Drawing The Line! A Visit With Cleveland Plain Dealer and Freelance Illustrator, Chris Morris

First installment in a Series Honoring Renowned Artists and Illustrators

Inaugural installment in a series honoring renowned artists and illustrators.
CLEVELAND, OHIO – Being a newspaper editor and reporter for several years, I know the feeling all too well of being under a deadline. Believe me, it can loom over your head like a big cartoon anvil! Additionally, I was a frustrated art student back in the day and therefore, it is hard for this writer to even imagine actually having a drawing deadline... oh, the horror!
Which leads me to the introduction of my friend, who I met during my recent trip to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony in Cleveland, The Plain Dealer’s in-house illustrator and visual journalist, Chris Morris. Morris has worked for Cleveland's daily newspaper for six-plus years, after graduating from East Texas State University (ETSU) and working at a few other newspapers previously.

Article by Joe Milliken * Photos: 1. Personalized, print of The Cars. 2. Personalized print of the Rock Hall class of 2018. 3. "Front Page News," Cleveland's Plain Dealer 4. 2001 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees Aerosmith 5. Boston Globe illustration of Celtics' star Kyrie Irving.

I, along with my Public Relations Assistant, Donna Neale, was fortunate enough to meet Chris while we were in Cleveland to witness The Cars get inducted into the Rock Hall and to promote my upcoming book, Let's Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars. (Please check out this great article by Donna Neale, talking more in-depth with Morris about his “Cleveland connection” with Benjamin Orr and The Cars’ recent Rock Hall induction. https://sweetpurplejune.wordpress.com/2018/06/23/chris-morris-cleveland-...)

Originally from Kent, Connecticut, Chris grew up in Dallas, where he attended the arts-intensive high school Arts Magnet at Booker T. Washington. “I don’t remember when I didn’t draw, so art has definitely been a life-long love for me,” Morris said in an exclusive, Standing Room Only interview. “Having the opportunity to attend an arts high school was a great outlet at a time when I was learning and exploring where I wanted to go with my illustration.”

While attending ETSU Chris would become friends with and take illustration classes from, Chris Payne, a renowned illustrator in his own right and recent inductee into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame. “Chris is a good friend and was already an outstanding illustrator and influence on me at East Texas State,” Morris said.

“However, I was already studying illustrators and cartoonists when I was much younger. Mad Magazine and Sergio Aragones were a huge influence, as well as Chuck Jones and the entire Looney Tunes factory. I believe my sense of comedy, or what makes me laugh in art, came from studying Chuck Jones. Both my parents are artistic and creative and I was always in museums with them, and I finally remember my Mom taking me to see Alexander Calder’s works and his tiny circus sculptures.”

This is where Chris’ life would take an unexpected detour, when he interrupted his apparent career path for the next eight years by enlisting in the Marine Corps. “When I was a freshman at ETSU, a couple older guys had just returned from boot camp in San Diego and talked all kinds of trash about how hard it was. I filed that away, and quietly wondered if I could withstand that kind of rigor. In my fifth and final year of college I finally enlisted and it was only going to be the Marine Corps... I was all in!”

In 1987, Morris graduated "Honorman" after boot camp, meaning he was first in his class, and answered that question he had filed away, proving to himself that he had what it took. However, Chris still had a career path he wanted to travel down as well, so he enlisted as a reservist for eight years, including a 1991, six-month stint in the first Gulf War. “We never saw combat but I fired a lot of artillery, so I can proudly say that I took the oath, pushed myself to the edge in many ways and am now stronger for it.” (Editor’s Note: Thank you, for your service, Chris!)

After boot camp, Morris returned to Dallas, reported to his reserve unit in Fort Worth and started cultivating his career as an illustrator. “My plan was to search out enough freelance work to scratch out a living, but then I was hired to work in the art department of the Dallas Times Herald and fast deadlines and a wide variety of assignments was just my ticket. I loved it, and still do, 31 years later.”

Chris would work and travel over the next few years, always gaining new experiences and adding to his growing repertoire. “One has to keep slugging in this business and in my case, over the years I started to meet more people and also moved around a little bit, to grow and learn and be exposed to new environments. I’ve gone from Dallas to San Francisco, back to Dallas, to Las Vegas, then back to Dallas and now, Cleveland.”

As he built his reputation and his portfolio over several years, Chris had developed a pen-and-ink style that was reminiscent and influenced by the great Al Hirschfeld. “I started getting calls for ‘that Hirschfeld, clean black-and-white style,’ and that started getting me in the big papers and magazines.” Morris’ resume is impressive, having worked for the aforementioned Dallas Times Herald, San Francisco Examiner, The Dallas Morning News, Las Vegas Sun and now of course, Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer.

“Other styles I developed started to attract some well-known clients such as ESPN and The New York Times. So, after years of working for newspapers I got to meet and cultivate relationships with similar designers and visual journalists, and the calls just started coming in with more frequency.”

Which brings us to Morris’ current Cleveland gig. “I know some people in Cleveland and a great gig came up, one that was going to let me sniff out cool assignments and not just have to crunch out maps and charts all the time.”

In 2012, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductions were held in Cleveland, and the Plain Dealer art department had "a visual meeting" to discuss the possibilities. “I had this idea to put all of the inducted performers on one huge stage, like the 'end of night jam.' It was one of those ‘let’s not forget that we need to blow out the Rock Hall this year because it’s Cleveland’s turn.’ It took eight solid weeks of doing nothing but that, but two days before deadline I had finished the last of 542 characters. I’ve also added onto it every year since, and I think we are just shy of 700 musicians now. It’s certainly fun poster to continue pursuing from year-to-year.”

This writer was also lucky enough to receive a few of Morris' fine artworks, including cool, personalized prints of The Cars band (pictured), as well as the aforementioned Rock Hall “end of night jam.” Chris was also kind enough to attend the author event we hosted, and met up with us again a couple days later, at the Rock Hall museum.

Currently Chris is working on some infographics about the health of Lake Erie, and also has a couple side projects that are still in the early stages. "We’ll be sure to keep Standing Room Only posted as they begin to take shape. One of them, I think, you will really appreciate.”

I can't wait, Chris! In fact, I am already contemplating questions for a "Part II" interview with you! Oh – and see you again in November for my book-launching event!

To learn more about and purchase the unique illustrations of Chris Morris, please visit his website at www.chrismorrisillustration.com. You can also follow Chris on Twitter: @camorris.