Smile Politely

Art Works: An interview with Ralph Roether

A white man wearing glasses stands in front of his painting of an abstract and exaggerated yellow figure holding a microphone on a bright yellow background
Ralph Roether; Photo by Amy Penne

Artists and arts educators, I’m coming for you. Art Works is a new series of profiles with working artists in Central Illinois. I’ll be chatting up everyone from graphic designers, painters, sculptors, dancers, actors, photographers, writers, costume designers, theatre directors, and stage managers, to arts technicians like light and sound designers and engineers. As a teacher, my heart beats for educators who literally set the stage for artists in our culture and our community. Talking with my fellow college and university professionals will be a blast. But I’m looking forward to learning about K-12 arts teachers in the area. Remember that shout out to his University High School teachers from filmmaker Jonah Koslofsky? I’m coming for you, Ms. Majerus and Mr. Mitchell. 

Anyone who knows me knows I am a tireless advocate for the arts: all of them. I’ve been a teacher and member of the arts community here in Champaign-Urbana since Dead Poets Society played at Market Place Cinema (I miss that theatre). In fact, Dead Poets was the first film I saw after moving to C-U; I went on the Sunday night before I taught my first class as an English graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in August of 1989. Did I stand on my desk on the first day of class in August of 1989? Why yes, I certainly did. I wouldn’t do that now because I’d break a hip. But my enthusiasm for teaching writing and for every colleague who teaches in the arts or adjacent to the arts is unwavering. For the most part, in Champaign-Urbana, we are blessed with support for arts education and the arts in general. But it’s spotty and the arts are criminally underfunded elsewhere in the region. 

A refrain I have heard throughout my professional teaching career is that “there are no arts jobs in the area” and so energies are more often directed towards business, manufacturing, and agricultural partnerships. Those are incredibly important. I love business and food. I am among the many readers of our beloved Alyssa Buckely’s tantalizing food writing here at Smile Politely and I’m grateful for our region’s emphasis on agriculture and on the health care we need when we overindulge on tacos and cake. 

We have jobs in the arts. Art works. Artists teach. Artists run sound for Friday Night Live. Artists work at 40 North. Artists and musicians work at the Virginia Theatre. Entertainment technology students get jobs running lights and sound at the State Farm Center. Artists take photographs and create designs for Kraft, Carle, and C.H.I Overhead doors. Artists of all stripes are needed at Flyover Film Studios. Art and design are at the very heart of many of the industries in our region. And I’m going to talk to working creatives about their background, their education, and their path. And we start with one of the most prolific artists in town, Ralph Roether. Check out more of Roether’s work on his website.

A white man with glasses wearing a tank shirt and khaki shorts stands with his little white dog in his art studio. Several paintings of figures are in the background.
Ralph Roether and Sugar; Photo by Amy Penne

Ralph Roether is a familiar sight around C-U. Known for his bubbly personality and talent as a graphic designer, I had a chance to sit down in his gorgeous mid-century home in Pesotum to talk education, influences, and work. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Smile Politely: How did you find your way into a career in the arts?

Ralph Roether: I was born in Chicago but grew up primarily in southern Illinois near Rend Lake. A teacher noticed I could draw in 4th grade and encouraged me to keep at it. In 5th grade, they put me in with the high school art teacher once a week and it really took off from there. I got an art scholarship at Rend Lake College. After that, I transferred to the University of Illinois and got my degree in graphic design from the U of I. Ever since then, this is the early 90’s, I’ve lived mostly in Champaign, and now in Pesotum with my family.

SP: What was your first job after school?

Roether: I worked for the News Gazette. Back then it was Professional Impressions Media Group and included other things like WDWS and Lite Rock 97.5. I designed all kinds of marketing items for them. Rack cards. Covers for some special sections in the newspaper. That kind of thing. I learned a lot on the job. After a few years, I went to Bank Illinois, now Busey Bank. I worked at Horizon Hobby for a long time after that. I got to work in the catalog division and did package design for products. Lots of corporate work and trade shows. It was grueling but I learned a lot. Every job gave me an opportunity to learn even more about graphic design and design in general. And each job kinda helped me find my way to the next.

A bright teal background on a print with exaggerated white figures of guts and eyeballs. The words pinot noir are features in bubble letters in the center in yellow, white, and red
©Ralph Roether, Pinot Noir, print, 2022; Photo provided by Ralph Roether

SP: You’re doing work now for the University of Illinois as well as your own freelance work, is that right?

Roether: That’s right. I did some graphic design for the Champaign Park District. And then got a job at the Illini Union back in 2017 in graphic design and marketing and that’s where I work now, as a graphic designer. I’ve done some recent work as well with the Krannert Center for Performing Arts. And, of course, I’ve worked with the Ebertfest folks and did this year’s Ebertfest 25 design. 

SP: How do you make time for your own drawing and painting?

Roether: That’s tough. But I’ve been getting back to it a lot more. What changed my art more recently for me was Pour Bros. opening up. I got to see the place and started going there more. I just started doodling on napkins. Then Jason (Fowler) wanted to sponsor some art for the Boneyard Festival. He let me put some of my art up there and since about 2019, I’ve had art on display and for sale there. I’d sketch out on a napkin and then print some of those designs on canvas. Anybody now can just go in and buy some of my art. It’s been such a great partnership. I sell my cards there and everything. Then I started doing some marketing for Pour Bros. I’ve done some work for their other locations in Moline and Bloomington and the original Pour Bros. in Peoria Heights. We have a synergy and it’s been such a great relationship. 

A red and gold abstract of exaggerated human figures with red highlights around their facial features. In the center, it reads End of 2023/Fine.
©Ralph Roether, Will It End, print, 2023; Photo provided by Ralph Roether

SP: I’ll be asking everyone this question, which comes straight out of my favorite scene in The Commitments: who are your influences? 

Roether: As you can see in my work, some are pretty obvious. R(obert) Crumb. Keith Haring. Ralph Bakshi. John Kricfalusi who did Ren and Stimpy. And I love Wayne White’s work. There’s this amazing documentary about him, Beauty is Embarrassing (2012). His whole ethos is inspirational. He worked on Pee-wee’s Playhouse, did Liquid Television on MTV. Got a bit burned out but then remade himself by reworking these old landscapes he found at thrift stores and yard sales. He transforms them and it totally revived him and his career.

SP: What keeps you inspired now?

Roether: It’s all still fun for me. Wayne White and that documentary truly inspired me so much. Just his sense of humor and the idea that art should be fucking fun and not just tucked away in stuffy museums. That was liberating for me even though it’s such a simple concept. I don’t do art for anybody else. I do it for me. If you’re offended by my art, that’s ok. I know it’s not for everyone. I didn’t do it for you. It’s for me. If you’re offended, that’s ok. It’s not going to change me. 

SP: What is your advice for up and coming artists or for students who want to explore a career in the arts? 

Roether: If you want to work as an artist anywhere you have to get your work out to the public. It is good to have some kind of online presence but more importantly making connections with other artists, businesses, and other community members face-to-face is key. Participate in local arts and culture events like our Boneyard Arts Festival, the Crystal Lake Art Fair, or PostMark Urbana just to name a few. Find out more about organizations like 40 North, Champaign County Arts Council, and the Urbana Arts Council. Organizations like that. 40 North is a great resource to get an artist involved in our vibrant community. You can also go door-to-door to local businesses and see if they have any interest in displaying art. You might be surprised. The most important thing is to get involved with the community, whether it be the arts council, the park districts, local bars, or other businesses. The relationship I developed with Jason at Pour Bros. is a great example. They are a huge supporter of the arts. I have had a permanent rotating gallery of my work there for over five years now. Work hard and build relationships. Look for inspiration everywhere.

Arts Editor

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