"As an illustration editor of The New Yorker, I've been lucky enough to work with Edel from the very beginning" says Owen Phillips. "He's taken on every kind of project for us - I still feel bad about some of the dreary 10-hour foreign movies I've made him watch - and sometimes his Cuban background has come in handy; though just try to get him on the phone to discuss a sketch when he's visiting his family back in Miami at one of their crazy all day dance parties. He's a champ. And in case you weren't jealous yet, I have to report that he lives in a Victorian house with a swimming pool in a historic small town in New Jersey with his wife and baby."
Owen Phillips recently talked with Rodriguez for this altpick.com interview.
You were born in Havana in 1971. Then what?
I grew up in the countryside in a dirty little town called El Gabriel, which was surrounded by sugar cane fields. I started drawing as far back as I can remember, at the time mostly drawings of Che Guevara, Jose Marti, or tanks and missiles, probably cause that's what I saw all the time on TV, at May Day parades, or on billboards and posters on the roads.
I didn't know it at the time, but there were many reasons. My father had been trying to get us out of Cuba for a long time. Finally, in 1980, there was the Mariel Boatlift, mostly recognized in the U.S. in the movie Scarface. Well, a lot of families left Cuba then, along with prisoners, gays, and people from insane asylums that Castro put on the families' boats. Getting out was a crazy ordeal, which took over a week but finally we ended up with my family in Miami. So you got here and got sucked deeper into art and design?
When I got here I was surprised by a lot of things, everything looked so crisp and clean. I learned English fairly fast and started getting good grades. I kept drawing, although now it was stuff from books, Coke bottles, all the new things that I came across. I was kind of fascinated by logos and advertising, so I think some of my interest in design came from that. I was always the art kid that they'd ask to do everything, from yearbook covers to literary magazines, mostly cheesy air brushy things - hey, I was in Miami and it was the 80's. OK, so let's skip to the part about me. When did we first start working together?
Sometime in '94 or '95 I got a call from you that you had noticed and liked my work and wanted me to go draw an installation by an artist in SoHo. I freaked and thought that was the coolest gig. I actually got to go somewhere for a job. I was always interested in reportage type work and here it was. I must have done about 15 sketches, which I'm sure you thought was weird. You liked it, I think, and kept calling me after that. Now it's been almost 10 years of steady work for The New Yorker, probably over 100 assignments. The most memorable job was when I went canoeing with a crew on the Hudson River and rowed all the way to Jersey drawing them the whole time. I think being in the New Yorker really helped make my illustration career. I wasn't aware how much weight it had. I remember you had some kind of autobiographical set of work. It was terrific - maybe we talked about the notion of publishing it on its own? Heavy on collage. Were you painting on banana skins or something? We were into heavy duty texture back then, trying out people who did all kinds of 3-D nonsense. And did I send you to a Cuban play where they actually cooked a pig on stage?
Yes, back in '94 I went back to Cuba for the first time since I had left in 1980. It had a big impact on me. When I returned I did drawings, mostly of my family, my town, the landscape, etc. I put a lot of it in my portfolio so that was probably what you saw. I was trying to find ways to incorporate color and texture into my black and white work and one way was with collage, mostly colored papers, papyrus and some 'banana' paper, made from the fibers of banana peels. The personal drawings of Cuba eventually did make it into The New Yorker in 1996. They were published in a special issue when Pope John Paul II visited Cuba for the first time, accompanying an article entitled, 'The Plague Years,' by Jon Lee Anderson. That was very rewarding for me, since the publishing of personal work is usually every artist's dream.
They didn't cook a pig in the Cuban play I was sent to, they just had a severed pig's head laying on a table in a kitchen scene. Naturally it was very prominent in my drawing. It's the kind of thing I noticed and drew when I was in Cuba.
I would say about 10 to 20 assignments. Does that drive you crazy? Or does it seem like a reasonable thing?
If that were all I did for The New Yorker then it might get to me, but it's just one part. I've usually had a personal interest in the Cuban plays and films I've been assigned to illustrate. I use the opportunity to show the country as I know it, which I think is much more complex than how it gets portrayed by others at times. My Cuban background is not as important when illustrating something on the economy, or on social and political issues. I grew up here in the 80's and 90's so I've got the same cultural interests as every other American of my generation. I do get a lot of ethnic-type assignments: Asian, Latin, or African-American issues because I think people like the way I deal with some of the subject matter. I've done well giving you movies from Argentina, Asia, Russia - usually they're kind of dusty movies or moldy movies. Also you won me a gold medal with a portrait of a Senegalese musician, right? I probably wouldn't call you to draw Britney Spears. What do you think it is about your color and line that suits those topics so well?
That's correct on the gold medal from the Society of Illustrators, a close-up portrait of the musician Youssou n'Dour with a simple African landscape behind him. I always try to bring some texture and local color to my illustration work. I've traveled a lot to places like Egypt, Spain, and Eastern Europe, and always kept sketchbooks. I think that travel experience and my growing up in the so-called third world helps me deal well with foreign subject matter.
The line in my drawings varies: certain and dense for some work, or fragile and broken for others. I think the work you mentioned fits into the latter category. I come from a fine art background which I think raises the standard to which I strive to get to in my work. My influences range from George Grosz, Kathe Kollwitz, and Ben Shahn, to Kiki Smith, Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter. I happen to think that putting Britney Spears through that filter could result in something unique and a lot of fun. Or yes, perhaps, a total disaster.There you see - I've got you pegged for moldy, crusty, third-world, difficult films and you're yearning to draw teen pop. Shitty of me.
I do find that a large proportion of my regular artists come from fine arts backgrounds rather than illustration programs. When you speak to illustration students how do you address that? You can't just tell them they've blown it, that they shouldn't keep going.
The whole illustration vs. fine art discussion can get pretty contentious. When I started college I was in the illustration program for a semester. Once I decided to switch to fine art, the illustration department head told me I was just making a huge mistake, that I wasn't going to go anywhere, etc. When I visit with illustration students now, I encourage them to take their electives in sculpture, painting, and art theory. I also tell them to look at art history for inspiration, to go to the source, rather than illustration annuals or magazines. To think about the ideas behind the art rather than copy some trendy style.
There's a certain degree of self discipline and critical thinking that you pick up studying fine art. Usually there are no assignments or deadlines, so you're on your own. Having no real direction from anyone can be daunting at first but over time creates a real intensity. That intensity comes in handy when one gets out in the real world and there are no illustration jobs; one has to be innovative and find a direction. I don't see that passion as much with illustration students. They need to have clear assignments with strict deadlines and they sometimes still don't get the work done. All that being said, I know many great illustrators that have gone through illustration programs, or that are self-taught. Ultimately, I think it all rides on an individual's passion to create.
That's a good question. It's really changed over time. In the beginning it really helped my illustration work to be in the design field. I had no idea how to become an illustrator but I was able to get a design job working at Time magazine right out of college. All of a sudden I found myself hiring some of the best artists in the field, people like Matt Mahurin, Brad Holland, Brian Cronin, Anita Kunz, Barry Blitt, Steve Brodner, Scott Menchin and Peter Kuper, among many others. I learned a lot from behind the scenes. How they dealt with deadlines, how they processed complicated articles into brilliant visual ideas, how they marketed and presented their work. I was basically a sponge benefiting from working with all of them and I think it helped move my illustration work forward.
Over time, I've become friends with many of these troublemakers and I think the art directing has benefited. I think they see me as their peer and trust my input and that I understand their issues, because I deal with them myself. All of this helps in cajoling them into doing work for Time when they otherwise might turn it down because they're oh-so-busy. I just tease them, call 'em sissies, and they usually change their mind.What are some of those issues that you're able to finesse with the illustrators? I'm sure we both deal with the same things, but let's air some of them out.
Well, most illustrators want their work to stay pure, with as little outside influence as possible. But they're in a business where they're usually working for some big corporate client, or even a small corporate client, so it's hard to maintain that indie attitude. One has to be able to work with many people, art directors and editors, whose own jobs are affected by what gets published in their magazines, on their posters, their stamps, whatever.
Sometimes illustrators have ideas that are very clear in their minds, that make perfect sense to them. But they may not to me, and I'm very open minded. If I don't get it, then I know the editors I work with will definitely question the direction, and I won't be able to defend it myself. I'm kind of the middleman. I try to work with the artist to get to the point where a sketch will be approved and still maintain its artistic merit. It's a tough balance, but I think being an illustrator myself helps the conversation. I think the artists that work for me understand that I'm on their side through much of this back and forth.
Being an art director myself also helps me understand what's happening on the other end when I've sent in sketches. I know the hurdles the art directors have to jump on their ends and I think the people I work for appreciate my cooperation. With short deadlines, set dimensions, and given subject matter, it's hard to argue that illustration's a pure art form in the first place. Someone recently described it as being art under the circumstances, and that made perfect sense to me.I'm not going to ask what you think is the future of illustration. But I will ask this: Since you've done so much, Time magazine covers, children's books, stamps, Broadway posters, etc., what's your dream project?
I've been very lucky to have worked on such important projects at a fairly young age. I'm still very surprised by the whole thing. I've always wanted to work on a reportage story for a magazine, go somewhere and spend some time and tell the story as I see it. There's a possibility of that happening some day, I think.
A real dream project would be to be commissioned by a modern opera or ballet company to conceptualize and design the sets, costumes, etc., for a performance. When I was a kid I used to make set maquettes inside shoe boxes, and later went on to design and build sets for two plays while in college, one by Ibsen and the other by Gertrude Stein. It was probably the hardest thing I've ever done, but very fulfilling to put on every night. To be asked to conceptualize the visuals for a professional theater company, well, then, that's something to dream about.
- Contributed by Owen Phillips
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