BURRILLVILLE - He may be the most famous Rhode Island cartoonist and illustrator you've never heard of.
His popular cartoon characters, especially his beloved Itty Bitty Super Dupers, which appear in newspapers, on radio and television web sites, coloring books, calendars, public safety promotional literature, restaurant menus and place mats, and dozens of other outlets over the last 10 years, have entertained thousands of children.
His artwork appears on billboards and banners throughout Rhode Island and Massachusetts (last year on Cape Cod, those aforementioned banners and billboards were viewed by an estimated 4.5 million people).
He's been courted by the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots organizations to provide artwork for team promotional gifts. He's worked with hundreds of corporate, state, local municipal and non-profit organizations throughout the region and beyond.
So, why isn't Jim Weicherding, an accomplished cartoonist, artist, illustrator and writer, a household name?
"I wish I knew the answer to that," Weicherding laughs over a cup of coffee in his Pascoag home. "My work is everywhere yet no one knows my name. How many artists can say their work has been seen by tens of thousands of people? There isn't an artist in any gallery who can claim that."
Weicherding's work is instantly recognizable - after you've seen his cartoon characters once, you'll realize that you've seen them somewhere before. That's because you're likely to run into them just about anywhere - from the "Buckle-Up" banner outside the Burrillville police station; to the billboard in downtown Woonsocket; to the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce web site; to the coloring book handed out at a Providence Bruins game.
His specialty is incorporating his characters and artwork into coloring books, sketch books, coloring calendars, and kids books that are sponsored by numerous companies, businesses, and corporations. His Itty Bitty Super Dupers characters - three kid superheroes named Jared, Kirby and Max - have entertained thousands of kids, teaching them valuable lessons in public safety at the same time.
The Itty Bitty Super Dupers are being adopted by organizations that use them as character role models to help educate children and families about eating healthy and living healthy lifestyles and safety. The characters are now being creatively featured in publications, materials and web site content for kids nationwide.
Since October, Weicherding's beloved characters have been appearing on a coloring page in The Call and The Times newspapers as part of a monthly kids coloring contest. His cartoons are passed out to kids nationwide in schools, at events, fairs, car seat clinics, and car shows. Itty Bitty Super Duper Coloromic Books have been available in comic book stores nationwide since 2009.
"The Itty Bitty Super Dupers have been extremely popular with the kids because they provide good entertainment value," he says. "Every little kid wants to be a super hero and I think there's a relationship between kids and these characters. Now that they've kind of morphed into these roles as promoters of public safety it makes it even better."
Weicherding makes a modest living with his artwork. Thats' because he does a lot of work for non-profit charitable organizations who use his characters and other artwork for promotional materials. Buckleupallofus, The Fearless Dino Protector Squad, The Bus Stop Kids, and the Li'l Skipper & Clam Cakes cartoon characters are just a few of the intellectual properties he has created for teaching kids about safety.
Some of his clients include the Rhode Island Cancer Council, KidsFirst Rhode Island, and the Northeast chapter of the American Heart Association. He also works with police and fire departments throughout the Blackstone Valley.
He's worked with the state Department of Transportation, Rhode Island Fire Marshal's office and the law enforcement division of the Department of Environmental Management, who used his Li'l Skipper & Clam Cakes cartoon characters for the agency's water safety kids coloring book.
Weicherding was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, and moved to Rhode Island when he was a young boy. At the age of 9 he wrote his a children's book called "The Black Cat," which was distributed to grade school kids throughout the St. Paul school system. He won his first art award at the age of 12 when his cartoon work was given a blue ribbon at the Burrillville Arts Festival.
Weicherding's art has always had a young target audience and it's not by coincidence.
He grew up seeing first-hand the results of child injury and trauma due to his extensive stays at Shriner's Hospital in Minnesota. From the time he was five years old until his 16th birthday, Weicherding spent months at a time at Shriner's Hospital with wards filled with other kids that were hospitalized for numerous reasons related to injuries and trauma.
Weicherding would create cartoons and artwork for the other kids to color in and draw as a way to help them forget about their pain and fears. The doctors and nurses would pass the artwork around to the kids and even display them on the walls of the hospital for parents.
When he entered grade school the teachers would pass out copies of his cartoons and artwork to the classrooms and would even read his short stories to the kids a couple of times a year.
When he entered high school in Burrillville, Weicherding's artistic talents were used on many levels for the students and faculty. He was always asked to create and illustrate regularly in school.
Weicherding was an engineer and draftsman, and then ventured into the world of advertising. But he abandoned that profession to pursue an art career full-time, which led to him becoming the creative director for Rhode Island's 350th anniversary celebration in 1978, in which he created the artwork for t shirts and other promotional items.
It was in the mid 1990's that Weicherding would find himself creating cartoon characters for child safety in newspapers and then for child safety advocates and organizations that were searching for creative ways to help keep kids safe.
As of today, his cartoon characters for child safety are featured in tens of thousands of coloring books that are passed out to students. Last year he was the featured cartoonist for Safekids U.S.A.in Washington, D.C.
He is also the founder and creative director of the Safe Series campaign.
Weicherding spends 20 hours a day on his art projects. Each cartoon takes three to four days. His tools are nothing more than paper and fine Sharpie pen, and his studio is his living room couch where he creates his storylines against a backdrop of classic 50's music.
While his cartoon characters are more recognizable then his name, Weicherding says that is starting to change. "I get more waves from people driving past me on the roadways than I can count now because my cartoon characters are on my truck and people know it's me driving it."
Last month, his cartoon characters were showcased at a Newport comic book store, and three galleries have expressed interest in exhibiting his originals in a one-man showcase.
Currently, Citadel Radio Stations is featuring his cartoon characters and coloring pages
every month on all three of their Worcester radio station web sites. He is also working with drag racer Bob Tasca lll, who has commissioned Weicherding to illustrate his drag car as a coloring page for his dealership sales showroom and service department waiting room.
Weicherding's future plans include children's picture, coloring and activities books as well as a series of animated DVD's for kids featuring all of his very popular cartoon characters and storylines
"My goal is to continue building on a foundation to get this to the next level," he says. "You have to have perceived value for your intellectual property and then you can go from there. My goal at this point is syndication because that opens up doors to licensing and that is where the money is."
Whether or not his Itty Bitty Super Dupers become the next Barney, only time will tell.
In the meantime, Super Dupers Jared, Kirby and Max will continue their adventures with arch villains the Attack Force 5 and the Rumble Bumbles while enthralling thousands of youngsters.