A Talk with Dan’s Papers Cover Artist Johnathan Hallgrey

"The Three Hunters," an oil pastel on paper that Johnathan Hallgrey created in 1987.
"The Three Hunters," an oil pastel on paper that Johnathan Hallgrey created in 1987. It is the poster art for the 40th anniversary of the Hampton Classic

This week’s cover art, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Hampton Classic Horse Show, is also the official poster for the show, created by Johnathan Hallgrey. Called “Three Hunters,” the 30” x 40” oil pastel on paper is part of the artist’s Equestrian Series, a grouping that includes hunters, polo players, jockeys, and even a zebra. Hallgrey’s love of horses dates to the early 1980s when he learned to ride, both in English and Western styles. “Three Hunters” depicts the English style. There’s been no hunting or polo playing for Hallgrey himself, though many of his international celebrity clients do both. He was inspired by the “sheer elegance and style” of horses and riding, by the “graceful stillness of the equine and the exquisite equestrian attire of dressage and hunt fashions.” But he doesn’t own a horse, he notes, because “it’s dreadfully hard to fit one in a New York apartment closet.”

The remark is wonderfully apt for an artist whose humor informs so much of his work, particularly the “counting and color” books he creates. Ostensibly for children, they also engage adults who can appreciate the clever compositions of fanciful faceless figures, elongated two-dimensional silhouettes, and alliterative lords and ladies and littles who rule Hallgreyland with wit
and whimsy.

Johnathan Hallgrey
Johnathan Hallgrey

Why do you refer to yourself as a self-trained artist?

I learned by looking and teaching myself, but I was fortunate in having a grandmother artist, a bohemian, and an artist mom. For a while I worked for the Museum of Modern Art in books and posters, and I loved writers of the jazz age and Hollywood classic films, the style, the humor of movies such as Some Like It Hot. I refer to myself as an affordable artist. I want people to be able to buy my books and prints. I also like to refer to myself as someone for whom art work is fun. If someone giggles and laughs, that’s great. I believe that you either have a talent for art or you don’t, and if you do and pursue it, do it on your own, carve out your own niche.

Your website features other eccentricities, among them series on the Jazz Age, the Wingback Chair, Costume. Do these subjects suggest a more varied and diverse Hallgrey than is generally known, someone who plays with such experiences
in art?

To tell the truth, and why not, I’ve been a movie extra in a lot of films, including a couple of horror pictures. [Google “johnathan hallgrey movie extra.” You’ll see stills of him in, among other movies, American Gangster, The Bourne Legacy, Babylon Fields, The Adjustment Bureau, Wall Street 2, Thanks for Sharing, the second season of Boardwalk Empire, and a great shot of Hallgrey shopping in SoHo for movie props and wardrobe. He’s in shades and wearing a raccoon coat.]

You love turning out alphabet and flip books, such as the forthcoming The Enchanted Kingdom of Sir Thomas Tattletale. “Three Hunters” is the cover of your counting and color book. What was the motive for creating these books?

I looked at an alphabet book done by a friend. It seemed too complicated. I wanted something truly educational with tongue twisters and fun that would help expand a child’s vocabulary, while teaching pronunciation and geography. And books that would have international reach and be read by children and adults in different countries. In the alphabet and art flipbooks, I introduce “madcap” Bartholomew Banks of Boston and Fanny Flapper as well as Thomas Tattletale in Turkey at teatime.

Hallgrey’s work can be seen on his website Visit johnathanhallgrey.com.

Dan's Papers August 28, 2015, cover art by Johnathan Hallgrey
Dan’s Papers August 28, 2015, cover art by Johnathan Hallgrey

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