Sunday, February 24, 2013

Drawing the Smell of Creamed Rice

Having survived my extended crunch period, I'm settling in to do some writing. Calmer, more sustained writing than happens on a blog, but devoted to the kind of subjects that come in for consideration here at Graphic Tales.

I'm also meaning to catch up in this space, too.

Last December, I had a nice exchange with my blog-pal Klaus von Mirbach, about whom I've written before. He wrote: Some weeks ago I started some new drawings, drawings in a book... drawing outside, waiting for the bus, in the schoolyard waiting for my little daughter, hiking through the town, also drawing in our family house, so a kind of reportage drawing. There is no order behind these drawings, may be it is a kind of self therapy for me, anyway I can not give it up. (Editorial note: I have cleaned up punctuation and spelling for clarity's sake.)

The drawings were charming. I wrote back: "I am fondest of the drawings which provide a combination of environmental information and objects and/or people. What seem to be drawings in a coffee shop from December 7, a lovely little drawing of a room with two chairs, a window and a doll in a wagon from December 10 (what does the poster caption say in the upper right corner?), drawing number 3 from December 11, and, differently, the charming drawing of the fire truck from December 7. That room with the wagon and the chairs is so lovely!"

I noticed yesterday that the latter drawing (shown directly above), which I remembered very clearly, was missing from the blog. I wrote to Klaus and he kindly reposted it.

A striking thing: these drawings are only getting stronger. Now the image of the room with the doll and poster seems less forceful, as the project gathers momentum and graphic presence. (I recently noticed the same thing about the drawings I began making in 2007-08, when my turn to reportage was new. I was excited about them at the time, and now many of them seem weak.)

Other interiors.

A magical crowd of things.

A drypoint, hand printed.

But back to the drawing with the doll and wagon and poster (detail below).

Klaus answered my question about the caption thusly:

The poster caption says, I dont know if I can explain that in English. There is a Zen Buddhist Koan... 

Question: What is the core of the true doctrine, the true teaching? 
Answer: The smell of creamed rice. 

"Doctrine" is in German "lehre" and drawing this postcard I made a mistake and wrote instead of "lehre," "leere." But "leere" means "emptiness, blankness.” I had to laugh, the core is emptiness, but that’s also a meaning of the Buddhist teaching, that everything is empty. 

How wonderful is that?

More: These drawings are a trial to tell something about my life. I am still trying and searching in this direction.The drawings were all made in 15- 20 minutes. In this time the scene has changed completely. I start to draw a person, before I finish she has gone, then another person comes on the scene and gets in the drawing. And so on. The drawing is no photo, it is made in time; but at least for me it is exactly what happened. 

Really, I just want to get out of the way and show these drawings.

Pancake ingredients.

Pancake-making supplies, plus more ingredients.


In our December correspondence I wrote the following, which for me remains the headline of this work: You have remembered what makes childhood beautiful, but you have integrated knowledge into your point of view. Not easy; a gift of temperament! 

Thank you, Klaus. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Book Signing Tonight in New York

If you're in New York tonight and you're free between 6:00 and 8:00, consider coming by the School of the Visual Arts where I'm going to be signing copies of Spartan Holiday Nos. 1 and 2.

The details are here.

Note that an RSVP is required, as security concerns require the door guard to have names of those attending. Email us at

Image: Spartan Holiday No.2, back cover. The handlettered text quotes the first two lines of a Du Shenyan poem. Du was a Tang dynasty poet (born 646 CE).


Only to wanderers can come 
Ever new the shock of beauty, 
Of white cloud and red cloud dawning from the sea, 
Of spring in the wild-plum and river-willow.... 
I watch a yellow oriole dart in the warm air, 
And a green water- plant reflected by the sun. 
Suddenly an old song fills 
My heart with home, my eyes with tears.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Spartan Samples

I will be picking up trimmed and bound copies of Spartan Holiday No. 2 tomorrow or Monday. (The ordering machinery will be up soon.) Did the press check on Tuesday, with my collaborator, graphic designer Scott Gericke. We had fun getting this one over the finish line, if it turned out to be a little grueling. There's much more content in this issue–more writing, more ideas. The first issue had to introduce the narrator, launch the form, and do some reportage work from Shanghai. I engaged the subject of the built environment–the crazy spaceship office tower finials–and the omnipresence of language in it.

This time I turned to my interactions with people, including an awkward interlude at Fudan University. Dialogues pepper the text.

Reflections on governance and society.

And ruminations on the rate of change.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Spartan No.2 Imminent; Spartan No.1 Wins Prizes!

I'm very excited to report that Spartan Holiday No. 2, "The Five Pagodas," will be coming out in the next 10 days. We're planning a book signing at SVA in New York City on February 13th; more to come on that. The second issue completes the story of my trip to Shanghai. If the first issue dealt with the physical and textual environment, the second engages with people. There are interesting dialogues with Chinese that underscore the sense of brewing, unpredictable change in that country.

I've been slow in announcing that spreads from Spartan Holiday No. 1, "Shanghai Pictorial," were honored with the Silver and the Bronze Awards in the graphic novel category at Illustration West 51, the annual show organized by the Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles. The final spread of the book won the Silver. (Or tied for it, with Randy Duburke. Happy to share!) There's a show at Gallery Nucleus in L.A. coming up.

And the autobiographical riff on my kid's car drawing club and memories of Playboys at Alan Reichel's  house won the bronze, outright. (Shades of my last post. In order to find the right image, which surely was a combination of memory and invented "recognition," I went on eBay and bought all twelve issues of Playboy published in 1970. Miss April nailed it. Thirty bucks for the set. Not bad. Think they're all headed for the MGHL. At some point.)

More soon, about No. 2 and the signing event in New York. An event in St. Louis to follow.

Cheap Photography, Classy Illustration?

At the very tail end of a grueling stretch. For the last 8 weeks or so, I've been pressing to get a variety of things out the door. In the next 10 days, I hope to post about some of that. Tonight, winding down at the end of a long week, a few choice nuggets from the talk I gave Thursday, on the relationship between photography and illustration in mid-20th century men's magazines. I gave the talk in connection with Skye Lacerte's terrific show at Olin Library's Special Collections, Thrill-Seekers, on men's magazines. Skye is curator of the Modern Graphic History Library at Washington University. Her show (which I think is coming down now) covered a great deal more range than my talk.

A minefield of a subject, but an interesting one, too. I scrambled, a little, to put the thing together–there was so much fabulous material at the MGHL, plus a few things from my collection. I think I got some interesting material strung together in a decent order, but I would like another shot at presenting it, having had a little time to let it cure.

In the era of Adobe Photoshop, we have become used to the manipulation of photographic images to create synthetic sexualized fictions. The prototypical CGI babe was Lara Croft, of the game Tomb Raider, already sort of a relic, though I gather a reboot is in the works. A ridiculous figure.  

But in the contest between photography and illustration in the production of pinups and mild erotica, the former struggled with a prosaic flatness.

For example: the metal plant stand, the pot, the plant and the electrical outlet do not contribute to a seductive vision. (Skye pointed out the other night that her feet are dirty.) And the goofy poem about the convertible?

The best of the pin up illustrators achieved an idealized fusion of saucy, sexy and innocent. Note: there are no extraneous electrical sockets in a Gil Elvgren painting.

The "girlie" magazines that predated (then ran alongside) Playboy lack sophistication, to understate the case.

Here, the table of contents for the September 1958 issue of Gala with its counterpart on the spread, a full-page ad for stag films.

A closer look reveals a distressing window into the presumed customer base: wolves and slathering idiots.

I confess to a certain sadness looking at these things. The myth of prowess is fatally undercut by the advertisers. In addition to the salivating goobers,

the ads shill for for hair tonic, bodybuilding and promises of help in finding companionship and romance. Meet & Marry Texans??

After looking at this stuff for awhile I had a new appreciation for the fiction illustration in the women's magazines. At least men and women show up in the same picture, and they actually touch each other.

Images: photographer(s) uncredited, detail of photographic collage on the table of contents page of Gala, September 1958; photographer uncredited, "Yank Pin-up Girl K.T. Stevens," Yank; The Army Weekly, May 19, 1944; CGI illustration of Lara Croft, Tomb Raider; game developed by Core Design, published by Eidos Interactive; cover illustration Stare magazine, December 1961; photographer uncredited, Glenda Graham (with houseplant), Stare; Gil Elvgren, Pin-up Girl with Parrot, circa 1950; photographer uncredited, cover design, Gala magazine, September 1958; Gala table of contents; advertisement for stag films, HPB Enterprises, Culver City, California; various details, advertisements in Gala; Jon Whitcomb, fiction illustration, Ladies Home Journal, September 1946.