Tuesday, December 13, 2011

So I would not be a master*

With nearly every illustration — from doodle to finished piece for pay — I can remember exactly where I was, what I saw, heard, felt during its creation.

Something about the moment infuses the art, or absorbs into the myelin around my illustrating nerves, or something.

I sat on the deck outside my in-laws' trailer in southern Oregon when I drew this, almost entirely with a ballpoint pen. I'm sure you can appreciate how tedious it is to create solid masses with ballpoint pen, but I was far away from my usual drawing tools, and made lemonade out of lemons to fashion the raw naive look I wanted.

Daylight died by the time I had finished with all the links in the chains that comprise this ghoul's hair, making a dense bed on which to lay the type.

Once home from the brief trip to visit my wife's folks, I brought the image into my computer and added flourishes and color digitally.

The first go-round aimed at tightly
cropped,realistic images of the
conflicting dynamics that
enable slavery.
Victims are sought by many
interests for many reasons.
It was the culmination of a long and challenging give-and-take with editors and designers at the UC Davis Magazine to illustrate a story on the crisis of modern slavery.

The article's point: Slavery continues and grows largely because slavers can profit richly from it — and because often families conclude no other economic choice but to sell off their members.

The images went through a number of iterations, which I welcomed because two of those directing the art, Jan Conroy and Laurie Lewis, were my instructors for a graphic design program at University Extension through UC Davis (that'd be Career 2.1), and they sped me along with considered insights and fun assignments.

The challenge for this assignment was to portray that gut-punching dichotomy of economic benefit to slavers and families/communities. At first I tried more literal interpretations, thinking sepia ink wash and pen to show realistic bodies being tormented, literally pushed and pulled to symbolize the complex factors that enable slavery (above).

Then I sought more stylized visual metaphors, like this (right) and these (below):

I twisted the tools and trademarks of slavery into something more twisted, depicting slaves in new ways as commodities, as targets.

Here are some more:

Punishment collars became targets, slaves forged their own chains, took all the risk for their own doomed journeys, pulled along and pulled along by false hope that rescue would come.

Along the way, they lost themselves and became the product of work, someone's profit.

The limpid eyes in this sketch held inspiration for drawings to come …
After a lengthy discussion (lengthy for me and my art, anyway; I often get a laundry list of changes, but in this case the editors were discussing with me the philosophical reasons for wanting changes), the editors said, essentially, "Twist harder."

The editors wanted me to strip down the issue to a visceral level, to the base message of profit for oppression.

A big fan of illustrator (now sculptor) David Suter, I found this story fertile for visual puns; not funny ha ha!, but creating a primary message that encrypts a second, truer message, of which Suter was a master.

The slaves-for-cash sketch above got remade (in a crudely imperfect fashion) into a ghoulish face (left), for example.

Then a throwaway sketch, of people literally stepping over faceless others, opened up new possibilities. What if I could turn the negative spaces into "hidden" statements?

I see dead people in the negative spaces …
Scraping away as much as I could, until the figures were barely recognized as human (big, scrawled circles with big empty, strangely drawn eyes), I turned the figures into kinds of puzzle pieces I could turn and stretch to create negative spaces among them. This (below) …

… became this:

Slaves go one way, money the other, all become upside-down death …

and the cover art, above.

In the following issue, the magazine ran this letter:
I truly enjoy receiving my UC Davis Magazine. However, your recent publication depicted a truly unpleasant and downright awful illustration on its cover. Aside from the fact that the artistic ability is grade school quality, I question whether the article itself is a proper subject to feature in a magazine that has been to date generally uplifting.
Grove Bolles ’81
Lehi, Utah
Oh well. At least Mr. Bolles gave a thought to my illustration, and that thought produced enough energy to become a letter (I hope a snail mail letter, with an affixed stamp) to share his consideration with others. More consideration, I suppose, than much of my work gets. Or merits.

* As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy. — Abraham Lincoln

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