Wednesday, October 14, 2015

My Museum Life

I spent a month at the Minneapolis Institute of Art last year as artist-in-residence, in their library. The idea man behind the residency was Jay Peterson, of Coffeehouse Press, someone I'd known several years as my neighborhood bookseller. (My favorite places are bookstores and libraries.) So I went to the museum and spent days in their library of old art books. Stealing, mostly. I get my best ideas looking at art, and what better place than a museum? I gave a lecture after the residency. A kind of show and tell. That was over a year ago. Now, suddenly, the museum is 100 years old, and I feel as if I'd grown up in it. (To celebrate the milestone my friends at Pentagram did a brand makeover. It's now Mia.)

When the museum decided to do a centenary book, Brian Donahue (who designs the Macalester College magazine) kindly asked me to draw something for the cover, and Jeff Johnson (my editor from when I was writing for Minnesota Monthly) asked me to write a chapter. Fun projects.  Brian used the cover art on the title page too.

Here’s the opening page of the essay. I illustrated a couple of my essay spreads with art I’d done during my time there, explaining the process of art, which is mostly osmosis. Illustrating this book was sort of like returning the art I stole from them, or the ideas I stole, transmuted into something strange and new, but old.

Enjoy, but don't touch.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Camera Setting

I've been drawing cameras for several years. Old cameras have a "thingness" that makes you want to pick them up and operate them. Irresistible. I remember on one of my trips for Skiing magazine, taking an old Rollei compact with me. It was built like a very small tank, armored, impregnable, to keep the light out I guess. A lot more cumbersome to ski with than my small new model Zeiss. Naturally I took b/w photos with it, trying to imitate the classic German ski photos of the 1930s.

This drawing is one of a series of Settings. The title is fun. I would take assorted objects and arrange them as if they were a place setting at a table, as if I was preparing to eat them. Delicious. This drawing appeared in The Believer.

Monday, May 6, 2013


In honor of Freud's birthday, here is a painting of Freud and Jung kissing.

Freud appears 13 times in my book. When he saw his mother naked. When he got his famous couch. When he started collecting totems. His attempt to stop smoking. A list of who he got birthday cards from when he turned 80. An altogether interesting life.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Fiction Illustration in the New Yorker

I got a call from Awan Jordan, an illustration editor at the New Yorker, who wanted me to illustrate a story for an upcoming issue. The story (The Fragments by Joshua Ferris) involved a New York snowstorm, a relationship, and a stream of cell phone conversations, overheard in fragments like a Greek chorus. Awan suggested including handwritten bits of these conversations in the art. I welcomed the idea and got to work. I've been working with layers and patterns of handwritten text for some time in my art, and I've always done a lot of diagrams and maps. Quick, informal longhand seemed to work, imitating the feel of intimate conversation.

The first idea was to create a palimpsest of overlapping handwritten fragments, which I did several different ways. I liked the effect, but it seemed more like overlapping dialogue, like in an Altman movie, rather than a series of discrete fragments of private talk.

So I thought of something else, something I'd never tried before: inverting the lettering and shifting it into color and cutting and pasting it together. I'd do this in shapes rather than in strips. It's hard to do a sketch of a collage. It makes more sense to do the finished art right off, to see if it works. This is what I was doing. I'd gotten the call at the end of the week and promised sketches on Monday, planning instead to show several finished illustrations and see which they liked, reworking them as needed. This color illustration of bright lettering collaged together was invented as I was trying it out, and it worked pretty nicely. There was a bright Miro-ish playfulness to the shapes and the palette (including a certain amount of pale and gray colors made the other colors brighter and also helped echo the feel of the snowstorm in the story). The composition suggested one large voice balloon comprised of all these simultaneous conversations, all these relationships working themselves out in the air during this snowstorm. (I added snowflakes to this version too.)

This seemed perfect to me, but it didn't resemble the style sample Awan had liked initially, an overlapping diagram in two tones of blue that I'd sent him a few months ago. I went to bed loving the bright collage I'd done, but half of my mind thinking of how I might create something more in the style he'd suggested. Next day I rewrote the bits of dialogue and inserted them into voice balloons, shifting the line into the two blue tones from the style sample he'd liked, and assembled them on top of the earlier palimpsest that I'd also shifted into cool wintry blue shades. Then I inserted a semi transparent layer behind the voice balloons to help them show up better. 

This is the one that ran in the magazine this week. Awan had the clever idea of inserting the story's title into a voice balloon in the middle of the page. Brilliant touch.

When it came in the mail my wife said "After years of submitting your stories to them, you can finally say you've had your writing published in the New Yorker." (She's much wittier than I am.)

Thursday, April 11, 2013

False Spring

April has always been a cruel month. For the past few days the talk has been about the predicted six to twelve inch snow we'd get today. I woke up this morning and they were saying 3-6 instead. Still... The StarTribune writer Bill Ward wrote a clever piece about what Minnesotans should do to defy this late winter weather and they needed art for it, so I drew this surly chap in his sandals and sea monster innertube looking up at the snow. Enjoy. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

How Not To Cut

I woke up Monday morning to an assignment from the NYTimes. One of those neat little drawings that draw the reader's eye to the letters on the editorial page. Maybe this is why they are called drawings.

The subject was the one on everyone's mind: the draconian sequester cuts––it's unusual when two of the three words describing the issue of the day are words nobody uses much and most people couldn't define for you. We have half the country enthused (to the point where they should maybe go lie down) about cutting federal spending. What's interesting is the people most rabid about cutting are the ones whose lives and whose districts would be most negatively affected. Here's where we enter the realm of unintended consequences. ("Honestly, doctor, I didn't realize I shouldn't cut that branch closer to the trunk than the point where I was sitting on it.") It's the Red Districts that receive most of the federal dollars and they also, conveniently, pay less in taxes than they receive. There is a Snopesian cleverness about this which I almost admire. But it is hard to squeeze all of these thoughts into a drawing the size of your thumb. So, as always happens, I resorted to metaphor. And there is actually a thumb in the metaphor, although it isn't the thumb which the budget cutter is about to sever.
Point is, we don't always think about deeds and consequences. Sometimes wars cost money. Sometimes poisoning the air winds up poisoning the people who breathe it. Sometimes cutting federal spending during a severe economic downturn ends up cutting the only spending that's happening. At which point the economy begins to lose any semblance of a pulse.

Republicans and rich people like to give advice to the poor about thrift, but only poor people know thrift.  They are experts at it. The Republican gasbags (there are Dem gasbags too) like to preach the morality of spending cuts "to save our children". They preach austerity while driving large cars and owning twelve homes. Forcing austerity measures on an economy during a recession is like starving your children to protect their inheritance. Which sounds stupid, but to rich people it's actually smart, because after the children of the poor starve, their money carefully unspent will remain in banks where the rich can go on playing with it. I enjoy drawing pictures describing damnfoolishness like this.

(I would like to thank Ben Shahn and Ludwig Bemelmans and a few others who taught me how to draw hands and papercutters.)

Monday, February 18, 2013


I did Valentines for my near & dear last week, as I always do.

This is the one I did for my very dearest, Faith.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

City Snowfall

I drew this picture of an imaginary New York during a real snowstorm here in Minneapolis, probably 30 years ago. I worked exclusively in pen in those days, a style suited to the black and white world of a snowstorm. I loved snow more then than I do now.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Thursday, January 31, 2013


I did this illustration last week for my local newspaper, the StarTribune. The article was about how metropolitan types are now adopting the style of lumberjacks... At least here in Minneapolis.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Zen Illustration

I illustrated a series of short first-person essays for the January issue of Shambhala Sun magazine, art directed by Liza Matthews. This is the opener with title lettering. She'd liked the letterforms I used for the book Orientation (Faber, 2011) so I used that same style here. Like zen, drawing that appears effortless and relaxed is never as effortless as it seems.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

POETRY magazine cover for January 2013

I drew this a couple of years ago as part of a portfolio I showed to a San Francisco collector. It was one of those he didn't pick. Looking back on it now, I don't think he bought anything. But it's from these discard piles that I often find my best work. And often it's among concrete things that I find the strongest iconic associations. The poetry of shape and function I guess. It made it suitable for sending to Alex Knowlton who art directs POETRY magazine. I remember thinking how a wound electrical cord resembled the mathematical symbol for infinity. I darkened the pencil line and added the color afterwards. I especially like how the color turned out. Bold and simple. I don't get to work in orange often enough.

Friday, December 21, 2012


Lee Carlson, a colleague from my days writing for Skiing magazine, sent me this questionnaire. It's been traveling from author blog to author blog. What is the working title of your book? I have several books in various states of completion. Picture books, novels, stories that want to turn into novels, a novelette I'm adapting for the screen. Since this is a blog about my art, here are the picture books and illustrated books: MR. PONSONBY'S WAY WITH MICE and other stories; THE TERRIBLE TRUTH ABOUT GROWN-UPS; A CAR TRIP; BAD HAIR DAY; A NOSE IS A NOSE; NOTHING EVER HAPPENS AT THE BELVEDERE. There are others which I haven't worked on in a while. I have a lot of drawers full of material. Where did the idea come from for the book? Where do all ideas come from? Thin air. Actually, several of my picture book stories and my ghost stories began as stories I told to Madeline at bedtime. It's been a while since I've told her stories. What genre do(es) your book(s) fall under? Travel. Fable. Adventure. Comedy. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? For my screenplay of the story, THE LAST ADVENTURE OF THE BLUE PHANTOM (published in McSweeneys24), I picture either Forest Whitaker or Denzel Washington. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? The titles usually tell what it's about. Or, as in the case of Belvedere, it's ironic and opposite to what happens. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? I have direct relationships with art directors and a few editors, but it's important to have an agent for books. Marly Rusoff sold my first book, A BOOK OF AGES, but I am represented by Sterling Lord for children's books. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? I write very quickly or very slowly. Stories are quick. Novels take forever. I've not finished a novel yet. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? My prose influences are Raymond Chandler, Roald Dahl, M. R. James, Evelyn Waugh. Who or What inspired you to write this book? I put a character into a situation and try to write them out of it. I think of a place or a time or a mood or a predicament first. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? Since books are such a speculative venture it's probably better to put people onto the book I have in print than the ones that may never get there. The best way to do that is to visit the website for A BOOK OF AGES––AN ECCENTRIC MISCELLANY OF GREAT AND OFFBEAT MOMENTS IN THE LIVES OF THE FAMOUS AND INFAMOUS, AGES 1 TO 100 (RANDOM HOUSE, 2008). It's a funny, surprising, fascinating, conversation-starting collection of stories from famous lives, arranged by year of age. (A perfect gift.)

Elves, Christmas Lights, Snow

I did this Christmas card for the Dutch design firm GBE and my friend Fritiof Eriksson. This idea just popped into my head. You never know where they come from. Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Reagan the Lifeguard

I drew this a few years ago. You hear Republicans talking about individualism and the evils of government, but they seldom mention all the government props and support they get in the business community, the roads they use, the educated workforce they couldn't do without, the legal protections of their patents and trade agreements. The quote they like to trot out is this one from Reagan, about the scariest words in the world being "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." I don't suppose many people mind the government rescuing them from hurricanes or floods or fire. Do you think of firemen as socialists? I don't. But they're not profiteers either, and I'm glad of that. They don't ask for payment before they help you. Reagan himself was a government employee when he worked as a lifeguard. He didn't look at every near-drowning as a business opportunity. Helping can be a job, but it's also a citizen's duty, a neighbor's duty, and an obligation we all share in common through our democratic institutions. One of the presidential candidates wants to cut FEMA emergency preparedness by half. Can you guess which one?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Political Geography-The Road to 2012

I did this illustration for Northwestern University to help them promote a panel discussion about the election. The event was titled "The Road to 2012". They'd seen the POETRY magazine cover I posted on my website and liked that look. I changed the houses from familiar suburban ramblers and moderns into 21st century mansionettes shaped like red and blue states (choosing states with recognizable outlines––there are a lot of rectangles.) In the final version we added signs with the electoral college count for each, but I like the basic version, which is more conceptual and interesting for being less concrete. Raul Torres art directed.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Original Immigrants

I did this image for the remarkable Patrick J. B. Flynn, for an education magazine article about how to rethink our teaching of Thanksgiving to America's schoolchildren. The natives who greeted and helped the early settlers were a trusting and generous people, and we Europeans didn't repay them very well. Something to think about on Columbus Day. Of course, till the day he died, Columbus thought he was stealing land and gold from the Chinese.

Friday, September 28, 2012

La Table

Faith's birthday was the other day and I drew her a card. Usually I draw flowers, but I bought flowers, so I drew her favorite table in our living room. (Happy Birthday, Faith. Love, Eric.)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Lucky Jim

I never wanted to leave college. I'd found a place where your job was reading books. I liked the gothic architecture, the ivy, the rumpledness, the quiet. I did leave, but I still go back occasionally, usually by reading novels about college life, the best one being Lucky Jim, which I've reread every ten years or so with increasing admiration and relish. When NYRB asked me to illustrate the covers of Amis's novels for them I quickly began rereading them all, starting with Lucky Jim, which I found as richly amusing as ever.

I did several dozen drawings of Jim Dixon to start. I drew him with a pint in his hand, with a book, wearing a jaundiced expression, a bilious expression, a world-weary expression. Then I decided to do the reader a favor and let them visualize Lucky Jim how they liked. I turned him volte face, striding up a long sidewalk toward the college.

What college? He's a minor instructor at a minor redbrick college, not Oxford or Cambridge. Amis's biographers think he might have been visualizing Swansea (where he was teaching) or Lancaster or Leicester, but he doesn't say. I looked for appropriate examples of Midlands collegiate architecture and started drawing them. The final image is adapted from a wing at Liverpool University. I removed some of the soot and made the brick redder. Still, it looks appropriately prisonlike, because Jim Dixon doesn't like where he is. Unlike myself at his age, he longs for escape; the novel is escapist in that sense. Our hero is a boozer, a slacker, a mocker of authority, but in all things a colossal fuck-up, and his story is a masterpiece of slow-motion catastrophe. I hope I've done it justice.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Art for Gastronomica Magazine

Gastronomica called and wanted me to illustrate a story about pranks. Pranks chefs and sous chefs play on each other. A couple of approaches seemed to work. A plain funny drawing of chefs playing tricks––I drew something inspired by the MAD series Spy vs. Spy, sly looks, furtive cooks lighting matches in each others' cooking clogs. Another part of the story was about the phony equipment requests chefs send the new guy in search of. That's the idea that gelled. It required drawing a number of specialized tools that don't exist, never a problem for me. I think it turned out rather well. The art direction was by the excellent and seldom mischievous Frances Baca. Look for this art in the forthcoming issue. There are several articles in it that I plan to read over lunches this week...

Monday, July 23, 2012

Orientation, a book of stories

Here is the paperback cover of ORIENTATION, an intriguing book of stories by Dan Orozco. I did the lettering right down to the Faber colophon. Art directed by the wonderful Charlotte Strick. It was Charlotte's idea to throw a bright yellow behind these faces. Now the book practically jumps off the shelf. Brilliant.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Anniversary Flowers

Yesterday was our anniversary. I painted this bouquet, but also walked to the corner to buy her a real one. There is something endlessly intriguing about flowers, how they unfold and overlap.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Today's Art in the New York Times

I got a call from Alexandra Zsigmond yesterday. She art directs the New York Times op-ed page, and wanted me to do a drawing for the letters column. David Brooks had written about the Republican alternative to Obama's Affordable Care Act, which had just been upheld by the Supreme Court, and people had written responses to the column. It's hard to do a drawing of nothing, but I had the idea of drawing an elephant holding an empty box. I put a red cross on it to indicate it was a first aid kit, an apt enough analogy.

To make the elephant look more "congressional" I also put him in a suit.

The editors at the Times like to steer away from the hackneyed symbols when they can––the elephants and donkeys and Uncle Sams––so I also drew a senatorial-looking figure holding an empty box. To emphasize the emptiness of the box, I added a moth.

Word came back that they preferred the non-elephantine drawing and wanted it without the moth, which looked too much like a butterfly to them. They also thought it would be better to have the first aid kit covering more of the man's face, to make it more about the box. Adjustments made, drawing rescanned and sent, and this is the one that ran in the New York Times this morning. I like how it turned out.

While we're on the subject of elephants, I sometimes wonder if there aren't millions of Americans who vote Republican not because they like their policies but because they like elephants and perhaps hold a negative opinion of donkeys. I wouldn't be surprised.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Travel Art...Minus the Glamour

I did some art for the New York Times travel section last week, art directed by Shannon Robertson and Angelica Rogers. The topic was legroom in Coach, something I'm familiar with after many years as a travel writer. (Every year it seemed the seats got narrower and closer together...or was I still growing?) The conversation in the column was about the aggravation and aggression that close quarters generate. I drew it two ways for them to choose from. First I drew a conventional composition of unhappy travelers elbowing and scowling at each other. Then I tried to think what they reminded me of. Knees shoved up, shoulders hunched––and I thought of kiddycars, adults shoehorned into seats designed for children. This added the aggressive element that I was reading about. And why not make the kiddycars into small airliners? The space allotted for the illustration allowed me to decapitate two figures on the left, a natural consequence of modern travel.

Friday, March 30, 2012

A Tree at Lacock Abbey

I drew this from an old photograph of a tree at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire. I couldn't draw it from life because I've never been to Lacock; I've been to Wiltshire. Anyway, the tree was blown down in a high wind a century ago. I find I draw better from an armchair, indoors, out of the wind. Sometimes what I draw can tell you where I'd like to be, but if I was there I doubt I'd draw. I might take pictures. I'd probably sit and read a book, no doubt about someplace else.

Monday, March 26, 2012

From the Sketchbook-an Old Bookstore

I did this drawing over the weekend from an old photograph of Foyles, the London bookstore. The largest, but not my favorite. My favorite haunt for books in London is a small side street called Cecil Court. It's off Charing Cross Road.

Friday, February 24, 2012

A Drawing of a Bridge in Bath

Bath is one of my favorite cities, and I'm sad to admit I've only spent two days in it, more like a day and a half, an evening in between. I hardly know it. I know it better from books by Austen and Smollett and Dickens and the films made from them. I did this drawing from a postcard I bought when I was there.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


I did this drawing for my wife for Valentines Day. She loves tulips. (I also gave her roses.) The house on the pitcher is our house overlooking Lake Harriet.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Happy Birthday, Mr. Dickens

On his 200th birthday, the Great Inimitable is as funny and satirically brilliant as ever. And relevant too, in a world owned and operated by Scrooges. We could use a novelist with his righteous anger and his ability to change minds. I did this illustration several years ago for a Broadway production of A Christmas Carol, the show that Americans love every Christmas and forget immediately afterwards.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


When it's cold and gray here in Minneapolis it sometimes helps to spend a little time drawing a warmer, sunnier place. Somewhere I've been, in this case Rome, my favorite neighborhood of the old city between Piazza Navona and the Pantheon. I can almost smell the motorino fumes.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The One About the Buddhist Temple

I stopped by the Co-op the other day and was looking at the magazines and happened across the art I did for Shambhala Sun last month. It turned out nicely. The story was about a Buddhist monk and an old temple in Japan. Being about zen and such things there were levels behind the obvious, which is what I tried to express here. Also, being zen, there wasn't a lot of action. This wasn't a Kung Fu story.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Lotus and the Projector

There is something Platonic about the concept of reality projected on a screen. The idea dates back to Plato, in fact, referring to how we perceive reality secondhand and need to trust that it's true. The idea of a film projector was a central metaphor to a story I illustrated for the current issue of Shambhala Sun magazine, art directed by Liza Matthews.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Bagatelle Story-frame 7

...and finally the culmination of what we'd been hoping for.
What had been hinted at, which is what prophets do in a vague sort of way...
Merry Christmas.