. He was hesitant to apply for the studio jury process, fearful that his work did not fall under the fine art category due to its commercial purposes. Former Executive Director Laura Helling encouraged Chris to apply nonetheless and he was juried into the FAC Studio Artist mission area. Chris' skillful paintings and expressive illustrations have been a colorful addition to the mezzanine level of the Foundry Art Centre. He uses primarily watercolors and graphite for his illustrations, and also utilizes Photoshop and Illustrator for his vector book spreads.
Chris advises artists - amateurs and professionals alike - to follow his "P Theory"....
"Practice, patience, persistence, and a whole lot of prayer," Chris laughs. "As much as you can, don't accept a no. You will get a lot of no, but be persistent. It doesn't happen overnight. You gotta have the passion to do it. You can't have a half-ass passion and expect for it to develop. You gotta go all in."
You can visit Chris in Studio 6 at the Foundry Art Centre and view more of his work on his website, ahhastudiosstl.com.
Article & Photographs by Jillian Schoettle.