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Toledo, Ohio’s Kathleen Gill-Slee is not your ordinary artist. She is also something of a puzzle-solver and a marathon runner.

An honors student in math, English and science in high school, Kathleen knew she could draw from the A’s she received in art class. But she didn’t spend every moment drawing like many would-be artists.

In fact, when she had elective classes to choose during the school year, she chose English courses! By the time Kathleen graduated from high school, she had accumulated five years of extra English courses. “I was a nerd,” she said.

Nerd or not, those classes taught Kathleen to use her mind in ways that helped make her the dedicated, unique artist she is. And she is currently a graphic designer for Hickory Farms in Maumee, Ohio–her day job. “Who else has a job where they can draw all day and get paid for it?” she said.

At the time of this interview, Kathleen had been drawing fruit. Her drawings were clearly visible in the fruit wrapping paper she created for Hickory Farms. But when Kathleen creates wrapping paper, she actually only draws a small section of what will become rolls of it. She has to discover a way to do that one section so it can be repeated without showing any seams. Sound like a puzzle to be solved? It is.

Many sketches later, after discovering a segment that will work, Kathleen sends the segment to the printer. The printer follows Kathleen’s directions to produce a high resolution scan, which is like a very good color photograph. From Kathleen’s one small piece, the printer creates one finished puzzle or huge roll of wrapping paper.

Kathleen has also used her fruit drawings for two of the eight catalogues Hickory Farms owns: Mission Orchards and Pinnacle Orchards. But if you look at the catalogues, you will not see drawings at all. Where is Kathleen’s work? It’s another kind of puzzle.

“I brainstorm with the catalogue manager,” Kathleen explained. From the ideas, Kathleen draws exact sketches to serve as master plans for all the pages and photographs that will be used in the catalogue.

From Kathleen’s drawings, displays are set up for a photo shoot. A local or agency photographer shoots the photographs. Then Kathleen goes to the printer for what is called a “press check,” to make sure the colors come out correctly. After that, the photographs are put into the catalogue, taking the place of Kathleen’s drawings.

“Sometimes, a catalogue has to be designed right at the photo shoot,” Kathleen said. “I play around with props.” Props is short for properties, or pieces that might be used in the photographic puzzles that make up each page of a catalogue: candies, flowers, nuts, bowls, etc.

“There is always something different to work on,” Kathleen admitted. “I once did a scale model of a kiosk (a little booth or stand) and the boxes that went on it. I created 400 boxes in miniature.”

Kathleen makes signs, mailers, packaging, labels, and store display pieces. For the displays and packaging, her work is mostly three-dimensional; that is, work that takes up space in several directions. If Kathleen creates a box, she must imagine how it will look assembled. She must also be able to imagine it and draw it flat, before it is assembled, along with the slots and tabs that will hold the box together.

Kathleen often uses math skills she enjoyed in school to help her figure out how something will look. “I use a lot of math in my work,” she said. “Mostly for packaging. It’s mainly geometry–like the circumference of a circle, the legs of a triangle, or formulas to figure out the square inch area of something.”

Besides doing graphic design, Kathleen also creates pottery. “After graduating from Bowling Green State University in 1994, my first jobs at Office Max and Cherry Dale Farms in Cleveland were very stressful,” Kathleen said. “My brother suggested I take a community pottery class to relax.”

When Kathleen made the move to Hickory Farms, she discovered The 577 Foundation’s Pottery Barn in Perrysburg. She has been making pottery there ever since, and she never stops sleuthing for her next project.

“I was trying to figure out something to do with all the bottle shapes I had been throwing, and I came up with a pig. It just came out of my head. I don’t even know if my pigs have pig ears. They may have cat ears.” She admits that her mood at the time plays a big factor in determining the pigs’ expressions.

Since the first pig was thrown on the potter’s wheel, it has been pig heaven for Kathleen’s new nieces and nephews. They all receive ceramic piggy banks. That is, until she made a purple warthog for her brother-in-law. “The warthog has a Mohawk and several piercings,” Kathleen said.

Hickory Farms once asked Kathleen to use her pottery skills on the job. She developed pieces for miniature ceramic farms that could serve as gifts. Want to ask Kathleen some questions about being a graphic designer, potter and puzzle solver? Leave your questions as a comment and we’ll see what happens!