July 24, 2015

Part 6 - How to run away to NYC to become a children's book illustrator


Our trivial tale draws close to it's conclusion... as our footloose artiste finds his footing on the slippery slopes of publishing.

The real turning point and the place where I felt I was born as an illustrator was on a bone chilling February day.  It was one of those days when the word ‘cold’ is the palest echo of the reality of the nose freezing, wind whipping, hide-in-the-nearest-doorway, sub-zero torturous COLD there could ever be. I had an appointment to show my portfolio at Holt, Reinhart & Winston on Madison Avenue, I think.

Inside it was warm... and wonderful... and seemed like magic. I was led back to the office of Miriam Chaikin, who seemed more like a fairy godmother than an art director to me. She appreciativley looked through my portfolio... carefully turning the pages and then paused and said. “Well, all we’d have for you now would be a little book. It only pays $800”.

More divine words have never into the porches of mine ears been poured. That offer, which I accepted on the spot, immediately tripled my bank account and made it possible to stay in Manhattan and try to become a freelance illustrator. Plan B was history. That job alone saved my career and changed my life... and I’ll be eternally grateful to Miriam Chaikin for her wonderfulness. She turned the course of my life then and there.

As it turned out, the book I did with Miriam Chaikin was fun. ‘School & Me’... featuring my totally cringeworthy artwork. I threw myself into doing it all. Color separations, designing the cover... things I’d never done before, but quickly learned. I did it all working in my tiny little studio room, delighted to be a real working artist. I remember the oddity of being woken up by a phone call from my ‘editor’ many a morning.

And as the Winter turned to Spring, my schedule of assignments snowballed. I had an A4 sized drawing sample printed up and mailed it out and dropped off samples at dozens of publishers. It was so exciting! It was living first and later on maybe I could think about anything to worry about... life is exciting when it’s lived out ahead of itself in the most wonderful way.

So I started working... freelancing. My tiny room became my studio. I made a light-box out of a cardboard box with the bottom cut out and a lamp. I drew on translucent heavy vellum for the sketches and traced onto watercolor paper and painted. It all worked out great.

On a nice day I’d walk down to midtown though Central Park from West 78th Street to drop off a sketch or finished art. I started doing lots of jobs for magazines... and little spots for educational publishing. And to my amazement, I started to get rich... it felt like I was rich at least. By June I had almost $5,000 in the bank! I’d never had more than $800 before and that was after scrimping and saving for months. My dream was coming true... it was New York City... it was Springtime... life was wonderful.

And so my fledgling career began. I was now working for half a dozen clients. Travel & Leisure, Scholastic, Games Magazine, Macmillan, ABC Publishing, Harcourt Brace.

I even got to work for 17 Magazine... which seemed like the swankiest, most glamorous place I’d ever been before.  I relished each trip to the art studio in back, where I’d discuss the sketch with the art director. My only disappointment was there wasn’t a single coed in a cardigan to be spied anywhere on the premises. But it was still thrilling to do an illustration and then see my work 2 months later in the magazines on the newsstands. It was all just too heady and exciting.

It almost seemed like as soon as I’d return home from dropping off an assignment, there’d be a new job waiting... for some fabulous fee like $375 for just one spot drawing! I used to have to push a broom for two weeks to make that much. This was the career for me!


I guess it was sort of a ‘La Boehm’ existence... only I felt rich. Did I mention there was no kitchen and only a shared bathroom down the hall? Amazing what one can adapt to... piling up dishes on the edge of a bathroom sink to wash them somehow under the bathroom faucet. The best technique was to use a frying pan cover as a tray, turned upside down, so it could balance on the flat top of it’s handle. Then all the plates and cups and glasses and pans and silverware all sort of balanced on top of that.

Manhattan had it’s charms. The Museums... the Met, the Whitney, the MOMA, the Frick, the Morgan Library and the Museum of Natural History. We’d go to the Museum of Natural History on cold winter nights just to have a place to walk around... stretching our legs through all the fabulous wings of dioramas. There was Central Park and the Lake. We’d sit on one particular rock that was like a peninsula stretching far into the water and just admire the beautiful view of Nature and the City. Those Olmstead Brothers did a bang up job of crafting Central Park. It’s hard to imagine New York without Central Park. I remember our mailman, who looked like a character right out of Stuart Little used to always sniff up his nose and say ‘Mmmm.... smell that wonderful fresh air coming from Central Park. It’s the trees that makes the air so fresh’. He was right.

Shakespeare in the Park... Concerts on the great lawn. Walking the winding sidewalks of Central Park past the lake to the Met. We went to the Met and the Museum of Natural History so many times we strung together all the tin museum buttons to make into a Christmas tree garland. Life on West 78th Street was wonderful... especially viewed through the lens of nostalgia. But would it last? Could it last?

Just one final wrap-up episode left, faithful readers! Hang in there...

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