Because of COVID-era restrictions, events like funerals, memorials—and the kinds of public gatherings that have traditionally been utilized to help people pay tribute to and collectively grieve the loss of those we’ve lost—are now unadvisable or even impermissible. As a result, we’re forced to find creative or digital ways to come together, eulogize, and pay our respects to those who leave this world.
This April myself — and other graphic design alumni of Susquehanna University — lost an incredible friend and mentor, Professor Mark Fertig. I’d like to express my sincerest condolences to his wife, children, and closest of kin. “In lieu of flowers,” I’ve decided to dedicate the below conemagraphic self-portrait to Mark, in gratitude and remembrance of the day he changed my life forever.
*If any of his former students would like to join me in creating a self-portrait tribute to this legendary designer and teacher, I invite you to also share the story of how Mark impacted your life.
When I was 20-years-old I walked into a “Computer Arts” elective course at my liberal arts college, having literally never even heard the term “graphic design” before.
I’d identified as an artist since I was old enough to hold a writing utensil, had collected a whole shoebox full of awards and ribbons for my fine art creations, had taken an “advanced placement” art class in high school, and was even voted “most artistic” for our senior superlatives. But by the time I enrolled in college, I had effectively been talked out of pursuing art as a profession for the more practical vocation of journalist.
But my life began to take an unexpected turn that day in 2003 when I walked into Mark Fertig’s class.
After a few sessions of the “intro to commercial arts” course, I not only had a handle on what the phrase “graphic design” meant, but I also had a foundational understanding of Adobe Illustrator and a few hours of “pen tool” experience under my belt; thanks to Mark’s lectures, demonstrations, and guidance. When we received our first design assignment I couldn’t wait to put theory into action; to see what I could do with this precarious “pen tool” that budding designers seem to either love or hate.
We were asked to scan a portrait of ourselves, import the raster image into Illustrator on a locked layer, then recreate the self-portrait utilizing the virtual pen—with its “Bézier curves,” multifaceted anchor points, shortcut commands, and other high-tech bells and whistles—in order to create a digital illustration of said photograph.
Roughly 10 days and 60 hours of screen-time later, I pulled the letter-sized print of my digital self-portrait from my backpack and hung it on the wall for my first-ever design critique. As Mark passionately and patiently walked us through the nuts and bolts of the critique process and my classmates started sharing their thoughts on one another’s work, I recall sitting on the edge of my seat like a horse race gambler who’d placed an aggressive bet. Although a number of students in the class had a several-year jump start on their pen tool yielding skills, the class unanimously agreed that my portrait was the crowd favorite in the lineup. Somewhere deep inside me, I felt a tiny seed of possibility breaking through its shell.
When Mark pulled me aside after class a few days later, that little seed sprouted leaves. He’d emailed a copy of my portrait to a fellow professor who chaired an esteemed, big-city design program. “He was blown away by it, too,” he told me, his face surprisingly lit up for a man who didn’t seem to impress easily. “He called it graduate caliber work.”
“You are exceptionally good at this, Cassandra,” Mark said with a look of stern sincerity in his eyes. “I don’t make a habit of blowing smoke or telling people how to live their lives, but from where I’m standing you were born to be a designer. Think it over and let me know when you’re ready to change your major.”
Roughly 12 years later, I would come back to Susquehanna University to receive the “Outstanding Young Alumna of the Year Award” as a bona fide graphic designer with the kind of resume that could turn heads virtually anywhere in the world, having done work for companies like Pixar, Coca-Cola, Amazon, Visa, Samsung, and Google. I proudly presented my body of work and shared my best pieces of advice to Mark’s latest lot of tenacious and talented design students, and got to reconnect with one of my greatest design heroes over tea and entrées while I was in town.
Thankfully, we exchanged candid sentiments of appreciation and gratitude across those restaurant tables. I told him how much his program prepared me to step into my master’s program and the working world. That the techniques and methodologies he’d imparted over a decade before were still serving me well, each and every day I had the privilege to call myself a designer. He told me I was the kind of student he had hoped to teach when he made the transition into academia: driven, talented, humble, open to direction, and always hungry to improve.
Had I known that would be the last time I would see the man, I no doubt would have laid it on thicker.
But truth be told, Mark knew what an incredible gift he was to his students. He wore it on the corners of his mouth when he entered his classrooms. It was steeped inside the travel mugs of coffee that, like his computer mouse, felt like an extension of his hand. He hung it with pride on the walls of Cunningham Hall every award season when his protégés predictably cleaned house, just like we did when I was his neon-green rookie of the year and Mark the only design professor the university had on staff. Though he had little tolerance for laziness, halfheartedness, excuses, or bull-shit, Mark couldn’t seem to keep himself away from Cunningham Hall and arguably spent more time in the Mac lab with his students than any professor that’s crossed my path since.
Mark had many accolades as a prolific and talented designer in his own right, and he would eventually become an accomplished author to boot. But I’m pretty sure he knew that the program he spearheaded at Susquehanna was his greatest work of art. He had created a one-of-a-kind curriculum that produced droves of world-class designers on a liberal arts campus known for its business school, giving students like me — who’d heeded the advice of others in pursuing a more “practical” career path––a side entrance back into the arts.
The program was a masterpiece he tended to with diligence, passion, and ruthless honesty; as though we were finicky orchids living outside our native climate that required persistent grooming, watering, sunlight, and attention to flourish. As a result of the seeds he planted in the hearts and minds of his students—young people who were aching to call themselves “creative” for a living — the annual harvest was predictably plentiful. Multiple times a year, Mark shepherded his headliner students to collect gold foil certificates from big-city banquet halls, annihilating the competition for any awards program that would accept our applications.
After spending three years of my life in his orbit, it was clear that the man had a brilliant mind; one that could see the potential in a promising thumbnail sketch that a less experienced or less imaginative design-thinker would easily have overlooked. But more consequentially, he had an impressive talent for helping his students to see the potential in themselves; his faith and guidance propelling so many of us forward like a gale-force wind.
He wrote thoughtful letters of recommendation like it was his night job and wasn’t afraid to help each of us to identify our respective strengths and weaknesses—dishing out compliments and constructive criticism with equal amounts of frankness and heart. From where I was sitting, he managed to artfully do so without fostering a surplus of arrogance or insecurity in his mentees. Being a great designer meant committing oneself to a continuum of growth and self-evolution—he taught us in not so many words. Getting a big head or ruffled feathers about your place in some temporary pecking order would only cheapen the quality of your next design solution while making you less tolerable to be around.
He taught us how to get inspired and motivated by the exceptional work and talents of others, and never to treat our design peers like foes or enemies. He recognized that being in the presence of greatness was not a hindrance but an incredible advantage for the entire herd. He showed us how to speak our minds fearlessly and respectfully, and not to take it personally when others did the same. He showed us how to live in service to great ideas and make intentional design choices that enhanced the objectives of the project for its intended audience, instead of serving our personal whims or the preferences of an overactive ego-mind. In doing all this, Mark helped his students land prestigious jobs at companies like Under Armor, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and Pixar.
I know, with every cell in my body, that I wouldn’t be half the designer—or the person—that I am today without Mark’s guidance, mentorship, and friendship in the rearview mirror of my life story. Though the man who’s responsible for catapulting me into a lucrative, challenging, and fulfilling creative career passed away this month, his memory, his lessons, his legacy, his spirit, his two beautiful daughters, and the incredible design program he brought into the world continues on.
Cassandra’s blog articles about gender equality, chronic pain, holistic healing, and travel can be found on Medium; her musings, interviews, and methods for personal evolution and self-healing can be found on the Living BETA Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/livingbeta); her travel images and photography are on Instagram @cassandra.smolcic; and her portfolio of multi-media work can be viewed at cassandrasmolcic.com.