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Illustration Ale Celebrates Pittsburgh Artists

on Fri, 11/29/2013 - 00:00

The Pittsburgh region has produced its fair share of successful graphic illustrators through the years, from legendary comic book artists Matt Baker and Steve Ditko to modern-day equivalents Ed Piskor and Jim Rugg. The area has also had a number of beer manufacturers, from the still-going Iron City to the recently revived Duquesne Brewing and Fort Pitt Lager. In 2011, meanwhile, the ToonSeum and East End Brewing teamed up to combine these two Steel City traditions into a fundraising effort known as Illustration Ale.

“It was a collaborative effort,” Joe Wos, founding executive director of the ToonSeum, explained in regards to the birth of Illustration Ale. “We had thrown around the idea in-house at the ToonSeum for a while and then one of our board members, Wayno, really was the one who moved it forward. He had done labels for East End for years. When we took it to Wayno, he ran with it and pulled it together. It is one of the most unique fundraisers of any non-profit in the region and maybe in the nation. I have had many museums say how much they envy the project and want to replicate it. The fans love it, and we get people who collect the whole series.”

The ToonSeum, located on Liberty Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh, is one of only three museums in the United States dedicated to the comic and cartoon arts. Since 2007, the ToonSeum has not only brought in exhibits from such legendary comic strip artists as Charles Schulz and Hagar the Horrible creator Dik Browne, but has also honored Pittsburgh natives like famed animator Lou Scheimer.

Illustration Ale takes the ToonSeum’s commitment to the cartoon arts and the region even further by using local illustrators for the labels of the specially brewed alcoholic beverage, making each batch both a collector’s item as well as celebration of the local Pittsburgh arts scene as well.

“I’m a fan of craft brewers, and was aware of East End opening in Pittsburgh in 2004,” said Wayno, a local cartoonist and illustrator who also served as the curator for Illustration Ale. “Scott Smith, East End’s owner, was also a neighbor who I met when taking a walk in the area. Scott invited me to design a label for one of his hand-bottled small batches—I think the first one was Ugly American Trippel. We had so much fun working together that we continued over the years. Scott works with many artists and designers for beer labels and tap handles. I believe that he supplied beer for some events at the ToonSeum, and I think it was his idea to craft a special brew and showcase the work of local artists.”

With so many talented artists in the region, the most difficult task was selecting only six of them to create the special labels for each batch of Illustration Ale. “We usually come up with a long list of names,” Joe Wos explained of the process in November 2013. “We then have a team of four people who choose the artists. Wayno is the curator of the labels, so we give his opinion a lot of weight. This year is one of my favorites because we focused on the talented women artists in Pittsburgh. There are just so many amazing artists that narrowing it down was the toughest task.”

The 2013 all-female list of Illustration Ale participants included Jessica Heberle, Ilene Winn-Lederer, Sarah Miller, Lizzee Solomon, strawberryluna and Nora Thompson. “They’ve created a knockout six-pack of labels in a wide range of styles,” Wayno said of the group. “This is the third round of Illustration Ale, and every time we do it, the artists from the Pittsburgh area make my job as curator a pleasure. Scott and I handle the technical and bureaucratic end of things, making sure the government warning message meets the federal requirements and getting the art approved. There are always one or two tweaks required by the government, and our artists always turn it right around. The local community of cartoonists and artists has embraced this project and are not only tremendously talented and creative, but are absolute professionals.”

Scott Smith of East End Brewing agreed. “This is the beauty of this project,” he added in regards to the artists. “They are given a basic template of what legally needs to be on the label, and a few words about the beer itself. But beyond that, it is wide open to their creativity, their influences and their individual talents. So seeing the new label art for the first time—it’s a total surprise. And I feel like a little kid opening the wrapping on Christmas morning, except that what’s inside is actually what will be the wrapping for one of our beers!”

As for the inside of the bottle itself, Smith described Illustration Ale as a Belgian Dark Strong Ale. “We’ve kept the identical recipe year-upon-year for the three years we’ve done this,” he explained. “And in this case, we had the idea for this particular beer before the whole collaboration with the ToonSeum and the artists were fully realized. Kind of the reverse of what we might typically do. For a beer that’s a bit less accessible than say American Pale Ale, it’s been incredibly well received. But I always knew our ‘Good Beer Fans’ are more beer-savvy than the average beer-loving consumer. And of course the eye-popping label art certainly helps draw them in.”

For three years, East End Brewing and the ToonSeum have teamed up for something special—a way to not only add to the fundraising efforts of Pittsburgh’s most unique museum and showcase the expertise of a local independent brewery, but celebrate the region’s large and diverse local art scene as well.

“Some of this year’s label artists are creators who I’ve known for years, and some are newly discovered colleagues,” Wayno remarked. “I look forward to toasting them all with my first taste of 2013 Illustration Ale.”

Anthony Letizia

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