CAMDEN — People may not know Dan Kirchoff, but around here, they have likely seen his work.

His political cartoons have recently appeared in The Camden Herald, The Courier-Gazette and The Republican Journal, and he has also been busy as a book illustrator working with Downeast Books among other publishers.

Illustration for Downeast Books by Dan Kirchoff

He currently works out of the busy newspaper office in Camden serving as the Camden Herald’s illustrator and designer.

“Doing illustration on the job is kind of a perk,” he said. “Illustrators don’t have jobs! They live out in the wilderness.”

Kirchoff lives in Belfast, but his journey starts in other parts of the country. His family is from Alabama, and he grew up in Utah, which was challenging.

“There’s the religion thing. There were dances you couldn’t go to,” he said. “Everyone tells you you’re going to hell.”

He studied graphic design and art at Auburn University in Alabama. He wanted to be an illustrator, but his professors told him he did not draw well enough for that. When he asked them how he could learn to do it, they did not have an answer, and he found he could not accept that.

Part of a story and an illustration by Belfast artist Dan Kirchoff.

Instead, he spent time with his friends who were illustrators and learned what made them successful in their job. He applied some of what he had learned studying sociology and realized that the best illustrators are obsessively detail-oriented, something he believed he could learn. He gave himself time to draw and erase and draw again over the course of the next four years.

He started his career as a graphic designer for an Alabama ad agency, where he was again discouraged from drawing. He moved to Maine in 1986.

“I was looking for civilization,” he said and laughed. “Maine was the most civilized place I had found so far.”

Here he started working for Searls Design in Camden, a company owned by a brother and sister, but they would not let him do more than design. Illustrations were discouraged. He worked for International Marine Publishing out of Rockport, again strictly as a designer.

He also started doing some work for The Free Press. Andy O’Brien, who was writing for the paper at the time, started using Kirchoff to illustrate some of his projects. Kirchoff describes getting mixed feedback from various staff members at the paper.

However, illustrating remained his guiding goal, his North Star as he puts it.

When he finally got a major project to work on from a publishing company, he found himself crippled by terrible anxiety.

At one point he went back to school for web development.

A mythical beast of Maine illustrated by Belfast artist Dan Kirchoff.

But eventually, the projects started coming in. He designed the cover artwork for Timothy Cotton’s book of essays and a children’s book about puffins for Downeast.

Then he got the gig to provide 43 illustrations for “Mythical Creatures of Maine” by Christopher Packard. Here was a project involving drawings of monsters, beasts and maps. It was something he could really sink his teeth into, and it came just as the pandemic hit. Things at the newspaper had slowed down and he had time to work on it and plenty of support from his wife, Jen.

The book was released in September 2021.

Around the same time, he had started a major project for The Camden Herald, an ambitious drawing of the entire Megunticook River as an aerial view to illustrate the ongoing discussion of river restoration and possible dam removal in town.

That hit newsstands in December, and he is now working on another major project, a walking map of Rockland for The Free Press.

The political cartoons have been an opportunity for Kirchoff to work creatively with writers at the newspapers. The editors would come to him with the issues of the week and offer ideas for ways to show them in a humorous light. Kirchoff makes those ideas a reality. In the process, he helps provide another perspective for the community discussion.

Here and there in the pages of the newspapers, he augments, filling a gap between columns with a little drawing, a strand of trees, a boat, an old truck — something tucked away for the careful reader to find and delight in.

The road to his dream was long and winding, but in the end he proved those professors wrong. He could do it, every week and every day.

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