Editor's Notebook: he magazine's illustrator uses his art to help us tell our stories

Feb 1, 2001

Peggy Boyer Long
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

There's a bumper sticker on the bookcase at the entrance to my office that reads, "News happens."

It's a humbling thought for journalists who put out a monthly public affairs magazine. It's also what makes being in this business so thrilling. Each member of the editorial team keeps that thought uppermost in his or her mind because, after all, Illinois isn't one of those boring states where nothing ever seems to happen.

This month's issue with its cover story on the Illinois Supreme Court is a case in point: It offers an object lesson in the dynamism, and the unpredictability, of Illinois politics and government. 

Exactly 24 hours before we were scheduled to transmit this issue to our printer electronically, Justice Benjamin Miller, until last month the senior member of the court, announced he was stepping down effective January 29. His replacement. Appellate Judge Rita Garman of Danville, was named the next day. Reporter Aaron Chambers scrambled to update his story, and art director Diana Nelson scrambled to make the illustration reflect Ben Miller's departure. Even at that, it marks only a moment in time because the justices are seated on the bench according to seniority. But this issue, with its depiction of Ben Miller's empty chair, gives us a chance to consider what the court has lost.

We're satisfied that our instincts were right on this story. The state's top court will be in the spotlight, maybe even on the hot seat this year, and we've given our readers a sketch of the new members and the docket they'll face in the coming months. 

A lot of people helped us accomplish this, but one regular contributor deserves special mention. Baseball has its utility infielders, those members of a team who can play virtually any position. Magazines do, too. Our utility illustrator is Mike Cramer, the Chicago lawyer-by-day, artist-by-night who, month after month, manages to accomplish a home run with each assignment we throw his way. That includes some fast balls and some curve balls.

Illinois Issues readers likely will remember Mike as the magazine's longtime back cover cartoonist. But over the years he's become our Most Valuable Illustrator for articles, and, like this month's, some are cover stories. 

From our perspective, Mike's greatest accomplishments include cover illustrations of Daniel Rostenkowski and Richard M. Daley, and inside illustrations of Harold Washington and Abraham Lincoln. 

Mike would make his own picks, of course. And, again from our perspective, that's what makes working with him so energizing. Creative tension and differences of interpretation are at the heart of the relationship. We give sometimes; he gives sometimes.

Our readers win.

This month, we gave him a pretty big challenge: Paint us a picture of the "new" Illinois Supreme Court - before a photographer has even had a chance to officially document the court's justices seated on the bench.

Three photographers from different parts of the state let us use their photos of the newly elected justices. Terry Farmer of Springfield loaned us his photo of Justice Bob Thomas at his swearing in. Todd Mizener of Coal Valley e-mailed his photographs of Justice Thomas Kilbride. And Paul McGrath of Chicago e-mailed his of Justice Thomas Fitzgerald.

The court's staff was equally gracious. They detailed for us the seating arrangement (before Miller's retirement) and let us into the court chamber to double check colors.

We shipped this visual information to Mike. And after some back-and-forth, maybe more than a little back-and-forth, he put the elected justices on the bench - then let us alter his work digitally after Miller's announcement.

His art appears on this month's cover and in the feature article beginning on page 14. Other Mike Cramer illustrations appear on pages 22-25. 

Thanks to one of this team's most valuable players.