Sunday, November 13, 2016

Sardi's: Past, Present, and a Drift toward Homeopathic Caricature

Hey kids, been a while since I posted. But this is a long one, so strap in and get some hot cocoa.
Sardi's sits at 234 West 44th Street, NY NY

Back in June of this year, I got to tromp around NYC and, while I was there, I dropped in at the world-famous Sardi's, an old hangout for Al Hirschfeld, the birthplace of the Tony Awards, and hallowed ground for any caricature artist or lover of Broadway shows (I am both). And, owing to my plan-ahead-and-do-things-thoroughly-or-not-at-all philosophy, I emailed ahead and greased some wheels in order to speak to some Sardi's staff, have dinner there, and also visit the archived Sardi's drawings at the New York Public Library. I dug into some research, bought the book on Sardi's (Off the Wall at Sardi's, by Vincent Sardi, Jr., and Thomas West, Amarna, 1991 & 2012), and recorded a long interview with Ivan Lesica, the Maitre D' there, in an effort to really understand the evolution of Sardi's. I'd bitten off a lot and had plenty to chew on, yet I was torn about how to share all this. It would have made a fun podcast or article for Exaggerated Features, but nothing came together. Finally, I decided to bang this out on the day before the ISCA convention, simply because I felt others might enjoy knowing some of the stuff I found out. And because sleep and I are mortal enemies.

Sardi's Heyday and the NYC Public Library Collection

Really, it's okay if I touch this? Well then . . .
     Anyone my age and older knows the feel of a good, solid library; we remember life and research BG (before Google), when card catalog drawers were picked over and the Dewey Decimal System was your friend--your bizarre, dyslexic friend who made no sense but was still your friend because he knew where stuff was kept. So I was delighted to head over to the Billy Rose Theater Division of the New York Public Library and make arrangements with special collections to pore over the caricatures held there. Yeah, turns out ANY OLD NUTTER CAN JUST WALK IN AND GET A LIBRARY CARD AND GET THEIR FILTHY PAWS ON BOXES UPON BOXES OF THESE PRICELESS CLASSIC WORKS OF ART! FOR FREE!! Who knew?

My face when handling stuff only adults should touch.
     A couple of very helpful librarians walked me through procedures: You enter kind of an academic "quarantine zone" where you are not allowed to bring in books or bags or such of your own. Yellow paper and golf pencils are made available to take notes, and cameras are allowed (as are cell phones). I and a few rows of other researchers waited for our materials to be brought up, then we sat and pieced through our treasures under the watchful eye of the curator, behind her desk at the front of the room. Some collections require the viewer to wear white gloves for the protection of the artifact--I urged the librarian to give me the gloves, so my finger oils would not tarnish the artwork, but she just looked over the record and told me to handle them by the edges please. I took care and handled each piece carefully, reading the inscriptions scrawled on decades ago by Broadway luminaries who expressed their feelings about being flattered, gutted, or simply fed at the establishment of Vincent Sardi, Sr. After six hours, I left with fifty or sixty photos and a list for the curator of pieces that were missing from the boxes--hopefully they will be found, but Sardi's does have a reputation for artwork walking away mysteriously.

Four of Alex Gard's victims.
     The personality of these characters really does seem to shine through, and with my (albeit limited) knowledge and experience in the craft, I swear I could pick out little moments of the artwork being made. Sardi's first artist, Alex Gard, was a Russian refugee who agreed to draw patrons there in exchange for two meals a day. [Note: Wikipedia's entry on Gard states the contract was for one meal a day, but the book and the Maitre D' both told me it was two]. And he was clearly drawing his subjects from life, not from publicity photos. It looks like he sat with them, at a booth or table, and sketched these out while chatting, observing their demeanor, posture, and their dignity (or lack thereof). Many of these early caricatures are profiles, some contain quite a bit of the body, enough to show body language, while some are simplistic . . . but nearly all of them have more bite than polish. The patrons bit back, here and there--when they autographed their picture (as was the rule: no caricature went on the wall unless the artist and subject had both signed it), quite a few celebrities wrote a line or two praising, teasing, or making a pun of their artist's name. Gard have mercy! En Gard! Praise be to Gard! Only Gard can make a Tree! (that last one was scrawled lovingly by Lady Viola Tree). It was clear these folks had formed a rapport with Alex Gard, who obviously would have been a staple in the restaurant if he was eating his requisite two meals a day there.

Gard's drawing of theater critic Ward Morehouse.
     According to the book, and to Sardi's legend, Gard and Sardi had a formal agreement: Sardi was not allowed to complain about the caricatures, and Gard was not allowed to complain about the food. Talk about a recipe for some great, loose, fun artwork: no rules, no prescriptions or proscriptions of how the drawing should look, and that all-important relationship with the subject. With the right rapport, a stroke of the pen that might offend instead becomes a stroke of truth that all can find humor in. But a personal "relationship" can swing both ways: once when the head of the New York Stock Exchange came in and asked to be put on the wall, Gard told the man to his face "You I wouldn't draw for ten thousand dollars" (Sardi & West, p. 23). I found it interesting that the true insult in that day and age, rather than being drawn too harshly, was not being drawn.

Mackey's Bob Hope has his eye on you.
     I'll not spend too much time running down the history of each artist, but suffice it to say that Gard was the Sardi's artist from 1926 until his death in 1948, and he created more than 700 caricatures for the restaurant. Sardi asked Al Hirschfeld to take over (the two were good friends, and I spotted a drawing of Al done by Don Bevan on the second floor), but "Al worked on a scale that looked right for the Times, and his style was really suited to black-and-white" (Sardi and West, p. 70) Vincent Sardi wanted all the work in his restaurant to be colorful. John Mackey took over for a while, but before too long he and Sardi parted ways--according to Sardi, Mackey drank a bit too much. Before his departure, he managed to draw major figures like Henry Fonda, Ethel Merman, Bob Hope, and Alec Guinness among others. The Mackey drawings up at Sardi's Off the Wall show skill but are definitely not quite consistent. The Bob Hope is beguiling in its impish side-stare, but a few others (like Arthur Miller and Alec Guiness) look like an entirely different artist did them. Perhaps Mackey's style depended on his blood alcohol level?

Gorgeous shapes and color in Bevan's work.
     Don Bevan, Sardi's next official artist, is credited in Off the Wall as having drawn caricatures of his fellow detainees after being shot down over Nazi Germany while serving as a gunner in 1943. He later sent some of the drawings to the families of his fellow prisoners, which alarmed some of the mothers, who thought that Don's exaggerated drawings reflected their sons' actual condition! (Sardi and West, p. 77). After his time in World War II, Bevan came to the job after a stint cartooning with the Baltimore Sun and a few forays into theater work himself. His caricatures have a softer feel to them, most relying on colored lines instead of a harsher black line drawing--but his shapes are solid, and his punches are not pulled, not even for the ladies. His graphic style reminds me of a less abstract David Cowles, with elegant shapes and blocks of color, very little crosshatching.

     Bevan drew for Sardi's until he retired in 1974, at which time a contest was held and a young student named Richard Baratz won the honor with his rendition of the inimitable Bette Midler. And, according to both Mr. Lesica and Off the Wall, the Divine Miss M was not pleased with it and refused to sign the thing. Sardi sums up his reaction to this beautifully, in a quote I think all caricaturists should have tattooed upon their person: "Not that I was after another Gard, but it takes a really good caricaturist to offend his subject. After all, for an actor, having your caricature done is like a bad review from a critic; asking an actor what he thinks about critics is like asking a fire hydrant what it thinks about dogs" (Sardi and West, p. 108, emphasis mine). It made me a little sad to know that Midler was soon redrawn so that her caricature was more to her liking.     

     Richard Baratz holds his post until this day, though sources are split on exactly how long he's been Sardi's caricature artist (Sardi's website bio states 29 years, but 1974 to present would be 42 years) or even if he is the "sole caricature artist" as the website also claims. There are quite a few pieces on the walls by Marilyn Church, done in the early 1990s, though she is not mentioned in the Off the Wall book, nor is she found on any online sources that list the official artists of Sardi's, and Ivan could not remember exactly how she came to lend her talents to the restaurant. The evidence is hanging plainly on the wall, however, and I salute you, silent lady among the caricature gents of the ages!
Baratz's engraving influence can be seen in the elegant crosshatching he has applied to Tom Wopat's neck and the faces of Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Yul Brenner.

     Baratz's evolving style is something you can track on the wall . . . he has done over 900 caricatures for the place and counting. There are some real gems among his earlier caricatures, while his later work shows the intricate and painstaking workmanship one would expect from someone in Baratz's "day job" of engraver at the U.S. Treasury. Looking closely reveals delicate crosshatching, evenly spaced and arranged to create tone and mass. His drawings seem to have become less loose over the years, but there is a consistency that reigns throughout. Sure, he missed on likeness here and there, but there are some very solid hits. And the misses weren't due to swinging hard and pounding the ball foul--the misses were due to pulling the bat in and trying to bunt, safely, until the ball just didn't go very far. I found myself wondering as I stared at a few of the drawings, "How much of the pull back on that was Baratz, and how much was the effect of outside forces?" I doubt I'll ever know. But remember, this was the kid who had impressed Vincent Sardi because he could offend his subject.


Current Views on Sardi's and Homeopathic Caricature

     Now, we all live in our own bubbles these days, right? So be aware that what follows is what I've experienced in my bubble. I share my bubble with a few hundred caricature artists who work all over the world, and some knowledgeable fans and historians of caricature, so it's at least a sampling of opinion among folks in the industry.
"Where'd my crags go?" asks Brian Cranston (perhaps).

     Perhaps because of Sardi's long, storied history, many artists today hold the place to a high standard when it comes to what goes on the walls (or around social media). Release parties for new caricature unveilings are now spread around online, and some artists have certainly made their opinions known about the lack of "bite" many of the newer pieces seem to have. What seems to be happening, in my observation is a slow dilution of the art form--which, I hasten to point out, is very likely not the fault of Richard Baratz. It's nostalgic and naive to think that any artist working today might have the same freedom as Alex Gard, who was working in what was then a very low-stakes environment with a no-complaints clause in his supposed verbal contract. Now, however, we live in a day and age of artsy filters instantly applied to digital photos, washed-out lighting that makes 50-year-olds look as smooth as they were when they were at 25, and of course, the customer-is-always-right approach to almost everything, including things a customer is often wrong about (like their own appearance).  
I'd like to see the source photo--it had to be an odd angle.

     You need only work one birthday party as a professional caricature artist to see that people can be touchy about their face . . . and if you have an art director (or owner of a restaurant) in charge of making sure no celebrities get rubbed the wrong way, well, it's a foregone conclusion that the direction things will drift naturally is toward a more dilute, "nice" approach to the caricatures. (Are they still caricatures past a certain point? More on that later. )

Elisabeth Moss has delightful features to caricature . . . someday.
I have come to think of it as homeopathic caricature. Homeopathy is the misunderstood snake oil--um, I mean alternative medicine--that is sold widely in pharmacies and drug stores as a curative but actually contains nothing of substance. Developed in the late 18th century by Samuel Hahnemann, homeopathy is based on the (totally wrong) principle that the more dilute a substance, the stronger effect it will have. If garlic or duck liver or Himalayan salt will act as a curative for some condition, then watering that ingredient down will make it even better. It's a philosophy one would never want from one's bartender, but for some reason people fall for it when it comes to their health. Homeopaths take this dilution prerogative to absurd lengths, emptying out a vessel and refilling it with pure water dozens or hundreds of times so that it's statistically improbable that even one molecule of the garlic, or duck liver, or salt remains in the finished product. And customers pay for water (well, water put into sugar tablets)--and they do so happily and eagerly, thinking that since it has no harsh elements it will not harm them and they can enjoy a placebo effect at least. Are you still with me through that long metaphor? Watering down might make things seem more palatable, but it kills the effectiveness--both of medicine and of caricature.

     While the smoothed-out, very lightly treated faces of Cranston, Krakowski, and Moss certainly contain more than a molecule of likeness, they ring as watered-down rather than concentrated. And concentration of what makes a face unique has always been the raison d'etre of caricature. The old guard (no pun intended) of Gard, Hirschfeld, and Covarrubias were pumping out strong, intense caricatures that were boiled down to capture a person sometimes using just a few lines.
Look at how bland! Oh wait, it's the Osmonds. Nevermind.

     Trawling around the net, I found that professional caricature artists weren't the only ones bristling about the homeopathic dilution of caricature in the hallowed halls of Sardi's these days. On a thread at, I found a string of comments from regular non-artist Broadway fans who also seemed to miss the spicier variety of caricature. (Apologies to Mr. Baratz if you are reading this, but every Broadway actor has had to deal with bad reviews, so I'm going to go ahead and quote a few, warts and all--and I'm only sampling a small bit of what's there, these Broadway fans even mention that it's a topic that has come up a lot):

"The recent ones have all been so dreadful! I'm genuinely shocked that nobody has complained to them, and that they themselves haven't noticed the dreadful quality of the work. I feel genuinely bad for all the actors who have to stand in front of photographers pretend like their portrait is good."

"After viewing some of the most recent Sardi's Caricatures, especially Neil Patrick Harris, is it me, or are they not very good? Whenever I see an artist doing caricatures on the street, I tend to notice what they have drawn vs their model. Most, if not all have a very good likeness. I had one done several years ago, at Universal Studios Hollywood, which is extremely good. I just don't see the same likeness with the 'professional.'"

"WOW that's a lousy likeness."

"The current artist is seems to think that everybody's noses are smaller than they are. Maybe it's a stylistic choice? If so, it's a bad one."

"All of the recent caricatures have been disgracefully bad."
Wait, Norm Lewis is black?

"I've never been to Sardi's, do the portraits have a little description saying who it's supposed to be?  Or is it some sad game of 'Guess Who?' that no one ever wins?"

"Elizabeth Moss holding a caricature of Nicole Kidman."

"Amen! They aren't caricatures OR portraits. If the artist isn't going to do the exaggerated caricature style, at least draw something that actually looks like the person."

"I guess no one told them that Norm Lewis is black!" 

    Even these non-artist commenters (I assume they were non-artists, with names like "NJBroadwayGirl" and "TheaterGuy") were pointing out what seasoned caricaturists on other forums had complained of: features that might possibly be interpreted as "offensive" (noses, darker skin tones, wrinkles of any kind) were whitewashed out or understated to the point of losing a likeness. I wanted to ask Sardi's about this trend, and whether scaling back exaggeration was something ordered by the celebrities, by publicists, by the owner of the restaurant himself, or whether the drift just started happening naturally as Baratz drew for them year after year while also working as an engraver. 

Sardi's Visit

     The front canopy with its art deco aesthetic beckons you in like you're a resident of the City, it's upscale but downbeat, chic but shabby, very mid-town. I'll dispense with the food review since no one ever goes there for the food. A few caricatures are visible in the front windows (these get rotated around frequently, they tell me), and upon entering you see many more in the little bar to the left and a coatroom area to the right.

The secret key to finding faces!
     In that coatroom I was greeted by a surprise--one that took me a while to process. Overwhelmed by the sheer array of caricatures everywhere, I blankly looked at the coat-check girl (who looked familiar, but in my line of work EVERYONE starts looking a little familiar, so you kind of block it out after a while) and asked about my appointment with the public relations person there. While I waited, the young lady answered some questions and showed me the big green folder they use to track where each caricature is in the building (with multiple floors and little alcoves, it takes some organizational effort to make sure patrons wishing to find their favorite celebrity can be pointed there quickly). 

     Then after we'd spent a few more minutes together, the young lady helping me says "I know where I know you from now! YOU WENT TO AUSTRALIA!"

     Holy cripes, it all hit me . . . she was a little older now, but four years ago she was a new high school graduate who went on a group tour in Australia with her grandmother, and I was one of the thirty-odd people who was on that trip. Madeline! We had ridden camels together and she'd been prone to breaking out into showtunes--so how fitting that she had ended up working on Broadway so soon. Good for her! We were delighted at this bit of evidence that the world can be a small place sometimes.

PHOTOGRAPHIC PROOF, y'all! On the left, back in 2012 on some godforsaken camel farm in the Outback, and then almost exactly four years later, on West 44th Street.

       After our little reunion, I was passed off to Ivan Lesica, who was a very charming and patient man with the grace of a seasoned host. He answered all my questions and even got a kick out of some of the new things he learned as I shared with him a few things gathered from my trip to the library. Ivan has been working at Sardi's for 23 years now, and he certainly had seen many a star come through the place. He kindly let me record our talk, and I took up nearly an hour of his time.

     Our full interview might be available soon, maybe I'll find a place to host it or offer it as podcast fodder for Ali or Cory's caricature podcast endeavors. But for now I'll go over some of the main things that struck me as we chatted.

    One of the first questions I had was I asked Ivan what his definition of a caricature was. His immediate response was that it was similar to a star on the walk of fame, "definitely a tribute." I nudged him and said it was interesting that he didn't think of likeness or exaggeration first. He said "Not anymore . . . Oh, back in the day [there] used to be caricatures that exaggerated the features and everything . . . but now it's more like a cartoon portrait, and basically the honor of being on the wall and joining all these famous, incredible artists."

Marilyn Church's Charlton Heston.
      As to the mysterious Marilyn Church, Ivan recalled that she did some caricatures in the 90s, but wasn't clear on why or how long she worked with the establishment. Her Charlton Heston and Nathan Lane (among a few others) stand out as a more loose, painterly style.

     Ivan told me of something of the release parties for new caricatures and how the performer is invited, along with family and crew members, to a special private celebration on the top floor. He had no memory of anyone being really upset with their likeness in recent times, though he said one or two actors had been very very nervous wondering what to expect but ended up pleasantly surprised that in the drawing the feature they were worried about had been toned down--nose reduced, etc. "Like plastic surgery?" I asked. "Yes!" he said, they were so happy to see that. I was wincing a little as he recounted the story . . . for some that's a happy narrative, but to a caricature artist it's a slow exsanguination of what I love about this craft.

     He continued on, saying that the days of Broadway stars throwing epic tantrums in Sardi's over their caricatures are definitely over . . . which I kind of felt was a pity, as I'd read so many exciting accounts of that very thing in the Off the Wall book. It was almost like Vincent Sardi, Sr., had been a pioneer in the same sort of shock value and celebrity gawking we see in reality TV today: he very deftly poked at the egos of the day an there were regular instances of hissy fits, dramatic accounts of ripping art off the walls, and the odd prima donna refusing to come back to the place until she was placated in some way. But that's all in the past. Nowadays, Sardi's wanted to make sure there were no sore feelings. "We're happy, they're happy, everybody's happy."
Ivan with his favorite caricature, Sir Anthony.

     The most popular caricatures that people seek out these days, according to Ivan, are Kermit the Frog, Lucille Ball, and Liza Minelli, Elizabeth Taylor, and (more recently) Lin Manuel Miranda. When asked which one was his favorite, Ivan spoke highly of Baratz's first official caricature for the place: a young Anthony Hopkins when he won the Tony Award for his performance in Equus. He kindly took it off the wall and posed for a photo with it. Something about the eyes, he kept telling me--it mesmerized him on his first day at work, and he still stops and stares at it every time he passes it. I was happy to see Ivan moved by the work. It really did capture something ineffable about the young Hopkins. "It's exaggerated but at the same time it's so beautiful," he said wistfully, as if those two things are expected to be exclusive--when in caricature, they go hand in hand.

All the drawings on display are actually laser copies. The real ones are kept in a vault, as it's become a regular thing for the art to walk off the walls. Ivan says he's never been aware of the stolen prints ending up on Ebay or some such, and they have caught a few people in the act. Someone had just attempted to steal Bob Hope prior to my visit there.

As to what kind of influence various people have on the choices the artist makes, Ivan stated that, to his knowledge the public relations reps, the agents, and the stars themselves do not have a say in the artwork beyond providing the source photo. (Which is, granted, having a pretty big say . . . if the caricature is made using just one photo, then that's a very limiting way to approach getting a full likeness.) The subject does not see the caricature before the unveiling, but Sardi's owner, Max Klimavicius, does look at a preliminary sketch and suggest changes if he feels they are needed.  

A Letter from Max

     The business owner is always the first and last word when it comes to how that business is run--even if the business is a hallowed institution for a large group of people who feel a sense of ownership themselves. So Max makes the rules. This March 2016 GrubStreet article quotes him: “There are basically three rules for the wall,” the owner explains. “First of all, you have to be a friend of the house. Just because you are famous it doesn’t mean you get a picture. Second, you have to be in the arts. And third? Third is for the exceptions to the other rules.”

     I did email Max Klimavicius and asked him some follow up questions (politely, as I am not in the business of gotcha journalism), inquiring about the stylistic drift and exactly how much concern for actors' ego went into the drawings these days. While Mr. Klimavicius was very polite in his response, his note also contained a disavowal of the art form--which, again, is his right as a business owner. He and he alone determines what goes on the wall. 

     Responding to my query on exaggeration in the recent caricatures, he took issue with the word itself: "Though we refer colloquially to our collection as caricatures, in point of fact, for over 40 years we have been presenting stylized portraits of Broadway’s stars who are friends of the restaurant." Caricature? Stylized portrait? I know, I know, it's potato poh-tah-toe for a lot of folks. He ended his letter with a request: "But since this collection does not technically conform to the caricature category, I ask you to permit us to withdraw and disengage.  Thank you very much and best of luck in all of your endeavors."

Zach Trenholm's work needs no label.
     Okay, well then, consider my above blog to be about stylized portraits instead of caricatures. Sardi's has been a beacon for caricature artists--I mean stylized portrait drawers--for most of the past century, and I will continue to pop in there whenever I am in New York City. In the heart of the theater district, the establishment has survived plenty of years and will continue to thrive, I think, regardless of ups and downs in the quality of food on the plates and art on the walls. If Richard Baratz steps down one day, I look forward to seeing what new blood might season the visual smorgasbord there . . . If I were the one who made the rules, my pick would be Zach Trenholm, whose strikingly accurate yet graphic and shape-reliant style invokes a real spirit of Broadway and theater caricature at its best. Likenesses are readable from across a crowded restaurant, and will help cause a restaurant to be crowded in the first place. Look him up, Sardi's, I'm rooting for you!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Drawing at LA Pride 2016

Last weekend I chucked my gear into the Ford and drove from Vegas to West Hollywood in order to work alongside Al Rodriguez (thanks for the gig, Al!) at the annual LA Pride event. I wasn't sure what to expect, but it exceeded any expectations I could have formed.
Even the map was clever. 

We were working digitally for Delta Airlines, and the theme was "Dream Drag" . . . so unlike the quicker 5-7 minute color digital pictures of just head and shoulders, we were to make the experience a little more interactive. I like interaction, so I was looking forward to it. We were to ask sitters if they wanted to be a drag queen or a drag king, and what their dream vacation, dream job, or even dream cocktail might be. So I had a 4-hour drive to psych myself up to produce full-body drawings with outlandish costume and unlimited setting possibilities, for a couple of 11-hour stints.

I settled into my room at the little West Hollywood apartment I'd found on air b&b and walked over to the park where we'd be set up the next day. The line was around the block already, and street vendors hawked sunglasses, little rainbow flags, and fashionable underpants--one or two of which I considered purchasing as a surprise for the Mister. Before bed I looked up a few glamazon poses and practiced a few fabulous body shots so I could more readily pull them up the next day.

Saturday came and I rolled in with my gear, found everyone, and set up. I've done a ton of digital gigs, but it still feels like a relief once everything is connected and working, in a way I never worry about when I'm just toting an easel. Then the people started sitting for us. To say the crowd was "into it" would be a huge understatement. My first subject said his dream job was to be an opera singer--and he proved it once I finished his drawing:

Other guests proved just as colorful--the imaginative responses and sense of fun were all over the place. Our client said that drawing folks in drag was the concept, but it was not to be limited to that. Anything goes! And over the weekend these folks definitely put me through my paces. I've drawn plenty of people on unicorns, and I did a few at this event; but some even wanted to BE unicorns. Or mermaids. Or satyrs. Or rainbow lions. You name it.

Some couples were celebrating recent (legal) marriages, others were planning their future nuptials or imagining a Hawaiian getaway. And one couple of Star Wars fans wanted me to draw them with their future adopted baby--"Any imaginary baby will do! An ewok even!" they said. I could not abide an ewok, so they got a baby Chewie.

Elizabethan slash? Yes please.
The nature of the event led to a lot more talking to the sitters--but only when the music from the stage wasn't thoroughly blaring. I can't even recall all the acts, but you could dance to everything. And everyone was. On my break I wandered around and got an eyeful of the crowd. You know the aesthetic some female attendees have at music festivals--very little clothing, what is worn is outlandish or brightly colored? Well the only difference was in this environment that aesthetic applied more to the male attendees than the female ones. It was a great switcheroo. If chicks wearing tiny booty shorts and string bikini tops is fine, then by golly, society should be okay with hot young men wearing similarly revealing things like studded codpieces and thongs with net tops.

I told Al that he was way overdressed. He smirked at me.

There were folks who left it "up to me" to a degree (and really, if the crowd is relaxed and having a great time--as everyone here was--it gives the artist a sense of freedom to improvise and stretch a bit, which is a great feeling!). With the conversation and details they gave me, I tried to cobble together something halfway witty. And some people just plain like to challenge me! One pair sat down and said "We'd like to be in a Shakespearean play, but with a homoerotic twist!"

He said "I spend my time being fabulous, and he
spends his time bringing me back down to earth."
They both laughed a lot at my interpretation. 
One couple wanted to be "in space" but didn't specify, so I went ahead and made one of them an alien. He didn't mind, and loved the surprise. In fact, one of the time drains on my speed was that upon completion, nearly everyone who got drawn popped up to see their caricature on screen, squealed with delight for a minute or two, posed for a selfie with it (even though they were getting a print and a download), and then enveloped me with a hug and sometimes a kiss of thanks. This was, honestly and without hyperbole, the best crowd I have ever worked for.

The first day was such a blast, and I was feeling really comfortable with what seemed like a potentially challenging gig. We called it a night at 1 a.m., grabbed some food at a Denny's down the road, and Al-Rod dropped me off at my air b&b.

Waking up the next day, I was confused as I scrolled through Facebook and saw that a couple of Orlando friends had "checked in as safe." What? Possibilities scrolled through my head: earthquake? flooding? terror strike?

Yes, terror strike. Oh man. I read through the news snippets and my heart sank. So many people, and they were people in the LGBTQ community, out to dance and have a good time and love one another--just like the people I'd been drawing all that previous day. I wondered how this would affect the mood and events today. Then, as I arrived and set up, Al told me about the suspect that police had detained the previous night on his way to LA Pride. Our handlers talked with us briefly about it too, and we found out that organizers had considered canceling Sunday but had decided to continue the festivities but with heightened security.

I'm glad they did not cancel. The show must go on.

I got a few texts from friends and family who knew I was there, asking me to keep alert and be careful. I was, on both counts.

The crowds filed in after the parade, and the show definitely went on. The previous night's massacre was mentioned several times from the stage, as emcees asked for a moment of silence, and then moments of noise, in solidarity with Orlando.

I drew quite a few more nice people, and yes, some of them wanted to go with the theme of "dream drag" and reveled in letting me drape them in a different persona, sometimes replete with giant ta-tas.

A few trans women sat for me on Sunday (at least, a few that I could tell were transitioning--there may have been others that I simply assumed were cis). I had been in the habit of asking people at the start if they wanted to go with the theme of a drag queen or drag king, which I did tentatively at this point, knowing that the conflation of "drag" and "transvestitism" and "transsexual" was a point of contention among trans people. But this elegant trans woman took the reins and replied immediately "No drag for me, thanks, I was in drag for over 50 years, I'm done trying to dress up and pretend I'm a man!" She went on to chat with me about how long she'd been transitioned, and how she was lucky it only cost her one family. Her family-family all abandoned her, she said, but her work family was very accepting. It was both heartbreaking and awe-inspiring how casually she revealed this, and how she counted herself lucky to have only lost her blood-related family. She had a striking look to her face that went well with her strong presence, and I told her she had a mix of Meryl Streep and Glenn Close in her features, which was meant (and taken) as a compliment.

Speaking of Martians, the best kind of
drag queen is a KILLER DRAG QUEEN
Another woman who had just begun her transition seemed to carry herself with a bit less confidence, a bit more guarded. She was plump and her body language reminded me of the self-conscious ball of nerves I was back in middle and high school--sitting so as to hide as much of yourself as you can. She wore a jean skirt, simple sandals (in a large size) and a sweatshirt with little cats on it: also clothes I'd likely have worn in high school. I asked what she felt like having in her picture--a dream vacation, a dream job, a fantasy? She said "Just draw me as a normal woman--that is my dream. Just to be a normal woman." Okay, that made me tear up just a little but I pushed through. She asked me to please not draw her freckles (she was covered in them) . . . I responded that it was up to her, but added that I liked drawing freckles, they have always seemed a cute, feminine feature to me. (I wasn't trying to flatter, that was the truth--my little sister has about a million freckles, and I guess they always seemed girly to me). "Oh, well if you can make them look feminine, put them in," she relented with a shy smile. She said she was lonely, as the only trans woman in her small town she felt like everyone there looked at her like she was from Mars--but attending Pride was a wonderful, accepting experience for her. It's for individuals like her that the show must go on.

And you know, that little blip about the freckles was the ONLY time the whole weekend that someone was self-conscious or told me to edit them. There was no vanity or wish to be falsely improved going on here--which, in this business, you tend to see multiple times a day. Which, again, tends to free up my mindset and allows the cartoons to flow better. I don't ascribe that to be a defining factor in the LGBTQ community: lord knows I've drawn plenty of gay people who were also vain and self-conscious. Just, here, with the festive, inclusive, welcoming feeling going on around us, it was like no one needed to put on any fake notions of trying to appear anything but themselves. It was just good fun.

My day stretched into night, and I drew folks surfing, sunbathing, and enjoying the California sun. I drew folks shooting ray guns, playing ukeleles, and climbing the Eifel Tower. It was certainly not a boring event in any way!

The Vice Mayor sat for a drawing and said he liked airplanes and air travel (a rare thing to like these days--but like a good politician he may have been inspired to choose that based on our sponsor).

 Speaking of our sponsor: our crowd-handlers were all Delta airline attendants. Not temps or model types dressed as attendants, but actual trained flight attendants. And if you ever have a crowd to handle, flight attendants are the people you want on your side. These folks were friendly yet firm, and expert at guiding people through the process and lining up who was next. And at the minute of the last hour of the final day, a please-just-one-more was buzzing around, in the form of a very drunk and incredibly persistent young lady. One of the handlers leaned down to whisper in my ear, and I wearily cringed: many clients and crowd-handlers will, in this situation, simply ask the artist to please make an exception and just draw the insistent person. I was expecting this was about to be requested. But NOPE: the flight attendant whispered "Ummmm, this woman has been told NO several times by me and others and is still insisting on a drawing although the line has been cut off. Please DO NOT draw her, we cannot reward this type of behavior." WOOOO!! YESSSS! Go flight attendant! Way to have my back and assert that the (drunken, unreasonable) customer isn't always right! They ended up having to walk her off the premises and mention that security would be called if she did not comply. And one of the male flight attendants, in a vocal twang that clearly communicated he was part of the LGBTQ community, said "She was even trying to ply me with sexual favors, saying she'd 'do anything I wanted' if I let her cut in line--I was like, girl, do you know where you are?" Yeah, that poor thing was definitely barking up the wrong tree.

All in all, a peaceful end to the night. My gratitude to the Santa Monica police department for keeping away a potential monster that could have made things end very differently at LA Pride. 

The West Hollywood Cheerleaders and I wish you a fond farewell--thanks for reading all my words, y'all!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

How DARE the Weekly Standard Employ Journalistic Principles and Tradition!

As much as I might want to keep this blog about the art and business of caricature, like it or not this is an art form that has grown up hand-in-hand with politics. And so this morning I awoke to see an interesting spat going on involving a caricature of a politician (and yes, I mean that both ways: it's a painted, rendered caricature of Donald Trump, whom many regard as a living, walking caricature of a politician).

The Weekly Standard commissioned award-winning Jason Seiler to paint the Donald, which he did with incredible detail and form.

Then the Weekly Standard released it to their fan base, which (from the Facebook responses) seems to have lost all sense of what caricature is or (GASP!) that it's been used to depict politicians since politics was invented. 

Now, caricature artists who belong to ISCA are already aware of this and several of us have had a run at the comments, soaking in all the looney and digesting it. (The tide is turning, actually, as I see more and more comments explaining or defending the artwork pop up in the last several hours.)

But this isn't just for artists. Please, you non-artist folks who simply appreciate art, history, caricature, and journalism . . . please have a look.

If you can parse your way through the misspellings, typos, confederate flag profile pictures, and occasional misogynistic spitwad, you'll notice that very few of the folks commenting seem to have any realization that Weekly Standard has a history of using caricatures on their cover--or, even, that caricature is a thing that exists. The number-one "liked" comment excoriates the editors at Weekly Standard for daring to "present the front runner in a cartoonish way."

Others are fuming that they are singling out Trump with this illustration while they would never treat Jeb Bush or other candidates in such a "disrespectful" way. (Just a peek at the Weekly Standard subscription page shows me caricatures of the editors, and in the 4 sample covers we have 2 caricatures--one of Jeb Bush and another of Republican hopeful Scott Walker).

A few commenters point out that the Standard in fact has caricatures on a pretty regular basis (and they sure have had a field day with Obama's ears and Hillary's mug) . . . but I also wondered how many folks taking this sensible stance are actually caricature artists who found the link via the ISCA Facebook post. Jason Seiler himself can be found reverse-trolling on there, politely asking folks what is shameful or awful about the caricature. I don't think any one of the rabidly angry Trump supporters has any idea Seiler is, in fact, the creator of that monstrosity they are fuming over.

Don't anybody out him, either! I suspect he's enjoying this.

I'm no Jason Seiler, not by a long shot, but I had a slightly similar feeling recently at a fundraiser for one of my favorite podcasts. I had donated a caricature sculpture of James "The Amazing" Randi for an auction to benefit the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. At the dinner, as the items were walked around the room, one woman at my table (who had no idea that I was the artist) scowled and said "Oh my goodness, how awful! It's so grotesque!" as she examined the miniature James Randi. A fellow sitting across from her said "What, are you crazy? That's awesome--looks just like him!" The woman continued sneering, the guy chuckled and tried to explain caricature to her (and art for that matter), and I simply sat back quietly, enjoying it all secretly.

One of the things caricature shares with "high art" is that it can have the power to divide a room. (The sculpture fetched just over $700, by the way. The woman at my table frowned and made disgusted noises each time the price went higher.)

What I'm seeing on the comment thread for Weekly Standard, though, seems a bit more than dividing a room. I'm not sure what's going on with the Trump supporters as a whole (or if what we see there is even a good representative sample), but the thin-skinned inability to take a visual joke is apparent. As is a really blinding non-awareness of the history of caricature in political publications--hell, I'm not even talking about the roots of the art form in Colonial America or eighteenth-century France here: these readers seem unaware of what caricature even is, unaware that the President and all politicians are regularly caricatured, and that the publication they subscribe to has used caricatures regularly for its entire existence--yes, even on Democrats. 

Ouch. Just, ouch. 

Many of them could not recognize it as a painting and assumed it was some kind of photo manipulation. Though it was painted digitally, it's clearly got the brush-strokes and markings of a highly rendered painting. Have these folks ever seen a real painting, I wondered? Did no one take them to a museum as a kid? Was it just the gun range and Sizzler for every family outing?

Just check out some choice comments I culled (copied & pasted, so consider all typos below to have [sic] next to them):

"If you can't portray a presidential candidate in a serious manner, don't bother at all !!!"
 "Sticks and Stones May Break His Bones...but your lousy satirical cover photos will not hard him. Trump for President 2016."
"Insulting distortion." 
 "When do we see the press do this to Hillary or Sanders or any other person in the top 5"
 "This photoshopping is just plain old mean! Shame on you!"
 "Weekly Standard would you do the same distortion on a picture of Obama? I"m thinking if you did you would be accused of being a racist but you think it's ok to make fun of a white guy..... That racist thing works both ways!"
"What an unflattering picture... On purpose?"
"Can't they stop photo shopping pics?" 
"just cancelled my more serious than a cartoon?" 
"Didn't expect this kind of cover photo from the Standard. I suppose manipulation is the flavor of the day." 
"Whys they use such an unbecoming picture" 
"Geez....terrible artwork designed to insult."
"Your BS unflattering photo can NOT alter the greatest of this man."  
"Ohhhh did they make trump look like a mungoloid?" 
"Why the distorted picture?" 
And my favorite unwitting typo (I believe she meant "disgusting") was: "U are discussing, Weekly Standard" . . . why yes, ma'am, yes I am discussing Weekly Standard. I thought that was kind of obvious. 

Yeah, Seiler would NEVER make fun of Obama...

The scientific illiteracy of the general American public--something that seems more noticeable in those who identify as "far right" or ultra-conservative--has often depressed me. But today the art illiteracy of that same demographic is what's been getting my goat.

It's a caricature. Look it up, people! (Actually, do look it up, because oh my good lord it was hilarious reading the attempts at spelling that word--if you spot a correct spelling of the word there, it's likely because the one commenting IS a caricature artist). 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Drawing Married Couples, Regardless of Their Genitalia

Rainbows for Everyone! 

I've spent some time today and yesterday looking at my ever-increasingly-rainbow-colored Facebook feed and reading all the posts about the Supreme Court's ruling on gay marriage.

What does this have to do with caricature? Well, a couple of things. Number one, we work weddings. And weddings (or, specifically, wedding vendors who refuse service to gay couples) have been a hot topic in the news this year. No doubt you've heard of the bakers, florists, pizza makers, and even a mechanic weighing in on the national stage to proclaim that they would refuse services to openly gay people as a way to exercise their religious rights. Businesses at the center of news stories like this were sent donations by people on one side of the debate and boycotted by people on the other. The coverage angered me on two fronts: it ticks me off that gays who want to marry are being discriminated against, and it ticks me off that wedding vendors are being represented on national TV by these few jerkwads.

One artist posting on the ISCA forum a few months ago mentioned that he had been asked discreetly when getting hired, "This is for a gay wedding, do you have any problem working it?" To his credit, he did not have any problems, and he lamented the fact that the organizer felt a need to issue such a trigger warning to him. I know a lot of artists (gay, straight, religious, not religious, conservative, and liberal), and I can't think of any who would have any problems working such an event. There might be a few in my Facebook list, but if so they've certainly never told me they are prejudiced in this way and would turn down a gig in protest.

The only group we all seem to discriminate against is broke Americans. You are too broke to pay us? Well then we won't be working your event. (And actually, that comes with an asterisk too, since plenty of us do work for charity gigs on a regular basis).

Discrimination and Stereotypes

I'm tempted to say "having more gay weddings is going to be FABULOUS, they are such party people!" but the truth is I know a couple of gay folk who are kind of sticks in the mud. Stereotypes aren't ever across-the-board true, even the positive ones.

While every bar in America hangs up a sign that says they reserve the right to refuse service to anyone, I'd always assumed that was the "in case of A-hole" emergency lever. If someone is being a terrible human being, you can point to the sign and eject them. But assuming all persons in a particular group are terrible, and preemptively refusing to do business with them? That's discrimination--not to mention a really awful business plan.

Like it or not, we all discriminate in some ways--big, little, often unnoticed even by us, so it's valuable to self-examine on a regular basis. Our nervous systems are practically DESIGNED to discriminate and form stereotypes, it's a means of self-preservation. Poisonous red berries made your ancestors sick once or twice and BAM, they avoided all red foods after that. Fast-forward a few hundred thousand years and I know caricature artists who cringe whenever they get approached by certain demographics of the public because of previous awful experiences. It doesn't even have to be your experience, you can just hear about how awful something (or someone) is from your peer group and it will have an effect.

Caricaturists (I like to think) are especially good at noticing patterns, so we certainly fall prey to this primal drive to stereotype. Plus cartoonists have historically made a living poking fun at stereotypes or relying on them for gags. As one coworker said recently at a fair, "I'd like to learn more about your culture, so that I can more accurately make fun of it, please." But it's not all fun and games: being reluctant to draw an Indian couple that walks up to the booth because they "just don't get caricature" (unless it's Indians with an accent from the UK, then hell yeah, sit them down!) or jockeying to get the Japanese couple because "they so get caricature" and usually tip well . . . those are both examples of stereotyping/discrimination on the caricature circuit. Artists are human, and so what they believe about those groups is based on experience or what's repeated in our peer group. But, very importantly, I must point out that I've never seen an artist flat-out refuse to draw someone based on their ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. They'll complain, sure: one fellow I worked with rattled off song titles he wanted to write about stereotypical customer groups that rankled him. There was a country ballad called "Black Women with Yellow Hair Scare Me," and a punk number called "Screaming Mexican Baby." Yet every bleached-blonde African American woman and every screaming Latino toddler got good service from this guy, he never once refused their business.

See, I'm all for acknowledging that we have a lizard part of our brain, and it wants to hate people (or at least categorize them). But part of being an adult citizen of this great country of ours is realizing one must act in such a way that overcomes that lizard-brain tendency. In fact, it's kind of fun to rack up a count of how many people at the average fair (or mall, or party) completely defy the stereotype associated with their demographic. People surprise you, that's a constant you can bank on. 

Events That Go against Your Morals

Yes, I will happily take a slice of that gay wedding business!
Many of the gay-partay-nay-sayers explain that it's not the people they hate, it's the event. Hate the sin, love the sinner; so, hate the wedding, love the guests? In light of the Supreme Court's ruling, some fellow artists have taken this opportunity to happily announce (or re-announce) on social media that they are available to work gay weddings, just as they always have been. I honestly cannot recall working one of those in recent memory, but within the past month I've drawn a lesbian proposal commission and an anniversary picture of two boyfriends. I've also been hired for fundraisers, private parties, and corporate events by members of the LGBTQ community, just as I've worked alongside gay artists and hung out with my gay friends. So working a gay wedding would be no problem at all. Of course, that's easy for me to say--I have nothing against gays or the idea of them getting married to each other.

Nevertheless, it's hard for me to sympathize with those who say they discriminate because getting hired for a gay wedding goes against their core beliefs. Because I do have core beliefs. Some of those beliefs are even "deeply held" as the catchphrase goes. When you hang out a shingle and decide you're going to offer a service to the public, the one overriding "deeply held belief" that matters is your work ethic. Do the work. Plenty of people manage to do their jobs. A Muslim ER doctor will treat you even if the Koran defines you as a heretic. An Amish roadside stand will still sell you apple butter even if they see that you were driving a car, not a buggy. 

I have worked so many events that don't align with my core belief structure and morals. That's why it's called working an event and not "attending an event voluntarily because I think it's awesome." I have sat quietly with my head bowed during prayers I disagree with. I have smiled through corporate speeches that are diametrically opposed to my philosophy. I've drawn for associations and clubs that center around stuff I believe is total bunk. I drew at one wedding for out-of-towners that included a long, angry-sounding speech by the father of the bride detailing how marriage is between a man and a woman, as God intended, and nothing would ever change that, etc. etc. (I felt a twinge of embarrassment for the bride, wondering if she shared his views completely or was rolling her eyes as she watched her old man unravel at what was supposed to be her special day.) I have drawn at events held by some of the biggest donors to the Republican Party. I have drawn for Jews, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Atheists, and Wiccans. I've drawn at Temples and Churches and Strip Clubs. I drew a woman once who asked me to go into the restroom with her to see her hair because she couldn't remove her hijab in public (I did, and she had lovely hair by the way).

I was a paid performer, there to do my job, not take a stand or try to belittle or change the minds of the people who hired me. And you know what? None of those events turned me gay, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Wiccan, or Republican. But it did give me a lot of face-time with people who grew up differently than I did. People in other communities suddenly seem surprisingly similar to you when you sit down and have a chat. They worry about their double-chins and laugh at a good joke. Having some face-time with people different from you is valuable, and I advise everyone to seek it out. It's one of the best ways to combat that lizard-brain tendency we humans have of categorizing and stigmatizing.

My Own Past Bigotry & Gay Marriage

A year or two ago I realized something (darn that self-reflection--sometimes it makes you realize you've been going about something the wrong way!). As gay marriage started getting legalized in more and more states, I examined my typical patter and how I interact with couples who sit for caricatures. And, without realizing it, the marriage question had sort of formed a flow chart in my brain. "So, you two married or dating or cousins or what?" was a typical icebreaker . . . and one I never really used with same-sex couples. And depending on the answer I got, I formed certain notions in my head and asked other questions. "Have any kids?" and so on and so forth.

I mean, I'm no provincial sheltered artist--I've drawn hundreds if not thousands of same-sex couples. Some, who had kids with them, I did just assume were married (or domestically partnered) and I asked them the typical "married life" type questions and made small talk. But for so many other gay couples, I realized, I was just interacting with them as if they were casually dating. And no doubt many of them were . . . but my internal assumption had no basis in fact. Or if it did, it was just the fact that both partners had the same kind of genitalia. With a straight couple, it was just a natural progression . . . "Oh, how long you two been married then?" "Wow, any kids? You leave them at home with grandma & grandpa?" "Oh wow, are you planning a big trip or anything for your 20th anniversary!" And so on and so forth. With gay couples I kind of skirted all that and talked about the weather or their jobs or something else. I can't say why, it wasn't ever a conscious decision.

Someone once argued with me against gay marriage by saying that homosexuals had more partners, more casual relationships than straight people. Therefore they were more likely to cheat and so marriage would be a bad idea for them anyway. (I countered by asking him if we should gather data about the races and, if members of a particular race had more casual relationships / sex partners / adultery than the other races, we should ban members of that race from marrying?) But that question started me thinking, what would my adult love life be like if I were prohibited from marrying? Would I be less likely to form a deep attachment with a partner? Maybe. I'd hope I wouldn't be so stuck on a piece of paper and the legal and tax status it confers . . . but the true answer is maybe. What if, in addition to the government not allowing me to marry, most of the conversations I had with people were framed in such a way that they assumed I would always be single, a casual dater, never have kids, and so on? Well, again, I hope I'd be strong enough to define my own life and love the way I want . . . but again the answer is maybe. Conversations can open up a person's potential, but they can also help close it down. Have enough conversations with a teenager about how worthless they are, and they'll start believing it. Treat someone like marriage or commitment isn't even a possibility with them, and maybe it will have an effect. And if marriage isn't your thing (gay or straight), fine, it's perfectly okay to never settle down, be a casual dater until your dying day. But freedom is about choice.

Conservatives who value the family unit and commitments like marriage should, I think, be celebrating. With this week's ruling, the realm of official, state-sanctioned committed relationships has widened. If you hold up marriage as a good thing, then more citizens being allowed to marry is a good thing. More citizens being treated equally, and being told they can marry someday if they decide to, is a very good thing. 

So, it's just a little change, I suppose, but nowadays I'm asking gay couples if they are "married, dating, cousins, what?" And so on and so forth with the typical married-person banter. Yep, gays and lesbians, you are no longer safe from my corny married-person jokes. Consider yourself warned.