Marshall Arisman, illustrator, painter, and educator, talks to Kristin Ellison in this interview from the AIGA Design Conference.
(synthesizer music) - [Voiceover] Marshall Arisman is an illustrator, painter, filmmaker, educator, and consummate storyteller. His work has appeared in virtually every national publication, including covers for Time Magazine, US News and World Report, and The Nation.
His work is also part of the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and many others. For the past 50 years, Marshall has been a faculty member and a chair at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. He is currently the chair of the MFA Illustration as Visual Essay program at SVA, a graduate program he initiated in 1984. - We're here in New Orleans at the AIGA conference, and I have the distinct honor of speaking with Marshall Arisman.
Marshall, thank you so much for being here today. - Thank you, nice to be here. Nice to be invited. - So your grandmother, who everybody referred to as "Muddy". She lived in a town in upstate New York, a very special place called Lilydale, that you made a movie about, and this was a place that was very special to you, and it's a really unique place. Can you talk a little bit about that? - Yeah, Lilydale is... I mean, the interesting thing about Lilydale is it's exactly the same as it was when I was a child.
It's a village, during the winter there are maybe 4 to 500 people who live there, and during the summer it grows to thousands. People interested in spiritualism. So you have to be a spiritualist to buy a house there, and as spiritualists will tell you, not all spiritualists are mediums, but about 60% of them are, so it's a village full of people who do readings, and they all have various forms.
Some hear voices, some go into trances. So when I was in high school, I took dates there instead of groping my girlfriends in the drive-in. It cost two bucks to get in, and so I probably had thousands of readings in my life. Most of them, nondescript. A couple of them quite shocking in odd ways.
I had a medium say to me, "There's a very large man here. He's got a red beard, he's 6'5", he must weigh 300 pounds. Got a plaid shirt on. His name is John, and he's a relative of yours, and he hasn't seen you since you were a baby." And I got very defensive and said, "There is nobody in my family with red hair, I have never heard of an Uncle John." And as I got more agitated, the medium said, "Just calm down, when you leave here, go home and ask your mother." So I went home and I said to my mother, "Anybody in our family named John?" And she said, "I don't think so...
Well, wait a minute, you had an uncle that was 6'5", had a red beard, he was here when you were born, whatever..." Those are rare moments with mediums. Most of it is not very applicable. My grandmother, who evidently was really good at this, had a rule to never read for family members. Very smart rule. So when I kept saying to her, "Come on Muddy, predict my future, this is what you do.
You hear voices, you talk to dead people. Tell me something." And she would say, "You know the rule, I do not do this for family members." And I think I badgered her for enough years, until she finally said to me, "Okay, I'll give you this much. You're gonna meet a lot of healers, lot of mediums, a lot of psychics that are gonna help you.
You're gonna see past lives, you're gonna see auras, if you start to freak out, just calm down, ask for help from the spirit guides." So I got that much from her when I was 16 or something. The funny thing was, she saw a lot of celebrities and would not talk about them. My mother said to me when I was in high school, "You know, she just saw Lucille Ball." And I said, "Really?" And my mother said, "And I actually know because the neighbor told me what she said to her." She told Lucy, who's then 18, she was gonna become the most famous comedian in America, in the world, and she was gonna meet and marry a Cuban bandleader.
- Wow. - And so when I approached my grandmother and said, "Is it true you said...", whatever... She smiles, right... So I have no idea-- - A knowing smile. - If that's family folklore or what that is, but anyway, every Sunday I would go there, and on top of everything else she was an artist. So my brother would take my grandfather fishing, my brother complained that all he did was row, that my grandfather used him as a slave, but I would go drawing with my grandmother.
So we would go out into the area, the woods, whatever, and draw. And when I was 14, she said to me, "Your aura is way off, you are totally lopsided in your energy, you are in fact making too many pictures. You have to now make sounds." And I said, "I don't understand what you're saying to me." And she said, "Making sound and making images are two sides of a coin, they are not separate activities.
So if you're gonna continue to make pictures the rest of your life, you have to activate sound. So I'm gonna give you a little money. I suggest a wind instrument." So I bought a saxophone, and I'm still playing it to keep my energy balance. At the end of the day of painting, because I'm a closet saxophone player, I put on CD and I play with Miles Davis and all kinds of people.
- Do you feel like that influences your work back? - Yes. I think without question, I mean... I don't know exactly what it does, but it certainly lightens me up. I think painting is, for me, a form of meditation. I mean, I'm not sure the paintings are important, but it allows me an activity every day to focus, to get out of my rational brain, because my ego can't paint.
It keeps trying to paint, but it can't. So in order to paint, I have to find another part of myself. And in order to do that, I have to get through my ego to do it. Once I'm in that space, playing a horn keeps me in the space, so it just prolongs whatever that moment is. - And your mother was a little bit uncomfortable with the whole spiritual aspect, correct? - Yeah, my mother is a... Well, when I turned 18, story about my mother...
My mother said to me, "Two deals with you. One, you promise never to live with me again, and I promise never to live with you again." That was our first deal. "Second deal, never send me your art. I'm upset by what you do, I will not hang it on my wall, and I think that all those ugly pictures you make are my fault, so never send me a picture." So 20 years later the phone rings, my mother says, "You remember the deal about don't send me your art?" I said, "Yes mom." She said, "I wanna break it.
My little dog Cleo just died. All the photographs I have are out of focus, or it has a red dot in his eye. I wanna send you a photograph of Cleo, and I want you to paint a picture of him and not fool around with it." And I said, "Okay..." I paint with my hands. I know my mother wants an Andrew Wyeth painting of the dog, so I go out and buy brushes, I get a book on Andrew Wyeth, I get the photograph, I blow it up, I trace it down, and I paint every little hair on little Cleo's body.
I go home at Christmas, it's on the wall, and my mother said to me, "How do you like your painting?" And I, I don't know, looks just like Cleo to me. And she said, "You notice anything different about it?" And I said, "No." And she said, "Well go look at it." So I go, I'm a half inch away from my own painting, I'm looking for a tear, a scratch, whatever. I see nothing, and my mother said, "Look at the eyes." And I look at the eyes of the painting, and I realize that my mother has gone out and bought a photography book on dogs, cut out two dog eyes, and glued them over the eyes of my painting, and my mother said, "You sent me a painting of a dog with mean little eyes.
Cleo did not have mean little eyes." So that's my mother in a nutshell. So my mother was actually quite psychic, but Muddy terrified her, because she was the real thing. But as a kid, the parlor games we played at home were raising tables. We would get out a card table and people would put their fingers on it, and it would raise up on one leg.
And then everybody would accuse everybody of pulling it up with their fingertips and whatever. But my mother could actually pull up an oak table by herself on one leg with her fingertips. And we as kids would hang on it. I mean, we'd jump and hold onto it and whatever, so she had a lot of this stuff in her, but when she confronted Muddy... I think she felt inadequate and terrified, because as long as it was maintained within the family, my mother's activities, Ouija boards and all this stuff, it was fine, and the family loved it 'cause she was the eccentric.
But the minute it went into the outside world, and Muddy was the outside world, my mother got spooked and kept saying to me, "You can't keep going there. It's dangerous, you have no idea what you're playing with. You're too close to Muddy." All of that. When Muddy died, my mother, all she wanted from Muddy's house was her crystal ball.
And Muddy had already told me, I once asked her, because I said, "When you do a reading, do you use this ball?" I mean, it was beautiful, it's a crystal ball. And she said, "It's a prop." She said, "People get very nervous if I look them in the eye and start telling them what I'm hearing," she said, "So they're much more comfortable if I have a prop. So I bring out the crystal ball, I pretend that that's where I'm getting the information, and people feel more comfortable." So my mother said to Muddy, "Would you leave me that crystal ball," believing that that was the magic ball.
I remember coming home for a couple of years and my mother would be on the back porch at like two in the morning staring into this crystal ball, never saw a thing. (laughing) - And did your father support your work? - Yeah, my father... I didn't learn until he was in his 60s that my father saw pictures all the time. I mean, my mother said to me one day, "You know, your father sees pictures." And I said, "What do you mean?" And she said, "He sees things." And I said, "I never knew that, he never talked about it." And so I said to him, "You see things?" And he said, "Well, yeah." And I said, "Like what?" And he said, "Well, they're like photographs.
Usually farmers standing in front of the barn, people I don't know, and then every night I see a series of sunsets." And I thought, how nice. And he said, "Yeah, four or five sunsets," and whatever. So I think my father, who never... I mean, he was fine with everything, my father. He had no judgment about things. It was like, you wanna do that, fine.
You wanna be a mechanic, great. Wanna be an artist, great. So he was totally supportive, but no comment about this growing up in a spiritualist house. And he saw stuff. I said, "Well tell me, you're a kid, you're in the house. What do you see?" And he said, "Well, Muddy and her friends used to sit around in a circle in the living room," and they had a trumpet in the middle, which is a aluminum cone, it looks like a cheerleader's tube or something, and they would lift it up and it would fly around the room.
And I said, "What?" And he said, "Yeah, it was kind of interesting, kind of sounded like a plane, you know. The air was going through it." And I said, "And they didn't touch it?" He said, "No, no." And I said, "You never talk about this stuff." And he said, "Well..." - Is it just that it was so normal? - Yeah. (laughs) So anyway, I mean, much of this stuff gets into suspended disbelief, and much of this stuff gets into arenas where I think we've all seen things and things have happened to us that we can't explain.
I mean, I was there in these moments, and I still can't explain them. I have no place to put this in whatever it is I'm trying to organize. So they float. Real stories that I have no explanation why or where or... And I have too many of these stories. (laughing) - So you moved on, and you eventually studied advertising art at Pratt, and you graduated in 1960.
- Very good. That makes me old. - So when and why did you transition from illustration... Or, from graphic design to illustration? - There's a certain irony that I'm here at the AIGA Graphic Design Conference, because I got to Pratt. They gave me a list of majors. I came from a farm.
I mean, we had one high school with one art class, and the art class was full of slow people, so all the slow people were in this room making art, and then everybody went to metal shop, and then they went to wood shop and motor shop and... These were people who were never gonna go to college, these were people who... Give them a trade. So I get to Pratt, and suddenly I'm looking at, okay, you wanna be a fine artist, you wanna be a photographer, you wanna be filmmaker, you wanna be an architect, you wanna be whatever.
And I remembered my art teacher, 'cause I worked on our yearbook, said to me, "This is graphic design." And I thought, oh, graphic design, I'll take that. And I took it, liked it, got pretty good at it, and then I got a scholarship from Pratt. This is too much information. In my senior year, they gave me $2500 to leave the country. It was a great scholarship. That was it, nobody ever checked, nobody cared where, whatever, whatever.
So I booked a ticket to Europe in September, this was May, and GM sent a recruiter down, and I went in for the interview to get out of a class. I'm going to Europe, I don't like cars. I'm not going to Detroit. So I'm talking to this guy, and in the middle of it I said, "Look, I apologize. I came in here to get out of a class. I'm going to Europe in September. I don't wanna go to Detroit. I'm sorry I wasted your time." And the minute I did that, it was a lesson I keep learning, he was interested in me.
He said, "Well, wait a minute. I'm gonna fly you out to the tech center next Saturday. And you'll look, and if you like it, and we'll talk, and you can take a leave of absence." So I went out to the tech center. I was met with a limousine and a chauffeur and I thought, this is not bad. Does that make sense? And the tech center is this amazing place where all the creative activity of GM is supposedly in a university setting, and it was more money than my father had ever made in his whole life and whatever, and it was totally creative.
We had nothing to do with advertising. We made handmade books for the president. I spent a month making birthday cards for the racing team. I did 16 color silk screens with embossments. They were this big, and on the bottom it said, "Happy birthday Frank", "Happy birthday, Tom". And my boss said, "You go to the garage, there are six Corvettes down there. Put one in every seat." That was it.
But I began to realize that I was surrounded by people who loved what they were doing, and I did not. I began to think, I wanna be alone, I don't wanna be with this group. It wasn't that group, I don't wanna be in a group. I don't wanna come up with group concepts. I'm not happy. So at 5 o'clock I would run away to the bar, and I thought, you're gonna be a drunk in a couple of years. These people around you are gonna get much better and much happier, and you're gonna get miserable.
So the only thing I knew was I was happiest when I was working alone and drawing, and so I went to Europe with that, and spent a year there, and got drafted, and when I got out of the Army, I thought, okay, now what. I could draw a little, but not really. We had studied layouts and all that kinda stuff, but it wasn't drawing, it was how to do magic markers and all that stuff.
So my old college buddy was freelancing illustration, and he said, "Anybody can do this, make 10 pictures, and then go see art directors." And at that time, this is '62, 3, it was amazing, you could see everybody. So I called Henry Wulf, said, "I'm a freelance illustrator," "Come on in tomorrow." I called Richard Gangle Sports Illustrated, they were amazing, and they were all amazingly helpful. I mean, Gangle said to me, "You're not even a sports fan." I said, "No, I'm not." He said, "Here you are at Sports Illustrated." I said, "I know, I know, I know, but you give out good work." And he said, "I tell you what I'm gonna do.
I'm gonna send you to basketball, hockey games, whatever. You're gonna make pictures for me. We're never gonna print them, but I'm gonna pay you for it." So I spent over a year going to hockey games, it was great. I had passes into the locker rooms and talk to Walt Fraser and... So I, in the three years, never made any more than $3,000, because I really couldn't draw.
I had a formula. I stole from Savignac and Andre Francois, people who I thought couldn't draw. I mean, I was that stupid. People were doing a kind of simplified... They weren't cartoons, but they were quote humorous illustrations, and I thought, well, I can do that. I don't have to really draw to do that. So I did that, and then at the end of three years, I thought, it's over.
I'm making $3,000 a year, it's not going anywhere. I can't go back to graphic design. And then this nagging voice said, "It's time to learn how to draw." At 28, I think, okay, now I know why I have to learn how to draw, and I did the usual typical drawing everything, drawing anything, drawing on location, copying stuff, whatever. And a year later, I could draw a little, and then the question became, okay, now you can draw a little.
What are you gonna draw? And I thought, it didn't work when I made quote a portfolio for art directors. I mean, I was trying to please somebody out there, and I was following their comments, which would be, you need more book jackets. I'd go home and do some, and then it never hit me that they were book jacket art directors. And then the next person would say, "You got too many book jackets in here.
You need more dogs." And I'd go home and do... anyway. So I made a list when I was 28. I said, you know, why don't you make a list of things you really know about. And so I made a list, and the first thing that came up were cows. I was brought up on a dairy farm, and next to it I wrote, "I have never drawn a cow. I've drawn water buffaloes, hyenas, whatever..." The next thing that came up was deer.
We hunted them, we ate them, we butchered them. "I have never drawn a deer." And it's beginning to occur to me that the things I actually know about and have lived through and have a real sense of are not turning up in my pictures. And the third thing that came up was guns. I mean, my brother's been carrying a handgun since he was 15. He's now 78. He works 60 hours a week as a boat mechanic, and he still, the last time I was home, he bent over a motor, and he still has a handgun taped to his back.
And he lives in a town of 500 people. And I said to him, "Bruce, you still taping a gun to the middle of your back? Here we are at the boatyard. There's just you and me and some cranes and a canal. I mean, it's beautiful out here, what are you afraid of?" And he says to me what he always says to me, and he's probably right. He looked at me and he said, "You know something? You live in New York too long." And I thought, right on.
So guns came up, and then the fourth one was psychic phenomena, Muddy and all that stuff. And I thought, okay, pick one and do some drawings. So I picked guns, and I thought, I'll do three or four drawings. A year later I had 50 drawings. Never occurred to me it was a portfolio. It was a series of drawings. And the irony of all of it was that I printed a little book, and because I had seen art directors, I sent it to them, not thinking it was a portfolio.
And then I ran into Tony Younger who said, "There's only one art director in New York worth seeing, that's JC Suarez at the Op Ed page." This is late '60s at the New York Times. "Go see him." So I went there, and JC Suarez was behind the desk with a cigar in his mouth. I had 45 original drawings that were 23 by 29. Without a word, he motioned for me to come to him, and I hated him already.
So I came, and he motioned for me to put the portfolio. I put it down. He opened it up. He went through the 45 drawings in less than a minute. The ash from his cigar fell into my originals, without comment he brushed them off, closed the portfolio, and waved goodbye to me. So now I wanna kill him. As I get to the elevator I think, you should have killed him, you should have smacked him, you should have... Next morning, the phone rings.
It's JC Suarez, and he said, "You know, I got this article on Uganda, you wanna do it?" And then I worked steadily for the New York Times doing drawings I would have done for myself. If there's a moral here, it is that if you can use yourself as content and make pictures about things you actually know about, they're probably gonna be better pictures. 'Cause they're meaningful. Or at least to me they were meaningful.
And I became the gun goy. Which was okay, because I put myself there. And people would call me, say, "You're gonna love this one. 15 people just got shot in McDonalds." And so I lived in that world for a long time until it got really dark. I got death threats and a lot of other stuff, and my favorite moment was... I did a drawing for the New York Times Op Ed on a guy who taught torture techniques to the South American police, CIA guy.
And somebody killed him, that was the article. So I do a drawing of a guy getting tortured, and the day the paper comes out, there's a knock on my apartment door and a very large guy, green beret in uniform, is standing there with the New York Times in his fist, and he said, "You did a vicious drawing of my best friend, and I'm here to beat the shit out of you." And I thought, I looked at him and I said, "There's no question, you can beat the shit out of me.
Why don't you come in?" So I invited him in, we had coffee and I said, "I don't think you understand how illustration works. I'm given an article by the New York Times that I have to believe is true. I did not make the decision to print this article. I did not make the decision it is factual. I get it at face value, and I do a drawing. So if there's somebody you should be beating up, it is the editor." And at that time the editor was Charlotte Curtis of the Op Ed page.
I said, and I'm trying to calm him down, thinking he's not gonna keep going with this. I said, "So if you want, we'll go out and get in a cab. I'll take you down to the building, I'll get you into the building. Beat the shit out of Charlotte Curtis." He said, "Alright." So we get up and we take a cab down to 43rd Street. I got him through security, we got to the elevator before he finally backed out. He said, "Look, I'll go to jail for this..." And then he walked away.
And then I went upstairs and said to Charlotte, "You know how close you got, Charlotte?" (laughs) So anyway... And then at a certain point, I started drawing monkeys, and then I thought, okay. I've been putting off drawing auras in my picture because I knew that if you start putting auras in your work, you are gonna get tagged as a religious painter, because that's the only place people have seen auras in painting.
It's true. Christ, aura, Buddha, aura... So I finally eased into it with monkeys. I thought, they'll never know. It's a sacred monkey. So I put an aura on him, did a bunch of monkeys, and then I thought, well, if I'm doing monkeys carrying knowledge for Asia, I should do the white buffalo for the Native American, and I should do cats for the Middle East.
So I got into that whole series, and then I started putting them with people. And then the work stopped completely in terms of illustration. I mean, no one knew what to do with them. Which is fair enough. And occasionally people would say, "I'd like you to..." I just did the cover and some stuff for Silence of the Lambs, a new readdition. The publisher, Subterranean Press called me and said, "Tom Harris said to us, there's one person to call, don't ask for sketches.
Leave him alone and let him do it." And I said, "Really, oh great. How nice of Tom Harris to do that." And then he said, "Does it bother you that this is gonna be work that doesn't look like your work at the moment?" And I said, "No, I remember. I mean, there's a part of me that's still with guns and all that stuff." Anyway, so occasionally it becomes that, but for the most part, the shift came with the subject matter.
- So you started the MFA program Illustration as Visual Essay at the School of Visual Arts 31 years ago, and at the time it was really groundbreaking, because there were no masters programs on illustration. So what was happening at that time that made you wanna do that? - Well, I was chair of the undergrad program at Visual Arts from, I don't know, '70 to '84, and what I found was that three years in the major of illustration wasn't enough time.
There was so much emphasis, understandably, on style. You have to have a style, you can't go out without a style. No one had the time to put content with the style, so all the time was spent on how to paint, and not what to paint. And I thought, maybe in a graduate program, having been through an undergrad program, we could start to address what are you making pictures about.
And I had a lot of help. I mean, Robert Weaver became a real friend, and we talked a lot about this. And at the time there was a lot of kind of surrealistic influence in illustration, a lot of concept illustration. There were a lot of apples falling for no reason to sell apples. I mean, it was all liths from Magree which made no sense at all once you separated from the text, they were pictures that made no sense.
And drawing had taken a backseat, so the problem illustrators, there are exceptions, but for the most part, illustrators never supply content. The writer did that. Writer did the piece, went to the editor, went to the art director, art director matched up somebody they thought fit, stylistically, the piece. So illustrators were never responsible to be the author of their work.
Norman Rockwell was. There are exceptions, but they're not many. So as the illustration field began to change 10 years ago, editorial work started to lessen, things were opening up on the internet, people were finding outlets that they didn't think of before, people were doing children's books, they never thought of doing one. People were doing dolls and all kinds of things. So I thought, maybe we can start a program where we start to address subject matter.
And we thought the best way to do it was to start them with interviewing people, make it real. So we call the program visual journalism, which turned out was a bad title. We got people applying who wanted to be court artists. And it was like, no. We got people who worked for the college newspaper thinking that was journalism or something.
So anyway, that's how we started. It was like, go to the nursing home, find Aunt Mary, talk to her, interview her, do drawings of her, do a visual sequence on her and start to get real, and stop imagining this stuff. And then we would get to them. It's been fun, and been very satisfying. I've heard a lot of fun stories. - Well, 31 years is a long time, and the profession has changed a ton over that time.
How has it changed? - Well it's funny, because in 1984 when I started the program, a typical portfolio, at least at Visual Arts, was really a sample case of a style. So there'd be, here's my book jacket, here's my editorial piece, here's my whatever piece. The glue in it was style, not content.
Today the portfolios are... We don't have a class in the program called portfolio, for good reason. Once you ask people to make a portfolio, you kill them. You throw them into their brains, which is like, oh my god, I don't know... Oh, they won't like, oh, they'll like that one, oh they'll love that one... They get lost, so in the first year of the program, we spend a semester with them as part of the curriculum doing a book based upon something that is either very meaningful to them, or a personal story.
And so it ends up being a book. 32 page, whatever, writing and whatever. It becomes their portfolio. That would not have been a portfolio in '84, and what we find is happening is that once art directors see where they are, I mean in terms of that visual vocabulary, the work tends to get better that they're given. They tend to get work connected more to what they showed, and a lot of these folks are quirky.
Yuko Shimizu, one of our graduates, started doing this really interesting series of women knitting with pubic hair. Everybody would have killed it as portfolio before, does that make sense? I mean, she got work the day she went out. It wasn't like, we wanna reproduce these pubic hair drawings, it was, we love the way you think, we like the way you draw, we like the way you put things together, here's a job.
- Do you feel like are more opportunities these days for illustrators or less? - It's interesting what's happened. I mean, in my generation, the idea was you go out, you're successful or not, but you have a whole career in illustration. What that meant for most people was editorial, newspapers, some annual reports, and if you were lucky, you moved into advertising. That tended to happen to people who rendered.
And then you lived your life that way. And many people did, most of my friends spent 30 years with the same quote style doing jobs. When the market tightened up, it suddenly became, if that's all I'm doing, I'm dead. So if you do some of the editorial stuff that's there, but you're also developing a book you wanna do, you're also teaching one class somewhere at a college, that's the way this is going, does that make sense? So their life is a much more patchwork life, but because they understand why they're doing it...
No one's getting rich. But they're living on it, so a number of people, which is encouraging, that are living on this... Not plumbing on the side or whatever, is encouraging. So yeah, is it a place to go for pra-- No, you only go there if you're addicted. You only go there if you're a junkie. You only go there if you're like me, which is, if I'm not happy, I make everybody unhappy.
We got lots of... I keep banging graphic design, I don't mean to. We have a lot of people who are graphic designers who are in the program, who've been doing it for 10 years, and again, it's the same itch. It is like, I like what I do, it's fine, but I wanna get back to my hand. I wanna get back to drawing something, I wanna get back to something that's closer to me. And that's not a bad reason to do this. It's not a good reason to do it, because it makes sense.
Doesn't make any sense. It's freelance, it's tough. I mean, you live in New York, it's horrendously expensive. And I say to people, you know, if you could take the money, it's too expensive, an education is too expensive. If you could take this money, rent a loft, get four friends, start a studio, interact with each other, eat well... There are cheap ways to get an MFA, because there's no history of illustrators with MFAs, big history with fine artists, if you have an MFA and you have printed work, you're gold.
You can teach if you want. If you only have an MFA, doesn't mean much. And there are cheap ways to get them. - And you talk about the fact that drawing is the root of everything, and-- - Yeah, I think it is. It is, for a lot of reasons. It's the most direct content. It is the most... I don't know, it's the most honest content. After that, the finish becomes the production.
You clean up, you overlay, you color, you fix, you do stuff. But my grandmother always said, which I found an interesting question, at one point she said to me, "Do you actually believe that the energy you put into your work stays there?" I thought, what? She said, "You believe that?" And I thought, oh, I never thought about that. And she said, it was funny, 'cause she gave me a painting she did when she was 13 and she said to me, "Put your hand on this painting." And I put my hand on the painting, and she said, "What do you feel?" And I said, "Heat, it's warm.
I can feel heat on this thing." And she said, "Oh, good." She said, "It's nice to know that the energy I put into that painting at age 13 is still there." I think drawings have that, does that make sense? I mean, I think that drawing... It's funny, I just did a workshop at the Rubin Museum. It was very weird. The Rubin said, "Would you do a workshop?" And I said, "On what?" And they said, "Well you draw with a comb." - A what? - [Marshall] A comb.
- Okay. - And I said, "Yes I do." And they said, "Well you could teach a workshop on how to draw with a comb." And I said, "Who's going to sign up for that?" Totally esoteric, idiosyncratic. And they said, "Well, let's try it." Anyway, 20 people signed up, and I had them go into the museum and draw a mask with a pencil. They were fine. Then they all had to come down and I gave them a fragment of a comb and some ink and had them draw with it, and it made them crazy.
And I said, "This is going to make you crazy, because you have no control over this tool. You're gonna try to control it, it splatters, it'll fill, it'll do stuff. What it will do is make you totally attentive. And in that attention, you may have a chance at a drawing that has some power. And you're not gonna think so, because at the end of it, you, not me, you're not gonna believe me when I come around and say, 'That's really a good drawing.' You're gonna think I'm just trying to be nice to you, because you're gonna walk away looking at it thinking, no, that's terrible, I can't draw...
It's not realistic, whatever." It's not about realism, I mean, this is about something else. And some of the strongest drawings were done by people who, I don't know, did George Gross draw well? It's a question. He wanted to be a famous American illustrator. He was like, he wanted to be in Redbook. So yeah, I believe that it's...
And probably because it's not a finish that it's important. It's funny with sketchbooks, because inevitably, the work in the sketchbook is usually better than the finish, and it's because it doesn't matter. It's like, you go out, you draw. It's in my sketchbook, it's not on a board, it's not a stretch canvas. - You're more relaxed? - Yeah, you're relaxed.
I don't know. I think there are probably many reasons for it. But if you actually try to look at something, it's a form of meditation. And most people stop drawing at a certain point and buy those books about how to draw that tell you that, make the head an oval, and then cross it, whatever. That's not drawing. That's like how to build a figure. But the people who actually look at something and struggle with trying to represent it, no matter how unrealistic that drawing is, it will have power.
But nobody believes it. 'Cause it's not accurate, it's not... - But it probably has more energy to it. - Much more energy. I had a great lesson. I had a drawing teacher at Pratt called Dora Matthew. She was brought to New York by Vogue Magazine to be a fashion artist. Great line drawer. And she was a little nuts, she was 5 feet tall and when she talked to you, her eyes would roll back into her head, but she wore Chanel, and while we were drawing the model at Pratt, she was drawing everybody in the room, including the model, including the structure and the architecture and whatever.
20 years later, she called me and said, "It's Dora." I said, "Hi Dora, it's been a long time." She said, "I always thought you would joint the Rotary Club." I said, "No, I haven't yet." She said, "I got a deal for you, kid. You have lunch with me at La Grande Nuit, and it's a free lunch. I'm doing a book where I have to drawings in every four star restaurant in New York for this book. And so I'll draw you, we'll have this lunch and we'll see each other." So I said, "Great." So I go La Grande Nuit, I'm in a suit, I got 50 bucks in my pocket, and Dora's at a little bar off to the side, and she looks like a whirling dervish or a Russian princess.
Scarves and shit all over, and she's drinking obviously heavily, so I approach her thinking this is gonna be bad news. I mean, it's been 20 years, she's drunk. She can't draw anymore. So I go over to her, "Dora, how you doing", whatever, we sit down. I say, "You wanna order some food, Dora?" "No, you eat... I'm gonna have a double bourbon." She sat there for an hour drinking double bourbons, shaking.
And I'm thinking, we're going to jail. We're going to fucking jail. And at one point Dora brought out a pad, and she had a Pentel, which is interesting, and the minute that Pentel hit the paper, her shaking stopped. And she not only drew me, she drew every waiter, she drew everybody at every table, and she looked up at me and she said, "I taught you something once.
You're about to learn it again." And suddenly the waiters are coming behind her, looking over her shoulder and they're recognizing themselves, "Oh my god, that's Jacques..." And Jacques' behind her, whatever, and Dora said, "In a couple of minutes, the owner of this joint's gonna come to the table." This very elegant French, Belgian lady came to the table, introduced herself as the manager, owner, and Dora said to her, "You know honey, you're not a bad looking dame.
Why don't you sit down?" "Oh, I couldn't--" "Sit down." The lady sat down, Dora took out a pad, did a drawing of her, and then closed the pad. Well, you can't do that. So the woman said, "Excuse me, is it possible I could see the drawing you did of me?" And Dora said, "It's for sale, honey." And she said... Dora said, "It's 800 bucks." And the woman said, "Okay." Took out 800 bucks, gave it to Dora, Dora gave her a drawing, it was a beautiful drawing, she was very happy, the chef came out and said, "You are welcome to stay for the next 12 hours." I ate all afternoon and Dora just kept drinking, and when we hit the street, Dora said to me, "You forgot, honey, I taught you that drawing was magic.
But you forgot." True. It is true. - That's a great story. - It's true if you're as good as Dora doing this. Not so good if you're as bad as me doing it. - But I think even naive drawings are magical. I mean, children's drawings are absolutely magical. - Yeah, and I don't... Drawing for all of us... As art, as a way to talk about our feelings, our fears, our hopes, whatever, I mean... Totally unpretentious.
Tough to recapture that, because our brains get in the way and we judge things and... Then it's like, whatever, and whatever, and all of a sudden it's this layer on top of it that takes its energy out. - Yeah, and today with the digital age, so many people are going straight to the computer and skipping that stage. - Absolutely. No, it's funny, we get over 150 applicants for the graduate program, and we only take 20.
It sounds horrendous, but out of 150 applicants, 100 of them are immediate nos, and they're because they're all people who have no basics. They can't draw in any form, and they're trying to hide it with a computer. They jumped in too quick without a basis, and so suddenly every flashy tool is an attempt to cover up something that you can't cover up.
You gotta wade through this junk to see it, but back there is like this horrible little drawing. So we reject 100 people quick, and then it gets tougher. - One of the things that I saw you talk about in the SVA video was a sense of community, and the fact that you create that sense of community at the school, and that that's important. Can you talk about that a little? - Yeah, well I think most illustrators suffer from isolation.
I know they do. People leave undergrad, you lose community. People scatter, or home, whatever, your friends are somewhere else. Nobody to talk to. You send out promos hoping art directors will... They don't. You set up a website, no response. A little, but no real work, whatever. And your room keeps getting smaller, and you're surrounded by people who love you, but cannot talk about art with you, and so community becomes extremely important.
The sense of... A couple of things here. One is, it's limited in the sense that the program is about storytelling. We only take figurative artists. So we're not arguing about what art is. Is art abstraction, is it... We don't argue about it. It's like, we don't take those people. You're a figurative artist, you ought to tell a story, we're interested. So there's glue there automatically. There's a reason for them to be together. And so they each get a studio space and they get 24 hour access, seven days a week, then there's a kitchen and bathrooms and whatever.
People live there. And that was the idea. The idea was, have them eat together and play cards together and tell each other stories. And they're coming from everywhere. I mean, we have an Iranian student, somebody from Kuwait, somebody from Israel, Norway, that gets to be interesting when these people start telling stories. - I do have one last question. And it is: you carry a quote in your wallet by Cezanne, and it is, "One minute in the life of the world is going by, paint it as it is." So what does this mean to you in your work? - What it means to me is...
The necessity to simply look. I get so caught up in my head that I tend not to see anything, so the quote focuses me for a moment to just simply look at what's in front of me without judging it. It's like, that's not a good orange or a bad orange, it's an orange. Well, looking at something without your brain interfering is hard. And so it gives me a pause.
In terms of the work I do, I keep feeling like I'm trying to catch something rather than look at something. So it applies less to what I do, and more to just reminding me to get off the mental treadmill for a moment. Just look. And it's surprisingly difficult to do. Doesn't last long. The last story and we'll stop this.
I'm out in front of the School of Visual Arts and monks come to me. Interesting about monks, every monk I've ever seen, Japan, China, Korea, New York, all have purple auras. And I'm thinking, that's interesting. How could they all have the same energy? And it must come from meditation. They're all doing something that is doing that to their energy.
Anyway, this monk comes up to me and he has a gold card with Buddha embossed on it, and he says, "Donation." I gave him a dollar. He put it back in my face and said, "Donation." I said, "No no no, I just gave you a dollar." "Donation." I said, "I don't think you get this. You want a donation, I gave you a donation, now go away." He said, "Donation." I said, "No." He took a little pad out of his robe and a pencil, and he handed it to me, and he said, "You artist? Art school here?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Draw a monster." So I drew a monster.
And he said, "Very good, very good to get monster out of your head onto paper. Donation." I gave him 20 bucks. That's the best advice I've had all day. So maybe that's the moral. Get it out of your head an on a piece of paper. It'll make you happier.