So way back when I was young and full of whatever the young are full of, (snips and snails from my reporting), I was renting a place with me then-girlfriend-soon-to-be-wife over in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn when I found that one of my heroes, George Pratt was living in nearby Park Slope. Not sure how I made contact or got his info… whether it was via some con someplace through email, (though this was 1997 or so and early days for the interwebs), but by some poor turn of fate for George I managed to make contact and we got together for a slice at a pizza joint down on 7th avenue near his house. Why does this matter, and why in god’s name am I bothering to describe this? Because dear reader friends, this was kind of a big deal for me and my career in ways I did not know and expect, and it really underlines in a micro way, the macro essential benefit of our community in the field in which we work.
I’m a little fuzzy on timing but by my recollection, but I don’t think I was yet involved with Allen Spiegel who was representing him at the time along with Kent Williams, Jon J Muth, Dave McKean et al… So this was a cold call back in a simpler time. We got on swimmingly and I was just beginning to draw SUDDEN GRAVITY, my first ever graphic novel, and was also in the midst of my first legit published comics work for Paradox Press’ Factoid book series by Bronwyn Taggart and Andy Helfer at DC in THE BIG BOOK OF WEIRDOES. The BIG BOOK series was significant because George was also doing some of these as well. I think he did two or three as I did too in the end. In any case, George had a great floor-through place right on 7th avenue and ironically was seeing Rebecca Guay at the time and we met briefly once or twice there, not realizing we went to college together and would later become good friends. Funny what you miss and remember when you go back like this. Anyway. I don’t have picture from that time because well… selfies weren’t a thing and taking pictures meant having a clunky camera, taking your film to be processed while you wait a week to see if you took good ones… so you’ll have to use your imaginations here.
George had made his bones with ENEMY ACE: WAR IDYLL and was beginning his big Batman book, HARVEST MOON while also working on his SEE YOU IN HELL BLIND BOY blues book and film. It was a rich time to get to know an artist I had already admired but getting to hang out while we worked on shit together was a whole other level. His place was a crowded artist manacle of the ultimate infinite- books lining all the walls- too many books. A nice rolling press for monotypes in a middle room, and art ink paint and linseed oil smells everywhere. It was for me at this time like getting to sit in an adjacent seat while Willy Wonka did his books in his secret lair. Truly seminal times. The thing I recall being most inspirational and informative was the art chatter, the materials geekery. Sitting with all manner of paper stock and playing with what mediums did well on them. I started a sketchbook – the only time in my career I ever really kept one- and fiddled with it each and every day. George was the one who told me about the exercise of getting a blank book, making a square that fills each page and promising to fill that square with drawing each and every day. From life, imagination… whatever… the point was to draw, draw again and make none of it precious. Sitting while George worked on his Bat-book, seeing his process first hand and pulling prints for Blind Boy was a really not the level of intimate tutelage I had ever before or since experienced. Being able to sit in a working artist’s space and see how his day was built, how he worked, the power of the coffee break and learning about music that wasn’t familiar… it was in many ways a casual apprenticeship even though I think really it was just a couple of bearded goofballs hanging out.
I can still smell the place… see the Big Book pages sitting idly and perhaps a little past due next to his old drawing table, ( to be fair these books were sort of miserable to do- all pre laid out 9-panel grids, pretty much postcard comics rather than any actual thrilling panel storytelling. Dense scripts with excessive verbiage crowding each tiny panel. If I wasn’t so psyched to be actually doing this at all- working on legit DC comics Bristol board like a true life adult ass art-man, I would have had the same grudging reticence George showed this project). But what he showed me even in this was that despite his high station in the business, even he must suffer the same and important drudge work we all sometimes do to make ends meet, keep our names alive out there in print, (remember almost no real internet, and social media had not been invented. Flip phones were still cool). The dark shadow that came to his eyes when he looked at those pages and the delight that returned when he was back on the table with Batman was important to witness. being able to thumb through all the original pages for ENEMY ACE was like stealing into the comics Louvre late at night and going nuts with the collection between security guard shifts. It felt wrong but was done with permission, and so so right. I learned just by being there in that space what the day was like- and some days we spent all day together… through lunch and take out Chinese and setting suns. He was my first celebrity contact of an extended nature and he taught me how best to handle that stuff for later that has been such an essential tool in navigating these folk in the world today. They’re just folk, doing stuff and you likely have more in common with them than you thought you might have. He for his part never saw me as anything but, as far as I know, another artist coming up the ladder behind him. There was never a pontificating grandiosity or pompous requirement of me to adore while we got down with some shrimp lo mein whilst hearing stories about Dave or Jeffery Catherine Jones, or Archie Goodwin yarns. We weren’t at all int he same station in our lives but he never made me feel like I was lesser from that difference. We’d both gone to Pratt in Clinton Hill for college, about ten years apart, both grew up in Texas and had a lot more in common than not. It was kind of magical.
George’s work was scummily and searching. His drawings and prints were never hyper polished or hardline ever. There’s a kind of fluid natural expressionism to it. Clearly like Kent and others- particular a theme of we Pratt alums, a deep passion for Egon Schiele and Klimt. He always drew from life and reference and sometimes I just drew and it made an interesting miss of sketching together, and brought me an understanding of mark making I so desperately need to understand back then. I am all but certain it for a timer made my own work a pale copycat of his own, but that’s not a bas thing if it’s only for a time. To get to try on someone else’s shoes walk around for a bit teaches more than you could have ever imagined, and getting to try his on as far as I could, taught me more than I even then expected.
Now I am a true believer in the power of online communication- I Facebook and tweet and instapost and run my own website and all that malarky, and it serves me extremely well. Both for my work, promotional reasons being able to sell my pieces personally and eschew the gallery system, and build and make new friends that one day will get consummated in person at a show, opening jury thing, or by purposeful non accident. This is all well and good, but as I look back on this year or so with George, before he moved south and I moved to a different neighborhood, I realize that for all the intensity and immediacy on a daily basis online, sitting on the floor of his studio and looking at Toth and Wrightson books while he drew as Nick Drake crooned in the background was the kind of artistic connection you just don’t get online. We live in a time of hyper connectivity and simultaneously isolated loneliness. I don’t know how easily this kind of thing could happen now as it did then- perhaps the illusion of fulfilled digital community makes us think we don’t need it as much. I can’t promise if this were happening today that most of our time spent would have been via texting or emails even though we were in abutting neighborhoods. I’m glad we didn’t;t have the choice back then. I’m a better artist for it. I got to see what the life of a working artist focused on comics looked like and it made that for the first time, real. To be able to see a goal in another person’s life, and not see it as some unattainable thing, some pedestal experience, was deeply important to me as a life lesson and a comfort to know that this was possible for me too. This all said, I am deeply grateful for the social media world we live in now- that connectivity while not as rich as a live, in-person experience, it is and has enabled hundreds of terrific interactions with people, students and other peers from literally, all overt the planet to come together in real time, share lives and work. Kids you have no idea how good you have it.
So here I am now, sitting at my drawing table listening to Nick Drake in a studio surrounded by too many books, with some thrilling projects on the table and some sitting and overdue that seem like drudgery and I for the first time see that I somehow managed it too. We can get lost in the world of our lives, all the slow details of trying to make a life in art, all the daily instagram posts of other artists that might make us feel slow or undeveloped… and forget this is not bending the laws of physics to have this life. To make this life. I’ve got no special powers, and neither does George… we just worked and worked and kept working and here we are. I am so grateful to him for the time he gave me back then, proud to call him a friend and a colleague to this day some twenty years later, and recognizing how important these casual, drifting moments are in our lives as artists. Even if it takes decades to remember how precious and magical they were. I see in looking back all the seeds and influences that influence me even today. Try to get out there and meet you heroes, and if they can and are able, get a cup of coffee and talk about farts in high school and Durer prints and politics and get bad greasy Chinese and don’t be surprised if it doesn’t steer your life in directions you never before then, thought possible. So here’s to you, George. Thanks forever and always.
To see a doc on SEE YOU IN HELL, BLIND BOY at that time in that space go HERE. and seriously do this. it’s terrific.
To visit his website and see what George is up to now, please go HERE.
Aw man, what a great Read. Thank you <3
Thanks- glad you liked it!
On the other hand, I got to study with you even though we live nowhere near each other, so there are some plusses to all this internet connectivity as well ?
This is a great memory, though, thanks for sharing!
Absolutely. I love the time we’re in right now with regards to this kind of ability to live-stream working the way SmArt School gets to exploit. I’m so glad to have had you in the class- it was terrific
Thanks so much! This is a wonderful read and definitely takes me back.
I can relate to your feelings about this because it’s what I got from calling Michael Kaluta when I was a freshman at Pratt Institute. Michael was the first artist I contacted in New York, and he understood perfectly what that meant to me as an young tyro. I was blown away when I went to visit him the first time and nervous as all get out. Mike calmed me down and then we got to the business of digging through his amazing collection of Mucha books. There we were on the floor of his studio (which had very much a Victorian feel to it, art and objets d’arte EVERYWHERE!) flipping pages and scoping Mucha’s “Slav Epic” paintings and drawings! It was wonderful. I arrived there at 8am and didn’t leave until 8pm. It was a loonnng magical day for me. I really was in heaven. I got him to sign my Studio book and my copy of “Swords of Sharazar” which I still treasure today.
As cool (and uncool) as the social media is nothing beats sitting in another artist’s studio and soaking up their creative vibes. The sounds that one is encased in, the smells, as you mentioned, the very atmosphere they breathe and create in. That’s a whole other world. And antiseptic is ain’t. Seemingly, like all things digital, there’s a separation from the very human qualities that I feel are vital to creators. A big part of that is camaraderie, which does exist, to be sure, on the web, but it’s inherently different. The physicality is obviously totally missing.
I used to hand out keys to my place in Brooklyn to various good friends and people would come and go. It was fantastic. We’d play frisbee dodge ball in the long hallway, the frisbee bouncing off the walls coming at you like a circular saw blade! Photo shoots that were a blast, but lots of work. Long, long, long nights of sketching and drinking pot after pot of coffee, and whiskey. Scott Hampton would drive up from South Carolina (and eventually moved in) and we’d first hit the donut shop downstairs (7th Avenue Donuts – still there), swap sketchbooks and draw till sunup, swilling coffee and eating cinnamon rolls. Richard Clark would come over and we’d have 8-hour chess playing tournaments, all the while sparring about art and painters, etc.
It was a joy to see the work in person of what you were working on then, Greg. The ball point pen work and everything. So cool! And comparing notes about growing up in Texas. Those were very special, exciting days.
Angelo Torres lived down the street (if you don’t know who he is, look him up) and he and Curtis Woodbridge (son of George Woodbridge and a great artist in his own right) would come over and we’d head out to Little Italy and get an amazing Italian dinner, then go snag coffee and tiramisu in some other place. All the while talking about comics, Hal Foster, Rembrandt, Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Harvey Dunn, Howard Pyle, N C Wyeth, on and on, you name it! Art! Art! Art! I think that’s incredibly invigorating on so many different levels that the “clean room” aspect of the web can’t even come close.
Online we’re seeing a curated world. In reality our studios are curated, after a fashion, but there’s also lots there that we wouldn’t normally just show anyone. But visiting and sitting in another’s studio one soaks up the environment and sees things not normally seen. You get to see into the nooks and crannies and really see the source of much of what drives them.
I was lucky to visit many studios and knew how fortunate I was. Burt Silverman, Skip Liepke and Milt Kobayashi’s studio, Donato Giancola, Charles Vess when he was living with Mike Kaluta, Jeff Jones, and many others. These all gave me a glimpse into how artists live, what’s important to them and their art, and gave me ideas about how I might set my own world up. I wonder how many young artists in New York or other places have opened the phone book and checked to see who lives in their city? And did they call them? Or is just seeing their work on the web enough?