"In Switzerland it is a tradition that we celebrate the new year with fire," my friend Roland wrote me from Zurich. One such tradition, he said, is the Swiss “table bomb." Light a fuse and boom, out come "noses, hats, colored balls and many other toys for children."
Who knew there was such a thing as a Swiss piñata?
"My very, very rough idea," Roland explained, "I thought to have a tablebomb with a face of a Santa Claus on it, and out of the bomb, instead of toys, some Santa Clauses are flying in an artistic way."
To be honest, I had never heard of a table bomb, Swiss or otherwise. In the US, I don't think we have any Christmas traditions built around explosions in the home – and if we did, I'm sure that Homeland Security would have shut them down by now. But for Roland Scotoni, one of the world's most imaginative art directors, it was a concept that led him to think of me.
I'm not sure why. It’s not as if I’m known around the world for painting Santas. Or explosions, for that matter. But Roland is a fantastic art director and a great friend so I said sure, I'd do it and began drawing.
First things first: the artistic flying Santas.
I started with these guys because at first I thought they'd give me trouble. They didn't, they came easily. Santas just came pouring out, flyng in all directions, several sheets of typing paper full of them.That was enough to convince me that the picture would work, so I started painting.
Of course, this wasn't the kind of image I'd normally have thought to do on my own, but once done, I loved it. Still, I probably wouldn't have posted it here except for something unexpected that happened last Christmas day.
On Christmas morning last year, I woke up and retrieved the day's emails. The first one I opened was Steve Heller's daily design blog for Print Magazine. Steve sends these things out every day. Some days it's about new work that he's seen and liked. Other times it's archival stuff that he's dug up from around the world.
This day, he was sending out a long lost painting I once did of Santa Claus. It was titled "Who Put the X in Xmas," and it had no text except for a short sentence saying it was a Christmas greeting from him and me.
With no other context, this made it sound as if the picture was some new work I had just painted for Steve's blog when in fact, it was something I did nearly 40 years ago. Since Steve didn't supply the backstory, I thought I’d wait until this year and do it here.
Back in our counterculture days, Steve and I both did work for a weekly tabloid called the East Village Other. EVO was the New York Times of hippie newspapers, although with potheads, knuckleheads and 16 year old runaways hanging around the joint, its offices more closely resembled a pool hall than a news room.
Among the characters for whom EVO seemed to be a home-away-from-home was an elderly radical named Vincent Titus.
That's Titus, on the right in the photograph below. The others are the self-styled "Dylanologist," A. J. Weberman (on the left) and the cartoonist Yossarian. If I remember correctly, they had just absconded with Bob Dylan's garbage and were hauling it off to comb through it to see what they could find. So much for the Revolution.
Around the EVO offices Titus never really had any legitimate function. So with lots of time on his hands he used to regale anyone who would listen with wild and wooly tales about his alleged exploits during the Spanish Civil War.
Having taken arms against the evil Franco made Titus a sort of mascot among the armchair revolutionaries of EVO. But for my part, he reminded me of the Ancient Mariner – looked like him too. More than once I thought I should paint him with an albatross hanging around his neck.
Instead, one year I decided to paint him as Santa Claus.
My idea was to paint Titus in a mug shot, with his straggly white beard and cockeyed stare, as if he had just been arrested for breaking and entering. I thought it was an amusing concept, and for the handful of people it was intended for that Christmas, it seemed to be.
But for normal folks, Titus was hardly the sort of Santa you'd like to see emerging from your hearth on a dark night, or rapping at your door going ho-ho-ho. My painting of him is definitely at the other end of the Santa Claus spectrum from the flying Santas I was painting for Roland.
I can only guess where Steve found this primieval artifact of my youth. I lost track of the original a long time ago and in those days I didn't keep transparencies. In any event, I had almost forgotten about the thing until I opened my in-box last Christmas. Then it was like getting an e-visit from the Spirit of Christmas Past.
Anyway, on the premise that one good Santa deserves another – or in this case, that a bad Santa deserves a good one – I decided this year that I'd tie up the loose ends of last year by posting this account.
So on behalf of Steve Heller – and Vincent Titus, wherever he may be – and of Roland Scotoni in far-off Zurich and of course, myself, may a thousand flying Santas fly down all your chimneys next week and for God's sake let's hope that the new year will be a better one than the last.