CIA illustrator Groman makes monstrously creative career
When illustrator and CIA instructor James Groman (’86) was creating designer monsters for the Cleveland Institute of Art’s annual recruitment posters, he reined in his estimable gifts for the grotesque and pulled out the winsome instead.
In the first of three Groman edition posters for CIA, a hopeful-looking young student is flanked by a menagerie with almost Muppetlike appeal: A pachyderm with an underbite, a split-lipped guy with four eyes and a head sprouting mushrooms, and a pair of earnest aliens with trumpet snouts. And that’s just for starters.
“I tend to go pretty sinister,” Groman says, “but here I wanted them to be appealing.”
The other two posters depict a spaceship-flying alien doing a little online research on CIA, and a life drawing class in which the demurely draped model shows a lot of purple skin and snaky arms.
The posters went to guidance and art departments at high schools around the country this fall. They are the latest in an annual series spearheaded by Mark Inglis, CIA’s Vice President of Marketing + Communications.
“I first heard about James Groman several years ago from Dominic Scibilia, the former Chair of Illustration,” Inglis says. “Dom first told me about him when James was working with Peter Jackson in New Zealand on The Hobbit, and designing the character sketches for the Orcs. Since that time, I’ve wanted to work with James and finally cornered him this past summer.”
Inglis was the creative director for the poster project, and loved the intensity that Groman poured into developing creatures, concepts and compositions for the posters.
“It’s interesting. The work of James Groman is rooted in the genre of horror and the grotesque, but when you look at the work itself, there is humanity and humor,” Inglis says.“ In person, James is a passionate and generous person who clearly loves what he does for a living. His work is technically fantastic, but it’s his creative vision that for me is so captivating and original.”
Groman is a student of creatures from way back. Growing up in Tiffin, Ohio, he loved learning about prehistoric creatures. He also watched all those old Saturday afternoon monster movies and drew in his sketchbook all the time.
“My mom used to joke that I’d watch anything and nothing scared me, and I think that’s because I knew so much about it. Dinosaurs didn’t scare me because I knew all about them,” he says.
The one exception was the 1960s TV series The Outer Limits. Groman found the strangeness of the tales unsettling in a way that Godzilla wasn’t. (Devotees of the series will notice that in his creature poster for CIA, Groman includes an homage to the Theton creature from the OL episode called “The Architects of Fear.”)
Groman graduated from CIA in 1986, where he was an Illustration major. He has great memories of learning at the hands of Scibilia and Gene Pawlowski. While today’s illustrators often set their sights on character design and concept drawing, the market back then was focused more on editorial work. Groman says his professors, who were steeped in advertising and editorial work themselves, didn’t quite know what to do with him and his sketchbooks full of creatures.
“I wanted to design movies, and I wanted to design characters for movies and animated shows, and toys,” he says. “My [thesis project] was movie posters. I did six movie posters —only one of them was a real movie. The others were ideas I came up with.”
He did not go on to build a career primarily on movies, but the universe met him more than halfway.
After graduating from CIA, Groman went to work for American Greetings, which had a new line of products called Those Characters from Cleveland. There, he worked on character design for lines including Care Bears, Mad Balls (and the extra-gross version, Mad Balls Head Poppers), and a line of action figures called Barnyard Commandos, which he created and developed.
These days, he teaches two courses in Illustration, and has plenty of freelance jobs, which includes work for American Greetings, Hasbro Toys, and MGA Entertainment, famous for Bratz dolls.
Groman also works the entrepreneur side of his business. “I have a couple toys lines I’m putting out with Japanese companies,” he says. “I come up with the concepts, license them, do the sculptures. One of them out now is called BC Blasters. It’s about a time-travel accident—dinosaurs blend with military machines. I’m very excited about it.”
As a pro freelancer, Groman makes sure his studio is always busy. “I like to have more than one job at a time,” he says.
“I still send out emails to clients if I haven’t heard from them in a while. There’s so many [artists] out there. There are all kinds of freelancers. I still have to make sure I’m out there.”
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