A few weeks back, I was invited (and honored) to participate in American Illustration’s gonzo live cover project. And I couldn’t.
The project involved a groundswell of illustrators congregating in the AI office over a weekend to hand-paint/hand-draw/hand-assemble the covers of a special edition of the annual in which 280 books were produced without any art on the front. I had non-postponable plans which took me out of the city for that weekend. A bummer. Fortunately, my laments to Mark Heflin spurred both him and the annual’s creative director, Richard Turley, to work out a separate arrangement wherein they shipped me 10 copies of the finished annual a week out from the live event and I worked on them after hours at night during the week leading up to it.
Had I been able to participate in the actual live event, I would have had roughly 7 hours to produce hand-made art for at least 10 books—meaning that the artists who were in attendance had roughly 35-40 minutes to work on each cover before their day was done. Since I worked on mine from home over a series of days, my terms were entirely different. I had the benefit of having the daylight hours to plan a few things through before going to work, but I also had the disadvantage of having to grind this stuff out nightly after already putting in a full day at the office. While my time and means were equally limited (albeit in a different way), I think it’s safe to say that anyone participating in the live event in a single day had a much more rigorous endurance challenge to overcome than I did. Still, I closed out that week with both a gently flowering sore throat as well as a newfound appreciation for loosening up and silencing the domineering voice in my brain which makes me over-think every. Gestural. Decision.
Our one guiding direction from Richard and Mark, loose though it was, was that each cover somehow involve the human figure. Because I had a different set of time constraints from the live participants, I decided to give myself two additional parameters for my covers:
1. Every cover is handled in a different style.
2. Every cover pursues a different idea.
Taken in the framework of an exam and grading like a stickler, I would have scored myself with an 80%. I used ink, collage, acrylic, construction paper, a red sharpie, a Chartpak blender marker, a mini-bible and a working zipper to cover what I consider to be a respectable stylistic range out of these, but my ideas kept coming from a similar point of departure. Namely, the odd mixture of pride and envy I wrestle with on the occasions that I’ve been able to see my own work in these books alongside others’ output that’s so inventive and superior it makes me want to quit. So pride and envy were my departure points.
Time after time, I kept landing on ideas about noses and cutting them in the interest of spiting the face and reconciling pride’s false end. When I ran out of interesting things to say about pride and cutting noses, I drifted toward ideas based around sloth and self pity before devolving into what became a fairly direct crossroads between virtue and sin inspired by a tiny bible which had been handed to me in the subway under Times Square by a complete stranger. Why a solid third of these images carried such a significant Biblical slant, I do not know.
Progression-wise, the ideas became much more varied and untethered the less time I had to work on them. The longer I worked on these things individually (see Nancy Reagan, up at the very top), the less time I had for the remaining editions. The less time I had for the remaining editions, the more slack I allowed my narrative reasoning to be. The more slack I allowed my narrative reasoning to be, the more likely I was to indulge a clown for a clown’s sake.
Or treat the cover the way I treat one of my sketchbooks:
Or unceremoniously elect to rip off Andy Warhol entirely, glue a zipper onto the front board and turn the book’s title into an unsightly pubic zone.
Or, at 1:00 AM, deciding to abandon any remote narrative pretense and paint an ostrich with a human hand with the remaining acrylics I had left. I mean, sure.
Painting an ostrich with Dr. Seuss’ palette at 1:00 AM on a school night while streaming episodes of How I Met Your Mother on loop just so I could hear other human voices in the apartment to provide an illusion of grounding while the part of my brain which provides measured, rational evaluations of intent every five minutes took a long-delayed nap was sufficient enough evidence for me to prove that the project helped me to break at least one or two of my traditional illustration practices, if only for a short while. Grateful to have been asked to take part.