Benjamin Hummel Talks about Working as an Illustrator and Living with Chronic Illness

From a young age, RMCAD adjunct faculty member Benjamin Hummel had an interest in art and storytelling. He created an ongoing cartoon strip throughout elementary school, enrolled in multiple art classes, and started entering and winning art contests. By fourth grade, he was even selling his own work.

“My mother noticed that I had an aptitude for art, so she did the unfortunate thing of encouraging me to keep going,” Hummel said jokingly.

As a child, Hummel also dealt with serious health issues. He was born with ulcerative colitis and primary sclerosing cholangitis, both chronic illnesses that can cause severe complications throughout one’s life.

While he says his health has certainly been an obstacle at times, it has also informed and influenced his path as an artist in a big way, sometimes directly, and others times by coincidence.

One such coincidence led to Hummel’s first realization that he could make a living doing the work he loved. When he was 14, the Make-a-Wish Foundation granted him a trip to Disney World, where he got the opportunity to go behind the scenes and meet professional animators.

“I was really drawn to it,” he said. “It was the point where I decided I could make art a career.”

Hummel enrolled at RMCAD in 1995 and completed his degree in 1999. He was ready to take on the real world, but soon after graduation, he was hospitalized due to complications from his conditions.

“It was literally two weeks later that I was in the ICU fighting for my life,” he said.

At this point, Hummel had to reckon with the fact that his childhood dream of working for a major animation studio probably wouldn’t happen. He needed a career path that allowed him to take care of his health. But he doesn’t consider this an opportunity lost. Rather, he believes it led him on the right path to where he needed to be.

Hummel worked full-time jobs for about three years, and said he was lucky to find bosses who understood his health needs and granted him the flexibility to take time off when he experienced flare-ups.

After that, Hummel decided to change things up. He leaned into his freelance work, launched some projects of his own, and returned to RMCAD as an adjunct faculty member, first as a Foundations Instructor, and now as a member of the Illustration Department.

His decision to return to RMCAD was largely based on the feeling of community he had experienced as a student.

“We just had a great rapport among students and such a good relationship with the instructors,” he said.

Outside of teaching, Hummel has done illustration work for multiple children’s books and publications. He’s also known for his 3-D chalk art, and has been a featured artist at festivals across the country.

Hummel most recently did illustration work for Lights On! which tells the story of Ike Hoover, a public servant who brought electricity to the White House. The book, written by Cynthia Becker, was published in October, 2017.

“I spent a year and a half on it and had to do a lot of research on what Washington D.C. was like in the 1890s,” Hummel said. “It was a lot of fun and really challenging.”

In addition to pursuing professional projects, Hummel keeps busy drawing sketches daily, which he often posts on Instagram. The social platform has allowed him another way to share candidly about living with chronic illness, utilizing the hashtag #autoimmunediseasessuck on days where he posts work he created while having a bad health day.

“I started to gain a following of other people with chronic autoimmune issues who have come forward saying, ‘I’ve been silent about this, and you gave me the courage to be who I am,’” he said. “That really humbled me and really touched me dearly.”

Hummel feels strongly about being open about his conditions for this reason. While he doesn’t let it define him or his work, it is part of his life, and no one should feel like they have to hide it.

“We go through our day-to-day lives seeing people’s faces and we don’t know their backstories,” he said. “Everyone has issues they’re dealing with, and when we see just a bunch of shiny, happy faces, we assume that we’re the only ones suffering—and that can be a bad place to be. When we open up, we discover that we are a world of people who have these issues. If we come together and we lean on each other to get through the hard times, it just makes life easier.”