This just in, a feature from a French Design magazine (why is all my work in France all of a sudden?). Here is an excerpt from the interview
1) Could you introduce yourself in a few lines?
I make images (mostly) for magazines and newspapers: editorial illustrations. The work, when printed, is meant to convey some idea of, and draw attention to, a story's content, the hope being to lure people into reading the article. My work isn't typical for my field. Sometimes I feel embarrassed about being weird (even in daily life!), but it is also true that not fitting in has helped me in my job. Even if it puts people off, work that is odd can sometimes be easier to remember.
2) When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
Actually, a long time ago, I decided not to be an artist. I became convinced at a young age that to define oneself as an artist was to risk self-importance, that it was better to just try to be a good craftsman and hope art might somehow sneak in through the back door. I still carry some negative prejudices about that word and worry that thinking of oneself as an artist might be an excuse for self-indulgence. I really, really like the structure and reality-testing that the commercial aspects of my work provide. I lovethat the images need to contain meaning that isn't just personal. When somebodyintroduces me as an artist to someone else, say, at a party, I'll correct them and say "commercial artist." That said, it's amazing to me that I struggled to support myself at first, and only when the work became more "artistic,"--that is, more personal - did it begin to do better in the marketplace. I was very lucky. It was quite a pleasant surprise that relaxing a little, and working more from feeling and intuition, turned out to be better on a professional level.
3) Do you have any thought leader,works,readings,musics...that did influence you,or did
determine,your work from the beginning?
I forget what artist said it is important to look at a lot of other work, because if you don't you will find yourself being influenced by work you've never seen --that is, you'll be influenced by an important artist's imitators, potentially, while being to naive to have studied the original.
Growing up in San Francisco in the late 60's and early 70's, I was exposed to a lot of sculptural work I now realize was created in the wake of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. I remember these "junk" sculptures, larger-than-life figures of people made from driftwood, metal, old tires, etc, at the waters edge in the East Bay--also many fabulous psychedelic and whimsical projects: cars, and other forms, encrusted with a solid "skin" of plastic flowers, beads, tiny toy figures, dice, shells, everything that could be glued on....It was a childlike culture in some ways, even for the adults, creative and playful. There was lots of interest in crafts and textiles, pattern and texture, materials heterogeneously drawn from a number of different sources. This counterculture was all I knew when I was very little, so controversial messages such as be transgressive, and defy authority, I absorbed ( how ironic!) obediently.
In imagination I tend to make "friends" of the artists who give me the most pleasure, as part of my efforts to understand them, and maybe alsobecause I feel grateful for th e pleasure they give me. My most cherished role models feel pretty personal to reveal, maybe because it sounds delusional to say that I "identify" with someone like Iris Murdoch or Saul Steinberg! Anyway, I keep an ongoing mental list of artistic heroes who inspire me-- an archive or pantheon I am continually updating. I seem to have been conducting an ongoing investigation of how to be good, to do more with attitudes, maybe principles, about how to work "well," that with the study of specific techniques.
Ifind myselftrying to learn from and be influenced by, all kinds of artists. Ifind people and things to try to "live up to," so that I will care more, somehow. As a way of trying to raise the stakes. This seems to be better for me than emulating any particular visual artist's technique--though I have done that, too (Howard Pyle's pen and ink drawings, for example, or the collages of Hannah Hoch, who is so strong and brash about disjunctions in her figures). Mostly I seem to obsess about actors, directors comedians,playwrights, poets, musicians, and also people I know personally. Probably it is because when one is working in a collage idiom, the challenge is to make something that doesn't look like something you have already seen. For example, I don't usually even try to put things in boxes, because Joseph Cornell already has plenty of bad imitators.
Innovation is the name of the game with assemblage, which has a tendency to be pretty boring and all look the same, even to me, even when I look through books of the Dada and Surrealist era work I love, but especially, seeing horrible housewife decoupage, cheaply sentimental nostalgic mishmashes of miscellaneous ephemera. Ugh. . I generally find I kind of hate assemblage and collage work which looks like what I do--not only because I am hypercritical, but because I find it depressing, quite discouraging, to identify with, yet hard not too. Working in a collage medium is almost like being a method actor: unless you are doing what you really feel, being "truthful", and in the moment, allowing your own personality to emerge, there is a risk of making work which looks like looks like it's already been done. I'm not saying this is easy to do or that I'm good at it--being original-- just that I'm aware that it's important to try, if you want to engage someone's interest.
4) Do you have a personal definition of illustration?
I do! I notice that the word includes the root of the word for "light" --Luster being like "illumination" (as in an illuminated manuscript)-- and I love that: the idea that an illustrator might be trying to e-lucid -ate, shed light, be lucid.
5) Are you working with a gallery or a publisher?
No, in my area (print media, editorial) that is not necessary, and anyway I prefer to communicate with my clients directly. It tends to work best, and also, it can be lonely working all day by myself. The people who commission work from me sometimes become friends, a form of social interaction I value and wouldn't want a representative to take over.
6) Your work is dedicated to illustration,and brings into play characters made of
heterogeneous elements,daily life objects...Are they for you a questioning about our
emotional relation with objects and through daily life?
Objects, what they can say, without words, what we project onto them-- and also what they are in themselves--the history they carry and can subconsciously communicate --are of great interest to me, for sure. Ido sometimes engage, through my work, in emotional relationships with them, but I would not say that this is something I am questioning. It is interesting that objects can be both stand-ins for an idea, symbolic, and also so intrinsically and indissolubly physically themselves, not substitutable for anything else in any way.
7) Your scenes always have a humoristical aspect.Is derision a central element of your
Derision and parody and mockery are a kind of commentary; they come with apoint of view, and can be expressions of personality.
Mood-related things such as sorrow, or humor, or anger, emerge unexpectedly sometimes, when one is working from intuition. I believe the tone ofwork ought to be an authentic expression of one's actual inner life/world view. It is wrong to force things, to try to seem more dark, or more spontaneous, or more sweet, then you genuinely are.
Ancient physiology/psychology, gave us the the "four humors"—encompassing basically the range of human affect—and today, our word humor is still in some senses just synonymous with mood. (On a tangential note, I find it interesting to consider the relationship between humor and horror. Both are so powerful, and theydo seem to have things in common: for one thing, both are dependent for the full exercise of their powers on the element of surprise, sudden reversals or revelations, perceptual shifts. Also they have a way of existing apart from anything words can effectively describe).
I don't consciously set out to make work funny, and often I am surprised when people see humor in it. It makes me really glad when this happens. In life, and in art, I love it when things are funny.
8) What's your creating process?
When I can , I try to start with an idea--a concept--because this works best, better than proceeding from how something might look. Then I just rummage though all my collected stuff trying to find the things that seem to tell the story or get the idea across when I put them next to each other. Once I have my parts--the less, the better, I find (anything unneeded tends to detract from the reading and be very distracting, more disruptive than you'd think) I spend ages and ages making teeny tiny adjustments to the exact arrangement and fine-tuning the composition. Sometimes I feel this stage goes on too long. Sometimes I think it is important to do it. I let the thing fall apart again and again, as a kind of discipline to teach myself how best to arrange it back together. it. It's like a way tomemorize it. This is how I "refine" an assemblage. I think this making and breaking again and again is maybe a way of understanding what the object should be, what I am trying to do, what the "scheme" of it is.
9) What's your favorite materials?
I like real things. I like to be as direct as possible, and use things which actually are what I am trying to talk about. I collect things that appeal to me for one reason or another, and my favorite things to use in assemblages are things I like for themselves, anyway--not just because of what they "mean" in a picture, but what they actually are.
10) Which place does ancient image take in your work?
The ephemeral nature of the ancient image makes it poignant, the same way an effect ofsunlight some transient moment is poignant. Old things can be morbid, or just sorrowful, drawing attention to impermanence even if the object itself has managed to enure as a representative fragment of life gone by. I am alive to this perception, and my work relies on it from time to time. That said, there is this knee-jerk thing about the "old fashioned" in illustration, in general, which I object to strongly. It is as if something is automatically good, more palatable, seen through the yellowed filter of an idealizing backward look, the romance of decay andtexture. A gloss of "distress" is one way that people try to make work which is anything but, seem authentic, or (a despised word) "edgy". The fake authentic is some kind of special insult to those of us who care about the real.
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.
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).
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.
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.
The MSLEXIA 2013 WOMEN'S SHORT STORY COMPETITION Winners have been announced
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.’ "
I'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?"
Before shipping it off, I did a quick, clumsy time lapse (see below). Apologies to Zoe Keating, Pola Negri, and Greta Gerwig, for taking you out of context, congratulations to Lucy, and, to Rafe Stirling David (two days old), welcome!
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.
A confession: I am quite embarrassed about my obsessive streak, and the fact that I will sometimes continue to work on images after the illustration I was hired to do has already been published. In this case, a portrait of Jane Austen became an object lesson in the dangers of Photoshop.
Sometime last year, David Killen, of The Prospect, emailed me to see if I'd be interested in doing a portrait of Jane Austen to accompany an article about her enduring cult appeal. Would I ever!! I love Jane Austen! The resulting image, of the author leaping out of one of her books, symbolically traversing the gap from past to present day (the message I hoped to get across, anyway) is a perfect illustration of the pathology I have developed --going beyond any kind of rational time limit for fine-tuning. Above is the initial sketch.
A subsequent sketch, which includeed something my art director had asked for, a rose, which he felt would symbolize marriage.
And while I was at it, I could do something about the too-rough Photoshop patch-work I'd done on the book's pages. I wanted this piece to be good --partly because it concerned an author I really love, and party because I'd invested so much time already.
A couple of months went by. I decided it was time to send out some promotional postcards and. submitted a bunch of candidates from recent projects to Fritz (an inspiring designer and dear friend, who helps me by designing my promos and advising me) so he can edit them. Jane Austen makes the cut. But there are a couple of little things, now that I am looking again at the file, that still bother me. What was up with that leg? And look at the sloppy Photo-shopping around the edge of the iphone, not okay. Might as well sub in the nice white, more modern-looking iphone I'd upgraded to a few months ago, while I was at it.
At this point, with the file open again in front of me, I begin to have a somewhat panicky, trapped feeling that I might actually never finish this project.
It almost seems symbolic of my struggle to create a convincing illusion that the Austen book I'd chosen to represent happened to have been Persuasion. And Jane's references, on page after page, to the virtues of simplicity and truthfulness, have begun to feel a bit like a rebuke.
"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.
Sponsored generously by my amazing patrons at S*uce, a series of haute couture boutiques in the UAE.