Picturing progress: new illustrations showcase Minnesota’s carbon-free future

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In a quiet home art studio, a pen scratches across a sketchbook as a pup named Bruce naps beneath an oversized open book of bird illustrations. The afternoon light streams through the window of this St. Paul home, illuminating a wooden drafting table where Michael Iver Jacobsen has illustrated projects since he was a kid. As a freelance illustrator whose work has appeared in the Star Tribune, Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, and The Wall Street Journal, Michael’s drawings have become an integral way for Fresh Energy to communicate how our energy systems are changing as we transition to a carbon-free way of life.

“I’ve always found illustration fulfilling, especially when there’s a communication aspect to it,” says Michael. “I’ve always been interested in drawing. Since I was young, I have been interested in having a job doing illustration, to translate ideas visually and include subtle themes inside them for people who really pay attention.”

That attention to detail can come in handy when it comes to illustrating work for Fresh Energy, because Michael has helped to visualize complex topics like the natural gas infrastructure that runs beneath our neighborhoods or the multitude of electric appliances in carbon-free buildings.

Michael working on an illustration in his iPad.

Michael grew up outside Milwaukee in a suburb called Brown Deer, an apt hometown name for an artist who prefers to draw environments and often turns to real-life material like trees, leaves, and fields to influence his work. After completing an illustration program at UW-Eau Claire and benefiting from a professor’s art school practice in the program, Michael moved to Minneapolis and eventually St. Paul. Along the way, his passion for illustration has always remained an important part of his life.

His first job after college was as a caricature artist at Valley Fair for a summer—a great match for a self-proclaimed extrovert. “Drawing caricatures at Valley Fair was a good fit—I like people, I like drawing, and I was getting paid to work on my drawing. Although, it wasn’t exactly what your parents want—I literally spent a summer being a carnie,” laughs Michael. “But it was a fun job, even if I knew I didn’t want to do it for a long time.”

Michael continued to practice while working at an art store, where he met his wife Jamie, and eventually switched to working for an airline that allowed him to spend more days of his week drawing before becoming a full-time illustrator. Now, he’s busy providing both editorial illustrations and comp and storyboard work, as well.

“I definitely have more of a narrative style in my work. I’ve noticed I tend to draw a lot of maps as well as people in their environments,” says Michael. “I also enjoy drawing cross-sections, because it feels specific to illustration. Photography can’t really create something like that.”

Cross section illustration demonstrating how a gas water heater and boiler connect underground to the larger gas system.
Cross-section illustration by Michael demonstrates how a home’s gas water heater and boiler connect to the larger gas system.

Michael has plenty of illustrations showcasing Minnesota’s great outdoors: kids swimming in a lake, a canoer portaging on a wooded trail, and bikers pedaling through trails—so clean energy infrastructure took some research. “I want my drawings to be accurate, and I’ve learned a lot about energy in the process,” says Michael. “I’m working on illustrating a heat pump right now, and so I’ve learned how they are great alternatives to a gas furnace. After attending Fresh Energy’s Benefit Breakfast last fall and seeing the different electric appliances that are available, I’m excited to say goodbye to my gas lawnmower this year.”

Bruce the dog naps in Michael’s new home studio, which is still under renovation]
Bruce naps in Michael’s new home studio, which is still under renovation.

Inspired by the past, with a look to the future

When asked how he finds inspiration for his work, Michael nods to a small desk of black-and-white sketches of a barbershop and textile designers. “I love old-school illustration and design. Architecture has always been inspiring—and even old movies, too. That’s a medium that shows up in a lot of my work,” said Michael.

The bookshelf next to his desk is stacked with books about drawing, design, and illustration—a book of stills from Wes Anderson movies, holiday card designs and old Disney illustrations by Eyvind Earle. “Illustrating clean energy projects is a lot more than just wind turbines and solar, which is how a lot of people think about it,” says Michael. “It’s fulfilling to use illustration to help people learn more about [Minnesota’s energy transition.]”

When Michael’s not busy with illustrating or taking his kids to dance lessons and basketball practices, he and his family like to spend time visiting state parks—from seeing the bison herd at Minneopa to weekend treks up to the North Shore. While up north last summer, he had the opportunity to run in and finish his first marathon in Duluth, and he’s looking forward to continuing to explore local parks within walking distance of his St. Paul home.

As Fresh Energy’s ambitious staff continue to advance clean energy and climate policy to build a carbon-free future for Minnesotans, we are excited to showcase Michael’s illustrations in our blog posts, fact sheets, and other mediums as we imagine—and create—a more prosperous, just, and resilient future for Minnesota, the Midwest, and beyond.

Michael and his cat Leroy working at his desk.