Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Stay Gold

My 14-year-old self's 'Johnny Cade', still suffering the indignities of 30+ years of sticky tape on the back of the paper behind his lovely nose.

S.E. Hinton's book 'The Outsiders' is 50 years old today, and I read it when I was 13. I watched the film about a year later, and was so entranced by it I wanted to live in it - just as I did when I read Wuthering Heights some years later, the response to which formed the  bedrock of what I do for a living, and the resulting output, to date.

The book follows two rival groups, the Greasers and the Socs (pronounced as 'Sew-shes' - short for Socials), who are divided by their socioeconomic status. Written by a teenage Susan Hinton living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and inspired by her own experiences, the story is told in first-person narrative by Ponyboy Curtis, and it is his family and group of friends whom the book follows to tragic and hopeful conclusion. The Frances Ford Coppola film version was an early who's-who of the brat pack C. Thomas HowellRob LoweEmilio EstevezMatt DillonTom CruisePatrick SwayzeRalph Macchio, and Diane Lane, and further installed the book in my artillery of life-changing fiction, which I was to draw on, literally and figuratively, for years to come.

My school year were doing a whole year on 'Prejudice' when I read The Outsiders, and the book dovetailed conveniently with its themes - I didn't know any black people, and tried to write stories based around the only black public figure I could relate to, Joe Leeway from the Thompson Twins - so while people were writing about colour and race riots, I was exploring poor kids and punks, music-based rivalries and eyeliner-wearing New Romantics, and the real-life news stories of the attacks, bullying and confusion they were being met with.

The Outsiders is a classic tale of haves and have-nots, injustice, poverty, fear, love and loyalty; of loss and recovery. It shares those qualities with thousands of other stories, but The Outsiders were my age, or very close, and I knew bad kids and sad ones and ones whose parents treated them very badly; ones who were skint and others who never fitted in. I couldn't possibly know what Tulsa was like, but as a teenager it was also my ambition to 'live in America', so this one wove a very tangible, sticky spell over the bright but impressionable, shy but mouthy, uncertain but ambitious small me. 

I even went to the local record shop, and learned early that the sneering that can result from girls asking for obscure things in record shops was going to become a feature of my adult life; the gruesomely aloof chain-smoking assistant at the counter, I observed, was a FELLOW FEMALE as she sneered at my request for ‘So Gold’ by Stevie Wonder, its end credit theme tune (she was younger than me too, you can’t behave like that under school-year hierarchy rules, can you? Should she even have been working there? Or smoking? So many questions.) I illustrated the book, and wrote a ‘sequel’ in Jonny’s voice, listening to ‘Gloria’ by Them — I didn’t even like Them. It took months for me to stop thinking about Johnny burning to death in the church.

Only a few books really did this: made me want to live inside a person or time, to have their experience and somehow change the outcome of what I'd read (which I suppose is what drives people to write, in the end). How did it feel to have a burning roof joist fall on your back? To sit under the stars smoking (I hadn't yet taken up smoking, not for a couple of years), or see your friend's brother shot dead? To fight in the street? All of things were fascinatingly alien to me, growing up in a quiet working class Midlands household with no guns, yet somehow I knew if I tried hard enough by drawing and writing I could SOMEHOW, somehow 'become' them.

It wasn't true of course, but the solitary daydreaming drawaholic 14 year old really believed it, and the urge to get inside stories and fictional people has driven me ever since. Part of me wishes for a life where I could spend an entire day reading, or watch film after film and just doodle and not have to generate money to pay bills, but I know that's not a possibility.

For now, at least.

PS: Years later, around 2004/5, I seized the opportunity to render Robert Frost's poem 'Nothing Gold Can Stay', featured heavily in the book, on the big white wall of a client's office for an exhibition there. Cheeky really, it had no bearing on any sort of theme...I just bent the brief to my own whims:

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Challenging Subjects Matter

I celebrated the last day of Black History Month (February) by going to see Hidden Figures at the pictures. A bewildering reminder of how very recently people of colour were treated so poorly (and a reminder that it's still happening around the globe) it's nevertheless a bright and lively film with sparkly dialogue and massively endearing characters - not to mention the 60s dresses - made all the more appealing because they're real people.

(Oh, and the main characters' mathematical genius makes all but the most cranially-blessed painfully aware of their comparatively amoeba-like grasp on sums).

I loved the film, and on the journey home started to think about something that's been dawning on me. I've never traditionally gone in for much political illustration, the result of a combination of having no natural aptitude for likenesses and a lifelong nervousness about getting my facts wrong, despite a reputation for not being shy about sharing an opinion. I've been driven to make a visual comment from time to time, but only when something truly strikes a chord and an image emerges naturally - if I want to, but have to force it, I'm reluctant to do it. Brexit, Prince, the death of Charlotte Bevan, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo - these are some of the things which triggered a genuine response.

So when politically-driven, editorial images are a huge and growing chunk of the imagery online, and responses to world events seem almost obligatory especially if you draw things for a living, I'd started to worry I was somehow not doing my job properly.

But, it occurred to me in the last few years I've been more involved with politically-charged subjects than I might have given myself credit for. Though as a youngster I secretly wished to be, I'm not Steve Bell, whose scalpel-edged cartoons my Dad and I would eagerly turned the pages for for in the Guardian every week. I'm not fast enough, nor do I have that all-important grasp of a good (if vicious) likeness. (Nowadays I'd rather like to be Stephen Collins anyway!) Instead, it's happened in other ways.

I worked for many years for the Southern Poverty Law Centre, set up to 'fight hate and bigotry and to seek justice for the most vulnerable members of our society' via litigation, education and other forms of advocacy, producing their annual non-religious Christmas card, each year being given a phrase to explore visually and to make a universally warm and positive greeting from:

I've since had the opportunity to handle some seriously challenging subject matter, in two chief areas; one is the medical sphere, which I'll be talking about in another blog, and the other, black history and the civil rights movement, producing the covers of books based in harrowing real-life events drawn from both, parts of history which are difficult and awkward to think about, books based in harrowing real-life events drawn from both.

It started with my new cover for the 50th anniversary edition of To Kill A Mockingbird published by Grand Central in 2010. Arguably the most famous book about the civil rights movement and changes in the deep south in the 1930s, Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Centre, wrote that this book is what drove him to take up civil rights work and set up the SPLC in 1971. This was, then, something of a responsibility, and meant revisiting the book, re-reading it, and thinking again about what was at its core - and how much we had, or  hadn't, moved on.

Stella By Starlight published by Simon & Schuster NY came a couple of years later and used a similar semi-silhouette approach to tell the story of this book about the arrival, unexpectedly, of the Ku Klux Klan in a small southern town where eleventh-grader Stella and her little bother live. A subtlety of approach, without censoring the core element of the story was required - a burning cross is a potentially shocking thing, but it is that that kicks off the entire story - and a sensitive portrayal of these children was important, whose ethnicity needed to be obvious without being either cartoony or vague. I discovered I had an aptitude for little people, and pyjama detail! And Klan hats too...it was also the first font I created called, of course, 'Stella'.

'Midnight Without A Moon' by Linda Williams Jackson is woven around a story I remembered with a distant horror from school history lessons; that of 14 year old Emmett Till, the boy beaten to death by white men for allegedly wolf-whistling a white woman in a store in the 1950s. His mother insisted on an open coffin so that people would see the damage done to her son, and his case drew attention to the long history of violent persecution of African Americans in the US; Emmett posthumously became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement.

He wasn't to feature on the cover but it was important I refreshed myself on his story, irrespective of its outcome (his killers were acquitted) and the violent imagery that is associated with his case. The book blends a real historical family with a fictional one, and it is Rosa, the 13 year old girl who lives one town along, who was the focus of the cover. We do not see her face; as with the previous two books, it was important to me that this Rosa could look like any Rosa - yours, or mine, the next reader's - so we only see her from the back. 

Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman followed, the 'prequel' to To Kill A Mockingbird, and a job which came with the opposite problems from those of TKAM - no-one but a handful involved in its publishing was allowed to read it, no-one knew what it was about, and there were no legendary scenes or characters to draw upon - at least, not ones that hadn't aged by at least 20 years. All we could gather was that 'Scout' was now' Jean-Louise', and her relationship with Atticus was believed to be...under strain. Should I show this? Was she still a tomboy? Is Atticus frail? Would the swing still be in the garden?

I had just under 2 weeks, and there were only 3 officially-published editions - the US one, one in the UK, both done in-house, and this one, published by rare-breed literary publisher Open Books in Korea (the only publisher I know of that's also built its own Guggenheim-esque art gallery and stationery brand). So the pressure was on, and indeed Harper Lee's estate were very involved in approving every step of the cover drawing as I was a series of differently-dress 'Jean-Louises' just hours before the print deadline.

Not long after this book I was asked to work on The Ghosts of Ebenezer Creek, later re-titled Crossing Ebenezer Creek, to be published by Bloomsbury USA on May 30th this year. If I thought immersing myself in Emmett Till's story was hard enough work, the research for this one was gruelling. 

In a little-known event, large numbers of freed slaves died in 1864 as they tried to cross the Georgian Creek, having attached themselves to the Union Army's infantry in the hope of a safe, accompanied crossing. Brigadier Jefferson Davis wasn't having any of this and ordered the bridge they were crossing to be brought down; realising what was about to happen, the recently-freed slaves "hesitated briefly, impacted by a surge of pressure from the rear, then stampeded with a rush into the icy water, old and young alike, men and women and children, swimmers and non-swimmers, determined not to be left behind. In the uncontrolled, terrified crush, many quickly drowned."

Images of the panic and drowning washed through my head as I tried to sketch ideas. Many came, informed as much by the watery inks I wanted to use for this as by the story itself; it had been some time since I sent the art director as many ideas in for a book as this one.

I think I made it a little hard for her to choose an outcome, but she surprised me with her choice - this swirling, all-ink, one-take piece with virtually no digital interference was her favourite.

Moving ahead a little in time both for me and the protagonists in my various books, It All Comes Down To This moves the storytelling to 60s LA - Sophie is the new black kid in a nearly all-white neighbourhood and has a hard time finding her place in it. This another example of a book cleverly dovetailing real-life events - this time the Watts Riots - with the fictional timeline of a made-up family. Beautifully done, the book required the sort of in-depth research that went way beyond looking through 60s fonts, LA storefront colours and girls' hairstyles. 

The cover is a little less dramatic, but required a lightness of touch and a sensitive portrayal of a girl on the brink of adulthood; my initial roughs were more firmly anchored around the location and the riots, but these gave way to a gentler approach - incidentally, my first book cover completed entirely on an iPad Pro and Pencil.

My most recently published in this series is Linda Williams Jackson's sequel to Midnight Without A Moon, called A Skyful of Stars published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in New York. Rosa, now 13, is torn between a boy who wants to meet violence with violence and her best friend Hallelujah, who believes in peaceful protest. Struggling to see how it's all going to work together, she starts to see her place within the Civil Rights Movement and what she can do herself.

Our main character was fully formed as with Midnight, not a silhouette, allowing me to focus on her braids, expression and tired overcoat, portrayed among falling leaves and icy branches (it actually gets icy in Mississippi, who knew?) The hint of protest and threat had to be there, but with the exception of the Harper Lee titles, all of these books are Young Adult fiction, so striking the balance between off-putting menace and an inviting hint of a potentially unsettling historical context has become something of a specialism.

The book I'm currently working on for SourceBooks USA isn't completed yet - we're getting close - and continues my wave of black history-based novels. Our heroine, Ella*, tries to save a local beauty spot on the Georgian border from a corporation that wants to build right through it (sound familiar?). The losses she endures en route to saving the place preserve its existence for future generations, but once again, this isn't a fluffy read. 
*names have been changed to protect the as-yet-unreleased plot!

So, on reflection, I'm learning a lot from these books I'm tasked with illustrating; selling difficult, sometime challenging narratives to readers through covers which must walk a confident tightrope between visual appeal, intrigue and the hint of just enough darkness to do the content justice. When I worked on chick-lit - book after book of delightful, nonsense fluffy bestsellers by big-name writers - I enjoyed the prolific output, the regularity and the big rebrands of entire series of happy-ending novels, but I never really had to think all that much. I thank the authors of the books in this article for making me think, and trusting me to reach in and pencil out the contents of their heads, placing them into those of their readers.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

'Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same'.

I was thinking about what to post for Valentine's Day when I admitted to myself I can never really get into it.

I tried to contribute some tracks for our recent Valentine playlist and just kept coming up with tragedies and lost loves; Johnny Cash, Tori Amos, Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley...it wasn't happening.
But I slowly began to realise why that might be. My head was filled at the most tender age with its first and lasting definition of love: the greatest love story ever told, Wuthering Heights, watched on TV aged 10 with Grandma and the book consumed greedily at 11. It told me most clearly that real love wasn't Valentine cards and dinners like the adverts on telly - oh no. REAL love meant torment, death, longing, howling in pain, betrayal, grudges lasting generations, exhumations in the rain, and loss. It also meant absolute committal, loyalty for life (and death), and an almost inhuman, animalian love that transcended anything that could be kept on earth.
Ahem. Yes. Quite a lot for an 11-year-old to take in. But take it in I did, and any other love story since (barring, perhaps, Atonement) hasn't quite come up to scratch. I'm fortunate in that (as far as I know) it hasn't left me with any hobbling emotional scars or expectations, but I do have a fierce loyal streak and a tendency for melodrama when the mood strikes.
These drawings were done in my final year of college. Finishing an illustration degree, I decided instead to design a stage production of 'Wuthering Heights' and so my tutors warned me, risk the 'first' I'd had dangled in my face throughout. But, with a fierce and emerging taste for building things, I did it anyway. Thank god that I did, as I would not be where I am today, I'm quite sure of it.
My WH was set in the modern age, in contemporary Yorkshire dialect including all swearing, and featured a black Heathcliff - pre-dating Andrea Arnold's version by 20 years (I was extremely excited about her film). My Catherine wasn't pretty; she had big eyes but a funny nose. Edgar and Isabella were twins too, in my version, and you could only tell them apart because Edgar had a little ponytail in his blonde hair. I first did drawing after drawing of every character I was going to build, so that I had realised on paper how they moved, their facial expressions and traits. I then went on to design a costume for each, make two of them in full, life-size to fit real people, then build /13 life size figures of each one (8 in total) then design and build a stage set, storyboard, do a photoshoot out in the crags with the life size costumes, and finally design the poster for the play.
These drawings are A3 and would never win the Jerwood, characterised as they are by furious enthusiasm and the nervous energy that defined my college years; the urge to get the people out of my head and onto the paper was all that mattered. They were done over a period of about two weeks, as I recall, before I really got going on stuff. I've never committed these drawings to digital so these are the first time they've ever seen the internet.

After a brief spell on display at the Brönte Parsonage Museum in Haworth, with whom I went on to be heavily involved for some time, the figures went into my loft where they sat forever. I decided recently however that I needed the space, and they were starting to deteriorate, and the decent thing to do was return them, Brönte style, to the elements.
And so I did, where the frogs, worms and birds now chat to them daily as they continue their journey back to the earth from whence all the ingredients ultimately came. Time to move on, for all of us! 

"...and (I) wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth."

Monday, February 13, 2017

On The Radio

Today is World Radio Day, and although I'm not doing anything specially audio-related today, it's caused me to reflect on our life-long relationship with the wireless.

Mine and Leigh's involvement with radio goes back a long way. As a child I listened to my Mum's radio plays as she stitched, knitted or cooked, getting deeply involved in the imaginary worlds emanating from the speaker. Later, John Peel, Tim Westwood and Annie Nightingale would shape my life-long musical preferences with a mixture of synth-pop, hip-hop, electro and new wave, while Leigh's listening was laying down the foundations of a love of rap and hip-hop. I was never to be found without music playing, and on Saturday nights and Sunday evenings in particular, the radio was up full while the homework was completed, notes being taken and tracks recorded for listening back and, if pocket money/shop wages allowed, buying later on.

I didn't even know pirate radio was a thing until discovering some years later that other stations existed which had be searched for along the dial, with poor sound quality and unreliable listening schedules; during a brief period accompanying an ex to the unfortunate Muke's house on a regular basis (essentially a Trainspotting character who arrived 6 years too early for the film) I would hear these long, rabid acid house tape mixes, with the DNA of jungle just beginning to nibble in at the edges. As an ex-breakdancer who was already hiding a deep love of electronics behind a rocker-boyfriend Led Zep veneer, I was excited to my very core, but somehow felt this needed to be kept a dirty little secret.

As rocker boyfriend departed and new boyfriend and I hung out more, I was finally able to expose my love of jungle, drum'n'bass, ambient and music made by electronic hands. Playing me Public Enemy, Redman, Method Man, Terminator X and the Godfathers of Threatt, NWA, Dilated Peoples, Phjarcyde, KRS-1, Black Sheep and what felt like billions more woke up bits of my listening brain that had lain dormant - the bit that has to tune into the words and stories. And rap lyrics and words would, as you will know if you've followed my work for more than the last few years, become a core part of my creative development and core.

We courted to Portishead, Massive Attack and Tricky and soon realised we were at the start of a nerve-tingling period in music, having already begun to witness, although we didn't really know it at the time, the atomic-mushrooming of dance music in all its micro-genres and evolutions. Wanting to be part of it all - from the start, we never liked the sidelines - we reached out by fax to the DJ Food we'd heard on Mary Ann Hobbs' Breezeblock, and made friends we still have today. When hearing DJ Shadow's 'Lost and Found' on Radio 1, we couldn't find a copy anywhere, so I just phoned the record label and spoke to the boss (presumably, James Lavelle) and asked for a copy. We were gladly given one - as was the spirit of the time - and promptly played it at the club nights we ran under the name Coma (a hint both to our mutual love of sleep and the relaxed cushions-and-beanbags natured of the club, and a nod to Massive Attack's Karmacoma).

I'm skimming over so much detail here, and this isn't about to turn into a list of artists we like - that's as impossible a task as was ever invented - but so it went: Leigh worked in record shops, and my record collection began growing exponentially at a rate far faster than it ever had before - crate-digging was a thing, and I carried my Notebook of Elusive Tracks heard on the radio with me at all times, sometimes getting to tick one off.

As mainstream radio began to show signs of gently squeezing the more interesting and enriching shows off the air, we discovered my old school friend Solo One (largely responsible for my breakdancing period and penchant for electro) was running an 'independent' radio station at the time. We listened, it was tight: jingles, ads, schedules, a solid rota of genres and contributions from his cohorts in graf and music. And there were plenty - this bloke had connections, balls of steel and an insomniac work ethic - but he needed help. Mix FM was beaming straight outta *Midlands town's name*, and he'd found two willing volunteers.

Leigh began doing shows by himself, making creative little jingles with me helping out on flyer and admin duties, which soon became a regular weekend job running the station diary, looking for ad sponsorship and organising guest slots. Connections we'd already made ensured that blatantly ambitious requests for people to travel up and do a show were often met, resulting in a roll-call of guests and contributors including Beard & Philph from Fused and Bruised records, Skint Records,  interviews with The Cherry Stones and Fingathing, an in-at-the-door-early interview with Basement Jaxx and sessions from The Mild Mannered Janitors, Jamie Hombre, DJ Food, Plone, The Freestylers, Meat Katie, Crispin Dior and plenty of others who've gone on to poke both ends of the 'fame & success' spectrum.

I would often work on the floor of the station, between making tea, answering the early mobile phone and manning the text requests. Sunday nights for years meant working to the soundtrack of the Drum'n'Bass show, with Mugshot, CT, Will and Nippa, which guaranteed I'd burn through the jobs at a fantastic pace. I wasn't the most confident DJ, and I certainly didn't attempt to mix, but it did ignite a love of presenting and talking on the radio which wasn't to be rekindled till much later in life.

As the station moved from location to location, and the station became more serious and us more and more committed, our Fridays and Saturdays became longer as we both worked in the daytime and did radio at night. We broadcast from the tops of long-demolished tower blocks long on the outskirts of Birmingham, affording us, simultaneously, breathtaking views over the city and an often heartbreaking view of the poverty many people lived in, characterised by their incredible generosity - they'd give you their last tea bag if you needed it to get through the final hour of your graveyard shift - and warmth towards these people carrying records bags and offering home made cake around. Of course, the legends are true - we did get 'busted' sometimes, though remarkably infrequently, and with very little drama, as the technical set-up was so sophisticated it was hard to track us down, and we were always back on with decent speed.

Creeping into locked spaces, working in the dark, keeping curtains closed and regularly posting up Dos and Don'ts for station safety and protocol were the norm. So much tea was drunk, so many fags were smoked, and SO many bags of chips were eaten from the legendary Six Ways Chippy in Erdington, with its £1.50 fresh naan-wrapped masala fish chips at the unholiest hours of the night.

Of course my illustration/QuarkXpress/Photoshop skills were called upon regularly, for flyers, posters and ads, and even when not directly for the radio, it was finding its way into my work: 90s radio illustration! Behold, inkpen + mouse...

(That's me carrying the pie - it was usually my job to make and bring sustenance, too. In the middle is Matt Thornhill aka Monkichi, now Head of A&R /Young Turks at XL Recordings).

My archive from this period is massive, and indeed this blog could be a nine-parter with hundreds of photographs and stories. But that'll have to wait for a less busy day, when I can comb the records without worrying about the hours lost in reminiscing and chuckling. The discipline and hard work which the radio demanded - for what might be seen as negligible return - were excellent training and installed in us a work ethic which has directed us through life. We still don't like being on the sidelines, if we see something happening that we love, we like to get involved, and the element of risk is still appealing. When the phone was pinging and the shout outs were queuing up, the map on the wall filling up with red dots, one for every listener calling in from a different area, all the baggy eyes, lack of sleep, arguments, team politics, dodgy night missions and petrol spends were worth it: we were making radio for people who needed it.

When broadcasting on FM became too risky and expensive, and with our tech man off the scene, we were a frustrating amount of years too early for online broadcasting. We had a Worldspace Receiver to listen to radio stations around the world and still pined for our own. We were determined - I had several heated discussions with Apple Store people and software makers, insisting that among the existing technology there HAD to be a way to do it - but despite iTunes radio and podcasting being round the corner, there wasn't a solution for the independent, not without prohibitively large sums of cash. Nonetheless, expensive software was purchased, learning curves were climbed, but we had to concede we were too early to make it happen. When we set up Altar Ego Radio years later, notwithstanding the odd technical brain-boggler it was all there, and online broadcasting can now be done any anyone, almost for free, with online radio stations running into their thousands.

As I write this blog I'm listening to Rinse FM, one of the other pirates at the time who were eventually granted a licence and the rest, as they say, is history - a hugely successful club, record label and station. The same can be said of Kiss FM, again another pirate who went legit - now a household name!

Today's involvement with radio continues, recently manifesting itself in Cocoa Amore Radio, set up for the Leicester-based chocolatiers, which as part of our creative directorship broadcasts curated sets around the world from the store via its own App (it all feels so easy now!) I'm a regular contributor to BBC Leicester too, taking part in interviews, reviews and news programmes. I feel a healthy amount of pride at being part of pirate radio for so long, but remaining creatively involved with broadcasting and music, and I hope for it to expand into...I don't know what, maybe something, we'll see!

Pirate Radio Archive


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