Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ulcer

By Rick Meyerowitz
Appeared in “Great Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned, Edited by Steven Heller.” Allworth Press 2008

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ulcer

I sat down at the long table with my Americano and a muffin the size of my brain. It may well have been my brain I was getting ready to eat; I was in no condition to judge. The last few hours hadn’t come into focus for me yet. Maybe they never would. The white-bearded fellow across the table appeared to be observing me with some amusement. That’s the problem with these communal tables, I thought. A person can’t just stare into his coffee alone, he has to share the experience with strangers. I imagined jumping up and stabbing him with the plastic knife I was holding. Instead, I began sawing away at the muffin.

The two women to my right were chattering about their shoes: the shoes they were wearing and the shoes they were going to wear. One had a nasal voice, the other spoke in a screech. It’s possible I thought, if their voices could be focused on the table in alternating waves of sound, they could cut it in half faster than I could saw through this muffin.

I sipped some coffee and dribbled a little on my shirt. What time did Maurice Text me? Was it 9am? Funny, I don’t know that I’ve actually spoken with him at all in the last two years. It’s all texting and email. Some agent, Maurie Schlick. When we met three years ago, he was young and smart and full of energy. He repped six illustrators and a photographer. I liked being part of his small group. Now the little “Maurice Agency” has become “SchlickArt,” and he reps 365 illustrators and photographers. As he says in his blog “One for each day, and 366 in leap years.”

I read his message with some interest. Why wouldn’t I? I am starved for decent work these days.

“Lissen Kiddo: I gt sumthng for U up at Oblivimova, Ramaswaran, Gurdymukmohammodov, Patamarapippan, & Wu. Call Jugdish Berenstain NOW – unless U r 2 bizy doing nuthng – hah hah hh. Lissen, U call im. Don’t fuggup ths job like last 1. I hve efuf trgedy in my life. Do I hve 2 remind U my grndfthr lived thru th holocust? Lissen, Maurie”

I didn’t need a reminder. He did live through the holocaust, but in Milwaukee, where Maurie’s German Catholic grandfather made hooch for the Capone mob before opening a bar down on the docks near Kazubes Park.

I phoned Jugish at the agency and left a message. He e’ed me from his BlackBerry a short while later.

“Dear Artist: Glad to be working with you. Love your work. Big job. Maybe a whole campaign. Don’t have much money. We’ll make it up to you. Need it by lunch today. Send sketches. JB”

It lacked the personal touch, but the layout was attached. It was an ad for a new drug, Polysyllablecine (Wookamookablabbadine). The headline was “Don’t Ask Your Doctor. Trust Us!” Under the headline was a rough sketch of a man who appeared to be asleep on a cloud while a devil figure stood on his chest plunging a pitchfork into his abdomen. The man’s expression seemed calm. I wondered what the drug was supposed to do – tranquillize you while you were mugged by a demon? Maybe it was a heartburn thing. Truth was I didn’t care. I had two hours till it was due.

I opened Photoshop and began to draw. In ten minutes I had the sketch I wanted and e’ed it to Jugdish. I heard back from him right away.

“Hey Artist. Good work. Can’t use as is. Man looks dead. Nose needs shortening like an inch so we don’t think he’s Jewish. Shoes are wrong. Suggest sandals. Cloud looks like a cotton ball. Demon looks also looks Jewish. Suggest horns be removed and maybe he’s wearing shorts and baseball cap backwards or something. But you’re the artist. Make my day! The J. Man.”

I tried a little yogic breathing waiting until my pulse settled. Then I gave it another shot, incorporated all his suggestions, and sent it off.

“Hey! Got the revise here in cab on way to meeting. Something wrong with man. Now he looks like he’s an Arab. Demon still looks Jewish. Lose the tail or client will shit! Suggest making demon purple instead of red. Pitchfork can be a garden hose and he’s waking guy up with water. Cloud too cottony: more cloudlike. How about adding a dog? You the MAN! JB”

I read it and thought, “did I just have a mini-stroke, or does this not make any sense at all?” It occurred to me I should drop this job like a hot burrito. Then I thought of the trip to Paris my girlfriend and I were going to make, and my mortgage, and what Maurie would say. So I stared at a photo of the Dalai Lama until the vein in my neck stopped pounding, then I did another sketch and hit send.

“Yo. Can’t spend much time. Am in limo with client on way to wine tasting extravaganza. Think we’re moving in right direction. Whole thing might work if we pull ol’ switcheroo & have man plunging pitchfork into chest of devil who is now wearing overalls. Man should also have gun in other hand & look like Arnold but not exactly. We don’t want to get sued by the state of California. Cloud should be yellow and shaped like a banana. Love the dog but he looks Chinese. Can you give him something to do – like play an accordion? Almost there, baby! Big J.”

A cornered man will do anything to escape. I understand rats will gnaw off their own legs if they have to. I was out on a limb and ready to start chewing it off. I’ll admit to some whimpering as I worked but the rest of the time remains a blur. The sketch? Finished. Sent. The doubts? Many. The big surprise? Jugdish wrote immediately to tell me it was perfect. I should do it and E it to him ASAP.

The guys who created Photoshop are gods. I finished the illustration in record time and sent it off at noon on the button, with this note.

“Dear Jugdish: Here it is. I’m sorry we had to go through so many sketches, but what the heck, the creative process, right? I hope the client likes it and appreciates me turning it around so quickly for him. I really look forward to seeing the finished ad. I think it may be an award winner, and as long as it doesn’t run in California we won’t be sued, don’t y’think? Thanks. RM”

I was putting things away and thinking about taking myself out for well deserved lunch when I heard the ping of an arriving Email.

“Hey Arty. Sorry about this, but the client felt my comp caught the feel of what they were looking for just a bit better than your finished art. I spoke with Maurice and there’ll be the usual 10% kill fee, but accounting is still working through the 1999 bills, so it may take a while. Well, gotta sign off. I’m leaving for Paris on the client’s jet. We’re going to brainstorm a European campaign. You should see the legs on these models! Hang in there! Juggy” Attached was the finished ad with the headline and his rough pencil-sketch below. The client may have been right. It didn’t look half bad.

The mailed pinged again. It was Maurie.

“Lissen: U blu ths job. U wanna work 4 kill fees, gt a job in slaughterhouse! Get it? Hah hah hh. Lissen: 60% of what U make wouldn’t keep my parakeet happy, let alone my wife & my girlfriend. Lissen: There r plenny othr illustrators out there. Do I have to draw U a picture? Hah hh. Lissen, Maurie”

“Hey! Cranberry.” I looked up, startled. What? What’d you say?

“You’ve thrown a cranberry on me,” said the old guy across the table. “You were waving your plastic knife around and talking to yourself. One of the cranberries from your muffin landed in my beard.”

Uhhh, sorry, I mumbled.

“I can relate to what you were talking about,” he said. “I was an illustrator myself. Got my start back in the 60’s. Even though you were mumbling, I recognized elements in your story from my own career. I had plenty of success, but I also had a failure or two.”

“That so,” I said. I looked around for an escape route. The women had moved to a table by the window. They seemed more subdued now, staring into their salads and trying not to look my way. It was just me and the old guy at a table that sat 16. I noticed people were waiting on line for tables rather than sitting with us.

“Yep, I got a story about this one job you might be interested in. I was doing illustrations before computers or scanners. We didn’t even have FedEx back then, we painted on paper with brushes, and delivered work ourselves or we used messengers. We knew the art directors personally. This one time, back in ’78, I did a painting for a movie poster. Took me four days. It was some amazing piece of art: measured about 30 x 40. I was sure this would be the job that made me famous. So I called for a messenger. Guy named Dexter showed up on his bike. I’ll never forget it. He only had one leg…”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said standing up, brushing crumbs off my chest and throwing some money on the table. “I have get back to work. Besides, last thing I need to hear is another damn story about failure.” I walked to the door and opened it. It was fall. Leaves were blowing down Spring Street. I turned around. The old illustrator was struggling to brush something from his beard. He looked up at me. “A one legged bike messenger? You got to be kidding me.” I said. And I walked out into the street.