Recently I had the great privilege to interview Barron Storey, an artist with decades of experience drawing, illustrating, and teaching art. When I first saw his work he instantly became one of my heroes, and when I had the opportunity to sit in on his illustration class I was blown away by his teaching. Many are familiar with his work, which includes; Time Magazine covers, rain forest illustrations for National Geographic, the first commissioned space shuttle rendering by NASA, the iconic cover for the 1980 reissue of Lord of the Flies, and illustrations for Neil Gaiman's The Sandman: Endless Nights. I was fascinated with learning more about Barron's life, career, and artistic philosophy, so I asked him if he would be up for an interview. He agreed and the text below is our transcribed conversation.
A = Aaron Silverberg
B = Barron Storey
A: When did you first get the idea that you could be a professional artist? Was there a specific moment when you thought you could turn drawing into a career?
B: I wasn’t even aware of it, but it had become a career. My parents were very proud of what I could do, I could draw a likeness and that was pretty impressive to them. I drew famous people, and they would send those things to the famous people, and we would get their letters back from their office, saying “Oh, thank you very much, it’s really nice... Blah blah blah.” I didn’t think of it as a job, I didn’t think of it as a career, I was just doing it. Then in school, I was the go to artist for posters, illustrations for the yearbook, portraits of the teachers. All of that I took in stride, proud that I could manage to please people. I didn’t think of it as necessarily a career choice.
When I graduated out of high school I was planning to go to an engineering school. However, my grades drooped my last years in high school thanks to the fact that I started paying a lot of attention to girls, and I needed an absolute top notch grade to go to M.I.T., which I was planning to do. And I didn’t have the grades. That perplexed my parents quite a bit. My dad, trying to save the situation, thought maybe I should travel a little bit to get matured. Would I like to travel and go to Europe? Or would I like to go to art school? I chose art school.
But, it was more than that. When I was in high school, I took a correspondence course, the Famous Artists Course, and I was teaching myself a lot. I was checking out books right and left, doing copies of master drawings. It was pretty clear that was the direction I was headed. I didn’t know about the career aspects of it until I got out to Art Center in California, and realized, “Yeah, people do this for a living.”
A: Was there any moment where you consciously made the commitment to pursue the arts?
B: Yes, there was a double reverse. I left Art Center without graduating, and I left very disenchanted with school. They had canceled the illustration program, which was the whole reason I was there. They really didn’t cancel it, they were threatening to cancel it and had told everybody that they were going to, but they didn’t because, let’s face it, illustration draws in a lot of students. People like it. But I was very unhappy with the schools attitude about it, and I left under somewhat of a cloud of protest.
I had to go to work, so the only thing that I knew how to do was drawing. I tried to stay away from ‘commercial art’, as we used to call it, but I had to make a living so I took a job as a draftsman. I was working at Texas Instruments in my hometown of Dallas, and I was doing maps of Russia, showing potential targets. Department of defense kind of work. While I was there they discovered that I could illustrate. So they started getting on me to do illustration for their conference meetings. Pretty soon I was doing fairly large paintings of a helicopter, tipping a sonar device in the ocean, looking for subs, things like that. They would take these to meetings, and put them on an easel just to attract attention. Somebody told me, “You know what, you’re getting paid nothing for that. You could get good money for doing that.” I was making two dollars and one cent, an hour. So I thought, ‘yeah I guess that’s true. Where do I go to get a job where they will pay me better?’ I moved into a graphic design studio as an illustrator and I wasn’t doing much illustration. I was doing things like toothbrush spatters in taped borders to represent layers of the earth for the Halliburton Oil Company.
Then from there, I went to another studio where I got closer to doing illustration, and finally I got a job with a very sharp designer, who saw in my portfolio that I could do some interesting stuff. Together we started winning awards and art director shows, and that was strong evidence that I had what it took. But the job was in Dallas, it was the provincial market, and I didn’t particularly like the type of jobs that were coming in– booklets for a company that made car air conditioners; pamphlets for a firm that sold tract houses, things like that. It wasn’t all that terrific, although, I was proud to be making a living on my own. But then my wife got pregnant, and she decided that we should move to New York before the baby came. And we did.
Once in New York, I had to hit the market place and see where I could find a job. I worked for a few years in advertising, doing comps. In those days they didn’t have Photoshop, so they had people do an actual hand done rough for an ad they wanted to run. I had grown up as a car guy, I had built my own car from scratch, and I drove an Alpha Romeo, so they shifted me to the Ford account. I sat there, at J. Walter Thompson, and painted a lot of cars for their ads. A guy who had just left a different agency and had moved in to my room said, “ you know, you should go get my job.” He knew I was not getting much pay, and he was right. I went and got his job and tripled my pay at a different agency. At that point, I was doin’ ok.
I didn’t like doing advertising work, but I was doing freelance illustration on the side. I was on a career path, definitely. When I got to New York, I realized it was wrong to think that I could be a painter because I had never dreamed of the kind of extreme works that the painters in New York were doing. When I saw them, I just thought, ‘Oh my god, there’s no way I could build a fourteen foot high electric man out of naugahyde, like Claes Oldenburg.’ I realized, ‘ Yep Barron, you’re an illustrator. You’re not a painter.’ I was painting, but my paintings were pathetic compared to the other things that I saw. So my last objection to my career crumbled, and luckily it was at a time when I had a very inspiring teacher who taught me to be proud to be an illustrator.
A: During that transition period from student to professional, what did you learn about visual communication and drawing? What did that period teach you?
B: It was a shake down. I had natural tendencies, in visual communication and drawing. I had been on the track to be an engineer, so I had a lot of technical interest and I drew a lot of technical things. I designed machines and built them from my drawings. My dad was an architect so it was in my family to make drawings prior to building something. Because I had this knack, I got work doing technical stuff. I was also a guy who had been involved with motorcycles, I was a motorcycle racer, and I lived right down the street from a place that published a motorcycle magazine. I walked down there and said, “Hey, I know motorcycles. Maybe I can do some work for you.” It’s not quite as simple as that, I went through a process of rejecting that idea first. But eventually, I recognized the motorcycle work as a calling, and when I tried it, I really loved it. So I spent the whole first part of my illustration career, doing machines basically. Cars, motorcycles, airplanes, finally spacecraft; which shifted into doing things of a scientific sort. Because I had been engineering inclined, I was able to understand details and structure in technical materials, that made me a natural. But I wanted to paint people, it took me a while, but I got there too.
|Barron Storey- Letter to my father|
A: What was the job that you did with NASA? You mentioned working on the spacecraft, what exactly was that job like?
B: That was a very exciting part of my life. Recently a television program called Cosmos, the new version of the old Carl Sagan series, really captured my attention because that was the world I was born to be involved in. The space shuttle project was a direct outgrowth of my work for airplane magazines. I did a lot of work for a magazine called Flying, somebody at NASA picked up on it, and I got a call, “come to Washington, we want to talk to you about a project.” Pretty soon I was traveling around the country, going to various NASA installations, seeing the shuttle. It did not exist as a total system at the time, it was in pieces in different parts of the country. But they sent me around, and I got to pretend I was an astronaut. I thought of myself as a real cool dude for getting this job.
It was tricky. It was the first time I had ever worked for the government, and what I didn’t know was that in government contracts if you miss the promises that are built into a contract, they don’t owe you a dime. If you miss the delivery date by one day, they can legitimately tell you they don’t owe you a dime. I worked on that project for four months, and it looked like I wasn’t going to get it done on deadline. But I had put a tremendous amount of work in it, and they knew it, so a group of suits came up from Washington and took a look at my painting. The painting was about seven and a half feet wide and pretty impressive. They saw that they had something cool on their hands, so they rewrote the contract, and I did not get stiffed on that job. And now that painting is in NASA headquarters, and I’m pretty proud of it.
A: I read that you got to sit inside the space shuttle. Was it just part of the space shuttle at that time?
B: I got to sit inside the trainer, it was a simulated space shuttle. It was the control cabin of the shuttle, and the windows had very primitive, computer displays. You could sit there and deploy the arm that was in the bay. In those days the only kind of computer graphics they had was really simple vector graphics, almost like connect the dots. So it wasn’t very realistic, but it was still very exciting.
A: You've mentioned that artists need sensitivity rather than strength, and I was wondering if you think this applies to the concept of discipline? What does discipline mean for the artist?
B: Discipline is a wonderful tool to have in your toolkit. Some arts are more demanding of discipline than others. In many cases, drive will substitute for discipline. As a matter of fact, discipline, very often, guides you away from an art career. Art is subjective, it’s not as quantifiable as other things. As a result there is more wiggle room around the doing of the work than there is in other fields. Now an artist can, essentially, get away with things that would be inexcusable in a more proletarian context. I’m very romantic about art, and the idea of discipline does not resonate for me. I wish I had more access to that tool, but I am more compulsive than disciplined. I can’t stop, I can’t stop. If you define discipline as being able to stop when you needed to stop, I am undisciplined; and so, by the way, are most of the artists that I admire.
It doesn’t mean you can get away with violating an agreement because illustration is a commercial endeavor, it’s business. And you cannot bail on doing what you have told people you will do. It requires discipline, and not fulfilling the job you have been hired for is unforgivable, and your career will be over quickly. So you need discipline. I say sensitivity over strength because art is so very, very subjective, in my opinion. Two people looking at the same image can have radically different reactions to it’s value, and that’s not true of the hard rules of economics and business. With things like business and economics, bottom line is bottom line. Art is different, It’s magical. As an artist, you’re setting yourself up to be something of a shaman, and that means you're risking being thought of as a complete faker. But it works out because of the incredible results that are achieved by artists. That’s why I say sensitivity is more important than strength. Strength is definitely more important than sensitivity if you’re a football player.
A: Speaking of how different people interpret your work, what is the usefulness of feedback, and how do you get useful feedback? Is there a way that you have found to understand how your work is communicating?
B: The long, long career that I have had has put me through many different kinds of feedback loops. I get general respect from a certain kind of people when they want me to do work for them. I’m sometimes astonished of how much they think of what I’ve done. Other times, it should be particularly obvious to me that I have done something wrong, but it’s not, because I’m so into what I’ve done. And I can’t really learn much from the negative feedback that comes back because I’m so devoted to what I’ve done. But this is typical of all kinds of endeavors and the kind of art that I make is a popular art, so there are barometers. If you get another job, it means that the last job you did was the best promotion piece you could possibly have done. It’s that way for an actor, for a musician; it’s that way for many, many people who use the skills of the arts to earn a living.
I’m somebody who has never quite matured, a terminal adolescent, and I’m still somebody that is hungry for approval. So when I get it, everything is hunky-dory. When it’s not there, I start crashing really bad. Especially now that I’m older, and I’m dealing with a has-been kind of profile. I’ll show things, and I think they're going to go over really well, and they don’t; I really bottom out. I should be used to that with my long career, but it’s still that way.
I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced it, but I can be working away at my board and somebody will walk into the room –they won’t even look at what I’m doing– but just because they’ve walked into the room, I start seeing what I’m doing differently. It’s as though I’m seeing it suddenly through their eyes. I haven’t got a clue what they think of it, but all of a sudden, I’m not in my own skin.
It’s sometimes referred to in a derogatory sense, as ‘people pleasing’. You know, I’m a people pleaser. I want people to like what I do. I don’t have the guts to do things that they dislike, even though I see some geniuses that really go to town on things like that. I like people to like what I do. Over the many, many years I have been working, I have become addicted to whatever kind of positive feedback I can get. I’m clearly not objective about it. If somebody says they like something I’ve done, I don’t go through a process of evaluating, “well how important is that one, what are the credentials of this person to say something I did was good?” I don’t go through that. I just go, “Oh, thank you!” I’m just pleased as punch. I draw on the street all the time and people always come up and say, “ Wow, that’s great.” That does it for me, I’m buzzed. I really appreciate it.
A: You must have a lot of life sketching stories after sketching so much. Is there one you can share with us?
B: I do have a lot of stories. One of my favorites is when I was drawing in China. I was in Hong Kong, but we took a train into mainland China. The deal was, unless you had a certain passport, you couldn’t get off the train, but you could ride the train. The train would make various stops at market places along the way where you were expected to get off, buy something, and get back on. They were not checking passports there either, so I got a tour of mainland China this way, without having the right passport.
I was traveling with my buddy, who was a really brilliant photographer, but everywhere we went, people shunned him. It was like he was a spy. They saw that camera and they were not pleased. Nobody was smiling in front of him and nobody wanted to get their picture taken. It was not cool that he was taking pictures. On the other hand, I’m drawing with a pen and ink, and that is part of the Chinese soul. That is the way they write, and the way they write is directly related to the way they think. So I was a comrade, and people would gather around me and watch me draw. It was complimentary, and I appreciated it, but there was something about the cultural differences that began to be weird. I would be making marks in my book and people would come up and while I’m making marks in the book, they would lift up the pages and look in the back of the book. They thought that, like a Chinese person, I had started from, what you and I would call, the back of the book. They were looking for some other drawings in there, while I’m making marks on the paper! I mean, are you serious?! That was amazing.
Also, on various occasions somebody would see something in my book, and they would want it, and I was supposed to give it to them. In China, that’s the customary response to somebody in expressing a desire to have something that you have. You don’t give it to them for nothing; they give you something, you give them what they want. So I met people who would look at my book, they would like something, would go away for a little while, and come back with something, like a map of a Chinese territory or an advertisement for a big hotel, that they would give me with great ceremony. I didn’t want it! I had no interest or need for that and, “Damn, am I supposed to give you one of my own drawings for this hotel advertisement?” But, the answer was yes... that was what I was expected to do, and I did it. I regretted losing my drawings, but you know, when in China, do as the Chinese do.
A: Now your drawings are out there, in homes, all across China.
B: (laughs) We were performing in a theater and we had to take our shoes off to go inside, and so did everybody else. So there was a huge pile of shoes just outside the theater door, and I started drawing the shoes. Those were the drawings that people wanted, so I would draw a few shoes and give it to somebody... draw a few more shoes and give it to somebody.
A: So that trip to China was for theater then?
B: Yeah I was a part of a performing ensemble that did some tours in Europe and China. It was interesting, it was really interesting. I loved what we were doing, but it was controversial because the performers were naked, and they had shaved all the hair off their bodies. It was awesome to see because there was nothing ‘strip show’ about it, it was high art! But it was not seen as that by some of the authorities, so we were very controversial in China. They would arrange interviews with the press where we would be asked very challenging questions. This was on the front pages of the newspaper, like it was the big scandal or something. So it was dicey for a while, but the good news was, with the young people that came to our shows, they absolutely loved what we were doing.
The audience kept us for a long time after each show, having a question and answer period through an interpreter. On one of the last shows we did, a guy showed up in military uniform, and stood up when we were doing the question and answer period. He told the audience, in Chinese, that it had become the official policy of the government that we were not pornography, we were art. That was big news! Of course we knew that! But for them to give us that stamp of approval was important to the audience. When they heard that, they came down, off of the rather steep risers in this auditorium, in a swarm. We were all sitting on the stage for the question and answer period, and they just swarmed around us like a school of fish! It was an amazing, amazing experience. It was one of the very, many things that art has given me, in my years of working in different areas.
A: Did your involvement in theatre teach you any lessons that applied to the graphic arts as well?
B: Absolutely. I worked with a group of actors and performers that specialized in doing deconstructed classic plays, a lot of which were Shakespeare plays. I came on because I knew some people in the company and they liked my drawings, so they thought I could design sets or do costume design. Pretty soon, I was doing stage props and things like that. Gradually, I got more and more involved in the group, and I even began to act in some of the shows. It was because I was doing these classics –like Hamlet, or The Tempest, or Macbeth– that I got in the habit of documenting that endeavor through a journal that was completely dedicated to that show. So I have a lot of journals. Two of the journals I have in print are entirely about the show I was working on at that time. One is based on King Lear, and one is based on Marat/Sade, as it’s generally called. Both plays that I was a part of and participated in. I also did one, that has not been published, on Julius Caesar, another play. And I attempted to do some on Goethe, but I didn’t get through it.
My parents really pushed me to read, but I was not as bright as they were. I was the kind of the kid who wouldn’t read a book unless it had pictures in it, which was a signal that my destiny was to be a provider of those pictures. If I did read, it was always something that made my parents very happy, and they wanted me to read classic things. So I’ve illustrated a lot of classic things. When I was involved in theater, it was a connection to classic things as well.
A: When you were a kid you were really into the Treasure Island illustrations, right?
B: Yeah, what’s not to like? They’re very, very cool. If N.C. Wyeth were around today and entered his stuff into Spectrum, he would make it in for sure. Those pictures really moved me, I was really young. I still use one of those as the first slide in my slide lecture.
A: Have you noticed, from your earliest drawings as a kid to your work now, a through line connecting everything you’ve done?
B: It’s even connected to before I was born. When the sad end of my Aunt’s life occurred, I was invited into her house. She wanted to share the things that she had in that house. She didn't have a specific will, but she had left a note that I should be allowed in the house, and I could have anything I wanted. One of the things that had interested me was a drawing that had looked like I had done it; I didn’t remember doing it. I looked closer, and my dad had done it! It looked exactly like I had done it, and I was never conscious of copying my dad’s way of drawing. But there it was. It was drawn just the way I draw. Artists sometimes say that their inspiration is not coming from within them, it’s coming through them. I feel that, that’s the evidence for that one! I was channeling something that had already been there in my dad.
A: What was the drawing of?
B: It was of a Mexican house, with a big tree next to it. It was done in pen and ink, like it had been done with a rapidograph pen, but I don’t believe they had rapidograph pens back then. Some sort of a fine point pen line. Like the drawings I was inclined to do, it had a more structural, rather than tonal, look to it. But it wasn't a plan, like a drafting of a house, it was all freehand. And a lot of the drawing was organic things rather than mechanical things. It was vignetted in a certain way that is like the way I would vignette a drawing, and it was about the same size, and everything else. I looked at it and thought it was my drawing. I thought that my aunt had wanted me to take it. I didn’t remember giving it to her, but there it was. “Oh my god, that’s my dad’s drawing!”
A: What would you say is the role of the conscious versus the subconscious mind in the creation of art?
B: I think it’s a synergy between those poles. My own instinct veers toward the subconscious. As I said, I was supposed to be an engineer, which is all about the conscious mind. With the exception of the hypothesis that inspires creative invention, basically you’re dealing with logic. But ever since I was a kid, I’ve been really fascinated by psychology. It was in vogue, when I was a youngster. There were movies about psychiatrists. People used the word ‘shrink’, it was part of the language. Sigmund Freud was talked about quite a bit. So I went to my school library, checked out the books that I heard about, and studied psychology in my own little self-teaching manor, really interested in what made people do what they do. It has followed me through many phases in my visual art. I’m very interested in accessing what some might simply think of as the imagination. Like in the case of dreams, there is a feeling that it’s the imagination but it’s something within that you are accessing. That can be called, and I too think of it as, subconscious thought.
I’ve developed all kinds of rituals, and games, and techniques, just to get in touch with what’s inside my head that I can’t see without these rituals. It’s a little bit like self-hypnosis, or a sophistry, if you really want to get to a social criticism place. I’m very, very interested in that. The plays, stories, books, films, that really move me, are all about psychological things. I’m bored silly by large scale dramas about wars between good guys and bad guys. I grew up in an environment that really laughed at that. That was ridiculous. We all knew that there were good guys and bad guys in everybody. That was a pervasive reality. So when things started swinging towards good guys and bad guys per say, I hated it. In the 70‘s the big deal was Star Wars... Star Wars. You would have thought that being into science, and being into fantasy, I would have loved Star Wars. But it pissed me off, because, I had been watching movies all my life, and none of them –including war stories, and cowboys and indians– none of them dared make disposable enemies. All of a sudden, it was perfectly ok to blow away as many of the enemy as you could. Almost like playing a pinball machine, the score runs up. The crowd would cheer every time Luke, or somebody else, would blast one of Darth’s little storm troopers out of space. I was going, “Huh? What? It’s ok to kill people? It’s ok to blow people away, and not even worry about it, not even clean up the mess?” It really offended me, and so has everything else since! The whole culture has bought that idea, in a big way. Now we’re doing it to ISIS.
A: After talking about a story you really dislike, what are some stories that you really love? What are some films, or books, that have really inspired or influenced you?
B: Oh god, there’s so many. The one’s that I have illustrated, the classics I have illustrated –I’ve been really fortunate– they’re good. I did the short stories of Sinclair Lewis, I love ‘em. I did the short stories of Theodore Dreiser, I love ‘em. I did modern authors, James Dickey and Deliverance. I did super classic tomes, Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I did Hemingway. I’ve illustrated stories over, and over, and over again, that are classics. Not the least of which is some religious stuff.
I love music, and a lot of what I respond to is storytelling, but it’s storytelling in song. There a million tunes loaded into my mental jukebox, and each one of them has a component of storytelling in it. They come up on their own, right out of subconscious land, and because I’m in the habit of taking them seriously, I always find new interpretations of these tunes. I lived through what was called the folk music era, and this morning, when I got up, a tune was going through my head that involves a story. It was an old folk tune from Leadbelly. I was doing a drawing, and I put the two together; the words and the drawing. I very often substitute words for those in the original lyric to fit my own context. Just as I illustrate Julius Caesar, and King Lear, and various other classics, using material from my own life. So I woke up hearing this song, I heard it in my head, and I realized “This song isn’t relevant to what I’m doing.” I was doing prep for my class. But, because I was in the habit of taking it seriously, I wrote down the words to the song, and then it became a puzzle, “why is this song coming up for me?” That’s like trying to be a fortune teller, or a shaman . Who knows? Who cares? But I make it into a challenge to find out what the connection is. I started singing the song over and over, I was still singing it when I hit the shower. I could do a little twirl on each word in the lyric to find out where it was coming from within me. I do that kind of thing a lot! It’s self indulgent and because of it’s personal content it’s, very often, completely meaningless to other people. But I think it deepens my understanding of things, so I go ahead and write that down. The same thing is true of stories that I might see performed in a play, or hear enacted on the radio.
Today a student gave me a copy of a comic book that he likes a lot. It’s called Preacher. I read the slogan on the back cover which said that it was “bloodier and more blasphemous than any other comic that had made it into the mainstream.” I looked through it and sure enough there’s a ‘Fuck you’ on every page, and gallons of blood flowing around. It was nicely drawn, it was very effective in it’s concept, but it was a non-story to me. A non-story, there’s no story there. Nothing in it was believable, it was just hyperbolic, imaginary projection.
On the other hand, I spent all day yesterday taking my students through stories by a writer that I tremendously admire, Steven Millhauser. Breaking them down word for word so that the students could understand what a real story is. Not just a game, it’s an insight into life. These stories were great, just stunning, but they’re not that entertaining to my students who are very tuned into hyperbolic characters, courtesy of animation. So I took them very carefully through the Millhauser stories, I pointed out the artistry of a great writer, and they got it. I was really proud of that. I had to break it down to individual words. A great writer is like a hypnotist, talking to you in what you think is just a straightforward conversation, but inserting things in the conversation that arouse thoughts. That is fabulous.
A: It’s amazing when you find a good book that does that.
B: I got that from David Mitchell’s, Cloud Atlas. Amazing book. Sometimes I'd be reading along and I'd think, ‘What in the world, what is going on?’ The first chapter ends with a completely blank page. You’re reading along and then, all of a sudden, there’s nothing on the page. It’s like, “ok, that is the hippest non sequitur you could’ve come up with, Mr. Mitchell.” It was so dazzling that I could only read a little bit at a time. It was like Ice cream with way to much sugar in it, or way too much something! Too intense, but I do appreciate it. I’m proud to be somebody who is involved with giving another dimension to great stories.
A: Can you tell me about the ‘Crew of You’ assignment? Where did that assignment come from?
B: That came from the theatre. I’ve always shared this background with the students when we do Crew of You. As I mentioned, the group that I worked with did a lot of Shakespeare. I love Shakespeare, but I’m inclined towards the dramas, I’m not that much into the lighter fare. Not like I know all of the plays. There are some famous, famous plays that I don’t know very well, and I forget the names of the characters in them, but I’ve got the tragedies dialed in. They are part of my brain. The company decided to do one of the lighter pieces, The Tempest. I started working on it, started reading the play, I hadn’t read it before. This is a fantasy play where there is a wizard like scholar called Prospero, and an all out savage called Caliban, and magic creatures that fly, and things like that. It’s really bizarre for a guy who’s used to seeing European history reenacted in a Shakespeare play. There’s no history here, it’s all a dream, midsummer or not.
As I worked on it, I got disenchanted. Unlike the tragedies, nothing changes in The Tempest. At the end of the play, everybody’s just like they were at the beginning of the play. There’s a potential in the play for all kinds of changes to happen, and none of it goes down. It comes up, does a little dance, and then goes away. Caliban thinks he can impress the visiting midlander, Miranda, who wants to get married so badly she’s actually game for entertaining a flirt with the savage. But no, that’s not going to happen. And various other things in the play are just not going to happen. So I went to my director and said, “You know, I can’t get into this. Nobody has a change, there is no real conflict, it’s just playing around. At the end, everybody’s just the same. What am I supposed to do with this?” She explained that, that play was of a type written by many playwrights, in which the playwright dissects his own personality and being, and makes out of himself a group of different characters, none of which are truly recognizable as himself. He throws them into a setting, or a scene, or some sort of a milieu, and just watches what happens. What happens when Shakespeare’s scholarly, magical self interfaces with Shakespeare’s primal, savage self. What happens when Shakespeare’s talent, that is so extreme that it’s like being able to fly, gets in direct conflict with other parts of his persona that insist upon the fact that no one can fly. Ah yeah, that’s kind of fun, that’s kind of interesting. So I took it seriously, and I designed the set to be inside one big human body. We had a good run, good notices, everybody happy. I thought, ‘Wow, that turned out alright. I think I’ll try that with my students!’ Crew of You is just Tempest format, drawing people on stage to see what will happen when they are unrecognizably, but emphatically, part of one person.
A: Another exercise you have is the ‘Big Heads’. Is there an origin story for that too?
B: Oh yes, there’s always an origin story. I’m always ready to share it, although I do talk too much a lot of the times, but I’ll tell it. This centers around an absolutely awesome artist that I was lucky enough to meet and get to know. Her name is Sue Coe. In the New York that I was living in, in the 80’s, Sue was a frequent illustrator for the New York Times, and all of her work was incredible. I was attending meetings of various artists, and we had a special group of people interested in doing comics and graphic novels. I went and Sue was there. I was really, really impressed with her, so we developed a friendship. I eventually invited her to come and co-teach with me at Pratt Institute, and she did. She didn’t take on a whole semester of the class, but she made more than one appearance, and she generated some of the activities we did in the class. One of them was this ‘Big Heads’ thing. It was Sue’s invention. She wanted people to deal with drawing their parents, so we devised a way to make that happen. It’s basically the same exercise I’ve been doing for thirty years. People draw their parents without any reference, they draw them from memory, and I quiz them about their parents while their doing that. They rotate around the room, everybody working on everybody’s drawings. By the time we are done, it’s an iconic parent rather than a specific parent. We get an amazing amount of creative work done that way, and produce a really amazing, gigantic mural in one class.
A: You’ve taught so many different types of students, from beginning artists to advanced artists. What is the difference between teaching beginning and advanced students?
B: There is a pedagogical difference in attitude between teachers. Some feel that the best education is a clear, stepping from one elementary level to an advanced level, step by step. That’s logical and makes a lot of sense, but I’ve always been impressed by what passion and dedication I saw in young artists. That was actually balanced against the fact that some of the advanced artists I’d worked with were less responsive to me than the younger ones. So it’s significantly different. I will say this: Some of my most successful classes have been advanced classes where the students have already been disciplined and trained, skill wise, and they get set free by my more expansive goals and ideas. It makes sense. People who don’t have to worry about the technical side that much, who can do whatever they decide to do, are fun to work with! You just wind them up and let them go, and great things happen. On the other hand, there’s something super, duper exciting about the ambition and the goals of someone who is excited to get into the endeavor from the beginning. I teach high school students, and I love teaching the high school kids, they’re great, they're absolutely stunning. They’re discovering. Everything is exciting because they don’t know it. The advanced people get into a place where their going, “Ok, last assignment was good, but I’m not into this one. I’ll just kind of, phone it in.” You do see that. So there’s good news and bad news with both ends of the spectrum.
A: After all the years you’ve been teaching, what is it like to see the amount of influence you’ve had on the art world and other artists’ lives?
B: Well I... gosh, that’s kind of hard to answer because I’m not that aware of it! And I think it’s not an unusual thing. I was influenced by people. Some people pick up on what I’m doing, and it’s not me, it’s the person that inspired me. It’s a through line, rather than something that came out of inside. It’s like we were saying before, it’s channeling something, rather than inventing something. I do get proud, and it’s pleasing, when someone says, “ Oh you’ve really inspired somebody.” But it’s also like; I notice, people say, “Oh, wasn’t Dave McKean one of your students?” No.(laughs) “Wasn’t so and so one of your students?” No. “Well, didn’t Bill Sienkiewicz work with you?” Bill Sienkiewicz came to some of my classes, but he was never my student. He’s obviously more impressed, or more influenced, by other illustrators like Bob Peak.
Even though the odd triangle is drawn by people like David Mack, that stuff is just coming through me, it’s not my stuff. I don’t own it! I’m unable to do a lot of it, so it’s not something I can pluck about. It really drives me nuts! You know I had a student that could do me better than me! yeah, I’m not kidding! I went to his shows, and I’d see things in his shows that I almost got mad about, because the people there had thought I had done them. With no evidence, other than the fact that it’s got to be me because it’s exactly like me. It’s very, very flattering to have someone think highly of something you’ve done, but you also run into the other side of that which is: People like what you did twenty years ago more than what you’re doing now. Like a rock band that comes in and everybody wants them to play hits from an album from the past, instead of their new music. So it’s not without a downside. But it’s still really great, I have been very lucky, and I’m proud and happy to be a part of things I had never thought I would be a part of because other people have picked up on things that I have done.
A: You’ve talked previously about seeking to expand your process rather than solidify it. What is the importance of experimentation for you?
B: I like the way you’ve set it up there. Expansion of the process rather than solidifying of it, yes absolutely. It is something that is probably related to the background that I told you about. I was always hugely attracted to science and one of the basic differences between science and the arts is that: In science, everybody owns everything. You do not pay royalties to Einstein. Science is based on the common benefit, and I really, really love that. I don’t like credit taking, formulas of creation, or delegating to assistants. I don’t like people that turn themselves into a thing, a popular thing, or a popular it. I expect every artist to be like every scientist; to be always pushing the frontier, always reaching for that which has not been touched before. It makes it totally boring for me when I see an artist who has come on a really cool riff that’s very popular, and is just cranking it out. Maybe these artists are absolutely passionate about their process, what they're doing, how they're pushing it, but I’m not astute enough to tell that in most cases. Even artists that I love, I get impatient with their repetition. I read philosophy, and that’s referred to by some philosophers as ‘proletarianizing’ yourself. In other words, making yourself do something that, if you made somebody else do it, you would have to pay them well, because it’s work. Science is not like that. Science is hard, it requires discipline, intense discipline, but there is always the excitement of the frontier.
|Barron Storey- Illustration for Stamford brochure Gravity Probe B|
We are now in the middle of a very, scary plague, the Ebola crisis. It’s got to be taken care of, it could decimate huge portions of the population of the planet earth. And who’s going to do that? Not somebody who’s just living comfortably with knowns, because there are unknowns in that equation. We don't know how to beat it. And I’m not just taking about vaccines or treatment, I’m talking about dealing with the social ramifications, the racial ramifications, all kinds of things. I lived through the AIDS crisis, and I saw the incredible things that happened with that, a lot of which were not even about HIV. They were just about social stigmas and things like that. So hello artists, hello scientists, hello people, what are you going to do about this? What are you going to do, just stay in your studio and knock out your usual stuff? And if you do choose to do that, are you really thinking you can do something as significant as participating in this battle?
We did Ebola pictures today in my class and one of the students asked me, “why are you always giving us assignments that have some kind of a social aspect to them?” I have an answer for that. I’ve been interviewed about these things a lot so I do repeat myself, but basically, I believe in the artist as witness. I believe the artist is the only one that can really see what really is. This get’s back to the ‘not strong, sensitive’. Most people are too involved in survival to even notice what’s going on. Whether it’s a global plague, or just a local election. The plight of some people is dismissed by other people. Ok, they’ve got the right to that choice. Artists are the ones –that don’t necessarily make up for that by feeling strongly when other people don’t have any feelings at all– but artists notice. Who feels? Who doesn’t feel! Who has something to say? Who doesn’t have something to say! Who has an answer. Who doesn’t have an answer. Who puts the right emphasis, and who doesn’t put the right emphasis. That’s not just ‘social studies’, that’s not just a job for a journalist, or a writer. The artist, the artist can see that, and see it in great detail. It’s what Shakespeare refers to as holding the mirror up to reality, so that it may see itself. That’s what art does. It lets reality see itself. It doesn’t have anything to do with realism as an art style, it means noticing...noticing.
A: Going back a little, what time did you live in Westport, Connecticut?
B: I lived in Westport from about ‘72 to ’75. We lived in an old, old captain’s house that had a widow’s walk around the top, so we could go up and look out over the neighborhood. Really, really cool. In Westport I felt like I was in paradise. Deer would walk through my yard, and there was a duck pond close by with wild geese on it. I had been living in New York City for a long, long time so this was, wow, amazing.
A: The library there is so nice, that space is beautiful.
B: You know the library in Westport used to have, and maybe it still does, an incredible collection of works of illustration that they got from the Famous Artists Course people, which was based in Westport.
A: Was Bernie Fuchs living in Westport while you were there?
B: Bernie Fuchs, Austin Briggs, a whole lot of the top notch illustrators lived in Westport. Westport was like a town full of famous illustrators.
A: Was Mark English there as well?
B: Yep, absolutely. Fred Otnes was there. On and on goes the list. My memory is very poor at this point in my life, I can’t even remember some of the names. Randy Enos was my friend, and he was there, still is. The library was filled with illustrators looking for books, looking for scrap, looking for this, looking for that. Westport was ‘the place’, but it became not ‘the place’. New York City was very competitive, and with the advent of the Push Pin Studios, a whole new kind of art began to grow in New York City that was alien to the kind of art produced in Westport. Westport had great support from the Society of Illustrators in New York, and it was directly connected to the tradition of illustrators, but illustration started moving in a very, very different direction. Pretty soon the Westport illustrators looked really old fashioned.
I once asked my teacher, who was one of the avant-garde illustrators, Robert Weaver, how I should feel about the fact that there was this big tension between the New York City artists that were trying to be really original and really innovative, and the Westport people that were staying in traditions. His answer, short and somewhat cynical as always with Mr. Weaver, was, “Don’t beat a dead horse.”(laughs)
A: So did you guys all get together in Westport? All the illustrators.
B: It wasn’t just Westport. Lot’s of those people would get together over at Alan Cober’s house, which was in New York, but right parallel to the Connecticut towns. I had illustrator friends that lived up the Hudson on the New York side. There was quite a community there. We had get togethers, and everybody sat around and talked about what schools their kids were going to, hardly ever talked about art.
When I moved to Westport it was lovely, but I missed the energy of the New York crowd. I always identified more with the New York crowd than the Westport crowd. Let’s face it, in Westport, they were living high on the hog. They had showplace homes, Bob Peak had six Ferraris. They were livin’ large, and I was living small. We were different social niches.
A: I noticed in a drawing that Bernie Fuchs did, it looked very similar to the ‘stop and go’ method you described in class. Can you describe that for us?
B: That’s very astute of you Aaron to pick up on that, because that is, pretty much, the source. The Westport people were almost all ‘Lucy’ artists(referring to the Lucigraf projector). They had opaque projectors, and the style was to project a photo and to draw over it very loosely. So it looked like a legit drawing from life, but it was really, a tracing. That meant that the ones that could do it the best developed a linear style that was very sensitive to contour, and would have these little accents at various places where they paused to look for the next contour to make a line go onto. That was the essence of the ‘stop and go’ exercise, or ‘hesitate and go’ as I’ve always called it.
I understood it so well, that I could fake it really well. Working in ad agencies doing comps all day I used to fake it all day long. The art directors loved it! I got to the point where I illustrated whole books without any reference at all, I just drew it out of my head, in that style. And that style, because it was derived from photography– it was after all, tracing photographs– had a certain look that was not characteristic of drawings done from imagination; but I had learned that look, and I could fake it. Sometimes people pick up on some old books that I have done and I have almost forgotten about, there’s one called 27 Cats Next Door.
A: Yeah, I saw that!
B: People said to me, “what did you use for scrap(reference)?” And I said, “I didn’t have any scrap, I made it all up!”
B: I might be remembering wrong, I might have had some pictures of cats, I don’t know. but I do remember I was doing it in my fake Bernie Fuchs style.
Bernie Fuchs was really an inspiration. When I was in school in the late 50’s, Bernie was doing things that nobody else could even touch. He was the first of a young group of artists that spawned the Westport crowd, and that used photo reference literally without trying to hide the fact that they were using photo reference. Everybody, from Al Dorn and the other artists of the Famous Artists group, right up to just before Bernie, and Austin Briggs, and others, who began to do the projected ‘Lucy’ stuff; had used photos, but had hidden the fact by not doing them literally. Bernie started doing them absolutely literally. He didn’t shoot stills, he got his models together, put them in costume, and had them act out, in motion, a situation from a text. Shooting it with a motor drive Nikon, he got a hundred pictures to look at and would find one that really had the feeling in it. Very often it was a very subtle bit that made it have that feeling. So it didn’t look like any of the illustration that had gone before. It was very candid looking, caught, a very fleeting gesture; stunningly rendered too. His early work was done in gouache, and was unbelievably detailed gouache painting. Tiny little details that were perfect. Really impressive, and very, very influential.
I met him when I was very young and I was so in awe of him that I came across as the most obsequious fan boy you could imagine. Oh I was just so excited to meet him! He had been up all night drinking with the older guys in the Dallas illustrators club, had a heavy hangover, didn’t want to talk to anybody; and I was coming on like this puppy dog. I realized at a certain point he didn't want to say anything, but I just couldn’t help myself and I said, “ Is there any artist that really has inspired you that I should look at?” And he just said, “Bonnard.” He didn’t say look at Bonnard, he just said Bonnard. And when I looked at Bonnard I went, ‘Oh my God, that’s him! That’s Bernie. Thats what he’s doing!’
So like other examples I’ve talked about, It’s not like something came directly out of somebody, it’s a channeling through. If you look at Pierre Bonnard, you’ll see the outrageously beautiful and decorative color that Bernie Fuchs used, and you won’t see it in the other illustrators of his era until his influence forces everybody to go that way. I talked to an art director that he worked for, and when Bernie was doing comps for his illustrations, he said Bernie would come in with a red one, a yellow one, a blue one, a green one, and maybe a brown one! (laughs) An incredible artist, I’m a huge fan, and I imitated him a lot. I thought thats what an illustrator was, at a certain time in my life.
A: How would you recommend learning the ‘hesitate and go’ method?
B: How I learned it was tracing. I hated tracing from a projection, so I would practice by taking a magazine, usually a fashion magazine, like Harper’s Bazaar or Vogue, putting a piece of tracing paper over a photo, and drawing it. Trying to draw it very, very freely rather than an exact copy. It really helps, in that style, to draw with your arm instead of your hand. So I would work on a 45 degree angle board, instead of a lower angle. I’m using my arm as I’m drawing. It’s not difficult to get a good drawing, because, after all, I’m tracing. I began to see things about contour, and the interaction between tone and line. It’s important to realize that when I went to study illustration, fashion artists were the top of the heap. They were the illustration elite. If you were anybody who’s interested in illustration, you had to know Vertès, you had to know a lot of European fashion artists whose drawings were all over the fashion magazines. They worked in line, not in tone. People talked a lot about line quality. So a number of artists of that generation developed a linear style that, never the less, looks like a photo! That’s the way Bernie drew. It was hugely influential.
A: I noticed that too with Bob Peak, with his advertisement illustrations. Did he use that method also?
B: Absolutely. Bernie and Bob lived close together and knew each other very well.
A: Last year, you drew the whole class for the ‘zine ( a magazine produced by his illustration class). I was sitting in that night, and didn’t notice you drawing at all! (Barron laughs) When I saw the drawing, and saw myself there, I was like “What? How did he do that? I didn’t even notice!” Do you purposefully try to not draw attention to yourself while you’re drawing people?
|Barron's drawing of the class|
B: Well no, it’s kind of the opposite. I like to draw people who are too busy doing something to notice that I’m drawing them. I just did one of those, in fact I did two of those! Now I have two classes back to back at San Jose State, and I usually draw during what I call the ‘Pro/Con’ exercise, in which they have to create a work of art right there in the class, within the class time. They’re so busy, that they don’t notice me over there drawing them. I did both classes in the same drawing.
A: Was that with the ‘Bernie Fuchs faking’, ‘hesitate and go’ method?
B: Well I wouldn’t call it that at all anymore. It comes so natural to me that I don’t think of it as fake at all. I’m drawing what I see. It may be that I’m seeing things that wouldn’t see if I hadn’t gone through a phase of being influenced by photography. That’s quite possible. My teacher, Robert Weaver, really emphasized photography because he felt photography was just damn good seeing, and that we didn’t see that well. So we should look at photos because, as he would put it, “there is much less information in a photo than in your drawing, Mr., and the photo is much more convincing. What do you think of that?”
So I looked at photos and drew from photos, not just tracing fashion like I did when I was in school, but later on I looked at great photography and noticed all the things Mr. Weaver was talking about. Deliberate use of troublesome tangencies, one thing right behind another thing; areas of value that were completely without information, washed out by the light or dropped into black in the shadows. It was a logical extension of the interface between photography and drawing. Then that became more extreme when I went through a photorealist period, working on grids, and really looking hard at what was in the photograph. I was inspired, of course, by Chuck Close.
There’s a very beautiful and fascinating series of paintings on the wall at San Jose State, that are done in the styles of a whole squadron of master artists, and they’re amazing! They’re maybe not museum quality, but they’re just amazing! They’re adding some new ones, and I had been very curious how the fuck they did those! And I caught them! They’re doing some new ones, and the first thing they do is put the grid on the wall. So they’re girding up from a classic self portrait, just like I did with photorealism.
A: You’ve talked about how a grid has helped you see better, and helped you draw better.
B: Yeah, you don’t realize how much information you tune out on when you look at the world. You just look at what you’re interested in, what about the rest of it?
A: I’ve heard a lot of artists talk about a period of feeling lost or about when they’ve lost their artistic voice after a very large success, have you ever experienced this or have had troubles with success?
B: That’s an interesting question, one that I’ve been asked by Allan Amato in the Temple of Art project. I referred earlier to it; I went to New York from Texas and thought I would be a painter, but when I got to New York I saw that I could not cut it. This was a real downer, and it almost killed my ambition to be an illustrator. I was threatening to run away and become a social worker. I’ve been pushed in that direction by my parents and a lot of my friends. High school friends and others had given up the arts and gone out to the south, to help get black people on the election roles, or became freedom writers in the civil rights struggle.
I thought, ‘you know, I don’t have it to be a fine artist as New york defines it.’ It’s worth being reminded that, at that time, New York had displaced Paris as the center of the art world. Whatever was being done by the likes of Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell; that was influencing artists all over the world, and I could not even began to compete with that. So it was like, ‘Ok I guess I’ll be an illustrator, but look, I’ve already decided illustration is hack work. Oh no, I’m lost, I’m lost.’ I had to make a living so I went to work for advertising agencies and spent years slogging away in that environment, like some character in a Mad Men episode. It was a downer, a big downer.
I hated illustration when I left Art Center. It was called, in those days, ‘commercial art’, and the word ‘commercial’ was derogatory. If you were commercial it meant that you were a sell out, to use another term from that period. I was raised by very idealistic parents who wanted me to do something really special. I thought, ‘I’ve just learned how to be a hack, I don’t want to be a hack. What can I do with myself?’ It was very, very depressing for a while. I gradually discovered things that I could do, and I could do them really well, and that felt right. I could paint motorcycles really well because all the other artists that were trying to paint motorcycles had never built one, from a single ball bearing up! And I had built a whole lot of them. So I could draw motorcycles better than many, and I felt a real sense of accomplishment when I did that. It made me feel like, ‘oh I can be an illustrator without having to draw crappy things. I can draw things that I really care about, and that are really interesting to me. Maybe I’ll get to draw something like the Space Shuttle, maybe! Maybe I’ll get to draw something like the rain forest, maybe!’ And I did all those things.
It was fabulous getting over that hump, and Mr. Weaver's philosophy helped me a lot. He preferred illustrators to artists. He felt a strong need for the witnessing of what was going on in the world, and he saw illustration as being a part of the answer to that need. It was righteous. Meanwhile, in fine art, while I was with him as a student, we were already seeing ridiculous successes going on all around because there was big money to be made all of a sudden. Before Jackson Pollock broke in the popular press, fine art was hidden away from the mass public. Some artists who were trying to make incredible art, and did, –like Pollock’s teacher Thomas Hart Benton– were just getting into trouble, and not pleasing the people they were trying to serve.
We went to go see the Thomas Hart Benton murals in the Missouri state capitol. They were incredible, but they were so scandalous that they tried to paint them over several times; because they showed crooked politicians, and smarmy street life, and prostitutes, and commercial exploitation, and all these things. Stuff that was real, but not stuff that the politicians of the state house particularly wanted to show! As a result, Benton and others never did break as big as Pollock and the younger, more adventurous artists. They looked pretty old fashioned by the time I was in New York. I still love the works. That’s why I went to Benton’s studio and loved it. I went to see the other important works like the John Brown Mural in Kansas City, and oh my god, that’s part of american art history and a part that I really loved.
A: Are there any projects you’re involved in right now that you would like to talk about? You mentioned Temple of Art.
B: That project has won a big Kickstarter grant, and Allan has incredible ambition. He wants to make a film about each of the 52 artists that are in the project, and he’s already started to shoot footage of me. So that’s going on, other than that I’m on hiatus. I did six shows last year and I haven't done any this year, so I’m taking a break. I’ve got such a heavy teaching load that I couldn’t handle any shows anyways.
A: Thanks Barron, this has been amazing!
B: Ok, glad you feel that way about it. I hope that after you take a look at the enormous amount of words that were spinning out here, you find something useful in it.
Works by Barron
|Barron Storey- Magazine illustration|
|Barron Storey- F. Lee Bailey Feb. 16, 1976|
|Barron Storey- Journal 40: Continuation. Page123.|
|Barron Storey- Illustration for Stamford brochure Gravity Probe B|
|Barron Storey- The Big Mask Behind the Little Masks from "Life after Black"|
|Barron Storey- From Joker Series|
|Barron Storey- Judgement|
|Barron Storey- Big Map of Belgian Things|
|Barron Storey- Published in this New York Times article|
|Barron Storey- Published in this New York Times article|
|Barron Storey- From his gallery show "Black Iraq"|
|Barron Storey- from his gallery show "Factum 1 and Factum 2"|
|Barron Storey- from Factum 1 and Factum 2|
|Barron Storey- Abandon|
|Barron Storey- Bit of a cliché... Goodbye from his gallery show: "Suicide"|
Artists mentioned in this interview:
* = Site contains additional Barron works!