image galleriescontactsubscribe

MAKING IT PERSONAL

OCTOBER 23, 2018

 “I find it rather difficult to pin down my feelings about those illustrations to my Domestic Servant piece,” wrote famed novelist P. G. Wodehouse. "My initial reaction was a startled ‘Oh my Gawd!’, but gradually the sensation that I had been slapped between the eyes with a wet fish waned, and now I like them very much...I was brought up in the school of the Strand Magazine and the old Saturday Evening Post, where illustrations illustrated, but I am not sure I don’t like this modern impressionist stuff better."
P. G. Wodehouse – Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, to give him his full name and title – was writing about the first pictures of mine to appear in Playboy in November 1968.

While they were hardly “impressionist” in the style of Monet's Water Lilies, say, the old man, then nearly 90, had grasped something that many writers and editors have still not reconciled themselves to, even after half a century: that in the field of modern graphic art, the old relationship between words and pictures was changing.
At the time, I never knew about the Wodehouse (pronounced “Woodhouse”) letter: I wouldn’t learn about it for nearly thirty years, when it was published in an article about my work in Graphis Magazine.

All I knew back then is that the series of pictures I had done on a short deadline in February of 1968 had been pushed back from its June ‘68 publication date to be showcased in the magazine's blockbuster December issue. When that issue was finally published, however – the first week of November – these three pictures changed my life.
To begin with, the double page spread paid well: $1,800 in 1968 money; $13,000 in today's. For an artist who had just worked for two years at Hallmark to save a thousand bucks – and whose thousand bucks were quickly running out in New York – that Playboy check was a windfall.

Second, exposure in the magazine catapulted me at a young age into the ranks of an illustration field that in those days was still dominated by an elite group of middle-aged men.

And third, the experience confirmed the decision by Playboy’s art director, Arthur Paul, to give me a monthly series with the magazine that would secure and underwrite the early years of my professional life.

Yet just a few weeks before I shipped the final art off to Playboy, nobody there had ever heard of me.
In December 1967, just a few days before Christmas, I walked cold into Playboy's offices in Chicago and dropped off my portfolio.

Although I had lived and worked in Chicago for two years after high school, this time I was only in town for the week. Four months before, in August of ‘67, I had moved from Kansas City to New York to start a freelance career and on my first day got an assignment from the famous designer Herb Lubalin for the premier issue of Avant Garde. I wrote about that experience last year in "My First Portfolio."

I did the picture for Avant Garde in three days, working on the floor of a cramped Times Square hotel room. The next week I moved to a roomier room at a cheesy hotel near Herald Square and showed my pictures to Alex Gotfryd at Doubleday.

Alex disliked the conceptual drawings that had impressed Lubalin. They were "ugly," he said, and recalling his childhood in a Nazi concentration camp, said "if you had seen as much ugliness in the world as I have, you wouldn't want to add to it."

Nevertheless, he praised my ability to draw and gave me two books to illustrate.

The first was a classic of the American Midwest, So Dear to My Heart.
The other was a book of short stories, Arcturus the Hunting Hound, by the Russian author Yuri Kazakov.

Because the books were to be printed on Doubleday’s ancient letterpresses (which couldn’t handle areas of black), the drawings had to be done entirely in line. This robbed me of the dynamic uses of black that I had built my portfolio around.
 
But since high school I had been making a living from my ability to draw, so the technical limitations were a consideration, not a problem, and I eagerly plunged into work on both books at the same time.
I was grateful to be getting so much work so quickly. New York was turning out to be more expensive than I had expected, and while the books would pay only modestly, I was living modestly and stayed well within my means.

Moreover I was showing my work to publishers almost daily and getting editorial assignments from various magazines. So all in all, it began to look as if I had gained a foothold in the big leagues and would have enough money to at least make it through my first season alone.
In December, the premier issue of Avant Garde hit the newsstands and I quickly added "The Hate Mail of Captain Levy" to my samples. And so now, with the imprimatur of Herb Lubalin on my portfolio, I made perhaps the luckiest decision of my career. I decided to invest in a quick trip back to Chicago to show my work to Playboy, the publication that the New York Art Directors Club now cites as “the most visually exciting magazine of its day.”
 
It would be my second visit to the Windy City in four months.

Back in August, the route from Hallmark to New York had led me through Chicago, where I stopped off for two days to visit John Dioszegi. John was the guy who had hired me right out of high school to work in his commercial art studio and who had quickly become both a mentor and ultimately, a life-long friend.

I had left John's studio after only eighteen months, however, disillusioned about the state of the contemporary art scene and unsure that I even wanted to stay in the field. My next two years in Kansas City, however, had changed all that.
Hired by Hallmark with the promise that I'd be given gift books to illustrate, I had compiled a substantial body of published drawings for A Christmas Carol, The Robe, Les Miserables and other classics. And the weight that I found I could bring to these stories had opened a vein of personal imagery that now made up ninety percent of my portfolio. So as John had been my professional Godfather of sorts, I wanted to show him what I had been doing.

He went through my portfolio carefully, surprised, he said, by the unusual turn my work had taken.

During my time working for him, my pictures – apart from the cartoons I did for studio assignments – had been mostly drawings of street people done with line and wash in a style that resembled Ronald Searle’s or Henry C. Pitz.
John and his buddy, Jim Franzen, who worked for him, always expressed admiration for my drawings. But the Dioszegi Studio was a struggling commercial art shop and their hopes of attracting big name advertising clients such as Marshall Field’s or Carson Pirie Scott would never have been helped by stocking the portfolio with drawings of men panhandling on the street or hanging out at soup kitchens.
As a result, the new drawings I had done during my two years at Hallmark were not what John would have expected.
During my short time in Chicago I had tried, with growing frustration, to turn the images in my head into paintings. But at 18, the combined challenge of simultaneously mastering conception and execution had led me to doubt everything I was doing and in the end I had burned nearly all those efforts as the artifacts of youthful vanity.

Yet these images had now emerged from my Kansas City exile as stripped-down black and white drawings. Their simplicity had made them workable.
 
These versions were pictures done entirely in line, with textures and patterns and areas of solid black, but without mechanical halftones of any kind. It was a technique I had cobbled together in an effort to imitate the pure printmaking look of woodcuts, etchings and lithographs.
John looked through my samples for nearly half an hour, commenting on both the style and the concepts of what he called my "wild and crazy" drawings.

Then finally he shut the sample case, sat back in his swivel chair and observed that I had apparently found the direction in Kansas City that I had been looking for in Chicago: “You’ve got to show this stuff to Howard Borgren,” he said.

Well, why not? I thought, with a little apprehension. Might as well see what the great Howard has to say.
Howard Borgren was a big cheese at Chicago's Handelan Pedersen Studio, one of the city's most prestigious design firms. John had been cultivating a relationship with the bigger studio for several years and had become a friend of Howard’s. He phoned him immediately and arranged an appointment for the two of us to come by.

We met the next day in the firm’s conference room in their suite at 333 North Michigan. Howard flipped through my samples as quickly as if he were shuffling cards: I imagined he wasn't impressed.

Then, closing the case, he asked me if I'd like a job as one of the studio's top illustrators.
The salary he offered was more than what Hallmark had proposed when they asked me to stay and the terms he volunteered would have been hard to beat: The studio would only expect me to work on commercial assignments three days a week, he said. The rest of the time would be mine and I could take as much freelance work as I could fit in.

I could hardly believe the offer. I had met Howard a few times before in my earlier incarnation working for John, although back then, he assumed – I guess because of my youth – that I was merely John’s gofer. Now here he was, offering me a top spot on Chicago's commercial art food chain. I  suppose I should have considered the offer, but I thanked him and declined.

Back at the Dioszegi Studio, John tried to reason with me.
The advantages of a regular job were obvious: a steady paycheck, immediate access to Chicago’s top clients and business people to handle the business details.

Howard had asked me to reconsider his offer overnight. I said I would but I knew I wouldn't.
 
Ever since childhood I had had an independent streak and Howard’s deadpan enthusiasm for my work had only confirmed my own judgment that I was making a reasonable gamble by striking out on my own.

But as John was lecturing me that I was foolish to pass up a bird in the hand, an agent who had heard about my drawings dropped by the studio and asked to see them.

He went through the pictures more slowly than Howard had and when he was finished, asked me how I had come up with the ideas.

“I’ve always wondered about that myself,” I said.

Well, you know, he replied, “Playboy is looking for work like this.”

Like what? I thought to myself. Like the style? Or like the concepts? I didn’t follow up by asking, but the next morning, as I caught a bus for the East, I filed the thought away for future reference.
And so, in late November, with the publication of my drawing in Avant Garde, I decided it was time to re-visit Chicago. Time to see if Playboy really was looking for the kind of stuff I wanted to do.
By 1967, Playboy had already transcended its early reputation as a girlie magazine, and with an impressive circulation – on its way to more than seven million by 1972 – it was said to be the highest-paying publication in the world.

With its flagship Playboy Club just a few blocks away on Walton Street, Playboy was an expanding entertainment empire, publishing interviews with newsmakers and fiction by Nobel Prize winners. The magazine broke stories, made headlines and was often the center of news itself.  

But with Christmas coming on, I had an additional reason for wanting to go to America’s Second City.
As much as I as hoping to get work from Playboy, I looked forward to seeing a young woman I had dated briefly before leaving Hallmark.

We had stayed in touch since I left and she had come to visit me for a week in New York. Then when we parted, we agreed to meet again just before Christmas to spend another week in Chicago.

We stayed in separate hotels, she at the Sheraton on Chicago's Magnificent Mile, while I holed up at the Cass Hotel, a fleabag just a few blocks away near Dioszegi's little studio on Wabash and Ohio.

I arrived the day before she did and used the time to drop off my portfolio at the Playboy Building on Michigan Avenue. Before meeting her the next day, I went back to retrieve it. The receptionist in the art department asked me to wait. "Mr. Paul would like to speak with you," she said, and offered me a seat. I walked around instead, looking at the art on the walls.

In the three years since I had left Chicago, Playboy Enterprises had moved from their old brick building on Ohio Street to the former Palmolive building, a venerable Chicago skyscraper. Now the magazine had its own giant logo sitting atop Chicago’s skyline and its own “Bunny Beacon” to sweep the city's skies at night.
   
Inside, Playboy's offices had been designed to match the company’s new international image, with sinuous walls that reminded me of something created by Gaudi and fabulous art on display everywhere.

The receptionist looked familiar. I was sure I had seen her in an issue of the magazine. She smiled. "Brad Holland is a great name for an artist," she said. I thanked her for the thought and hoped she would prove to be right.

Then the door to the Art Director’s office opened and Art Paul walked out.
He greeted me graciously, invited me into his sprawling corner office and offered me a seat. He thanked me for bringing my work in, praised its originality and in a sentence that would change my life, asked if I'd be interested in doing work for the magazine every month.

You won't believe what just happened," I told my friend when I met her at a restaurant in Old Town on the city's Near North Side. Christmas shoppers pushed and shoved all around us and "A Whiter Shade of Pale," a new song that year, was playing in the background like a Carnaby Street Christmas Carol.

My friend was a very conservative young woman, a Goldwater Girl in ‘64, and I don’t imagine she thought much of Playboy. So at the moment I didn't try to make a big deal of my likely getting work there. Instead I found myself talking about the amazingly gracious art director I had just met.  

Years later I was to meet Art Paul's older sister. She told me tales of the family's prior life in Czarist Russia and about their escape to Chicago around the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. But Art himself was born in Chicago, went to high school there, then studied at Chicago’s Institute of Design, with its Bauhaus philosophy of combining crafts and fine art.

He had been freelancing as an illustrator himself, when in 1953, Hugh Hefner offered him the chance to design a magazine “from scratch.” Art asked for and got full artistic autonomy. Then from the first issue, he began to replace the traditional text and picture format of magazine design with a drastic and unpredictable use of space and typography, even on covers.
Since his retirement from the magazine in the 1980’s, Art has been widely praised for his overwhelming influence on modern graphic design.

Steve Heller has written that Art "demolished artistic and cultural boundaries [and] transformed magazine illustration."  

Hugh Hefner once said the same thing, comparing Art’s cultural influence to Andy Warhol’s. “Arthur, quite frankly, was responsible for changing the nature of commercial illustration,” he said. “He blurred the lines between fine art and commercial art."

And the New York Art Directors Club notes that the “working concepts” Art developed at Playboy have since been widely “emulated by other publications" around the world.  

My own take on Art’s genius is that it derived as much from his character as his vision. In 1986, when he was inducted into the Art Director's Hall of Fame (along with Walt Disney), he requested that I make the speech on his behalf:

"Art Paul insisted on his own integrity as an art director," I told the audience at The Waldorf Astoria that evening. And because he did, he had the power to recognize integrity in others. He gathered all of us under his umbrella and gave us the room to become artists, to whatever extent we ourselves were capable of becoming artists."
In December of 1967 however, all that was years in the future. That afternoon, all I knew is that the art director of the highest paying magazine in the world was offering a monthly series to a kid who had been freelancing for barely four months.

The feature Art had offered me was Playboy's Ribald Classics, a series of dirty stories by famous writers that the magazine had been running since its beginning. Over the years I was to do pictures for tales by Ovid, Boccaccio and Jonathan Swift; Chaucer, the Marquis de Sade and Mark Twain among many others.

I was not, however, the first artist to work on the series. In the decade before me, three different artists had all had done admirable work on it. Leon Bellin, Eugene Karlin and Robert Dance had all worked in different black and white styles and all had stayed within the traditional function of illustration. That is, they literally illustrated scenes from the stories and did their best to stay true to the text.

Since assigning the series to me would be a major change to the traditional approach, Art warned that he’d expect me to prove myself, promising that after the first of the year, one of his assistants would be contacting me about a trial assignment.

He was as good as his word.
Back in my hotel room in New York – sometime in mid January – I got a phone call from the assistant, George Kenton. They had a double page assignment for me, he said: an article by the famous writer P.G. Wodehouse, author of the Jeeves and Blandings Castle novels. It was about how you couldn’t get good servants any longer.

George said they’d need sketches from me in a couple days and finished art in two weeks. "We'll send you your concept," he said.

My WHAT? I thought. You'll send me my WHAT? What was he talking about?

"Your concept!" George explained. Didn't I understand?

Obviously not. I thought artists came up with their own ideas.

No, said George. At Playboy, the art department did that. They came up with all the ideas for the art, then farmed their sketches out to artists whose styles they thought best fit the concept.  

I was flabbergasted. I simply hadn’t counted on this and I didn’t know what to say. I knew I had only a few seconds to say yes or no and I knew I’d have to weigh whatever I was about to decide.

A dozen thoughts flashed through my head at once.

In those days, people my age weren’t being published in Playboy and a double page spread for a famous author there could be the break of a lifetime.

But what was the point of being an artist if you were only going to illustrate other people’s ideas?

I stalled. I asked George if he’d describe the concept they had in mind for me.

The rough they’d put in the mail would be more explicit, he promised. But in general, it would be a double page illustration of a rich guy dressed up in top hat and tails changing the tire of his limousine while a uniformed chauffeur relaxed in the driver's seat.

Well, I thought, it was a nice idea. It would have made a great Norman Rockwell cover for The Saturday Evening Post.

In fact it nearly did.
Back in the Forties, Rockwell did paint a very similar picture for a Post cover. The details were different but the basic concept was the same. I had seen it as a kid in a book of Rockwell's work I found in the Fremont Ohio public library.

Still, I thought, this is Playboy. It's a clever idea, tried and true. I was sure I could make a good picture of it and I could certainly use the money.

And having my work shown in Playboy would mark me (to quote Terry Molloy) as “a contender.”

So what was the problem?

Simple. When I decided to move to New York, I had made a deal with myself. From the start, I would insist on doing only the kind of work I really wanted to do and I’d stick to my guns.  If I was able to make it that way, I’d make it, and if I couldn't, I'd find something else to do with my life.

At the time, however, I couldn’t really explain in any coherent manner just what it was I really did want to do. That’s because at the time, I was merely winging it.

In those days, what people now call conceptual illustration didn't exist as a genre so there was no accepted tradition to relate it to.

In two more years, in 1970, when I had to explain my approach to Harrison Salisbury, editor of the new Op-Ed page at the New York Times, I had a little more experience. Yet even then I had to hem and haw before I finally stumbled across the explanation I've been using ever since:

Imagine you've locked a writer in one room, I was to tell Harrison, and me in another. Then you give us both the same assignment. The writer writes you an article and I draw you a picture. Then you marry the two and hope the marriage works out.

It was a simple explanation when it came.  But in February of 1968 it didn't come.

The idea that George Kenton had described to me was actually a perfect illustration for Wodehouse's gentle satire of the upper classes. I assumed that Sir P.G., whose reputation I was familiar with, was an expert on the foibles of the rich.
 
But what did I, coming from a tract house on the outskirts of Fremont Ohio, know about having servants?
At that time, Wodehouse was nearly 90; I had just turned 24. He had been a wealthy best-selling novelist since before my parents were born and was now a Knight of the British Empire.

In the early days of the Twentieth Century, he had worked as a lyricist with Jerome Kern, Guy Bolton and others in creating the archetypical Broadway musical; I was living in the era of the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Moby Grape and The Electric Banana.

Wodehouse lived in an estate on Long Island; I lived in a run-down hotel room near Macy’s and had to field phone calls in the evening for the prostitute who had worked out of the room before me.

Wodehouse was apparently having trouble finding domestic servants; I had no refrigerator, kept perishable items on the window ledge and my only entertainment came from a cheap transistor radio that consumed double A batteries like a hungry cat.

In short, the author and I were not coming at the issue of domestic servitude from the same place in life.
In traditional illustration, none of that should have mattered. As an illustrator, it would have been my job to read the manuscript, develop the art department’s sketch and make a picture that channeled the author's point of view. So yes, I thought, I might as well be practical just this once and say yes, I’ll do it, thanks for the break.

Instead, I suddenly heard myself saying “no, I can't do it.”

In a moment of personal dithering, the artist in me had taken charge.

“I'm sorry,” I said. "I only do my own ideas."

This was, of course, a pompous, even a preposterous statement. With only four month's experience on my own, I hardly even knew what "my own ideas" were, except for drawings of people handicapped by fate.
The drawings that had impressed Art Paul in my portfolio had not come from assignments, but from my unconscious. I had been channeling my own feelings of frustration about the state of the art business into creative energy, then turning that energy into pictures.

But the truth is I hardly knew where the pictures were coming from.

So how could I consciously apply that subliminal thinking process to an article about how rich folks couldn't get good butlers and cooks?
Within a year, I'd get to meet George Kenton and find him to be friendly and collegial. But that afternoon he was just a professional voice on the other end of the phone.

He understood my reservations, he said, but Playboy had this system. It was the way the art department worked. Other artists had found it worked for them. He was sure that if I’d try it, it would work for me.

I’d like to, I replied, I wish I could, but I can’t  – or words to that effect. Then lamely, I told George that if the art department ever got an article that stumped them for visuals, they might call me. I’d be happy to work with them that way.

We’ll keep it in mind, George said and hung up.
For the next three days I walked around New York in the cold, kicking myself for having overplayed my hand. I kept re-playing the phone call in my head. How could I have handled it differently? I started thinking of all the ideas I might have done if I had gotten the job.

George had said they’d keep me in mind, but I was a realist: I knew I’d never hear from Playboy again. And as for the monthly assignment Art Paul had so graciously offered me, I knew that had now flown the coop too.

Then suddenly, out of the blue, I got a second phone call, this one from Art Paul himself.
"Brad," he began, "George Kenton says you refused the assignment. I'm so disappointed." He was calling, he said, to see if I'd reconsider.

I couldn’t believe it! Here was the second chance I thought I’d never get. All I had to do now was say "Sorry Mister Paul, George Kenton was talking to my evil twin, I’ve sent him back to Arkansas and yes, I’d be happy to accept the assignment, when can you send me my concept?"

Instead, I did it again.

"I don't know what the point of being an artist is," I said to Art, "if you don't do your own ideas."

At that point, any other art director in the world would have hung up on me for good. But Art took a minute to explain.

It was his experience, he said, that most illustrators weren’t good at thinking up picture ideas, at least not the kind of pictures he wanted to see in Playboy. So he had put together a staff to do that.

They had come up with the idea for the Wodehouse feature. He had approved it and he thought it was excellent. Did I think I could come up with a better idea than they had?

I thought for a second.

Who knows what I'd do, I thought. I recognized that their idea was a good one. And I didn’t have a clue what I’d do instead. Moreover, whatever I did, they’d be the judges of whose idea was better; so that would simply postpone their preference for their own concept to a later stage. No reason to set a trap for myself like that.

But having to think of a quick answer, I said the most direct thing that came into my head.

"I don’t know if my ideas would be any better," I told Art. "But I know they’d be more personal."

There was a second’s silence on the other end of the line. Then Art said, “That’s a great answer, Brad! Go ahead and do something more personal.”

In that second, I realized I had met the art director of my dreams.
My first sketch for the article came quickly, showing a Victorian gentleman ensnared like Gulliver in the puppet strings of the domestic servants he's been used to controlling.

The image was one that had come to me walking around New York during the three days since George Kenton had hung up the phone. I can't be sure where the image came from, but I think I know.

In 1968's America there was revolution in the air, and the concept of an insurrection among the hired help was probably fed by that; as well as by the fact that I was still just coming off two years of my own rebellious work habits at a nine-to-five job at Hallmark.

Done quickly, the sketch was a hodge-podge of tracing paper fragments scotch taped together, quickly approved in the art department, but second-guessed by editors who asked that I try a second version. They wanted me to try showing the takeover by servants as a sequence.

I did those sketches the next day and got an immediate go-ahead.
The three pictures I did over the next week and a half were to become the cornerstone of my career.
Published prominently nine months later, they got the attention of art directors throughout the business, brought in new work immediately and kicked off the Ribald Classics series I was to do every month after that for nearly 20 years.
Besides providing me with the security of a steady income and creating a demand for my kind of pictures in the marketplace, the monthly feature gave me a high profile vehicle for turning my personal ideas into mainstream graphic art.

Story by story, I learned how to enter into the heart of a text and to think of picture ideas from the inside out.

Not to think of visual ideas, but to think visually.

None of that happened overnight, of course, but the door opened for me during those three days in winter half a century ago.

In conventional professional terms, everything I said and did during those three days was wrong. But God bless Art Paul, I had done them with the right guy.

I had stumbled up the stairs in the dark and when the lights came on, there I was.
Credits:
Text © 2018 Brad Holland
P.G. Wodehouse, quoted in "Brad Holland," by Art Paul, GRAPHIS #347 Sept/Oct 2003
All art © 1962-7 / 2018 Brad Holland, except:
"The Lost Art of Domestic Service" © 1968 Playboy Enterprises
"The Most Wicked Novel," Ribald Classic © 1969 Playboy Enterprises
Playboy’s Cuff links Cover © 1957 Playboy Enterprises
Fixing a Flat, by Norman Rockwell, The Saturday Evening Post © 1946 Curtis Publishing
Photograph, Art Directors Hall of Fame Banquet, October 31, 1986