In This State: For artist Hal Mayforth, “little” ideas bring big rewards

In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at

Illustrator and cartoonist Hal Mayforth drawing in his sketchbook in his studio in East Montpelier. The ideas Mayforth draws in the sketchbook are key to the creative process for his humorous cartoons and colorful posters and paintings.  Photo by Andrew Nemethy

Illustrator and cartoonist Hal Mayforth drawing in his sketchbook in his studio in East Montpelier. The ideas Mayforth draws in the sketchbook are key to the creative process for his humorous cartoons and colorful posters and paintings. Photo by Andrew Nemethy

Every day, Hal Mayforth wades eagerly into the frustrations, foibles, frailties and foolishness of the human race. Not with a therapist’s couch, though in a sense he ponders the human psyche. Instead, he uses an artist’s quill pen or a painter’s brush, to draw a picture of who we are.

And what a funny picture it is.

With a few finely drawn lines, or elaborate colorful paintings, he captures the zany zeitgeist of our age and illustrates – often with subversive humor and captions – the things that mystify and motivate, amuse and entertain, worry us and drive us nuts.

Work and play. Coffee. Math. Dogs and cats. Digital devices. Personal hygiene. Exercise and shopping. The list goes on.

So too do Mayforth’s artistic talents, a list that doesn’t fit easily into any vaguely conventional box. To grasp his take on life it helps to let some of his cartoons do the speaking.

— A smiling elf-life character holds an ax under a “Happy Holidays” banner as he drags a newly cut fake fir tree with cell-tower antennas across a winter landscape.

— A college grad in cap and gown gazes out with a satisfied expression, holding a diploma in his hand. The caption reads: “Ticket to move back in with Mom and Dad.”

Vermont is a state blessed with well-known, long-appreciated cartoonists and illustrators such as Ed Koren, Dug Nap, Jeff Danziger, Alison Bechdel, Harry Bliss and Tim Newcomb. In that echelon, Mayforth is perhaps the most famous Vermont cartoonist you’ve never heard of, since most of his illustrations go out of state. From his rural studio in East Montpelier, he has sent forth a veritable army of little people to populate the world of newspapers and magazines for some three decades. His distinctive brood of excitable, cute, big-eyed, bulbous-nosed characters, quirky and brightly colored, have appeared in publications as varied as the Wall Street Journal, AARP magazine, Time and Newsweek, Outside, Road & Track, Vermont Life, and a whole litany of computer, science and health magazines.

To call him a cartoonist, though, is to unfairly circumscribe his world: Mayforth is a prolific one-man art factory. Besides cartoons he does whimsical pen and ink/watercolors, calendars and postcards, giclee prints and light switch covers. His larger acrylic grid paintings seem to satisfy different parts of his immensely artistic soul. And then there’s the skillful acoustic guitar licks he practices almost every day. (He’s got a “kick-ass” five-person Blues band called “The Heckhounds.”)

Like fellow Burlington native Dug Nap, Mayforth has a way with animals and humorous captions, which he sketches or paints on posters. Take the satisfied dog on top of a soft foot rest with the caption: “King of the Ottoman Empire.”

Or a colorful dog barking with a wide-open mouth and the caption: “I bark, therefore I am.”

Square-jawed with a burly build and short-cropped hair, Mayforth at 60 remains driven by both artistic and basic make-a-living impulses – “to keep the wolves at bay,” as he puts it.

“If you’re freelancing, you’re always wondering where the next job is coming from,” he says.

On this July day, he’s happy because he’s just gotten a book contract that calls for 230 illustrations. “It will alleviate August,” he says, noting that summer has been slow in the illustration business.

Like most artists (and Vermonters), he’s had to adapt to changes in the world of work and social media, spending more time marketing via email, on his five Web sites and posting sketches on his Facebook page.

Still, he’s in the rare echelon of illustrators whose work is so well established that art directors call him.

“I’ve been doing it so long, people know me,” he says. “I have a lot of recurring customers.”

It helps that his trademark little people are easily scalable to fit any size or theme, and that he can whip them off in a hurry. That puts him on speed-dial or urgent email list when art directors need illustrations to liven up complex or wordy articles.

Hal Mayforth at the opening of "My Sketchook Made Me Do It," a show of his colorful posters at Studio Place Arts last spring.

Hal Mayforth at the opening of "My Sketchook Made Me Do It," a show of his colorful posters at Studio Place Arts last spring.

Mayforth works in a cluttered studio above his East Montpelier garage facing a wonderful view of Plainfield’s Spruce Mountain. It’s zoned for the different parts of his day and life: A paint-spattered corner with an easel and jumbled tubes of acrylic paint; a corner desktop with a large computer monitor and worktable space; an artist’s sketch table where he draws his characters; and an array of guitar cases tucked in a corner.

At the heart of his art is his sketchbook discipline. He uses a crow quill pen to draw by hand for an hour every morning, after first sitting quietly for 20 minutes.

“I find meditation clears my mind and often allows the good stuff to come in,” he says.

In the sketchbook he pens a mix of whimsy, topical subjects, “off-kilter” humor, clever captions and characters, which sometimes evolve into semi-finished works as they are repeated and elaborated on down the page. “This is where all my ideas come from. These are my points of departure,” he explains.

How many sketchbooks has he filled now? He pauses to think, then says, “84.”

Mayforth went to the University of Vermont for two years and then transferred to Skidmore, where an art instructor told him to start keeping a sketchbook. He’s been doing it ever since. His drawing career took off in 1975 when he landed in Massachusetts as the dot-com boom was spawning computer and technology magazines everywhere. He later moved to New Hampshire, and then a stroke of luck led to his return to Vermont to property in East Montpelier, where he raised three boys with his wife.

Mayforth’s art leads in all sorts of directions. Take his posters, which are often topical: Two herons are dripping with oil after the BP well blowout. In the caption one says, “On the plus side, my flaky itchy skin seems to have subsided.”

Then there’s “Bad Math Man,” a colorful red-caped superhero whose broad chest is emblazoned with “4 +2=8.”

A page from one of Mayforth's 84 sketchbooks. Photo by Andrew Nemethy

A page from one of Mayforth's 84 sketchbooks. Photo by Andrew Nemethy

His grid art and watercolors are harder to characterize. The acrylic paintings are a bright mix of symbolic features that reflect his affinity for Native American petroglyphs and the desert Southwest. As for his watercolors, imagine Leonardo DaVinci’s “Man,” high on dope and warped in fun house mirrors, and you get a tiny sense of his colorful style.

Thanks to a lot of shows, more Vermonters are getting to know his art. He’s currently at the Helen Day Art Center in Stowe through July, and his work will go up in September at Central Vermont Hospital’s spacious main entry gallery.

“I like showing my work,” he says, pausing for a moment, then explaining that’s it’s not about feeding an artist’s ego. “It just feels good,” he says.

As someone who finds his muse and makes a living in rural isolation, he admits the creative life is not always easy.

“It’s challenging sometimes when it’s cold and miserable and there’s no work…” he says, his voice trailing off. But like his fellow cartoonists, he appreciates being able “to do our own thing.”

“I think all of us would agree we’re very fortunate to be able to do it.”

Editor’s note: An alert reader informed us that we omitted Alison Bechdel from our lineup of notable Vermont cartoonists. There are others, too, we left out including Harry Bliss.

Andrew Nemethy

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