Just try and think of one thing that you could do for 42 years and counting.
Lanny Sommese retired from the Penn State Stuckeman School of Visual Arts in 2014, but he is still the steady hand behind the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts posters that have been captivating audiences for more than four decades.
His 2016 poster is framed horizontally — for only the third time in the history of the festival — and features the familiar jester character driving through the woods in a car filled with friends, clearly on their way to State College.
Below, Sommese talks about reaching for new ideas and the coolest thing he’s ever seen at Arts Fest.
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Q: How and when did you get involved with Arts Fest?
A: My involvement with the festival began in the early 1970s when, as a young faculty member at PSU, I was looking for projects to keep me busy. As fate would have it, one day I was sitting in my office trying to look very professorial when a woman from the festival of the arts popped her head in the door asking if there was anyone in the design area who might be interested in working on a poster for the arts festival. ‘How about me,’ I replied with a big grin. It was the beginning of a relationship that has spanned four decades and is still going strong.
Q: What do you remember about designing that first poster?
A: I was apprehensive. Like any good designer, I wanted the poster to reflect the spirit of the event, appeal to the appropriate audience, and at the same time measure up to my own high expectations. As I recall, there was a number of people, including the many members of the board of directors, who had to approve the final image. Obviously. The pressure was on me to create an image that appealed to everyone. My solution? A groovy, (remember, it was the early ’70s ) colorful modular number 8 pattern. How could anyone say no? Happily, no one did.
Q: What keeps you coming back year after year?
A: The challenge of giving the arts fest a fresh new face each year and the opportunity to experiment with new metaphoric mixes and stylistic approaches. Additionally, there is a personal challenge for me to outdo myself each year, which keeps my creative juices flowing. I also enjoy working with the arts festival people very much.
Q: Where do you pull your inspiration from?
A: The arts festival is an event full of celebration and activity. I draw my inspiration from many aspects of everyday life that surround the festival and try to create visual metaphors that capture this. Sometimes I drew inspiration from my children when they were little.
Q: There will be a limited number of posters available in black and white that audiences can fill in with their own choice of colors and share across social media. As an artist, do you enjoy having people engage with your work in this way?
A: Absolutely. I just received a copy that a 7-year-old had colored in and it was much better than my work.
Q: After more than 30 years, do you ever worry that you’re going to run out of ideas?
A: No, not at all. Every time I start a poster, I challenge myself not to repeat and that’s very rewarding when I stand back and look at what I’ve accomplished.
Q: The 2016 poster is only the third time in the festival’s history to be positioned horizontally. Did you purposely make that decision just to shake things up or did it grow organically from your concept ?
A: All three times I used the horizontal because I felt it was more suited for the image.
Q: Once you settle on an idea, how long does it take to design and create each poster?
A: It depends on the idea. If it’s intricate with a lot of color there is a lot more time involved. I would say on average it takes from start to finish a few weeks. I usually develop three posters from which arts fest Director Rick Bryant and his colleagues make a selection.
Q: What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever seen at Arts Fest?
A: Coolest? An entertainer dressed in a black suit and top hat who walked above and through the crowd on stilts. I also loved seeing my jester come to life and walk through the festival in a costume I drew for the 1984 poster.