EDITOR'S NOTE: This article originally appeared in 1996. See what Glenn's up to now at glennwolff.com.
We met in the morning at his house on Old Mission where he has recently relocated his studio. His wife, Carol Simon, was already gone and his oldest daughter Lily left soon after. Sarah, his seven year old, was just waking up. Glenn has learned a trick of cold water coffee: steep a lot of coffee in a little cold water overnight and filter it, boil some water and add it to a small amount of the concentrate: fresh tasting and hot coffee as easy as boiling water. I was highly skeptical, but it really was very good. While we were upstairs getting the coffee, his golden, Keifer the Second, enjoyed the pair of cookies I'd brought for us.
Glenn says that he started drawing at an early age, copying from his favorite comics until he discovered Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo who he found "Much cooler than comic books." In junior high and high school, Glenn said his teachers pretty much left him alone and he took art history from the college in his senior year. Upon graduation, he stayed in Traverse City, studying printmaking at Northwestern Michigan College. "It was perfect for me there. Here was this brand new facility that was open to me at any time."
Glenn credits Jack Ozegovic, the head of NMC's printmaking department, for becoming a mentor to him. "Jack was the guy who took me under his wing in the first few years of college. I studied etching and lithography."
From tiny NMC, Glenn transferred to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. "It was quite a transition for me, very structured. You had to sign up for studio time." In the pursuit of his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, he fell away from printmaking and became involved in performance art and found art sculpture. "Two teachers had an influece on me, Corky Marcheschi, who worked with kinetic and neon sculpture and electricity and Siah Armajani. He was Persian, a sculptor who built bridges that went to nowhere. They had dead ends on them and you'd come to the end of the hall and see an inscription from Jefferson or another great political thinker.
"The two of them were really important to me in that they got me thinking about ideas and off the medium. I was pretty obsessed with technique after NMC. I've come back to drawing, but that period was good for me."
At that time, as at this time, it was hard to make a living as an artist. Glenn accepted a job as a set designer and graphic artist for a theatre and moved to New York City. The theatre folded after a month, but Glenn remained in New York, living mostly by his wits, painting (houses) and working for a messenger service. "They'd pay us ten dollars a day," he recalls. "Out of that ten you were responsible for all your subway fare and other expenses. At the end of the week, they'd deduct those ten dollar advances from your paycheck-I think it worked out to about 50 or 100 dollars a week."
Through his years is school he had built up a solid portfolio, and through a combination of persistence, friends in the business and of course talent, he was able to land some work. In addition to the Saturday Review, the Village Voice and some other publications, Glenn managed to break into the New York Times.
Soon after, he was able to dedicate all his time to his artwork and started into books: Two of those early projects, The Field Guides to the Eastern and Western United States are still being reprinted. Glenn recalls, "We lived north of Washington Heights, not a great neighborhood. As I started making more money, we moved to a better building. Still, our car was broken into and as we were looking at schools, we just weren't finding what we wanted."
So he and Carol decided to move. Carol's family were in Minnesota and Glenn's here, and they chose Traverse City. Glenn still works for some of his New York clients today, and though it is harder to work over the distance, they keep coming back to him. He does a job for the Times about every three weeks on the average. In his portfolio, a recent NYT science section article on wolves uses his expertly rendered drawings. He says that through the years his clients have learned to allow him some freedom to interpret their wishes. "I'm not a great naturalist or fisherman, but I learn a lot from each author I work with. I seem to be gifted with the ability to hear what they're saying and find a way to convey their ideas through my work."
Glenn often uses naturalists books to help him to get the creatures he draws right. Sometimes, that isn't good enough. He referred to the example of the Times piece. "They let me into the pen at Clinch Park Zoo and I sat there for a couple of hours while Cyrus the wolf ran around."
Of course, Glenn's most well-known work is the surprisingly successful, It's Raining Frogs and Fishes, which he and area author Jerry Dennis collaborated on. "A mutual friend introduced Jerry and I and we just hit it off."
They worked up the book together and after some time and several rejections, finally sold it.
Glenn and Jerry are poised to begin the tour (regionally and nationally) for their latest work, The Bird in the Waterfall: A Natural History of Oceans, Rivers, and Lakes. When I asked him about whether or not all the work was worth it, Glenn replied that he'd probably have paid money to do it. He added, "As long as Jerry wants to keep working with me, we'll work together."
Glenn has a piece hanging in the studio in the basement of his house that is part of an interesting project. Over a huge, Niagara-like fall tumble a cascade of hundreds of barrels. "It's called Heroes," Glenn told me. "It's part of a series of pieces I'm doing-I give them to writers and they're writing stories to go with them. It's a way for me to turn the tables on them, make them be the illustrator."
Looking down the road, Glenn hopes to do a couple of things. One of them is children's books. "I recently went to New York, researching a kid's book, the backdrops for the story. I've written and rewritten it-I show it to people who know kids and they send me back to rewriting."
A project that could make Glenn Wolff a household name is one that he is working on for Macmillan. "Robert Sullivan wrote a piece for Life magazine about the mechanics of reindeer flight and really got a tremendous response from it."
Flight of the Reindeer, a tongue in cheek scholarly work on the flight of these mythic beasts, complete with Glenn's illustrations, photos of reindeer in flight, and commentary from noted scientists, is scheduled for release on Labor Day of this year.
"My desire to get back to "fine art" making has been realized this summer: I had a mixed media piece accepted into the Regional Juried Show that is currently up at the Dennos Museum through the summer. The piece is titled Moon Is Clear (an anagram of Carole Simon, my wife's name). I also had a piece accepted into the juried landscape show at the new TC Visitors Center, and a have a new piece in the wonderful group show that is up at the Tamarack Gallery in Omena. The Tamarack show's theme is Contemporary Views of Eden: Adam and Eve in America, and the drawing I have in that show is titled Forbidden Fruit and Cheese Plate. All of these are departures stylistically for me and were a great deal of fun to make."
Music has also been at the core of Glenn's life from a young age. In high school, he and John Wunsch formed what Glenn acknowledges as a "bad folk band"
Despite that beginning, Glenn stayed with music and says, "I have sort of a parallel career as a bass player. I enjoy playing music more than anything except my artwork and being a father." He has recorded with A.J. Fisher and Robin Lee Berry, plays with Janice Keegan and Ron Getz and others.
Glenn has a lot to keep him busy, but at times he seems almost unaware of it all.
"I've always been impressed with the artists around here. They live by their wits, juggle a lot of things to keep it going." He thought for a moment. "I guess I do that too: magazines, newspapers, books, the Conservancy, music-I have to do all of those things to feel complete."
He thought again, concluding, "The real challenge with any kind of art is to keep your dignity and not let all the other things you have to do overwhelm you."