Over the summer Dave Lesh died. Many of you knew him through his art. Some of you knew him as a person. Artists everywhere have lost a champion and a colleague of great distinction. We’ve lost a good and true friend. Recently some of us who worked with him collected our thoughts and delivered them to his family at a memorial service in Indianapolis.
It would be hard to describe Dave Lesh with a word, but a word keeps coming to mind: Integrity. Those of us who knew Dave well can testify that he was honest and fair; kind and caring, talented and creative; determined and yet modest. But the virtue that encompassed all his other virtues was integrity.
We each met Dave at different times about 15 years ago. It was art that brought us together. Yet from the beginning, we learned that we had more than art in common. Together we shared a belief that the field of illustration was going through a period of radical and fundamental change; and that as artists, we needed to do more than just practice our craft. We needed to act as stewards for all the young artists who wished to follow in the traditions of our field.
We were a small band but we got big results: the first national Illustrators Conference ever held; and a grassroots organization, The Illustrators Partnership, that has twice stopped Congress from passing an anti-copyright law – the Orphan Works Act – that would have fundamentally undermined every artist’s right to control the use of his or her own work. It was a fight that mattered desperately to artists and it was a fight that (so far, at least) artists have won.
Dave’s role in all this was like the man himself: dedicated, but unassuming. He was a quiet activist, always willing to contribute his time and money to the campaign for artists rights. Yet he never sought credit for his work; never used his contributions to promote himself and never bragged about his achievements. The field of illustration is better because Dave Lesh lived. His loss to the field is greater than the sum of the parts he contributed to it.
Dave’s art was the product of subtle thinking and a sophisticated sense of design. He contributed some of the most elegant and imaginative images of his generation to our popular culture.
Yet one event marked the turning point when Dave Lesh the artist became Dave Lesh the activist. It began in early 1998 when he joined two of us to launch the first national illustrators conference, an event unlike anything ever held before in our field.
The idea for the conference was hatched over Thanksgiving weekend in 1997. It was born of the recognition that the field of art was being reshaped by technology and that the rules of the game were being rewritten by corporations and media conglomerates. Yet we had faith that these changes could be turned to opportunities if collectively, artists would welcome change, understand it, and find strategies to adapt to it.
By the fall of ‘98 we had assembled the first conference board; and with no backing from any organization, and with only two corporate sponsors, we each pledged $15,000 of our own money to get it off the ground. A year later, in October 1999, over 600 of us from across the country and many artists from overseas met in Santa Fe.
Illustrators had never met like this before. For decades, we had worked in isolation. We had nurtured our styles and individual visions alone. We had thrived alone. We had taken pride in being a cottage industry. But now, as change came to that industry, our cottages were scattered across the country and many artists were responding to change alone. Many were responding out of confusion and fear.
The Illustrators Conference was an effort to dispel that fear, bring purpose out of confusion and end the industry-wide isolation that had exposed all of us to lousy contracts, shrinking fees and exploitation by opportunists.
We didn't meet to complain about how things had changed or to lament the passing of the old ways. We didn't invite people to "meet the stars" or to show our work and talk about ourselves.
Instead we met as colleagues to expose ourselves to things that artists should know, but didn’t know. To dispel myths and untruths that had been spread by gossip and misinformation. To learn from legal experts how to retain our rights in the new digital environment. And to propose new ways to maintain the value of our work and the integrity of our craft.
We met to bring illustrators together and we succeeded.
The conference was a runaway success and Dave's contribution to it was unsung but essential. The unexpected profits – more than $120,000 after expenses – led some to suggest we split the cash and turn the thing into a money-making machine for ourselves.
Instead, we opened the books and passed the money and the franchise along to others to use or lose. We took nothing from it: no money, no salaries, no benefits. We even paid our own registration fees and travel expenses. We hoped it would set an example for others.
The Illustrators Partnership that followed was started to act on what we had learned in Santa Fe. As a grassroots effort we kept it small and flexible. Once again, Dave, like the rest of us, put up his own time and money to start it and once again, his role in the co-founding was as essential as it was unsung.
The basic problem facing artists today is how to survive the move from a print to a digital world. There's a well-funded lobby dedicated to undermining our rights.
Twice they've introduced legislation that would have forced us to register every picture we've ever done with commercial stockhouses or see it exposed to potential infringement as "orphaned" work.
Twice we were told there was no way to stop these bills. Yet twice we DID stop them.
In 2008, 85 organizations joined us in opposing the legislation and 167,000 letters were sent to Congress from our website.
Washington insiders have told us this is the first time anyone can remember illustrators playing such a decisive role in any legislation.
This is neither the time nor place to tell the stories behind the stories: the efforts by some to sabotage the Santa Fe conference before it could start or to privatize it for profit when it suceeded. No time to explain how some in our business have sought – and still seek – to profit from the money artists are losing. These are stories better left for another day. Yet when the stories are told, as they will be, artists may better understand the high cost of defending rights too easily taken for granted; and appreciate more fully what a true and noble fighter for those rights our cottage industry has lost this summer.
To Dave's family, we extend our deepest condolences. Our loss is neither as immediate nor as intimate as yours, yet it's a loss that tears at the heartstrings. For those of us used to reaching Dave at the end of a telephone, we can do nothing now but salute him from across that dark and mysterious void that separates the living from the dead.
So long Dave, but not goodbye. For those of us you've touched, you'll die only when we die ourselves. Until then, Godspeed, old friend. Thanks for the memories, thanks for the dedication and hard work, thanks for the art you've left behind and thanks for the gift and the pleasure of your company.