Pioneering the MFA program Illustration as Visual Essay at the School of Visual Arts in the 80s, Arisman saw a need to shift the focus of artists from style to content. Seeing the value of representing artists through the work they find meaningful, a reflection of their true interests and talents, he transformed the meaning of a portfolio. Marshall has an ongoing interest in seeing the real artist come through in the art, including his own.
- 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 Master's programs on illustration. So what was happening at that time that made you want to do that? - Well, I was chair of the undergrad program at Visual Arts from '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 style. You have to a, you can't go out without a style. No one had the time to put content with a 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.
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 lifts from Magritte, which made no sense at all once you separated it from the text. They were pictures that made no sense.
And in drawing it had taken a back seat. So the problem, illustrators, there are exceptions but for the most part illustrators never supplied content. The writer did that. The 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 there are not many. So as illustration field began to change 10 years ago, editorial work started to lessen, things were opening up on the Internet. People were finding outlets they hadn't, 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 called the program "Visual Journalism" which it turned out was a bad title. I mean it was, we got people (laughs), we got people applying who wanted to be court artists. And it was like, I don't, no, 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. So it's been fun. It's been very satisfying. I've heard a lot of funny stories. - Well, 31 years is a long time. - Yes, it is.
- 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.
Does that make sense? So that was a, today the portfolio's are, it's funny, we don't have a class in the program called Portfolio for a good reason. That once you ask people to make a portfolio, you kill them. Let's (mumble). You throw them into their brains, does that make sense? Which is like "Oh my god, I don't know. "They'll like them. "Oh, they won't like them. "No, they'll like that one. "Oh, they'll love that." I mean they'd get lost, so in the first year of the program we spent 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 day, whatever, writing, 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, does that make sense? 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.
I mean Yuko Shimizu, one of our graduates, started doing this really interesting series of women knitting with pubic hair. I mean (laughs) and it would not have been, everybody would've killed it as portfolio before. Does that make sense? I mean she got work the day she went out. It wasn't like we want to 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 and here's a job. - Do you feel like there 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 want to do, you're also teaching one class somewhere in a college.
That's the way this is going. Does that make sense? So their life is much more a 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 pract--? 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. So we got a 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 want to get back to my hand.
I want to get back to drawing something. I want to 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. It 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 if you could take the money it's too expensive, the 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 a production. I mean, you clean up, you overlay, you color, you fix, you do stuff. But my grandmother always said which I found it an interesting question. At one point, she said to me, "Do you actually believe "that the energy you put into your work stays there?" And I thought what? She said, "You believe that?" And I thought wow.
I never thought about that. And she said... It was funny. 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. "It's nice to know that the energy "I put into that painting at age 13 is still there." And so I think drawing's have that.
Does that make sense? I think that drawing... It's funny, I just did a workshop at the Rubin Museum. It was very weird. The woman said, "Would you do a workshop?" And I said on what? And they said, "Will you draw with a comb?" - A what? - 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 is going to sign up (laughs)? Totally esoteric, idiosyncratic. And they said oh, 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 going to try to control it. It splatters. It'll fill, it'll do stuff, it'll. 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. You're not going to think so because at the end of it, you not me, is going to, you're not going to believe me when I come around and say that's really a good drawing. You're going to think that I'm trying to be nice to you because you're going to walk away, looking at it, thinking, "Oh that's terrible, I can't draw. "It's not realistic." Whatever.
It's not about realism. This is about something else, right? And some of the strongest drawings were done by people who, I don't know. Did George Grosz draw well? It's a question. He wanted to be a famous American illustrator. He was like, he wanted to be in Redbook and was like... So yeah. I believe that it's in probably because it's not a finished, 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 stretched canvas. - You're more relaxed. - Yeah, you're relaxed. And 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. 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 (laughs) because it's not accurate. It's not, well, it doesn't look. - 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 art (mumble). Great line drawer. And she was a little nuts. She was five 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 join the rotary club." (laughs) And I said I haven't yet. She said, "I got a deal for you, kid. "You have lunch with me at La Grenouille "and it's a free lunch.
"I'm doing a book where I have to do drawings "at 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 to La Grenouille. I'm in a suit. I've 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. Stars and shit all over on me.
And she's drinking obviously heavily. So I approach her thinking this is going to be bad news. I mean it's been 20 years. She's drunk. She can't draw anymore. So I go over to her and "Dora, how you doing." Whatever, whatever. We sit down. I said do you want to order some food? "No, you eat. "I'll 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 (laughs). And at one point Dora brought out a pad and she had a Pentel, which was interesting. 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 John. "Isn't that--" And then Jacque's behind her or whatever. And Dora said, "In a couple of minutes, "the owner of this joint's going to 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.
"You know what? "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, "Really? Ah, ah." 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, in which 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." What? True. It is true. - That's a great story. - It's true. As good at Dora is at doing this. Not so good if you're as bad as me as me doing it.
- But I think even naive drawings are magical. - Yeah. - I mean children's drawings - No, absolutely. are absolutely magical. - Yeah and I don't, you know drawing for all of us wasn't art. It was a way to talk about our feelings, our fears, our hopes, whatever. Totally unpretentious, right? Tough to recapture that because our brains get in the way and we judge things. Then it's like whatever and watever and all of a sudden there's this layer on top of it.
It takes the energy out. - Yeah and today with the digital age, so many people are going straight to the computer and skipping that stage. - Oh absolutely. It's funny we get over a 150 applicants for the graduate program. And we only take 20. It sounds horrendous, but out of 150 applicants a 100 of them are immediate no's And they're because they're all people who have no basics.
They can't draw in any form. 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 got to 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 litlte? - Yeah. I think most illustrators suffer from isolation. I know they do. People leave undergrad, you lose community. People scatter, home, whatever, your friends, or somewhere else. Nobody to talk to. You send out promos hoping art directors will, they don't.
Does that make sense? You set up a website. No response. I mean a little, but no real work, whatever. And your room keeps getting smaller. You're surrounded by people who love you, but cannot talk about art with you. And so community becomes extremely important. The sense of, well, a couple of things here. One is it's limited in a 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 (mumble), we don't argue about it. It's like we don't take those people. You're a figurative artist. You want 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, 7 days a week. There's a kitchen, bathrooms, and whatever. People live there and that was the idea.
The idea was having them eat together, play cards together, and tell each other stories. And they're coming from everywhere. We have an Iranian student. Somebody from Kuwait. Somebody from Israel, Norway. It gets to be interesting when these people start telling stories. - I do have one last question. - Okay. And it is: You carry a quote in your wallet by Cézanne and it is "One minute in the life of the world is going by painted as it is." So what does this mean to you and your work? - What it means to me is the necessity to simply look.
Does that make sense? I get so caught up in my head that I tend not to see anything. So the quote focuses me for a moment to simply look at what's in front of me without judging it. That's not a good orange or a bad orange. It's an orange. Well, looking at something without your brain interfering is hard. 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 and just look. And it's surprisingly difficult to do. It doesn't last long. Last story and we'll stop this.
I'm out in front of the School of Visual Arts and monks come to me. Interesting thing about monks, all 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? It must come from meditation. They're all doing something that is doing that to their energy.
Anyways, a monk comes up to me and he has a gold card with Buddha embossed on it. And he says, "Donation." Okay, I gave him a dollar. He put it back to 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. I said (laughs) you want a donation. I gave you a donation and 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 said, "You artist? "You in art school here?" I said yes. He said, "Draw 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 (laughs). That's the best advice I've had all day (laughs).
So maybe that's the moral, right? Get it out of your head and on a piece of paper. It'll make you happier.