March 13, 2007

This was it... Do or Die :5


The children's book illustration class with Maurice Sendak was held in a corner window studio on the 11th floor, high over 5th Avenue. I remember I was so nervous on the first day... waiting for the famous Mr. Sendak to appear. I’d have never guessed he’d turn out to be a disarmingly unpretentious regular guy from Brooklyn.

I told him I was nervous having him as a teacher because he was so famous. 'I'm just an old man with a beard... get over it', he said. He was totally unassuming... but he had this air of anxiety... must have been the genius gnawing at him or something. A cold draft of anxiety that always seemed to be there. But he was totally brilliant, entertaining, delightful.

Maurice would wait until the class was all quietly hard at work and then ramble on with priceless philosophical insights. I thought it highly amusing one day to hear him declare the obvious, “Of course a degree in illustration is completely superflous... it’s only one's talent and portfolio that really counts”. Another time he said “It doesn’t matter how many brilliant talented people you hang out with, it won’t make you any more talented”.

One day M.S. brought in the dummy pencils to 'Outside Over There'... they were incredible.. detailed down to each leaf. ‘It's like an opera’ I commented. M.S. thought that was an interesting, because someone else had also told him that. At the time I didn’t know his interest in opera was so keen... but I imagine that had something to do with it. I lent him a plastic bag to wrap the dummy up in, since it was pouring down rain... my brush with fame.

M.S. seemed to really care about his students welfare, unlike most of the other distant teachers there. He would make appointments with editors for his students to visit... invite them out to lunch (I actually turned down an invitation once because I had a stupid midterm the next class... something I'll always regret)

I used to come back to visit the class though even after I dropped out of school. M.S. was thrilled when I dropped out and started working. One day Richard Egielski was there too. He hadn't won the Caldecott yet. I don't think I met another illustrator for 10 years after leaving school. Amazingly I'd never even heard of the SCBWi. But the experience of those weeks was magical. It was like something you read about in books... like how Picasso and Renoir and Rousseu would all meet and have parties in Paris in 1906. I could scarcely believe it was me there... among the greats of the world of children’s books.

Also in the M.S. class were Steve Salerno and Vivienne Flesher. Steven Salerno has gone on to write & illustrate fabulous children's books... he was even chosen to do the art to a reissued Margaret Wise Brown book. The last time I saw Vivienne Flesher was one night on the sidewalk outside Balducci's... she hadn't landed a single illustration assignment yet and seemed a bit discouraged. Within 5 years I'd be seeing her incredible, unnervingly beautiful pastel draftsmanship on the cover of Time magazine.

I loved Walter and Niiad Einsel's class too. They were so calm and focused and seemed to impart wisdom almost by osmosis. Good design... basic aesthetics... the history of illustration. They really were a great team of artists. I wished I could have stayed on longer.

But after the Holiday break, my career as a ‘freelancer’ began in earnest. Underscore ‘earnest’ what with all of $275 in the bank account... make that extreme earnestness.

The decision to drop out of school was fairly obvious. I was terrified of running up a huge student loan debt. I wasn't really feeling like I was learning as much in school as I was from New York City. I was desperate to start making the rounds of publishers and actually start working. I hardly had to think twice about my choice. Also, my Mimi (a.k.a. Ann) had moved out to join me in my little 'La Boehm' room on West 78th street. We'd met in Seattle, and I guess true love can't be denied. She flew out at Christmas and together it turned out to be the start of a great adventure... since I'm still married to her. Looking back, no doubt it was the most exciting time of my life.

But on to work. What with $275 in the bank I really needed some work. This was it... Do or Die.


I still remember the first time I ever made a cold call to a publisher, trying to get a portfolio review. I was at a pay phone in the basement of the Museum of Natural History... and I was calling Workman publishers (who I still haven’t ever worked for to this day). My voice was trembling as I got through to the art director and lied and said, “I’m a freelance illustrator and I wonder if I could drop by and show my portfolio”. I guess it’s the lying part I remember so well. And the response was a total ‘No, we have no interest in seeing you at all..’ A total cold shoulder. But I had pockets full of dimes and just kept on calling.

I must have made the rounds to no more than 5 or 6 places before I landed my first job... doing an educational spot drawing for Macmillian I think. It was just $75 or something... but it was money for making art... not pushing a broom. It was the first time I'd ever been paid for artwork. It was so invigorating to just be out and about in midtown Manhattan, meeting real art directors in real publishing houses. The energy of the streets, I think they refer to it. It was fun and easy and what I'd come to New York to do.

What did I have to lose? Not much... there was always Plan B. Taking the bus back to Seattle... but I didn't want Plan B.


June said...

I'm still reading John!
I love your memories of NY, all the sights and smells too! I am reading, and seeing my own images in my mind from your discriptions.
What an amazing and exciting time this was for you and Ann.

Keep going, when you can find time....

gail said...

I haven't been over here for a few days...I've got some catching up to do! Started skimming, the dummy pencils to 'Outside Over There'...I'm so jealous!!!

I better read your posts in order. Back to reading...

John Nez said...

Still hanging in there, eh?

Not to worry... there's only 2 episodes left... then I can return to my standard weekly bout of philosophical trivia.

Or I was thinking just maybe plain unphilosophical trivia might be refreshing.



Anonymous said...

Wow! Maurice sendak as a teacher! "Outside Over There" is my favourite Maurice sendak book, and to see the actual dummy fabulous is that! Can't wait for the next installment of your New York story.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your admission to failure on your cold calls. LOL

I used to do things similar to you but most of my work was done for publishers of magazines and books and things like newspapers. Lots of black and white with some color. I no longer do any of that. Like most of my life, it comes in chunks of 7-10 years and each is different.

Now, at almost 73, and after marriage to the same lady for 52 years, and after 54 years of photography under my belt, all I can say is I am still at the photography part.

Does it help to be related to President Lincoln? I don't think so.

John Nez said...

Thanks for dropping by Abe!

Now that Lincoln was my kind of President!


Paige Keiser said...

This is fantastic John, thanks so much for sharing your experiences. Can we trade lives? I am deeply in love with New York city after having visited on several occasions. I plan to live there as soon as I am able. For now, I'm happy to live vicariously through your story.

Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

What a story John! I never did the New York scene and always regretted it. Sounds like you had the ULTIMATE New York scene! :) e