In Conversation: David Lee Csicsko

In Conversation: David Lee Csicsko

Award-winning artist and designer David Lee Csicsko has an impressive background. From countless solo exhibitions to illustrations in the Chicago Tribune and even designing for the White House Christmas in 2012, Csicsko’s work has spanned decades and mediums. Csicsko is passionate about making his work accessible to everybody, from seasoned art lovers to elementary schoolers. His upcoming book with writer and historian Owen Keehnen, LGBTQ+ Icons, celebrates figures throughout history whose sexualities have long been buried underneath centuries and decades of homophobia. LGBTQ+ Icons not only honors their successes, but also the queer identities inextricably wound into their world-changing work.

Written to appeal to readers young and old, it inspires everyone to be confident in who they are, and to take pride in their own creativity. Produced with premium materials and including over 50 color illustrations in Csicsko’s bold, original style, LGBTQ+ Icons is a perfect collectible.

Available now for pre-order, due in stores in July.

Why did you decide to create an LGBTQ book for young readers?

Owen Keehnen, who wrote the biographies, works part-time at a wonderful bookshop in Chicago called Unabridged Books. We’re friends, and sometime in February of last year I was visiting him at the bookshop and we went over to the LGBTQ section. I said “You know, I think we could do a really fun book together.” What was available was just not that interesting visually, so we started talking about it.

The Chicago public school system recently decided to teach gay history in the public schools, and research has found that there’s a need for this type of book, especially among 12-year-olds. As the world develops, there are a lot of wonderful sensitive parents out there who might be looking for a book like this to inspire their kids.

The Saugatuck History Museum saw pictures from a project I had been working on and invited me to create an exhibit about gay people and history. Saugatuck is an arts community and a place that was always warm and welcoming to the gay and lesbian community. For the exhibit, I created work featuring people from literature, visual art, music, and dance. Sam Landers (Trope’s publisher and editor) saw the exhibit he said, “Dave, this book is done! This should be a book.” Sam decided he wanted to publish it and we rounded it out to include 50 people total. We went through this process of who to include in the book, which wasn't easy. A lot of important people were left out. But I’m very excited about the people that make up the book.

Who are a few LGBTQ icons in the book that you were most proud to include?

Oh, that's a good question. Historically, if someone was gay or lesbian or bi, that’s left out of the history of who they were. It’s just recently that we’re talking about how Tchaikovsky was gay. That kind of thing has always been left out. There’s a handful of people that we don’t know that about until we do our research.

We included Radclyffe Hall, who wrote the first lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness. I mean, doesn’t that sound depressing? But she had a fascinating life and lived with her partner. She usually wore men’s clothes, which was really rather radical in the 1920s and ’30s. Lorraine Hansberry is in the book, and also several Black poets from the Harlem Renaissance.

I read that you like to include “accessible symbols” in your work. Why are you passionate about making your art accessible?

A book like this should encourage dialogue and interactions so that people can talk about what they see in the picture. I’m someone who loves the Surrealists because they included dream imagery in their art. I love being imaginative, but I also love making things that make sense to people. I wanted to be wonderfully inventive, but I also wanted to communicate.

What is your process like for creating a new piece? Do you research extensively beforehand, or is it more free flowing?

It’s a combination of both. This is the start of several series of portrait encyclopedias; next up is a book called Science People, 50 people from around the world who are involved in the sciences. We know several of the really famous people from the history of science like Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, but there are so many others around the world that we may not think about as being important to science. I love the thrill of being the detective and finding something that I think other people will also embrace as interesting information.

You’ve said that you’re inspired by American folk art. What is it about folk art that has made it so inspirational for the work in your upcoming book?

Often, folk art is made by someone who didn’t go to art school. They felt compelled to make a piece of art. There were a lot of painters who, in the 1800s, were portrait painters who traveled creating portraits, but would fall under the category as being naive because maybe the [portraits’] heads were big and the hands were small, or the eyes were really big. There’s just this love of what they’re doing. 

Sometimes it's pared down; I've always admired Shaker furniture because of its simplicity. When paring down these beautiful shapes together, you have something lovely. In regards to this book, I saw these portraits as very bold, friendly caricatures that reminded me of 1960s cocktail napkins where you see these fun and exaggerated abstract drawings of beatniks. There’s that love of shapes and paring it all down. Usually, I make the eyes big as a way to help you connect to the image.

Tell me a bit about the work you created for the White House in 2012 – what was that process like? Did you work with the First Lady directly to create those decorations?

No, not directly – she’s way too busy to work with the artists on that! There was a woman who was running the decorations for the White House during the Obama administration. She had also been hired to plan the opening gala for Chicago Children’s Hospital, where I designed the chapel windows. She saw the windows in the chapel and called and said, “Would you make stained glass Christmas wreaths to hang in the East Corridor?” I looked up what a stained glass Christmas wreath looked like and I thought, “That's the kind of thing you could buy in any craft shop; it has to be more interesting.”

Part of being an American in the arts is to be inventive. So I thought, “How can I make this more special . . . what would happen if a Christmas tree and a snowflake got together to produce something?” I sourced craftsmen from all over the country to make pieces that I put in my designs and the First Lady loved it. She was really happy with everything. I didn't meet her until it was all done at the party.

But you did meet her eventually?

I did! Something exciting between me and Michelle Obama is that she was once quoted in a magazine that her favorite children’s book is The Skin You Live In, which is a book that I illustrated.

Going back to the very beginning, how did you first becoming involved with graphic design?

I went to art school and wanted to be an artist, but being in design meant that you could earn an income. So I really took all of my passions and interests in arts and forged a career of making visuals for people or companies or agencies. I’ve established a good stronghold. As one gets older, you’re always adapting and trying to improve what you’re doing, and it grows organically.

When creating these [portraits] on the computer, I look at the person, read about them, and I pay attention to what they’re wearing. Radclyffe Hall, for instance, showed Dachshunds in a dog show in London, and I have Dachshunds, so I included one in the portrait because she was a real dog lover. I search for wonderful clues that tell you a little bit about them when you look at the picture, things that suggest that they’re an interesting person so that you want to read about them.

Stack of LGBTQ+ Icons books

Learn more about LGBTQ+ Icons.