BY JEFF FALK
QUENTIN – God has blessed Phil Karli with an amazing talent. What makes his gift so special is that it is one of creation.
Not only can he replicate this existence with an uncanny accuracy, Karli also possesses the ability to create an entire new world. His tools? His hands, his mind, his knowledge, his spirit, a playful sense of humor and a number-two pencil.
Karli is more than an artist, a sketcher, an illustrator. He’s a satirist, a commentator and a social advocate.
And he has profoundly affected the Lebanon area sports scene in a way that no other member of the media ever has.
“You can’t balance an elephant on your head,” said Karli, illustrating verbally. “But I can. And it can be a message about you. That’s the liberty an artist has. That’s what makes it fun.
“Sometimes I’m not mentally ready to sit down and enjoy it,” Karli continued. “The hardest part is thinking about it before I put it down on paper. I do get stale if I go bang, bang, bang. None of them (the illustrations) are the same. They’re all personalized. You can’t sit down and throw it out or it gets monotonous. I like to feel like I gave it my best thought.”
Karli, a 68-year-old resident of Quentin, is the product of an age when newspapers used art and illustration to tell stories as much as they did photographs. For more than 20 years – from the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s – Karli’s ‘slice of local sports life’ sketches appeared in, first the Lebanon Daily News, and then later area papers like the Harrisburg Patriot, Reading Eagle and Centre Daily Times.
“Everybody had their own staff artists,” said Karli, who always worked as an independent contributor. “The computer, I would guess, did a lot to the (newspaper) industry. But these things for me didn’t end. What happened for me was that it was getting to be too much. And there didn’t seem to be as much interest in it.
“I think my biggest fear was I was going to be asked to make a commitment to a newspaper,” Karli added. “As long as I was doing it, they were happy to use them. It was my decision to back away from it. You’re not going to be able to support a family unless you become syndicated.”
The ‘Karli Process’ is as simple as it is brilliant.
Working from a photograph, Karli sketches a profile of his subject that sometimes seems more life-like than the image itself. Then he surrounds the profile with career accomplishment, cartoon-like anecdotes, contrived characters, expressions or sayings and other personal interpretations of his subject.
And make no mistake about it, the finished product possesses the power to touch the subject in a way that he or she could’ve never imagined. That may be Karli’s greatest accomplishment.
“You have to kind of have a unique sense of humor,” said Karli. “Right now, you’re sitting there and I can tell what you’re thinking by reading the balloon over your head. It gets ’em thinking. My family says I’m sick. It’s my sick humor.
“I only brag to my wife,” continued Karli. “I don’t brag to anyone else. And she just shrugs it off. Knowing people got some satisfaction out of it is rewarding. When I bump into people they’ll say, ‘I still look at the picture you did for me’. That’s a nice feeling. That’s the closest thing to a legacy for me.”
After graduating from Lebanon Catholic High School and Colgate University, Karli approached then Lebanon Daily News sports editor Tiny Parry about his art work. The year was 1965 and Karli was in his early 20s.
“Tiny Parry knew me from coaching and I told him I’d like to do it as a hobby,” said Karli, who served as Lebanon Catholic’s head football coach in the 1960s. “It wasn’t my total career commitment. I was into coaching at the time. I wanted it to be local. I would go up to coaches and ask them, ‘Who’s your unsung guy?’
“I’m left-handed which means I’m right-brained,” Karli added. “Which could mean I have more of an artistic side. I have small hands, which aren’t good for sports. But they are good for the things I do.”
Over the years, Karli has illustrated literally – and figuratively – thousands of his own unique brand of character caricatures.
“I came from a family of eight kids and I was kind of in the middle, so I had to fight for attention,” said Karli. “I enjoyed reading the newspaper and comics. And I thought to myself, ‘I can do that.’ People would say, and it started with my family, ‘Hey, that’s pretty good’. And it got me noticed. One of my early Christmas gifts was a drawing kit and a baseball mitt.
“In 1965 I got serious about it,” continued Karli. “It wasn’t difficult to approach Tiny Parry about it. It didn’t cost the newspaper a lot. My idea was to keep it localized to a certain area, and expand it a little bit.”
But Karli never saw his sketching as his life’s calling. In 2000, after 23 years, he retired from his job as a field manager for Quality School Plan, a subsidiary of The Readers’ Digest.
“Yeah, I considered starting my own business, but I was making a good living,” said Karli. “I didn’t know if I wanted to take a step back and get it started. It might not have been as much of a fun thing. I might not enjoy it as much. I didn’t want it to get too commercialized.
“But I always kept this art-business thing going,” Karli added. “It was never my main pursuit. It was always a fun hobby. My 23 years at QSP allowed me to get to the kids’ sporting events.
“It (the art) was free-lance. It was on my time. When I could do it, I’d do it. I didn’t want to get committed to a schedule of one a week. I never wanted it to feel like work.”
Karli still illustrates on his own time. Currently he produces portraits for the Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters.
“It’s been fun,” said Karli. “I wish I had started doing this for these people 20 years ago. It keeps me young. I hope I have a few more years left in me. I still have just as much enthusiasm. But now I can pick and choose what I want to do.”
The natural evolution of Karli, ‘The Visual Story Teller’ has been a recently discovered interest in photography.
“I had been doing camera work for years, but I didn’t do it commercially,” said Karli. “I like the quickness of photography. I like to illustrate instantly, with photography. Right now, I get as much satisfaction, or more, with photography, because it’s instant gratification. That’s what I like about it, telling stories. I don’t like to just take a picture. I want to tell a story. That’s what’s most fun for me right now.”
And perhaps the next thing on Karli’s story-telling agenda is verbal illustration.
“The only thing I can tell you is that I put the most effort into the portraits,” said Karli. “It’s a matter of time. I tell people, ‘Give me as much information about a person as you can and I’ll put it together.’ If you have 10,000 hairs on your head, I’ll put 10,000 lines on the paper. With ladies, make it complimentary. Make them look line some movie star.
“If I was instructing you, I would tell you to see what is there and not what you think is there,” continued Karli. “You’ve got to understand the basic shape of things. You draw with your arms and not your fingers. You’ve got to understand things like the nose comes forward from the face, and the way to portray that is with shadowing.”