Featured Illustrators

John F. Malta

November 2016

Professor, Illustrator, and seriously cool dude John Malta tells us about that crazy time he painted the op-ed page for The New York Times the day after Bin Ladin was announced dead (woah), plus how he manages to constantly hype up his students - surely easier said than done?

When did you fall in love with design and how did you get started?

I started out drawing posters, designing cassette tapes/demos, and painting stage banners for me and my friends punk bands in high school. This continued throughout undergrad where I started using Myspace as a way to reach out to bands and record labels that meant a lot to me. I was also drawing posters and flyers for most of the punk houses and DIY spaces in Columbus, Ohio (The Screamer House, The Legion of Doom, The Monster House, Carabar, Skylab, and Cafe Bourbon Street). No one was paying me to do any of this, I just liked supporting a community that I was apart of - and was psyched that people that I thought were cool, thought what I was doing was cool.

Doing this eventually lead to music venues, bands, and labels asking if I wanted to be paid for the work I was doing. I then eventually moved to New York City and the illustrator and chair of my graduate school, Marshall Arisman - asked me why I wasn’t contacting publications, newspapers, and other clients in the same way I was reaching out to punk bands and record labels. I began doing just that, and started working with publications, establishments, and companies like The New York Times, The New Yorker, Adult Swim, Quality Eats NYC, Vice, Surfing Magazine, The Washington Post, TEDxKC, Brasserie Dunham, and MIT Technology Review.

Where did you study and what were some of your first jobs?

I got my BFA in Illustration from the Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio, I got my MFA in Illustration as Visual Essay from The School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York City, and I am currently getting my BA in English/Writing from The University of Central Missouri just outside of Kansas City, Missouri.

I hated going to high school and definitely phoned in all of my classes that were not art related. I spent most of my time in high school drawing, skateboarding, and frantically doing my homework during homeroom - just before it was due (or not doing it at all). But as soon as I got to college that totally changed. I began taking art classes, and liberal arts classes like philosophy, writing, and art history and became so obsessed with going to school that I decided to build a career around it. I am a Professor of Art and the Program Coordinator for the University of Central Missouri’s Illustration Program.

My first “big” illustration job was for The New York Times op-ed page and was with Aviva Michaelov and Josh Cochran. I had just finished my first year at SVA and it was the night Osama Bin Ladin had just been captured/killed. I was at The Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater - an improv and comedy theater in Chelsea, when I found this out. At the end of the show a screen rolled down and the improvisors yelled “Happy Birthday Shannon, Osama Bin Ladin is dead” - me and my friends thought that they were doing a comedy bit but then Barack Obama came out and addressed our country on this news.

That night when me and my friends got back to the SVA studio we started to talk about what we would illustrate for the op-ed page if we were ever hypothetically asked to do an illustration for such a heavy topic. My studio mate Daniel Fishel suggested that I sketch out some ideas, and submit them to Aviva Michaelov along with a series of paintings I had just finished. I did that late into the night on Sunday, and much to my surprise the next morning when I woke up Aviva e-mailed me and asked if I would be up for painting this sketch for Tuesday’s edition of The New York Times.

Tuesday rolled around and I got an e-mail from Josh Cochran who was filling in for Aviva. He was on board with the sketch, but the editors were afraid of me adding too much blood to an image of a gigantic decapitated snake, with a bunch of little snakes coming out of it. He called me at noon that day and said they were still talking with the editors, and would get back to me as soon as possible. I nervously sat around my SVA studio fluctuating between extreme excitement and extreme doubt that I would actually be able to draw this thing for The New York Times. Josh called me back at 4:00 and asked if I could get a final back to him by 5:30/6:00. I painted the entire thing within the hour and sent it back to him on time.

I woke up the next morning, got a chocolate croissant and a coffee from Cafe Champignon in Chelsea and picked up a copy of The New York Times. I brought it back to the SVA studio and Marshall Arisman was there. He congratulated me and told me to always “celebrate the small victories”. To this day those words always come to mind when I complete and submit a new project I am hyped about.


What does a typical working day include for you right now?

Here is a breakdown of a typical studio day:

6:00 AM - Wake up, skateboard to grab a coffee, reply to e-mails

7:00 AM - 5:00 PM - Drawin’, Paintin’, Illustrating

5:00 PM - 7:00 PM - I take a break to exercise (breaking my day up this way, and actually taking time to do something that is not art related has made me so much more productive). I play street hockey three days a week, and on the off days I go rock climbing.

7:00 PM - 7:30 PM - I usually pick up dinner from somewhere in my neighborhood (River Market, Kansas City). There is a great Vietnamese restaurant I go to a lot called Vietnam Cafe, this 24 hour Mexican place called Pancho’s, and one of my favorite spots in all of Kansas City is called The Bite. They make Korean BBQ sandwiches. They are real dank.

7:30 PM - Midnight - Drawin’, Paintin’, Illustrating

Midnight - 6:00 AM - Sleep, Repeat

Are you involved in any mentoring/teaching/workshops and if and how it shapes your practice?

Yes! For the past three years I have been working as the program coordinator of The University of Central Missouri’s Illustration Program. I write the curriculum for the program, and teach courses.

Being a professor is an important part of my art making practice, and being an artist is an important part of my work as a professor. I meet far too many art professors that say they have no time to make work - and that is the perception of most people I encounter - that a professor couldn’t possibly have time to also be an artist. But being a practicing artist is the best possible example you can set for your students. What I don’t understand is why there are so many professors who just relegate themselves to academia (I mean I know why - we have salaries, we can just show up and teach). But my favorite part about teaching is hyping my students up about their projects - while showing them projects that I am working on professionally that I am hyped about.

A few of the other professors at UCM also follow this sort of framework, or ideology - the illustrator Allison Kerek is ferociously active as an illustrator, and the conceptual artist Marco Rosichelliis perpetually working on new and exciting projects. It’s great to teach alongside artists who are so professionally engaged, while simultaneously dedicated to their students.

There is a great synergy that happens between both of my professions (educator and artist) - as an educator I feel obligated to keep producing really solid personal and client related projects so my students stay hyped. And as an artist my work has improved so much since I started teaching because I spend so much time critiquing the work of others. It’s made me more critical of my own work in the best way possible. I also really love seeing my students succeed and I feel very grateful to play a small part in shaping their careers as artists and designers.

What advice would you give students starting out?

1. Work way harder than you think you should be, I was just up for 40 hours working on a deadline - work harder than that.

Whats on the cards professionally and personally in the next 12 months?

1. I just started recording episodes of a radio show for Radio Free Brooklyn called SSSSLAM DUNK. I play a pick up game of basketball with different creative people and then interview them about their work afterwards.


Instagram: @johnfmalta 






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