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The 20th Anniversary Of My First Illustration Job

MARCH 20, 2009
Today marks the twentieth anniversary of my first published illustration, which appeared on The New York Times Op-Ed page. This assignment was by far the most terrifying and stressful job I’ve ever had, so stressful that it took me five months to find the courage to ask for more work. Here’s a reprint of an article about this assignment which I posted on my blog a few years ago:
It’s March 1989, and I’ve just moved to NYC. I'm working as an assistant to a printmaker, printing other artist's etchings for $8 an hour - a dead-end job. My friend David Goldin suggests I take my portfolio of prints – mostly etchings and engravings - to Steven Heller at The New York Times Book Review. David is getting steady illustration work at the Book Review - perhaps I can get work there too? I’m living in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and I don’t know how to navigate the subway yet. On the morning of what I feel is the most important appointment of my life I take the N/R train - a notoriously slow local train - to Times Square. I’m very late for the appointment and very upset, but Steven is understanding and looks at my portfolio.
The engraving from my portfolio: the art director likes it.
Steven likes my work but thinks it might be a better fit for the Op-Ed page. Would I like to meet the art director there? He walks me over to Op-Ed where I show my work to Michael Valenti. Michael likes it, particularly one engraving of a city scene, and says he might call me soon. As I leave the building I’m aware of the smell of ink coming from the printing presses. Eventually it becomes one of my favorite NYC smells, along with the street-food smells of honey-peanuts and pretzels.

A few days later, Michael Valenti calls to offer me an Op-Ed assignment about grassroots community organizations making a difference in tough NYC neighborhoods. He mentions the engraving of the city that he’d seen in my portfolio – can I do something like that? He needs it the next day (What -? An engraving overnight?), and he’d like to fax the article to me right away (What’s a fax machine?). I call a copy store four blocks away to get their fax number, call Michael back to give the number to him, run to the copy store to get the article, run to the hardware store to buy plexiglass for the engraving, run home to start work late that afternoon, wondering the whole time if I can really do this job.
Engraving is a painstaking process. Cutting into a plate of plexiglass with a burin takes time, and there’s no precise way of knowing how the image will look until it’s printed – it will be a negative mirror image of what’s on the plate. I won’t be able to print it until Bob Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop opens the next morning. Once I ran a plexiglass plate through an etching press, and it shattered into pieces – the pressure had been too strong. Would that happen again? I stay up all night bent over the plexiglass. I finally go to sleep at 5AM, exhausted and having lost my objectivity about whether the art works or not.

Next morning I’m at Bob Blackburn’s Workshop in Chelsea before the doors open. Get the equipment ready - soak the paper - roll out the ink - charge the plate up with ink - lay it on the press bed – put the paper and then the blankets on top - turn the handle – pray the plexiglass doesn’t break! I’ve got a print! Now run up to the Times with the print still damp – careful, don’t smudge it!
The engraving that I did for the assignment: the art director doesn't like it!
I take the elevator to the ninth floor, and, fighting my exhaustion, I show the still-damp print to Michael Valenti. He doesn’t like it - he can’t use it! I feel like I’ve been beaten down to the ground – and then the anvil drops on my head.

“You didn’t by any chance bring that other print that was in your portfolio the other day?” By some saving grace, I had. “Can I see it? Maybe there’s something we can do with it.” A ray of hope!

Michael takes a photostat of the print from my portfolio, adding several inches of solid black tone to the bottom. He finds a drawing table outside his office, hands me a scratchboard tool, and asks me to add some spectators to the bottom of the image. It needs some people, the human element - then it might work.

I scratch away for fifteen minutes, then slouch into his office:
“How’s this?”
“Not yet. A little more work in the sweater.”
I work for another fifteen minutes:
“How is it now?”
“Not quite. Keep working on it.”
This went on for about two hours. Finally he says it’s done. Hallelujah!!
The art as it appeared in the Times - my first published illustration.
What does it feel like to me today as I look back on the last twenty years? The world and the circumstances of my life have changed, yet I’m still working as an illustrator, despite everything. I’ve made some great friends through my work, particularly the musical connection with my friends in the all-illustrators jazz band, The Half-Tones. I get a lot of satisfaction as I see how my work has changed and continues to develop. I never thought I’d become an illustrator in the first place, and I never could have imagined what doors it has opened up for me – particularly my Professor Nimbus books. My work supports a lifestyle that I still love – working at home, plenty of time with my family, a flexible schedule. It is still, by and large, creatively satisfying, and feeds my soul. I sleep well at night.

Who knows where this path that I’m on will lead.  Here’s to another twenty years of something hopefully as satisfying!