Mika xL Column 14, April
Mika Talks Art
On a cold January morning this year, I made my way up the winding roads of upstate Connecticut. I was nervous, not only because I was the one doing the driving (I am a terrible driver), but because this felt more like a pilgrimage than a meeting. After getting lost I finally found a discreet painted wooden house, secluded in the middle of a dense forrest. I had arrived at the home of ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ illustrator, Maurice Sendak. Walking into the house, I came across a short, elderly man, dressed in his pyjamas and sitting at the dinner table talking loudly on the phone. When finally presented to him, he looked at me softly and smiled - “you’re very young”, he said, “I’m 82, have a seat”.
Over the next three hours, I glimpsed into the life of a man who’s work has been one of the biggest creative inspirations in my life. Sendak is most famous for the Wild Things but has illustrated over 100 books. His art has reinvented illustration and children’s books, the same way Norman Rockwell reinvented the art of marketing illustration. He lives with his female assistant and friend. With visitors he is generous with his thoughts and time but prefers to work and listen to Schubert. He does this in the same room that he sleeps in, working endlessly, desperate to achieve and leave behind a body of work as good as his heroes, William Blake and Keats.
If I hadn’t become a musician I would have become an illustrator. Illustrations work in a very similar way to pop songs. In pop songs, melodies and lyrics have to be direct. They work best when something indescribable is created out of the most simple ingredients. It can take only seconds for a song to grab your attention. Illustrations have to do the same thing. The lines seem simple and the image quickly understandable, but what goes into it can take as much skill as any painting in the Louvre. In this way, Sendak is the Beatles of the art world.
When sitting with Sendak, it is hard not to feel like you are sitting with one of his characters come to life. Small, big faced and bursting with expression and one-liners. He is a perfect combination of wickedly cynical yet constantly in awe of art and music. It gives him a childlike quality. His ‘Jewishness’ is almost exaggerated. He speaks bits of Yiddish, often with a raised voice and theatrical flair. Many people are unaware of the massive influence Eastern European (mostly Jewish), fine artists from the 1940s, shaped the imagery of their childhood to this day. Fleeing war and political instability, many eastern European painters emigrated to the USA. There they found themselves out of work, with paintings that had no hope of making money. It was in the booming publishing industry that they found a future. With the development of cheap high quality colour printing, books and magazines flourished and illustrations were needed to fill them. The skill of the emigré artists revolutionised illustration. The drawings were still direct and pop, (the publishers made sure of that), but they had a wealth of sophistication and training behind them. Artists like Gustaf Tenggren and Tibor Gergely would later be poached by Walt Disney and many were responsible for creating the intricate visual world of many Disney classics, including Snow White, Disney’s first full length film.
The resentment that some of these artists felt was not unjustified. They were for a long time the unsung heroes of pop culture, rejected by the fine art world, and underpaid by the mainstream companies. How things have changed. I got my first job at eleven after being expelled from school. Unable to read and write, my mother decided to give me a new start and keep me out of formal education for almost a year. During that time I learnt to sing, play the piano and would stare at the pictures in children’s books. The pictures were far more important than the words and there began my obsession with illustration. A couple years later, after I finally managed to save some money, I used all the cash I had to buy my first drawing. It was a watercolour by Jim Woodring, of a bunny called Frank. Frank is drugs, sex, insecurity, happiness and fear. The only thing is, Frank doesn’t speak, there is no text in his comics and he lives a made up surreal fantasy land. Somehow, all these emotions are still communicated and crystal clear. Frank was subversive but my parents had no idea. My Frank picture cost me $300, a fortune at the time. I didn’t stop there. Whenever I made money, I found a picture to spend it on. By the age of 17 I was already trading and selling my pictures online. I often kept this addiction secret from my friends, embarrassed of some of the risks I was taking. It seems I was by no means alone. A whole generation who has grown up with illustration art refuse to see it as merely something disposable. Those Tengrenns and Gergelys that were once given away, can now fetch over a $100,000. How they would turn in there graves!
Now for the illustration on my latest article! My illustrator sister Yasmine, who goes by the pen-name DaWack, thought it would be fun if one of you would illustrate my next article.So, if you would like the chance to illustrate next month’s column, make your own illustration inside the frame, scan it and email it to email@example.com with ‘Illustrazione Mika’ in the subject line by the 13th May and we will then choose our favourite…
Check out the paper’s website here: http://xl.repubblica.it/Translation in Progress
by Mika on xL Repubblica
Firstly posted on Mikasounds