The art of the illustrator

I've worked with quite a few illustrators now, and always been fascinated by the process that turns my words into a picture - possibly because I've spent the past two years working with an artist and a large part of that time has been looking at her paintings and waiting for a story to strike me. One illustrator though, whose work as been a constant pleasure to me, is Frigg's EnoaraF. You can see his work here in the latest edition of Frigg.

If I could chose one illustrator to work with, it would be he, so I grabbed the opportunity to find out a little more about him and his working methods ... or I thought I did!

How did you get into illustration?

I was asked to submit a short story to an online magazine and I suggested submitting an illustration for someone else's short story instead. That was FRiGG magazine and that’s how I got hooked up. I had principally been a photographer until my wife, Kerensa, took up photography and I turned the field over to her. She's richer than I am and owns a better camera. Then I moved on to inventing. I invented the invisible ball bearing which is used in stealth aircraft. I also invented lighter than air toast. Then I returned to illustrating.

What’s the best thing about illustrating poetry and fiction?


There are many images in fiction and poetry and you only need one. I enjoy illustrating poetry because hardly anyone understands what poetry is and I can get away with pretty much anything. I once illustrated a poem that utilized the word coriander. I depicted a disheveled man holding a sign that said, “Will Work For Coriander.” I once met the poet, John Ashberry.

I dislike illustrating for advertising because you are usually limited by the product. I submitted an illustration of the Hoover Dam to the Coca-Cola company. The dam, water spilling over the top, and fish falling with crazed wide-eyed looks. In the foreground a group of people were screaming and running away in terror. It was rejected. I submitted the very same illustration for the story, "The Day the Hoover Dam Spilled Over," and it was accepted. Go figure.

And what’s the worst thing?

Being crushed by a printing press is the worst thing that could happen to an illustrator of fiction and poetry. They weigh over 600 pounds. Also getting your arm severed in the paper cutter. There’s a safety guard, but most print shops remove it because it slows down the process. Once you get the paper lined up on the cutting deck you’re supposed to pull your arm back before stepping on the activation button located on the floor. Illustration is much safer today because of the internet.

How do you get the inspiration for your art - do the stories always give you an image to work with?

I have had many inspirations. As many as twelve. My father was an awesome amateur photographer. He was also adept at hand-tinting photos using Marshall’s oils. Beautiful work. He taught by example. I grew up in New York City (The Bronx) and there are many images of New York and its people that are permanently impressed in the permanent impression lobe of my brain. I was a big fan of Dada and the New York Yankees. The many museums influenced me. In the lobby of the Natural History Museum in New York there is an elephant. I would bring peanuts for him. Mostly the people of New York influenced me. You can pick a New Yorker out of any lineup and that's why there appears to be so much crime. I would observe these people and wonder what they would look like flattened on a piece of paper. I wished I were invisible so I could stand and observe people unobtrusively. Actually, in New York you can do that quite easily. If you stand in the middle of a crowd with a crazed look on your face like a fish falling over the lip of a dam, everyone will believe you are crazy leaving you free to stare right back. It would be slightly better to be invisible, however, my success with invisibility has not gone beyond disguising ball bearings.

As far as stories giving me inspiration, I am duty bound to include something in the illustration that connects to the story, even if it’s only a color. Otherwise, I’m free to do whatever I want. Almost every story contains a human and so I usually put a human in the illustration. If it’s a science fiction story I illustrate a human looking up.

The jacket design by Archie Ferguson for the novel, “The Crazed,” by Ha Jin consists of a small wicker chair. “Stretched out on the wicker chair, I closed my eyes and gave free rein to my thoughts about his secret life.” The chair is a rather unassuming object in this novel. The illustrator chose to use it. And there you have it.

How do writers respond to your interpretation of their work?

Stunned silence. I have to believe the bulk of what I do is acceptable to writers because I never hear from them. Maybe I’m just hard to reach. I heard from one author I illustrated, Daphne Buter. She is also an illustrator, and maybe that’s why. She is funny and that could be the reason. I haven’t heard from her in a long time and I‘m sure this could be attributed to her sense of comedic timing. Mostly I hear from editors.

What’s the one mistake you made, when starting out, that still haunts you?

I killed another illustrator by accident. Then I left the country to avoid paying his family restitution. And I stole their Winnebago.

Who do you most admire as a writer, and why?

I used to admire Nicholas Nickleby. When I went to college I found out Nicholas Nickleby wasn’t a writer. Throughout college I read the assigned literature, but cannot remember much. Years later I found a paperback book on the subway: 20 Rubber Balls by J. J. Fenton. It was the best book I have ever read and much better than the literature assigned to me at City College. I read it many times. Then I lost it. When I tried to purchase another copy I could not find it. I went to many booksellers in New York. I tried the Gotham Book Mart. They had never heard of it. I tried that book store on Anne St. “No,” they said. If you Google ‘20 Rubber Balls by J. J. Fenton’ you get: FLAVIO FENTON.

I wish I hadn’t lost that book. It might have been the only copy in existence. However, I can’t say J. J. Fenton is the writer I admire most. I liked his book a lot. The book was great, but his writing style was actually lousy.

The writer I enjoy now is Haruki Murakami. He writes plainly. I can’t read Japanese, but I have faith in translators and I can tell he is a plain writer in any language. He was born in 1949 and I was born in 1948. He was the son of a Buddhist priest and my father was an alter boy. His writing is considered surreal. Murakami grew up reading the works of Kurt Vonnegut and so did I. Therefore, I will most admire Vonnegut until Vonnegut forces me to admire someone else and then I will admire Murakami most.

Here is a “found poem” in honor of Murakami (a found poem meaning I found these lines scattered about in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Murakami):

May Kasahara

All I could think to do was go see May Kasahara.
But I saw no sign of May Kasahara.
I was ready to give up . . . when May Kasahara finally came out.
May Kasahara stared hard at my face, then wrinkled her eyebrows slightly.

May Kasahara nodded in silence.

(The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. A novel. $15.00 U.S. Buy it at Amazon.com.)

This is how books will be promoted by illustrators in the future. Kiosks in book establishments will run beautifully illustrated 15 second found poems based on the books they sell. These illustrated found poems will download to your phone or illuminated wall. They will appear at your feet in the subway or tube. A little lighted tile embedded in the floor will activate. The sound will erotically travel up your leg and the visual will enter your brain like a foot slipping into a warm bath. If you buy the book you can relive the sensation whenever you want. People will love books again. It will all be lighter than toast.

Once I saw Kurt Vonnegut walking down the street in the Turtle Bay section of Manhattan. He had on a corduroy suit the color of toast.

I like toast.

What advice would you give somebody who is thinking of becoming an illustrator?

Stop thinking so much.

And put together a portfolio.

And what advice would you give writers hoping to be published?

Don’t write like you’re hoping to be published. Write with a specific someone in mind as your audience. What person do you know well that would like to read a story by you? The person you choose will dictate the style and content of the story. I felt J. J. Fenton was telling his story only to me and that is what made it special. To help with writers block just frame the story as if it were a letter.

Dear Uncle Fred,

Then write the letter. Later remove: Dear Uncle Fred.

Is there something else you can see yourself doing if you weren’t an artist?

I could go back to inventing.

If you were abandoned on a desert island, with just one book for company, what would it be?

The Holy Bible From the Ancient Eastern Text: George M. Lamsa’s Translations From the Aramaic of the Peshitta. This is the Bible translation from the language Jesus spoke. When Aramaic was translated into Latin and Greek, errors crept into the text. My favorite is Matthew 19:24 which is translated in the King James Version: It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

The word for camel and rope is nearly identical in Aramaic. One dot left off the Aramaic word for rope changes the word to camel. Lamsa corrects it to: It is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

The meaning is the same, of course, but now the expression is idiomatic and not at all strange.

If there’s the slightest chance a mainland were not too far away I would take in place of The Bible a book on how to build a boat.