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Light to Dark: A Tribute to Dugald Stermer

OCTOBER 22, 2012
Last week I flew to San Francisco at the invitation of Dugald Stermer's family and the Illustration Department of the California College of the Arts to speak at a memorial exhibition of Dugald's work. Dugald was an old friend and I was honored to have the opportunity to say a few words.
The ancient Greek poet Archilochus wrote that all human beings could be classified as either hedgehogs or foxes. Foxes, he wrote, know many little things. A hedgehog knows one big thing.

Dugald Stermer had his own way of typing people. His take came from the world of art. To Dugald, people were either Dark to Light (like his friend Brad Holland), or they were Light to Dark.


Dugald was a Light to Dark guy. 

Some years ago, Graphis magazine invited Dugald and me to talk about our lives in art. The conversation was taped and published in two issues of the magazine.

We met in my studio and I began by talking about hedgehogs and foxes. Then I tossed the ball to Dugald and asked him to elaborate on his own theory of types.


"I've always admired people who seem to pull their work out of chaos," he began. "For instance, Beethoven is dark to light. You can’t pick out the individual instruments in his music. The melody and the power emerge out of a cacophony of sound. Bach, on the contrary, is light to dark. You know: counterpoint, you can hear every note. 


"And I’m light to dark," he said. "Literally. I have a white piece of paper and I draw on it. And when I’m finished, every mark I make is visible."

Dugald was light to dark in his work. And he was light to dark in his life. The marks that he made during his years on earth were as clear and clean and direct as the marks he put on paper. There was no pussyfooting around with Dugald. There was no dishonesty in the man. 
I first met Dugald about 20 years before we actually met. I met him through his work.  Not through his art, Dugald wasn’t doing much of that in those days. I encountered him through the work with which he first made his mark on the world: the work he did as art director of Ramparts.

Ramparts was known then – and has been remembered since – as a radical publication. That is, its editorial content was radical. But in its art and design, it more closely resembled a limited edition book. 


That was odd. But it wasn't an accident. It was Dugald's personality made visible.

The first thing I noticed about Ramparts was its typography. It was extremely classical. And I wasn’t the only one who was struck by that. Ed Sorel was one of the first artists Dugald gave a free hand to at the magazine:

"Stermer’s typography was revolutionary," Ed told Graphis. “[I]t's been copied so often by other magazines,  it’s difficult to gauge how innovative and refreshing it was when it appeared."

"I started with the premise that the magazine should look like chapters of a book," Dugald told me. "I wanted it to have the same editorial intelligence throughout. So I designed it in such a way that the typography was similar – I never moved from Times Roman. I also wanted to build a framework for the illustration. I tried to showcase the art."
And showcase the art he did. Dugald was probably one of the first modern art directors to use art in a glossy magazine not as illustration, but as a means of social commentary. And that meant treating the art as an editorial component on a par with the text itself.
Today the idea of a conservative look for a radical publication might strike some people as schizophrenic. But that's because in the mass mind, the Sixties is remembered as an era of revolution in lifestyle, music and the politics of the underdog. 

It was, of course, all those things. But the cliche overlooks the fact that many of the radicals of that time were not trying to tear down the system. They were just trying to see that the institutions that govern society continue to wear a human face. That, in essence, is was what Dugald was trying to do.

In the work he did for Ramparts I think you'll find the key to the way he lived the rest of his life.
As an art director, he helped revolutionize magazine design by picking artists who had something to say, then giving them a place to say it. In that sense he acted as an art editor as much as an art director. That was something new.
Then as an artist himself, he went on to produce work that was precise, transparent and beautiful – or as he put it, work  “with no layers, glazes, or areas of mystery, no tricks."
And as a man he did what we were always taught to do in Boy Scouts: he left the campsite last year in better shape than he found it.
I'm sure most of you here in San Francisco know –  probably better than I do – about Dugald's long association with the Delancey Street Foundation. He served on its board for over 30 years. 

For those who don't know, Delancey Street is a residential rehab program that provides housing and work experience in the catering and restaurant trades for ex-convicts, ex-drug addicts and people with no other home in the world. Dugald had his studio in their building on the Embarcadero, although his office seemed to be downstairs at a corner table in the restaurant they ran. At least that's where we always seemed to meet.


Dining there with Dugald was an experience that was inevitably interrupted by the residents who worked there as waiters and cooks. They all knew Dugald and seemed to be fond of him; and spotting him at his regular table, they'd just drop by for a chat.


Over the years Delancey Street has helped so many lost souls find themselves that Dugald was often stopped while eating at other places around town – or even in other cities – by cooks or waiters who had moved on from the program and found work in mainstream restaurants. Having recognized Dugald, they just wanted to drop by, as they once had at Delancey Street, to thank him for the part he had played in reconciling themselves with society.


Dugald was very gratified by this and was probably as proud of his work with Delancey Street as he was of his art. But it amused him that all the ex-cons who greeted him that way seemed to think that he had done time in prison himself. 


He concluded that was because he looked like Johnny Cash.

It would be a mistake, however, to think of Dugald as a gentleman revolutionary. He had a heart of gold, but he was no Goody Two Shoes. He knew that to do the right thing in this world you often have to have courage. Dugald had courage. 
I never knew him to pick a fight, but if a matter of principle turned into one, I never knew him to back away.
He didn't cultivate enemies either. But unless you're a potted plant and are ready to watch cynicism, greed and self-interest steal a march on the better interests of our species, you'd probably better resign yourself to having a few.
Dugald wasn't afraid to have a few enemies – at least not if they were the right ones.
The fire that that was lit when Dugald art directed Ramparts burned brightly after he left it for nearly half a century. It burned in the work he did and in the life he lived. It'll glow in the art he left behind. People like Dugald Stermer only die in the flesh.
At the heart of Dugald's character was his heart. And those of us who knew him knew how much it beat for others. Last year, it finally beat itself out. 

Our mutual friend Steve Heller wrote Dugald's obituary for the New York Times. The kid who had grown up in Los Angeles and dreamed of becoming a cartoonist had left his mark on the world. It was light to dark. And every mark was visible. 

In his piece, Steve quoted from an interview he had conducted with Dugald just months earlier. In it, Dugald talked about his work and said about one of his books in particular that "it was a true labor of love."

I think the same thing can be said about his life.


– Brad Holland, San Francisco 10.12.12


The exhibition of Dugald's work was held at the California College of the Arts, where for years, Dugald chaired the illustration department and where, with luck, his tenure will cast a long shadow. 


I want to thank Dugald's daughter Crystal, my friend Robert Hunt, and Alexis Mahrus, the department's Interim Chair, for giving me the opportunity to pay tribute in person to my old pal. They all addressed the audience too and had glowing things to say about Dugald. So did two other longtime friends of his: Eric Madsen and, by video, Steve Heller.


The show was beautifully curated, with examples of Dugald's work from over the years and photographs of him going back to his days at Ramparts. I was particularly moved by some of his first stabs at freelance illustration. He began with a flat and fairly undistinguished form of graphic art, but moved swiftly and with growing confidence into an original style that married design and lettering to his nearly microscopic rendering and came to focus most beautifully on depictions of the natural world. 


This style, like his art direction, was Dugald's personality made visible and it constitutes a unique legacy in the history of our field. The best of it is work for the ages and if fate is kind, it'll find a lasting home there.

The art  shown here is the copyrighted property of the estate of Dugald Stermer or those to whom the rights have been legally transferred. No reproduction is allowed without permission. Text © 2012 Brad Holland