Through experience and unexpected opportunities, Arisman shaped his career while in the process of discovering his talents and through a decision to turn his attention to focus on the things he knew about. That decision was pivotal in developing his style. Guns, monkeys, and auras began to play a big role in his choices and his success in both commercial and independent circles.
- You moved on and you eventually studied advertising art at Pratt. - Mmm. And you graduated in 1960. - Very good! (laughs) That makes me old. One, two, okay (laughs). - So when and why did you transition from illustration to, or from graphic design to illustration? - Well, there's a certain irony that I'm here at the AIGA Graphic Design Conference, because I, I got to Pratt, they gave me a list of majors.
I came from a farm. (laughs) I mean, we had one high school with one art class, and the art class was full of slow people. Alright, so all of 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 I mean, these were people who were never going to go to college. These were people who, well, you know, give them a trade. Does that make--? So, I get to Pratt, and suddenly I'm looking at, okay you want to be a fine artist.
you want to be a photographer, you want to be a film maker, you want to be an architect, you want to be whatever, and I remembered my art teacher, cause I worked on our yearbook, said to me, "This is graphic design." Okay, 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 grade 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. Does that make--? 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 want to go to Detroit. "I'm sorry I wasted your time." And the minute I did that, it was a lesson I'd keep learning, right? 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, "then 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 makes sense? (laughs) And the tech center is this amazing place where all the creative activity at 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. (laughs) They were this big. At the bottom it said, "Happy Birthday, Frank," "Happy Birthday, Tom." And my boss said, "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. So that means I began to think, "I wanna be alone. I don't want to be with this group." It wasn't that group. I don't want to be in a group. I don't want to come up with group concepts. I'm not happy. So at 5 o'clock I would run away to the bar, right, and I thought, "You're going to be a drunk in a couple of years.
"These people around you are going to get "much better and much happier, "and you're going to 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, does that make sense? And spent a year there and got drafted, and when I got out of the Army I thought, "Okay, now what?" I mean, I could draw a little, but not really.
We had studied layouts and all that kind of 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 ten pictures and then go see art directors." And at that time, this was '62, '63, it was amazing. You could see everybody. So I called Henry Wolf and I said, "I'm a freelance illustrator. "Come on in tomorrow." I called Richard Gangel at Sports Illustrated, they were amazing.
And they were all amazingly helpful. I mean, Gangel 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 going to do. "I'm going to send you to basketball, hockey games, "whatever, you're going to make pictures for me, "we're never going to print them, right? "But I'm going to pay you for it. " So I spent over a year going to hockey games.
It was great! I had passes into the locker rooms. I talked to Walt Frazier and so, I, in the three years never made more than $3000, 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. Does that makes sense? People who were doing that kind of simplified, they weren't cartoons, but they were quote humurous illustruations.
And I thought, "Well I can do that. "I don't have to really draw to do that." So, I did that, and 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." (laughs) At 28, I think, "Okay, now I know why I have to learn how to draw." 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 going to draw? I thought it didn't work when I made quotes of 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." (laughs) I'd go home and do some, alright.
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 dogs. Anyway, so I made a list when I was 28. I said, "Why don't you make a list of things "you really know about." 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 I wrote, "I have never drawn a cow." I've drawn a lot of buffalos, hyenas, whatever, 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. 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.
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. I said to him, "Bruce, "you're still taping a gun to the middle of your back?" I mean, here we are at the boat yard. It's just you and me (laughs) 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." (laughs) And I thought, "Right on." So guns came up.
And then fourth one was psychic phenomenon, Muddy and all that stuff. And I thought, "pick one and do some drawings." So I picked guns. I thought I'll do three of four drawings. A year later, I had 50 drawings. Never occured to me it was a portfolio. In the series of drawings. And the irony of all it was that I printed a little book, because I had seen art directors I sent it to them.
Not thinking it was a portfolio. Then I ran into Tony Unger who said, "There's only one art director in New York worth seeing "and it's JC Suarez at the Op-ed page." This is late '60s of the New York Times. "Go see him." So I went there, right, 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 commenting, he brushed them off, closed the portfolio and waved goodbye to me. So now I want to kill him. As I get to the elevator I think, "You should have killed him, you should have smacked him, you should have--" (grumbles) Next morning, the phone rings, it's JC Suarez.
And he said, "You know I got this article on Uganda. "You want to 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, does that make sense? It is, that if you can use yourself as content, and make pictures about things you actually know about, they're probably going to be better pictures. Cause they're meaningful, or at least to me they were meaningful. And that went on, I became the gun guy.
Which was okay because I put myself there. Does that make sense? (laughs) And people would call me say, "You're going to love this one, 15 people just got shot at McDonald's." I lived in that world for a long time until it got really dark. I got death threats and a lot of other stuff. 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 a 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, "You know 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 do not make the decision to print this article. "I do not make the decision that it is factual. "I get it at face value and I do a drawing." I said, "If there's somebody you should be beating up, it is the editor." And at that time the editor was Charlotte Curties, of the Op-ed page.
I said, so, and I'm trying to calm him down, thinking he's not going to 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--" (grumbles) And he walked away.
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're going to get tagged as religious painter. Because that's the only place people have seen auras in paintings.
It's true. Christ? Aura. Buddha? Aura. Does that make sense? So, I finally eased into it with monkeys. And I thought, "They'll never know." It's a sacred monkey, so I put an aura on him. Did a bunch of monkeys, and ended up, I thought, well if I'm doing monkeys carrying knowledge for Asia. I should do the white buffalo for the Native Americans, and I should do cats for the Middle East.
So, I got into that whole series. Then, I started putting them with people. And then, the worked 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, "Yeah I'd like you to--" I mean, I just did the cover and some stuff for Silence of the Lambs, a new re-edition. The publisher of 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." Then he said, "does it bother you that this is going "to be work that doesn't look like "your work at the moment." And I said, "No, I remember... (laughs) "there's a part of me that's still with guns "and all that stuff." Occasionally it becomes that, but for the most part, the shift came with the subject matter.