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...