7-Imp’s 7 Kicks #503: Featuring
Up-and-Coming Illustrator Billy Renkl

h1 October 2nd, 2016 by jules


When I feature the work of student illustrators or those otherwise new to children’s literature on the first Sunday of each month here at 7-Imp, I tend to use the title you see above, which involves the phrase “up-and-coming illustrator.” Somehow that doesn’t seem enough for the work of artist Billy Renkl, who is actually a local artist to me. (He lives and teaches in Clarksville, Tennessee.) He’s been making art and teaching art since the late ’80s. Given that he has a newfound interest, however, in illustrating children’s books—he talks a bit about that below—I’m going to run with the whole “up-and-coming illustrator” moniker, even if he’s been making beautiful art for decades now.

Renkl, who teaches art, drawing, and illustration at Austin Peay State University, works in collage. “The old, retired, images and documents that I use,” he writes at his site, “many from antique didactic texts, allow for the possibility of meaning and metaphor in their peculiar beauty and often accidental æsthetic.” His work has been featured in many solo and group exhibitions, and he has also done editorial illustrations for many clients over the years. He’s had work in Creative Quarterly (the current issue, in fact), American Illustration, Society of Illustrator’s Annual, and 3×3.

Not only is Billy sharing some of his captivating artwork today, but he also shares his thoughts on his influences, why he loves collage, how teaching informs his work, and more. I thank him for visiting. Let’s get right to it.


On Making Art:


I don’t remember ever not wanting to make art. It was the only thing I was remotely good at as a kid. I was a disaster at sports, and academics were often a challenge. I assumed I’d do something else as a career, though — only nothing else ever came to mind. When it came time to pick a major, I sort of felt like it had already picked me.

I have a degree in visual communications from Auburn University and went to the University of South Carolina for graduate school in drawing. My education at Auburn was brilliant — and not just in the Art Department. Biology made a huge impression on me. Classes in English, Philosophy, and Anthropology all introduced me to so many great ideas. It was the particular genius of the faculty in Art that permitted me to bring those ideas back to my studio classes. My senior project was a set of illustrations for King Lear [pictured left is Cordelia] — there was never any discussion of the commercial viability of such a project, and my drawing teachers were just as encouraging as my illustration professor, Richard Dendy.

Really, I’m happy to both illustrate and also make work for gallery exhibition. It’s gratifying to have this and this collide in a collage and see what happens — and if it is what I expected. It mostly doesn’t matter where the problem comes from. I’m always grateful for a chance to collaborate with clients. (Although most of my focus has been on studio work recently, I have worked for Southwest Airlines, Klutz, Strategy+Business, How, Rigby Publishing, Vanderbilt University, and others.)



On Collage:


I work almost exclusively in collage, sometimes adding other media. I like to think of myself as cooperating with the images I use, the way an after-school program might make use of retired volunteers. Each image has already had a life, with a very specific job to do: much of my imagery is from old schoolbooks, but also advertising, packaging, other ephemera. The collage elements bring those previous lives with them into the studio. Sometimes I collaborate with that previous life, and sometimes I push against it — but I am always conscious of it.

You have to love the materials you work with. There’s no point in trying to be a painter if you don’t love paint, and I just love paper. My studio is full of it — sheet music, prayer cards, maps, French seed packet labels, 19th-century wallpaper scraps, reports from the national botanist to Congress, zoology textbooks, weaving diagrams, Uyghur manuscripts from Central Asia, old photographs. I used to buy every curious piece of paper I found at junk stores and flea markets. Lately, I find a lot of materials online. That sounds bland, I know, but it has made a world of paper available to me.



There’s a big difference between a loaf of bread and a photograph of bread. I don’t have any interest in digital imagery. I’m interested in the things themselves and their life in the world. This imposes restrictions on the work, but they are authentic restrictions. Occasionally, I’ll have a client ask me to make an element bigger or change its color — and I have to explain that I can’t because the thing is two inches high and it’s blue and there you have it. Mostly, though, clients hire me because of the tactile quality of the work. They are looking for the opposite of polished digital montages.



On Teaching:


I teach both illustration and drawing now, and my fundamental approach (in class and in the studio) is that every formal choice matters and should be in service to the idea driving the work. That is as true of a non-objective oil painting as it is of a scratchboard illustration for Poems & Plays. (I think I can trace that approach back to Gary Wagoner’s ceramics class, where he put an emphasis on the concrete relationship of the material to what specific thing I wanted to do with it.) I bring the same basic thought to every illustration and drawing class: every choice matters, and every formal choice is a declaration. It either supports the idea or undermines it. Teaching keeps that idea in the studio with me.

Also, college students are the best company: they are curious, hopeful, enthusiastic, thoughtful, ambitious, experimental. Every day they remind me why I love this. Talking about someone else’s good work is almost as gratifying as making work myself, and teaching lets me talk about art all day long. And I can do it, too.


Illustration for Nashville Public Library


On Influences:


Much of my professional life, even as a fine artist, has been organized around pivotal texts: Shakespeare, Rilke, Annie Dillard, e. e. cummings. I always just try to respond to what reverberates in them, especially in their language.

Most recently, I spent three years working on a group of collages [see here] inspired by the language Thoreau used when talking to himself in the journal he kept his entire adult life. The journal is rough; it is clumsy and repetitive and disorganized, a 6,000-page rough draft, but it is nevertheless amazing. It is the unfiltered, often ecstatic witness to his embrace of nature. The project wasn’t autobiographical; it wasn’t about him as person in history. It was about the vital and fierce interest with which he approached something as simple as a walk in the woods on a snowy afternoon. It gave me so much to think about — and I think best in the studio.


May 21, 1851: the standing miracle


July 25, 1838: and thoughts flow


On Favorite Illustrators:


Happily, my son Will wanted to be read to all of the time. As much as I loved Go, Dog. Go! (for an estimated 89,000 times), I was so excited to graduate to picture books. He was very democratic in his tastes, but I especially loved the illustrators that were clearly interested in beauty, in making images that were visually rich and resonant. I especially like Yan Nascimbene, Aaron Becker, Lauren Redniss. Øyvind Torseter’s My Father’s Arms are a Boat breaks my heart every time I open it. [Editor’s Note: You can see art from this book here at 7-Imp.] I also look a lot at other artists who aren’t illustrators: the Starn Twins, Giotto, Cy Twombly, Lenore Tawney, Joseph Cornell.


Cover for a literary journal


On Getting Into Children’s Books:


I have illustrated only minimally lately, concentrating on personal work, but I miss the collaboration that is central to illustration. The work I have done has only been on the edges of children’s publishing so far. I initially began thinking about children’s illustration because some of my students were interested in it, but learning about it has made me aware of so many possibilities. I’ve been working on a book proposal this year — it isn’t ready to shop around, but I hope something will come of it. The story is very quiet and driven by the illustrations.



(Click to enlarge)


(Click to enlarge)


All artwork used by permission of Billy Renkl.

Note for any new readers: 7-Imp’s 7 Kicks is a weekly meeting ground for taking some time to reflect on Seven(ish) Exceptionally Fabulous, Beautiful, Interesting, Hilarious, or Otherwise Positive Noteworthy Things from the past week, whether book-related or not, that happened to you. New kickers are always welcome.

* * * Jules’ Kicks * * *

1) The Bank on Booksellers auction did so well! Thank you again to all the children’s book authors and illustrators who contributed with a piggy bank.

1½) It’s a pleasure to share Billy’s artwork today.

2) My daughters are listed in this No-Trump Vote dedication. Thank you, Jeanne.

3) I might have to get TBS just for Samantha Bee. I particularly appreciate this:



4) My first career was sign language interpreting, and I was also the librarian at the Tennessee School for the Deaf. This news makes me happy.

5) My Gillian and My David! I know what I want for Christmas now.

6) The first hot cocoa of the year, on account of the first crisp in the air.

7) I’m typing this on Saturday morning, because tonight is the season premiere of SNL. Though I do hope they have hired some new writers this time around, I’m a long-time SNL geek and look forward to it the way most people look forward to football.

What are YOUR kicks this week?

7 comments to “7-Imp’s 7 Kicks #503: Featuring
Up-and-Coming Illustrator Billy Renkl”

  1. Good morning.
    I love Billy’s work. Collage fascinates me. Such detail.
    Jules, I hope SNL was good. Yay to hot cocoa and fall crispness.
    My kicks:
    1. The student poems on my blog this week.
    2. The drive to Bellingham, WA on Thursday and getting poets at SeaTac airport.
    3. Poetry Camp.
    4. Discussing poetry with 40+ poetry all day Friday.
    5. Dabbling in collage led by Robyn Hood Black. We made found word poems. (On FB).
    6. More poetry Saturday.
    7. Hearing Jack.Prelutsky perform. He never does.these days.
    My heart is full.
    Have a great week.

  2. Good morning, Imps! Happy October!

    Cool collages, Billy. Thanks for sharing.

    Jules: Congrats on a successful fundraiser! When you said Gillian and David, I immediately thought of The X-Files. 😉 Enjoy the music! Lin-Manuel Miranda is hosting SNL next week. 🙂 🙂 🙂

    My kicks from the past week:
    1) Conversations
    2) Choice
    3) Clarity
    4) Compassion
    5) Courtesy
    6) Collected
    7) Clear

  3. Jone, I saw some FB photos of your poetry-filled week, and it made me happy to see. How wonderful that you heard Prelutsky.

    Little Willow, yes, I’ve no doubt next week’s SNL episiode will be very fun. Last night, Cecily Strong played Lin-Manuel in a sketch. … I like the c-theme in your kicks, which are always cryptic and lovely.

  4. Billy, thank you for sharing your art, your inspirations and your philosophy with us.

    Jules – yay for a successful auction and gosh I love Sam Bee.

    Jone – Bellingham is such a gem. Glad you’re having such a full week.

    LW – love all your kicks this week, especially Compassion, Clarity and Choice.

    My kicks:
    1) Finished Sons of Anarchy.
    2) Started re-watching the first few episodes of The West Wing – so inspiring and hopeful, still.
    3) Two birthday celebrations this weekend for friends.
    4) Firepits.
    5) Finished reading “When Breath Becomes Air,” by Paul Kalanthi. Goodness.
    6) The Michael Chabon piece in GQ about taking his son to Men’s Fashion Week in Paris. So touching.
    7) Smart women everywhere.
    7.5) Daisy snuggles in the colder weather.

    Have a great week everyone!

  5. Rachel: What’d you think of that final SOA episode? I will refrain from commenting, in case you liked it. Hee.

    Thanks for reminding me I want to read Kalanthi’s book!

    Have a good week, all!

  6. Jules!!! It was too predictable. I mean, it made sense in a way, in that universe, but no. I was annoyed. And sad to say goodbye to the characters when it was all over. Greek tragedy to be sure, and the main thing I took away from it was the importance of teaching kids impulse control and good conflict resolution skills. But the Gemma arc made me mad because its like Jax forgot Tara was originally going to do them in, and did rotten things too – they ALL did rotten awful things. So, yeah, I loved the series and the characters but the last 2 seasons got too crazy for me. What did you think of it?

  7. What you said! Way too over the top in the end. All I remember is some scene …. wait, it’s the big one at the end with Jax on the motorcycle (trying not to give away spoilers — but the BIG scene) … it was soooo heavy-handed and trying way too hard and just laughable to me. But, yes, there were other good things about the series earlier on. Also, just watched The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai for the first time (I’m a little late), and I just figured out that the same actor, Peter Weller, was also in SOA. That was kinda wild — to see him younger.

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