Thursday, July 31, 2008

New Visual Journalists in the Field


In his 1973 essay, Tom Wolfe declared that novelists-turned-journalists like Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Gay Talese; represented New Journalism. It was their reportage he said, that removed all the "screens" between literature and its audience and put "the writer one step closer to the absolute involvement of the reader.” Wolfe's essay asserts that the techniques of these “New Journalists” are the only truly effective means of capturing the "reality" of particular cultural phenomena.

Is there an illustration version of investigative or new journalism? Can we allow an artist a bit of honesty within the current media deluge? Does this portend a new trend in illustration?


I say yes to all. I can name two illustrators who do just that. They are Nathan Fox and Steve Mumford. They are the New Visual Journalists. Back in the 19th century, the London Illustrated News used to dispatch ‘reporter artists’ to the war fronts like the Boer War and natural disasters around the world. Before the use of photography in newspapers and magazines, these artists drew pictures and wrote narratives about these newsworthy events. These artists were field-tested.


After graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1997, Nathan Fox headed to New York and The School of Visual Arts Illustration As Visual Essay Graduate Program. This taught him the value of being engaged and being contemporary. Fox has a masterful, hip energy to his work. He is the person the New York Times Magazine calls to illustrate articles on terrorism, the Iraq war and new battlefield technologies. At his recent show at the Receiver Gallery in San Francisco, he told me he “wants to put as much truth in his drawings that he can, right down to researching the correct details of an AK47.” Fox has the uncanny ability to place himself in the thick of battle without ever leaving his Milwaukee studio.


On the other hand, Steve Mumford is a true war artist. Not since Winslow Homer’s Civil War drawings for Harper’s Magazine has an artist witnessed and depicted the mess of soldiering and civilian life. His new book, Baghdad Journal shows us sketches, writings and paintings that are dramatic, honest and display day-to-day life in war torn Iraq not typically seen in the convention press. On his own dime and a press pass from, he toured Iraq four times in four-month stretches. His sketchbook was his passport. Never did he feel pressured to follow the precept: If it bleeds, it leads. At a book signing at Cody’s in Berkeley, Mumford admitted to me that he, like everyone else, has a bias. “A photograph shows everything in an instant. In a drawing, I can edit. It’s still not the truth, but it’s my subjective reality.” Mumford doesn’t take sides. In his first few tours, he was able to travel throughout Iraq, without escort, to draw combatants and everyday people freely and without malice.

There has been years of unrelenting war. Thankfully, New Visual Journalists like Fox and Mumford provide us with honest, participatory and beautiful depictions of bad news and an insight into the culture.

Fox Images: Copyright © 2005 Nathan Fox

Mumford Images: Copyright © 2005 The Artnet Worldwide Corporation and Steve Mumford

Process at Heart

The following is an account of my experience creating a heart sculpture for the Hearts-in-San Francisco project.

My participation began in April 2004 when I applied and was accepted to paint one of the 130 500-lb. five-foot tall heart sculptures that would be installed in San Francisco. This was an art and funding project similar to those found in other cities like the Cows of Chicago, the Moose of Toronto, and Lighthouses of Portland. The Hearts of San Francisco would be on view then auctioned live or on-line with proceeds going to the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation primarily to fund their Trauma Center. The heart seemed synonymous with San Francisco and the Tony Bennett song but the project began as the brainchild of designer Michael Osborne who uses hearts in much of his design work.

It was a monumental undertaking. The Hearts-in-SF non-profit corporation was set up. Finances and facilities for the artists were organized. A painting area was set up at the end of Pier 27. I committed five Sundays to the execution, in full view of the Bay Bridge.

It was important that I get my design right. It would be seen and photographed by thousands. A photo book was planned. With coworker Lance Jackson, photographs of our hearts would be featured in the SF Chronicle Datebook section in a column called Heart Monitor. The sculptures would be out in the rain, sun and wind. Each artist would receive a $1000 honorarium. Some hearts would have a sponsor. Someone would eventually own it, maybe even place it in his or her front yard. The pressure was on.

I wanted mine to be unique and provocative. My concept was to create a utilitarian object like a Greek vase. I liked how figures are designed into a frieze and wrapped around the three dimensional form. Greek vases tell us about Greek society circa 200 BC. I wanted the content of my design to include a contemporary Market street scene. The imagery on my heart references the Muni bus system, the Green (street-cleaning) Machine, shopping for T-shirts, street musicians, road repair and a clash of cultures. I wanted to believe that people would learn something about San Francisco circa 2004 when they dig up my heart sometime in 3004. I created a six-inch high maquette and used it as a guide. I prepped the fiberglass surface and painted it with several layers of gesso. I scaled the drawing up on a grid. I penciled and painted the figures and added some Greek design motifs. Every day as a reward, I helped myself to a delicious lunch of scallops in a light cream sauce at the Fog City Diner across the street from the pier.

At the end of the five weeks, I finished painting and sealing (in polyurethane) my heart sculpture. I actually kissed it good bye in an interview on live remote television for peppy morning reporter Liam Maychem from KRON-TV. After that it was up to the Hearts-in-SF committee to choose a location for placement. I thought the terra cotta color of the vase/heart would remind people of the color of the Golden Gate Bridge, which seemed like an ideal location, but they decided to locate it on Van Ness Ave. in front of the War Memorial Opera House. It would get a great opera intermission crowd … a money spot, perhaps. Nancy Bechtel, one of the organizers, placed a plaque on it with a sponsor's name, Dede Wilsey. She is a well-known patron of the local fine arts museums. I liked that the sponsor was an individual and not a corporation. There it stood for four months. At Theatro Zinzani on the Embarcadero, organizers threw an exciting reception for all patrons and artists to get together. Money and art are necessary partners.

Displaying public art in San Francisco has always been a controversial process. All public art must be granted and approved by the San Francisco Arts Commission, which trys to be sensitive to various political, corporate and community considerations. Somehow the Hearts-in-SF project would escape this committee, given its temporary nature.

Ultimately these hearts scattered around enriched the city. I felt proud to be part of it. The whole process for me was a rewarding one. It allowed me to work in a public sphere with creative control, albeit with some physical and material constraints. I was excited to work at a large scale. I received many responses from people, all positive but for the spit and pigeon crap I would occasionally have to clean off. I enjoyed meeting many of my fellow "heartists". On November 11, 2004, the project was complete when the last few chosen hearts were auctioned off at SBC Park. On November 7, my heart sculpture sold in an eBay on-line auction to a single bidder for $10,000. After the organization pays the bills for this enterprise, all donations are distributed to the hospital. The synergy worked. Artists, facilitators, private and corporate donors worked together for the public good. For once it worked.

A Life of Persuading

After 30 years as a freelancer, you'd think I would know better how to convince an art director to hire me. Why would I want to send yet another promo postcard or purchase another directory page, when I know it doesn't do any more than add to the clutter? What new methods of promotion can I adapt? I'm making a New Year's resolution to find ways to promote myself more effectively and intelligently. Inspiration came in the 90-minute PBS documentary I watched recently called the New Persuaders.

In it, marketing and advertising experts (I use this word loosely) describe the new ways that corporations use to study and sell to their products to consumers. They studied the "idea of choice" and what motivates people. Apparently their answer is rooted in emotion.

What these savvy ad men say is to try the opposite of broadcasting. We should develop a strategy of narrowcasting. This direct approach seems to makes sense. We only need a couple of dozen choice clients who love us and want to pay us, in order to have a career. We just have to find them and give them what they want.

Corporations pay millions of dollars to have these marketers assess their products and come up with strategies to seek and sell them to the right consumer. I'm no Fortune 500 company, but the process is no less significant. I too have to take an inventory of what I have, what I like to do and what I can offer. I know I deliver on time, on budget and on message. I'm clear about my brand. But what am I missing? The New Persuaders might say my marketing lacks an informed and established emotional connection.

Read some of the commentary from the program available on It tells us they studied cults such as the Moonies and Harley owners. Commonality was found in how the cultist's object of desire made them feel. Car owners in particular were studied. They found that Hummer owners want to dominate. Saturn owners felt they were part of a family. Although it may not have been obvious to them it's clear to me. I just need a few Bill Russell illustration fanatics. What are the unconscious desires of editors and art directors? I hesitate to guess. Short of setting up a focus group, I ponder the thought of having to pick their brains.

So here's my pledge. I am putting together a small list of trusted clients for a small email survey. I intend to question them about what really gets their heart pumping? Which object of desire would they want to covet? Given an unlimited editorial budget, what kind of art or artist would they want to commission? Then I'd have to figure out if I have what they want. If I have it, I'd sell it to them over and over again like Chicken McNuggets. I'll report back in this column in six months.

I'd like to hear from some of you as well, my fellow graphic artists, on what new strategies for promotion you are pondering. Does my approach have any value and integrity to you? I imagine N.C. Wyeth may be turning over in his grave right now at the mere thought of this inverted approach to art making and art selling. We're not in a golden age anymore where great art finds great fortune naturally. Right now I'm willing to try a more pragmatic form of persuasion.

Rockwell Kent : The Art of Empathy

Rockwell Kent was a proud man to the point of hubris. He also was cad and probably a communist, yet he had a singular vision: one of empowerment for the common man. He felt the transcendent and the humane in all people. Rockwell Kent-The Art of the Bookplate by Don Roberts ©2003, Fair Oaks Press/San Francisco, traces the life and career of this famous artist. The author catalogues and uncovers the stories behind the bookplates illustrated by Kent, and how each bookplate merged the owner's claim to the book with the owner's own personality and aspirations. Kent explains, "The theft of a book is more nearly homicide than larceny. Books are not things; they're people multiplied. The possession of a book is both the promise of a richer life and, in degree, the sign of its fulfillment."

Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) is best known for his illustrations for Moby Dick and his travels as artist-adventurer to Alaska, Greenland and Tierra del Fuego, where he painted, wrote and illustrated stories of the rogues he met and vistas he spied. His books, Voyaging and N by E were bestsellers. Ross' book chronicles the personal and creative vagaries of the artist's life in all its joy and tragedy. Kent ran through wives and houses, but the 160 bookplates he created were his most consistent art making. It was an art that kept him connected to people and not gallivanting about. Over time, his fame and desire for his art diminished. In 1929, he earned $500 for a bookplate commission. By 1965, he was lucky to receive $25. Many graphic artists may relate to the stories of Kent's creative process, the haggling over prices with clients, the diminishing prices, image theft and the sacrificing of life for art. We can feel the vitality and the contemporary in these stories In fact; nothing is really new anymore.

Especially poignant are Kent's endeavors to know deeply who the person is and put that in the bookplate. Often that person's psychology is symbolized in the image of a human figure against a dramatic and light-infused landscape. He empathized with the their life and passion for books. It's how I feel about the weekly Bay Folk drawings I did for the San Francisco Chronicle. When you draw someone and tell their story, it's a blessing you bestow on them.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

One of my sketchbook profiles

Drawing of Susan Oak,
cabbie and knitter

One of my scratchboard illustrations

The Money Tree

One of my paintings

Palm Desert
40" by 40"
mixed media collage on masonite

Visit Often

This is my first official blog entry. I have a lot to talk about and a lot of pictures to show you. I will post often so keep coming back. Comments always appreciated.