Luck of the Draw

The handmade magic of Ted Enik ’75.

By Rena Grossman

Entering illustrator Ted Enik’s Upper East Side apartment is like diving headfirst into the pages of an elaborate children’s adventure story, ripe with twists and turns and a one-eyed hero — Enik himself (he lost an eye in middle school). His walls are ornamented with deep-sea ephemera. Large, glass-front files house his growing collection of The Nightmare Before Christmas figurines. Enik is a lover of Halloween and Tim Burton. Both are playful, imaginative, and celebrate the magic of life in the face of darkness.

The fluid pencil, ink, and watercolor illustrations that Ted Enik is known for are his own form of visual magic. But in the beginning, his art was pretty crude — he never went to art school. “It was a hobby really, but I was good enough for people to say, ‘Hey, you can draw.’”

Ted’s degree from Ithaca College was actually in theater performance and direction; he switched to playwriting in graduate school. When he moved to New York City after graduation he decided he didn’t have the stomach for theater. “I used to buy the trade papers and pray there wasn’t anything for me,” he admits.

Around the same time, his friend Robert Ten Eyck Hanford ’74 was having a book on puppeteering published by Drake Publishers, and he gave Ted his lucky break. “I did thick, muddy magic marker illustrations for it,” he says. “They were horrible.” But afterwards, Drake offered him a job. “I naively thought this would probably be a more reliable source of income,” Ted recalls. “I figured I could try it and be a playwright on the side.”

His work schedule didn’t allow him much time to be a writer. He began by adapting illustrations from government manuals, depicting how to cut a side of beef or open a wine bottle properly. At the height of the Star Wars craze, he moved from Drake Publishers to a sci-fi magazine called Starlog. But in the evenings after work he was doing the sort of art he hoped eventually to make a living with: painterly, watercolor children’s book stuff.

Soon after, he broke into the world of freelance illustration with the help of an agent, and he has successfully ridden the classic freelance rollercoaster for nearly 30 years. In the last decade he has focused on licensed illustration — drawings in the style of an original illustrator — and it has brought him steady work. His first major licensing gig was for the Magic School Bus series, and he moved on to perennial children’s classics like Eloise and movie tie-ins for Hook, Babe, and Harry Potter. Now he is part of a small group of artists working on Fancy Nancy books; Ted’s specific charge is the “I Can Read!” series.

“I really respond to the style and personality of the character,” says Ted of Fancy Nancy, “and HarperCollins has let me bring a lot of myself into adapting Robin Preiss Glasser’s terrific work. It’s pretty great.”

An overflowing stack of files hidden under his desk suggest that this is a time-intensive endeavor. Ted explains that a lot of his work involves flipping images, redrawing, and adjusting. “When each new manuscript arrives, I sit on the floor, lay the 14 spreads out and say, ‘Okay, there’s a body position for this scene, and a head I can flop and use over here.’ Then I bring everything to my second home, Kinko’s, make a million copies, and assemble 14 collages before I pick up a pencil.”

After many years, Ted is finally making time to write. He has completed several plays and is knee deep in another. He has also signed a contract for an original, illustrated children’s alphabet book of poems called WeeWitch, which he co-wrote with Ithaca native Beth (McConnell) Roth.

Even though the demand for digital art is high and the illustration market has gotten tighter, Ted doesn’t worry too much about competition. “They still haven’t been able digitally to recreate what I do — all those little pencilline and watercolor imperfections that the gut registers as ‘a living human did that,’” he says. “It’s just not the same feel as digital art, and I doubt things will ever go exclusively one way or the other. There will be room for everybody. People listen to iPods, CDs, and the humble radio, right?”