Speech, speech

speech_speechA cover for The New York Times Fashion and Style section on Christmas Eve. The topic was how to become better at public speaking. And this was the page turner. nyt_speech_two


quelques_barbariansAs in barbe (fr., "beard").  This book just came out-- the result of an intense couple of weeks at the beginning of last summer when  I did about thirty drawings of the variously hirsute in a heroically short amount of time, for Hachette-Livre (France).

What Is Visible Book Jacket illustration for a novel about Laura Bridgman, an  early American deaf/dumb/blind celebrity.  Predecessor to Helen Keller (who, with her greater charisma and personal beauty, ended up completely supplanting her in the public imagination), Bridgman was at one point the most famous woman in the world.  I did an illustration about her years ago for the Atlantic Monthly, so I was familiar with her story, which is fascinating.  Elkin's novel based on her life poses questions about  insight, woman's rights, love, and abnormal psychology: thus, circumstances align, once again, to amaze me I could be offered such a congenial commission.

The difficulty of this project came from the existing photos of Laura: her black eye-bandage robs her appearance of humanity --this was a problem for me the first time I attempted a portrait of her, too.

 photo of Laura Bridgman

To make matters worse, partway though the project we learned that The Perkins Institute in Boston, where she lived, was unwilling to release her photo to us anyway.  So lots of photoshopping  and cobbling together went into this composition. (Someday I'd like to write a Punk Rock song about about Photoshop, all loud noise and foul language, not lasting too long, or taking long to compose).

I feel a little badly about  the way I prettied her up so much. The novel does a wonderful job of making  her a real person, and then I come in and glamorize her for no good reason--it's not that they even asked me to!   Obviously I've been living in a sexist consumer culture too long (possible alternate concept for punk screed).

Guest artist in the Richard C. Von Hess Illustration Gallery

Okay, not a "business venture," exactly, but a wonderful opportunity and professional change of scene. This Spring, I'll have a solo show in Philadelphia, at The University of the Arts. The dates for the show will be March 18 - May 17, 2014. I'll also be doing two lectures there. I feel so grateful to the school for inviting me, and for the prospect of leaving the studio, showing physical sculptures, meeting new people, and being allowed to talk about art.

Just the facts, ma'am. illustrating editorial content

3-DAVID-BYRNE_1351408851_crop_550x376jack_webb A police detective like Sargent Joe Friday is after facts, and doesn't want to be distracted by anything else. But David Byrne  complains that "facts are simple and facts are straight" --that as a means of describing our lived reality, facts are inadequate and therefore misleading to the point of a kind of paradoxical falsehood. "Facts just twist the world around, facts are living turned inside out." As a fan of hunches, ambiguities, premonitions, and the color grey, I can align with my art school crush quite happily around his imperative to stop making sense. Then, at other times I also am keenly (sometimes painfully) aware of the value of keeping one's eye on the ball, and the kind of straight-ahead pragmatism needed in (professional)  practice.

In editorial illustration, you are  are often called upon to replicate as visual images the information contained in an article: to represent the Federal Reserve,  to convey that the people in this story are doctors,  to symbolize  ”retirement account, ” The Law,” “France”– whatever the topic is.  This is the game, making a picture correspond to/reflect a particular reality,  to put an idea into the reader's mind, consciously or subconsciously: to get them to make a connection.  Even when it is quite literal, concept-crunching can be a fun, like a puzzle, and give satisfaction.  But games can be tedious, or feel trivial, too.  A one-to-one correspondence between the denoted content of the article and the denoted content of the illustration can sometimes  feel labored.

Your image is there to make the viewer curious, to make them want to read the text. Something that is purely about information is not necessarily that fun to look at , and (on a related note)  not that fun to produce.  "Not bloody funny, get on your bicycle and go home, " as Mike Meyers says, imitating his Scottish father who held everyone up to the same criterion (is he or she funny).  And really, what is more important than amusement? For a yardstick to hold up to a commercial art form that's there to be liked, one could do worse, much worse. If people don't find an illustration pleasurable (or at least, engaging), really, what is the point?

The poet Frost offers this helpful rule of thumb: "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader." What I notice I enjoy most, and find most rewarding, in the realm of editorial problem-solving, (ie,  coping with the imperative to communicate meaning (s) in illustration) --and  also, not coincidentally, when the results seem to work best for others --is when the visual is based on feeling, rather than on something intellect-driven. That’s when intuition can step into your process; when the expression of emotion, or a "sense of" something, becomes more important than description of the circumstances of the case. That's when it might stop feeling to you like work, and when you might be surprised what (sometimes, seemingly, without effort or thought) comes out.

Breaking News: Starving Ghost Wins UK Women Writers Competition

caption on the call for entries: 'I wanted to write stories that could be read by guttering candlelight in ruins of our cities and still give pleasures, still have meaning', Angela Carter

The MSLEXIA 2013 WOMEN'S SHORT STORY COMPETITION Winners have been announced

1st Prize: Francesca Armour-Chelu with 'The Starving Ghost' 2nd Prize: Karen Onojaife with 'Starling' 3rd Prize: Josie Turner with 'Jewels'

From 'The Starving Ghost'

"Despite the circumstances, he felt it necessary to knock. There was no answer. He raised the door. The cupboard was empty, but he noticed a gap along the plywood wall and pushed it aside. Behind was a sleeping mat and between the rafters little objects were secreted: teaspoons, a cloisonné compact, a walnut pincushion embedded with pins, a tattered photograph of a young man waving. His eyes were still adjusting to the gloom when he saw her: crosslegged and waiting for him in the darkness just beyond reach. She was squatting in the ventilation system between apartments. He guessed that was how she had got in.

‘What are you doing?’ he demanded.

‘Looking at you,’ she answered.

‘I mean, here. What are you doing in my house?’

‘Living,’ she said.

‘You cannot live in my house!’

‘Whose house should I live in?’ she asked.

‘Your own,’ he said.

‘I can’t afford a house. The banks have made Osaka too expensive,’ she answered. Seeing he was not going to leave her alone soon, the old lady folded her arms and got comfortable. He looked around the space.

‘There’s no room here.’

‘I am small,’ she answered.

‘You’ve been stealing my food,’ he accused.

‘You threw it away.’

‘You took my water!’

‘I earned it. I cleaned.’

‘I didn’t ask you to clean my house.’

‘The house still needed cleaning.’ "

another experiment in pen and ink, another neurotic hero

harryjI'm a big fan of Henry James, though I don't dispute that his ornate, minute scrutinies of nearly invisible nuances can try one's patience (HG Wells once described him as "a painful hippopotamus..trying to pick up a pea").  I also love James's contemporary Max Beerbohm, both his writing, and his brilliant, drawn caricatures, who teased The Master with a parody of his style entitled "The Mote in the Middle Distance:" My favorite passage goes like this: "It was with a sense of a, for him, very memorable something that he peered now into the immediate future, and tried, not without compunction, to take that period up where he had, prospectively left it. But just where the deuce had he left it?"

"Spontenooity," technique, and style

Most artists value spontaneity, and related pleasures/virtues such as play, freshness, originality, feeling (as in "soul"), improvisation.  A RISD illustration student I had once memorably, repeatedly, cautioned us about the risk of losing the spontenooity in some work we were reviewing. I didn't have the heart to correct his pronunciation, because he was making such an important point, and we all knew what he meant. But while untutored naturalness can be very charming, acting on personal impulses, being guided by intuition, may actually require quite a bit of preparation before it can appeal, or even make sense to, an audience.


Technique, from from the Greek, "to build."

Our modern culture is obsessed with "tech"(nology) and so we value it far above other, seemingly less practical, types of knowledge/learning (such as observation of the natural kingdom, for example--where we are actually losing knowledge we used to possess about plant and animal species, -- or the "humanities,"). But when we talk about technique there can be a derogatory sense which people associate to the concept, tothe impression of smoothness. "Technique" like the kind a practiced, cynical sexual seducer might wield, is viewed almost as a trick, which is why craft, which seems positive, can become "crafty," and connote deception, a sinister premeditation--one may practice to deceive, or "practice upon" someone, a slightly antiquated usage which means the same thing.  But when I look at the creative process, I mostly noticetechnique being a big help. It really is about building. Think of it as a collection of tiny, useful bits of learned process. Ease --smoothness and fluidity--will come, just as a physical object will lose its roughness with handling, over time. Part of what respect technique commands is tied up with this obvious investment of time: practice, not as hollow repetition, but as an accumulation of various experiences. An artist's technique is a catalog of attempts, of experiments, of lessons absorbed. A great part of the value of having “chops,” the phrase musicians use to describe technique, lies in the fact that it/they(?) cannot be attained quickly or easily.

How can you develop a style? Illustration students often feel anxiety over the pursuit of style-- yet having a style ought not be a goal in itself, something one can plan in advance, or pull off a shelf ("Style is not something I pull off a shelf" Frank Lloyd Wright) . It should emerge organically: you want to actually be, not just seem, a certain way.


Style is partly aspirational, and we learn through imitating what we admire. Later influences seem less like "nicks" --they are assimilated, merged with other input, transformed, or subsumed--they come to feel like part of you.

You must be familiar with the conventions in order to speak any language articulately. Intuition is important, but "art"  is also related to "artifice,"  striving for effect -- the illusion of naturalness. Style comes into this; as does technique--of necessity, one works in a particular "manner"--you develop your own conventions, a bag of tricks which have been learned, a kit of parts to use--which is the opposite of rawness and authenticity. Or is it? Practice begets improvisation. Conventions beget invention. Think of a blues song, a nice general skeleton any number of variations can be hung upon. A genre: like a murder mystery--the form is simple, so that content can vary, and can be renewed and innovated.

The mediation of an observing consciousness, though it can also be intrusive, is necessary. Another student, who was working on a long independent study project, his senior thesis, once complained- to my delight, because I found it so funny-- that "deadlines severely interfere with the creative process." We need structure. Of course is easy to pit these against one another, as an either/or, and see the intuitive as being of greater importance than boring old rules of any kind for governing creative production--but to do this is to take a romantic or sentimental, mystifying, view of art. Many good "instincts" may be gradually acquired, learned as habits. We need critical faculties, and also humility and realism about capabilities and strengths and weaknesses. Some may have "divine spit," a theory my friend Jeff invented when we were at art school: the idea of an individual so naturally and intrinsically extraordinary that anything at all he produced would be of great value (I am reminded of the SNL skit where Picasso blows his nose into a kleenex, andthen pays his bar tab with the crumpled tissue). The rest of us need to study and practice and learn to be good.

Once you have some bits of technique, some "words" and syntax of a a language to employ, you can begin to voice what is in you, and this is where authenticity and the expression of your true tastes and impulses can begin. Edgar Allen Poe, perhaps the most original American writer ever, wrote an essay on creative composition which touched on the issue of authenticity-- the importance of being yourself.

When someone is "being themselves," not imitating others, they may be at their most involving, most appealing. Just as improvisation in comedy or acting can reveal what is true more effectively and surprisingly than premeditation ever could. Mr. Poe offers this advice: “Do not neglect to be original, for he is untrue to himself, and foolish, who dispenses with so easily obtainable a source of interest."

Poe seems to say that originality as available to those who permit the expression of, or perhaps simply avoid suppressing, the ways in which he or she is unique. In our experiences and worldview each of us is different. To allow evidence of their idiosyncrasies to emerge in their work runs counter to an impulse many students share, namely the desire to provide what they assume others expect to see. Sometimes an impulse to please others and conform will cause us to suppress what feels too unusual, potentially embarrassing. But sometimes this is the very stuff that is solid gold.   It is often true that when we hide and feel shame, assuming no one else could understand, we are actually experiencingrelate-able, even universal, feelings. Furthermore, being unusual can get you noticed, and that is a good thing in a field zillions of newly minted aspiring illustrators pour into every day from art schools around the world, to vie for a limited number of print-media commissions. Being memorable is an asset,  if you are trying to market your work.


how can I draw a line? and, does life have meaning?


"I find funny and silly the pompous kind of self-important talk about the artist who takes risks. Artistic risks are like show-business risks—laughable. Like casting against type, wow, what danger! ... I’m not trying to undersell art. I think it’s valuable, but I think it’s overly revered."  Woody Allen

Barry Blitt was on the New Yorker cover for weeks in a row a while back.  I spent some time noticing his line, and little offhand color washes,  and it shows in this sketch of one of my favorite neurotic heroes of existential dread.

Speaking of existential dread: a study recently published documents its successful treatment with Acetaminophen!  (excerpt below).   I tried it on my son Adam (11) after he came to me in a state of tearful terror about the expanding universe and mortality in general in the wake of the Marathon bombings. It worked like a charm.  I was so strongly reminded of this famous scene from Annie Hall.


"Researchers at the University of British Columbia say they've discovered yet another use for Tylenol besides breaking a fever and relieving pain: Reducing anxiety associated with "thoughts of existential uncertainty and death."

Published in the journal Psychological Science, the research involved a double-blind study in which several groups of participants were given either Tylenol-brand acetaminophen or a placebo.

Members of the Tylenol groups reported feeling less upset following conversations about death and other existential topics.

"Nobody has shown this before, and we are surprised that the effect emerged so robustly," said lead researcher Daniel Randles, "that a drug meant primarily to alleviate headaches also prevents people from being bothered all that much by thinking about death. It was certainly surprising."

One of the study groups was tasked with watching a "surreal [and] confusing" short film by David Lynch and discussing it afterwards.

The researchers found that those who had taken the Tylenol did not experience feelings of existential dread and "looked just like the control group that hadn't talked about their death or watched the unpleasant [film] clip."

Previous studies have already determined the effects acetaminophen can have on social anxiety due to its impact on the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex — the part of the brain that hands both physical pain and social distress.

One study noted by PsychCentral found that Tylenol can also be useful in reducing "the non-physical pain of being ostracized from friends."

I am so amused by the role David Lynch's work  plays in this investigation.