Sunday, December 7, 2014

The 2014 ISCA Con!

Well, another con has come and gone. From November 16th through November 21st, the Peppermill resort in Reno, Nevada, was overrun by a band of nearly 200 hooligan caricature artists from all parts of the globe. The annual gathering for the International Society for Caricature Artists did not disappoint this year. Along with the standard camaraderie, liberal drinking, mutual admiration, inspiring artwork, and stunning display of weird faces (both on the wall and on the artists), this year I also had two unexpected celebrity encounters.
Sorry, your cover is blown, Hawkeye. 

It began, for me, on the very first night of the con, when I spotted Jeremy Renner ("Hawkeye" in the Avenger movies) across the dim casino bar. In Reno. Reno!?? What the hell?--Reno is not exactly a celebrity magnet of a town. In fact, as I sauntered up to Mr. Renner, I fully believed he was just a guy who LOOKED like Jeremy Renner. I planned to ask if I could take a photo as a joke for a friend of mine who is a superfan of Mr. Renner. Well, once I got up close I just stammered, "Uh, I was going to say you look like--but you are." And he said "I am." And he kindly obliged me with a photo (it was dark, sorry) and an autograph for that friend of mine. I bought him the drink he'd just ordered, and he was a patient, classy guy. That friend was overjoyed when I later gave the autograph to her and said the same thing I had: "What on earth was he doing in RENO?" A few other artists got to meet Mr. Renner and chat with him that night . . . I wish I had told him to seek out Joe Bluhm, our resident Oscar winner (Renner has been nominated twice but never won, he could have asked Joe what it was like, hee hee).

My roommates were delightful, as usual--and the Peppermill rooms in the Tuscany Tower were beyond luxurious: the bathroom was as big as most entire hotel rooms, with its own TV, a double-headed shower, and a bathtub large enough to rehabilitate an injured dolphin. We had a newbie among us this year, my friend and local colleague Celeste Cordova, and it was really fun seeing the convention through the eyes of someone who'd never been.

The biggest problem I have with the conventions is that I want to do everything. This year I was slated to deliver a seminar on client interactions, and I had done a ton of prep work in my nervousness--but there is always more that can be done, right? My slot had been moved to Friday, so I (foolishly) left a few odds and ends to smooth out during "down time" those first few days of the convention.
Lar and his new accessory, the ART FIGHTS
belt! Along with newly minted prez Nolan Harris.
(photo by Diane LaFlamme)

Down time. Haaaa haa ha. That's hilarious, I crack me up.

There is no down-time at a convention. For anyone. Finding time to shower and sleep is hard! The opening night icebreaker led right into the Art Fight, which was won this year by the astounding Lar DeSouza, in his full Sailor Bacon regelia, no less! Opening breakfast the next day is early, then followed by seminars--and even though I've seen Caricature 101 about a dozen times, each time is different. Mac Garcia did a great job this year talking about what makes a successful caricature and illustrating exaggeration techniques. He also pimped the hell out of Tom Richmond's The Mad Art of Caricature, which was nice to see (I am not biased one bit when I say it's the best how-to book on the market, for beginners and pros alike).

Seminars lead into competitions, and even though I've also competed in that darn likeness competition like a dozen times, I still feel like it helps me to see everyone's seven-minute take on the same photographs. Judging it is still a pain in the ass: looking at over a hundred drawings of the same person in innumerable different drawing styles is mind boggling. But I love seeing what people all did differently . . . figuring out which one did it the best is another story entirely!
While we looked at the unending array of likeness competition drawings covering the walls, Lorin Bernsen, myself, and Robert noticed we were twinsies (tripletsies?) with our khaki pants and olive Kruger convention shirts.
(photo by Emily Anthony)

The speed competition never gets old, as the adrenaline really takes over when you're sitting in a row of powerhouse speed drawers and going full-guns trying to pump out fifteen-second drawings that still bear a resemblance. I didn't make the final heat, but it's exhilarating to push beyond any personal best you could hope for at even the most fast-paced gig.

The party caricature competition was extra spicy this year, thanks to roving hecklers and "problem guests" coached by Baltimore artist and agent extraordinaire Mike Hasson. I was picked to be a whiny bothersome guest, and I think I did a good job irritating and trying to distract competitors . . . but I was nowhere near the level of feigned douchery put on by Nolan Harris and his roving band of drunken bro-dudes. They would circle and then pounce, grabbing at drawing supplies, unplugging all of Jon Casey's cords, kicking easels "accidentally," crowding the artist outrageously to take a group selfie, and even taking the pants off a few unlucky (or lucky?) male artists. They were a sight to see, and it was clearly a form of catharsis for them (and me, and other artists) to take on the role of truly obnoxious drunk guest, a problem we all have to navigate from time to time in our profession. There were multiple types of caricature going on that night: the kind drawn on paper and the play-acted caricature of assholes, imitated and exaggerated perfectly to match the behaviors we gig artists see over and over.
What do you do when a drunken, roving band of bros abuses you and then
takes down your pants? If you're Manny, you keep on drawing like a pro
and enjoy the breeze. 

Bat is a southern gentleman and totally let me win.
Then, between and after the seminars and competitions, there is always drawing time in the main ballroom. We are all sucked in, like moths to a flame, to that ballroom, and people stay there far longer than even the most dedicated office workers stay chained to their desks. I know I went in there several times intending to spend just a half hour, or an hour . . . and then four hours later I was still working on some details of a sculpture, eyes glazed over, or wandering the room looking at everyone else's awesome works in progress, or taking my turn arm-wrestling some artist from Tennessee while a crowd whoops and yells.

The whooping and yelling gives way to hugging, dancing, and general merry making. There are a lot of inappropriate displays of affection at ISCA cons. I am not normally a hugger--my friends all know this--but at the con I think I get more hug action than I get during the entire rest of the year combined.

There was a lot of guy-on-guy inappropriate touching at the con. It was pretty great. 

There is Beau Hufford's really nicely edited, 6-minute wordless, artsy and punk-feeling retrospective video, which features more artists engaged in inappropriate touching, and dancing, and balloon phalluses.

And there was this super sexy lineup of ISCA butts (my favorite would have to be Mike Graessle's).

Canadian alcohol, Belgian chocolate
 from the lovely (if sleep-deprived)
 Liesbeth Beckers, and Johanna with
 her licorice of doom.
Another one of the perks of this touchy-feely international "family reunion" of artists is that many people bring snacks from their homelands. I baked pumpkin scones and laid them out one night, where folks snapped them up. Lar brought his maple goodness in the form of both cookies and vodka infused with that flavor. The Belgians brought chocolate, bless their souls. And Johanna Veerenhuis filled up a giant fishbowl of what she claimed was strong salted Dutch licorice but I suspect was really burned bits of Sculpey she was trying to poison me with. That would be just like her.

Anyway, between sculpting at my little work station next to the delightful Kamal Dollah of Singapore, I spent time wandering and chatting here and there, and found myself sampling Lar's maple vodka and his pumpkin whiskey, plus a little Kahlua just to see what that flavor would bring to the party . . . and it wasn't long before I was waving off the red solo cups and saying I could not possibly drink more than a sip, as I had to get upstairs and draw a picture of myself poisoning a well for my seminar slide show. Lar, that dear heart and super prolific web comic artist, said "Oh, that sounds like a fun drawing!" and began sketching it out effortlessly on his Cinitq. Within minutes he had the layout of a beautiful visual aid for my seminar. I didn't mean to Tom Sawyer him into doing my work for me, but somehow I ended up getting a wonderful addition to my slide lineup AND I got to get tipsy and hang out that night. Thank you, Lar.

There were some key folks missing, who we will hopefully see next year. One ISCA couple, Court and Debbo Jones-Burmeister, were away on their honeymoon, and another ISCA couple, Glenn and Joanne Ferguson, were busy planning their wedding, which just took place! We missed you guys and hope to see you next year. See what all this drinking and inappropriate touching leads to? Sheesh. Speaking of which, we missed you too, Michael White!

The seminar lineup was varied and inspirational, and, in a strange twist, seemed to have an underlying theme of "There Can Be Life beyond Caricature!" We heard the fuzzy, cuddly Jert (Jeremy Townsend) talk candidly about how the unrelenting business of live retail caricature was killing him, psychologically, back when he did it full-time. He shared some anecdotes about his young life as a working class kid who loved to draw and was fascinated with faces, and he recounted advice from guidance counselors that just sounded soul-crushing. They told him if he liked to draw he should focus on architectural drafting so he could draw plans for houses. I paraphrase, but he said something like "Draft plans for houses? Fuck that, am I right?" It resounded with the room, as I'm pretty sure we had all been through similar meetings with guidance counselors as youngsters, and we all had thought fuck that. As he showed us a video chock-full of Jert's brand of delightfully disturbing violent cartoon images, he explained how he nevertheless used what those long years of caricature had taught him, incorporating those skills into his current career as a sought-after artist for concert posters, beer labels, and alternative art collectors.

Steve Fishwick rallied the room to get excited about their potential and reach for success, as he took us on a tour of his rise--from caricaturing at a typical theme park stand to learning about licensing, making vital contacts and networking, launching his own gallery, and producing fine art for Disney and many other major properties. He talked about how valuable his partnership with Beau Hufford has been, as artists need trusted people who can critique their work honestly (and harshly!) and help bring it to the next level. And, kudos to Steve, he actually gave his talk TWICE, since a video snafu resulted in some last-minute rearranging of the seminar schedule and people hoping to see his seminar had unexpectedly missed out.

Joe doing a quick color demo of what he thinks Popeye and Sting's love
child would look like... wait, I mean Jamie Rockwell.  (Photo: Tad Barney)
Joe Bluhm gave two presentations: one was a digital speed-painting demo, and the other was a career retrospective. I was pleased to see that Joe really spent some time talking about his early days in Sea World and what being a caricature artist in the retail trenches instilled in him--and he provided plenty of photos to go along with that early part of his career. That career has (so far) culminated in multiple awards for his animation and designs at Moonbot Studios, the animation house that put out 2011's Oscar-winning short, "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore," as well as the familiar animated Chipotle ad with that slender, depressed scarecrow and haunting vocals by Fiona Apple. We were treated to a sneak peek at some projects Joe has worked on or is currently working in, including some Woody the Woodpecker reboot test footage and a beautiful, dark, gothic animated short film of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado." Joe's birthday happened to coincide with the day he was giving the presentation, so board members and a few others kindly ambushed him with a birthday cake, a song, and about eight gallons of silly string at the end of his talk. It was pretty adorable.
The dry witted Jeff Redford, with Sebastian Kruger and
Joe Bluhm (Photo from Jeff Redford).

Sebastian Kruger was our guest of honor, let's not leave him out. His business manager, Bernd Schoenebaum, did a lot of the talking during the video presentation that featured Kruger's work. This great master of caricature seems to have taken a turn recently in his painting: "he has aesthetically moved away from a stylistic 'star caricaturist' to New Pop Realism, pushing his rendered subjects into a psychological arena" according to his website. Some artists asked him about why he was departing from caricature, and his answers were spare and minimal, but amounted to "well, I did caricature, this is the next thing," if I may paraphrase. He nevertheless was kind and mingled much more with the artists than I remember happening the last time he attended the convention, some twelve or thirteen years ago. He also drew live for a special gold-members-only reception, producing a caricature of Keith Richards and a highly rendered skull (both of which he kindly donated to the ISCA fundraising auction).

Kruger gets a tits-eye-view of Johanna's
 version of me. Watch out for that bowl
of licorice, Sebastian! It's poisoned!!
During Sebastian's walkabout in the ballroom, I got to chat a little with him myself. And I got to ask him about his one experience, as a teenager, doing party gig caricatures. Ha! He really hated it, he said. And it was because of "the people" he told me, the overbearing guests at the party who strong-armed him into staying way past his paid time. I used that in my seminar, it was a fun little interaction. It's hard to imagine ANYONE strong-arming Sebastian Kruger into anything these days!

Verrrrry funny, Johanna. Verrrry funny. 
Meanwhile, my Netherlandic nemesis, Johanna, was working on a semi-secret sculpting project. I was so busy putting the finishing touches on my seminar that I barely noticed enough to get curious, but BOY did I get an eyeful when it was revealed. She had chosen to re-create Botticelli's Venus, but with her sculpting nemesis (me) as the model. Once she had most of the sculpting done, our pal Emily took me over and I think they laid bets as to whether I'd be flattered or furious. Of course I was flattered. Johanna's phone camera was filled with sneaky pictures of me (and quite a few of my rear end!) that she had taken over the first day of the con.

The finished piece was truly breathtaking. And, true to ISCA tradition, I got to take it home with me and keep it forever, where it shall sit on a shelf and make my stepchildren uncomfortable for many days to come.
It's been a while since my boobs stood at attention like that, but I'll take it. 
I, meanwhile, was busying myself on a little project so that I could at least say I produced one piece during the con. Longtime itinerant artist and friend Sam Klemke and his fair lady Kathlynne Moonfire were both attending this year, and I jumped at the chance to do a matching set of the two of them, on a little stand made of teensy tiny caricatures.
Sam was most pleased to see I gave him a Super-8 camera that reminded him of the one he owned for years.
And I had mentioned not one but two celebrity encounters. This second celebrity wasn't just your typical Hollywood actor type. During one of the many hours I sat sculpting in the ballroom, an unassuming fellow with a shaved head and glasses walked over and noticed my James Randi sculpture (which I had just moved from the studio judging table). "Hey, that's James Randi!" he said. "Yeah!" I said, pleased that someone recognized him--Randi's not a household name, but in certain circles he is a demigod of reason. "I know him," said the fellow.

Ben Radford, author, paranormal investigator, and skeptic; he
contributes to, edits the Skeptical Inquirer, founded
the skeptic track at DragonCon, and once killed a
rabid chupacabra with his bare hands.
I looked at the name badge of this (I assumed) unfamiliar artist. Benjamin Radford. "You're Benjmain Radford?" I said. "THE Benjamin Radford?" And just like Jeremy Renner earlier in the week, he said "I am." But he was a bit more taken aback that someone knew who he was. He is only famous in certain circles, and one would not expect the skeptic circle to intersect much with the caricature art circle in the Venn diagram of life. But that day I happened to be wearing my Skeptic's Guide to the Universe t-shirt, plus I'm a regular listener to a few skeptic podcasts that Mr. Radford has been a part of, and I have read some of his writings and even heard him speak at the Amazing Meeting once or twice. I definitely knew who he was, though I didn't know him by his face, just his voice and his writing.

All of this escaped me at the moment, as I stammered "You do the thing, on the show, podcast, Monstertalk, I've heard you--you write stuff, I know your name! You're Ben Radford!" He helped fill in the holes as I butchered his CV, and I dragged him around the room to introduce him to a few other skeptic types I knew in the caricature community. Ben and I went down the list and found we knew a few people in common; like the caricature world, the skeptic world is also one that doesn't have too many degrees of separation.

Ben is also featured on one of the
Skeptic Trump Cards, a series drawn by
 the talented and prolific Neil Davies.
But--what the bloody hell was a skeptic doing at a caricature con? His badge read "guest," and I asked whose guest he was, thinking he must be married to, or related to, or good friends with one of the participating artists. Nope. He said he was just a fan of caricatures as an art form. He had come across the ISCA website while doing a search online and saw that there was a convention ("it seemed oddly understated for a con," he said later). On a lark, he had registered and bought himself a plane ticket to come see what happens at a caricature con. I was kind of stunned. NO ONE does that. At least no one had done that in prior years. We have had some persons of note walk through our ballrooms in the past, as a "special guest" of sorts: Teller (of Penn &) had showed up and looked at all the art years ago when the con was in Vegas, and, in San Diego, sitcom actor Patrick Warburton ("The Tick") had been brought in by one of the artists who was a personal friend of his. But, to my knowledge, no civilian had ever chosen to seek us out and embed with us through an entire con.

Ben is an investigator by trade, so it's no wonder he discovered our little five-day slice of artistic bedlam. Might others come next year? Is that even a good idea, or would it taint what we have all come to love as a closed-door, be-yourself, draw-crazy, screw-the-public type of event where the hoi polloi aren't really allowed in? Should we welcome the the public a bit more? Or should we kidnap and torture Ben to make sure he never reveals the whereabouts of our convention to any other muggles? Hmmm.

The ISCA convention (back when it was the NCN convention) used to have a big "public day" that was promoted through press releases and seen as an outreach event, to raise public appreciation of the art form, where one day--or several hours, at least--was set aside as a "free entrance" time for members of the general population to wander in and look at the art. I forget what led to the organization abandoning the practice. It may have been lack of turnout, or even theft (I do recall some art supplies and/or computer equipment going missing, way back when, but cannot recall details). Or it may have just been forgotten as time marches on. Watching Ben, who is an enthusiast but not a professional artist, walk around and admire the walls, made me wonder if inviting the public back into our cons might be a fun thing to do. Or if we should just keep ourselves to ourselves, and only reward the intrepid few who discover us and seek us out. It's an interesting question, something for the current board members to consider (in addition to the eleven billion other little details they have to consider!) . . . for the NEXT CONVENTION, which is planned to happen at the Kalahari water park resort in Sandusky, Ohio, and will have as special guests Jason Seiler and CF Payne!
Robert and I, looking all fancy.

The new location was announced at the awards night, along with the many awards. I also gave my seminar, finally, that morning to a surprisingly large crowd (I honestly expected most everyone to be in their rooms hung-over and catching up on sleep after the week's full-court-press of funny picture making). But it went okay, no one booed, and I made it through without hyperventilating or passing gas. Well, without audibly passing gas. Going through what I talked about would require way more space than this blog has, but folks who want a copy of my notes are welcome to message me and ask.

But, awards night! We all got to dress up and have a nice slab of prime rib with all the fixins, run around and take photos, and admire all the outfits. There was a gaggle of beautiful ladies in kimonos, Mae Adao in her clever Queen Victoria-inspired black lace frock, and Anne Bush mostly contained in a stunning bowed corset. The guys ranged from GQ to "Gee, blue jeans?" but they all cleaned up pretty well. All the outfits helped us bide our time as we awaited the announcement of the nosey winners. Prior to that there was the fundraiser auction (that Kruger original went for major cash, congrats to the dedicated Nolan Harris on his purchase!) all the OTHER awards, which I'm not going to list here, but the whole rundown will show up in the next Exaggerated Features. 

Speaking of Exaggerated Features, editress-in-chief Debbie Burmeister and newly minted Mr. Burmeister (Court Jones) made an appearance via video and announced the winner of the Facebook challenge drawing.

Mongolians in the hiz-ouse!
As I expected, I sadly did not place this year in the 3D category, nor did I deserve to! While it was fun making the piece for Sam and Kathlynne, there were some really awesome sculptures this year that blew mine away. And Johanna, who had used me as her curvaceous muse, did indeed take home the trophy for first place. But at least I didn't fall for that poisoned licorice of hers.

One of the standouts that I began to take notice of was the short, unassuming Mongolian artist Gambaatar Choimbol, who was here at his first convention and had brought his wife and young daughter. His work had a quick savagery to the linework, fun to look at and very passionate. There was a likeness, but also a viciousness to it. His watercolor and ink had an energy that was refreshing and new (and there's not much that seems new after so many cons!). It reminded me of Gerald Scarfe or David Levine, but with a primitive flair. And I wasn't the only one who liked his work--Mr. Choimbol took to the stage at least half a dozen times to collect awards, all the time bringing his young daughter along for the ride. 
At awards night, old rivalries are forgotten. I even forgave
Johanna for the whole licorice thing.

The drive back was also an adventure! I filled my SUV full of crazy caricature artists then we headed up to Virginia City, toured an abandoned mine, drove through rural Nevada, stayed the night at Tonopah's famously creepy Clown Motel, then hit Rhyolite and saw "The Venus of Nevada" (a 25-foot-tall pink cinderblock sculpture--it looks kind of like Minecraft porn), then drove through parts of Death Valley and took a bunch of neat photos that would make good album covers if we ever form a band . . . phew! It was a pretty packed, awesome roadtrip. But that's a story for another time.
Three Las Vegans and a Philadelphian stand on rocks.

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