Drawger's already put out a call for the best work from this year. So I guess it's rather late for me to be rounding up my favorite pictures from last year. On the other hand, last year will be last year all year this year. So with another month yet to go, I figure it's still early.
Serapions Fabel is a fabulous book of photographs drawn from 25 years of theatrical productions at Vienna’s Odeon Theater. It was published around Christmastime and is as beautifully produced as the photos that fill the book. Erwin Piplits is the theater’s Director and the book’s author. I designed the front and back covers and did the hand lettering.
The book’s theme is derived from the Greek myth of Persephone, the goddess of vegetation whose abduction by the god of the underworld threatened the extinction of life on earth; and whose annual six months release to the world of the living gave rise in the Greek imagination to the death and rebirth of the seasons.
Because in early agricultural societies grain was the staff of life, in the myth of seasonal rebirth, it became a symbol of resurrection as well. So early in the project I thought of grain as an image for the book’s back cover. It was simple enough to work as a foil for the front cover, but abstract enough not to compete with it. It was also an appropriate icon for the Serapions theatrical company: the Odeon is housed in a grand old building that was once Vienna’s Grain Exchange.
Star Messenger was one of two paintings I did for an issue of The Rotarian magazine. The art director was Deborah Lawrence, who now, regrettably, has left the publication. Deborah and I worked together on at least a dozen articles over the last few years and they were always great assignments. She often chose to use my pictures in pairs – one double page spread to start an article and another to end it. Her page designs and typography were always elegant. When she left, there was an outpouring of thanks, compliments and good wishes for the future from the artists and photographers she worked with.
Earth Mover was painted for the January issue of Playboy, a special issue because It was the magazine’s 60th Anniversary. My history with Playboy goes back a few years – hardly 60 – but pretty far back. Over that time I've done a lot of drawings and paintings for them: counting Ribald Classics, more than a hundred. Still, of all those images, this is one of my favorites and I was flattered that Justin Page – who did a wonderful job with the type and the layout – thought to include me in the special issue.
Dark Angel was painted for Debora Clark at the American Bar Association Journal. The article: “Finding Humanity,” profiled an attorney for the damned. Originally I painted it in blue and gold, but the editor thought the colors were too pretty and asked for some changes. Instead, I decided to repaint the entire picture using Halloween colors. I think it was a good idea. They liked the new version better than the first one and so did I.
Cyber Terror was done as a cover for art director Steve Traynor at CSO, the data security magazine. The article was about how many financial institutions don't want to discuss cyber attacks against their companies because it opens them up to more attacks. I sent Steve three sketches and they picked this one. Of course the topic is bigger than whether a couple of corporations are reluctant to expose their vulnerability. Our culture's growing reliance on computers and the Internet has made our whole civilization vulnerable. With that in mind I wanted to keep the picture dark and abstract, with just the eyes and teeth glowing like a Jack 'O Lantern, but without the cuteness.
The Tempest wasn’t actually painted last year, but was published for the first time in December as a frontispiece for Taschen’s book 100 Illustrators, a book, incidently, that was picked by the Huffington Post as one of the year’s best art books. It’s a painting of Prospero, the magician of Shakespeare’s play about a bewitched island in the Caribbean. It’s one of a series I’ve been doing based on Shakespeare’s work. it was actually “published” for the first time here on Drawger, Christmas Eve, 2011.
Runaround was my cover idea for The Baffler’s issue about romance, love and sex. I’ve worked with Patrick Flynn since his days at The Progressive, but The Baffler is his masterpiece as an art director. Patrick has always used artists who have something to say, and he lets them say it. But he’s equally resourceful in marrying pictures to articles and his magazines always have a unity of design and a diversity of styles.
Balancing Act began as a loose sketch I did for Patrick some years ago at The Progressive. When he was wrapping up The Baffler’s political issue, he resurrected it and asked if he could use it on the magazine’s opening page. I said sure, of course, but said I’d rather do the drawing over, do it differently and do it in color. So I did. Years ago it was like pulling teeth to get editors to use full page art without an article to "justify" it. So I also want to credit The Baffler’s editor, John Summers, for giving Patrick the creative authority to run pictures like this.
Love is an Inexact Science is one of more than 30 posters I’ve done during the last year using quotations from articles I’ve written. I’ve published some of them here before. Last summer I showed a bunch of them to Patrick and he adopted this one for The Baffler’s front page.
Chador is one of my favorite drawings from last year, although it never made it past the sketch stage. It was one of several ideas I proposed for the cover of a monograph written by a former US ambassador about the political situation in Iran. For diplomatic rasons they picked one of the other sketches. It was more dramatic, and I liked the finished drawing a lot. But this one, with its simplicity and quiet symmetry, said more to me.
Hands of Time was done for the Spanish edition of Vanity Fair. It’s about how the watches brand IWC is helping the family of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry retain the rights to his book The Little Prince. I proposed showing the Little Prince as a timeless figure defending himself with the hands of time. And while at first, I thought I’d do it as a painting, in the end I decided that adding color to my pencil sketch would come closest to the casual spirit of Saint-Exupéry’s own work.
Ariel’s Song is another painting for The Tempest, Act I Scene 2: “Full fathom five thy father lies / Of his bones are coral made / Those are pearls that were his eyes / Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change Into something rich and strange.”
Robert Kuok was painted for Siung Tjia at Bloomberg Markets magazine. If I had picked my favorite images from last year a few months ago, I wouldn't have picked it. At the time, in fact, I disliked it and thought it a failure. But recently I ran across it and took a second look. That led me to conclude that it was the guy's face, not the painting I disliked and I had nothing to do with the way he looks. Robert Kuok is a Malaysian billionaire, the world's 62nd richest person. So maybe he looks the way he does from worrying about all that money. Anyway, it's not a pretty picture, but it's an honest one; and for that reason I now think it's one of the best things I did last year.
This Way, That Way was one of three paintings I did for a financial services client last year. The pictures were each done to go with a different scenario from the company's files – in this case, an account of the uncertainty that comes from having too many options. I thought of the tree because when I was a kid we lived on the edge of town and I spent much of my childhood in the nearby woods. It wasn't a very big woods, I knew every tree in it. At its farthest end, just before you came to a hobo jungle near the railroad tracks, there was a giant tree with twisted branches and tattooed bark. I used to climb up in it and sit in the branches like an owl. It was a great place to reflect on things. I had that tree in mind when I painted this picture.
Three Brothers was another painting done for the same financial services client. It wasn't a print assignment: the pictures were done directly for website usage. I supplied the client with multiple idea sketches, then we worked together on the layout, typography and text. I'm grateful to clients like this who realize that work done for digital usage is most effective when it has the same visual impact as work traditionally done for print.
Man Over Moon was painted for a University of Baltimore project entitled "Knowledge That Works." The art director was Gabrielle Boam (for whom I also did the Iranian monograph). I did two different versions of this picture. This was one, a standard size poster, to which I added hand lettering. The other was almost twice as deep and was used for a large street banner, 10 feet high. It was printed on fabric and hung as one of a series around the city, paired with a similar banner bearing the school's logo.
Judgment Seat was painted for SooJin Buzelli at Asset International, one of two pictures I did for her last year. I love the fact that she uses so much art in her publications and her design and typography are always inventive and beautifully realized. The article was about the need to set up support systems and this was SooJin's pick of the several sketches I sent her. I've never thought about what my favorite color is, but on the basis of the pictures I've been painting lately, I figure it must be blue.
Unholy Couple was another painting done for Justin Page at Playboy. The article was a fictional piece called “Hierofin” about a creepy midnight sabbath of famous science fiction writers, set in in California in the 1940s. While I was working on it, the movie Belle Star came on the TV, a thoroughly ridiculous film, but with Gene Tierny in it, her hair done up in a World War II style that reminded me of horns. That was the missing link I had been looking for to complete the image, so I adopted it for the woman and finished the picture.
Good and Bad was one of another two paintings I did for Deborah Lawrence at The Rotarian. Each picture was a mirror image of the other with the black and white of the faces reversed; and each ran as a full page and a half. In the beginning Deborah and I toyed with the concept of masks and I did two paintings using that concept. But the results looked more scary than was necessary for an article about ethics, so we started over and ended up with this approach.
One of a Kind was painted for Anthony Padilla at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. I wrote about it here when it was published last fall. The purpose was to advertise the school's curriculum of both visual and performing arts. Anthony and I have worked together for years and I've done many of my favorite pictures for him. I designed the poster and did the hand lettering while Anthony's regular designer, John Coy added the body copy and school logo.
Ziggurat was a color sketch for the Odeon Theater's production of PaRaDiSo. I thought of it because the odd lettering in the show's title was based on archaic Hebrew writing – and that led me to the Biblical account of the Tower of Babel. As everyone knows, that story was about how certain people tried to shortcut their way to paradise by building a giant ramp to heaven – until God thwarted their plans, teaching them that heaven has to be achieved by spiritual rather than worldly means. I liked the picture as a picture, but realized that an image inspired by a cautionary tale was probably not the best one for a celebratory poster. So I did eight more sketches, including a crude last minute pencil sketch that became the basis for the poster we finally created.
PaRaDiSo was posted here last year, just as the Odeon Theater kicked off a multimedia production marking the 25th year of performances by Vienna's Serapions Ensemble. The show ran for a year and closed last spring. I've been doing posters for the Odeon since 1992 but because this was such a special event, I was happy that they asked me to design the poster for it – and I'm still impressed that Erwin Piplits could look at the sloppy pencil sketch I did for it and pick it out of 8 other sketches I sent him, at least 3 or 4 of which I had done in color. The painting is not only one of my favorite paintings from last year; it’s the kind of thing I became an artist hoping to be able to do.
When Madeline Kelty at Smithsonian Magazine asked me to contribute to their Star Spangled Banner issue, I decided that other artists would probably paint flags and portraits of Francis Scott Key. So I decided to do a painting of Fort McHenry.
Fort McHenry sits low on the peninsula that juts out into Baltimore Harbor. As most school kids know, it was the target of British shelling during the War of 1812, but survived the bombardment, leading Francis Scott Key, a lawyer being held on a truce ship in the harbor that night, to compose a poem that more than a hundred years later (1931) was adopted by the US Congress as our un-singable national anthem.
Of course I had no way of knowing what the fort actually looked like during the long night it was besieged – or on the morning after, for that matter. I found old prints of the scene, but saw no point in copying them or even relying on them for historical accuracy. They looked to be the products of various artists' imaginations. So in the end, I decided to use my own.
This, then, is a sort of conceptual landscape of the fort on the morning after that battle, with its famous flag still flying high above the horizon.
It’s not necessarily a realistic picture: on that particular morning, there'd still have been some British warships left riding at anchor in the harbor. But it’s a picture of the fort on the country's new morning: because in a sense the ending of the War of 1812 really was our country's national dawn.
The War of 1812 is often called "the forgotten war." Yet there are reasons it should be remembered. Coming a generation after the American Revolution, it settled many of the disputes with England that had remained unresolved from that conflict. And just as important, perhaps, it created a new national identity for the fledgling United States, both at home and abroad.
Although neither the US nor Britain could plausibly claim to have won the War of 1812, the United States, by holding its own against one of the great armies of the world, finally convinced American citizens and foreign governments alike that the American experiment in self-government – long considered by some to be a dubious prospect – might actually succeed.
At home, the war’s successful resolution also tempered the rancorous political differences that had poisoned civil discourse during the feuding Adams and Jefferson administrations. This led to a period in American history that even in those days was called “The Era of Good Feelings."
This dawn of a new age then is what I had in mind when I decided to do the painting. And as for reference, I found that that I didn’t have to rely on somebody’s old engravings. I could use an earlier painting of my own.
A few years ago, I did ten paintings of Baltimore harbor as it is today. Unlike most of my assignments, which are purely professional in origin, this one began as the result of a personal friendship.
My friend Jennifer Phillips is a designer who lives and works in Baltimore and is Director of the Graphic Design MFA program at the Maryland Institute College of Art. A few years ago, she was asked to design materials for a real estate development project in Baltimore harbor. And as part of the concept she presented to the clients, she asked me if I'd be interested in doing some paintings of contemporary scenes in and around the site.
In publishing, of course, we don’t get many opportunities to do landscapes or cityscapes. But Jennifer and I had traveled together and she was well aware of the landscape drawings I had filled my sketchbooks with. So she thought that an assignment of this sort was something I might be interested in.
I jumped at the opportunity and following her lead, did ten paintings of contemporary scenes in and around the harbor where two hundred years ago British mortars and Congreve rockets (the “bombs bursting in air”) had marked the end of England’s effort to invade the US from the east coast.
Of course, in doing these pictures neither Jennifer nor I were thinking of the War of 1812. We were simply aiming to present some scenes, more graphic then representational even, of contemporary life along the Baltimore waterfront. For me it was a refreshing experience.
When I was younger I tended to think of landscapes as interesting only to the eye. Who wants to draw pictures of trees, I thought; I wanted to draw pictures of ideas. Ideas are as real as trees but since they're invisible, you have to rearrange aspects of the visible world to show the invisible. You might call such pictures landscapes of experience.
But as I got older and began to travel; and then started to fill my sketchbooks with drawings of faraway places – places that in my Ohio childhood I had never dreamed I’d see – I found a new respect for things that are interesting only to the eye.
And so if I had ever disdained landscapes or taken them lightly, I found that I could get unexpected satisfaction out of paintng things that were sitting right in front of me: editing reality, as it were – in this case silos, warehouses, cranes and boats – instead of having to make everything up.
The paintings are small: only eight inches by ten, and as a small regional assignment they never got much attention. Still, they got my attention and led in the space of a few months or a year to a far more expansive project: a series of 40 pastel drawings of Andalusian castles for a Spanish publisher.
Jennifer's project had led me into a new line of pictures and into a new medium. And with this little painting of Fort McHenry as it is today, a national historical site virtually unchanged from 200 years ago, it gave me the information I used for the much larger painting I finshed last month for the Smithsonian.
While the contributors were working on this project, a researcher from Smithsonian Magazine called each of us to ask for a few words about why we were doing what we were doing. I told her about the Baltimore harbor paintings, of course, but when she asked me how I happened to know a bit about the War of 1812, I said maybe it's because of where I grew up.
I grew up in Fremont Ohio, just a few miles south of Lake Erie, not far from the Canadian border. Fremont's history as a town actually began with the War of 1812. In those days it was called Lower Sandusky, after the Sandusky river that runs through it and empties into Lake Erie. In 1812 Ohio was the northwest frontier, a state for only nine years; and as the lowest point of entry from Canada into the US, it was the perfect site for the British to invade. On August 1, 1813, they did, disembarking at a low spot on the river and laying siege to the small palisade fort that sat on the edge of a wooded ravine.
The Battle of Fort Stephenson took place the next day and, according to the history books, it was the last land battle of the War of 1812 fought in the western United States. The fort's defenders drove the British back into the lake, where a month later they were defeated at a decisive naval battle at Put-in-Bay off South Bass island. The next spring they concentrated on the Chesapeake Bay area, which led to the burning of Washington and the shelling of Fort McHenry.
In modern day Fremont, the town library sits on the site of the old picket fort; and when I was a kid there was a little museum of sorts in the basement, with artifacts under glass going back to the town's birth as a frontier outpost. Since I grew up in a home with no books, I was in and out of the library from an early age and occasionally, once I was tall enough to see above the glass cases downstairs, I used to wander around the basement, looking at stuff. My favorite items were the knives, forks and spoons the fort's defenders had fired at the British when they ran out of shot.
It's funny how an odd detail like that can interest a nosy kid, but it was the oddness of it that got my attention. Later, in Chicago I discovered Robert Remini's books and began to read up on the whole Jacksonian era. But I'd have to say that my painting of Fort McHenry actually had its roots in the basement of the Birchard Public Library, where as a little kid I learned that in a pinch you could hold off an enemy with kitchen utensils.
Two years ago, Joseph Fiedler posted 13 illustrations he said the Society of Illustrators had rejected from their annual show. Since the pictures were excellent, he joked that the number 13 had jinxed him. Still, numerology aside, I know how he felt. Over the years, I've had a lot of pictures accepted for those exhibitions, but I’ve always thought some of my best ones never made it. I remember thinking then that when I had the time I'd look through my archive and resurrect some of them. So here are 13 of my favorite Society of Illustrators rejects, starting with the very first one.
Heavy Medals is a drawing I did when I was 22 and working in Kansas City. It was part of the portfolio I came to New York with and the portfolio got me a monthly slot in Playboy that lasted for over 20 years. I had five pictures selected for the Society's show that first year but this wasn't one of them. Maybe it was all those cheesy medals. They look like Christmas tree ornaments on an unhappy tree. And what kind of jury would ever award an award to a picture that mocks awards?
Junkie Around the time I got my first Gold Medal from the Society, the jury rejected this drawing. I liked the Gold Medal picture well enough, but it was a conventional painting and reflected the larval stage of my career. It didn't look to the future of what graphic art could be. I never did go to the Society to pick up the medal: I'm told it laid around the place for years until somebody finally swiped it. And as for the prize-winning painting I've never shown it again. It’s frozen in time back in the Age of Nixon. But this drawing – the reject – kicked off the OpEd page of the New York Times and gave me a regular outlet for the kind of pictures many people had previously told me were unpublishable.
Mother and Child In 1975, Vietnam fell and in the panic that followed, refugees filled the roads to Saigon. The New York Times ran this drawing that spring and I re-published it two years later in my book Human Scandals. The Society rejected it both years. In those days, there were still folks at the clubhouse awaiting the Second Coming of Norman Rockwell, and people like that tended to think my pictures were grotesque. In 1978 I did a second version – this time a painting – making the woman blonde and nude – I used my girlfriend at the time as a model. I prefer that version, which has never been published: it's dark, but softer, warmer and more subtle. Still, the black and white drawing has the brutal edge of its originality, and I'm satisfied that it says something about something that had never been said before in art.
Long Shot When I switched from black and white drawings to color, a lot of art directors advised me not to. My ink drawings were just starting to win awards, they said: why monkey with your brand? But I thought branding was for cows. This was one of several pool hall paintings that never made it into a Society of Illustrators annual. Still, they did something better: they took me over the rainbow and into a world of color. When I finished the series, I felt like Dorothy stepping out of her sepia house and into the Land of Oz. It set the tone for everything I've been doing since.
The Dinosaur Lounge was modeled on a real place: a club with a Day-Glo volcano on the wall that some Puerto Rican friends once took me to on the Lower East Side. The dinosaurs I added from some childhood drawings of my own. To be honest, it never really bothered me when pictures like this were rejected from shows. I spent most of my early career on the fringes of the business. I rarely went to openings and never looked at annuals. Some of that was due to shyness, but in general, it was self-defensive. I found it easier to go my own way in the business if I didn’t think too much about the way other people were going.
Rain was one of 40 pastels I did for a book published in Zurich. It was a sort of gamble for me since I had never used pastels before, but I was pleased with the way the series worked out. The New York Art Directors Club awarded it their Gold Medal, but when I entered several pieces in the Society of Illustrators show, they were all rejected. Then I had a one-man exhibition at the Society and made a poster of this drawing. I entered it in that year's show as well, but it got rejected again. Finally, when the Society voted me into their Hall of Fame and asked for three "signature pieces," I laid it on them a third time. This time they must have felt stuck with it because when the Annual came out that year, there it was.
The Prophet was the third painting I’d done of a cratered Earth. I did the first version in the 1970s and another about a decade later, but I was never happy with either one. Then along came Rolling Stone with an article that let me try again. This time it worked. The painting wasn’t picked for the Society’s show that year, but it’s one of my all-time favorites, and the underlying concept has proved fruitful. A couple months ago, I resurected the idea a fourth time, in a very different painting for the 60th anniversary issue of Playboy.
The Tree of Life is usually portrayed by artists as lush and fruitful and in general, I’ve always thought that's a great way to look at life. Yet I grew up in Ohio and Arkansas and all the Hollands before me had been farmers. That means they knew the many faces of Mother Nature. So when I was commissioned to paint my interpretation of the Tree of Life, I decided to show it as a budded shoot growing out of lifeless ground. I didn't expect it to be picked for the Society's show that year and, good guess, it wasn't. But I became very fond of the painting and when I had to bundle it up to ship off to the collector in Maryland, I was rather sorry to see it go.
Cold Catch was one of a series of paintings I did for Harrah's in Las Vegas. I’ve written about the commission in Rio By the Sea-O. There were 28 pictures in all, but this was my favorite. It started as an anecdotal image but quickly flattened out when I decided to make a pattern out of the holes in the ice. This gave me the idea to flatten out some of the other pictures as well, and that gave the whole installation a more graphic look than it would have had if I hadn't started fooling around with this one.
Green Door Over the years, I’ve done a lot of unpublished pictures, but I rarely ever entered them in shows. This painting was one, so normally I wouldn’t have tossed it into the ring. But then the British magazine Varoom published it in a cover story about my work, so I thought: what the hell. The green door is from a hotel in Istanbul, the woman is from my past. The painting is part of a series. There are a bunch more like it sitting around the house.
Bringing Down the Bull was done for Vanity Fair following the big Wall Street meltdown in 2008. It has most of the elements I shoot for in a picture like this. It’s simple and relatively artless and has no more details than it needs. It was also the first picture I did following my discovery of yellow. I don't know why I had never used yellow before; it's a perfectly good color. Maybe it's because my painting style is sculptural and yellow's a hard color to model. In this case, however, I kept the modeling to a minimum, and the yellow seemed to work. After that, yellow became my go-to default color, and for a while, everything I painted was painted yellow. Finally I got over that, but in the process I had added a new color to my palette. My grandfather once had a similar experience with green. In the space of a year, he painted his house green and all the rooms in it; then he took a two inch brush to his Ford pick-up. This leads me to suspect there are genes for things like this that run in families.
Molon de la Frontera is one of 40 pastel drawingss I did for a book of Spanish castles published in Spain. I had never used pastels on this scale before; my previous bouts with the medium had mostly been pictures like Rain – line drawings with some color smeared around. These landscapes were my first attempt to use the full range of color and pastel textures; and this drawing was the first I did for the series. So when the elements in it all seemed to work, it set the tone for the other 39. I entered several of the drawings in the Society's show that year but they were all rejected. On the other hand, I got queries from several galleries asking to show them. In the end, the originals were all bought by the publisher for donation to the city of Seville.
Hellhole Ever since my paintings caught on many years ago, a lot of art directors seemed to have forgotten that I did pen and ink drawings too. So I was happy when Chris Curry called from The New Yorker a couple years ago to ask for a full page ink drawing. Over the years I've found that drawing in ink has taught me a lot about painting and painting a lot about drawing. Once upon a time I thought my ink drawings would lead me into etching, but etching turned out to be too indirect for me. I got tired of all the scraping and rubbing. I wasn't crazy about having to draw everything backwards either, but ink drawings seem to work fine for me.
So much for 13 of my favorite rejects. It's funny that I can remember them better than most of the pictures I've been given awards for. I've aways wondered why that is.
Maybe it's because some works of art have a longer shelf life than others. For example, it's always amused me that when they make up lists of the ten greatest films of all time, they often name movies that were not even picked as the best movies of the years they came out.
Or maybe it's just the complex emotions evoked in all of us by any kind of rejection.
As a little kid, I was so vulnerable to criticism that I'd bawl every time I got scolded. And since I didn’t follow rules very often, I got scolded a lot. By the time I got to kindergarten, I sensed this was going to be a problem. And I concluded that if I didn’t want to be at the world’s mercy for the rest of my life, I'd either have to start following rules or shape up and develop a thicker skin.
By eighth grade I knew I wanted to be an artist. And coming from a small town and a poor family, I knew I’d have to start at the bottom. So I decided to get to the bottom as fast as I could.
In the ninth grade, I quit taking art in school and started submitting cartoons to magazines. My friends in class were getting blue ribbons for drawing hot rods and cocker spaniels. But I was getting rejection slips from The New Yorker, Boys Life and the Saturday Evening Post. I figured that made me a pro of some kind.
By the time I was 15, I moved up to a higher class of rejection. I sent a box full of drawings to the Disney studio in Burbank. I stuck in a letter I had typed on a neighbor's typewriter saying I was 21. For a year I didn't hear anything. Then I got the box back.
The drawings had all been pretty well manhandled, which meant at least somebody had looked at them. But just to have them returned that way was a discouraging sign. Surely if Walt had wanted to hire me he’d have phoned. So as I dug through the hundreds of drawings (yes, hundreds, I had never heard of a portfolio) I feared for the worst. And sure enough, there at the bottom of the box, was that authentic piece of Americana: a Mickey Mouse rejection slip.
Unlike the samples I had sent to the studio, the rejection was printed on archival paper: a Disney rejection was for the ages. Yet I always used to ponder those thumb prints at the top of the card. Were those Walt's? Had I been rejected by the great man himself? Or had I just gotten the bum's rush from some corporate flunkies? I hoped it had been the latter case; I figured I could live with that.
But now that I wasn't going to be the boy wonder of the Disney operation, I realized I’d have to go to Plan B.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have a Plan B.
At 17 I graduated from high school. That fall, my friends all headed for college with stars in their eyes. I caught the bus for Chicago with a breaded veal sandwich and a hundred twenty five bucks I had saved mowing lawns. I didn’t know what I’d do when I got to the big city. I'd never been to a big city. I didn't know anybody there and I didn't know how artists went about finding jobs. Did you buy a newspaper and look through the want ads? I figured I'd have to wing it when I got off the bus.
I brought a bunch of drawings with me from Ohio. In the weeks that followed I took them around to studios. I was young and looked younger; several people asked if I was skipping school. I tried to schedule several rejections a day so I could work on new stuff at night.
Yet as I trekked up and down Michigan Avenue – "the Magnificent Mile" – in the cold that fall, I learned that my two years of futile cartoon submissions in high school had served an unexpected purpose. They had innoculated me against rejection. That was useful, because hadn't Carl Sandburg called Chicago the Hog Butcher of the World? At least I never expected a Welcome Wagon.
Over the next two years I learned that I could turn rejection into stress, stress into energy and energy into art. And out of that alchemy came the kind of art I would never have thought to do had it not been for the irritant of rejection and stress. They were cartoon ideas that weren't necessarily funny. Now all I had to do was find a way to apply them to subjects other than rejection and develop the right style to put them over.
That would take me another two years to work out and would lead to an entire portfolio of drawings like the picture Heavy Medals that I began this post with.
When I had that, though, I knew I was ready for New York. I gave up my rented rooms in Kansas City (by this time I had moved there and was working for Hallmark) and caught the bus east. I wasn't sure I could sell my pictures, but I was convinced they would sell themselves. It was a certainty that transcended acceptance or rejection. Ever since, I've taken an outsider's view of both and cast a cold eye on the collective wisdom that appears to invest either with authority.
It’s in that spirit that I've always tried to take professional recognition of any kind – good or bad – in stride. And why not? Over the years, I’ve been on enough juries of enough exhibitions to know how the sausages get made.
Some years ago, I was judging a show on the west coast with several designers, including Robert Miles Runyan, the legendary designer who first introduced art and photography to annual reports.
Miles told me about an exhibition that he had judged back in the fifties or sixties with Herb Lubalin and Saul Bass. All three were iconic figures who had helped revolutionize postwar graphic design. And all three had definite opinions about what was good and bad in the world of popular art.
It was one of the first professional competitions in the field, Miles told me; and they took their responsibility very seriously. "We were pretty tough graders," he said. "By the time we were finished, we were the only three who had anything in the show.”