Category Archives: New York in the 80s

Bat Monster Woman!!

Bat Monster Woman Embroidery by Suzanne Forbes Feb 20 2017Bat Monster Woman Embroidery by Suzanne Forbes Feb 20 2017It’s a gray day in Berlin but this gold and bronze Bat Monster Woman I just finished is glowing.

She is inspired by my beloved Archie McPhee Monster Women rubber toys, a gift from my oldest friend Victoria.

I used what may be my last scrap of silver velvet, some old-gold colored wired organza ribbon that I bought with a coupon at Jo-Ann for my first wedding, and gold tulle.

Plus my favorite Black Pearl metallic thread from Rico Design, which is the only good metallic embroidery thread available in the world.

Bat Monster Woman Embroidery by Suzanne Forbes Feb 20 2017And two citrine Swarovski crystals for her eyes, some brass rhinestuds, a scrap of teeeny gold dollmaking braid trim, and plain dark green cotton thread, doubled, carefully stitched around the border of the design.

Using a fine dark thread to go around the edges of important shapes really helps me control and refine the line, I highly recommend it.

It’s especially great where a regular back-stitched embroidered line butts up against a satin stitch area. The tiny needle you can use for a single strand of floss or regular thread means you can stitch into the satin stitch without disturbing or spreading it, yet stabilize it at the same time.

I also added brass stud stars, both to reference Wonder Woman iconography and because I love studs.

When I was a child, about seven to nine, I had a babysitter I adored. Her name was Melissa, and although she was a hardcore drug addict and a total flake, she was so mellow and gentle with me. Some friends of her and her sister Nadine had a clothing store on 8th Avenue between 20th and 21st, a funky hippie store where everybody hung out. I don’t know if they ever sold anything but drugs.

Sitting on the floor in there under racks of fringed and embroidered and patched rocker clothes impacted my aesthetic so much.

Bat Monster Woman Embroidery by Suzanne Forbes Feb 20 2017There was a barrel of studs for your jeans or jean jackets, all different shapes and designs, stars and moons and pyramids and other shapes I can’t quite summon. Like, a barrel- they must have bought them by the kilo at some surplus place. I would run my hands through them, gently so the points wouldn’t poke me.

I felt completely safe there. Years later the friends became famous Deadhead t-shirt silkscreeners, and I went to a party at their loft on 14th st. I came home drunk at dawn and gleefully told my mom about their huge ball python Clyde who had cuddled me. They were such nice people, and such incredible artists.

Everything you do or see or feel goes in the hopper for creative work. 

Everything I remember, here in this safe-at-last place, surfaces and turns and shines under the light. I don’t know where the synthesis will take me. Or what the meeting point will be between painting and drawing, the skills I trained a decade for and made a career in, and the making things I’ve always loved.

Unterweg Drawings Nr. 3 – January!

3am on the U7 by Suzanne Forbes Jan 30 2017This is one of those Berlin moments that kind of confused me.

It was a Saturday late fairly late, and this guy was eating a sandwich in a white Tyvek jumpsuit. Was he a homeless guy, with his possessions in his cart? His cart also contained folders of papers and cleaning products, maybe he works in the subway system?

I couldn’t tell. I snuck behind the elevator shaft and drew him through its glass walls. Then I finished it a month or two later with the new greyscale markers one of my beloved Friend-Muse-Patrons gave me for my 50th birthday!80s classics come around again by Suzanne Forbes Jan 25 2017

I saw this woman last week on the U-Bahn. Everything about her took me back to the 80s.

It was an older train, she was in the classic straphanger bookworm brace position, she was reading an 80s thriller and wearing the same kind of puffer coat my mom wore in the 80s. Puffer coats came back in style a couple years ago, and I am glad because they are so fun to draw.

December Unterwegs here.

November Unterwegs here.

Another watercolor portrait!

We’ve had a few undesirably hot days here in Berlin, and today was the hottest.

I bought a portable A/C from a Brit who was leaving town last year, because we don’t do well with heat. I set up the A/C in the library and painted the hubbin while he did whatever he does on Reddit.Dan McArdle by Suzanne Forbes Aug 28 2016 Berlin

This watercolor thing is getting to be FUN. Probably if I’m gonna keep doing it I should buy a better watercolor block than this one from the stationary store around the corner, and maybe some real watercolors. Maybe even a new Windsor & Newton Series 7 Sable, nobly though the one I bought when I was at Parsons thirty years ago has served.

Maybe I should actually take a class and learn HOW one does watercolors.

Dan McArdle by Suzanne Forbes Aug 28 2016 Berlin - close upI had one class where we had one watercolor assignment, in school. Unfortunately I didn’t think painting in colors was worth my time, then; it was just an useless tangent for a person who was going to be a comic book penciller and have a colorist to take care of such things.

So I did a sloppy job of the assignment, and showed up late and drunk to class, with my very drunk boyfriend Richie tagging along.

My teacher was furious. I felt at the time that he was furious about the banal quality of the green grass I’d painted. It seemed like he was just really disgusted that I’d painted such bad grass. But I know better now. I still think the grass really bothered him, but I bet it bothered him more that I had wasted a priceless opportunity to work and learn.

I forgive you for yelling at me, Parsons teacher whose name I’ve forgotten. I forgive you for being a medium I didn’t know how to use, watercolors. I forgive you for being drunk and sloppy when you were 20 years old, Suz.

Sometimes both life and art are long.

Fast sketching Tiepolo-style!

aklamio 5 year anniversary party berlin by Suzanne Forbes June 17 2016Here’s a sketch from the five-year anniversary party of the wonderful company my husband works for.

sketch with midtone Suzanne Forbes July 17 2016This is how I did it- first pencil sketch for structure and gesture, then a 50% grey pen to spot in midtones, then fine line outline, then brush pen strokes for the heavy line weight on the undersides of things and solid blacks.detail pg 27 Advertising Layout Techniques by Harry Borgman 1983

This approach is a callback to the old-school commercial illustrators’ pen and marker techniques I learned from books in the 80s.  Scan to the right: detail of pg. 27 from “Advertising Layout Techniques” by Harry Borgman, pub. 1983.

I loved this style of rendering because it was about drawing– it was didactic as hell, a formatted iconography for storytelling through pictures. The audience had been taught to read the visual language of illustration and comics over decades. They had an encoded understanding of what kind of mark-making represented what textile, what line weight meant highlights.

I have a whole collection of books in my art library that offer instruction in now-obsolete techniques like Prismacolor and Chartpak markers and beloved, vanished Zip-A-Tone. The earliest layers of my library reveal just how little I ever intended to be a fine artist- I just wanted to be a working stiff journeyman illustrator.

Detail pg 18 from New York The Big City by Will Eisner 1986

Detail pg 18 from New York The Big City by Will Eisner 1986

Comps Storyboards and Animatics by james Fogle and Mary E Forsell 1989

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The grey-scale rendering methods of the great 20th Century advertising artists were already disappearing from the curriculum of art schools in 1989, when I left New York. They stayed alive in comics for a few years longer, because of the specific exigencies of comic printing before direct digital and the Black-and-White Boom.

By the time I was sober and enrolled in the Minneapolis College of Art & Design, in 1990, the career emphasis had shifted to digital graphic production. There were computer labs and programs like Illustrator and Photoshop and the illustration program at MCAD was skeletal. Teaching drawing for commercial art was over.

Tiepolo_angelLucky for me, I was able to become a painter. I pivoted to FIne Art in the MCAD curriculum just to get enough teaching in things I cared about, but there were many hidden benefits to leaving the commercial illustration track, and I had some fine teachers.

Tiepolo Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra

Tiepolo Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra

One of my painting teachers at MCAD told me my preparatory sketch for a painting reminded him of Tiepolo‘s ink wash drawings. He showed me what he meant and I was amazed at how modern an eighteenth-century drawing could look.

Of course, we don’t know how Tiepolo produced these works- he might have done the pencil sketch and line-work first, then added the midtone wash. Either way, the grey-scale (or sepia-scale!) is a thing of beauty.

tiepolo_satyr

 

I hope to do some ink-wash drawings utilising grey scale values later this summer, as well as some chalk drawings on grey paper. I’ve been thinking about how Sargent said if you get the midtones right, everything else falls into place. I’ve never been a midtone person; I’ve always focused on line quality and hard black and white values. But people change 🙂

 

 

Dear blonde girl in the white pants: imaginary amends letters from the men who sexually assaulted and harassed me as a child.

This morning, I suddenly realized I deserved amends from the men and boys who sexually assaulted me.

photo John Garetti 1977

Age 10, photo by John Garetti, 1977

I decided that if I wanted them to make amends to me, I was going to have to take care of it myself.

So I wrote some letters from some of the strangers who violated me during my childhood.

The people I knew and who knew me, well, that’s up to them, and they haven’t made much progress to date.

Dear blonde girl in the white pants near the Waverly Theater in 1980:

Age 13, photo by J Nebraska Gifford

Age 13, photo by J Nebraska Gifford

I’m sorry I called that phone booth you were walking by. When you picked it up I said “I want to rip those tight white pants off you and fuck you” and you hung up and looked frantically around you. You were young, maybe fourteen or fifteen. Young enough to fall for the “prank” of someone calling a phone booth from another one across the street. Actually, maybe you were only thirteen. Tight pants were in fashion, and I made a lot of those phone calls. I’m so sorry for how unsafe and violated I made you feel in that moment, and in so many moments afterwards.

Dear ten-year-old girl in the Elgin Theater in 1977:

When I silently slid into the seat next to you, you were so engrossed in the movie you didn’t notice a thing. What were you doing alone in the theater watching “The 400 Blows” anyway? You were so pretty, with your blonde hair. I carefully edged my hand towards your lap and grabbed your crotch. You jumped up and screamed at me, but there was no-one in the theater to hear. You ran out into the lobby, shouting. “Fucking pervert son-of-a-bitch!” you called me. I watched you run off up 8th Avenue. I wish I had stayed in that program they put me in back in ’72, for people like me.

Dear blonde hippie chick in the see-through skirt in front of the deli at Abington Square in 1982:

Age 15, on Abington Square

Age 15, on Abington Square, 1982

When me and my friends passed you and your little girlfriend at 2 a.m.- she was even younger than you I think, maybe only fourteen- the streetlight shone right through your skirt. I ran the two steps back and grabbed your crotch, hard. Then I ran back after my friends. You came after me, screaming and shouting. You called me a fucking bastard motherfucking son-of-a-bitch. Your friend looked so afraid.

Then you ran into the deli and I heard you telling them to call the police. Lucky for Past Me, they ignored you. Present Me wishes they had at least acknowledged you. I thought of you over and over that night, as we rambled around the Village. What was I thinking? I had a sister your age. I don’t know why I thought what you were wearing gave me the right to assault you. I often wonder, when I see a girl in a see-through skirt like that in some Coachella video, if someone will hurt her, too. I wonder if you remember that night in the Village.

Dear little girl in the kitchen at Thea’s New Year’s Eve party near Westbeth in the ’70s:

We were alone in the kitchen when the Auld Lang Syne music started to play in the living room. You were looking in the cookie jar. I said hello to you, and you responded not very politely. I could hear shouting from the next room- Thea and Bill, your father, had been dealing a little in those days, and everyone was drinking hard as well. “Give me a New Year’s kiss”, I said, and bent down and grabbed your face. I forced my tongue in your mouth and you pulled away. I was fifty-two, and I just walked into the living room and got another glass of wine. Three years later, during an acid trip in New Mexico, your dead-eyed little face swam up in my memories and I realized what I’d done. I am so, so sorry. You were just a little girl.

Dear Rachel (I think your last name was Ketchum?):

When Cliff and Emerick said they knew this girl who lived in Chelsea who had her father’s apartment all to herself on the weekends, I was so down. Since they started at Stuy in September I didn’t see them as much, and I missed them. I was fifteen that Fall, and I wanted to get laid so bad. I knew a guy in Corona who had Quaaludes, and I went and bought five. Emerick said he had weed and Cliff said he had some speed. When we got to your place on Friday night I couldn’t believe you were only thirteen. You looked so much older, in your purple jumpsuit.

You had bought champagne for the party. They just sold it to you, no questions asked. I got wasted really fast, with the hash we were smoking, the booze and everything. I remember we were out in the neighborhood, and we were doing some tagging. You had spraypaint and markers. We were in the Cuban-Chinese restaurant, and you said you had a headache, you wanted to go home to get some aspirin. “Here, take this”, Cliff said, and he dropped a Quaalude in your water glass.

I got stopped by the police in Washington Square, trying to buy some acid, and you talked the cop out of busting us. You told him that I was your cousin from Queens and this was my first time in the city, and you were just trying to give me a classic New York experience. I couldn’t believe the cop fell for it. He kept looking down your front.

We bought tickets for the midnight show of Rocky Horror at the 8th st. Playhouse- you had been, and Cliff, but not me and Emerick. We had an hour to kill so we went to smoke a bowl in a vestibule across the street. Cliff took his dick out, and then Emerick did too, and so I did too. We all started grabbing your hands and trying to make you jerk us off. You were so wasted, you could barely fight us. You said it was time to go if we wanted to get good seats.

Later that night we were at your place. You had made some kind of food, like chicken salad, and we started to make brownies with some of your father’s weed, but then we were too wasted. Cliff put on The Who- Who’s Next, Baba O’Riley. He did the thing with the record player where the song plays over and over. You said you were tired and went into your bedroom. We all got on the bed with you and started groping you. I could hear the music from the next room-

“Don’t cry Don’t raise your eye
It’s only teenage wasteland-”

and you were telling us to stop touching you. Like that was gonna happen. Obviously Cliff and Emerick expected you were going to have sex with us, but you seemed really surprised. You grabbed your white Princess phone and called someone, told him you were in trouble, you were being attacked. I could hear him through the handset. “What do you want me to do about it?” he said; he sounded about our age.

Cliff tore your jumpsuit trying to get it off you. You were fighting now, as the song started again, and you were weirdly strong. I remembered Cliff saying you were some kind of exercise nut. None of us went to gym or anything, and we were really high. You kicked and struggled and bit us. Cliff was so high he started to pass out. Emerick was still trying to get your clothes off, but he was a pretty small guy. Somehow Cliff slid onto the floor and you bundled Emerick after him and shoved them both out the door and told me to get out. You locked the door and we all passed out.

In the morning the song was still playing. The apartment was so trashed. You made us breakfast, I don’t know why, and then you made us leave. We were all still really high. I hung around the lobby of your building, and when you came downstairs a little later I shot at you with my bb gun as you rushed towards the door. You looked really freaked out. You didn’t notice me, but I followed you as you walked back to the Village. I saw you go into the 99 Cents store on 8th st., and come out with a little package. I saw you open the package of razor blades in a vestibule in Soho and cut your wrist. You stayed there for hours, bleeding, even though it turned really cold. i had to go home because my mom was expecting me for Sunday dinner.

I lost touch with those guys after that, and I don’t know what happened to you. Every time I heard Baba O’RIley, I remembered that night. At first it gave me the creeps, but then it became sort of a romantic thing, like this cool wild night from my teens. After a few decades I forgot about it. Then one night I decided to watch this new TV show. It was called CSI New York. The theme song came on, with blurry New York flashing lights. It was Baba O’Riley. I was sitting in my living room in Flushing, and suddenly it hit me. We tried to gang-rape you. You were thirteen years old, and the only reason we didn’t actually rape you was we were too wasted. You tried to kill yourself the next day. Jesus. I don’t know what I can possibly say, at this moment. I’m just so fucking sorry. I wish I’d never gone into the city with those guys that night. I hope you’re ok. I hope you can listen to Baba O’Riley without being sad. I hope you recovered from what we did to you. I hope you can watch CSI, if you like CSI.

Waiting on a lady.

graffitiresto by Suzanne Forbes April 28 2016I made this drawing while waiting for a lady from my recovery program and feeling a lot of grief and frustration about the inexorability of death.

My boyfriend Rob died thirty years ago, but I still don’t know how to fit his death into the world. Experiencing spring in a place with a New York climate again brings it all back like a freight train.

I found the invite to Ava and Conor’s wedding in my papers yesterday. They were so goddam scintillating. So clever, so beautiful, so young. At least Conor left Finn in the world.

Most of Rob’s art was public, because he was a graffiti artist, and the last of his big pieces disappeared from Soho years ago. I look for his tags in every photo of 80s New York I see, but don’t find them. Kim Basinger walks past one on Spring St. in 9½ Weeks. I dream about walking New York, looking for his pieces.

The longer I’m sober, the safer I am, the more I can experience things; some of those things are really hard.

I came home from the restaurant (which is our neighborhood bistro, called…Graffiti) and just sat and cried for two hours. Just crying, just tears flowing out of me like they had all the time in the world. There is nothing I can do but keep doing, keep trying to do the best I can to be a better person, to make the best art I can, to be the best friend and wife and teacher I can. But Jesus, I miss him.

We prickly thistles: in praise of problematic people.

Thistle by Suzanne Forbes Jan 27 2016

I hadn’t done a large, detailed embroidery piece in a while, so I decided to do a botanical.

And then I got interested in weeds, and prickly plants. I chose a thistle specifically, because it’s the symbol of Scotland, where my amazing mom was born, because they are beautiful and because some are poisonous, some nutritious.

Plus, thistles are the favorite food of the world’s only adorable depressive, Eeyore.

The last year has made me think a lot about how we judge people’s “undesirable” qualities. One of my beloved ex-boyfriends was here visiting in September, and I was telling him about some horrible thing I used to do when I was using. “I’m glad I didn’t know you then. I don’t think we would have been friends.” “I wasn’t nice“, I said ruefully. “I can’t imagine that.”, he said.

I was glad he considered niceness such a natural part of my character now, since becoming nicer has been one of my primary goals for the last twenty-seven years. But what he said made me sad. It seemed like a disservice to the incredible people who were brave enough and injudicious enough to love me when I wasn’t nice. There were a lot of them, and they saved my life a thousand times.

My oldest and dearest friend Victoria has known me at depth and loved me since I was an enraged, bitter, foulmouthed, shoplifting eight-year-old. She has loved me through her 21st birthday, when I did so many drugs the paramedics had to revive me before I could go to her party, even though I promised I wouldn’t be high on her birthday.

She loved me enough to say to me, in her maid of honor dress, in the fairy-tale carriage on the way to the church, “You don’t have to go through with this, you know.”

Does someone like me deserve a friend that good? I was a terrible girlfriend to good boys; I hit at least three of my boyfriends that I can remember, and I think I cheated on every single one. Usually with their best friends. I lied endlessly to my mother, whose shelter and protection was the only thing that kept me alive in an absurdly high-risk lifestyle, and crept into her bedroom to steal from her purse at night. I disappointed my teachers, whose guidance was the central force in my development as an artist.

I gave the boy I should have married drugs that killed him, and I still miss him every day.

I broke the heart of another boy who wanted to marry me, and I still miss him every day, though he lives happily with his wife in Seattle, doing martial arts with his kids and restoring their Victorian. I betrayed the trust of doctors and therapists who tried to care for me. I stole food and booze every single day for years. I had sex with underage boys and girls and gave them drugs and alcohol. I hurt the people I loved the most on a daily basis, for years.

And the really fucked up thing is, it didn’t all stop when I got sober.

I didn’t stop cheating on my boyfriends til I was over a year sober; I haven’t hit anyone since I got sober, but at four years sober I grabbed my first husband and threw him up against the fridge. It took me years to stop stealing small bits of food. I ran up credit cards and had to spend years paying them off with Consumer Credit Counseling.

My own brother has a daughter I’ve never met, because he stopped speaking to me back in ’98.

I can’r really blame him. I was a terrifying, nightmare sister, and it takes a rare family member to truly accept that someone you have known from babyhood can change. I lied to my editor on Star Trek, who I worshipped, because my crippling depression meant I was constantly running behind on my deadlines. I had to file bankruptcy in the early aughts because of my IRS debt. I was a verbal abuser and a bully to both my first and second husbands; I used compulsive shopping to medicate the pain of the relationships til sometimes we barely had money for food.

And my flashing furious temper cost me the friendship of a man who was one of the little brothers I always wanted; no amends I made could fix the relationship, and it is the greatest loss of my adult life. That’s something I’ve learned, going around to stores in New York to pay them back for things I stole and finding the owner changed: sometimes you can’t make amends. Some things you can’t fix.

But you can try. I have three jobs in life, since January 27, 1989. Wake up in the morning and try to stay sober that day, try to be a goddam better person that day, and then maybe make some art if I can. It gets easier to do better. My role models help. The vast majority of my friends and partners have always been much better, gentler people than me; it’s aspirational selection. I love niceness. I have a good boy fetish, not a bad boy fetish.

I have managed to spend five years with my third husband without ever belittling, shaming or abusing him. I have never even raised my voice or used hurtful language to him. I have managed to be kind and reliable to my friends consistently for years. I have learned to pay my bills (mostly) and show up on time for jobs (mostly). I just don’t go to the supermarket or the post office on the couple days a month when I can’t be trusted not to be a fucking rude bitch, because I’m tired of having to go back and apologize later.

I’ve come to believe you don’t have to be good to deserve to live; you just have to want to be better enough to try.

Dracula by Jon J. Muth

“Father- I’ve done…questionable things-” from Dracula by Jon J. Muth

Right now another young man who’s like a little brother to me is in trouble back in the Bay. He’s in the community stockade for his bad behaviour. I wish I could be there, to love him even if he’s done shitty things.

I wouldn’t be here if people hadn’t loved me even though I did questionable things. I don’t discard David Bowie because he slept with fifteen-year-old groupies or said reckless things about Hitler.

Arthur Chu, a writer I like a lot, recently said some good things about the imperfection of people.

He talks about how Janus-like our qualities are; how the worst things we do are sometimes part of the best of who we are.

My mom, whose wisdom I value more than anyone’s in the world, said something interesting to me about all the things that are fucked up about me.

She didn’t say it like that, of course, but she said those obsessive, difficult, compulsive, aggressive traits that have bought me so much trouble were also strengths that carried me through the terrible, exhausting move to Berlin and the crazy housing search.

I heard someone else refer to the unpleasant qualities of the alcoholic/addict personality as a survival tool kit for dysfunctional family living. The tools may not be very desirable or attractive in adult life, but it can be hard to shake the ones that continue to serve you. I try to remember that all I can do is keep growing.

And I remind myself, I was being the very best that I could be with the self I had at that moment.

I once had dinner at Chez Panisse with my second husband; I had nettle pasta and he had long-cooked beef ragout, the gristle softened into gelatin. Here in Berlin, I had nettle soup again, made of weeds gathered by the road in Friedrichshain. Weeds have their uses, and their beauty; tonight I have been clean and sober 27 years.

Ponies, ponies, PONIES!!

Our nearby shopping plaza has a Christmas village with a train, a carousel and PONY RIDES.Pony rides by Suzanne Forbes Dec 20 2015

It is so delightful. I sat on a bench next to the speakers playing Christmas music and drew; it was utterly wonderful.Pony rides by Suzanne Forbes Dec 20 2015

Some followers of my work may be surprised that I can draw a horse. A horse is an extremely difficult thing to draw; the famous British equine painter George Stubbs once said that if you can draw a horse, you can draw anything.

Actually, from age seven to age 13, I didn’t draw a single human. All I drew were horses.

I was one of those little girls who both loved horses and was lucky enough to be around them. We had a ramshackle country house in Maine with a barn where we spent every August, and I spent July at riding camp for several years. In Maine we rented a horse for the month, and I took care of it.

I wanted to be a champion rider, at first, maybe on the USET, and then I discovered that I really preferred to ride my pony bareback, with a hackamore, rambling in the woods and fields and beaches. I didn’t actually ever want to learn any kind of rigorous discipline besides drawing.

During this period, I figured my commercial art career would be as horse book illustrator.

I had a hero, Sam Savitt, who was an incredible illustrator, and his “Draw horses with Sam Savitt” poster hung next to my bed where I could study it constantly.drawhrs

Because my father wrote books and knew tons of people in publishing, I actually got to go to Mr. Savitt’s farm and meet him.

This was akin to the time I got to meet Jack Kirby at San Diego just a year before his death.

Studying Sam Savitt’s books was the beginning of my process of obsessive study and learning around drawing.
littlefellowRichRUdish

Rich Rudish, who did several books with wildly popular horse book author Marguerite Henry, was an idol of mine as well. He was a superb draughtsman with a particularly wonderful talent for the dished faces of Arabians.

Looking him up for this article I learned he created Rainbow Brite for Hallmark in 1986!

He sculpted the famous model of Henry’s Sham for Breyer. It is still one of the most beautiful Breyers ever made, I think. (I hope to build a stable for my dollhouse next year and house some of my Classic Breyers in it, so my action figures can go riding!)sham

 

I also liked Henry’s longtime collaborator, Wesley Dennis, though I felt his drawing skills weren’t as solid as Savitt’s. I dreamed of having a working relationship with an author like Henry. I didn’t want to write my own stories; I just wanted to draw the pictures.

Anna Klumpke portrait of Rosa BonheurA great role model was Rosa Bonheur, the most famous female painter of the nineteenth century, who dressed à la garçonne (in men’s clothing), and kept lions for pets. I felt her brio and power like a lifeline.

She was proof that women could make art that was as bold and fearless as men’s. I didn’t want to draw anything fragile or weak- I wanted my work to be a true draughtsman’s, absolutely grounded in anatomy and technical knowledge.

Here is her masterpiece, The Horse FairThe Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur

By seventeen my career plans had changed, and all I wanted in the world was to draw comics.

But you keep the skills learned as a child forever. I remember sitting on the hallway floor in the old Marvel offices with my friend Chris Claremont in ’86. We were talking with Bill Sienkiewicz, who was at the height of his stardom, and the subject of horses came up. MoonKnightpageBillSienkiewiczSo I taught Bill Sam Savitt’s technique for drawing the horse, there in the hallway at 387.

This Moon Knight page is from before he met me! Look at where the browband of the bridle is! Absolutely shocking 😉

Knowing how to draw a horse gave me the understanding to draw cats and dogs and goats and deer as well. And I do love to draw a goat. Especially baby goats.goat by Suzanne Forbes 2007

I don’t have cause to draw horses very often anymore, and that’s too bad.

Maybe I’ll find a portrait client here in Berlin who wants a picture with their horse, or their goat!

 

 

 

Drawing, and why I do it.

Original drawing by Suzanne Forbes Sept 2015I did this drawing of loved ones at the Piano Center in Berlin, in about 20 minutes.

Even for me, that’s extraordinarily fast, and it’s a terrific drawing. The wonder and joy of all the handwork I’ve been doing in these last few years of not painting or drawing very much is that it’s made me a better artist. It is my job in this life to become a better artist, of course, but I have paid terrible dues approaching that goal directly.

Making art was always an arena of terrifying risk, the place where my entire identity was on the line with every stroke. Failure meant total failure, to myself and my goals. I’m enormously grateful that now I am engaging with my craft in a way that’s more nourishing and less savagely self-critical. I still put the pencil to the paper with a sense that my value is at stake, that it is work in the sense of breaking rocks, but at least I have a parallel arena of play.

I have no false modesty about my draughtsmanship- there are only a couple thousand people left in the world who can draw like I can.

As storyboard artists continue to be replaced by animatics software and pre-vis studios, as hand animators continue to be replaced by 3d animation, as book cover artists are replaced by graphic designers, as comic artists continue to focus on style over technical skills, as the remaining fashion illustrators and courtroom artists, almost entirely replaced by cameras, die off, the number of deeply trained great draughtsmen who can perform reliably under any conditions will continue to diminish.

Drawing isn’t like beer and bread; it won’t be saved by a new wave of artisan DIY makers who decide to preserve the old ways.

You can learn to make great bread in a year-long apprenticeship; it takes a year to learn technical perspective alone. A year to learn anatomy, a year to learn foreshortening. Ten thousand hours, or as Chuck Jones said,

“Every artist has thousands of bad drawings in them and the only way to get rid of them is to draw them out.”

I grieve for my craft, of course. I ache for the days when you could go to San Diego ( we didn’t call it “Comic Con” then- in 1986 comic artists said “Are you going to San Diego?” to each other) and Howard Chaykin wouldn’t shake with his left hand because he had to “protect the instrument”. The days before Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane. When there were still journeyman illustrators in ad offices on Madison Avenue, and the Lord & Taylor’s ads in the Times were still drawn by fashion illustrators.

When I was a teenager it was still a completely reasonable, practical life choice to become a commercial illustrator.

I would never have committed over a decade of training to something frivolous, like “fine art”; I fully intended to be self-sufficient by my own means and a working artist. The only reason I know anything about “fine art” today is that when I went to treatment in 1989, the best halfway house was in St. Paul, Minnesota, and after I got out they said I’d relapse if I went back to New York. I’d seen enough of my peers relapse that way to believe them, so I stayed in the Twin Cities, where the only art college happened to be a conceptual PostModern Fine Art emo wonderland.

If I hadn’t gone to MCAD, I would never have learned to paint; I would never have seen installations by Janine Antoni and Karen Finley, never heard Christo and Jeanne-Claude and Ann Hamilton speak ; never been exposed to performance artists like Ron Athey and the others who were supported by Walker Art Center performance curator John Killacky (later executive director of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts).

I’m not sorry my tradesmans’ view of making art was disrupted by conceptual art- it was a priceless experience.

Even though I wandered the halls of the school muttering, “Why can’t Johnny draw?” sometimes, and it was tremendously hurtful to have my skills disregarded. In the Parsons Illustration Program I’d been a hotshot, a teacher’s pet, the example held up in class, until my nodding and vomiting disabled me. At MCAD traditional drawing was already completely devalued, utterly passé, and a boy I foolishly loved once sneered at my senior thesis paintings, “Why don’t you just get a camera?”.

But I was lucky in my work, at first. An illustration teacher who admired my skills suggested I look into courtroom illustration, since Minnesota was then one of the three remaining states that didn’t allow cameras in the courtroom. There were four major tv stations in town, and four courtroom illustrators; by a morbid coincidence, one of the four artists died just a few weeks before I contacted the stations. By the end of my senior year I was working regularly for the CBS affiliate, making ridiculous money for the time. CNN bought my drawings and people who knew me saw my name around the world. I worked with journalists and loved knowing them; they are a special breed. I told people what I did and they said, “Oh! How interesting!” and I could say, “Yes. It really, really is. ”

If I hadn’t had my heart set on drawing comics, I might have been ok.

But all I had wanted from 1983 on was to draw superhero comics. The story of how I broke in, after years of struggle; how I drew one of the first DC comic issues ever to be pencilled, inked and edited by only women, how I was then (and perhaps still) one of less than a dozen women ever to be a fulltime penciller on a monthly book by the Big Two, how the industry collapsed around me in ’95 and I left comics- that’s a story for another time. The point is, I wasn’t crazy. I didn’t build my skills out of a selfish desire to do something I loved and enjoyed- I built them to do work I was good at and expected to be well paid for, even though doing it had an enormous emotional cost. And then those skills became obsolete in my lifetime.

So it goes. Now there is just the puzzle of the next fifty years.

Andy Warhol painted by Alice Neel

Andy Warhol painted by Alice Neel when she was 70.

Because portraitists do their best work late in life- as anyone who has ever been in a gallery of Millais’ assured later-life portraits or seen the incredible Hockney portrait show at LACMA knows.

I have no idea if I can build a portraiture practise here in Berlin that will support me financially; I only know I stand a better chance here than I did in Oakland, and that at least if I can’t, I’ll still have medical care and housing.

I am a repository of everyone who taught me, everything I studied, all the work I put in to be the craftsman I am, and I just can’t let it go to waste.

The first boy I ever dated is being played by the movie star who’s playing Lex Luthor.

giphyI read Salon a lot. And I love, love Andrew O’Hehir.

Especially now that he’s writing more editorial a lot of the time, I make it a point to read the movie stuff he does do.

La la la, oh I see they’re making a David Foster Wallace movie…

…huh, it’s based on the interviews David Lipsky did…Jesse Eisenberg is playing David Lipsky?!?!note-pass-bald-407x480

But I haven’t even processed him playing Lex Luthor yet!

Or that Lex Luthor has hair!

*meme humor by The Mary Sue Senior Editor Glen Tickle

Wait, David Lipsky comes off as a total tool in the movie? HA HA HA HA omigod that’s hilarious.

In the Fall of 1980 I was thirteen, about to start high school at Stuyvesant. Of the ten kids in my small private school who’d taken the Stuyvesant test, most my close friends, two of us had gotten in. Me and my friend Oliver. Earlier that summer, at a birthday party at the Village apartment Olly shared with his charismatic mother Bonnie, I’d pulled a bottle of champagne out of the bathtub and tumbled on Bonnie’s bed with one of Olly’s friends.

That summer I had stripped the baby fat that protected me from my father on a three month crash diet of iceberg lettuce and sugar-free yogurt, forty pounds in three months. I felt my rage could protect me now, so I’d let my hair, which I’d cut because my father loved it long, grow again. I was blonde and blue-eyed, 33-23-36, and wearing purple painter’s pants from Reminiscence. When that boy kissed me the power came up in my veins like the speed I got onto later that year. I knew all I wanted was boys, to have them and take them, hurt them and enslave them.

The week before school started my best friend’s father said I should meet the son of a friend of his, who was a sophomore at Stuy. I asked Victoria, who has been my friend for forty years now but only five back then, if he was cute. She said yeah, actually he was fairly cute.

So I talked to David Lipsky on the phone, which was next to my brother’s bunk bed. The white paper under the rotary dial of our phone was covered with ballpoint ink, from my doodling while I talked. It was still hot; summer dies like a snake by mid-September in New York, or did then, but it hadn’t broken yet.

I agreed to meet this boy the first day of school, on the steps.

Maybe Victoria’s father, Mel, thought we’d be friends. I don’t think so. Mel had an invasive voyeuristic fascination with the sexual development of children, much like my own father. When you look at pictures of me and Vicky at eleven and twelve (I was always younger than everyone else) it’s shocking; my moon face and her gaunt one. Anorexia was so new that she wasn’t diagnosed until nearly too late.

I met David on the steps in front of Stuyvesant before the first bell, so I wasn’t alone my first day. Not that I was worried; it was thousands of kids to less than 100 at Elizabeth Irwin and Little Red Schoolhouse, where I’d spent the last five years, but I was fearless and ferocious at thirteen. And Olly was a brother to me, a blond Han Solo; knowing he was somewhere in the building made me feel safe.

David was pretty cute. Not amazing, but I liked his dark curly hair, and he was tall enough, wearing those thin cord jeans that boys wore then. We talked a bit, and then I went off to class. I remember almost nothing about the school part of Stuyvesant, even now. I didn’t want to go there; I wanted to go to Music and Art, and I certainly could have gotten in. My father insisted on the math and science school, because it was the most famous. Narcissistic cathection plus lots of weed, ugh.

Later that week David called our apartment in Chelsea and asked me on a date. I did not like my father asking about it, but we did share a laugh about the hilariously outdated concept of “going on a date”. I suspected it might be my first and last date; I didn’t think dating was compatible with the vision I had of stooping like a falcon. But I was thrilled. My adventures as a seductress were beginning. I wore my painters’ pants and a white men’s shirt for my first date.

In the kitchen before leaving I dusted cinnamon behind my ears because I’d read in Glamour magazine that it turned men on.

nancy_allen_Dressed_to_killIt left a faint rusty rime on my collar. My father was leering, gleeful, as he watched me leave.

I met David uptown, probably at the Loews; I know it was a theater with multiple screens.

We argued about what movie to see. He wanted to see a DePalma thriller with Nancy Allen, Dressed to Kill.

I wanted to see anything but horror; I had had a very bad experience with Hitchcock Night at riding camp a couple years earlier. I capitulated, with the caveat that we would leave if I got uncomfortable. At some point I did, and then I pulled the first of an infinite number of dick moves I’ve pulled on guys.

I informed him that we were going next door to watch Lady and the Tramp.

Maybe it was during the spaghetti scene that his arm crept around me; I snickered into my cinnamon-scented collar, because I had never, ever expected to have this experience. Afterwards we walked across the park, I think, to his Upper East Side neighborhood. He wanted to hang around Woody Allen’s building and see if Woody came out. I didn’t; I hated Woody Allen every bit as much then as I do now.

He lived around the corner, probably with a divorced mother who Mel had the hots for, and we wound up in his bedroom, on his single bed. Which was the point of the whole endeavor, for me. I told him about the cinnamon; I felt it would make me seem both innocent and charmingly vulnerable. Bonnie’s bedroom had been dark and air-conditioned; David’s room was brightly lit.

He said, “What do you want to do now? I could do my Woody Allen imitations. Or we could make out.”

I looked him in the eye and took my shirt off. I remember our legs tangling, the first time I realized how long boys’ legs are, the feel of it; I knew it was what I wanted. I was both startled and disappointed by the explosion. I felt exactly like Kristy McNichol in Little Darlings, (which Victoria and I had seen that summer) when Matt Dillon passes out. I had had plans for that penis. There was awkward cleanup, and now my shirt smelled like cinnamon and come.

I went back downtown; I saw him the following week at school, but it was obvious neither of us could sustain interest. Two weeks later I found the boys with the drugs.

In the 90s Victoria told me he was a journalist, and I laughed; that seemed just right, like Olly actually becoming an actor, like he’d always said he would. I was going to be an artist; Olly was going to be an actor; neither of us should have had to go to Stuyvesant just because it was the most famous free school in New York.

In the oughts in Berkeley, living with my second husband,  I read Infinite Jest, cherished it, and put it on the bookshelf. It reminded me of The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem, which I’d read when I was fifteen. I read the short stories too, but they didn’t do too much for me. I read (probably on Salon!) that David had interviewed David Foster Wallace, had spent four days on a road trip with him. I wondered if he had offered to do his Woody Allen imitation.

When I moved in with my third husband in the teens we both brought forty boxes of books. The three duplicates were Infinite Jest, Mason & Dixon, and The Phantom Tollbooth.

I haven’t seen David Lipsky in thirty-odd years, and that’s fine with me. Would he remember me? Of course. I was dazzling at thirteen.

Is my life a disappointment, compared to the other kids who stood on those Stuyvesant steps in 1980? I don’t think anyone could possibly say, because my life is really only getting underway, and there’s actually nothing but second acts in American lives.