No Artist is an Island
We are all artists of our own lives, we are all connected, and we all collaborate in this existence
by Cortney Skinner | 01.22.20
Folks working in the arts never work alone. Though they may solo at the easel, keyboard, notepad, etc., from the moment they pick up that first instrument or tool, they’re working in conjunction and collaboration with their environment, other people, and their surroundings—whether they know it or not. No matter their chosen medium, genre, or tradition, artists require inspiration, encouragement, and feedback to grow and improve their work.
My wife, writer Elizabeth Massie, told me of her first “published” work. She was four years old when she made up a story about squirrels that she told her dad one night. He then went down to the local newspaper (he was the president of the Waynesboro News-Virginian), typed out the story as he remembered it, added some clip art of a squirrel, and bound it in a cardboard cover. He presented it to her the next morning. That could have been the inspirational starter pistol that sent her on a career that now includes 27 books and over 100 short stories.
The seeds for my own career as an illustrator might have been planted and inspired by all the illustrated books and magazines at home. My little eyeballs pored over the illustrated storybooks as well as the magazines that my father subscribed to, which were illustrated by Norman Rockwell and other major illustrators of the time. My father was an artist in his two-man advertising firm in Boston, and he’d bring home reams of paper with test printings of the ads he designed on one side, with the blank sides becoming my drawing paper supply. After my older sister taught me how to draw Donald Duck, I happily repeated that minor feat in my kindergarten class whereupon my teacher paraded me and my duck drawing from classroom to classroom to the applause of all the older classmates. Applause for drawing a cartoon duck? Maybe my life as an artist was launched at that moment. Thank you, dad, sister Sheri, and kindergarten teacher Mrs. Sheridan—all of whom were my artist collaborators.
Friends can have a strong influence in life’s pathways. My best boyhood pal, Geary Gravel, and I created our own superhero comics in ink and colored pencil. He also introduced me to science fiction and fantasy. He was an avid reader of those stories, while I was more attracted to the wonderfully illustrated covers. Geary pursued a writer’s life, eventually becoming a published author in those genres, which encouraged my own pursuit of illustrating those subjects. We attended many science fiction and fantasy conventions, which brought us both into contact with professional writers and illustrators. This gave us a picture of the course these professions can take. The photo of me shown here with one of my paintings was taken at a science fiction art show in Boston in the 1990s.
My pursuit of science fiction and fantasy illustration was to create still another connection. As mentioned in a previous blog post, my art school experience was not inspirational nor very productive, career-wise. However, by attending many science fiction and fantasy conventions and selling my paintings at their art shows, I met a publisher who gave me my first professional assignment. I also met some very talented and inspiring artists. One such illustrator was Tom Kidd, one of the top artists in his field and now a good friend. He was a major influence in my pursuit of illustration work in science fiction and fantasy, and we eventually collaborated on several book covers in his Connecticut studio. This was a learning experience for me. There’s nothing quite like working with another artist and seeing how they lay out the colors on their palette, approach brushwork, and plan the painting on their canvas. It was much like the illustrator studios of Howard Pyle’s era, where artists would inspire and learn from each other.
One afternoon, Tom surprised me by telling me that we, with master pastel artist and illustrator, Joel Spector, would drive out to the hills of upstate New York. There, we would visit the studio and home of the renowned illustrator and western artist, Don Spaulding. Spaulding was one of the few students taught by Norman Rockwell. We were warmly greeted by Don and his wife Colette and given a tour of his painting studio. Don’s experience with Rockwell infused him with a passion for historical authenticity that has stayed with him throughout his career as an illustrator and as one of the foremost western artists in the country. In the photo below, from the left, are Don, Joel, Tom, and I during that visit.
Don showed us his amazing costume and historical clothing collection worn by his models when they posed for his period paintings. He also had a fascinating assortment of 19th-century items used as props for his western paintings. It’s difficult to put into words the “vibes” and inspiration that we felt visiting Don. Tom, Joel, and I spent hours looking at Don’s work and peppering him with question after question, hoping that we weren’t overstaying our welcome.
On another visit, I mustered up the hubris to show Don some of the illustrations I was painting for a collectible card game. I still remember the suggestions and tips he gave me that afternoon and which I continue to employ today. This was another instance of an inheritance of sorts being handed down through generations. From Rockwell and his teachers to Don and then to me.
Tom generously included me in another very memorable and inspirational experience. Now and then, in a cozy Connecticut Italian restaurant, there would be a gathering of some of the major talents and voices in American illustration. See photograph above. This was a multi-generational group of past and current masters of the art—a group of artists with amazing careers and stories who have produced some of the most well-known work for major books, magazines, and movie posters over many generations. Though I felt like a rank beginner, I was made to feel as welcome as were the virtuosos who were attending.
As the sumptuous Italian meal was enjoyed, many stories were told including some about weird illustration assignments, crazed art directors, and vintage illustration masterpieces being rescued from dumpsters. Perhaps the most memorable tale was told by one particular well-known artist. While in Italy, illustrating as a WWII combat artist for Yank Magazine, he and a fellow artist tore through the narrow, winding mountainside roads in a Jeep, through an area which had not yet been completely cleared of German forces. Taking a wrong turn, the vehicle flipped off the cliffside, but its fall was broken by the fortuitous intervention of a pine tree which caught the Jeep and lowered it right side up and gently to the road below. With vehicle and passengers none the worse for wear, they continued on with their evening drive. Sometimes illustrators’ lives can be as dramatic as the scenes they illustrate.
Though some of the collaborators in my life and art have since passed from the scene, they are still here with me, as I continue my work. There are present-day collaborators working with me now, and as surely as I am sitting here, there will be new, wonderful, unexpected meetings and connections in the future. I look forward to them all.