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Filling Big Shoes
I’ve already written a tribute to my late mentor and dear friend, Howard Brodie, one of the titans of reportorial artwork, master courtroom artist for CBS-TV, illustrator extraordinaire for the San Francisco Chronicle before becoming one of the premiere combat artists during World War II, Korea and Vietnam.In the realm of reportorial art he has been for decades my benchmark and, since his passing last year, my spiritual guide.
Of this distinguished group I wish to draw attention, last but not least, to Steve Mumford, another Michael Fay connection, who I have been fortunate enough to get to know and become friends with.I had a lunch with Steve earlier this year at the Society of Illustrators before he was heading off to Afghanistan for what he felt would be his last trip of this kind before becoming a new father at the grand age of 50.He came back safe and sound with a staggering collection of new work done in the fields with our Marines, some of which are featured in the current August issue of HARPER’S magazine.Since his return we have had the pleasure of getting together again at the Society as well as a recent visit with my wife, Terri, to see Steve, his wife, the artist Inka Essenhigh, and their 2 month old Kaspar in Maine, and view an exhibition of his recent work from Afghanistan at the Center for Maine Contemporary Arts, in Rockport.
Now I’ve received some very nice, positive and, frankly, excessively complimentary, feedback from readers of Drawger and my Facebook page regarding the reportorial work I’ve done in the past couple years in relation to the military.These have been for the USAF Art Program via the Society of Illustrators, The Troops First Foundation trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, and the previously mentioned Joe Bonham Project.I leave for Afghanistan in a few days to embed for a few weeks in what can truly be considered a real assignment sans VIP treatment.And as I leave for this assignment, I now have not only the spirits of Howard Brodie and Kerr Eby (look him up if you’re not familiar) to inspire me to meet their Olympian standards but the challenge of filling the shoes of Steve Mumford’s current benchmark work.To say it feels extraordinarily daunting is to put it lightly.After our first lunch, where Steve presented me with a copy of his book, BAGHDAD JOURNAL, a compilation of his art from numerous visits to Iraq, I had a chance to look through the pages at my own pace. The line work was confident, the command of brushstrokes and application of colors masterful, the sense of light, shapes and composition jaw dropping.It was an uninterrupted gut reaction from start to finish and that reaction was of being both overwhelmed by what I was looking at and underwhelmed when considering my own contributions so far.For those of you interested in seeing one of the real deals, a simple Googling of Steve Mumford will provide many rewards. His on the spot drawings of military ER scenes are nothing less than masterpieces.
Steve insists that he is not an Alpha Dog, Type A personality, yet the stories he recalls, in both his book and in conversation reveal an artist not only on the field but in other circumstances where one might assume different decisions would be made. He spent a couple weeks in a military ER room. When wounded were being brought in the call was made for all non-essential personnel to leave the space. He concluded that he was indeed essential as he was recording this event visually and remained in the ER. No one ever asked him to leave. That's alpha dog thinking I need to develop- fast.
Phew.Now what?This trip will be a serious testing of my focus, spontaneity, and abilities.I leave with far more butterflies about my skills than over concerns about safety or injury.No matter how good we may think we are at times, reality checks in the form of other’s work remind us that there are always bigger shoes to fill.That said and having admitted to my trepidations I also don’t plan on dropping the ball with this opportunity. I intend to make these artists, both gone and still with us, proud.
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.
Probably the biggest misconception when it comes to portraying Brunhilde is when she is shown wearing horns. She doesn't. She has wings on her helmet. I was thinking Birgit Nilsson in this early sketch.
I loved this one but it was considered too angry.
Less angry but also losing something in the personality. Too polite?
This one also could have been a hoot but the suggestion was to steer away from the classic 'big' Brunhilde.
Refocused and gave this a certain seriousness, which is probably comical because it is so serious. The star on the helmet was a last minute addition. It just seemed to make sense.
This cover allowed me to revisit a couple of actors I've already portrayed in the same roles in earlier work. Christine Ebersole in "Grey Gardens" and the unforgettable Mark Rylance in "Le Bete". Mark is currently dropping jaws on Broadway with his staggering performance in "Jerusalem". Well worth seeing if you are in NYC. L to R- Mark Rylance, John Cazale- "Dog Day Afternoon", Meryl Streep in "Sophie's Choice",James Earl Jones in "The Great White Hope", and Christine Ebersole.
An initial idea playing off Bachmann's hardcore religious beliefs overlapping with her role as spokeswoman for the Tea Party. No go.
I do like the meanspirited Tea Party baby Jesus. There's always great Norther Renaissance art to draw from.
Okay, on to Joan of Arc. On an elephant. Crazy expression, maybe too crazy. Also too much Don Quixote feeling here and not enough Joan who heard the voices.
We've moved to a horse now. This is one of those moments where after a lot of revises someone like me starts to improvise in ways that confuse the editors and art director, who in this case is the ever patient Steve Charny.
A definitive WTF? response from editorial over God as the talking hand. I thought, well she hears voices; why not make the mouth of god a Senor Wences reference?
Approved idea. Off the horse, leading the minions, BUT too angry as opposed to obliviously nuts. Also the more I drew her, the worse it got. It was supposed to be the other way around.
Back to the drawing board and refresh my head with her features and to best exaggerate. By this time I had drawn her so many times in sketches from reference that I tossed everything to the side and just focused on what I saw in my mind's eye. It worked.
There's also an interesting curl into her cheeks that is very important in defining that 'look'. I made sure to press that element.
I am very proud to be part of an exhibition at The Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, Virgina, titled "Arts and Stripes" featuring artwork contributed from the National Museum of the Marine Corps, Naval Arts Collection, the US Air Force Arts Program including members from the Society of Illustrators, the Combat Paper Project as well as from contemporary combat artists and the Joe Bonham Project, of which I am also a member. It will be running through July 31st. If you are in the northern Virginia area please stop in and view the artwork on display. It's off Rt. 95.
I continue to draw wounded warriors from the theaters of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, traveling with Michael D. Fay, USMC retired, and Robert Bates currently a combat artist with the Corps. We were recently at Bethesda Naval Hospital and a Troops First Foundation sponsored event at the Chevy Chase Golf Club, the David Feherty IED of Golf, drawing wounded soldiers and Marines. Michael was collecting stories and commentary from a number of these brave and resilient warriors on videotape. He's perfect for this as he speaks the language and can so ask the right questions. Robert and I were doing as many drawings as possible. Here are some of the more successful images.
Another wounded Marine whose matter of factness in retelling the events surrounding his injuries was startling. I think what struck me most about Corporal Steve Tillman, who received advanced medical as part of his training in the Corps, was his recounting about calmly examining and evaluating his condition and the nature of his injuries AFTER stepping on the IED and before being attended to and evacuated.
While at Bethesda I asked how Sgt. Jason Ross from EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) was doing since we last saw him. He was returning from ER and we were told we could stop by and see him. He looked remarkable better from the previous visit and was receiving an evaluation from his surgeon as to his level of improvement from all the skin graftings. He listened with a calm intensity to the 'good news,not so good news' review. It seemed, to my non-professional ears, that the news was predominantly positive. Looney Tunes was playing on the Cartoon Channel on his TV. Some great Bugs Bunny.
We enjoyed a nice conversation. He seemed pleased with the portraits I had posted on Drawger. We talked about the Academy Award winning THE HURT LOCKER. I asked him if he had ever seen it. "Unfortunately." was his response. Nicely put, he and his fellow EOD members were not impressed. He was hungry. More than anything else Jason just wanted to eat a lunch and was concerned that his meal was forgotten about because he was in surgery during lunchtime. He made several calls while we hung with him. As with the last time we saw him, he was also looking forward to his next haircut.
Sgt. Olson was wounded in 2003 in Iraq. He had a great smile and was very willing to share his story with Michael for videotape.
I noted that one of the wounded warriors at this Troops First event was not in the same age group of most of the attendees. He had a very characterful face and I had to catch him as quickly as possible since everyone was driving around from hole to hole quickly. I later introduced myself to him and showed him the drawing.
Jim Mayer is the founder of the Wounded Warrior Project, a Vietnam vet and a tireless advocate for proper care for vets.
Sgt. Brian Mancini suffered massive wounds to his head. He has had major reconstruction of his face and still suffers frequent headaches. One would never guess it from his spontaneous good humor and generosity of spirit. He was the focus of a recent CBS news story which will run as a feature in a future 60 Minutes program.
I regret that I didn't get a chance to spend more time with Scott Schroeder. He watched the activities as the passenger from his golf cart, driven by legendary golf master, Butch Harmon. More times than not they were gone and to the next hole before I could swing the sketch pad around in his direction. But I liked the way this drawing turned out and he and his wife seemed quite pleased as well.
Scene from the opening at The Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, VA.
LCpl. Robert Bates, USMC combat artist, Marian Youorski, LCpl. Kyle Carpenter, USMC, and myself standing in front of a portrait Robert did of Marian's son, Wes Laney, USMC.
My wife, Terri, unable to control herself in conversation with Kyle and his mother at the reception.
Real deal combat artists Robert Bates and Michael Fay and the novice soon to get his taste. The painting right above is the one I did of Sgt. Jason Ross that was posted on Drawger.
Talking with US Congressman Gerry Connolly. We arrived with friends at the reception. I was pretty sure that I'd have a few pieces culled from the USAF Art Program in the exhibit. I was not prepared to walk in and see an entire section of my work for the Air Force. It was both humbling and a thrill. Marti Kirkpatrick, the curator of the show, grouped the images in the show from training through service and sacrifices, and consequences, of actual combat. This section was composed of images I had made of Special Ops- Combat Control units and the ParaRescue teams, images I've posted here on Drawger- in training.
Sgt. Kris Battles (background) and LCpl. Robert Bates talking with a fellow Marine at the reception.
Elsy Morataya from the USAF Art Program in front of a painting by chairman of the Government Services Committee at the Society of Illustrators, John Witt. The USAFAP were enthusiastic contributors to the exhibition. As I understand it, Elsy walked through the Pentagon with Workhouse curator Marti Kirpatrick and just took artwork off the walls. It was a pleasure seeing Elsy and her photographer husband, Andrew, at the reception.
Michael Fay, in white jacket, talking to curator Marti Kirkpatrick and her husband.
Marti Kirkpatrick gave a beautiful opening commentary on the exhibition and did not mention that she is a Gold Star mother herself, having lost a son in the current wars. Michael asked her why she didn't call attention to that in the opening remarks and she admitted quite frankly she might have lost her composure doing so. This is a small way of acknowledging the loss she and her husband have suffered and a thank you for her incredible efforts in putting together such a strong exhibit.