By not becoming a ‘fine artist.’ Here’s what happened: it was 1965, I was 22 years-old, and judges had awarded me first place in a competition in my native state of Nebraska. I needed the money to pay the tuition for my last semester at college. But others (including the governor) decided my painting was pornographic. I finished school, bought a car, and got out of the Midwest as fast as I could. I moved to San Francisco, got an apartment a half-block off Haight, and became a paper salesman. I wasn’t going to mess with art anymore — way too dangerous. Instead I lit a lot of reefers and tried to block out the inane rock-and-roll coming from up the corner. (I hated hippie music; I was more into classical and serious electronic stuff like Stockhausen.)
But 8 years later I’d had a son and I didn’t want him to grow up with an unhappy, stoned salesman for a father; so I quit my job, quit smoking grass, and snuck back into something related to art: graphic design. Then, when I hit 35, I went into illustration.
How did you get started in the illustration field?
I spent years stippling newspaper coupon ads, which would have seemed like hell to anyone else, but compared to being a paper salesman, it was heaven. Still, it was never my taste. I referred to stippling as Presbyterian Purgatorio. On the day I hit forty, my divorce papers arrived; I found myself a single father, in debt, and depressed. To bring myself up, I decided to print a self-promo with an illustration I actually liked: a pencil drawing of Lotte Lenya. It turned my life around. Not that pencil drawings became my style, but because people soon realized I could do something other than stipple. So, basically, I never did an illustration I liked until I was past forty! For the next few years I did just about anything and everything, trying out whatever people asked for. Then one weekend, VÃ©ronique Vienne needed a rush magazine cover; we only had about three hours so I did a quick pencil rough, copied the lines in ink, added a few swashes of color and turned it in. That became my style for years to come: inked line with flat color shapes. Minimal stuff, really. The opposite of stippling. In the past few years I’ve gotten rid of the pen and picked up the brush, so my line is now done with that. Still, flat and minimal is what most of my illustration work is about. A few years ago I started actively trying to get work that involved calligraphy — using the term loosely — and now many of my jobs include that. I love working with words, as words.
What is your process when working with clients? Can you run us through a typical job?
Three sketches, revise one of them, then do finish (with revises if necessary) in Photoshop.
What is your creation process (start with pencil sketches, etcâ?¦)?
First: words. I write down everything the story reminds me of. Then I make connections. Then sketches.
How do you market/promote your work?
I used to be the postcard king. But today emails seem to work better. Limited emails, that is. And getting in shows. That’s where much of my work comes from. Especially, Print’s Regional Design Annual. That’s been good for me. But word-of-mouth and repeat customers are my best source of work. I pride myself in clients Iâ??ve had for a long time; I’ve done over 70 illustrations for one of them.
Do you have a rep? Why/why not?
I have reps in France and Germany. I don’t speak a word of German; and my French rep can get me through doors I’d never be able to open on my own — like HermÃ¨s.
What was one of your favorite assignments?
Doing limited edition books for The Yolla Bolly Press: great authors (Gertrude Stein and M.F.K.Fisher), handmade paper, freedom to do what I thought right, letterpress printing, and best of all, two literate and brilliant clients, Carolyn and Jim Robertson. If Jim hadn’t died (which led to the closing of the press) I’d still be working for them. The closing of their press led me to do my own books, one-of-a-kind, hand-painted. But I’d love to find another client even half as brilliant as Jim and Carolyn.
I’ve also always enjoyed working on logos, especially those that don’t take themselves too seriously. Like Mr. Toasty, done for Columbus Bakery Cafe. Or Moose’s Restaurant in San Francisco.
And nothing made me feel better than being asked to illustrate a brochure for San Francisco’s Japanese Cultural Community Center. Like many artists, I hold Japanese aesthetics in the highest esteem.
And animals. Gotta love drawing animals.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
Not being a paper salesman, not working in an office, and working alone. Also, I like swinging a brush. Spilling ink. Getting dirty. And working weird hours.
Describe your work setting.
I’m married to illustrator Vivienne Flesher and we together work in a house on SF’s Potrero Hill. She works upstairs, I work downstairs, we meet for lunch in the kitchen. I have one room for drawing, one room for computer work, and one room for my personal work: The Dirty Projects Room. If you look at my personal work, you’ll quickly understand the aptness of that name.
Do you have side projects you work on?
About ten years ago, Vivienne and my son Matthew encouraged me to return to painting, after a 35-year hiatus. Painting has again become a huge joy for me, and I’ve begun to show: galleries in Nashville, Shanghai, San Francisco. All the shows have been offered me, unrequested; I’ve never gotten one I asked for. And surprisingly, the work sells! Most of the work is on paper –hand-painted books and large works for the wall — and most of it contains words, stenciled or cut from paper. Currently (February 2008) I have a show at Meridian Gallery in San Francisco. In March the show moves to UC Berkeleyâ??s Townsend Center where it will hang thru the end of May.
How do you maintain balance in your life between work and play?
I don’t. Work, play; play, work: it’s all the same. All joy, all pain, all the time.
Do you ever have creative slumps? What do you do then?
Not slumps so much as tumbles, pratfalls, deaths and drownings. At first I mostly complain, kvetch, and cry. Then I decide to meditate and after about three-hundred hours, I wake up and realize I’m swimming again. I never understand any of it. Except this: when I’ve given up meditation, I always go into the pit. Not that I’m a good meditator. But some form of meditation (and I’ve tried many) seems, for me, necessary.
What do you do for fun/when you’re not working?
In the past few years we’ve traveled: to Costa Rica, to the jungles of the Orinoco Delta in Venezuela, to central Mali to stay with the Dogon tribe, and of course, to Paris. This spring we’ll go to Cappadocia and Istanbul.
What has been inspiring you lately?
The sculptures of Elie Nadelman, The Confessions of St. Augustine, the Bhagavad Gita, ArtForum… and younger illustrators â??â?? who are a marvel to me.
Any advice for others who are pursuing creative goals?