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August 27, 2008

Karen Fredericks: Joyful Outrage



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An illustration from the last page of Frederick’s children’s book, Ant & Butterfly: Go Fly A Kite. (click for larger version)
Karen Fredericks distills the absurdity of life into a palatable read. From romance to politics to pop culture, nothing is off-limits for the East Hampton illustrator.

"I think the best cartoonists use humor as a Trojan horse to get the greater truth by you," she said. A household name in her industry, Fredericks is also one of the hottest.

She is fiery and mirthful, packing a lot of punch in a petit frame. Originally from New York City, Fredericks is a full time illustrator, but she also builds websites. And business is booming. She is living the freelancer's dream – the recipient of endless requests for work from prestigious publications, and she gets to do it all out of the comfort of her own home, her two Whippets and four parakeets, keeping her company.

Fredericks' illustrations have been in tons of publications, The New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Forbes, PC Magazine and Time magazine, to name a few.

Recently, she was given the distinct honor of being named Adobe Illustrator of the Month in Layers magazine, an Adobe-based 'zine. Layers showcases one person per issue, and it comes out only six times a year.

"I almost fell off my chair the day they e-mailed me. I said, 'Oh my god, this is unbelievable!' Adobe is one of the owners of the creative end of the tools for visual artists that have to do anything digitally," said Fredericks, whose cartoons were splashed across the pages of the entire magazine in addition to the feature article on her.

Fredericks began her career as a cartoonist and dabbled in animation. While at Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, her five minute animation 10 Short Stories, which entailed hundreds of drawings (in the pre-digital age), won a student film prize, was shown in the first New York Film Festival with an animation category and represented the U.S. at several foreign film festivals. "It was such a heavy, thrilling time," she said.

Then her industry encountered a major turning point. Flash, a digital animation program, was introduced.

"The first class I took of Flash I did a little animation of a guy bouncing a ball." It was done in a matter of minutes. "It was a 'come to god' moment. I understood how technology had utterly taken the world of people like me and turned it inside out."

Although Fredericks focuses mainly on illustrations, her artistic medium is always expanding. In addition to animation, she has also written a few books. When she was in her late 20s, Fredericks wrote a series of "little tiny" books that were sold to a small artist bookshop in Tribeca. "Then someone from the Museum of Modern Art saw them there and they were bought for the collection," she recalled. Soon thereafter, she published Modern Love, a book of cartoon strips on the trials and tribulations of dating, romance and marriage.

After a long stint as an art director at an ad agency, she returned to illustrations and two years ago entered the world of children's book writing. Her series, Ant and Butterfly, feature two characters who are good friends sharing adventures. For Fredericks, the project has become something of a love affair.

"They're so all me. I really love them," she said. She has added a third character, Worm, who is generally outraged at the world. He is "such a perfect foil to Ant and Butterfly, he's just perfect. I have so much joy. I tell you there are times I sit here and write these stories and I not only start laughing, I laugh so hard I snort."

The first two books are almost complete, but Fredericks has yet to seek out a publisher. A third book, separate from the children's book series, is online. Wild Flowers, filled with humorous poems and illustrations, can be seen at karenfredericks.com.

She is also illustrating Build Your Country, a book described as a cross between "Simm City" and Civics 101 for kids.

Locally, Fredericks is known for her weekly cartoons in The Independent. The strip started off with the digital equivalents of her hand drawn characters in Modern Love.

"They were Modern Love, not a half a step removed," she said. "It was an absolute continuation." But her muse also often came in the form of conversations she would have with her husband, Indy Editor-In-Chief Rick Murphy.

More recently, her cartoons depict a political tone born from the sea change in American politics that began when President George W. Bush took office in 2000.

"The Clinton years were happy. Our country was in great shape, the economy was great, people seemed rational," she said. "And frankly once Bush came into office I felt like the world had gone mad. And I feel like that now. It's been eight years of insanity."

Her cartoons often offer withering commentary on current events, and give expression to her inner sense of indignation over them.

"My finely tuned sense of outrage and a shift in world politics seemed to have met up, and it's been a very good match," she said, adding later, "I don't have any anger but I have a lot of outrage."

Outrage is what Fredericks thrives on. "I always say, 'A day without outrage is like a day without sunshine.' That's going to be on my tombstone."

To see more of Fredericks' work, visit, fredrix.com.

clondon@indyeastend.com

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