Mary Parsons, one of my favorite art directors, called to check on my availability to do some drawings for The American Prospect in a ‘courtroom style’ for a feature piece by journalist Kat Aaron who spent several years following the workings of the civil court division- in particular the court that handles tenant/landlord/homeowner/bank disputes.It’s a very strong, empathic and nuanced piece of writing that inspires a sense of sadness and despair as well as some hope amid desperation.It’s difficult enough being on the low end of the social rung; attempting to defend yourself against attorneys and banks because you can’t afford representation while being pretty much ill equipped in working the system must be a nightmare.There are no real good guys or bad guys in the black and white sense.It’s a world of sad stories and sad lives coming apart and being dumped in the statistics bin.There but for the grace of god go most of us.A change of fortune, loss of employment, failure to pay rent or mortgage, maybe add some bad life choices and you are screwed.
I received the copy from Mary and after reading it, and especially after finding unsatisfactory visual reference on this court in Google, thought, “Well, this is crazy.Why fake courtroom drawings when I have the chance (didn’t know that yet) to go there and draw the real deal?”
Detroit is a 14 hour drive, factoring in bladder stops and food, and we had enough lead time for me to take a few days off and make the journey. I pitched Mary my idea.The story and setting were so specific that to attempt generic scenes seemed pointless.After initial hesitation- travel expenses weren’t in the budget, a point I brushed off- Mary signed on.She hooked me up with Kat who helped provide some background to the protocol and preamble with the court administrator she worked with.It was to turn out while on my drive to Detroit that Kat texted me to say that her contact person in the public affairs was no longer there.My response was, “Improvise, Adapt, Overcome.”I’d make it work once I hit town.There was enough in her article that essentially gave me the heads up on what to expect from the officers and public affairs personnel, and it wasn’t all positive and cooperative. I was feeling pumped and upbeat nonetheless.
My hotel was just a ten minute walk from the courthouse and I was there soon after opening hours the next morning.I knew what I couldn’t bring- cell phone, camera, any kind of recording device and any paraphernalia connected to them.Those items would need to be brought back to the hotel or car (were you to drive and park at the lots nearby) or trashed in order to enter.
There certainly were a lot of people filing their way through security on their way to finding out which designated courts their cases were assigned.I made my way through the metal detector- had my bag of drawing materials inspected- and headed over to the information booth. I explained what my intentions were and asked what courts I needed to look for. The officer behind the counter couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful (Actually, I found the general attitude of the court officers quite friendly while making sure everything was done properly. A smile and proper respect probably didn’t hurt to generate that response.).He came out from behind and got the list for the day from one of the officers at the metal detectors, explained which courtrooms I needed to go to and on what floor.I headed up there and walked into one of the three available.Court was already in session.I took a seat near the rear with the intention of taking that deep breath and simply getting a feel for the environment.I had set aside a couple days so as not to feel the need to rush into drawing immediately before digesting the scene.Without missing a beat from her deliberations on the bench, Judge B. Pennie Millender looked over her glasses and announced, “We have a visitor.Have you signed in yet?” All eyes turned to me- about the only white face in the room- and I replied in a parched voice that I was just there to observe.“Oh, well observe away.”
I sat and watched the stream of humanity come up before the bench and explain, often in very awkward, unhelpful manner, their cases.Judge Millender was patient and often attempted to bring clarity to what the defendants were trying to say, even as she reminded them of their rights and procedure.There was also a sense of underlying humor in her demeanor that probably helped to keep everything from turning into a sort of Dante’s Purgatorio. She was no nonsense but not without compassion.Judge Millender was not one of the judges spotlighted in Kat’s story- in fact they had all been assigned other courts- but she seemed to fit Kat's profiles of bench personalities.About 45 minutes into the hearings I finally pulled out one of my pads and started scribbling away.I didn’t like my vantage point but intended to make lemonade out of the lemons and not call attention to myself.About 45 minutes into my sketching, one of the court officers walked over to me and asked what was I doing.I told her my mission.“Well you can’t do that.”“I can’t draw in court?”“Not without proper permission.”Suddenly, another taller, more armed, officer showed up and I was asked to leave.As I walked out he repeated the questions and I repeated my intentions.“Did you get proper clearance?Come with me.”We went upstairs to meet the deputy court administrator, Angela Hampton.I explained my situation and what I was looking to accomplish.When I mentioned the story written she asked, “Is this the writer from Washington?”I answered yes.“I know her from emails.”So I sat for a while signing forms and courtroom protocol instructions. I was told that because there might be undercover officers and witnesses in the hallways I was not to draw there as well as at the security station at the entrance. There seemed to be a concern that I would get too specific in my drawing and identify someone who shouldn't be spotlighted. This was a drag as some of the more poignant scenes were what was going on outside the courtrooms.Still, everyone was very pleasant and once the paperwork was signed I was brought back to the courtroom where proceedings halted while I escorted to the bench and explained my mission and intentions.Judge Millender said she had no problem with my being there and asked around.She then invited me to sit in the witness stand as there were no jury trials on the docket.Much better vantage point for sure. The courtroom had emptied out considerably by then but there were still enough cases to hear. I settled in and sketched.This went on for a while until a halt came to the proceedings and Judge Millender switched with Judge Wanda Evans.Judge Millender called me up and introduced me to Judge Evans who also expressed no reservation to me drawing and repeated the invite to sit in the jury box.The judges along with their staffs were gracious and accomodating to this stranger and I was grateful.
Kat’s story seemed to indicate that these cases were huge in number and the traffic before the bench endless.It was just my weird luck that for the two days I was there the hearings were uncharacteristically light and quickly dealt with.My concentration had to be on point as much as possible and without a camera to back me up many sketches were aborted because the cast of characters were gone in the space of a two minute pose.Still, I managed to get in some visual observations that spoke to the circumstances of these plaintiffs and defendants.Judge Evans presided on the second day there and after a quick paced clearing of the dockets which surprised even her, she turned to me and said she would check if there was anything else for the day elsewhere in the other courts.There weren’t.I thanked all and made my exit.
What I brought back and forwarded to Mary made enough impression that the number of spots doubled for the feature.It was a great assignment and I quite frankly enjoyed the experience in Detroit.The courthouse was less than a stone’s throw away from Tiger’s Stadium and the pennant was on the first night I was there.It’s a wonder that I was able to find hotel space.
From my brief walks through the downtown I was struck by its scruffy beauty and by the truly striking art deco architecture mixing in with the modern.My nephew who lives nearby gave me a nighttime tour.It’s sad that Detroit has fallen over the decades on such hard times but things seem to be changing for the better and businesses are setting up again.High tech more than auto industry related.But that’s how things evolve.Hopefully there will eventually be a new Renaissance for Detroit.
I want to thank Mary Parsons for calling me in on this assignment and being flexible enough to let me take the ride out to document on the spot, Kat Aaron for her assistance, and, in particular, note the courtesy and helpfulness of the judges, court staff and court officers at the 36th District Courthouse.
The drawings and story will appear in the November/December issue of The American Prospect.
Opening visual observations. The drawing I was working on before being escorted out to meet the court administrator.
Judge Millender. She possessed a very relaxed, patient, and friendly demeanor even as she attempted to get clarity from defendants. If they started going off on tangents she'd gently pull them back to the matter at hand.
While Judge Evans showed less patience with rambling and was quick to keep the plaintiffs and defendants on point answering the questions they were asked she remained gracious and attentive.
While I didn't 'draw' in the hallways during the waits, I made mental notes and quick placement scribbles. I'd go back to the hotel and try to replicate these ghosts. Treated them more as impressions and didn't concern myself with details. There was a poignancy in seeing people- any number of whom were taking time off from work- never a safe move- sitting, waiting to find out what new challenge they were going to have to deal with.
This young woman looked like a college student and the case- apparently revolving around repairs and shared costs- seemed like a huge misunderstanding more than any deliberate nonpayment of rent.
The day ended quick enough though to be last in line is still last in line.
I first met Jules Shell last year at the first ever military sponsored TEDx event at Scott AFB, Illinois.I had been invited by 4-star General Ray Johns (now retired) to be one of the presenters.General Johns knew me from my work for the USAF Art Program through the Society of Illustrators but also from the embed work I had done with a Medevac unit in Afghanistan in 2011.I was there to talk about “witness art”.In this context it related to combat art- work done in the war zone.
Jules was going to talk about her organization, Foundation Rwanda, and their mission to provide assistance to women and the children they bore from rape during the horrific genocide nearly twenty years ago.The anniversary, if that is a correct term under the circumstances, will in fact be next April, 2014.
There were 17 presenters in total at this event and everyone had fascinating, resonant, stories to tell. Most were from the military.A handful, like Jules and me, were from the civilian world.As per the rules of this TEDx event, we had a maximum of eighteen minutes to get our stories told.Jules’ took seven but in that seven minutes she gave a wrenching and powerful look into the human catastrophe that was the genocide but also presented a story of hope that left an auditorium of military personnel in tears. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SahTTuKqfTI&list=PL003829ADDD59E69C
I went after her and acquitted myself well.During the break that followed that segment Jules approached me about wanting to discuss an idea she had.Later, as she began elaborating on her thoughts I knew intuitively where she was heading.Foundation Rwanda already had a beautiful book of stunning photography from Jonathan Torgovnik, a co-founder of the organization, but Jules was looking to bring artwork somehow into the mix to tell the story.She wasn’t finished her pitch before I already agreed to come on board and contribute whatever I could to realizing her dreams.BUT… I also felt that this was a project bigger than me and my counter proposal was that somewhere down the line we would have a number of brilliant illustrators, preferably with the chops to work on location, involved in the creation of artwork and documenting these women and their kids, who are no longer kids but 19 years old.
Over the course of the year I made Jules aware of and introduced her to illustrators whom I felt could bring something to the table.Not all the ones I had in mind but I needed to start with small steps.Most everyone I talked to expressed enthusiasm about being part of the mission.The challenges, so common for our profession, involved coordinating time and real life deadlines and commitments, and finances- finding financial backers to fund artists traveling overseas.Both soon presented themselves as considerable obstacles, at least for now.
Foundation Rwanda was planning another trip to Rwanda for August with the purpose of building bikes to present to a hundred families being assisted by FR.I had already made enough noise about going on this trip, come Hell or high water, that I wasn’t going to back out regardless of how circumstances played out for my fellow artists.As it happened, time/work commitments and money forced the few who might have been able to make it take a rain check on another trip.I’m very fortunate.My wife, Terri, is successful enough in her own right that she waved off any consideration about money and said, “Do it.”
I had recently done an illustration for The NEW YORK OBSERVER and had mentioned to its then creative director, Ed Johnson, that I was going on this trip.He seemed intrigued and wanted to follow up when I returned as the NYO was going to publish a UN issue in September.A story on Foundation Rwanda seemed incredibly appropriate.It was actually Ed who checked up with me after I returned to continue the dialogue.
I had brought back a number of half finished sketches and a small boatload of photographs. I realized very quickly into the bike build that even the most difficult 1 minute poses in a sketch class or sitting cramped in the back of a Black Hawk drawing a medic team with a casualty didn’t compare to the challenge of following and drawing the chaos of 17 volunteers plus local mechanics plus kids assisting, all constantly moving and leaving or entering scenes.I abandoned that part of the drawing mission and soon focused on the women and their kids.But all that work, along with the journal notes, is still being culled and assessed for a future pitch.What I did have in semi-completed form were the sketches from the bike build and lots photos to help flesh out what was missing. (I am very grateful I continually reminded myself to pick up the camera and shoot sequences.)I told Ed that we should concentrate on the bike build and he agreed.It was an unfortunate coincidence that he would be leaving his duties with the NYO during the course of putting this issue together.Christie Wright would be managing the art direction.Rebecca Hiscott was writing up the story and I hooked her up with Jules to interview and get the details.By fortunate coincidence, Rafi Kohan, who had done such an extraordinary job fact checking my Afghanistan embed story for GQ in 2012, was now the deputy editor at the NYO, and would be supervising the story.
I had time to work up the sketches, create new drawings and look at the copy along with Jules to make sure the quotes and info were accurate.The story is out on the stands in New York City today.My sincerest thanks to Ed, Rafi, Rebecca and Christie for making this such an attractive looking spread accompanying a well written article.Hopefully it has some impact in reintroducing awareness to the situation with these families in Rwanda.http://observer.com/2013/09/the-survival-sketchbook/
Over the past five, eight, years I have been presented with some extraordinary opportunities to tell stories visually in a way that I had dreamed of doing when I first started out in this profession nearly 40 years ago.There have been very few that I have not taken advantage of.Most of the witness art has been in the combat/military realm and it is good to expand the range of witnessing to include other topics.I feel particularly grateful for this opportunity, for the friendship and mutual respect that I have with Jules Shell, for the friendships with the members of the FR team who went over to do the bike build.I remain very positive and focused on expanding the mission to include other artists as I see great things coming out of such a collaboration of styles and points of view.
Some of the drawings here-like this one- are in the NYOBSERVER piece. Others I have added.
A drawing that I chose not to include as I reminded me of the frustrations of drawing so much happening at once. The only constant here were the upside down bikes still in the process of being built. Everything and everyone else was in constant non-stop flux. So I just decided to drop in the impressions of them as they drifted in and out. The volunteers liked this one. And the kids stood around pointing out who was who. They actually knew who was where and what was happening.
One of the images from the backup photos.
I found a new friend in the Faber-Castell brush markers I brought along. For a while I abandoned my beloved pencils and found a sort of reckless freedom in the ink brushes. There was no gong back once the marks were down.
It seemed at times like a lot of the visuals were of the fleeting variety. There was so much to see and as we drove to our various locations I tried to make the most of those quick impressions of the people we rapidly passed on the roads. It became something of a game- trying to get down as much as possible and memorize whatever else in the 5-10 seconds it would take to whiz by.
Drawn in Brussels airport during the stopover on the way to Kigali.
A very striking woman with her child in Kigali airport waiting with her husband near the arrival gate.
In the 12th hour, a day before leaving on a trip with Foundation Rwanda to do some visual journalism of their mission there, I received a call from Mark Maltais at ROLLING STONE if I could squeeze in an illustration for a Matt Taibbi National Affairs feature on the college loan racket. I love illustrating Matt's journalism and was pretty close to finishing my packing for the trip, so I fugured what's the big deal about missing a night's sleep.
We had no real copy, just a brief outline of what the piece was going to focus on. Which was essentially a detailed explanantion of the scam that extends far beyond college loans.
"No doubt, seeing rates double permanently would genuinely have sucked for many students, so it was nice to avoid that. And yes, it was theoretically beneficial when Obama took banks and middlemen out of the federal student-loan game. But the dirty secret of American higher education is that student-loan interest rates are almost irrelevant. It's not the cost of the loan that's the problem, it's the principal – the appallingly high tuition costs that have been soaring at two to three times the rate of inflation, an irrational upward trajectory eerily reminiscent of skyrocketing housing prices in the years before 2008.
In a 24 burst of creativity and focus I popped off some ideas which were welcomed by the gang at RS, one getting the go ahead with some compositional adjustment for page size and I was off. Thank you, Mark, Joe Hutchinson and Will Dana. Always great to work with RS.
Step right this way. Get you diploma and your financial ball and chain.
Sometimes you just have to throw as many metaphors as possible into an idea with the hopes that all you may need to do is scale back and focus on one.
I actually liked this idea but it is based on an historical photo from US slavery days. My concerns were that the concept would get misinterpreted and considered disrespectful. RS was still working off the fury over their Boston bomber cover. I threw it out there anyway.
This decision was to go with this concept but change the size from horizontal to vertical. A little fiddling with the characters and it was on to finish.
The return trip from Rwanda was a tragi-comedy of errors that took about 30 hours in total. My jet lagged brain and body were still in decompression mode when I received a call from Ed Johnson at the NEW YORK OBSERVER wondering if I could manage a quick turnaround- overnight- for a front page piece. The story and illustration already done had been shelved and was being replaced with a feature on Percocet and how the rich, trendy and shallow are having a difficult time scoring some for their entertainment. Percocet as recreational drug? Jeeez. After a near nauseating tour through Google of drug addict imagery it seemed like I could approach it by comparing different classes looking to score from different types of dealers or we'd go with a club setting and the waiting in line BS that happens at clubs. The decision was to go with the waiting in line focus even though it might be a bit too subtle for a front pager.
As God is my witness, at my age if I pick up a PLAYBOY it’s to look for the illustrations.Almost 40 years in this business and I recently received a call fromMac Lewis, who used to be a Deputy AD at ROLLING STONE Magazine, asking me if I’d be available to do an illustration for Hefner’s publication.And a political one to boot!A pretty lengthy profile about current Secretary of State, John Kerry.How could I resist?Finally, after all these years, to add PLAYBOY to my credits. Very cool and very excited about it.The article was indeed an interesting overview of Kerry and the monumental and complicated challenges he has to deal with.Mac handed the responsibilities over to his designer, Robert Harkness and we started kicking around sketches.I have always found Kerry’s face to be both a joy and a challenge to caricature. A blessing because it is already so ripe with unique features. A challenge because it is already so ripe with unique features. Often, a face that is so close to a caricature in reality is very hard to add anything to and can go seriousl;y wrong if too much emphasis is placed on an already, by nature, exaggeration. Recently I have shied away from going for the easy distortion preferring instead a more studied approach, but in this case a bit of stretching of features seemed perfect provided it fit the concept and layout.I personally have no axe to grind about Kerry and yet he is indeed a gift that just keeps giving. Thanks to Mac Lewis and Robert Harkness for the opportunity to work for PLAYBOY.
From the copy it quickly evolved that Kerry is involved in a nearly overwhelming juggling act as a modern Secretary of State and we needed to show that.My first thought even before serious discussions and while still reading the copy was a remembrance of the old Ed Sullivan Show and the plate spinning acts he’d occasionally have on his variety hour.But there were so many elements and so many countries and leaders that to position them on plates crowding the top seemed absurd from a compositional standpoint.A failed lion taming act seemed another possibility.My guess is that a lot of the key players in the story were not easily recognizable faces. In the end, a simple multiple globe juggling image satisfied the parameters of our theme.
Another great assignment for THE AMERICAN PROSPECT art directed by Mary Parsons. A challenging one in that the articles I was asked to illustrate on the theme of the "End of the Solid South" dealt a lot with stats and nuts and bolts information. How to turn that into viewer friendly imagery? The old tug of war between Republicans, who have held a firm grasp on the southern states since the advances in civil rights in the 60's and especially Nixon's "Southern Strategy" in'68, and Democrats who have slowly been making inroads in elections. Ironically, it was the Democrats who controlled the racist southern stronghold since the Civil War up till the 60's. The more things change the more they stay the same.
The articles that I worked on tended to concentrate on certain key states. Texas was one. A slow, very slow process to resting control from Republican dominance of the legislature. The skunk hat is a nod to the Three Stooges Curly who would wear them in their great spoofs. Seemed totally appropriate here as well.
The dominance in part ties in with discouragement of non-white voters to partake in the election process.
" You missed a spot." Probably my favorite image was of David Koch and his heavy hand in turning North Carolina from a progressive state to a red state. I just like drawing this guy. The state hack doing his dirty work had a great flabby Elmer Fudd kind of mug to make it even more fun.
The loss of control as represented by states stars falling from the Confederate flag. Crucial error here on my part. I put the blue sky in the spaces where the stars fell but didn't factor in the subtle, not very noticeable difference. This is where a good art director comes in.
Voila. Simple. Almost too obvious, but a perfect solution. Thanks to Mary Parsons for the assignment.
Speaking of the Koch brothers. A sketch never used for ROLLING STONE on the weird state of affairs in Kansas, another state heavily invested in politically by the Koch brothers. From left to right, Sam Brownback, Dorothy, a crushed Uncle Sam, and the Kochs.
A fun piece to do for the fantastic SooJin Buzelli. An article on Tony Broccardo of Barclays, steering clear of turbulent waters for his clients. Another opportunity to indulge in rough seas rendering. Love doing waves.
In the current ROLLING STONE (with Johnny Depp on the cover) Matt Taibbi does another one of his stunning feats of journalism working his way through the horrific labyrinth that is modern financial wheeling and dealing. "The Last Mystery of the Financial Crisis" breaks down the break down in ethics and standards among the major ratings agencies that gave AAA clearance to what was already known to be junk. An awful conflict of interest expose where the agencies were being paid by the very companies and banks they were supposed to issue objective ratings of their products. First thought was the classic see,speak,hear no evil image with plenty of money involved.
The idea of these ratings agencies essentially turning into whorehouses was another way to go.
A variation on the whorehouse theme, with the setting brought inside.
The idea that these agencies would put a top rating on any piece of shit if paid enough.
But the winner was the sketch showing the kitchen in a rating's agency like restaurant where rats and other stuff were being ground into AAA burgers.
It's always fun to know when Matt is tickled by a particular image. This one got a good gross laugh out of him.
Thanks to ADs Joe Hutchinson and Mark Maltais.
Drawings from last week. A golf event at Chevy Chase sponsored by friends David Feherty and Rick Kell, co-founders of Troops First Foundation, hosting wounded vets with golf pros playing the course there. Fellow Society of Illustrator member Jeff Fisher, Joe Bonham Project founder Michael Fay and I were on the scene drawing some of the vets and getting their stories. In this picture quadruple amputee Brendan Marrocco, US Army, with recently surgically attached arms- real arms- and his brother Michael. Brendan's story has been a truly remarkable one covered in the press. He already had a drawing I did of him for a Feherty column years ago in GOLF magazine. He was very gracious and straight forward. Still, I couldn't help but feel like I was invading his space, as he was the object of much camera attention. His brother, Michael, has been a constant source of support.
Charles McIntosh ("like the apple") was a Corpsman servicing the wounded. Not wounded himself but certainly no stranger to suffering on the battlefield.
I was drawing Master Sergeant James while the both of us were being eaten alive by black flies. He remained focused and in good humor. I tried.
Finally, Omar Avila, who suffered massive burns in an IED explosion while in his Humvee in 2007. Over 75% burned and loss of right foot. Still maintaining a great sense of humor.