Graphic artist and UMSL alumnus Marco Cheatham designs his future

by | Jul 17, 2023

The freelance graphic artist has a client list that includes Google, YouTube and Amazon, and he recently designed a souvenir miniature soccer ball for St. Louis CITY SC.
Young Black man, casually dressed, wearing glasses, sits in front of a computer screen next to a soccer ball that features different characters.

Marco Cheatham discovered his artistic talent very early in life and later, realizing he could develop a career as a graphic artist, studied at UMSL. (Photo by Derik Holtmann)

Marco Cheatham’s local library held a competition that asked patrons to contribute designs for the library card. His mother entered his drawing, and it won.

He was 4 years old. That’s when they first knew that Cheatham had a strong creative side.

Fast-forward to today and the University of Missouri–St. Louis alumnus is now a freelance graphic artist with a client list that includes Google, YouTube and Amazon. Recently, Cheatham designed a souvenir miniature soccer ball given to fans at St. Louis CITY SC’s match against the LA Galaxy and featuring his whimsical and humorous style.

With encouragement from his mother after the library competition, the Fort Leonard Wood native continued drawing and exploring his creativity throughout grade school and high school. He took college level graphic design courses in his last two years of high school, which spurred his interest in the field. He began thinking about art as a career.

“I took graphic design a little bit in high school, which let me know that I kind of like this realm – the digital aspect of things as well,” Cheatham said. “That’s where school came in, and I just figured out my major because of taking those classes in school.”

When Cheatham was ready for college, he surveyed several universities and heard UMSL had a stellar graphic design program. That narrowed down his choice. His experience with his high school classes made him want to learn more about animation, and UMSL, at the time, was the only school in the area that offered it in the curriculum.

In addition to learning about animation, the rounded-out curriculum helped Cheatham develop his comical style and professional work as he earned his BFA in graphic design.

“I think a lot of my stuff leans towards playfulness,” he said. “Definitely color is something I work with a lot. I like bright colors and things like that. I try to capture a narrative within, even if it’s a still. Animation helped to give me a perspective of how to make a static image feel like it’s something beyond that, where there’s movement to it. Simplicity and shapes and stuff like that, trying to get to the core of whatever I’m doing in a simple form and easy to digest – those are things I feel like are pretty much throughout most everything I do. A lot of this stuff is character motivated, usually exaggerated characters and stuff like that.”

Cheatham’s approach to his art was demonstrated in his illustrations for the St. Louis CITY SC soccer ball, in which he created individual figures, each with their own narrative.

Along with the skills Cheatham learned at UMSL, guidance and support from faculty were critical in Cheatham’s success.

The artist moved into freelancing when he left his agency job for another opportunity. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the company was no longer hiring, so Cheatham was put in a position to work for himself. Fortunately, things have worked in his favor.

“When the pandemic happened there was a lot less video and stuff being done,” he said. “So a lot of animation work and illustration work was being done. I think that’s what helped my career take off. There was just a lot of influx of work.”

Jennifer McKnight, a professor in the Department of Art and Design, taught the artist and pushed him to learn animation, a skill that’s helped him stand out in his career.

“It was such a pleasure teaching Marco,” McKnight said. “It was clear from the very first time I saw his work that he was an ambitious and talented designer and animator. He inspired his classmates to work harder and strive for excellence, and he even arranged several very memorable events and lectures through AIGA, the national professional organization for graphic designers. Marco has also been extremely generous about giving back to his UMSL community. Last year he came to speak to my animation class about his career path illustrating for animation. It’s been an honor to know Marco and a pleasure to watch him grow into a confident and successful graphic design powerhouse.”

McKnight also noted Cheatham’s interest in innovative techniques.

“When I had him in motion design, he was researching advanced techniques the program didn’t know how to do yet,” she said. “He was always generous about sharing his research in class demonstrations.”

Though Cheatham has done well as a freelancer and is grateful to be able to make an independent living from his art, it can feel isolating to be one of the few people of color in animation. Whether it’s due to lack of exposure to the field, knowing that illustration and animation is a valid career path or not having the resources to gain the skill, Cheatham has noticed the lack of diversity in his field.

“I worked on a piece not too long ago with a group of people for Juneteenth,” he said. “It was the first time I’ve ever worked with anybody else that was diverse – Black people. And it was the same for everyone else that was on the team.”

But Cheatham hopes this will change and has seen progress from some agencies that are committing to offer opportunities to a more diverse group of artists.

As he ponders his professional future, continuing to work with studios is a big appeal for Cheatham, but he’s very excited about doing more commissioned work, such as the St. Louis CITY SC soccer ball, as it offers more creative freedom.

Cheatham credits the art program at UMSL for not only teaching him the skills he needed to become a graphic designer but also what it takes to be a professional in that space.

“There’s knowledgeable people there,” Cheatham said. “I think the programs were really trying to cater to what you wanted to do. The professors really cared about students’ futures, making sure that you’re prepared to go and get a ‘big person job.’ That was the benefit for me.”

Wendy Todd

Wendy Todd

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