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Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Carroll High School graduate Dillon Olney has illustrated a children’s book.

From kid cartoonist to kids’ book artist

Carroll High graduate studying sculpture at IU

The book Olney illustrated is “Rose and Rabbit Go to the Fair” by Wanda Howell. It is available now.

As Dillon Olney sat in his driver’s education class, he doodled. He always doodled – it helped him concentrate.

But to the instructor, it appeared as if Dillon wasn’t paying attention, so he did what many teachers do to call out a student who’s zoning out: He asked Dillon, “What did I just say?”

Dillon repeated back his last few lines, verbatim.

The now 20-year-old Indiana University student’s past is riddled with stories like that. There were the countless nights he couldn’t sleep, so he doodled what he called his critters on paper under the covers. There was the high school teacher who gently scolded him for drawing on his neighbor’s paper.

Today, Olney’s doodles have become more than a pastime and hobby: They are his major, and they are shaping up to be his life’s work. He has just illustrated his first children’s book, written and published by Wanda Howell of Columbia City. He is working on his sculpting degree at IU, and his portfolio covers a span of artistic styles, including sculpture, photography, painting and drawing.

Despite the fact that Olney’s first love was drawing, he choose sculpting as his major for a logical reason: It was the broadest possible option.

“With painting and ceramics (majors), you can only do that,” he says. “With sculpture, you can make a ceramic bowl and call it a sculpture, and it’s OK.”

Or, he can take a drawing or painting, make it slightly 3-D off the page, and it’s a sculpture, because Olney is nothing if not versatile. His first bit of commercial success came when he was in the sixth grade: He drew the first cartoon strip to appear on The Journal Gazette’s kids page, fred. “Sniffles” told the story of an alien who came to Earth to learn about the planet from a boy.

“Sniffles was the product of late-night drawing,” Olney says. “He originated when Mom and Dad were reading to me one day.”

The illustrations he created for the children’s book, called “Rose and Rabbit Go to the Fair,” detail a cute mutt, Rose, and an adorable bunny, Rabbit. There are illustrations of an older couple, modeled after his mother’s grandparents, and of farm landscapes. The colors are bright and vivid, perfect for little eyes.

Originally, Olney’s mother, Christine Olney, was tapped to illustrate the book.

“I said, ‘I’d love to do it, but I think my son is a lot more qualified to do it,’ ” Christine Olney says.

Dillon Olney grew up watching his mom create art, and throughout his life, she has supported his artistic choices. Olney says he can’t believe how many students share that their parents discourage them from going into art, and he counts himself lucky that his mom and dad stand behind him.

“I would be little, and she’d paint little animals on the walls,” Olney says of his mother, and she’d ask, “ ‘Don’t you want to go outside and play?’ ‘No, I want to stay in and watch you.’ ”

Christine Olney points to a field on a page of the children’s book.

“He would let me do all the little details,” she says. “(I did these) little flowers and leaves on the trees.”

The pieces Dillon Olney makes on commission are similar in style and scope – drawings of cute dogs, for example – but his personal art, the stuff he does for himself, is a little darker.

Consider the self-portrait Olney created as a senior at Carroll High School, one of the pieces that earned him three Gold Keys in the Scholastic Art Awards. His face isn’t even in the image – it just shows his neck down to his knees. He is wearing jeans and a belt, no shirt. Drawn on his torso in a style that looks as though he has scratched scars into his skin are images and words: bones in his left forearm and hand, stars on his chest, the word “diabetic” across his stomach. Hooked up just to the right of his belly button is his insulin pump.

On his online portfolio, there’s the sculpture he made that includes bones his mother found on hikes in their backyard. There also are sculptures of the critters Dillon used to draw under the sheets when he was a boy, and their style makes them appear straight from a Guillermo del Toro film.

This “dark side,” as Olney calls it, is well hidden upon first meeting. He is slim, with short dark hair and dark “artsy” glasses. He speaks intelligently, without use of those oft-relied upon fillers of “like” and “um.” When he talks about his art and his future, he is certain. For a young man of 20, he is sure of his direction in life and confident of his abilities.

This year, Olney enters his junior year of school and plans to graduate in 2014 – a full year and a half early, because of college credits he earned at Carroll.

“My aspiration now is to be a professor of art in a university setting,” he says.

He wants to work in a stable environment with other artists, sharing ideas and having the freedom to do the work he wants. He doesn’t want to worry about the questions commercial artists have to ask themselves, like “Will this sell?” and “What do people want to buy?”

“I’d like the ability to create art without having to sell it,” Olney says. “Art for art’s sake.”