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The Image Maker: Meet the Designer Behind Those Iconic Arts Fest Posters

by on July 06, 2015 6:00 AM

If you’ve ever been to the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts than you’ve probably seen Lanny Sommese’s work.

No, Sommese, isn’t one of the artists who sell paintings, jewelry, leather goods and knick-knacks from tents lined up through town and across the Penn State campus.

Sommese is the guy who makes the whimsical and immensely popular posters that promote the Arts Fest.

When it comes to those Arts Fest posters Sommese has a perfect record. He's helped create every one of them. The now-retired Penn State professor of graphic design has had a hand in producing the posters going way, way back to the very first one in 1974, several years after the Arts Fest began.

It wasn’t easy at first. Sommese recalls that there were a dozen people on the Art Fest board – each with different tastes. “So you end up doing something that’s perhaps a little bit ‘no edge’ but palatable. So, I thought my first two or three attempts… uh, sucked,” he says, laughing.

And in a case of life imitating art the colorful characters he's included in those posters have helped define the Arts Fest.

“He’s really created a visual identity for us,” says Rick Bryant,  the Arts Fest’s executive director.

Sitting still for an interview at his home, Sommese is surrounded with an eclectic collection of antique toys, board games, masks and vintage pottery. He smiles easily, laughs frequently and talks passionately about his profession -- and those familiar Arts Fest posters.

Even as a teenager Sommese had set his sights on graphic design. “I knew that I wanted to be a designer. I wanted to make a living being a designer. I didn’t want to be an artist,” Sommese declares emphatically. “It was very important that I be able to make a living.”

Sommese's arrival in State College in 1970 came at the end of a very long road that goes back to his childhood in Florida. He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Florida before heading for graduate school at the University of Illinois. Teaching was the farthest thing from his mind.

“I never really thought about teaching,” he says. But at Illinois, teaching was part of the deal. “I ended up teaching a sophomore class and I loved it. So that was the beginning. I loved design and I loved teaching design and that’s been with me forever."

Shortly after graduation Sommese landed at Penn State. Part of the plan was to establish his bona fides. “I worked very had to break into the national and international design scene,” he says.

That's when the Arts Fest came calling. Sommese says a woman from the Arts Fest walked into his office and said they needed somebody do graphic design. “Well, you found him!” Sommese recalls, laughing out loud.

Sommese's first design was essentially a grouping of concentric circles. “Yeah, it was very corporate looking I thought," he says. It was  basically very simple. Nobody could reject it.”

But when Sommese came up with a vision for the Arts Fest -- seeing it as a modern day renaissance faire -- that’s when the posters started taking on a very distinctive style.

“What happened near the end of the seventies, they started letting me loosen up. I started doing some much more interesting imagery and much more unique energy and the festival itself started getting a little bit of recognition for their graphics.”

Sommese has incorporated a number of recurring themes in has posters. Perhaps the most familiar one is the Happy Valley landscape. “It’s a beautiful place to live and I try to announce that in my posters,” he says of Central Pennsylvania.

Jesters, mountains and dogs are frequently featured.

But still, he tries to make each poster different. “I love that because that’s what keeps everything rolling and changing," he says. "I don’t think there’s anything more boring than to do it the same way all the time.

In Sommese’s mind there is a big difference between graphic designers and artists. “It’s not just about me and me spitting out something,” he says. “I think lots of time I think I’m just an image maker. But the image is always driven – never by me – but always by the needs of the client.

"What you come up with as a designer is the result of – you got to please the client and you got to please the people in the audience."

Sommese illustrates his point by describing a lecture he once gave in Indianapolis. When he finished speaking a woman ran after him. “‘Professor Sommese, I’ve been watching your work for years,’” he recalls. "‘Do you always have those funny little things floating around in your head?’” Sommese laughs (again) at the memory. “I looked at her and I said ‘No. I don’t have anything in my head’ and the whole place cracked up like I made this faux pas.

“My point … was that I never have anything in my head about an image until I’m given an assignment. … That’s the difference between graphic design and being a painter."

Artist. Graphic designer. Whatever. Sommese’s work has helped set the Arts Fest apart. Bryant says he frequently goes to conferences with organizers of similar festivals and Sommese's posters are always a cut above. “Everybody else’s always looked like it came out of an ad agency," says Bryant. "It looked like Don Draper did it. Not ours. Ours always looks like an artist did it. And I’m kind of proud of that."

According to Bryant, the Arts Fest posters have become a visual touchstone for fans who come back year after year. “We get calls or emails frequently,” he says. “’I’m looking for a poster from the year I graduated; the year I got engaged; when I had my first baby.’ People use them as markers to mark the festival and the Penn State experience.”

Posters leftover from earlier years are still around. You can actually buy vintage posters by clicking HERE.

The process that goes into creating a poster is part of what keeps Sommese going.

“What makes the Arts Fest so interesting as a -- designer -- before you solve a problem you have to fully define it," he says. "What’s interesting to me about that is that every year I redefine what the Arts Fest is. Sometimes it’s ridiculous, some of the stuff that I do. Somebody’s always pissed at me about it no matter what the hell I do.”

Case in point: after featuring a dog and a cat in one poster Sommese remembers a woman who accosted him, saying, “What’s it going to be next? Bugs?”

Most people probably don’t realize that the posters are just one part of the job. Sommese has also designed dozens of brochures and booklets for the Arts Fest. That’s why he enlisted help from some of his best students – a practice that continues today.

“To me, I’ve done it for so many years that it’s automatic to me. Now, the kids don’t have that to fall back on. So I make them go back and do the research.”

In the early days Sommese did everything by hand. Computers have created new opportunities for creativity. Rather than spend years learning computers, Sommese says he has students and interns contribute their high-tech skills.

Sommese retired from Penn State after 33 years. He recently underwent knee replacement surgery but at age 72 he’s not ready to hand off the Arts Fest posters to someone else. He does get a lot more help from his students, and his wife Kristin. She's also a graphic designer and teaches at Penn State, and has played a big role in the process.

His career has taken Sommese around the world and he's won his share of recognition. His work hangs in museums from Beijing to Warsaw and has been featured in hundreds of magazines and periodicals.

What does Sommese want fans to see in his posters? “That I have a hell of a lot of fun. I always have fun.”

Thousands and thousands of Arts Fest posters have been given away over the years and it’s a safe bet to say they’re hanging on walls all over the world.

Bryant says he once spotted an Arts Fest poster in San Francisco.

Sommese recalls being at a cocktail party in Jacksonville, Florida a few years back. Walking into the bathroom he came face to face with his work. “Right behind the commode there’s a poster from the Arts Festival,” he says, laughing yet again. “And I thought, ‘At last, success!’”


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Steve Bauer was the Managing Editor of Steve and his wife Trina are longtime area residents. They reside in State College along with a wacky Golden Retriever named Izzy.
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