The past few months have left me feeling more like a gypsy than the stay at home studio-centric illustrator that has been the norm for longer than I can remember. I’ve been very truant lately posting work to Drawger as I have no sooner returned from a drawing assignment relating to wounded warriors than I am meeting a deadline for a publication and then out on the road again. My wife, Terri, has been equally enveloped in her work and travels, and sometimes we even get to go on the same trips, like to Lorton, Virginia, to attend the reception at the Workhouse Arts Center exhibiting military art or up to Maine to visit combat artist Steve Mumford, his artist wife, Inka Essenhigh, and their two month old baby boy, Kaspar as well as catching an exhibition of his most recent work from Afghanistan at the Center for Maine Contemporary Arts in Rockport.
It might be easy to assume that I haven’t been doing much from the dearth of postings. Not the case. But, as it sometimes occurs, the work I most wish to blog about needs time to get to print before I can put it on the front page. A couple cases in point, and then one that I am late in posting will be the subjects here.
OPERA NEWS. I’ve been having a grand old time over the years illustrating for Greg Downer at OPERA NEWS, the publication of the Metropolitan Opera House in NYC. The assignments have always been fun, not only as illustrations but because I also enjoy opera. The most current one, that just hit the stands yesterday, concerns an overview of ways to increase recruitment and grow a fan base of committed, intelligent listeners of opera. Almost from the gitgo the idea of spoofing J.M. Flagg’s iconic Uncle Sam “ I Want You” poster seemed like the way to go. What became the challenge was how to portray a Brunhilde as Sam. Old school version of very vocal and campy battleaxe or a more up to date, slimmer, version of the Valkyrie within the context of the Flagg’s Uncle Sam. We went modern and I opted for playing off the features of the original Sam, made considerably younger and sans goatee. I’ve done take-offs of this famous poster any number of times in the past and it’s always great fun to get into the spirit of Flagg’s lively and confident brushwork. My skills at Photoshop and the art of layering are limited so I did the lettering myself.
BACKSTAGE Magazine. The call came in from Daniel Holloway to create a cover image of selected actors on the topic of their favorite roles, titled “Great Performances”. For me the more immediate challenge was establishing a logical setting where they would be seen interacting and not in capturing the likenesses as the selections were all great faces. A dressing room background seemed like a great solution to tie the theme together with the characters instead of a stage, because they wouldn’t be sharing stories on stage in performance.
ROLLING STONE. I dropped the ball on this one not posting when the magazine hit the stands a while back. But it’s going up now. The article, by Matt Taibbi in his trademark no bullshit style, is an examination of the current political joke that’s not funny- Representative Michelle Bachmann. As Matt makes very clear in his tracing of her very shrewd efforts at forging her myth, she is not to be laughed off as some wingnut, no matter how crazy she sounds. She has a core following of rage filled constituents and has successfully marketed a persecution story vis a vis the “liberal” press that only ratchets that rallying factor. And, despite that wild, loopy, look in her eyes (noteworthy of late in how it has been toning back the more she gets professionally managed), she has always been an attractive sort of woman. That’s not easy to caricature. The more she gets handled by the marketing pros the hotter she seems to be getting in appearance. I maintain my position that if Bachmann, or for that matter her rival in the race to become the stupidest president in American history, Sarah Palin, looked like Bella Abzug, no one would be paying any attention. But whereas Palin is small minded, petty, inarticulate and uncomfortable forming a thought in public, easily distracted and more of an attention whore seeking celebrity, Bachmann seems scarily focused and on point with her message and mission. She has discipline. She is not to be dismissed, especially in this time of hysteria, rage, paranoia and creative recreation of American mythology- of when we were ‘real’ Americans. So, laugh and joke at your own expense.
Editorial focus, after some initial idea tossing, pretty quickly shifted to the idea of Bachmann as a demented type of Joan of Arc, her minions dealing quick justice to those not pure and of secular inclination. Thank god there are enough photos of her whacky stares and expressions to work with. This illustration took a great deal of time in the drawing stage because the nuances in portraying her features had to be spot on or the caricature would fall apart like a house of cards. After many false starts I finally hit a sweet spot and took it from there.
Many if not most of the people we cross paths with in our lives leave little or no residual impression regardless of the pleasantness (hopefully) of the brief connection. There are some who strike a chord out of which we form long-term friendships. But there is also another category. It is the unique and noteworthy experience where we find ourselves in the company of someone and recognize the true specialness of the occasion, imagining what it might have been like for a working composer sharing a lunch and conversation with Beethoven (I know- he was deaf. But let’s suspend that fact for a second and concentrate on the significance of such an event.). Or a physics major having a tea and cake with Einstein.
I was invited by Anelle Miller, director extraordinaire of the Society of Illustrators, to join a small group at the Society having lunch with Tomi Ungerer, an artist/illustrator of enormous influence to many of us following his life and work since we were art students in the 70’s. Tomi was in the States for a rare visit- he lives in Ireland- and had shared the stage a couple weeks back with Jules Feiffer at the Society for an incredible, relaxed, loosely structured conversation between two long time friends who happen to be giants in the world of graphic arts and illustration. I was smart enough to bring along a sketchbook and was scribbling away, along with Steve Brodner and a number of others in the packed house, as they talked. Tomi seemed a bit frail that night- he had been doing a lot of traveling and interviews apparently- and the lights seemed to bother his eyes, but his mental energy and impishness were in full focus. He seemed at times to be just waiting for the right moment to drop a comment or question bomb on Jules, which always elicited a good laugh from everyone. He possessed a devilish grin that would catch me off guard and I tried any number of times to capture that expression. It was a great and memorable evening.
Having been advised to do so, I brought along a couple of Tomi’s books for what was scheduled to be a post-talk signing. But he was pretty exhausted by the end and the meet and greet didn’t take place. No matter. The experience of hearing him in person was quite a sufficient blessing, for even as my own work doesn’t exhibit any obvious influence, Tomi’s enormous sense of creativity and imagination combined with the limitless joy and playfulness in his artwork- in other words he was having fun-carved a significant impression into my consciousness which I have carried throughout my career, especially during those long stretches where illustration seemed far more like ‘work’ and a whole lot less like ‘play’. Artists like Tomi kept me in focus and continue to do so.
The ferocity of the rain and thunderstorms while driving down from Albany amazingly only delayed my arrival at the Society by less than a half hour. When I entered the dining area everyone else was already present- Tomi, his daughter, Aria, Anelle, Richard Berenson, Dennis Dittrich. There was an empty seat next to Tomi who was already holding court to a very attentive audience. Shaking hands and introducing myself in a stupid combination of English and German, which thankfully went unheard, I took my seat and followed as best I could the story already being weaved by Mr. Ungerer. His physical energy was substantially better than when I had seen him with Feiffer. A glass of red wine rested on the table in front of him and it was obvious that he was enjoying that as well. His gesticulations were expansive and I was struck by the enormous size of his hands. As a matter of fact, the initial minutes after settling into my seat were spent absorbing his features up close, as well as his gestures, energy and general joie de vive. So I recall almost nothing of that story that had everyone else captivated. There were never any real lulls in the conversation but a little later, taking advantage of a brief silence, Anelle formally introduced me and described who I was and what I did. Expanding on her preamble I mentioned to Tomi that his former artist’s rep, the late Milton Newborn, who acted as his agent when Tomi lived in the U.S., had also represented me in the final decade of his career. That seemed to strike a very warm note within Tomi who went on to talk in the most loving way about Milton and the deep mutual respect and affection they shared for each other. I mentioned how Milton was the last of an older school of rep where all deals were done with a handshake. Tomi quickly confirmed that observation and lamented the disappearance of that era of gentlemanly trust and respect. He seemed touched when I recalled a story Milton told me about negotiating a good deal for Tomi and Tomi telling him, “Some illustrators are hired for their hands. When someone hires me they are paying for my mind as well.” We also made connections via my European roots with Tomi know the areas in Germany where my relations reside.
Anelle dropped the bomb that I had done some drawings of Tomi the previous night and he was curious to see them. My sketchbook was nearby and even before he got to the drawings of himself, he was enjoying the tour through the pages of other scribbles making very positive comments. That’s the equivalent of Beethoven looking at a piece of music you’ve penned and saying, “Hey, pretty damn good!” To be more precise, Tomi’s commentary fell into the, “These are fucking great!” line of expression. When he finally arrived to his portrayals, he was slapping me on the shoulders like an old pal.
What can I say? If the lunch had already been a totally memorable experience up to that point, it skyrocketed from that moment on. I promised high-res scans to send to the very charming Aria, (which she has since received) and eventually to give the originals the next time she returns to the States. There were many more stories that afternoon, with the occasional slap on my shoulder for emphasis. I am still savoring this encounter.