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Winter Carnival button artist gives fresh take on longtime St. Paul festival

22December 2021

For a long time, cartoonist and illustrator Kevin Cannon said, he didn’t have a distinctive style. He was too busy drawing things exactly the way customers wanted.

But along the way, perhaps when he started working on graphic novels, Cannon developed the clean, simple style that prompted the folks at the Minnesota State Fair to choose him to illustrate their 2021 map. And from that,

A style all his own is a good thing, said Cannon, 42, especially when you’re expected to create a design unlike anything the Carnival has seen in its 135 previous iterations.

In a recent interview, Cannon talked about the evolution of his art, how becoming a new dad prompted him to find steadier work and the privilege of carrying on a historic tradition. This interview was edited for length.

Q: When did you start as an artist?

A: I’ve been drawing since I was 3 years old. But probably it was in high school [at Breck School in Golden Valley] when teachers started asking me to design sports T-shirts and program covers and theater posters. I thought I was just trying to be helpful, but I was learning how to interact with critical eyes at the time. I’ve just kind of loved that life ever since.

Q: Did you always have this style?

A: No. A lot of artists focus on their own style, but I have loved being a freelance cartoonist and artist and because clients from all over asked me to do completely varied things — like the State Fair map or, years ago, when I helped design a family fun center — it forced me to learn new things and work from a new perspective on every project.

Q: You have a pretty distinct style.

A: I feel like I do now, but for a long time I didn’t have my own style because people would say “I want you to do this in the style of Dr. Seuss, or make it look like an old ’40s poster” or something. So, I was constantly faking other styles to get jobs.

When I started to draw my own comics, I feel like I started from scratch.

Q: How would you describe it?

A: Simple … but detailed. I guess that doesn’t make any sense. [laughs]

Q: Tell me about your graphic novels.

A: I have written and illustrated a couple: “Far Arden” and “Crater XV.” I like to say they’re like James Bond meets Jack London. I have also collaborated with other artists, including “A Cartoon Introduction to Philosophy,” which is non-fiction.

Q: How did you go from graphic novels to being the illustrator for the St. Paul Winter Carnival?

A: The beauty of doing cartoons and things is that my name is always sort of floating around out there. I think the Winter Carnival saw my work at the State Fair. I don’t remember how the State Fair people saw me, but people have seen me in the Star Tribune. I have done a lot of maps and other illustrations for them over the years. You put your stuff in the Star Tribune and lots of people see it.

Q: How has becoming a dad changed your career? [Cannon and his wife have a son, Ulysses, 3.]

A: Well, I’m working a lot more from home now [in Mounds View], rather than in my [northeast Minneapolis] studio. When I was a single guy, I worked at all hours.

It’s forced me to be more selective in the projects that I decide to take on, which I think is good. I take a broader look at my career and where I want to be going and sort of focus on what I really want to do — projects with community organizations. I love doing things around the Twin Cities. And so, when I see a project like the State Fair or the St. Paul Winter Carnival come up, I grab onto that immediately.

Q: What were you trying to convey with your button designs?

A: One was, sort of represent Minnesota as a whole. I tried to do something visually arresting. I tried to bring in a lot of blues and reds to visually represent the fire and ice theme. But also tried to include as many people doing activities and having fun as possible. For me, when I think about the Winter Carnival, it’s all about celebrating the outdoors.

Those themes have sort of traveled through the past, too. And I looked at a lot of buttons from the past. Everyone has a distinct style, so I had to sort of step back and say, “What can I do to make my style stand out?” Having to be original can be tough sometimes when you are a part of this long legacy.

So I just had to stand back and say, “They asked me to do this, I’m going to bring in as much of my personality as possible.” And I hope people like how it turned out.

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