Friday, February 7, 2014


How I imagine it might have been.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

House of Cards.

One of the best ways to get the wheels turning is to revisit old stuff that I'd left unresolved. It's still unresolved but I'm done for the day.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Leaving Well Enough Alone.

Left: my chipped tooth, before; Right: a cast of the newly-crafted fang.

A friend and I have been emailing one another about teeth. Not sure how we got on the subject, but she's been trying to convince me that Americans are too obsessed with the perfect grill. Mine are a tangled mess, the result of ancient lines of screwed up mouths from Ireland and The Netherlands. It doesn't seem fair to be a citizen of the most highly developed civilization in history and have such a jumbled mouth.

Some people wear it well. The actor Tom Hardy, for example, has capitalized on a solitary bad tooth, a diamond in the rough which exudes flashes of brilliance when he cracks a smile. A rare glimpse of his snaggletooth is somehow intensely gratifying. 

When I was in eighth grade I was playing football in the neighborhood and got kicked in the teeth by another kid's heel when I grabbed his legs to tackle him. While a tiny chip on the back of my front tooth  thinned it a little in that spot, making it somewhat transparent and brittle, the shape of my tooth didn't change at all.

Over the years more kicks and misguided chomps took a toll on this poor tooth, and one dentist I knew in my twenties made a night guard for me—a rubber mold of my mouth which was supposed to protect my teeth from further damage due to nocturnal grinding. I quickly learned that dogs love night guards, since mine was licked clean and devoured by a dachshund named Helix less than 24 hours after swimming in my saliva for the first time.

The fatal blow to this tooth was exacted by my daughter Grace in the CompUSA parking lot on Route 2 in Warwick, Rhode Island when she was about six years old. I lifted her to my shoulders after parking the car and in her excitement she clipped me on the chin with both knees. It's taken some time but I have forgiven her.

My mouth clapped shut, the tooth snapped off, and that was that.

Several years later, my dentist—an elderly Rhode Islander with eczema and the mouth of a sailor in a tattoo shop, who worked out of his house and who threw every ounce of his body into assaults on my gaping mouth—suggested that he could fix the tooth with a simple crown. Eager to regain my 8th grade mouth, I consented. I had no idea what I was in for. This was exciting.

While the details are hazy, I do recall that at some point he took a mold with the aid of a woman whom I assumed (for some reason) was his sister-in-law. Calling her away from "The Price Is Right," he asked her to keep the putty in constant motion to prevent drying while he did something else. Gloveless, she grabbed the glob from his hands and played patty-cake with it, all the while chewing gum and ducking in and out of the room to check the Showcase booty. After the mold was finished he cast my upper teeth in plaster and—for some reason—gave it to me as a keepsake, which I have recently put on display in a well-lit glass case in my living room, along with two full sets of my deceased father's dentures, a wind-up Wonder Woman figurine which revolves to the tune of "Jesus Christ, Superstar" and a bunch of odd things I've collected over the years. With the extra putty, the dentist also cast my middle finger, poured plaster into the mold and presented me with "the finger"—a freestanding"fuck you" made infinitely more offensive, considering I was doing it to myself.

Hygiene aside, the most unsettling part of this adventure came after he'd whittled my tooth to little more than a diminutive fang, gave me a sample crown to check if the color matched, and handed me a mirror. Make no mistake: nothing compares to the horror I felt in seeing what was once my front tooth, honed to a bloody stump. I beheld in the mirror the visage of Gollum, smiling meekly, heart dropping to the floor with a thud. My Precious was lost forever.

Few events in life afford glaring self-awareness, and this was one of those critical junctures: a moment when I realized I had been forever altered, having caved to vanity. With any luck, the crown will stay in place until the day I die, but I truly dread the moment that my ruined, wicked, nub-of-a-tooth will be revealed to the world—alarming some dinner companion, its porcelain costume falling onto my plate, leaving me to once again lament that I should have left well enough alone.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Lost and Found.

Who can explain why it's sometimes so difficult to get started, and at other times we can't stop ourselves from creating things? This is such a mystery to me. I'm sure someone has an answer.

In between illustration jobs I try to paint. It keeps me fresh and a bit more daring, allowing me to practice freely and follow intuition with no obligation. I get so sick of painting unbridled joy.

I found a stack of paintings I started several years ago. They were a little damaged from being laid on top of one another, and they weren't resolved at all. Most were pretty bad, even though they started good. This excited me. 

I have put them in a pile on my table. I woke at 4:00am today, Paavo between my knees. I allowed him to sleep with me last night, a reward for us both. I didn't bother getting dressed, other than pulling on a sweatshirt and knit cap, and I walked in the dark to my studio, the snow lighting my way. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

VUE39 Cover

Just finished. 
Cover for Annenberg VUE39.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Book Cover.

Cover for The Lost Child: Ozark Poems, by Wesley McNair.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

More Design: Vincent Valdez Poster

A poster I designed for a Vincent Valdez lecture at RISD.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

EHP Poster Design

A poster designed for RISD's European Honors Program in Rome.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Poster designs.

I'm primarily an illustrator, but I'm frequently involved in graphic design as well. Below are two posters  in which the imagery provided rich fodder for design, so I can only take a fraction of the credit for their effectiveness. The top image is for an exhibition of work by the phenomenally talented Tom Sgouros, whose leadership of RISD's Illustration Department was matched by his contributions in the studio. The lower design is for the Illustration Department's triennial exhibition, with an illustration by alumnus Dadu Shin. Brilliant work by Dadu, done while he was a student at RISD.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Another Stonington Island.

Another iteration.
It's slightly out of focus—just didn't have what I needed to shoot it well—but you get the idea.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Stonington Islander.

This isn't translating well in the photo, unfortunately, and I can't get a good shot with the camera and lighting I have here. 

The islands off of Stonington, Maine have these abundant bouquets of trees. I wanted to make something for Lorraine, who loaned me the place for the week. 

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Woman Who Needed a Zipper.

"Over and over, Lauren would swallow potentially dangerous objects in the context of stress. She swallowed the screwdriver, the knife blade, and the ninja knife when she learned that her uncle was terminally ill. The two knife blades and four fork handles were a response to learning that her sister had hepatitis. The box of nails was after a fight with a neighbor. Each time she said she felt better after she had swallowed something and then brought herself to the emergency room for treatment."

—from Falling Into the Fire, by Christine Montross, previewed in Brown Medical Magazine

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Just what I needed.

This project has been so fulfilling. It came to me from a wonderful art director, who sensed that our needs were well matched. Not finished yet, but getting there.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Recent Sketches

Sketches for an article about a woman who swallows unfathomably injurious objects. The inventory is staggering. Her disorder is in the same family as "cutting," although its effects seem far more perilous.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Life's Turning Points, Personified.

the author, age 21

A few nights ago at our place, we were finishing a nice dinner with a friend when conversation turned to the late 1960's show, Dark Shadows. I remarked that, since I was only about five years old when the show peaked in 1967, I was far too young and apprehensive to watch anything involving vampires, let alone vampires wafting through baroque interiors, languishing in extreme closeups, awash in emotional upheaval, and plotting lustful treachery. My friend, who is 58, threw his head back and said, a little impatiently, "Come on. You're older than me." 

It's happened. I'm old. 

I just turned 51. The teenager once known for his baby face has become his eternally aged Uncle Alfred: a silver-haired casualty of male pattern baldness, with a barrel torso and a brow folded inward by years of brooding and squinting in the sun. As a runner I stay relatively fit, but my first, profanity-laced moments of the day include the "Fred Sanford" shuffle. My feet can't leave the floor due to achilles and calf stiffness. I slide along, four inches at a time, until the creaking subsides. This usually takes a couple of minutes and then I can still bound down the stairs and trot with the dogs in the woods. I'm lucky. It could be worse.

My partner is 14 years younger than me, and this mixed blessing (swear to God, I still don't know how I scored so big) contributes significantly to my enhanced awareness of the fact that, having been born in 1962, I have passed the half-century mark. Unnerving things happen after 40, insidiously nibbling away at once youthful cells whose degenerate status remain shrewdly concealed until age 50. Time accelerates alarmingly. I meet up with friends whose shared need for bifocals requires us to tip our heads back to see one another for handshakes and hugs—a quintessentially doddering posture that I never thought I'd adopt, that I assumed would be forever reserved for situation comedy gags. Delusions of youthfulness are traded in for hopeful labels like "spry." New people in your life want a lot less of your body and more of your prosperity. Friendships slip away unnoticed.

Yesterday, I was thinking about a close high school friend in Virginia who grew up in a very conservative Christian family with extremely caring and gentle parents. They were shocked and extremely hurt when, in his mid-twenties, he came out accidentally in a gay pride parade on the local news. What a difficult time that was for my friend and his family. He's been with the same partner since that time, and I have been thinking lately of asking him how his parents evolved over the ensuing 20-plus years because he seems to have retained a very positive relationship with them. I want to know what compromises were struck, if they grew truly convinced that their love for him was bigger than dogma, if their conception of God was upended. He's a brilliant storyteller, so I'm sure he'd have plenty to tell me. He lingers in memory like so many old friends who are extremely important to me, and yet I realize that the last time I saw him was four years ago for a single evening, an obligatory reunion among several of us to pay tribute to youthful friendship and affection. But at least 20 years had passed since our last face-to-face encounter and 20 more are sure to pass (unless we either drop dead or do something about it).

I was married for 22 years and during that time my ex and I were preoccupied with three kids, two careers, a house, a dog and a cat. We worked hard cultivating a loving family. Before moving to austere and inherently competitive New England, we made friends easily through our children. Those alliances remain some of the most rewarding of my life, forged in the solidarity of tottering parenthood and celebrated with the debauchery of red wine, hot dogs, and chicken nuggets. I have never found successors to those relationships. These days, since my kids are all in their 20s,  I spend most of my time alone with my three dogs, especially in the summer when I work almost exclusively from home while my students enjoy a break. My partner lives in Boston during the week and comes home on weekends, something I look forward to every Friday and mourn a little on Sunday nights. I see friends once a week for a run in the city, and we have dinner afterwards. Most days I'm happy with this. But sometimes I realize how much is slipping away—how many faces and voices I no longer know—and my heart sinks a little.

Of course we all know this, but it's worth repeating: mediated communication instruments like Facebook mislead us with the borrowed lexicon of "friendship," when in reality they're more of a barrier to genuine interaction. We don't seek actual contact with people because social media proxies seem sufficient. Sufficient that is, until you realize that decades have passed since you've seen some of the most influential, beloved people from your "timeline." Eventually you reach the age when people you knew remotely 30 years ago unexpectedly disappear one way or another. Some die, and this is shocking because you still cannot imagine death, even when you're straddling the cusp of a half-century. You imagine what it will be like when someone you once knew intimately—perhaps someone you held in your arms, or to whom you revealed some profoundly transformative epiphany—is no more; you wonder what regret you'll feel when they leave without saying goodbye. This feels worse when you know you could have done something about it. 

Rather than wallow in temporal hopelessness, it's of course more productive to realize that there's time, but it's moving fast. So, consider this an open call to old friends, to life's turning points, personified: if you're out there, let's share a meal, a weekend, a long-delayed reunion while we can. It's that, or risk a half-century of regret.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Life & Death In the Company of Animals

My empathy for animals has somehow deepened.

I've enjoyed some pretty awe-inspiring moments in the company of animals. Remind me to tell you about the time that, near delirious at the end of a 22-mile run, I happened upon a cow giving birth in a field along a coast road in western Ireland; I wasn't even sure which anatomy I was spying through my sweat-soaked eyes. The cow seemed completely nonplussed—munching grass, studying me casually while a slimy bundle blossomed from her behind.

We have three dogs and a cat. The latter is almost never to be found, unless she's sure the dogs are in bed for the night. When the coast is clear she curls in the crook of my left arm (never the right) and throws her head back to look at me, as if to say, "I'm yours." But in this house dogs reign supreme. They command an enormous portion of our time and attention, and bleed us of tremendous stores of energy. And yet our mutual devotion is astonishingly deep and gratifying. They're maddening and delightful, pushy and sublime. We have three of them because I can't bear the thought of being without a buffer creature should one die. There have to be two around, always. There's no more sympathetic creature than a lonesome dog, especially when you once had two.

John Berger wrote a great essay entitled Why Look At Animals, from his collection called About Looking. It's a classic Berger study, obliquely, quietly revealing unspoken truths in everyday perceptual experience. It's worth a read if you have the time.

*   *   *

Something happened to me a couple of days ago—something involving an animal—and it's leapt to the fore over and over in memory. I witnessed a profoundly pathetic and yet dignified moment of passage, the space between life and death. It happened to a squirrel. Before reflecting on this, I was unsure why it moved me so thoroughly. In retrospect, I think that—while I have encountered many a dead animal—I have only ever watched one other creature die. That was my poor, old, blind dachshund Heinz, whose pain-wracked face had been inches from mine as the vet put him down after being run over by our neighbor's car. I'd watched his eyes close as the poison took effect. I wept openly, my insides heaving from the grief, 13 years of knowing suddenly cascading down, out of nowhere.

This squirrel's death was first a puzzle, then a revelation. I was nearing the end of a run when a car which had slowly passed me from behind made a quick left turn into a gravel parking spot at the side of the lake near my house. As I ran a few feet further, I saw in the middle of the road the beautiful squirrel, its head close to the pavement. While it appeared perfectly normal in most ways—its body wasn't mangled, there didn't seem to be any blood—the squirrel seemed to be looking for something, to be asking a question with its entire body. It crept no more than 2 feet toward the side of the road, and then in less than five seconds it was dead. Its eyes closed suddenly and with gracious finality. Its face was beautiful and the dignity with which it confronted those last futile moments while trying its best to survive felt complete. It tried and lost, but in losing it surrendered none of its beauty. I let out an audible, sympathetic moan. The driver got out of his car with his fishing pole, completely oblivious to the squirrel. He glanced my way, turned to the lake which was teeming with fish, and went about the business of baiting his hook.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Praise, Criticism and Humility.

"When praise comes, don’t let yourself be swept away by it. If you do, you will as surely be swept away by the criticism that life inevitably brings."

-Eknath Easwaran

*   *   *

Sometimes it's easy to mistake self-deprecation for humility. I've gotten a little better at accepting compliments graciously in recent years, but I can easily trace absurdly poignant evidence of self-deprecation back to childhood, to the near pathological auto-under-valuing that was interwoven through daily life. A memory from age 7 or so has stuck with me for quite a while. I had a boyhood friend named Eddie and in the summers we spent countless hours digging, playing games and building forts in the woods which separated our backyards. One day, deeply immersed in an excavation straight through the center of the earth to China with little more than a couple of garden trowels, I heard his mother calling out to us in her gracious Virginia lilt, 

"Eddddddddie, it's lunchtime! Robert, would you like a sandwich too?"

Struck dumb with vague embarrassment, I replied with great discomfort and characteristic crypticism, "I don't care." 

What the hell kind of answer is that? I'm sure it puzzled or maybe even irritated her, but if it did she was too kind to let me notice. She was a really nice lady. We liked each other.

I can't fully explain why questions like that of Eddie's mom made me so uncomfortable but I struggled to accept the goodwill of others for my entire childhood and well into adulthood. I suppose it had something to do with a misplaced aversion to making myself in any way burdensome. This inability to accept gifts from others—whether in the form of kind words or something of material value—is a character flaw, something I've had to come to terms with in recent years. And while it may seem that this sort of chin-to-chest self-deprecation is active evidence of humility, I've come to realize it's not. I've learned that undervaluing oneself is the exquisite complement to boastfulness and bluster, classic enemies of humility. A closer look reveals that it's egocentric behavior masquerading as humbleness, a self-perception that one's every action has some consequential effect on others; that accepting a sandwich would in some way might ruin someone's day; a perception that you are important enough to have a disproportionate impact on everyone and everything around you.

*   *   *

It seems the older we get, the bigger our egos grow. As the expression goes, "the bigger they come, the harder they fall." Validation and praise mean everything to us and yet our worlds crumble the moment we experience rejection or marginalization. Enormous egos fight for central validation in creative circles, each with an insatiable desire for praise, and yet the most inadvertent slight sends us cursing bitterly in the shadows. We have to maintain perspective, to remain humble through darkness and light, praise and criticism. 

I endured a truly rough patch in my teaching a few years ago. Leading students outside the scope of my expertise in a special, two year, interdisciplinary appointment in Italy, I failed to reach all of my students, no matter how hard I tried. And I tried very hard. While not everyone was unhappy with my efforts (I tend to pay a bit more attention to criticism than praise), the acerbic barbs of a handful of students wounded me deeply for two years. I wasn't used to this brand of assessment, and I truly thought my career as a teacher was coming to a close. When I returned to my regular teaching duties back home, once again within the cozy realm of my personal competency, I expected everything to normalize, but I was quickly reminded of an unpleasant reality about teaching in our program: I had quite literally disappeared, and when I returned I felt like an absolute nobody. I was the new guy all over again, and it took me three full years to rebuild the confidence of an entirely new crop of students and my former reputation as a competent teacher. What a struggle that was, and there seemed to me no way to resolve it other than to ride it out or quit. I damn near did the latter, interviewing for and being offered jobs elsewhere, which would have had me doing things far from the world of studio education.

These days, my students amaze and inspire me, and I'm especially moved by their sensitivity when the occasional stressed out 19-year-old comes to see me in my office, soon in tears as they close the door for privacy. Crumbling under the workload, these beautiful people reveal themselves as completely human in their fragility,  shedding their classroom-wrought, strong, balanced, perfectly poised personae. In the presence of their peers they appear to accept praise and criticism with equally objective measure, seemingly unaffected on an emotional level by all the chatter about their work. Extraordinary accolades do not seem to puff them up, just as devastating criticism doesn't cut them down. Maybe I'm fooled by some resilient veneer, but they always seem to remain humble—asserting in their behavior that they're neither better nor worse, neither more or less deserving of respect than anyone else. They present as exceedingly gracious and level-headed beacons of hope in a world in which most adults bristle at criticism and stew savagely over minor professional slights one day and rattle off news of accomplishments on Facebook the next. 

Eknath Eswaran's quote at the top of this entry elegantly summarizes the most sound philosophy we can follow. We need to keep our egos in check not only when it comes to our accomplishments, but our failures as well. Personally, while things are good again (and I don't think I have ever enjoyed teaching as much as I have the past two years) I lately try a bit harder to catch myself before grandstanding when good things happen and I've tried even harder to give myself a break when I don't get it right. I'm still not very good at accepting either praise or criticism with measured objectivity, but I try to do so in an effort to exercise some of the humility I so admire in my students. I'm still grossly egocentric. More than anything I hope my students can remain humble—aware of their merits and flaws, but equally unfettered by either. Unfettered, that is, unless they truly need to close themselves in my office and cry.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Sketchbook: One Day University.

We spent the day listening to some really stimulating lectures by Professors from Columbia, Yale, Brown and Rutgers University. I'm so glad I went. 

I've said before that sketching while listening to discussion intensifies my focus on what's being said, and helps me make sense of information. Below are spreads from each of the talks.

Louis Masur from Rutgers talked about Lincoln as "evolutionary" rather than "revolutionary," and chronicled the transformation of his thinking about slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment.

My favorite talk of the day was delivered by the brilliant Tamar Szabó Gendler from Yale. She offered a cogent yet brief discussion entitled "How to Think Like a Philosopher." Excellent and very helpful to me as I continue to frame my thinking on Truth Beauty and Goodness in studio discourse.
In the middle of all of it, I took a break to reflect on some thoughts about the role of philosophy in critical discourse, the subject of my talk at the ATINER conference in Greece the first week of June.

Tina Rivers from Columbia discussed four paintings which exemplify particular roles of the art. Good talk about some great contributions to painting.

Finally, John Stein from Brown discussed learning, memory and the brain—a fascinating explanation of various times of memory, the physiological processes which trigger them and ways to keep neurogenesis active.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

From terror to fear to myth.

I wrote this on 15 April, after the bombings at the Boston Marathon. 

Yesterday we hosted what has become a springtime tradition at the house. In April, as every austere and stoic soul in New England is hanging by the thinnest of threads, cursing the bitter north wind and praying for just a hint of earthly delight, we invite friends over for an exchange of green things. People bring hopeful plants to share with one another and the idea is to offer a sense of renewed optimism after the grayness of winter, instilling a faint vision of metaphorical rebirth by planting saplings, seeds or bulbs, even if doing so is weeks away. Spring and then summer in New England are unparalleled—absolutely perfect—so the wretched winters here are bearable with a couple of reminders that the chill will soon go into hiding.

A couple of friends didn't make the party because they were running the Boston Marathon today. I envied them, mostly because they're about my age and are still giving it a go, while I've put aside those grand aspirations in recent years, always with the hope that I'll be running in top form again any day now (cue laugh track). One of these friends contacted me to say that he needed the rest, having scored a number at the last minute. He's run the race since he was a teenager growing up in Brockton, far eclipsing my own Boston experiences, which number two races in unseasonable and viscious heat—both pretty humbling experiences after qualifying and convincing myself that I'd do just as well on that infamously tricky Boston course.

Today was horrific and for those of us who got the news remotely, it came upon us in nauseating waves, an all-too-familiar recognition, something sadly familiar and infuriating. John and I had just finished a five mile run on a hilly loop when we received simultaneous text messages asking if we were OK and begging assurance that we were nowhere near the race course. Back home, throughout the afternoon I checked confusing headlines and studied the same gory and chaotic photos online, turning over in my imagination the origins of something so vile, the filthy, small minds who devised the destruction.

The last stretch of the Boston Marathon, whether you finish strong or part of the zombie parade, is designed to be jubilant and for race qualifiers it's especially rewarding. If you're not running for charity or as a bandit, qualifying for Boston can be pretty challenging after months of obsessive training, earning an acceptable time in a previous marathon, and (more and more) a bit of fortunate timing when registration opens. Nevertheless, no matter how folks get there, with such an arduous process of self-discovery behind them, crossing the finish line concludes a journey much longer than 26.2 miles for many people. Reaching the end is a transformative moment, teeming with significance. So what more insidious, hateful way to upend that joy than to install ferocious bombs yards from the finish line—blowing the legs off spectators, mostly the families and friends of runners? As we listened to the confusing pieces of news and began to make sense of the event, I was immediately taken back to that beautiful, horrible day in 2001 when my kids (then all very young) came home one-by-one from school. With each, I tried to explain to them how a small group of perverse minds conspired with unfathomable loathing to crash four planes with the intention of killing 3000 people and forever scarring the lives of hundreds of millions more.

In all of this insanity I had a moment of clarity today. It came out of the blue, inexplicably. In the past several years I have seen many students with extraordinary gifts, complex minds and critical, creative perspectives invest a great deal of their talent in the rapidly expanding field of character design. In all honesty, the editorial illustrator in me finds this trend disheartening. In one portfolio after another young illustrators submit to the conventions of burgeoning industry, work which includes inventories of characters in costume and not much more. These are descriptive, objective studies, not images with individual perspective, circumstance or meaning beyond archetypal representation, and they feel empty—void of content or message—no matter how well they're drawn or painted, no matter how subtle the color palette. While I respect these endeavors, as I do any classification of applied illustration, these studies represent a significant disappointment after seeing such promise in these students in previous semesters. All along I've assumed that the students are merely pandering to a trending market. More than anything I hope for a more opinionated, vocal direction among our students, a return to the editorial voice which is more about chutzpa than costumes. 

Today I realized the origins of this fascination with heroic, mythic and fantastic characters in our nation's psyche and further indulged by students of art and design. In the same way that the Great Depression was the impetus for escapist cinema in the 1930s, terrorism has bred a desperate creative investment in superheroes, fairies and mythic dichotomies of good and evil. Today's young artist has known evil in ways my own generation never imagined. 

After a few years of frustration and (I'll admit it) a growing intolerance for escapist motives in young illustrators, today's realization is saddening.  A sympathetic, tragic chord has instead been struck. This generation of wonderfully creative people was raised in a culture of insidious fear, where no real life heroes can guarantee their safety, where economic collapse is at the whim of blustery, rogue financial institutions, and where bombs blow up people at one of the most celebrated, democratic sporting events in the world, turning the personal triumphs of hundreds of people into a nightmare, all over again.