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My First Portfolio

AUGUST 30, 2017
On a sultry August morning in 1967 I got off the train at Grand Central Station, went to a phone booth in the crowded atrium and began my new life in New York City.
I didn't know anybody in the East and I hadn't left myself anything to go back to in the Midwest.
My few earthly possessions – books and drawings mostly – were stashed in my friend Harry West's attic in Kansas City. I planned to send for the stuff as soon as I got settled in New York, but I had made up my mind that whatever happened to me here I would not be going back.
I had left high school a few years before and started working at the bottom of the art business. At first I tried to find myself. Then I stopped trying. Not trying worked. Now I was gambling that I was ready to start at the top.
I rummaged through the big New York City phone book, put a dime in the slot and called Herb Lubalin, by any professional reckoning, one of the top art directors in the world, and from my perspective, the first one I wanted to see.
Lubalin art directed a magazine called fact. Wikipedia says it was a "scathingly satiric journal of comment on current society and politics."  
Fact wasn't a big seller or a high profile publication. In fact, it had a decidedly controversial reputation and Senator Barry Goldwater had just won a defamation lawsuit against the publisher.
But what made fact attractive to me was that Lubalin was making it a showcase for graphic art: all the articles in any given issue were illustrated in black and white by a single artist.
Etienne Delessert had just done an inspired issue that impressed me and confirmed my intention to make fact my first port of call in New York.
Etienne had done his drawings in pen and ink and they reprinted beautifully. But most artists did paintings for the magazine, and reproduced in halftone on newsprint – high quality newsprint, but still newsprint –  they tended to come out a kind of muddy gray.
For most illustrators that was the best they could expect from the process. But for somebody with a dramatic black and white style, the kind I had developed during two years working at Hallmark Cards, I thought fact would to be a natural; and I was sure that if Lubalin saw my work, he'd assign me an issue.
I had been up all night reading on the train out of Cleveland, but I wasn't sleepy and I couldn't wait to get started. So I went straight to a row of lockers, locked up my suitcase, and phoned Lubalin’s office before I had even found a place to sleep that night.

His assistant told me that they didn’t make appointments but said I could drop off my "book"  – a new term for me – and it would be ready for pickup by mid-afternoon.

So at about eleven that morning I set off for their office on East 31st Street.
For somebody who had just jumped into the deep end of the pool with only a rough idea of how to swim, I don't remember being very apprehensive that day.

As a child, my grandmother used to read me fairy tales about country boys who went to the big city to seek their fortunes. So in one part of my five-year-old soul, I was living out one of my grandmother's stories in a reality that seemed only half-real.

But I remembered another story too, one I had heard from a new artist Hallmark had just hired from the Rhode Island School of Design.

During a holiday break from school one year he had gone to New York to visit the Society of Illustrators and there struck up a conversation with the Society's long-time bartender.

"You must have seen a lot of famous illustrators come and go here," he said to the guy. "Yessir," said the bartender, "I sees 'em come and I sees 'em go – but mostly I sees 'em go."

That's all I can remember thinking about that morning as I went loping down Park Avenue, counting my way down Manhattan's (helpfully) numbered streets.
The pictures in my portfolio – it was stuffed with about 50 of them – had mostly been created in the space of a year. But it had taken me a few years before that to create the artist who did them.

The people who had seen them so far – at that point only a handful of friends – all seemed to agree that there was nothing quite like them being done in the field of illustration – although there was general disagreement about whether or not that was a good thing.

They certainly didn't fit into any of the illustration styles then in fashion.

Stylistically, my work had none of the splashy post-Norman Rockwell realism that had made the "Westport School" the hottest thing in 1960's illustration. Yet my concepts were not rooted in the kind of client-centric graphic design that was making Pushpin Studio the new trend-setter either.

My pictures looked more like I was illustrating some kind of strange story, except there was never a story.
The truth is I was coming at my work more the way a writer might come at his. And in fact, writing had been as much a part of my background as drawing.

In high school I had written and performed in a bunch of goofy skits modeled on the kind of satirical stuff a pair of Canadian comics named Wayne and Shuster had been doing on national TV. Then, since high school, I had been growing up with the plays of Camus and Brecht and the short fables of Borges and I imagined myself doing the same kind of thing those guys had done, only doing it with pictures.

So for me, the move to Manhattan was to be the acid test of whether or not I could make that kind of thing work.

If, before I starved to death, I found that I could make a living doing pictures with a conceptual edge, I reckoned I would stick around and do them. And if not, I'd stick around anyway and try making pictures some other way – by writing plays, for example, or maybe movies.

In the first place, it wasn't as if I had ever set out to become an illustrator. All I was thinking about when I graduated from high school is that I wanted to be an artist and I had to make a living and if there was a shorter distance between those two points, I couldn't think of it at 17.
At first, right after high school, I had migrated to Chicago, the closest big city to my little Ohio town and in those days, still the second largest city in the US. I had never been to a big city before and I didn’t know anybody there, so it took some effort, but within a few months I got a job working in a small commercial art studio, drawing Ben-Day cartoons for cheesy corporate newsletters and pasting up catalogs.

Chicago, of course, has always had a vibrant professional art culture, although I found it a far different scene from what I had imagined. Growing up, like most people, I thought of artists the way a child might, as people who drew and painted pictures. But two years in the big city soon taught me that the art world was a hothouse in which strange orchids bloom.

By mid-20th century the bigwigs of the establishment had pronounced all forms of representational picture-making dead, not just for our time but for all time. And as for illustration, they dismissed it as a mere afterthought of literature, unworthy of serious consideration.

For two years I had been exposed to this relentless soothsaying from art magazines, from fine art students in the rooming house where I lived and from a couple of Cool Daddy-Os I knew on the Near North Side who subscribed to the Bohemian's creed that art’s only true purpose was to shock the world’s squares.

I can't say that I ever came to believe any of this stuff myself. But I believed that the rest of the world believed it. And if that was the case, then I concluded that the art business held no future for me, and in a state of depression one Sunday I burned nearly all the work I had done since leaving Ohio.

The only pictures that survived the backyard incinerator that day were the drawings I couldn’t get to because I had left them downtown at the studio where I worked.
The bright side of my two years in Chicago was that it expanded my horizon of what art had once been. The dark side is that it collapsed my faith in what art could be. Jobs few and far between at the studio had also left me broke.

So when I heard that Hallmark Cards was hiring kids just a few years older than I out of college – even flying them to Kansas City for interviews at the company’s expense – I wrote them to ask if they'd consider me for a job.

My youth and lack of education would work against me, they warned; but my experience might count for something. So if I was willing to come to town at my own expense and show them a portfolio, they said they wouldn't rule me out.

And so, one evening, I caught a bus for Missouri with a suitcase, a portable typewriter, and a big alligator satchel containing the dozen or so pictures I hadn’t burned.

I was in luck. Hallmark hired me on the spot and assigned me to illustrate a number of classic stories for some gift books the company was just starting to publish.
After my world-weary exit from Chicago, my two years at Hallmark were redemptive.

With steady work I developed quickly. I did pop-up versions of Robin Hood and A Christmas Carol, a little book of big paintings of sea life, and "uplifting" excerpts from Golden Oldies such as Les Miserables or The Robe, all printed in black and white on special toned stock and published between hardcovers in Christmas potpourri editions.
The books I did for Hallmark were just what the doctor ordered. They gave me dozens of published samples I could use to anchor a new portfolio. I figured that would demonstrate my ability to produce solid work under professional conditions.

But it was the art I did away from the plant that defined where I really wanted to go.

In Chicago, with its art stores and book stores, its massive public library and great art museum, I had found that I was absorbing more influences than I could assimilate; and every picture I tried to paint there had become a challenge to embody everything I was learning.

At Hallmark, the pace was very different. There, the company piled project after project on me and the tight deadlines helped me clear my head of influences that had been influences merely because they were attractive or challenging.

The pressure forced me to condense what I had learned in Chicago into nothing more than what I needed. It allowed me to create a stripped-down artistic personality, something that was of myself but larger than me.
The elements all came together for me one rainy Saturday night when I abandoned a large realistic painting I had been working on and, on impulse, did a crude black and white drawing of a peglegged sea captain chained to an anchor in a patch of Queen Anne's Lace.

Captain Ahab in Kansas, I thought to myself, stranded in a field of dreams with more than a thousand miles to the nearest whale.

I had no idea where the idea had come from, but I decided that maybe I could write a story of some kind to go with it.
The story, however, never came. Instead, over the following year, drawings began pouring out of me with imagery so unexpected that I could hardly wait to see what I was going to do next.

Like Ahab, many of the figures in the pictures were chained, bound, imprisoned or frozen in place; and even at the time, as the drawings piled up in my little attic apartment on Locust Street, I realized that I was creating a collective self-portrait.

Like me, the figures in my drawings were landlocked and soul locked, but the drawings were the beginning of my unlocking.

They broke the sickly spell of my larval years and convinced me that I was ready to try my hand at the publishing world in New York and whatever lay beyond.
When word got around the plant that I was preparing a portfolio to leave, my friends started dropping by my booth to suggest that I stick around a little longer:  "You're still so young, you have plenty of time to go to New York."  
And in fact, even management, which had made me a supervisor the year before and gave me a group to lead, suddenly doubled my salary and hinted at an even bigger promotion if I'd stay.

It was tempting but not persuasive.

As good as Hallmark had been for me, there would never have been a future there for drawings of executioners in wheelchairs, no matter how many uplifting classics or Wit and Wisdom of…books the company gave me to illustrate.
Of course, there was no guarantee that I'd ever find a niche for this kind of stuff anywhere else either. But that was just the point: there was too much risk in what I wanted to do with my work not to risk doing it while I was young
Still, Hallmark wouldn't have been Hallmark without at least one final Ides of March moment before I left.

One afternoon as I was wrapping up some work on a book, the artist in the adjacent booth, a young lady with a degree in Fine Art – a Master's from Yale, as I recall – dropped by to wish me luck.

Hanging over the glass partition like a neighbor over the backyard fence, her bon voyage sentiments quickly morphed into a critique of my drawings
My images were all very clever, she conceded and I had certainly developed a very original style. But it was all SO old-fashioned! Didn't I know that art was no longer an effort to fool the eye, that that kind of thing had gone out with Cubism? Illustration wasn't art either, she said, and what I was doing was nothing more than illustration even if it didn't illustrate anything.
Whatever that meant.

She suggested that I should start reading some good art magazines, bone up on what cutting edge thinkers were thinking, what cutting edge do-ers were doing.


I started to argue with her, but ended up letting it go in one ear and out the other.

"Nuts" would have been my considered reply if I had considered one: deja vu. I had gotten a lifetime dose of it all from the high priests during my short time in Chicago and this time I wasn't falling for it. This time I wasn't going to burn my pictures.

I would burn my bridges instead.
And so that summer, the summer of '67, I gave Hallmark a two week's notice, vacated my little attic apartment, disposed of nearly everything but books and original art and with a suitcase and portfolio, caught a midnight bus for the East.

Thanks to a steady paycheck, I had been able to save a thousand bucks, more money then than now, but not a lot even then. I knew that in New York the money would go fast, there’d be no steady income, no health insurance, no safety net.
But as I wove through the crowds on Park Avenue that hot August morning I wasn't thinking of safety nets or retirement plans or health insurance or equity in a home.

I was thinking "I sees 'em come and I sees 'em go, but mostly I sees 'em go."
Herb Lubalin's office was the ground floor of a brownstone building on East 31st. The space inside was quaint and orderly, the walls covered with examples of his ground-breaking typography and large wood type letter forms.

The man himself, however, was nowhere to be seen. There was an open door leading to a room in the back and I assumed he had a workspace back there.

I left my portfolio, said I'd return around three and went to look for Greenwich Village in case I wanted to live there.
The streets of Manhattan were different from the streets I had found in Chicago and Kansas City.

In those places, crowds tended to thin out during business hours; here the streets were packed all day long. What were all these people doing running around like ants in the middle of the day anyway? Didn't any of them have jobs?

The men in those days still wore suits and ties and shiny shoes to work, some were still wearing hats. The women were dressed up and made up too, beehive hairdos were all the rage and nobody was wearing tennis shoes to work.

Then at 14th street, right at Union Square, the color of the sea began to change.
That summer – the summer '67 – was being hyped in the media as the Summer of Love. And on radios all along the route from Kansas City to Manhattan you could hear Scott Mackenzie singing for people to come to San Francisco wearing flowers in their hair.

The ones who couldn't go west, I guessed, had gathered below 14th street in Manhattan. Because suddenly, as I started down University Place, it was as if I had entered a different city, a different era even.

Everywhere I looked there were guys with blue jeans and long hair and pretty young girls with long flowing dresses – some of them barefoot – their faces painted with bright Day-Glo colors.

Down on Eighth Street, a guy who looked like Shakespeare was shuffling along the crowded sidewalk dressed like a court jester, complete with cap and bells, threading his way through the crowd and nobody seemed to be paying him any mind.

There was pop music too, coming from everywhere, from transistor radios on the street or from open windows. You could surf the Top Forty by just walking down the sidewalk. The Beatles had just released All You Need Is Love, Lulu was singing To Sir With Love; the Boxtops were singing about a Letter they had just sent off with a woosh and Billy Joe McAllister had dropped a mysterious bundle off the Tallahatchee Bridge.

All the music reminded me that I might need some music myself when Lubalin assigned me an issue of fact. So I stopped in a storefront and bought a cheap transistor radio, the kind you had to buy new batteries for every two days.

For the next nine months, living and working alone in a shabby hotel – The Collingwood on West 35th, where you could “rent rooms by the day or the hour” – that cheap transistor would be my only contact with the outside world.
When I returned to Lubalin’s studio, his assistant said he'd like to see me and showed me into his office.

He was gracious and very complimentary. "Good stuff," he said, elegant style, interesting concepts, something new. He said he’d like to assign me an article right away.

I said I was hoping for an issue of fact.  
Well, he said, that wouldn’t be possible, they had just folded fact, maybe I had heard about the publisher’s troubles with the law: Ralph Ginzburg. His appeal had just failed in court and in two weeks he was scheduled to go to the clink.

But, he said, they were starting a new publication and he wanted me to be in it. It was to be called Avant Garde and he showed me the cover layout with a stunning new typeface he had designed for it
Avant Garde was to be a magazine that they hoped would be...avant garde, he said, and my pictures would be perfect for the premier issue.
The only problem is that it was scheduled to go to the printer in three days, right after Labor Day. The pages had all been locked up already, but he’d un-make a double-page spread for me if I thought I could make the deadline. Could I do it?

I told him I could. What was the article?

Hate mail, he said, anti-Semitic stuff. Ugly letters that had been sent to an army doctor, a certain Captain Levy, because he had refused to serve as a medic in Viet Nam. They were going to publish the letters as-is, with only a brief explanation, let the hate speak for itself, so a satiric drawing would be good and besides, it was the best place in the magazine they could fit me in without having to re-make any other sections.
He handed me a manuscript and I opened my portfolio to put it in. While I was fiddling with the latches, he asked if my drawings had ever been published, not the Hallmark pictures, but the weird ones. I told him they hadn't.

He seemed to be thinking out loud: maybe they could publish a portfolio of them in a later issue, would I be interested in that?

Of course, I said, I'd love it.

Well, that would be an editorial decision, you understand. They'd have to find a hook of some kind to hang the pictures on. But he suggested I talk to the publisher about it, only be quick, you'll have to catch him before he goes to prison. “Give him a call.”

He wrote Ralph Ginzburg’s name and contact information on a slip of paper and handed it to me. I put it in my pocket and turned to leave.

But I hadn’t brought any art supplies with me from Kansas City, so I asked him if he could recommend a good art store.

He gave me a quizzical look. “What part of the city do you live in?” he asked.

"I have a locker at Grand Central Station."

“For God’s sake, how long have you lived in New York?”

“What time is it?” I asked.
I had been in the city for four hours.
Drawings and text © 1967/ 2017 Brad Holland / Cover of fact: Etienne Delessert / Avant Garde cover: Richard Linder


© 2024 Brad Holland