Person of the Week
Bob Vankeirsbilck: Designing Man
Those in Essex or the environs have likely seen the handiwork of graphic designer Bob Vankeirsbilck, who has worked with many local organizations. (Photo courtesy of Bob Vankeirsbilck )
When Bob Vankeirsbilck was in elementary school, he admits pronouncing his last name correctly was a challenge—”Sometimes even for me,” he says. But he had a solution for spelling it: just write Bob V. When he tried to write his whole name, he recalls the first few letters were large but then the following ones were progressively smaller so he would not run out of space on the line.
Bob, who lives in Chester, is a graphic designer who has done much work for local organizations, most recently for the Essex Land Trust’s recently published book on the osprey nests on Thatchbed Island. He graphics are also used in the current Connecticut River Museum summer exhibition, River of Dreams. The exhibit, on canoing on the Connecticut River, can be viewed when the museum opens complying with COVID-19 safety guidelines on Wednesday, June 17.
Thatchbed Island and Its Ospreys, a 48-page booklet published by the Essex Land Trust with the help of a grant from the Community Foundation of Middlesex County, tells the story of the return of ospreys, once a well-established avian predator at the mouth of the Connecticut River.
“The recovery of osprey is an environmental success story right in our backyard,” Jim Denham of the Essex Land Trust notes.
Denham assembled the photographs and worked with Bob on the project.
When he works on graphic design, Bob considers several elements: the target audience, the effectiveness of the message, and how photos and illustrations are used, but he says the most important ingredient is imagination.
“The piece should be a visual treat for the eyes,” he explains.
Bob’s company, Long Cat Graphics, is named for a now-departed pet, one that he describes as a “lunatic orange tiger cat.” Bob inherited the cat, named Monty, from a friend who say the animal was too much for him to handle. Bob and Monty got along just fine. Monty, Bob recalls, was so curious that he used to like to get his face up close to the frying pan on the stove to see what Bob was cooking.
He adds that his present cat, Morgan, is the exact opposite. At the shelter where he adopted her, he was told that when he got her home and she got out of the cat carrier, he wouldn’t see her for three or four days.
“And that’s exactly what happened,” he recalls.
Bob says that some 80 percent of Long Cat Graphics work is for local organizations. He has designed trail guides for the land trust, and, in addition to his present work for the Connecticut River Museum, he has done the informational panels that have accompanied exhibits. Among those, Bob recalls an exhibit on myths and legends of the river and another show, combining his print graphics with specially produced television clips on invasive species.
Bob has also worked extensively for the Essex Historical Society, including design for material used in the town’s 2014 commemoration of the British raid on Essex 100 years earlier. Bob enjoyed the assignment because of his fondness for history.
“I really learned a lot,” he recalls.
In addition, he recently designed a pamphlet for the Essex Library, detailing the kinds of services it provides.
Bob has also done watercolor illustrations for children’s books and he always designs and prints his own Christmas cards, some 150 to 200 of them annually.
Bob grew up in the Frog Hollow section of Hartford and, after Hartford High School, graduated from the Hartford Art School. After college, he did leave Connecticut for a few years. He thought about going to California but ended up working as a graphic designer in New York City. When the owner of the company dissolved the business, Bob decided to establish his own firm, but in Connecticut.
“I couldn’t go back to New York now. That was okay when I was younger,” he says.
He was always interested in music and as he looks back on his childhood, wishes he had taken piano lessons.
“But my parents didn’t have the money for that,” he adds.
Early on, he discovered another talent.
“When I was in 1st grade, I found out I could draw pretty well,” he says.
In college, he bought a guitar which he now describes as a “$40 balsa box.” Now he has upgraded to a Gibson, on which he plays classical music. For a while he took bagpipe lessons, practicing not on a full set of equipment but on the mouthpiece and accompanying pipe known as a changer.
“Lucky for the neighbors I never had the pipes,” he says.
He gave the bagpipe up when he found that he didn’t like playing with the reed that is part of the mouthpiece.
Bob was a part of a local fife and drum corps, the Sailing Masters of 1812 headquartered in Essex, but not as a musician for 10 years starting in 1999. He was in the color guard that marched at the head of the unit.
“It was an honor and you got such a rush when you stepped off and he flags went out,” he says.
Bob had to give up marching with the group after he injured his leg falling off a ladder and walking became painful.
One of the responsibilities of all the members of the fife and drum corps was keeping the uniforms in top condition for parades. The dark coats, he recalls, always had to be brushed clean because they picked up everything from dust and dirt to animal hair.
“We always said you could tell what kind of a pet people had by looking at the back of their jackets,” Bob recalls.
For more information on the Essex Land Trust and ordering or downloading the Thatchbed Island pamphlet, visit essexlandtrust.org. For more information on upcoming activities at the Connecticut River Museum, visit ctrivermuseum.org.