The art of caricaturing requires talent, agility, creativity and a sense of humor, and when it comes to caricaturing in the Twin Cities, Brooklyn Park caricaturist Erik Roadfeldt is one of the best. The talented artist learned the whimsical art form from his grandmother and makes caricaturing his business. Learn more about the artist behind the beard and what caricaturing is all about.
Drawing From the Start
Erik is easy to pick out in a crowd. His interesting style sets him apart from most everyone else with his classic suspenders, button-up short-sleeved shirt, bowtie, and color-coordinated Chuck’s, round retro glasses, a generous bushy red beard and a flat cap on top of his noggin. He is a fun and distinctive person, which appropriately mirrors his fun and distinctive job as a professional caricaturist. He grew up in Northeast Minneapolis and the St. Anthony area and moved to Brooklyn Park in 2006. He liked drawing and sketching as a child and learned techniques from his grandmother, Sylvia. She worked as a portrait artist, sometimes even doing pet portraits, and spent summers as a caricaturist at Valleyfair, back when there were no digital or air-brush options – just old-fashioned pencil on paper.
Sylvia was often hired to do caricatures for company picnics, retirements and other private parties. The busiest time of the year usually came during the first week of June when high schools hosted all-night parties for their graduating seniors. Bringing in a caricaturist for the evening has been and continues to be a popular option for schools, and Sylvia enjoyed doing it. As summer approached in the year 2000, caricaturists were in high demand and she suggested Erik take a shot at working one of the high school over-nights. He had learned much from her already and was open to giving it a try. That year, Sylvia’s agent booked three over-nights for Erik and he got his first taste of the artform.
Erik worked over-night high school parties five years in a row, but that was his extent of caricaturing. While he appreciated making extra money, he didn’t want to pursue art as a course of study or as a full-time career. His parents encouraged him to enroll in art school, but he admits he didn’t believe there was stability in being an artist and there certainly wasn’t a degree in caricaturing available. More importantly, since art was a creative escape that brought him joy, he says he didn’t want to ruin it by turning it into a job. Instead, Erik studied chemical engineering and math at the University of Minnesota.
As time went on, Sylvia began cutting back her hours and when her services were requested, she increasingly passed them on to her grandson. He benefitted from her network and started booking gigs, though he continued to work various jobs after college including working at a law firm as a “skip tracker,” which is someone who tracks down people who haven’t paid their bills, and a lab technician – neither of which was very inspiring to him. Erik’s superiors learned he had an interest in art and subsequently trained him to be a graphic technician. Through the training, Erik was introduced to graphic design and found a new type of art to dive into. He began taking on small graphic design jobs, but most involved laying out technical manuals and labels, so he decided to go back to school and get another degree – this time in graphic arts.
Erik met his wife Kelsey through his best friend and in 2008 they welcomed their first son, Culler (yes, as in color!). While playing the role of stay-at-home-dad, Erik did freelance graphic design, and the flexibility it brought to a hectic parenting and class schedule helped him finish his second degree in 2009. By then, Erik had built a bit of a business doing a mix of graphic work and caricaturing. If you asked him at the time, he says he would have described himself as a designer/illustrator/caricaturist – doing a little of everything.
It was 2015, and the last few years had been packed with various art gigs and projects, and Erik and Kelsey had added a second son, Oliver, to the family. A big change was brewing. Erik had worked with his grandmother’s agent for many years, and he decided to test the waters to see what else was out there. Not knowing what to expect, he came upon many agents who specifically booked gigs for all sorts of entertainers and artists that you might see at a festival or carnival: caricaturists, face-painters, henna artists, clowns, balloon animal-makers, stilt-walkers and more. He found a new agent that he worked well with and started booking even more jobs. Eventually he began identifying as a professional caricaturist and sometimes-graphic designer.
As Erik made connections with other artists who worked at Mall of America and Valleyfair, they encouraged him to become a member of the International Society of Caricature Artists (ISCA), a non-profit trade organization dedicated to the art of caricature. ISCA promotes caricature art to the public and media and provides its members with helpful information about the artform and its role as a profession. Made up of about 500 artists from throughout the world, ISCA is a small but fiercely supportive community and continues to grow. Erik attended his first ISCA convention (ISCACON) in Sandusky, Ohio, in 2015 and it changed his life. "Before 2014, I was a sometimes caricature artist and it was a hobby that I loved and it brought in some extra cash," Erik explains. "Then I went to a convention and it became my passion."
Erik’s first ISCACON was truly an eye-opening experience and he was so energized afterwards that he stopped doing graphic design altogether to focus on caricaturing. He met fellow artists with the same interests, learned new styles of caricaturing and gained insight on running a business. “Everyone there is weird like me,” he says. “I don't tend to fit in most places, and although we're all weird in different ways, we're all weird together, sharing our love of drawing people silly.”
Every year the convention kicks off with an Art Fight, an energized drawing competition between two artists where the winner is chosen by applause. Then there is Caricature 101, a ballroom space open 24-hours for several days where artists practice, practice, practice and practice some more. And ISCACON is not only for caricaturists – painters attend and work on watercolors or acrylics, as well as magazine illustrators. Every artist is guaranteed two feet of wall space to hang up the caricatures, sketches and art they create throughout the convention. By the last day, the walls of the ballroom are completely covered with an astounding variety of art pieces. “It's absolutely incredible, the best art display you'll ever see,” Erik says.
Awards are given in categories like funniest drawing, best color caricature, best black & white caricature, best body positioning, best drawing and the big prize is the Best Artist award. You may wonder, what does a winner receive at a convention for caricaturists? A Golden Nosey Award – quite literally a statue of a giant golden nose! When asked why, Erik laughs and explains that the nose is the facial feature people want changed or minimized the most when having a caricature done, so it makes comical sense to have a statue of the signature facial feature be the prize.
ISCACON gives Erik a chance to re-ignite his passion each year by learning from others and exploring new styles of caricaturing he wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to try out. “For most of us in the live caricature world, we spend most of the year drawing quick, simple sketches, always trying to find that balance of pleasing the customer and pushing ourselves artistically,” Erik explains, “but for this one week we get to go crazy and push the boundaries of caricature as far as we can go. I love it so much. It’s my happy place.”
The Art of Caricaturing
Drawing faces never gets old, and the bearded artists sees each person as a new challenge before him, much like the kind of math and engineering work he did in college. “It’s like problem-solving,” he says. “Someone sits down in front of me and I have a problem to solve.” Working as a caricaturist also takes the guessing-game out of what to work on next. “I always have trouble figuring out what to draw, and with this job, I don’t have to decide or think about it,” he says.
But how exactly does a caricaturist get started when a person sits in front of them with a look of hopeful expectation? “Start with the eyes,” Erik says, and from there you work outwards to the nose and mouth, followed by the chin and forehead, shading, then the shape of the head, topped off with hair. Some caricaturists do a quick sketch first but Erik prefers to dive right in and says it’s impossible to tell what a person’s reaction will be to their goofy portrait. Many people howl with laughter when they see the finished product, but sometimes the subject will want changes.
When asked what kind of changes, he says people generally don’t want their flaws highlighted, whether that means bags under the eyes, the presence of a double chin, ears that stick out, or, of course, anything about the nose. Whatever a person’s insecurity is, it’s natural to want to minimize it. But Erik explains that it’s the unique qualities that make us different and make people fun to draw. If he doesn’t include the features that stand out about a person, then the drawing doesn’t look like them. Everyone gets a little nervous to see their caricature, but it’s important to have a sense of humor about it. “We’re not trying to make fun of you,” Erik says. “We just pick out the things that make you and exaggerate them.”
Erik’s favorite part of the caricature process is the big reveal and the reaction from the subject. “When I finish a drawing that I feel really good about, it's silly, it's cute, and then I turn it around to show the subjects, when they bust out laughing and fall over silly, it's just the best feeling ever,” Erik says with a smile.
Erik puts his heart into his work every day, but perhaps no more so than when he does “caricatures for a cause,” a new venture he has tried out and met with much success. He provides his caricaturing services for a school or business raising money for a specific charity, and at the end of his shift, he donates a percentage of his revenue back to the cause. He recently drew caricatures in a local Costco for several hours for the Children’s Miracle Network and donated revenue directly to the organization. It’s a fantastic way to give back to the community and support the causes they champion.
Apart from live caricaturing, Erik works on commissioned pieces, which are often more detailed and can include many subjects on one large sheet of paper, which makes them ideal for gifts. He often gets commissioned work for retirees, as it’s a fun and unique way for a company to honor an employee who will be missed. Coworkers send photos of the subject to Erik and tell him about the person: do they have a hobby like gardening, reading or biking; do they have a pet; what is their favorite food, drink or color; do they have a nickname or is there an inside joke he can work into the drawing. Erik combines everything he learns about the subject and creates a custom caricature that reflects not only the subject’s physical appearance, but their personality and interests, as well.
Working the private circuit is another fun aspect of his caricaturing career. Much like the high schools that hire him for over-nights, companies hire the Brooklyn Park artist to caricature during a holiday or retirement party and churn out 8-12 drawings an hour. Because the caricatures are free for the subjects, the pressure lightens up and he feels more freedom to put people in goofy poses or use odd shapes in the facial features. One of the coolest recent gigs Erik worked was the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl after-party in Minneapolis. The team had just clinched the championship and were partying all night while Erik and two other artists drew caricatures of the players and their family and friends until dawn.
Most of the time you can find Erik caricaturing at events, festivals and booths at Valleyfair and Nickelodeon Universe in Mall of America, where he works among rides, rollercoasters and joyful shrieks and screams. You can also catch him at the Twin Cities Harvest Festival & Maze, one of Minneapolis Northwest’s most popular events of the year featuring Minnesota’s largest corn maze. He and Kelsey had taken their children to the seasonal celebration for several years when it dawned on him that perhaps the festival could use a caricaturist. He met with the festival’s owner, Bert, to discuss the idea and since then, you can spot him at the festival each year at the Twin Cities Caricatures tent, giving kids and families a creative, long-lasting memory. He also attends the Twin Cities Spring Babies Festival in April, held at the same location as the fall festival. “To know that you’ve made someone so happy with such a silly thing you can do, I love it,” Erik says, “and I will likely never stop doing caricatures because of it.”
Getting In Touch
If you want to get in touch with Erik or other caricaturists in the area, head to Twin Cities Caricatures, a site that Erik started and continues to run. There you can see examples of his work and make inquiries about availability and cost. Also head to Twin Cities Caricatures Facebook page to view fun videos of folks reacting to their caricature!
To learn about another interesting Minneapolis Northwest area artist, read up on Shawn McCann, Co-founder and Artist-in-Residence at Chalkfest at Arbor Lakes. Learn how he came to become one of the best street artists in the area.