Ross MacDonald
In Illustration, Timing is Everything

Some illustrations are perfectly placed in space and time, others less so. This piece, originally sketched eons ago, seemed fated to wander the void for eternity.  Its long road finally ended in glory when the NY Times ran it last tuesday with an Op Ed page article that it seemed to have been unwittingly created for. It's a thought provoking piece on reinstituting the draft by Thomas E. Ricks. As the father of a 17 year old, I'm not sure about having young draftees drive our generals around, as the article recommends, but it could be a quick way of creating openings for the advancement of more junior officers.
I've just finished a long book illustration commision, and last monday was my first free day in almost 4 months. On autopilot, I came into the shop and planted my keester in my well worn illustratin' chair and assumed the position. No sooner did I start wondering what the hell to do with myself when Matt Dorfman called. Was I free? "Sure" I heard myself blurt, before I could check myself. He didn't need to tell me the deadline, I already knew - final art in a few hours. A fine welcome back to magazine/newspaper illustration. To mask my quaking terror I fixed my features in what I hoped was a look of steely determination, and began to sketch like the wind. Sometimes you nail it on the first sketch, sometimes it takes a few. I sketched around and around in circles for a while. Literally - I just sketched circles. Then my pencil began to scrawl something that looked oddly familiar. Yes, it was the pointing hand from the old recruiting posters, but that wasn't why it was giving me deja vu. Then it hit me - it was that old sketch I had done years ago. It had never been officially published, although I had printed a letterpress version of it for private distribution. It was so perfect for this piece it was hard to think of anything else. Would Matt accept it? He would. He did. I reproofed the type and linocut and that was that.
That's the wood type (circa 1885) and linocut on the bed of the press.

Back in the mid/late 90's the New York  Metro Transit Authority asked me to propose artwork for a mural for the 42nd street station mezzanine, then undergoing renovation. The pointing hand, between the words YES YOU, was the idea I pitched to them. I haven't heard back yet, so I presume they are still considering it. Who am I kidding? They probably hated it. The mural would have been 30 feet long and 6 or 8 feet high, at the end of a long hallway. You'd come around a corner and there it would be - YES YOU - seeming to say and mean everything and nothing at the same time. Woulda kicked ass, right? oh well, it was not to be.
To console myself, I did a linocut of the hand and printed it as a small letterpress broadside. I sent a few copies out to friends. The rest still languish in a drawer.
Around early 2000 I thought the image might have another chance at real publication, sort of. I had enough rejected sketches to fill a bimonthly magazine, so I thought "why not start a bimonthly magazine of rejected sketches!?". I guessed, correctly as it turned out, that other illustrators had tons of great sketches that had been turned down by near sighted editors. I pitched the idea to a few people. Some art directors hated the idea. Some were afraid it would cause further friction between art directors and editors. Others felt that the magazines would feel that they owned the rejected sketches.
My friend Joe Dizney, then the creative director at the Wall Street Journal, loved the idea. He wanted in. So did Joe Kimberling, then at Los Angeles Magazine. I had done many sketches for Joe K that we both loved, but which had been shot down in spite of his best efforts. Joe D came up with a great title - Kill Fee - and designed the logo. Lowercase Fraktur in red. Joe K laid out some pages. We all contacted illustrators we knew and asked for sketches.  Elvis Swift sent a bunch of great stuff. RO Blechman sent me a pile about an inch thick. Tons of great sketches started rolling in. We decided to do the mag as a newsprint tabloid. I found a printer in New York - the same place that did the Irish Echo and all the other small tabloids. For $300 they'd print 1000 copies, 16 pages, 2 colors. We were on our way. The YES YOU illustration would finally have a life on the printed page!
Well, not quite....
That was all just before 9/11. Somehow after that we never talked about the Kill Fee project again. Nicholas Blechman called me on the day after 9/11 to do an Op Ed page piece for the following day. I was still in a state of shock, and had to call him a few hours later and admit defeat. I couldn't stop thinking about what I'd seen long enough to sketch. I was drawing a complete blank - first time that's ever happened. Joe Dizney was in the second tower when it was hit and survived a hellish day. Somehow in light of those events Kill Fee didn't seem important or fun anymore and by unspoken agreement we all just dropped it. The internet had probably already rendered it obsolete before we began anyway.
So that's the long winding story of this illustration, for what it's worth. Though the mills of the gods grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding fine.

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