Advanced Life is a magazine published in Mexico by Acura Advance. In addition to a print version, they publish a digital edition that might well be a model of how magazines of the future will be delivered. It can be downloaded here.
Recently they contacted me and asked to do a cover story and interview about my work. It’s now out in their latest issue. Since the interview is in Spanish, I thought I’d post an English language version here. The interviewer was Tatiana Arce.
Q: You have said that Diego Rivera is one of your most important artistic influences, could you tell us why?
A: Two reasons. One graphic: the way he simplified forms, both in his drawing and in his compositions; and the other cultural: the way he reinvented modernism by stepping back from the abstraction that Cubism was leading art into and embracing as his theme the whole history and topicality of his culture.
Q: Are you interested in the work of any other Mexican artists?
A: Tamayo, Cuevas. I like them both for different reasons. And Posada, although I learned about him too late to be influenced by him. I discovered Posada by reading about Rivera. Diego cited him as one of his influences, so I looked him up too. After that, I came to think that Posada and I had a lot in common, except that I don't draw so many skeletons.
Q: The current image of Mexico, worldwide, mixes two separate aspects: one negative, regarding, corruption, drug lords and violence, and another positive, focusing on the economical growth of the country. If you were asked to illustrate this, what kind of images would come to your mind?
A: Well, pictures don't always come quickly. What I'd do if that were an assignment is internalize the problem, then empty my mind and start drawing. That's the best way to get answers. Or at least answers that aren't cliches. It's a way of getting past the structured thoughts of everyday life.
Q: You have often talked about your interest in creating images that are able to tell a story and stand on their own.
A: Well, I know I've said that I want pictures to tell a story, but that may not be the most precise way to put it. I used to tell editors that they should imagine they've locked me in one room and the writer in another and given us both the same assignment. Then when we hand in our work, you marry the two and trust that the marriage works out. It seems to me that you'll get better art out of an artist that way than by asking him to channel some writer's sensibility.
Q: With this in mind, do you think technology is making our societies shift back from an alphabetic thinking to a more ideographic communication?
A: Not necessarily. At least I hope not. Linear thinking is too important to the maintenance of a civil society. It's the only way people can communicate precise thoughts. The problem with linear thinking is that it often becomes an iron mask. Drawing is a way of thinking too. It's an irrational way of thinking and there are always dangers in that. Cultures that make a fetish of irrational thinking usually pay for it in the long run. But on the other hand, irrational thinking is the source of insights and breakthroughs.
Q: Besides Hawthorne, what other storytellers, writers or artists, have had an impact in the way you see the world?
A: The plays of Albert Camus: Caligula and The Just Assassins. Greek tragedies like Prometheus Bound. The writing style of H.L. Mencken. But before I came to read widely or see art (except for comic strips), I was influenced by my uncle Wayne, who was a postman in rural Arkansas.
Wayne was a fantastic storyteller. He drove around every day to all the local farms, delivering the mail and chatting with farmers and housewives. So whenever he'd come to our house for a visit, he'd have wonderful stories to tell.
They weren't dramatic stories, just accounts of ordinary, everyday events. Yet there was always something compelling about them. They weren't necessarily funny – I don't remember Wayne ever telling jokes – but there was usually something comic about them. His pacing and the way he combined words always made his stories more interesting and more amusing than they should have been. I absorbed all those techniques when I was a kid, and since I was always drawing things, the same sensibility just naturally came out in the pictures I drew.
Q: Just as images tell a story, there is a story behind every work. How has your creative process changed over the years?
A: It hasn't really. I'm essentially doing the same thing that I've been doing since I was five. I just have better opportunities now than I did in Kindergarten.
Q: Has any particular project forced you to modify radically the way you work?
A: No, not in the way you've put it. But since I never studied art, my natural curiosity about how to make pictures has led me to try out different approaches. And various assignments have given me a chance to try those things out.
Q: Can you share an example with us?
A: Some years ago, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Magazin gave me a series of dream assignments. Every month or so, they'd pick a theme and give me a cover and eight pages inside to do whatever I wanted to do on that subject. Then they'd supply an article (in German) to go with the art. One of those assignments was about high schools of New York City.
I began by sketching teenagers who hung around Greenwich Village after class. Then I used the sketches to do a series of conceptual paintings. One of them had two kids exchanging drugs in front of a great tortured wall, with a hungry black dog walking towards them. It wasn't much more than a scene drawn from life, except for what I did with the surface of the wall.
I wanted to cover the wall with graffiti. But I didn't want to just imitate graffiti; I wanted to get its spirit. I finally found a way by remembering that when I was a little kid I once got into trouble by drawing with crayons on a corner of my parents' living room. That's what New York City graffiti reminded me of. So in my painting, I covered the wall with crude crayon drawings of grotesque faces.
That painting became my favorite of the series, but what I liked most about it were the crayon drawings themselves. For months afterwards, I began to work crayon drawings into other assignments, first for the same magazine, then for others. Then some art directors began to ask for them. By then I had bought a big box of pastels – which gave the drawings a more sensual feel than what I had been getting with crayons – and the whole approach began to take on a life of its own.
To other people, it may have looked as if I had somehow adopted a new style. But for me, it was more like a phase; like a teenaged rebellion against the self-confidence that comes from being a professional. It kept me from settling into an artistic rut. Every once in a while I have to get back in touch with being five years old. It lets me feel as if I'm starting all over again and the challenge of always starting over keeps me interested in what I'm doing.
Drawger's already put out a call for the best work from this year. So I guess it's rather late for me to be rounding up my favorite pictures from last year. On the other hand, last year will be last year all year this year. So with another month yet to go, I figure it's still early.
Serapions Fabel is a fabulous book of photographs drawn from 25 years of theatrical productions at Vienna’s Odeon Theater. It was published around Christmastime and is as beautifully produced as the photos that fill the book. Erwin Piplits is the theater’s Director and the book’s author. I designed the front and back covers and did the hand lettering.
The book’s theme is derived from the Greek myth of Persephone, the goddess of vegetation whose abduction by the god of the underworld threatened the extinction of life on earth; and whose annual six months release to the world of the living gave rise in the Greek imagination to the death and rebirth of the seasons.
Because in early agricultural societies grain was the staff of life, in the myth of seasonal rebirth, it became a symbol of resurrection as well. So early in the project I thought of grain as an image for the book’s back cover. It was simple enough to work as a foil for the front cover, but abstract enough not to compete with it. It was also an appropriate icon for the Serapions theatrical company: the Odeon is housed in a grand old building that was once Vienna’s Grain Exchange.
Star Messenger was one of two paintings I did for an issue of The Rotarian magazine. The art director was Deborah Lawrence, who now, regrettably, has left the publication. Deborah and I worked together on at least a dozen articles over the last few years and they were always great assignments. She often chose to use my pictures in pairs – one double page spread to start an article and another to end it. Her page designs and typography were always elegant. When she left, there was an outpouring of thanks, compliments and good wishes for the future from the artists and photographers she worked with.
Earth Mover was painted for the January issue of Playboy, a special issue because It was the magazine’s 60th Anniversary. My history with Playboy goes back a few years – hardly 60 – but pretty far back. Over that time I've done a lot of drawings and paintings for them: counting Ribald Classics, more than a hundred. Still, of all those images, this is one of my favorites and I was flattered that Justin Page – who did a wonderful job with the type and the layout – thought to include me in the special issue.
Dark Angel was painted for Debora Clark at the American Bar Association Journal. The article: “Finding Humanity,” profiled an attorney for the damned. Originally I painted it in blue and gold, but the editor thought the colors were too pretty and asked for some changes. Instead, I decided to repaint the entire picture using Halloween colors. I think it was a good idea. They liked the new version better than the first one and so did I.
Cyber Terror was done as a cover for art director Steve Traynor at CSO, the data security magazine. The article was about how many financial institutions don't want to discuss cyber attacks against their companies because it opens them up to more attacks. I sent Steve three sketches and they picked this one. Of course the topic is bigger than whether a couple of corporations are reluctant to expose their vulnerability. Our culture's growing reliance on computers and the Internet has made our whole civilization vulnerable. With that in mind I wanted to keep the picture dark and abstract, with just the eyes and teeth glowing like a Jack 'O Lantern, but without the cuteness.
The Tempest wasn’t actually painted last year, but was published for the first time in December as a frontispiece for Taschen’s book 100 Illustrators, a book, incidently, that was picked by the Huffington Post as one of the year’s best art books. It’s a painting of Prospero, the magician of Shakespeare’s play about a bewitched island in the Caribbean. It’s one of a series I’ve been doing based on Shakespeare’s work. it was actually “published” for the first time here on Drawger, Christmas Eve, 2011.
Runaround was my cover idea for The Baffler’s issue about romance, love and sex. I’ve worked with Patrick Flynn since his days at The Progressive, but The Baffler is his masterpiece as an art director. Patrick has always used artists who have something to say, and he lets them say it. But he’s equally resourceful in marrying pictures to articles and his magazines always have a unity of design and a diversity of styles.
Balancing Act began as a loose sketch I did for Patrick some years ago at The Progressive. When he was wrapping up The Baffler’s political issue, he resurrected it and asked if he could use it on the magazine’s opening page. I said sure, of course, but said I’d rather do the drawing over, do it differently and do it in color. So I did. Years ago it was like pulling teeth to get editors to use full page art without an article to "justify" it. So I also want to credit The Baffler’s editor, John Summers, for giving Patrick the creative authority to run pictures like this.
Love is an Inexact Science is one of more than 30 posters I’ve done during the last year using quotations from articles I’ve written. I’ve published some of them here before. Last summer I showed a bunch of them to Patrick and he adopted this one for The Baffler’s front page.
Chador is one of my favorite drawings from last year, although it never made it past the sketch stage. It was one of several ideas I proposed for the cover of a monograph written by a former US ambassador about the political situation in Iran. For diplomatic rasons they picked one of the other sketches. It was more dramatic, and I liked the finished drawing a lot. But this one, with its simplicity and quiet symmetry, said more to me.
Hands of Time was done for the Spanish edition of Vanity Fair. It’s about how the watches brand IWC is helping the family of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry retain the rights to his book The Little Prince. I proposed showing the Little Prince as a timeless figure defending himself with the hands of time. And while at first, I thought I’d do it as a painting, in the end I decided that adding color to my pencil sketch would come closest to the casual spirit of Saint-Exupéry’s own work.
Ariel’s Song is another painting for The Tempest, Act I Scene 2: “Full fathom five thy father lies / Of his bones are coral made / Those are pearls that were his eyes / Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change Into something rich and strange.”
Robert Kuok was painted for Siung Tjia at Bloomberg Markets magazine. If I had picked my favorite images from last year a few months ago, I wouldn't have picked it. At the time, in fact, I disliked it and thought it a failure. But recently I ran across it and took a second look. That led me to conclude that it was the guy's face, not the painting I disliked and I had nothing to do with the way he looks. Robert Kuok is a Malaysian billionaire, the world's 62nd richest person. So maybe he looks the way he does from worrying about all that money. Anyway, it's not a pretty picture, but it's an honest one; and for that reason I now think it's one of the best things I did last year.
This Way, That Way was one of three paintings I did for a financial services client last year. The pictures were each done to go with a different scenario from the company's files – in this case, an account of the uncertainty that comes from having too many options. I thought of the tree because when I was a kid we lived on the edge of town and I spent much of my childhood in the nearby woods. It wasn't a very big woods, I knew every tree in it. At its farthest end, just before you came to a hobo jungle near the railroad tracks, there was a giant tree with twisted branches and tattooed bark. I used to climb up in it and sit in the branches like an owl. It was a great place to reflect on things. I had that tree in mind when I painted this picture.
Three Brothers was another painting done for the same financial services client. It wasn't a print assignment: the pictures were done directly for website usage. I supplied the client with multiple idea sketches, then we worked together on the layout, typography and text. I'm grateful to clients like this who realize that work done for digital usage is most effective when it has the same visual impact as work traditionally done for print.
Man Over Moon was painted for a University of Baltimore project entitled "Knowledge That Works." The art director was Gabrielle Boam (for whom I also did the Iranian monograph). I did two different versions of this picture. This was one, a standard size poster, to which I added hand lettering. The other was almost twice as deep and was used for a large street banner, 10 feet high. It was printed on fabric and hung as one of a series around the city, paired with a similar banner bearing the school's logo.
Judgment Seat was painted for SooJin Buzelli at Asset International, one of two pictures I did for her last year. I love the fact that she uses so much art in her publications and her design and typography are always inventive and beautifully realized. The article was about the need to set up support systems and this was SooJin's pick of the several sketches I sent her. I've never thought about what my favorite color is, but on the basis of the pictures I've been painting lately, I figure it must be blue.
Unholy Couple was another painting done for Justin Page at Playboy. The article was a fictional piece called “Hierofin” about a creepy midnight sabbath of famous science fiction writers, set in in California in the 1940s. While I was working on it, the movie Belle Star came on the TV, a thoroughly ridiculous film, but with Gene Tierny in it, her hair done up in a World War II style that reminded me of horns. That was the missing link I had been looking for to complete the image, so I adopted it for the woman and finished the picture.
Good and Bad was one of another two paintings I did for Deborah Lawrence at The Rotarian. Each picture was a mirror image of the other with the black and white of the faces reversed; and each ran as a full page and a half. In the beginning Deborah and I toyed with the concept of masks and I did two paintings using that concept. But the results looked more scary than was necessary for an article about ethics, so we started over and ended up with this approach.
One of a Kind was painted for Anthony Padilla at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. I wrote about it here when it was published last fall. The purpose was to advertise the school's curriculum of both visual and performing arts. Anthony and I have worked together for years and I've done many of my favorite pictures for him. I designed the poster and did the hand lettering while Anthony's regular designer, John Coy added the body copy and school logo.
Ziggurat was a color sketch for the Odeon Theater's production of PaRaDiSo. I thought of it because the odd lettering in the show's title was based on archaic Hebrew writing – and that led me to the Biblical account of the Tower of Babel. As everyone knows, that story was about how certain people tried to shortcut their way to paradise by building a giant ramp to heaven – until God thwarted their plans, teaching them that heaven has to be achieved by spiritual rather than worldly means. I liked the picture as a picture, but realized that an image inspired by a cautionary tale was probably not the best one for a celebratory poster. So I did eight more sketches, including a crude last minute pencil sketch that became the basis for the poster we finally created.
PaRaDiSo was posted here last year, just as the Odeon Theater kicked off a multimedia production marking the 25th year of performances by Vienna's Serapions Ensemble. The show ran for a year and closed last spring. I've been doing posters for the Odeon since 1992 but because this was such a special event, I was happy that they asked me to design the poster for it – and I'm still impressed that Erwin Piplits could look at the sloppy pencil sketch I did for it and pick it out of 8 other sketches I sent him, at least 3 or 4 of which I had done in color. The painting is not only one of my favorite paintings from last year; it’s the kind of thing I became an artist hoping to be able to do.
When Madeline Kelty at Smithsonian Magazine asked me to contribute to their Star Spangled Banner issue, I decided that other artists would probably paint flags and portraits of Francis Scott Key. So I decided to do a painting of Fort McHenry.
Fort McHenry sits low on the peninsula that juts out into Baltimore Harbor. As most school kids know, it was the target of British shelling during the War of 1812, but survived the bombardment, leading Francis Scott Key, a lawyer being held on a truce ship in the harbor that night, to compose a poem that more than a hundred years later (1931) was adopted by the US Congress as our un-singable national anthem.
Of course I had no way of knowing what the fort actually looked like during the long night it was besieged – or on the morning after, for that matter. I found old prints of the scene, but saw no point in copying them or even relying on them for historical accuracy. They looked to be the products of various artists' imaginations. So in the end, I decided to use my own.
This, then, is a sort of conceptual landscape of the fort on the morning after that battle, with its famous flag still flying high above the horizon.
It’s not necessarily a realistic picture: on that particular morning, there'd still have been some British warships left riding at anchor in the harbor. But it’s a picture of the fort on the country's new morning: because in a sense the ending of the War of 1812 really was our country's national dawn.
The War of 1812 is often called "the forgotten war." Yet there are reasons it should be remembered. Coming a generation after the American Revolution, it settled many of the disputes with England that had remained unresolved from that conflict. And just as important, perhaps, it created a new national identity for the fledgling United States, both at home and abroad.
Although neither the US nor Britain could plausibly claim to have won the War of 1812, the United States, by holding its own against one of the great armies of the world, finally convinced American citizens and foreign governments alike that the American experiment in self-government – long considered by some to be a dubious prospect – might actually succeed.
At home, the war’s successful resolution also tempered the rancorous political differences that had poisoned civil discourse during the feuding Adams and Jefferson administrations. This led to a period in American history that even in those days was called “The Era of Good Feelings."
This dawn of a new age then is what I had in mind when I decided to do the painting. And as for reference, I found that that I didn’t have to rely on somebody’s old engravings. I could use an earlier painting of my own.
A few years ago, I did ten paintings of Baltimore harbor as it is today. Unlike most of my assignments, which are purely professional in origin, this one began as the result of a personal friendship.
My friend Jennifer Phillips is a designer who lives and works in Baltimore and is Director of the Graphic Design MFA program at the Maryland Institute College of Art. A few years ago, she was asked to design materials for a real estate development project in Baltimore harbor. And as part of the concept she presented to the clients, she asked me if I'd be interested in doing some paintings of contemporary scenes in and around the site.
In publishing, of course, we don’t get many opportunities to do landscapes or cityscapes. But Jennifer and I had traveled together and she was well aware of the landscape drawings I had filled my sketchbooks with. So she thought that an assignment of this sort was something I might be interested in.
I jumped at the opportunity and following her lead, did ten paintings of contemporary scenes in and around the harbor where two hundred years ago British mortars and Congreve rockets (the “bombs bursting in air”) had marked the end of England’s effort to invade the US from the east coast.
Of course, in doing these pictures neither Jennifer nor I were thinking of the War of 1812. We were simply aiming to present some scenes, more graphic then representational even, of contemporary life along the Baltimore waterfront. For me it was a refreshing experience.
When I was younger I tended to think of landscapes as interesting only to the eye. Who wants to draw pictures of trees, I thought; I wanted to draw pictures of ideas. Ideas are as real as trees but since they're invisible, you have to rearrange aspects of the visible world to show the invisible. You might call such pictures landscapes of experience.
But as I got older and began to travel; and then started to fill my sketchbooks with drawings of faraway places – places that in my Ohio childhood I had never dreamed I’d see – I found a new respect for things that are interesting only to the eye.
And so if I had ever disdained landscapes or taken them lightly, I found that I could get unexpected satisfaction out of paintng things that were sitting right in front of me: editing reality, as it were – in this case silos, warehouses, cranes and boats – instead of having to make everything up.
The paintings are small: only eight inches by ten, and as a small regional assignment they never got much attention. Still, they got my attention and led in the space of a few months or a year to a far more expansive project: a series of 40 pastel drawings of Andalusian castles for a Spanish publisher.
Jennifer's project had led me into a new line of pictures and into a new medium. And with this little painting of Fort McHenry as it is today, a national historical site virtually unchanged from 200 years ago, it gave me the information I used for the much larger painting I finshed last month for the Smithsonian.
While the contributors were working on this project, a researcher from Smithsonian Magazine called each of us to ask for a few words about why we were doing what we were doing. I told her about the Baltimore harbor paintings, of course, but when she asked me how I happened to know a bit about the War of 1812, I said maybe it's because of where I grew up.
I grew up in Fremont Ohio, just a few miles south of Lake Erie, not far from the Canadian border. Fremont's history as a town actually began with the War of 1812. In those days it was called Lower Sandusky, after the Sandusky river that runs through it and empties into Lake Erie. In 1812 Ohio was the northwest frontier, a state for only nine years; and as the lowest point of entry from Canada into the US, it was the perfect site for the British to invade. On August 1, 1813, they did, disembarking at a low spot on the river and laying siege to the small palisade fort that sat on the edge of a wooded ravine.
The Battle of Fort Stephenson took place the next day and, according to the history books, it was the last land battle of the War of 1812 fought in the western United States. The fort's defenders drove the British back into the lake, where a month later they were defeated at a decisive naval battle at Put-in-Bay off South Bass island. The next spring they concentrated on the Chesapeake Bay area, which led to the burning of Washington and the shelling of Fort McHenry.
In modern day Fremont, the town library sits on the site of the old picket fort; and when I was a kid there was a little museum of sorts in the basement, with artifacts under glass going back to the town's birth as a frontier outpost. Since I grew up in a home with no books, I was in and out of the library from an early age and occasionally, once I was tall enough to see above the glass cases downstairs, I used to wander around the basement, looking at stuff. My favorite items were the knives, forks and spoons the fort's defenders had fired at the British when they ran out of shot.
It's funny how an odd detail like that can interest a nosy kid, but it was the oddness of it that got my attention. Later, in Chicago I discovered Robert Remini's books and began to read up on the whole Jacksonian era. But I'd have to say that my painting of Fort McHenry actually had its roots in the basement of the Birchard Public Library, where as a little kid I learned that in a pinch you could hold off an enemy with kitchen utensils.