Thinking back to my first heroes, (excepting my parents and an assortment of superheroes), I remember from kindergarten onward, I began to realize that there were people in the world who made a career out of drawing and creating things. Artists have remained my heroes ever since.
But who was my first creative hero? I might say Charles Schulz or Stan Lee, creators of recognizable cartoon characters. I recognized them as successful comics creators, but I didn’t necessarily view them as “heroic.” When I look back, the first heroically creative artist I knew of was, without a doubt, Saul Steinberg. He was a cartoonist for the New Yorker, well known for his absurd ‘map’ of world from the point of view of New York City. But there was so much more to Saul Steinberg, as I would learn.
I didn’t read the New Yorker in fifth grade. I was a somewhat lonely kid in 1979. My family had just moved to a new neighborhood in the suburbs of Washington DC. My mother brought me to an exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum one weekend. She knew about the artist, but he was new and strange to me. I was familiar with comics, of course. I read the comic strips in the Sunday paper, and a handful of superhero comic books, but I had never seen anything like the work of Saul Steinberg.
In my memory, the poster for the exhibition was a drawing of a woman, but not a beautiful or even attractive woman. It was a woman who was smiling and staring with such intensity that I found it more than a little intimidating. I was not familiar with this sort of art or drawing. After all, didn’t most artists draw women to look as beautiful as possible?
I reluctantly entered the exhibition. Steinberg’s drawings required some getting used to. But there was something intriguing about them: groups of men standing in fields, clouds in a sky, fake documents with ridiculously flourished fake signatures. Gradually, I was drawn into his world. My mother pointed out that the figures standing in the fields were not drawn, but made with rubber stamps. And a lot of the textures and tones were created with carefully applied fingerprints. A man in a necktie had nothing but a fingerprint representing his head. What at first had seemed merely odd became suddenly…revolutionary. We walked further into the exhibition.
The next thing to blow my young mind was seeing “mail art” for the first time: Steinberg had drawn on the outsides of various envelopes he’d mailed to people. For example, one showed an Egyptian landscape based more on Camel cigarette wrappers than on reality. All of the envelopes included the address of the recipient and the artist’s return address, as well as a stamp. And all of them had actually been mailed and postmarked (and apparently retrieved from the each addressee for this exhibition). I had never before seen used envelopes (something commonly discarded) framed and hung on the wall of a major museum. And come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever since.
By this point, I was really enjoying the experience. I thought he’d gone about as far out there as an artist could get. But there was further mind-blowing-ness yet to come. Away from the walls, in the middle of the floor, drawing desks were on display. Were these the desks of the artist? The museum was displaying the desks where he drew? I didn’t understand. Taking a closer look, I saw that the pencils and erasers set on top of the desks were made of painted wood. They had been carved to look like pencils, erasers, and other drawing supplies. But they were not at all real. The desks themselves were designed to be visually interesting, but were not exactly functional. The artist had, for unknown reasons, created replicas of desks that he could not actually use. To this day, I have never seen anything quite like it, and am still scratching my head over it.
Besides his radical acts of unconventional creation, Steinberg could also draw. He drew fictional landscapes, playing tricks with perspective. He drew words, giving the letters weight and personality. He made masks out of what appeared to be brown paper grocery bags. And he drew cartoony people, but not in the sense of creating a continuing comic strip character who could be marketed and licensed, or even in the sense of characters who exist to deliver a gag in a panel on a magazine page. More often than not, his cartoon people existed merely to be themselves. They were portraits drawn from observation, but from what he observed on the inside as much as on the outside. The lack of commercial purpose in these drawings gave them an air of mystery and a sense of presence. And, to a 10-year-old boy, they were a little bit intimidating as well.
I didn’t learn much of anything about the artist’s personal life then, and I know very little about it now. (The most important detail of his life was probably that he came to the U.S. from Romania to flee the horrors of World War Two, which might explain his fascination with rubber stamps and signatures: his keys to freedom.) Who he was didn’t matter as much as what he made. And what he made seemed to exist for no other reason than to be looked at and pondered.
I went home from that exhibition and started drawing (moreso than usual). I experimented for a brief time with creating fake signatures and excessive calligraphic flourishes. For weeks and months afterwards, I drew images on envelopes which I then mailed to my grandmother and other relatives. I drew a bottle of wine on one envelope, the address of the recipient written as the words of the bottle’s label (this one went to Aunt Karen, who protested in return that she was not a wino). Another of my envelopes revealed the address on the squares of a Rubik’s cube (the latest craze, circa 1980).
In our current era of email, I rarely write and send letters on paper any more. When I do, I often try to take at least a minute or two to draw something on the envelope. Because why waste an opportunity to send some art into the world? Seeing Saul Steinberg’s exhibition freed my own creative work. From that moment on, I knew that art is most alive when it is a part of the world.
Seattle Artist David Lasky co-authored the graphic novel “Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song,” which won comics’ Eisner Award in 2013. David teaches comics at the Richard Hugo House. To learn more about his work, visit his website: https://davidlasky.carbonmade.com