Tuesday, October 26, 2010

R.A. Parker Meets Mary Shelley

I mentioned in my last post that Robert Andrew Parker's Frankenstein was among my favorite projects of his. I dug a few scans out of the archives, which I offer here largely without comment, save wow. How can such a light touch pack such power?


The arc of that torch captures the miracle of Parker's work for me. It's mystifyingly precise; it's flamboyant (I apologize for the etymological pun, but it's the word I mean); it propels the story with crude yet witty force. "Crude" also and especially applying to the monster.

Finally: how does he insert creepy comedy into the story?

Hats off, RAP.

Robert Andrew Parker

Robert Andrew Parker (not to be confused with another distinguished Parker) will be feted here in St. Louis on Thursday, October 28 at the Modern Graphic History Library at Washington University. Mr. Parker, whose career began in the 1950s, is still at work today. He produced illustrated travelogues for Fortune magazine (reporting on the oil industry, as I recall) early on; played the part of Kirk Douglas's–Vincent Van Gogh's hands and produced the fakes for Lust for Life (1956); generated many illustrated books for children and young people (most notably for me, an edition of Frankenstein); continues to lead a jazz quartet of significant quality; and remains a charming, garrulous, flinty figure.

I had the extreme good fortune to meet him and visit his studio in Connecticut when we were in discussions with him about donating his commercial work to the Modern Graphic History Library. Which he did. And for which we are extraordinarily grateful.

Thursday's event is a celebration of the completion of the cataloguing of that work at the MGHL, paired with an exhibition.

If you're in town and interested in the field of illustration, please come by and join us for an excellent event. RSVP info above.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Terra Incognita

We took our students in Word & Image 1 to the Saint Louis Zoo on Monday to begin a project which calls for students to create map of something. We've done a variation on this project many times, and I love working on it. It opens up new territory, if you'll pardon the pun, in visual relationships for most students. Above, a digital image of Victoria Crater on Mars, courtesy of NASA, tracking the daily treks of one of the two Mars rovers. Each white dot is a day's end. How about that for time and space?

Here are four links to relevant posts: first, representations of data courtesy of Heather Corcoran; second, more pictorial approaches I pulled together last year; third, continuing the outer space theme, a representation of all NASA missions courtesy of Bob Flynn; and finally, a cool set of seemingly unrelated tabular images which surprise upon reflection.

On Drawing and Citizenship

From its beginning in 2007, this blog has attempted to

frame some thoughts about modern graphic culture that...will help to clarify terminology, establish commonalities, sharpen distinctions, and otherwise bring some analytical rigor to a subject that suffers from 1) an excess of enthusiasm and 2) longstanding aesthetic dismissal. (Aspirations and Intentions, July 2007.)

I have tended to avoid general pronouncements on the political culture of our era, except as it impinges on the practices of cartooning and illustration, most notably in the presidential campaign of 2008. Examples here and here. But the midterm campaign and the Apotheosis of the Dumb Ass (see: United States Senate races in Alaska, Delaware and Nevada) have pushed me over the edge. The Know-Nothingism of the 21st century revels in its distate for “elites;” celebrates an ahistorical view of the Constitution according to which Philadelphia has been relocated to Mt. Sinai; ignores and even mocks basic standards of evidence in economics, biology, and physics; has constructed a completely fantastic view of Barack Obama as a crypto-Marxist anti-colonialist; and promotes a view of our civic life worthy of a 200-foot concrete Jesus on the Washington Mall.

Most of my writing addresses things made for and by members of the middle classes, so I don’t think I exactly qualify as some effete Brahman. But by the standards of Tea Party darlings, it doesn’t take much to qualify as inauthentic, un-“real” American. What a load of crap. Enough already. Things are bad enough without picking at ancient faux-populist scabs.

I readily admit that the ugly, captivating huckster is a quintessentially American figure. Radio birthed many such people. (Isn’t it weird that talk radio still really matters on the American right, when the act of listening to the radio at all seems almost quaint to many of us? I guess I own a radio, but I only actually use the clock it’s built into. Okay, so I still sometimes listen to a radio in my car. Even that, not so much.) So I reserve the right to be fascinated and repulsed. Mostly, just now, it’s the latter.

Which brings me to a question: what is the antidote for this malady? I have been pondering it.

I gave a talk last evening at Christan Brothers College High School, having been invited by Bill Canavan, who runs their honors program. I did not imagine that a group of high school students would find what I do all that interesting, so I tried to tease out a few thoughts–admonitions, pieces of advice–for being a citizen of our culture today. I grounded those thoughts in my practice for the sake of examples, but the talk was directed to the boys. How to be a citizen of the present?

My six admonitions:

1. Read primary sources: textually, musically, materially
2. Cultivate your powers of observation; pay attention
3. Learn to write clearly
4. Look for structures and processes; be skeptical of surfaces
5. Make things well (I make pictures; we all make something)
6. Love something, and pursue it fervently

I had the impression that the boys found the talk passably entertaining. There maybe 200 of them, plus some faculty and parents. I got some good questions, and some excellently firm handshakes and eye contact following. I showed some work and screened Scenes from Starkdale, Ohio, my animated film from 2006-07. (Under make things well, in case you’re wondering.)

I’ve been thinking a quite a bit about the first point. In one sense I was referring to the superficialities of Wikipedia glosses. Why read Reflections on the Revolution in France when you can Google Burke and get the gist?

Primary texts take many forms. The image at the top of this post was drawn from the Farmer Fred sculpture and signage array at the Sappington Farmers Market in St. Louis. The material form of the goofy statue is a primary source: it addresses a tradition of roadside commerical figures, images of farm families in American life, and nostalgic constructions of a(n imagined) bucolic past. The fragmentary bits of text on the sign provide evidence of market commodities, textual forms of promotion, and technologies of presentation.

All of which is to say: we live in a particular moment in history. We pump out products, we push dirt around and build things, we sell things to each other, we manifest our thoughts in material form. The objects, structures and communication experiences which surround us are the primary texts of our civilization. Ditto for things that people do, what they wear, what they say to each other on their cell phones.

Recently: “I’m cool with you, but no–not Dave. No! Dave is an asshole.”

As a visual reporter I draw on the authority of the concrete, in two senses: I draw from, and I draw upon. What is happening here? Which elements from the visual-spatial field emerge? Where are the visual rhymes, the narrative inflections? Reportage drawings (and other forms of non-fiction) are grounded in fact. But they’re not transcriptions, either.

Careful looking is a prerequisite for discernment. Which–to return to where we started–is not a word you’re likely to hear on cable news...