July 28, 2015

Part 7 - How to run away to NYC to become a children's book illustrator


At last, the long winding tale exhausts itself... leaving the theatre empty and the lights gone dim. To those valiant readers who wintered over and endured the endless gales of verbiage, I offer my gratitude.


Life on West 78th Street was sketched neatly like a chapter out of Stuart Little or an old Jack Lemmon movie. I remember watching all the people bustling off to work in the mornings... through the dappled morning sunlight of the trees. I could smell the perfume of secretaries hurrying off to work and hear their clicking heels on the pavement from my 2nd story window. There was the Dublin Harp bar on 81st street in the evenings... quiet tables in candlelight, tasteful... full of opera buffs.

And never a dull minute in New York City. New York always steals the show.

Like the night at 3 am to be awoken by jackhammering in the street directly outside the window. JACKHAMMERING at 3 am??? And then, when dawn finally broke, the guy in a hardhat poked up in his hole in the middle of the street... sipping his morning coffee and looking as much like a groundhog as a person!

Or the time in the middle of one of those monster snowstorms, when the city was buried under a mountain of impossible snow. Only in New York would you see the traffic cop struggling on foot from car to car, digging holes down into each mound of snow to find the windshield to put on a ticket for parking violations!

The three strangest sights I ever saw in Manhattan:

1) Early one morning, I came climbing up the stairs from the 34th street subway to encounter a surreal street filled with dusty elephants silently marching along filling the entire street - dozens of elephants quietly shuffling on their way to the circus. Never seen anything like that before or since!

2) One bright spring day around 57th street and Lexington I came across a city street gushing deep with crystal clear water. Instead of the usual asphalt there was a sparkling, foot deep fountain of clear water filling the entire street. It looked exactly like an alpine river from the Rockies had issued forth... unreal. The sunlight reflecting through the water was entrancing.

3) One day in Central Park I saw the only smoking jogger I’ve ever encountered. An elegant old queen with an ash tray in one hand was shuffling along in a purple velour jumpsuit. All the while with the most wicked sort of grin... he probably enjoyed being the only smoking jogger on planet earth. Only in New York.

Of course New York City had it's dark side...

I mean Manhattan is exciting, but it’s tough to live there. New York was a world behind glass.  You could look at treasures behind glass, but you can't touch them. The lure of the West Coast was calling. I suppose I needed a trip out of Manhattan by then anyhow, call it a vacation or whatever - but just staying there seemed too hard.

I guess I'm really a Westerner at heart. I have to have snow capped mountains in view.

We’d spend hours in the Museum of Natural History sitting in front of this one particular diorama with elk in the Flat Top Mountains in White River National Forest in Colorado. It almost hurt sometimes to sit there and just wish I could hear the river rustling and smell the sage and the campfire smoke. So we packed up and headed west. On the way we stopped for a much needed two week camping trip in the Rockies.

It was exactly what we needed to unwind and relax in the sun. Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument... Rocky Mountain National Park... and we even made a point of searching out the exact spot of that museum diorama in the Flat Top Mountains in White River National Forest. We came close to the exact spot... but I think the artist must have fudged a few details, since we couldn’t get it to line up exactly.

We returned to New York the following September... but this time to Dobbs Ferry, in Westchester. It was quiet and leafy and much more live-able than Manhattan. That's where I put down roots as an illustrator, living in a wonderful old house built in 1840 overlooking the Hudson, with the most wonderful and eccentric landlord... a sculptor and art history professor and his wife, a photographer. But that's another story. It was the land of Sleepy Hollow, winding roads through the trees, historic estates of the robber barons. The Hudson River line to Grand Central was just two blocks away - so I still got down to Manhattan a lot for work.


But after four years in Dobbs Ferry, the West kept calling. I began to grow homesick for snow capped peaks, rain forests, desert canyons, sagebrush, the cool green Pacific... for wild places without hardly any people. I dreamed of Seattle, the proletariat paradise... or so it seemed... sailboats, coffee shops, mossy sidewalks and ferns. I subscribed to a neighborhood Seattle paper, which is the worst possible thing to do when you're homesick.

Anyhow, by now I had an agent... and FedEx made it possible to live anywhere. So my New York days were over.

All in all I got to be all misty eyed and choked up when I think about New York City and how it makes the All American dream come true for ragged immigrants who arrive on her shores with no more than a dream. All those cliches about ‘If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere’ and ‘Welcome your homeless, your destitute and all that’-  I loved every minute of it. I arrived destitute with my own little dream and some talent... and it all came true for me. Thanks Manhattan!

I'd been a New Yorker for 5 years... it was everything I'd hoped it would be. But things move on. Amazingly I haven’t been back once ever since, even though I left decades ago. I never seem to go back to places. Life got in the way. And after 10 years I began to realize that they NEVER send illustrators on business trips. Never, Ever, Never. Did I mention they never send illustrators on business trips?

I've always envied people who get to go out in the world and travel as part of their work.  I just stay at home and the work comes to me and I make my own little worlds. Of course since the internet arrived, it's all kind of one big electronic village.

I've heard people tell me that my editors and art directors will be glad to see me - but somehow I can only remember how when I was in NYC everyone was always too busy to see me or even remember who I was.  So I've never gone back. I send postcards instead.

Anyhow, that was my tiny tale of triumph & tribulation... I'm sure everyone's got one that's just about the same, so thanks for reading mine!


Mike Blake illustration said...

I wouldn't say "endured the endless gales of verbiage" is a proper way to explain your "long winding tale".

Honestly I looked forward to each and every post, hoping it wouldn’t end. Your story telling was engaging, funny and well crafted. I especially enjoyed your descriptions of the places you lived, people you met and events you went through. It was very well done. (Do you write professionally? You should consider it! Even if only an illustrated autobiography of your life… much like these posts...)

Even more of a takeaway, was learning what you did, and most illustrators had to go through back then, in order to start and get established in the business. Completely UNREAL to those of us brought up in the digital era of art, emails, and websites. It made me appreciate the changes in the industry and gain a deeper respect for those like you, who paved the way before us. So thank you!

Anyway, if you were to do a follow-up post...I’ll bet your journey from traditional to digital (and going back and forth would be fun)...and also the changes from having to be in new york, then using fed-ex and now email...and maybe fiascos that came about?

Thanks again for your “how to run away” posts!

John Nez said...

Thanks Mike! Yes, I was thinking that nowadays nobody has to run away to NYC anymore... but it was fun in any event.

Funny how things have changed so much and keep changing in publishing and illustration. And it's true now it's all gone digital for the most part... and I also took part in that change of course.

Somehow it doesn't seem like it was all that long ago to me that I ran away to NYC. In all the time I spent in Dobbs Ferry I don't think I hardly ever met a single illustrator... except for the Caldecott winner Ed Young who lived in Hastings, right down the road from Dobbs Ferry. So in that respect having the internet really makes things easy. Young artists today can just stay at home and research the web to learn most everything. I didn't even know there was such a thing as the SCBWI when I lived in New York!

Live & learn I guess...


jcdillustration said...

I just came over from Kathy Temean's interview post. Thank you for sharing your inspiring story. This series of posts about your journey to NYC were just fascinating and so uplifting. And I didn't have to wait, I could just tear through them in one sitting! =) BTW my kids love the Diary of a Worm series. Congratulations on your continued success!

John Nez said...

Thanks jcd! It's great to have a reader.

Of course I was only the 'ghost illustrator' for the Diary of a Worm books.
Just like how I was the 'ghost illustrator' for Mercer Mayer and Rosemary Wells and many a Muppet book. But I do lots of my own illustration too.