"I'm really connected to my childhood. I had a very positive childhood. I have a lot of toys from when I was a child and I still collect toys. Every time the mood strikes, I buy an action figure. It's one of those guilty pleasures. I surround myself with them. I'm very inspired by color and that nostalgia of having old toys. Illustration is such a whimsical thing.
"I started working for the state five years ago. When I decided to get married and have a child, I needed some job security to support them. You have to pay the bills.
"I work for the Division of Culture and History as the director of arts, which is probably as far away from illustration as you can get. I'm an arts administrator, a paper pusher. I'm over the arts section with seven employees. I administer grants. If you look across the country, West Virginia ranks in the top 10 in arts funding. That's my job. We find money and fund arts.
"I had a math teacher at Capital tell my mom, 'If Jeff thinks he's going to make a career in the arts, he's crazy.' I would love to send her my letterhead now, but that would be arrogant.
"I make time to satisfy my love for illustration. I stay up late and get up early on weekends. I do a lot of commissioned portraits for people as Christmas gifts.
"For a while, I carried three or four clients. I had a law firm I worked with closely for a number of years. Every quarter, we would do a different lawyer who had made significant contributions to the practice of law.
"I always do caricatures. It's very exaggerated. I've always seen things in a skewed view, so for me, that's realism. I can do realism, but I love to exaggerate. If you are going to do realism, take a picture. I admire it, but it doesn't interest me personally.
"I like to call my style exaggerated realism, not quite caricature and not quite realism. I like to push and pull things just a bit. Caricature is another word for cartoon, so it works out.
"I market myself as an illustrator. When someone has a story or an idea, I want to give an image to it. In social situations, when I hear a story, I think, 'Wow, that would be a cool illustration.' That's how some of my paintings come to be.
"I have 14 or 15 children's books I would love to do, but they're sitting on the back burner, books I've written and manuscripts people have sent me. It's just not a very lucrative business.
"I try to draw as much as possible. Drawing is second nature to me. I have stacks and stacks of sketchbooks. In a restaurant, I would turn the placemat around and draw on it. Some of my best drawings in high school were on my math papers.
"I want to stay in West Virginia as long as I can. It's tough because money is always an issue, getting a salary for what I do. As an arts administrator, it seems to be working, kind of.
"I'm the most peaceful in this room working on paintings. I would love to do illustration all day and make money at it. That would be my dream, to be a full-time illustrator, magazines, children's books, whatever. If I were to push myself, I probably could, but it's not steady. It's flooding or drought. So it's scary to try to make it work.
"My Uncle Roger died in '96. My uncle had contracted the AIDS virus. He lived a very eccentric life, and in the '70s and '80s, he did a lot of drugs and was promiscuous. And contracted AIDS.
"He was an educator. He thought he could help people understand the disease and prevent people from getting it. He was very instrumental in creating educational programs. He held candlelight vigils. He fought and fought to get programs for people living with AIDS.
"I submitted his nomination for World AIDS Day, and he won the award this year. I would not be doing what I'm doing without my Uncle Roger's inspiration. It is with me every single day."
Reach Sandy Wells at san...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.