History Made Bright

Illustrator David Geister paints light on times past

In the early 1960s, the publishers of Golden Books commissioned historical artist Alton Tobey to paint more than 350 paintings for The Golden Book History of the United States, a 12-volume set that begins with the discovery of North America and ends with the onset of the Space Age.

For a young child named David Geister, the dynamic illustrations bursting from the pages told the story best, igniting a lifelong love of art and history—with a special appreciation for the American Civil War.

That appreciation has led David to collaborate with his wife, Pat Bauer, a sixth-grade history teacher, on an illustrated children’s book called B is for Battle Cry. David is currently composing 26 illustrations for the book, one for each letter of the alphabet. As the writer in the family, Pat is supplying the text.

“The Civil War is a perfect mix of tragedy and drama,” David said. “The conflict ended slavery and prepared the way for the civil rights movement.”

Some might wonder if the Civil War presents subject matter too traumatic for a book designed for small children. After all, the four-year conflict, one of the most brutal in human history, took the lives of 620,000 combatants with another 400,000 wounded.

For the adult David Geister, that question is muted by the intense desire to convey the stories of human beings whose lives were irrevocably altered by the war.

“Everything I do has to tell a story,” he said. “Through my illustrations, I aim for children to discover the wonder of history.”

David attended DCTC in the early 1980s. He took visual merchandising and display classes, which were once offerings in the Visual Communications department. He continued to advance his artistic talent as a graphic illustrator in the U.S. Marine Corps, including a deployment in Okinawa, where he worked with Japanese illustrators.

Combining his love of art, history and storytelling, he and his wife worked at Historic Fort Snelling as costumed historical interpreters. David’s experience at Minnesota’s first National Historical Landmark guided him to the title role in the award-winningPBS documentary, Seth Eastman: Painting the Dakota.

Today, David is an exceptionally successful historical artist and children’s book illustrator. His paintings have been featured in The History Channel MagazineThe Saturday Evening Post and The Military Collector & Historian.

Published by Sleeping Bear Press in Chelsea, Mich., his children’s books include The Legend of MinnesotaThe Voyageur’s PaddleThe Legend of Wisconsin and Riding to Washington, the latter depicting Dr. Martin Luther King‘s 1963 march on the national capital.

“You can’t afford to be unfamiliar with computer graphics software, but at some point you have to pick up a pencil or paintbrush and get to work.”

David does all his painting in an attic studio at his Minneapolis home near Lake Nokomis. That studio, which is also a favorite hangout for his two dogs and two cats, is the place David is most in his element.

“I’m what I call a social hermit,” he said. “What I do is a solitary profession, every day just me in front of the easel, putting paint on canvas. I often have to trick myself into leaving the house.”

One of those tricks is making sure he keeps his on-hand painting materials in short supply, which forces him to visit a neighborhood-style art store near his home. He then gets the chance to check in with fellow artists and catch up with friends.

“Hey, you get a little lonely sometimes,” said David, who occasionally pulls overnighters to meet deadlines. “That’s why I often paint with the TV on. I’ll put in a period appropriate movie like Glory or Gettysburg and let the dialogue, music and drama carry me along.”

Because David needs strict control over his work, he chooses to paint with oil, a naturally forgiving medium. “The beauty of working with oils is that I can always modify a work in progress,” he said. “In fact, I can go on working on any of my paintings until the day I die.”

David doesn’t have a magic formula for student artists searching for their place in applied visual arts, but he does have some important advice.

“Obviously, you have to have some degree of innate talent,” he said, “but perseverance is a big thing. Teachers and instructors augment the process and give you guidance, but once you leave that school environment, it’s up to you to do something with your talent.”

Gwen Partin (center above), the primary instructor in DCTC’s Applied Visual Artsprogram, has more than 20 years of experience as a professional visual artist. She met David, who was recognized as the DCTC Alumnus of the Year for 2007–2008, through his niece, Kelly Geister , one of her more gifted pupils.

“David serves on the VCOM advisory committee and has spoken to my class several times,” Gwen said. “He knows what it takes to succeed in our field.”

Gwen pointed out that her graduates can go virtually anywhere with their talent and training. “There are so many possibilities,” she said. “They can take the graphic design route, market their own work, become muralists or fine artists, or make their way as freelance or commercial illustrators.”

She noted that her best students are in love with making art. “If they could say one thing about life as a visual artist, it would be, ‘I can’t imagine another direction for myself.'”

David Geister would be the first to echo that statement. He would also be the first to tell upcoming visual artists to do their homework when creating a piece, which means conducting all the crucial preparatory steps, including thumbnail sketches and, in his case, extensive research.

“Artists have been working this way for countless generations,” he said. “For me that means taking hundreds of digital photos of people in period costume for conversion into preliminary sketches. Family members, friends and acquaintances volunteer to be models for my paintings with my wife serving as my casting director.”

David is also quick to emphasize how computers have become a driving force for the modern illustrator. “You can’t afford to be unfamiliar with computer graphics software,” he said, “but at some point you have to pick up a pencil or paintbrush and get to work.”

B is for Battle Cry will hit bookstores in March 2009, prompting David and Pat to switch gears and go on tour, including a promotional trip to Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

David already has a number of new projects in the works—with an alphabet book about the mighty Mississippi River topping the list. In the meantime, he does his utmost to paint stories that capture the wonder he felt touching history for the first time as a child.

Applied Visual Arts

Few careers are as exciting or open to creative expression as applied visual arts. Our program guides student to develop their artistic talent through design principles, creative problem solving, concept design, illustration, layout, color, typography, advertising and signage. Our graduates possess highly marketable skills in drawing, painting, collage, computer graphics and other areas of artistic endeavor.

  • The go-to place for education and employment info in Minnesota, iseek.org reports that fine artists, including painters, sculptors and illustrators, in the seven-county metro area earn an average wage of $22.53/hour. Top earners make more than $36/hour.
  • According to salary.com, painters and illustrators in the U.S. make an average annual salary of $36,761. Earners in the 75th percentile make more than $43,200/year.