HOPE — Nestled next to Hatchet Mountain Public House and across the street from elephants Rosie and Opal, Ben McGinnis lives in a modest little house dappled with his art. There are watercolor and gouache paintings on the walls, elaborate illustrations tucked in portfolios leaning against the staircase, a handcarved wood totem pole on the porch and a black walnut carved whale hanging in the kitchen.
Since 2007, McGinnis has either created, finished or modified-to-completion the official poster designs for the annual U.S. National Toboggan Championships, now in its 24th year.
The poster for the 17th annual "Toboggan Nationals" introduced an image of Maine animal heads on the bodies of warmly dressed people, loaded up on a traditional wooden toboggan. The theme carried for at least four years, including one year when the animal heads were replaced with classic comedian faces from The Lucy Show and The Jackie Gleason Show – all wearing Groucho Marx eyeglasses.
This year, McGinnis painted an original piece of art that perfectly captures the playful spirit that is the "Toboggan Nationals," but in a totally different way.
"Something completely different was needed. I didn't want to put animal heads on people's bodies again," said McGinnis. "While looking through old photos, I saw a bunch of classic, art deco, nostalgic ski posters and the sentimentality of it hit me. The sentimental value we hold for these old ski resorts really stuck as a theme, in part because of the sentimental feeling we have about the Snow Bowl."
He began the painting in October, and worked on it as often as he could. McGinnis is a graphic designer at Adventure Advertising, owned and operated by Joe and Ginny Ryan. McGinnis also does freelance work on the side.
He produced his first ad agency illustration in 1984 and he first moved from Ohio to Maine five years later, working on his own, doing some freelance illustrating in watercolor and gouache, which was cheaper than oil and acrylic on stretched canvas. To make ends meet, the then-starving artist did a stint cleaning dogfish for North Atlantic Sea Products in Rockland.
"I found it wasn't for me, cleaning fish, so I moved back to Ohio," said McGinnis. "Then in 2003, a dear friend of mine died and that brought me back to Maine, to check on her husband and make sure he was OK. I also made contact with Joe [Ryan] again, as I met him the first time around, and I said, 'You know that job you offered me before...?'" Joe made it happen and I have been at Adventure almost 10 years now."
At Adventure, and often at home, McGinnis works in front of a tablet and an Apple monitor. Drawing and "painting" with the tablet is how he does most of his illustrations.
"For illustrations, the tablet is great because I can completely erase what I don't like and not destroy the paper, and I can work in layers, though I use a stylus and do everything by hand," said McGinnis. "It's not like I tell the computer I want some grass or a tree limb and it puts it in there for me. I still have to create it, draw it."
But he also uses pen and ink and paint, when the job calls for it. This year's Toboggan Nationals poster is a watercolor painting. And for McGinnis, the expressions on the faces were very important and he worked hard to achieve the bright color of the woman's coat.
"The girl has changed dramatically over the months, and all the faces have at least three or four versions under the final face because I wasn't quite satisfied with their characters," said McGinnis. "The illustration needed to tell a story and their faces needed to be just right to do that."
Faces are important to McGinnis, because they convey the story, and because they are key to his overall inspiration.
"I had this reporter interview me once, and I told him that trees inspire me, that I see faces in trees and I feel like they have souls and I am drawn to capture that," said McGinnis. "In the story, he wrote, 'McGinnis stares at trees,' but with no explanation. There is so much in a tree and a face, and that's what inspires me."