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Fine Arts grad internationally recognized for graphic design masterpiece

Seven hundred hours. Living and breathing his fine arts thesis seminar over a period of three months -- often working at the library until the sun rose. That's how long it took John Passafiume to create "(Process)," a 32-inch-by-40-inch print covered entirely in his meticulous hand-drawings.

It was worth the effort: since he completed the piece in November 2007, the May 2009 graduate from Indiana University's School of Fine Arts (SOFA) has won so many design awards for "(Process)," his mother had to construct a makeshift trophy shelf on her kitchen windowsill.

Passafiume says the black-and-white "(Process)" was a kind of backlash against modern design culture and pop culture in general.

"Convenience and ease of use has greatly contributed to the 'visible pollution' surrounding us, and the subtleties of the piece speak to this," he says. "The detail, complexity and meticulous presentation is intended to replicate the order of the natural world. An initial goal was to visually overwhelm the viewer."


John Passafiume's "(Process)"

Print-Quality Photo

Mission accomplished. At first glance, people usually assume that "(Process)" was set using a machine, Passafiume says. Continued inspection reveals slight imperfections, evoking reactions "at once more delicate and human." At a December 2007 SoFA Gallery exhibition of the piece, viewers studied the intricate drawings he created with a Bic 0.5 mm mechanical pencil, stepped closer, then farther away, then reached for one of the handy magnifying glasses near the exhibition to soak in the layered composition.

Among the drawings: an outstretched palm; the head of the goddess Venus from Botticelli's famous painting "The Birth of Venus"; various animal heads; phrases (included are "M119 Midterm solutions," "Buskirk Chumley Theatre" and "Looks good to me"); an image of a handicap-accessible graphic; several neckties; and letters and numerals of all shapes, sizes and types.

To help guide viewers through the experience, Passafiume created an accompanying key that breaks the print into regions (NW, NE, ME, MW, SE and SW), complete with a quartered grid bisecting these sections. "Under close inspection, they can begin to appreciate the variation and experience involved in an artistic act -- the antithesis of instant gratification," he says.

The process of creating '(Process)'

Much of Passafiume's own artistic process and life experiences during the creation of "(Process)" ended up in the piece, which he completed during the 2007 fall semester at IU. For 90 days starting in September, he went to work with a mechanical pencil and paper at the Cook Music Library. When his post on the third floor shut down at 11 p.m., he migrated to the Herman B Wells Library stacks, what he calls "a thriving haven for late-night drifters, thinkers and procrastinators."

"This all culminated in a grueling 36-hour marathon at Wells library, racing against the clock to finish against tight deadlines," he said. By about 10 a.m. the day he was ready to print, the UITS library workers who had come to know Passafiume by name crowded around to see the finished product, as did a flock of curious bystanders.

"They laid out the print on the ground behind their service station and I jumped up on the counter for a better view, much to the surprise of an on-looking crowd of students which had been gathering among the commotion," he said. "This cinematic display was a fitting conclusion to the semester!"

SOFA Professor James Reidhaar, who was on the thesis committee for "(Process)," said Passafiume's self-motivation made a project focusing on his own artistic process that much more interesting.

"He was taking time off from using the computer due to wrist trouble, and the unique imagery made by pencil became the result," said Reidhaar. "John always worked hard, and he dedicated a lot of time to refining this work over time and following many discussions."

Jenny El-Shamy, a SOFA lecturer in graphic design, worked with Passafiume in several classes throughout his undergraduate career and also served as a faculty adviser for "(Process)."

"'(Process)' was a highly unique and creative project -- like John himself," El-Shamy said. "John put a great amount of time, effort and thought into the project and the end result was superb, truly one of a kind. John is a very talented young designer."

John Passafiume

John Passafiume

The Award Tour

Passafiume's mom may want to expand the trophy shelf to a trophy room. Accolades for the piece began raining down last year, when he won "Best of Student Work" and a Gold Louie at the XXIV Louie Awards in Louisville, followed closely by a "Best of Show" at the Dallas Society of Visual Communications National Student Show (out of more than 3,000 entries), where he also received a scholarship for typography from Neenah Paper.

The next honor was a trip to New York for the 87th Art Director's Club of NY Awards, where he was the only student participant to win a "Gold Cube."

When Passafiume was selected as a finalist for the 2008 Adobe Design Achievement Awards last summer -- which draws thousands of submissions from students all around the world and is widely known as "the Oscars of the design world" -- he was flown to New York in July for a three-day weekend of studio tours and workshops with the other 30 international finalists. At an awards gala at the NYU Skirball Center in Manhattan during the trip, he won his category, Print Communications.

"(Process)" was also selected for inclusion in Print Magazine's 2009 Regional Design Annual, and Passafiume was interviewed for an editorial featuring work from the South Region. At the National American Advertising Federation Addy Awards in Atlanta, he was honored with both a "Gold Award" and "Special Judge's Award." He was recently given The 55th Type Director's Club Competition's "Citation of Typographic Excellence" and was selected as "Judge's Choice."

"(Process)" has also been featured in the most recent Art Directors Annual 87 and Typography 30. The piece has been shown in galleries around the world, including China, Argentina, Ireland and Malaysia, and a design professor in Tokyo has asked for a copy of the piece to show his typography students.

'Glorification of the craft'

Passafiume officially graduated from IU this month with a tentative plan to move to New York City, Washington, D.C., or Chicago and plans to earn a master of fine arts degree one day.

Because his background is in painting and drawing, Passafiume is passionate about the use of classical techniques and technical skill in graphic design.

"In the field of graphics, and likely many other trades, the technological revolution has inadvertently swallowed entire fields of creativity," he says, adding that sign painters, calligraphers and other predominantly hand-reliant industries have been largely demolished for the sake of convenience and mass production, ushering in an era of ill-equipped practitioners and an "everyone can design" mentality.

"I am very much interested in the glorification of craft."

"(Process)" will be on display at the Type Director's Club Gallery in New York City starting July 28. For more information about John Passafiume and his work, see To view the full version of "(Process)", see