A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To Pick Up a Gold Medal
"My first thought when Anelle Miller first informed me that I had won a gold medal from the Society of Illustrators for the combat art done during my embed in Afghanistan in 2011 that appeared, with an app, in GQ online along in July of 2012, was "Shit. Now I'm really going to have to do something to justify this recognition." I would have been very satisfied just to have the work included in the show. The gold took me by surprise.
I've already described much of the process of getting there, drawing and writing, and getting the work published in an earlier DRAWGER posting last July titled "The Embed in the Stan". I cannot emphasize enough that while I did do the drawings and journals, I did not build this by myself. I never could have gotten the clearance to go over there had not my friend and editor, Peter Kaplan, signed off on the waivers and journalist accredidations necessary to get a media pass, even though we weren't entirely sure where the work would eventually run, though Peter had a good idea. Peter also acted as coach and editor after I returned as I collected all my journals and worked on putting a cohesive story together. That said, the work still would have never seen the light of day had not Fred Woodward of GQ gone to bat for me in a big way to get the work published. The app itself would never have happened had not Fred assigned Jeffrey Kurtz to put it together into such an impressive presentation. The editors and fact checkers at GQ impressed me with their thoroughness and high standards for accuracy and integrity. There was also all the incredibly helpful advice and connections offered by people like fellow combat artists, Michael Fay, Steve Mumford and Roman Genn that helped to keep the stress levels down during the preparation stage. There were the incredible men and women of the Dustoff and Public Affairs teams who were so generous with their time and assistance while I was there in Kandahar and even after I returned, proof reading and providing further clarity and elaborations on parts of my journals that needed such. And of course there was the support of my wife, Terri, and my sons who had the sense of humor to suppress their concerns for a non Alpha dog type of guy to head over by himself to a war zone doing something he had never done before. I still hope to return at the very least once more before things wind down completely there. It was an experience that fueled new inspiration for what I'd like to do over the next 20 years or so.
I am happy to say that a selection of my drawings of seriously wounded vets returning from the front lines of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as a painting done for Broadway producer Jeffrey Richards, are also part of the Society exhibit that will run through January.
Well, that's what I wrote and, other than the closing sentence, that's pretty much what I had committed to memory for my acceptance speech. It was going to be a great night despite the head cold that I woke up with Friday morning. Chicken soup, vitamin C, lots of medicinal teas were keeping it in check. Two of our three sons, Alex, and Ben with his wife, Maggie, had come from California and Chicago to attend the event as well and it was a pleasure introducing them to Society and Drawger members during the refreshment hour. Even my younger brother, Dan, came into town for the event and he hates NYC. Terri, of course, looked great and holding court on her own.
Standing toward the front of the impressive crowd in the gallery, so that I wouldn't have to work my way through the sea of bodies when my name got called, I stood with family while Society president, Dennis Dittrich and our director, Anelle Miller, made the opening comments. Half listening while going over my speech, making last minute mental edits, I kept my eyes on the front stage. Anelle then made an announcement that the awards event would begin with the Hamilton King presentation. She described the history of the award, who Hamilton King was, the fact that it was a one time only presentation to an illustrator. The list was flashed on the screen of all the past recipients- an unmistakeable assembly of heavy hitters. I returned to the mental editing of my comments. Didn't want to make them too long but didn't want to forget anyone or anything that needed mention. Besides the extra time on the Hamilton King presentation would allow me to keep adjusting the sentences.
It really does happen. The same way everything goes into slow motion in a head on collision. I was probably half listening, at the very least, for 30 seconds to Anelles's introduction before my attention returned to some focus on the situation around me. Looking at the screen it occured to me that the name on the screen was mine. The flashing images were mine. Anelle was talking about me. It seemed that, in a break with protocol, it was decided not to inform me of the honor. Terri, my sons, Anelle, the Society staff, the voting members, had demonstrated incredible restraint in not letting me in on the decision.
"Oh Lord I am not worthy..."
Recovering Cathiolic that I may be the ingrained indoctrination (it never really goes away) resurfaced and I felt a sense of embarrassment at being included in such esteemed company. As I said before, it's an honor just to make it into the SI Annual. The gold medal was beyond what I had expected but I had made peace with receiving it. But the Hamilton King? Something was wrong. There was a mistake- this was such an overreach on the part of the HK voting members. This was not really happening. But it was. By the time Anelle read a congratulatory note from my friend and mentor, Bernie D'Andrea, which had Terri in tears, whatever I had prepared to say for the gold acceptance was erased and I was drawing a huge blank for words as I made my way to the stage to deal with the present situation. In the movies when someone gets surprised like this, they somehow recover and go on to deliver a remarkable, coherent, and moving speech with music slowly soaring in the background. That didn't happen here. I grasped in the mental void for words to describe my gratitude, and, yes, embarrassment, for the honor. I don't remember a thing I said. I don't recall much of what I said when retuning for the gold medal acceptance either, other than remembering to give credit to Peter, Fred, and Jeffrey. I'm sure much was left out. I'm still digesting this remarkable night and it will be a while before this recognition really sinks in.
What I do remember is being in the company of treasured family, good friends, and fellow illustrators and Society members whom I hold in the highest regard and affection. Not enough thanks and praise can be given to Anelle, house manager John Capobianco, Chef Q, and the Society staff for their outstanding service in making this such a great night for everyone.
Saturday. Ben had left with Maggie at midnight to return to Chicago. Terri had to work with clients for most of the day. Alex and I took a ride out to Jersey for a reality check, attending services for an old friend, an accomplished artist, who passed away on New Year's eve. We returned to New York with enough time to see the George Bellows exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum. Another kind of reality check. We walked through the various rooms in awe of the tour de force brilliance and bravura of this master painter and graphic artist. Yes, he was also an illustrator in the best sense of the word; a fantastic reportorial artist capturing the energy and characters of the times he lived in. To stand in front of his paintings was to be humbled in a good way and reminded how much more I needed to explore and learn hoping at some point to successfully bring a distillation of that energy into my own work. I still have much to do to earn these distinctions bestowed last night. But, that's what makes the creative process fun.