CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's a grownup's fantasyland, a colorful, magical place brimming with tiny dolls, statues, action figures and other playthings. Surrounded by these childlike collectibles, Jeff Pierson finds both peace and stimulation for his artistry.
Known for his distinctive fantasy drawings, a style he calls "exaggerated realism," he would love to sit there in his home-based studio and eke it out as a full-time illustrator.
So much for the dream. In the real world, he values his position as director of arts for the state Department of Culture and History. It pays the bills.
Apparently, his day job benefits from the same intensity he brings to after-hours artwork. West Virginia ranks among the top 10 states in arts funding, he reported proudly.
"I grew up in Charleston on Newhouse Drive. We later moved to a place in Elk Hills toward Elkview. My parents always, always encouraged me to draw. My dad is an engineer and incredible at woodworking. So he's creative in that sense.
"My extended family is very creative. Everybody in the family says I got my creative juices from my uncle, Roger Cain, my mom's little brother. Every weekend, I would go to his house, and we would draw and draw and draw.
"Even when I was very small, I would draw these little angels. Some were smoking pipes and some were just flying around. I still have those drawings.
"We were getting art in school. I went to Shoals Elementary and Roosevelt Junior High and Capital High. At Shoals, we had art classes, but it was nothing compared to having the hands-on, one-on-one experience with my uncle showing me how to draw.
"In grade school, I remember getting in trouble for the first time when the teacher called my mom and told her they had a problem with me. I wouldn't color in the coloring books. I had a moral dilemma at age 5 that if I didn't do the drawing, I didn't want to color it.
"In math class, I drew. In science class, I drew. That's just what I did. I was driven to be an artist. Originally, I wanted to be an animator for Disney. I would watch Disney movies and old cartoons. I studied how the cartoon was made.
"When we were able to get VCRs later, I would pause them and watch frame by frame and see how things would move. I was fascinated by that process of animation.
"I went to Columbus College of Art and Design, the place to go for animation, and actually did an internship with Disney. About the same time, I met Chris Payne, C.F. Payne, a guy coming in to teach illustration at the college.
"He turned me to illustration. The definition of illustration is illuminating the written word. Animation class was incredibly difficult. You draw and draw and draw just to get a couple seconds of film. With illustration, you draw once and you are done.
"DaVinci and Michelangelo were illustrators. The illustration masters would spend months on painting, and I wasn't into painting. Chris taught me a quick painting style, and I started loving illustration and made that turn.
"After college, I stayed in Columbus about a year. I worked at the library and did freelance illustration. I wanted to come home. I'm a family guy. We've always been very close family. And I just wanted to get home to the mountains. I love West Virginia, the pace of it.
"A friend was trying to talk me into coming to Brooklyn. He said if I was going to be an illustrator, I needed to be in New York. I thought, well, I can do it by Fed Ex.
"I found some local gigs, like illustrations for the Gazette, things that kept me going. All I ever wanted was just enough to make it. I have no interest in wealth and material things other than toys. I love toys.