I read Zina Saunders’s great interview with Steve Heller yesterday, and soon afterwards was hunting through boxes in my basement looking for the illustrations I did for Steve at The New York Times Book Review when I was starting out back in the early 1990’s. Here are some of my favorites:
My first illustration for Steve Heller at the Book Review. I'm making the transition from woodcuts and engravings to pen and ink drawing.
I had memorized Steve Heller’s phone number at the Times (in fact I still remember it today like a tattoo on my brain, although I haven’t dialed the number in over ten years). There was a specific time and day during the week when I called Steve to see if he had any assignments available. The conversations were always short and direct.
I illustrated a few reviews of books in the mystery and crime genre.
If Steve had an assignment, I would go to his office at 9AM on the appointed day to pick it up from him personally, as was the custom. I was also working as a musician at the time, keeping musicians hours, often not going to sleep before 2AM. Although 9AM was early for me, I always felt a thrill walking into the Times lobby and calling Steve’s extension on the phones, telling him I was downstairs, and hearing him say “ok for 9” to the guard. I had a habit of going to the bathroom in the 9th floor hallway first before the appointment; I always had a strange feeling that there might be something wrong with my hair.
Another illustration about Irish literature. This was published...
...and this was an alternate version of the final art that wasn't used.
Visits to Steve’s office took about 30 seconds. He would hand me the article and that was that. I felt a profound responsibility to create final art (without the benefit of a sketch stage) that would be the equivalent of a home run. I often did two or three versions of final art just to make sure that there would be something that Steve would like.
There have been times with my work when an apparently calamitous mistake has turned into a deeply satisfying victory. Once Steve and I had a misunderstanding. I thought he had asked me to do three drawings for an article on understanding Islam. I came up with the idea of a sequence like an animation storyboard that zoomed in on a gate in an Islamic wall that opens to reveal the world of Islam. I remember not feeling at all confident about the finals.
A calamitous mistake: the three gates sequence that bombed.
When I showed Steve the three illustrations he said they didn’t work, and I should try again. I was very upset. As I was walking out the door he asked if I thought he had wanted three images? When I said “yes”, he was apologetic and told me that he had only wanted one. Being released from the self-imposed restriction of making three illustrations that worked together in sequence set me free; I ended up creating this image below - one of my favorite illustrations of all time.
A deeply satisfying victory: one of my favorite illustrations.