Saturday, December 3, 2011

Context is Everything

On the drive east to see my folks for Thanksgiving, we stopped to refuel off Highway 70 near London, Ohio. I had several pressing concerns at the time, like Are we out of corn nuts?! and other sundries. Given my rate of coffee consumption, it also felt as if a rhinocerous was sitting on my bladder. And then I was confronted by the sentiment shown above:

LIFE: measured by the...moments...that...take our breath...away

with the word spacing provided by grout and a particularly aggressive form of justification.

My breath was taken away indeed.

The intersection of folk and commercial speech. Totally fabulous, if bonkers.

Sorry about the focus. It was a busy room!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Let's Tell a Story

Sitting in a hotel room in Baltimore, having forgotten to charge my phone before heading out. So I’ll kill two birds as I wait for the battery icon to get all happy and green.

In my talk last night at MICA, Whitney Sherman asked a question about the relationship between midcentury design and the work I had presented.

Certainly I have spent plenty of time with material from that period over the last ten years, beginning with our acquisition of the Al Parker collection. I responded to that effect. But, I added, my affection for such work goes beyond postwar nostalgia. As a designer, I think that the economic limitations imposed by printing budgets, etc., created useful constraints. The two-color problem is a gift from God.

Without much comment, I offer a few images of an ensemble of Harry Beckhoff original illustrations published in Redbook in 1949. For present purposes, the period gender politics are not of concern; I’m focused on the carpentry of the images and the narrative they deliver.

Wit + economy + grace + discipline = something special.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

On Shedding Light

I spoke with the graduate students at MICA last week about the marginalized position of illustration and cartooning in the cultural precincts of high art. I’ve commented on the phenomenon before. But since that time I have generated a data set and evaluated the question empirically. (A formal presentation of this material is slated for release as an essay, date uncertain. For now, you’ll have to take my word on it.) I crunched numbers for leading art history departments, museums and art publishers for a recent calendar year, taking as data points each course, exhibition and publication. I got over 5000 data points.

At what rate did illustration show up? In calculation A, If the material mentioned word-image relationships, illustrations, comics, anything, I counted it. In calculation B, I kept to a stricter definition, with credit restricted to exhibitions, etc., that addressed illustration explicitly, and to some degree on its own terms.

The generous reckoning came in just below 4 percent. The stricter standard tipped the scales at under 2 percent. Such scores make plain that illustration does not rise to the level of art as measured by those tasked with defining and regulating the meaning of that term. That’s an empirical reality.

Moreover, when illustration does make the paper, it’s because somehow the individual case has transcended illustration.

We did a quick tour through Kant and disinterest theory, which helped to create the modern conception of an art object. The cultivation of taste requires that aesthetic judgments be free of entanglements. If I’m trying to sell you a Greek statue, my opinion on the question of its beauty is of no value. Fair enough. But a parallel difficulty emerges in the aesthetic consideration of useful things. How can we judge beauty when utility dictates form?

There are sound philosophical reasons for why illustration is a poor fit for the halls of art. To fight those arguments–let alone their cultural momentum, now two centuries and change later–is to tilt at windmills. No–worse. It is to pine for a status best unsought.

Illustration “as” Art, I concluded, is like sitting in bad seats and eating cold food at a beautiful dinner party.

So: to hell with the need to transcend illustration. Let’s embrace it for what it is, a tradition of illumination, of shedding light; an ideology of nonfiction, a commitment to veracity. The cultural act of illustrating a text (or representing a body of knowledge, or giving form to a viewpoint) is an altogether different game than snapping the suspenders of the bourgeoisie.

Illustration and cartooning, the two great families of purposive (or useful) images, comprise a vast corpus of cultural material. This stuff goes unlooked at and unpondered to our detriment. I showed the students a selection of images from the visual history of Jim Crow and asked, why haven’t educated people in a pluralistic society looked at these things? Because they’re not art?


It sez here: we are in need of an increasingly curious and grounded view of visual culture which addresses the functional, captures the embedded, explores the vernacular, describes the technological, engages the commercial, values but contextualizes the aesthetic, and finally, identifies and interprets the visual rhetoric used in modern communication.

And so I pose the question to the Marylanders (and others perhaps): having begun the day as a heroic artist, independent, expressive, essential; having been informed in the hours following lunch that rather, you are a light-shedding illustrator, contingent, interpretive, in-relation-to:

Do you accept your demotion?


Saturday, November 5, 2011

Baltimore Lecture Nov. 8

I will be speaking this coming Tuesday, November 8 at the Maryland Institute College of Art. The talk is a companion piece to the graduate seminar I'm teaching at the school to the new MFA students in Illustration Practice, which I mentioned in my last post.

I'll be talking about the history of illustration, and specifically the reportage tradition. But I will also–really primarily–be discussing my new Spartan Holiday project, now weeks away from availability. The poster at the top of this post, designed by Bryn Freeman, includes an image from Issue No. 1, Shanghai Pictorial. (The same image is shown below, sans text.)

The talk is scheduled for 7:00 pm on Tuesday the 8th. It will take place in the Main Building Room 110. If you're in the Baltimore area, please stop by!

Thursday, November 3, 2011


I am midway through an as-yet unmentioned moonlighting operation. This fall semester, the Maryland Institute College of Art has launched an MFA program in Illustration Practice. The program, organized to address illustration as an expanded field, is being led by Whitney Sherman. Whitney invited me to take a stint in the Critical Issues seminar this fall, joining Stephanie Plunkett and Joyce Schiller as sequential guest hosts. I’m batting third. So I’m flying to Baltimore and back four Tuesdays in a row. (Yes, that’s a long day.)

As readers of GT know, I have invested in working out critical approaches to purposive images. I’m committed to the humanist enterprise, and I value clear thinking. Illustration (especially) and cartooning (to a degree) are signficant but under-theorized cultural forms. The invisible-in-plain-sight quality of the non-conversation plain bugs me. So I was eager to find a way to respond to Whitney’s invitation with a yes.

My sense of mission in the enterprise has been confirmed by early results.

In advance of my first session, I wrote to the group: We work in a fascinating field. We get to make things–draw them, write them, paint them, stage them–that comprise the very culture we live in. Together, we produce the creative tissue of our own times. Those things that we make represent us. They make an argument for certain values. And when I say values I don’t mean morals; I mean assertions of priority and relative worth, of some things being more important than others. What things are important to you? More importantly, what does your work say is important to you? As you begin to explore these questions, ideally you move into a position that enables you to plant your flag, so to speak; to identify your position in a creative landscape.

Then I made a specific request: Here’s what I’d like you to do for Tuesday’s class. I’d like you to bring several items. One, a representative work of your own that you’ve made somewhat recently; two, a work you admire and find relevant that was produced before 1900; three, a work that you admire and find relevant that was produced between 1900 and 1950; and four, a work that you admire and find relevant that was produced after 1950. So something of your own and three historical works. These works can be paintings, prints, drawings; magazine or book illustrations; cartoons or comic strips; stills from animated films. Your call. Print them out at sufficient size so that we can look at them easily.

Going back to reread that letter just now stunned me, because what rolled in suggested a response to a very different prompt.

I won’t bog us down in particulars, but approximately 90 percent of the material presented consisted of standard issue (mostly) European art history, or slightly more “liberal” variants of same. Almost everything was a painting. Representative examples: an Abrecht Durer self-portrait; Frieda Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Monkey (1938); Odilon Redon’s Ophelia (1902), Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss (1907-08), a couple of Modiglianis, an Edward Hopper, Hokusai’s Wave (where are those royalties, a colleague asked the other day); a creepy Balthus (is there any other kind?), a Degas, a Monet, etc., etc.

What is there to say about this corpus of material, under the circumstances? First, we can identify all of it as academically-approved product. The students saw those slides go clicking by in somebody’s art history course. Second, the geography. I have not yet noted the fact that a number of students are Asian (as in, from Asia, not “ABCs” or American-born Chinese). There are students from China and Korea.

While everybody took a break, I wrote these headings on the board: United States; Europe; Asia. Then I started writing names under those headings. There were a few under the first one: Hopper and Jacob Lawrence, who also made an appearance (shown here, The Builders, 1947). We had to add a category for Mexico: Kahlo. There was a giant clot under Europe, and a solitary entry under Asia, a Japanese. I asked how this could be.

(As an aside, I will note that many of the images, though art-historically sanctioned, were among the more accessible artworks. Hopper was an illustrator before he began making illustrative paintings; Klimt has a pop dimension (Byzantium for posters); Kahlo has become a pop personality; Modigliani buffed a style with more fervor than many illustrators. I could go on, but I’ll stop.)

There were a few contemporary illustrator types in the data set, and Aubrey Beardsley made the cut, but aside from those, the traditions of illustration and cartooning were absent. Assesment: to now-apparent geographical bias, we added a blinkered view of visual culture. I started filling in names in a second color, denoting a different tradition: McCay, Outcault, Messmer, Disney; Pyle, Wyeth, Parrish, Leyendecker; singularities like Rockwell, Tezuka, Posada. Dot dot dot!
I asked the students to take another crack at the problem this week. They made an altogether different run at it, to positive effect. They seemed much more at ease. Their natural affinities and affections had been validated.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

How Things Look, Not What They Mean

Many years ago, when trying to figure out how to teach two-dimensional design (a subject, like most I profess, I never studied in school) I became convinced that cognition can be an obstacle to seeing. I recognize that such a statement is probably physiologically nonsensical, so let me explain. We are so eager to figure out what things mean that we ignore other things in the visual field. Makes sense if you are trying to avoid being eaten by a tiger or hit by a bus. But it works against you if you are trying to assemble a whole system–a visual image or arrangement of elements. Which is too bad, because the way things are put together is a critical part of what they mean. Hierarchies and contrasts can and should be seen independent of content–e.g., by squinting–because then and only then is it possible to see how formal relationships work. The tyrant cognition suppresses vision. If the king goes unchallenged, he will make mistakes.

At the top of this post: a classic example of such an error, aided and abetted by the pretending prince of the real, photography.

I took this photograph at a Phillips 66 gas station near my home. It's an oval-shaped sticker slapped on the gasoline pump, presumably printed in a run of thousands. It seeks to warn us of dangers associated with static electricity, though it doesn't exactly say that. Rather we receive two instructions: 1) touch some metal thing other than the pump before grabbing it, and 2) don't get back in the car after you've started, because that could produce undesirable electricity. If I don't do 1 or I do do 2, will I blow up? Not sure.

Of course, the dominant message is BE SAFE WHEN FUELING, which isn't so much an instruction as an exhortation. And the goof-ass centered type that rolls around the perimeter of the oval is hard to gather into a reading experience.

In short: the copywriting, design and typsetting are awful. But that's not why I noticed the sticker in the first place, nor why I whipped out my phone to "snap" (quaint verb) the photograph.

No, I documented the sticker because of the picture within the upper portion of the oval.

One day, following a planning session for Static Electricity Liability Week, whoever art directed this thing tapped a pencil against his head and said, "We need a picture of a hand putting gas in a car." Soon after that, such a photograph was produced, possibly by the very same art director, who in all likelihood was the one guy in the office who had used Photoshop. And because he knew that was what he had done, and because he could see the picture right there, he popped that photo into a semicircular hole and called that sucker done.

Alas. The fact is, he didn't really see the photograph. He looked at it, but he didn't see it. Because the visual image shows something that is considerably less than clear. At the left side of the image we see an arm/hand holding a metallic hose-looking thing. But halfway across the format, the form of the hand abuts a dark value mass. The dark mass has a few lighter passages, most notably an elliptical light spot that reads like a cartoon nose.

It takes sustained effort to make out that the dark mass consists of black and dark blue elements. Once we figure that out, we can reason our way to a conclusion that hand is holding a black nozzle, and the dark blue must be the side of a vehicle being fueled. But that's like perceiving a toad on the brown mottled ground. If we're not looking for it, we won't see it. (If the car had been light blue or tan or red, we'd have gotten separation between the parts of the visual field: arm/hand, hose, nozzle, car, non-stuff).

A safety message has been fatally undermined by a failure to contemplate how something looks independent of what it means. Which takes me back to my original point. You can't design if you can't stop thinking about what things mean, because then you can't focus on how things look.

Informational pictures must be lucid. There's much to be said about them, including how things can be broken into parts, how space can be manipulated, how contrast can be managed, how attributes of pictures and charts can be combined successfully as well as less so.

I have been writing on informational images since I started this blog. Because our students are at work on a problem that requires them to construct such things, I've assembled a set of prior posts below.

On the basic attributes of informational pictures, see my first post on the subject, from 2007. Here, a reflection on the pleasures of lucidity. Here some writing on maps as images, and representations of processes. On making informational images as a way to gather information, an account of star-watching in the Utah desert. And finally, a set of images that present data in comparable ways, from Matisse to Chrysler.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Spartan Holiday Wordmark

A few months ago I posted on the topic of wordmarks for periodicals. At the time I was deep into the design process for my own project, Spartan Holiday. I have been loath to mention it, wanting to roll it out once the print copies were in hand. But I am in striking distance of finishing, and I have a splash page up at that I would like to show up on Google searches. At the moment, you get 300 spoofs and Christmastime at Michigan State.

There's much more to come. I am extremely excited about this project, which represents an integration of longstanding interests within a durable format. The identity was inspired by mid-century package design, and was a collaborative project between Scott Gericke and me. I'm working with Scott on the design standards for the journal, and pretty intensively on the first issue. I won't publish any images from the mag until it's out, but I can say that the image in the banner above is a crop from a page in No. 1.

The identity is designed as variable two-color system. The palette at the top is the Richard Petty version.

For now, do me a small favor and click over to Spartan Holiday to goose the search numbers as we near the release date (sometime in November). The page gives some sense of what we're up to. Thanks in advance for the click.

Sucks for Southern Europe

Courtesy of one of my favorite blogs, Mondorama 2000. Somehow I suspect this would qualify as a negative event most everywhere: having a balled-up elephant the size of the former Yugoslavia land in precisely that place. Bottoms up!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Periodicals and the History of Illustration

I am teaching a group of senior illustrators and cartoonists in the Communication Design major. The class, Visual Worlds, is really a methods course in drawing. A series of “diagnostic” problems, followed by a individual tutorials played out within a group. The critical question: how and under what circumstances do I, the student, put things together well? followed by a second: how does the answer to that question help me choose what to make and with which tools? and then a third: given all that, how shall I build a direction that I own?

One of the ways to get access to a student’s predilections involves seeing through their eyes, on the basis of what they collect. We ask them to build clip files of things they love, no matter what they are. It’s quite helpful: of all the images floating around in digital ether, which ones does the student choose? There are always clues to that student’s way of seeing embedded in that set, though typically they escape her understanding at first. (I am speaking especially of the pictorial carpentry, less than an editorial p.o.v. While the latter is important, it’s more obvious; the former is more technical and harder to see, but–strictly speaking–more useful.)

From whence do these images come? Nowadays, from the interwebs; typically via Google, which offers plenty to the poser of narrow questions, less to one pursuing broader ones. (Try entering “visual art” in a search engine and see what you get.) Plus, those images arrive sans context, sans grounding of any kind, a perfect postmodern blizzard of rootless pixels.

It requires at least some background to know what to search for, whether in a library or a on a search engine. These students have taken an art history survey and a required modern art course, plus other bits of this or that art historical period. On the basis of these experiences, they know zilch of the history of illustration and cartooning, save for a brush with Daumier. Some have taken my commercial modernism course, and have a basic familiarity with their tradition, but half have not, and don’t.

As these students’ primary visual concerns are beginning to emerge, it becomes increasingly important for them to have a cultural context. To which creative strands or traditions might they belong?

Which brings me to my problem: how to provide a history of illustration in an afternoon? To be clear, I am mostly disinclined to construct such a thing, as it threatens to devolve into poor man’s art history. The narrative of Significance and Influence sets up a frame for looking at artifacts that directs attention away from the cultural transaction. I have neither space nor time to develop that theme to an appropriate degree, so it will have to wait for another day. But in an underdeveloped field, it likely that a canon will be necessary, at least as a start. Yet I stressed to my students that even as I prepared to run them through a set of things that attach to Significant Practitioners, I did so doubtfully.

As a hedge–maybe better than that–I constructed the narrative as a tale of industry: American periodical publishing. For the geeks out there: can you write a (versus the) plausible narrative of American illustration using these seven magazine covers as data points?

We could do the same with a set of advertisements or book illustrations, which would make for interesting parallel problems. In any case, in my view it's folly to look at the history of illustration as a freestanding narrative of aesthetic achievement. Rather, these images occur at the intersection of technology, commerce and social history. Aesthetics is a small part of that equation.

Images: designer unknown, ornamental typographic cover design, St. Nicholas, November 1875 (the issue in which Howard Pyle's first published illustration appeared); Jessie Willcox Smith, Mother and Child with Easter Lily, cover illustration for Collier’s, 1904; F.X. Leyendecker (troubled brother of J.C.), The Flapper, cover illustration of Life Magazine, 1922; Norman Rockwell, The Double Take, cover illustration for the Saturday Evening Post, March 1, 1941; Al Parker, Groucho Marx, cover illustration for TV Guide; April 27, 1957; George Lois, art director, Muhammad Ali as St. Sebastian, cover photograph for Esquire, April 1968.

Monday, October 3, 2011

John Porcellino in Town

This will be hurried. Although I will be unable to attend, I am pleased to say that the cartoon Dadaist/not-really-naif/visionary depressive/DIY pioneer John Porcellino will be appearing this evening at Subterranean Books, along with St. Louis' own Tim Lane. Porcellino created King-Cat Comix in the late 1980s pretty much with a felt-tip pen and a Xerox machine. I reproduced an early (if memory serves, the first) King-Cat page in Strips Toons and Bluesies. Though I have never met Mr. Porcellino, I admire his work, which helped establish an alternative way of being in the world as a cartoonist. He has written and drawn very perceptively on subtle topics. His new book, if I understand, is a comic-format interview with suicide attempt survivors.

The talk and book-signing will be at 7:00pm.

Students with an interest in writing, cartooning or text-image relationships: if at all possible, go to this!

There is much more to say about Tim Lane, too, but that deserves its own post. Below, the cover from his terrific visual essay for the Riverfront Times on St. Louis' homeless tent city.

Fantagraphics issued a big, thick compilation of King-Cat a few years ago. These images are taken from that volume.

Above, the endpapers for that book.

If anybody goes, please send me your impressions as a comment. I would love to hear about the event.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Jaleen Grove on Robert Weaver: Sept 29

The discipline of art history has paid modest (scant?) attention to the history of illustration. For the most part, illustration is used as a backdrop: a cultural grounding and visual context for the real art. There's plenty to say about that. Unlike many I tend to see the ideological territory of non-art as quite interesting. Another day.

I'm pleased to say that one of the rising stars of illustration studies is coming to Washington University to speak this Thursday, September 29. Jaleen Grove is a doctoral candidate at SUNY Stonybrook, researching 20th century Canadian illustrators in the American print market as well as other topics. Jaleen has been active as an illustrator as well as an illustration historian, continuing a long tradition of practitioner-historian-theorists in the under-considered fields of cartooning and illustration. (See: examples from Frank King to Art Spiegelman to Seth, illustrated by the the Gasoline Alley strip below, which "cites" Winsor McCay's Little Nemo strip by convention.)

Jaleen will be speaking at Olin Library at 4:30pm this Thursday. (All of my students will be in attendance. Capiche?) Her topic will be the Robert Weaver show curated by Skye Lacerte that I mentioned last week. Anyone with a passing interest in illustration history in the St. Louis region should be there. Jaleen will address Weaver's thoughts on illustration versus fine art in the 1960s. Weaver was a passionate artist who embraced and thought clearly about illustration, yet resisted its ghettoization in visual culture.

Looking forward to seeing Jaleen, and to hearing her talk!

Images: Robert Weaver, spread from Brief Lives, circa 1970; Frank King, Gasoline Alley, circa 1920.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Sequential Narrative

UPDATE: I have embedded a video in this post via vimeo. One of the machines I use in my studio is a lumbering, Pre-Columbian Power PC unit, on which I cannot install an up-to-date super-groovy Intel-based Flash video player. Please note that if you are using an older computer, you may encounter a blank space about halfway down this post, followed by a link to vimeo. Just follow the link to vimeo, then come on back to us.   

ALSO, regular GT readers: it is unusual for me to address a post directly to students, as I do below, bypassing you. Please know that you are implicitly considered. Ultimately, we are all in the same boat. 

Dear Seniors: since our session today was taken up entirely by critique, I was not able to screen some of the material I had planned to show.

As I indicated in the few minutes we had at the end of class, your next problem is the creation of a modestly-scaled visual story, to be delivered solely through images. That is, your story cannot have dialogue. You can't narrate it. We must be able to track what happens from frame to frame, panel to panel, beat to beat.

You are to deliver your narrative in either of two forms: a miniature film (iMovie is fine) or a sustained comic narrative. If you make the film, it should run 30 to 45 seconds; if the comic, a four-pager. But in either case, make it your own; turn the problem to your own ends.

Here are your prompts:





Choose one, define your action and get to work on a storyboard. Ultimately, these should provide a decent level of finish art, but we'll discuss that on a case-by-case basis, and after we're well underway. This will be a two week project.

Countdown - HD from Desrumaux Celine on Vimeo.

This film by French animator CĂ©line Desrumaux recapitulates some of our received imagery for rocket launches. You've seen some of this before. But the image construction, intercutting and timing are lovely, and I show it here because it delivers a straightforward tale of preparation and payoff. We prepare the rocket, we prepare the astronauts, we launch. Finis. Although your project won't be nearly so long, the film provides an excellent example of what I'm asking you to produce: a wordless narrative. Audio makes a contribution, but primarily through pacing and atmosphere. If I turn the sound off, I still track the action.

And thanks to friend and colleague John Hendrix for tipping me off to Desrumaux's film.

I have written on cinematic storyboarding before. Review here if necessary. Remember: each "shot" performs one task.

Ms. Desrumaux cites Chris Ware as one of her influences, and it's possible to see the connection. But it had been my intention to show these pages from Acme Novelty Library No. 18 (2007 ) since I spent time with them last summer. These big, silent cinema pages punctuate denser, wordier sequences. They're narrative tone poems.

Have a productive week, and I'll see you Wednesday.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Drawing Lines––Robert Weaver at Olin LIbrary

Our juniors are beginning a reportage project on Friday. For starters, we visited an exhibition curated by Skye Lacerte on the work of illustrator Robert Weaver, presented in the cases outside special collections in Olin Library (on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis). Documented here via several crappy iPhone photos.

Longtime readers of this blog know that Weaver's work lives in the Modern Graphic History Library at Washington University. I've written often about Weaver, whose work set the standard for an engaged–activist–journalistic illustration practice in the shifting editorial landscape of the late 1950s and 60s. Particularly relevant posts are viewable here and here.
Skye's exhibition does an excellent job of capturing Weaver's highly formal informality. She's also excavated some of the New York Magazine tearsheets for projects I hadn't seen in context.

There's a great deal more to be written, but for now suffice to say: a treat, and up through September 30. Stay tuned for a special event associated with the exhibition, planned for September 29...

Here, a glimpse of an extremely influential illustrator being influenced: the touch of Ben Shahn is quite apparent in this drawing, and in several other pieces, too.

Congratulations, Skye, on a great show!

Juniors, we'll be taking the train on our own urban explorations come Friday. Remember to pick up your Metrolink passes tomorrow!

Our friend Miroslav Sasek shows the way, from This is London (1959). It's important to stress as we begin that there are lots of ways to report from the world, not just Weaver's...

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Letters, Words, Pictures

Classes have resumed here in our little niche of the ivory tower. I'm teaching two studio courses this fall, same as a year ago: Word & Image 1, team taught with Heather Corcoran, and Visual Worlds: Image Development for Illustrators and Cartoonists, solo. To juniors and seniors, respectively, both courses for majors in the Communication Design area.

Our first project in W & I 1 involves the use of a single alphabetic character as a prompt, to generate a suite of images and letterforms in response. This pile of stuff becomes a data set of sorts, to draw from in the development of a second stage of the project. Last year, when Professor Corcoran was on leave, I posted some examples of letterforms for students (from my admittedly illustrative point-of-view). Heather has posted an excellent set of ABCs over at her blog, Corcoran for Design.

On Heather's suggestion, we added a wrinkle to the project this time out.

In addition to letters

and pictures

we're also asking for settings of words which begin with the assigned letter.

The words open up some fun territory.

Thinking about this led me to posters. Particularly, WPA posters. About a year ago I picked up a great book documenting WPA posters. I've been meaning to post on the subject for some time, but haven't quite gotten around to it. So I dug out some of the images we scanned for a rainy day, looking for examples that seemed relevant to this discussion. At the top, a theater poster for a marionette version of the Czech play (presumably in translation) R.U.R., or Rossum's Universal Robots. Poster is probably 1943.

Then, one of a zillion WPA posters promoting national parks. The treatments of "National" and "Parks" caught my eye for present purposes.

I love this map, which acquires the status of an object and an abstraction, seemingly at once. The big rounded characters on the "travel guide" passage have an undeniable hand-lettered charm that seems to soften their art deco geometry. I'm also fond of the word "vacationist", which communicates a stronger sense of purpose, not to mention grace, than "vacationer".

The WPA posters shown above are reproduced in the book Posters for the People by Ennis Carter and Christopher DeNoon. I recommend it heartily. Meanwhile the project has acquired an online existence, including an inventory of more than 1500 WPA posters available in reproduction. I haven't explored the site--just found it while reminding myself of the book's authors--but it looks like a wonderful research tool. I'm away from my books at the moment so I don't have the caption information. I'll update this post later with as much detail as I can harvest from the book.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Ali Ferzat

It's been a rough decade or so for cartoonists. The Danish cartoon riots of 2005 led to the deaths of more than 300 people. Several of the cartoonists for Jyllands-Posten, the Danish paper that commissioned the satirical drawings of the Prophet, were attacked; all were forced underground. Then Molly Norris, a Seattle cartoonist, came up with "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" (May 20, 2010) then dissociated herself from it. Credible death threats forced her–on the advice of the FBI–to change her name and drop out of sight.

Intolerant religionists had seemingly cornered the market on threatening cartoonists. Now word has come that Ali Ferzat–Syrian cartoonist, Arab cultural luminary, increasingly direct critic of the Bashir Assad regime–was abducted in Damascus by four goons and beaten within an inch of his life. His assailants made a special effort to break his hands.

Ferzat's work has long been widely syndicated in the Arab press. Recently he composed a cartoon which compared Assad to Col Kaddafi, the recently deposed Libyan dictator. That, apparently, was a drawing of a bridge too far.

I've posted several of Ferzat's editorial cartoons here. Above, "Reform Operation", a medical procedure with grisly results. (Click for a better view.)

The incident reminds me of an unhappy event in the life of Tilman Reimenschneider (1460-1531) a breathtakingly talented German woodcarver who built a career producing religious altarpieces. He developed Lutheran sympathies in the overheated atmosphere of the early Reformation.

When Reimenschnieder became a burgher of his town late in his career–a place in contested territory–he cast a vote which angered the Catholic hierarchy. Just like Ferzat, he too was badly beaten; special malevolence was reserved for his hands and fingers.

Quick recovery wishes to Mr. Ferzat. May he and his countrymen prevail over the badly isolated, increasingly monstrous Assad regime.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Divine Project

Seldom have I gone so long without posting. I've been busy working on several projects, and I made a fairly conscious decision to dial back the blogging in order to stay focused in the studio. Which I have, more or less.

I've spent a good bit of time this summer wrapping up a family project. My father, David Dowd Jr., is the oldest of three brothers. His brothers Jack and Jim came along next. When Jack passed away seven years ago my dad decided to produce a memorial to him.

Dad wrote a biographical appreciation and I art directed Jack Dowd: A Remembrance, a book that was distributed within the family. We printed about 30 copies. (I had a strong hand in Jack's project, but the book was really designed by a combination, sequentially, of Joe Sullivan and Amy Olert. They did a great job.)

David and Jack both attended the College of Wooster and the University of Michigan Law School. Jim, the youngest, went to Cornell. He ended up at Yale Divinity School and was ordained a Presbyterian pastor in the days before much of American Protestantism had dumbed down to present levels. Jim led a number of large churches, including the Church of the Covenant on University Circle in Cleveland and First Presbyterian in Urbana, Illinois.

It was concluded that Jack's book should have a companion on the shelf. The family developed a book project designed to highlight and preserve a set of Jim Dowd's sermons. Over time we whittled the number of sermons down to 20, to be accompanied by Jim's brief autobiography in the back of the book. I proposed to produce a spot illustration for every sermon, as well as the cover. (Of course I grossly underestimated how long that would actually take in the context of my other responsibilities.) Susie Ellsworth worked with me on the book.

The lovely type treatments in the book are all Susie. I wanted to have the lectionary passages appear on the page along with the sermon text, and she developed a very satisfying approach to that challenge. When life intervened and Susie relocated with the book 90% done, I muddled through with the expert guidance of colleague Heather Corcoran. My summer intern Dave Maupin worked the details and helped with production.
The basic creative problem was this: how do you organize a set of sermons? They're brief and dense, and are designed to be listened to, not read on a page. In a way, they're sort of like poems, in that you are likely to read only one or two at a time. Each sermon should feel like a new thing, and reward a brief encounter. The image above shows a sample first page for a sermon.

The illustrations had to respond to the stateliness of the Joanna type, but they also had to bring a little tooth, a little texture. I settled on a methodology of brush drawing in black ink, supported by tonal passages in grayish blue.
In Notes on the Book, a narrative colophon, I wrote that I've "long been inspired by my Uncle Jim’s work. From early in my life, his sermons established a standard for thoughtful, faithful preaching. On this project we have not sought to interpret his words. We designed a dramatic typesetting for the beginning of each sermon and selected concrete images to provide thematic cues for the reader."

The angel image at the top of this post is from a lovely piece of funerary statuary in historic Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis. It turned out to be an extra illustration, so I used it for the colophon.

The book includes a number of chapters or groups of sermons. One of these is a series of sermons Jim gave on the beatitudes. On reflection, I chose to use a series of plants and flowers to cue the qualities Jesus lists as "the blesseds" in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:3-12. Jim and Betty helped identity a list of plants I sort of riffed off of, as I wanted to work from actual objects. (Jim's preaching is learned, but also concrete.) Betty proposed daisies for "Blessed are the Peacemakers", which I converted to mums, because I could find them in my supermarket's florist section.
Nothing like a straightforward challenge: make a two-color illustration of flower x. Be descriptive and engaging, but not cloying. I actually enjoyed making these quite a bit.

I'll post a few more illustrations from the project before long. As I swing into gear for the academic year, and the heavier blogging I tend to do for students...