Wednesday, December 29, 2010

From the Flat Files 8

And now for something truly awful.  It's oil on primed illustration board and is approximately 18"x24" or so.  I believe it was done my senior year in college, though I'm uncertain of which semester.  Likely early second semester, making it '98.  I've said before that my portfolio out of college consisted mostly of book and editorial work.  This piece would be an example of the latter.

After I graduated, I began pounding the pavement in New York, trying to get in to see folks and interview.  There were cold calls, there was phone tag, there were drop-off days (designated days for dropping off your portfolio at publishing companies for the art directors to peruse).  It was a difficult slog.  One of the biggest problems I faced was that voicemail had really taken off at this point.  Long gone were the days of people actually answering their phones.  But, it was also before email became the norm.  Sure, we had email addresses, but getting a hold of an art director's email address was damn near impossible, and you could forget about sending attached images because the series of tubes that is the internet just couldn't take that kind of pressure.  So, you made your phone calls, you left messages, you waited, and hoped for the best.

One of the few art directors who still answered his phone was Steven Heller, then the art director of the New York Times Book Review.  He was notorious for giving green illustrators their first job, and so I gave him a shot.  As he answered his phone he was easy to contact, and was also pretty easy to see...provided you could be at the New York Times offices at the ungodly hour of 7 am.  For a kid just out of college, that was not the easiest thing in the world to do.  But I did it.

So, one morning during the summer of 1998, I found myself bleary-eyed amidst the fluorescent hum of the New York Times offices.  It was one of those places where you get out of the elevator to find yourself trapped in this room that only people with keys can get out of (unless you want to get back on the elevator).  Next to one of the doors was a phone, and I used it to call Steven's desk.  No answer.  So I waited a while and tried again.  Still no answer.  I was likely there for only ten minutes or so, but it still felt like an eternity.  I wanted to give up, and I decided that if I called one more time, and he didn't answer, I was going to chicken out and head home.  I called one last time, and he picked up.

He came to the door and let me in and led me directly into a conference room.  We never sat, which was bad for me as I was so nervous my legs were shaking.  Still, we exchanged quick pleasantries and got to business.  He flipped through the pages of my portfolio silently, looked at every piece, then went back to the beginning and began his critique.  To be honest, I wasn't expecting a critique.  I was there for work, and so I wasn't fully prepared for what he had to say.  I saw his lips moving, but could hardly hear his words over my heartbeat.  It was not at all what I expected.

Still, he wasn't harsh.  He wasn't mean.  He had some positive things to say.  And he used the piece above to make his main point.  "How good would this piece be, if you actually knew how to paint?" he asked.  "You've got a lot of good ideas in here, but they're completely undone by your inability to do them justice.  Learn to paint...then come back and see me."  He shook my hand, I thanked him, and I headed home.  It was clear that I had a lot of work to do.

It was only after the fact, that I'd heard that during an interview, Steven had encouraged a friend of mine to reconsider his future career as an illustrator.  I believe the line was, "I don't want to tell you to quit, but..." (or so I've heard it told).  I realized that not only had I gotten off easy, but got something valuable out of experience.  Sure, it was the same advice I'd been hearing for a year, but there was also encouragement in there.  If I put my nose to the grindstone, I might just find my work in the pages of the New York Times.

As fortune would have it, I never got to meet with Steven Heller again.  I wasn't making any income and blew through what little I had saved fairly quickly after college.  I was forced to get a temp job, which lead to a full-time job and I never again revisited editorial work with the ability to paint.  Eventually, as you know, I got into fantasy and sci-fi imagery and I never looked back.  Still, a part of me wonders what my editorial work might have become, and I wonder, too, if I would have made it that world.

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