Denison University’s 178th Commencement took place on Saturday, May 18. Watch the ceremony in its entirety including commencement keynote speaker Jennifer Garner ’94.
It’s usually the flawless makeup she applies to the faces of brides and models that garners attention for 2010 alumna Torie Conn, an in-demand Chicago-based professional makeup artist. But now, Conn’s artistic work is turning heads for a different reason: she’s illustrated the popular book Twinkle, Twinkle, Social Media Star: An Internet Fairytale of Fame, Fortune & Followers.
Part parody, part social commentary, the book borrows from the classic fairy tale genre to explore our cultural obsession with social media. The premise? A mama bear tucks in her baby at night, and instead of a traditional story, scrolls through her phone in an attempt to explain the world of internet fame to her baby bear.
From @LittleBoPeep’s crowdfunding campaign for her lost sheep to @HumptyDumpty’s #EPICFAIL falling-off-wall vlogs, this poem for adults offers something for every social media fan — or critic.
Conn’s illustrations add a playful dimension to Kate Kennedy’s writing. “There’s a whimsical aesthetic that lends itself to a children’s story, but my work innately has a bit of darkness to it,” says Conn. “When Kate approached me with this idea, it was pretty easy for me to visualize what it would look like. It was fun to think about what Little Red Riding Hood would look like as an Instagram influencer with a fashion editorial sense about her.”
The project also pushed Conn, a studio art major, to expand her digital capabilities. “In the past couple years I’ve focused on ink and watercolor illustration, done by hand. It was an exciting experience to rework my style and adapt to a digital format. I had to learn on the fly. It’s amazing what you can do with an iPad.”
And while book illustrations may not have been on her radar specifically — Kennedy invited Conn to collaborate on the project after the two met at a Chicago networking event — it actually aligns perfectly with the artistic trajectory Conn has been building since high school. “I realized that all I wanted to do was be an artist in high school,” says Conn, who went on to take classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Pratt Institute of Brooklyn, New York.
“I would balance my time between the studio where I would work on my paintings and the theatre. I spent a lot of time running around using my hands.”
Denison, though a vastly different setting from her home city of Chicago, ended up being the ideal place for her to grow as an artist. “Campus was breathtaking, and I fell in love with the Bryant Arts Center that was renovated while I was there. It was an incredible place, just filled with artistic spirit.”
In addition to her studio art work, she began doing makeup and design for Denison’s theatrical performances. Recalls Conn, “I would balance my time between the studio where I would work on my paintings and the theatre. I spent a lot of time running around using my hands.”
“Tori was a real asset to the Studio Art Program while at Denison- both as an invested art student and a community member who understood the potential for art to affect change,” says Associate Professor Ron Abram. “All of us studio art faculty were consistently impressed with her tenacity in any endeavor she sought out, and her ability to be a catalyst for others in the program. She took risks in the artwork she made, and she truly represented what it means to be a tactile artist — working in a range of mediums and seeking out themes and ideas of social relevance for her work. We’re all proud to see her continue her trajectory as an artist with the recent publication of her illustrations.”
Her father, Roe Conn ’86, talk show host and a top-rated Chicago radio personality, believes that Denison played an important role in her success. “Denison encourages you to find what you’re really best at and puts people around you to develop those skills. The whole-student approach at Denison was incredibly helpful to me as a student, and I knew that when Torie got there they would be able to elicit from her as a human — not just as a student — what she was best at.”
For Conn, that will always mean art. She’s already on to her next artistic venture, having recently launched Victory Paper Company — including a greeting card line showcasing her watercolor and ink style of illustrating. And given the success of Twinkle, Twinkle, Social Media Star, will there be more books in her future?
“Kate and I have talked about it and when the time comes, we’d love to do something together again,” says Conn. “I would love to continue to work in this style and with publications. It’s a pretty incredible opportunity for an artist.”