‘Larger than life.’ Longtime designer of Central PA Arts Fest poster, Lanny Sommese, dies

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A former Penn State professor and designer of the Arts Fest posters for nearly five decades died earlier this week.

Lanny Sommese was the head of Penn State’s graphic design program for more than 45 years and designed the annual Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts poster for 48 years, according to an obituary posted on his website.

“Lanny had a larger than life personality, but his work was also larger than life too,” Rick Bryant, executive director of the Arts Fest, said. “He had a big personality and his work was fantastic.”

Bryant met Sommese when he was 23 years old, long before he was involved with the Arts Fest. Each spring, the students in the design program Sommese headed presented their projects at a festival-type event, called Film Follies. Bryant attended one shortly after he graduated from college and encountered Sommese there.

“He was this sort of, you know, stereotypical, artsy professor type,” Bryant said. “One thing that was very clear was that he communicated to his students the essence of creativity because the projects were, I mean, they made you want to come back for more next year. It was just the coolest thing ever.”

When Bryant started working with the Arts Fest in the 1990s, Sommese had already been designing the posters for years, since 1974. Sommese also worked with students to design the brochures and other associated items, such as applications, until those became more digitally focused around 2005. The designs all corresponded with the poster.

In a 2016 interview with the Centre Daily Times, Sommese said when he was a “young faculty member” at Penn State, he was looking for projects to keep him busy. One day when he was in his office, someone from the Arts Fest came in and asked if there was anyone who would be interested in working on a poster. He said, “How about me?”

During the interview, he thought back on the first poster he designed, which he wanted to reflect the spirit of the event and appeal to the audience, “and at the same time measure up to my own high expectations.”

The posters have since become the identity of the Arts Fest, Bryant said.

“The posters really helped establish that sophisticated, visual identity for the Arts Festival. You know, anybody who looks at one knows that … we’re not a fireman’s carnival, this isn’t somebody selling crochet toilet paper covers,” Bryant said. “This is a thing with real art and real music, and it’s fun. The posters are joyful and so much of that is due to Lanny.”

The posters have become a collectible item, too, Bryant said, and a way for Penn Staters to commemorate the year they started at or graduated from the university, for example.

“It’s sort of a Penn State collectible that’s not necessarily blue and white, which is pretty cool,” Bryant said.

The image is also used on a T-shirt, which is highly requested each year, and when the festival used admission buttons, that design was related to the poster, as well.

Sommese in 2016 said “the challenge of giving the arts fest a fresh new face each year and the opportunity to experiment with new metaphoric mixes and stylistic approaches” is part of what kept him coming back year after year. His daughter, Saige Sommese, designed some Arts Fest posters with her father and most recently started with some of his old sketches and added in some of her own ideas. Bryant hopes she’ll continue to design the posters.

Some past posters are still available for purchase online at arts-festival.com/store.

“We’re delighted to share his legacy across the country and the world,” Bryant said.

The annual collectible poster for the 54th Arts Fest was designed by Lanny Sommese and his daughter Saige.
The annual collectible poster for the 54th Arts Fest was designed by Lanny Sommese and his daughter Saige.