I am most affected by artwork when it alludes to a mix of emotions that cannot quite be articulated. Much of Brad Holland’s work has that effect—like waking up from a dream and thinking that it seemed like a good dream… Maybe. His use of clean, simplified spaces creates an image that at first seems emotionally detached, but the somber colors, abstraction, and exaggeration presents a deeply subjective and personal point of view. Like a dream, you may not be able to fully express what you feel, but those feelings resonate long after the experience.
Putting on my art director’s hat: Brad Holland makes me look smart. Never mind that he tends to know more about the project before I call him—there always seems to be some kind of “funny you should be mention…” story from Brad—but is ability to both answer the problem and make the viewer ask questions often creates a compelling cover that is hard not to pick up.
Do you remember the first time you knew you wanted to be an artist?
No, it must have happened in the womb, because I’ve been drawing ever since I got out.
So, do you remember when you decided to make at living at it?
Yeah, I was about 12 or 13 and I happened to be in church at the time.
It was a fleeting thought that made sense at the time. All the other things I wanted to do required a formal education, like anthropology or physiology. But I didn’t want to go to college—I was bored by junior high. So I was in church one day, staring at the stained glass windows and thinking about things, when suddenly I decided that if I could start selling cartoons to magazines, they’d let me quit high school.
Did you start selling cartoons to magazines?
No, but I started getting rejection slips from them—I thought that was a start anyway. All the other kids in ninth grade were drawing hot rods and cocker spaniels and getting blue ribbons in art class. I was getting rejection slips from the Saturday Evening Post. I figured that made me a pro of some kind.
What do you consider your first break in the business?
Not getting hired at an orthopedic shoe store.
Was that something that was likely to happen?
Not really. But I was 17 and had just moved to Chicago. I had 125 bucks I had saved mowing lawns back in Ohio and I needed a job before the money ran out. So one day I was walking past this orthopedic shoe store in The Loop. It had a “Help Wanted” sign in the window that said “Applicant must have experience.” Well, I didn’t want a job in a shoe store, but it was getting cold outside, so I went in and applied.
Did you have experience?
No, and naturally that was the first thing they asked.
What did you tell them?
I said I’d been wearing shoes for 17 years.
I’m sure that impressed them.
Yeah, it didn’t do the trick. But later I got a job sweeping up in a tattoo parlor. They didn’t require any experience for that.
Was that your first art-related break?
My first real break came when I got hired to work at a little studio on Michigan Avenue. It didn’t really lead to anything, but as I said, I was 17—and at that stage in your life, your career hangs by a thread. One or two bad weeks can finish you. So that job was a little low door in the art business. It let me slip in. Without it, none of the big breaks that came later would have come later.
What big breaks did come later?
Regular work for Playboy, then the New York Times.
How did the work for Playboy come about?
I dropped off my portfolio one day and when I came back, they asked me if I’d like to do work every month.
Do you remember the first assignment?
Sure, it was an article by P.G. Wodehouse. He was about 86 or 87 at the time and still writing about how you couldn’t get good servants any longer. Of course, I didn’t know if getting good maids and butlers was really a widespread problem for people or not. Wodehouse was a Knight of the British Empire by then and I was living in a hotel room on 35th Street without a refrigerator, so we weren’t exactly dealing with the same kinds of situations in life.
When you do work now, do you have to like the assignment to be excited about it?
No. I get interested in a picture by trying to make the picture interesting.
How do you go about getting ideas?
I don’t get ideas, I have them. The trick is to remember where I’ve put them. But people always get this backwards about me—as if coming up with ideas was always a problem for illustrators. It wasn’t. Back when I started, most illustrations were pretty literal and most illustrators worked from an art director’s instructions. Like they’d be given a sketch or description of which scene in the story the editors wanted shown. My problem was to get people to leave me alone. I had a head full of ideas and I just wanted a place to publish them.
Do you do any artwork that is not commissioned work?
All the time. Most everything I do begins that way.
Well, I made a conscious decision when I was 19 that I’d only do my kind of picture and I wouldn’t make changes. It cost me a lot of jobs at first. Art directors were always having to take their assignments back. But after I was able to get art directors like Art Paul behind me at Playboy, or J-C Suares at the Times, then I was able to create a market for the kind of pictures I’d otherwise have been doing for myself. And once I had established that, there was really no distinction between my personal work and the stuff I did for clients.
You mean people were calling you for the kind of pictures you wanted to do?
Right, but it was actually better than that. Because the challenge of all these different assignments often drove me to think of things I might never have thought of otherwise.
What painting do you wish you had painted?
Winter Night In Rondane by Harald Sohlberg, at the National Museum in Oslo. And The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, by Rembrandt, in Stockholm. One painting is beautiful. The other’s ugly. They’re both great.
Do you have a dream assignment?
A career highlight?
No. I don’t really think about things like that. I get as interested in a little job as a big one.
What are you working on now?
Half a dozen assignments and some paintings for a show in Turin. I should get busy on them too.
Your biggest influences?
Well your biggest influences are the earliest ones. When I was young, I was very influenced by the short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
How did short stories influence your art?
They influenced my sensibility. Art was a by-product.
In what way did they influence you?
Well, I grew up in a period when literature was realistic and painting was abstract. Hawthorne’s stories appealed to me because they were more like folk tales, like Pecos Bill or Hogo Pogo, only more subtle. I imagine he’d been influenced by Pilgrim’s Progress—lots of writers were in those days—except that Hawthorne’s stories were harder to pin down. No Worldly Wise Man or Mr. Feeblemind. Hawthorne was a kind of Transcendental Kafka, a hundred years before Kafka. I could imagine doing the same kind of thing with pictures—and that seemed more up my alley than trying to be one more guy painting stripes on a canvas or exhibiting dead cows in plexiglass.
So did you do illustrations for Hawthorne’s stories?
No. I was never interested in storytelling pictures. I wanted to do pictures that were interesting on their own terms.
How do you define that distinction?
Any picture that’s interesting on its own terms tells a story. But a picture that just tells a story isn’t necessarily interesting on its own terms.
Do you have a favorite color?
No, but I’ve noticed that I haven’t done much with yellow over the years. I don’t know why that is. It’s a perfectly good color. It just didn’t seem to fit the kind of pictures I was doing. So I decided maybe I should do some different kinds of pictures. I may be on the verge of a Yellow Period.
Do you have a five year plan or do you just take each job as it comes?
The Communist Countries used to have Five Year Plans and they were always ten or fifteen years behind the plan. I figure there’s a lesson there.
So you don’t plan ahead?
I have an alter ego who plans ahead, but I keep him busy planning things I don’t want to deal with.
What’s he planning right now?
He’s running the Illustrators’ Partnership. It keeps him busy. I paint.
What does he think of you?
What do you think of him?
If I had another life, I wouldn’t mind being him. He’s doing the right thing.
In your role in the Illustrators’ Partnership, you and Cynthia Turner have led the opposition to the Orphan Works bill in Congress. If possible, can you sum up where that legislation is now and what illustrators can do at this moment?
Well at the moment, it’s in limbo and illustrators can pray that it says there, but I doubt that it will. It’s the wedge issue of the anti-copyright lobby. They want to do away with copyright law, so if they get this bill passed, they’ll be like Captain Hook’s crocodile: they’ll be back for more.
Can you explain the logic behind the bill?
Greed. Intellectual vanity. It began with some legal scholars who’ve spent way too much time reading Jacques Derrida and Michael Foucault, two writers who are nearly unreadable to begin with. Copy Leftists—as they call themselves—argue that individual creativity’s just a myth. They call it an artifact of capitalism. They say creativity is communal, so creative work should belong to the public. That’s the real principle behind the Orphan Works bill—it’s no more complicated than that: a kernel of truth (we’re all influenced by others) embedded in a lot of post-Marxist humbug.
The Copy Leftists may be breaking new ground by trying to base statutory law on literary theory, but it’s just what the doctor ordered for big internet companies like Google and Microsoft. They’re backing the bill because it’ll convert billions of copyrighted pictures into “orphans.” Which means they can make money by selling access to work they could never create themselves or afford to license from artists. People shouldn’t fool themselves. This isn’t a little issue. It’s a defining moment.
So what can illustrators do now?
Stay tuned. Write Congress. Anybody who wants information can go to the Illustrators’ Partnership blog http://ipaorphanworks.blogspot.com. My alter ego writes articles there.
What other initiatives does the Illustrators’ Partnership pursue?
Well, we didn’t set out to become a bunch of all-purpose busybodies. We’re more like a neighborhood watch group. And our neighborhood needs a lot more watching than most people realize.
When you start drawing, do you have a set image in your mind or do you start out abstractly and let the process of sketching take over?
Well you can’t think and draw at the same time, so I draw first and think as I go along.
What kind of things do you think about as you go along?
Things you might never have thought of in the first place. One of the most productive conversations you can have in this world is between yourself and your subconscious—except you can’t converse with your subconscious in words, because it doesn’t use words. You have to find out what vocabulary it uses and converse with it that way.
What was the hardest part about establishing yourself in the field?
Well, I knew I was going to have to start at the bottom, so I wanted to get to the bottom as fast as possible.
Was that hard?
It wasn’t easy. Society’s paved with stepping stones. Follow them and things come to you as they’re supposed to. Skip a few stones and it’s an unpaved road.
How do you feel your schooling prepared you for real life?
Well, since I didn’t have much schooling, I wasn’t expecting much from it. But real life has a way of bringing you up to speed, whether you’ve been schooled for it or not.
How much schooling did you have?
And is it true that you never studied art?
Yeah, but of course, in those days they weren’t teaching art in art schools anyway. They were teaching attitude. And since I already had an attitude, I figured I could skip those grades.
So how did you go about learning your craft?
Instinct. Trial and error. Lots of errors. I’m still at it. I think I’m beginning to get the hang of painting, though.
Favorite painting you did in the past year?
A picture of a woman beside a green door. It’s actually a painting I started a few years ago, but it sat around for a while. I just finished it. The woman’s from my past. The green door’s from a hotel in Istanbul.
Advice to a young illustrator?
Don’t call yourself an illustrator. Call yourself a popular artist. That way, when critics want to say “that’s not art, that’s illustration, they’ll have to say “that’s not art, that’s popular art.” Then you’ll have the critics where you want them.
Most embarrassing art related moment?
Hmm…how about the most preposterous moment instead?
OK. Most preposterous art related moment.
Well, there have been quite a few, but one stands out just for the cast of characters involved.
Some years ago I was doing drawings for a novel by a Hollywood screenwriter named Clair Huffaker. The Cowboy and the Cossack, a kind of Red River meets Doctor Zhivago. Well, I did pencil sketches for the book, the author loved them and asked for more. I did more. So then he called one day and asked to meet me. He didn’t say why.
A few days later, he called again to say that he and Slim Pickens, the cowboy actor, had flown in from Hollywood and wanted to talk with me. They were staying at a suite at the St. Regis. He said he had brought Slim along because Slim was a cowboy artist of sorts and had been a rodeo rider before he became an actor. He said Slim would be just the guy to give me some tips on the details in my sketches. He said he did love drawings, but said I had gotten some of the details wrong: chaps and hats and spurs and saddles—things like that. Besides, he said, he wanted the cowboys to be more manly than I had drawn them. He said Slim could explain to me why they should all look like the Marlboro Man.
Well, I was in no mood to be drawing Marlboro Men, but one of my favorite movies was Dr. Strangelove, where Slim Pickens plays a B-52 pilot who rides a Hydrogen bomb down into Russia like a bucking bronco. How could I pass up a chance to spend the afternoon talking cowboy talk with him? So I bundled up and headed for 55th and Fifth.
Now this was St. Patrick’s Day and by the time I got to the St. Regis, the Pickens suite was like a clubhouse of sorts, with celebrities and authors coming and going all day. One of them was an editor for Simon and Schuster, Clair’s publisher. He was an old newspaper type who blew in, mid-afternoon, wearing one of those big green cardboard hats that drunks wear on St. Patrick’s Day. He spent the whole afternoon with the hat on, telling stories and dirty jokes and keeping a limousine waiting downstairs.
The editor kept calling me “kid.” At one point, when Clair had left the room, he said “Hey kid, you probably want to know why we’re publishing this book right? You ever play craps, kid? You know what happens when somebody’s rollin’ sevens? You keep giving ’em the dice, right? That’s why we’re publishing this book.” I told him I got his drift and he went back to telling me jokes, all of which I’ve forgotten.
Well by five o’clock or so, I’d been drinking Wild Turkey with these characters for hours. Somebody began turning the lights on and I realized it was getting dark outside. Then I noticed that the editor was gone and somehow, I had inherited his cardboard hat. I still can’t remember how I ended up with that. But there I was, sitting on the sofa with Slim Pickens, wearing a big shiny green hat, talking about Frederic Remington and Charlie Russell and the old west, and doodling cowboys and horses and saddles with a ball point pen on the big manila envelope I had my drawings in.
Slim didn’t think much of Frederic Remington—and he could tell that I had used Remington’s paintings as source material for how cowboys dressed. I said I liked Remington.
“Well, you know Remington wasn’t a real cowboy,” Slim told me. Just an eastern dude who didn’t get the details in his pictures right. “Now ole Charlie Russell, there was a real cowboy. You can trust Charlie Russell’s pictures.” Inevitably Slim began to talk about the westerns, then about movies, then about his movies.
I told him my favorite film of his was Dr. Strangelove: “That scene where you ride the bomb is one of the great movie scenes of all time,” I said. He seemed pleased to hear that, but he said “Hell, did you know that movie was supposed to be a comedy? I didn’t.”
He told me they had filmed it on a set in London. He was hung over from a night of drinking. He had met some B52 pilots at a bar the night before and brought them along to watch him shoot the scene. They were “real impressed” he said, with the mockup of the B52 on the set. “They wondered how Stanley had got all the details in the cockpit right.”
Suddenly, the phone rang in the hotel suite. Clair answered it and took the call in one of the bedrooms—he had pretty well rid the place of celebrities by then. Then he came back a few minutes later to tell Slim that “the stewardesses are on their way.” I took the hint and volunteered that it was time for me to hit the road.
Well, it took another few minutes for Slim to wrap up his story—about how the suits at Columbia Pictures had walked out of the first screening of Strangelove, stunned and speechless, certain that Kubrick had laid an egg. But Clair cut into the story to say he wanted a word with me, privately. He led me into another room and we sat there with the lights off. It was like being talked to by a shadow.
Clair told me this book was very important to him. He had written his first novel just after graduating from Columbia; he’d “studied under Van Dorne.” Although he was from “out west,” he wrote it in the New York Public Library. It was bought by the movies and became Flaming Star, an Elvis Presley flick. OK, so now he was a successful screenwriter. But novels were still the real deal. He mentioned Irwin Shaw, James Michener. Their work was big in the movies but they were recognized as novelists. He wanted The Cowboy and the Cossack to be a best seller, a hit movie. He said my drawings were great, but not manly enough. It was important that all the cowboys look manly. Think John Wayne, he told me. Think Marlboro Man.
When I got back to the front room, the stewardesses had arrived and were settling in with their drinks. Slim was charming them with movie stories. I tipped my cardboard hat to everyone, said hello-I-must-be-going, and took my leave. Outside I roamed the halls of the St. Regis looking for the elevators amidst all the various other doors. Finally I found the right ones, pushed the down button and waited. Everything around me was a blur.
The elevator came, the door opened and there was Salvador Dalí.
Perfect. Who else should I expect to find in an elevator on a day like this?
OK, so I’m standing there, looking at Dalí. He’s looking at me. I had a shiny green cardboard hat on my head and a big manila envelope tucked under my arm. Dalí was wearing a long fur coat and horn rimmed glasses. Gala, his wife, was standing beside him. She had a matching fur coat and glasses— in fact, they looked nearly identical, except that Dalí’s mustache was waxed.
Well, how do you say hello to Salvador Dalí? Luckily I was dressed for the moment. I tipped my big green hat to him and stepped inside. We stood shoulder to shoulder. There were several other people crowded in around us, but nobody spoke. Then I saw Dalí cocking his head like a puppy, looking sideways at my ballpoint pen doodles on the big envelope.
“Are you an artist?” he asked. I was surprised that he spoke English.
“Yep,” I said. “I’m just like you.”
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Ohio!” he exclaimed. “Cleveland! Everybody loves Dalí in Cleveland!” He seemed pleased he could demonstrate his knowledge of the American midwest.
“Well, they may love Dalí in Cleveland,” I said. “But I come from a little town called Fremont, where they think Dalí is crazy as shit.”
For a split second, there was stunned silence in the elevator, but Dalí broke out laughing instantly. The others smiled. Gala froze. I had seen her face in Dalí’s paintings since I was 17, but she didn’t look like the holy Madonna this day or Leda with her swan.
She glared at me with a face like a Gorgon, then at her husband as if to say: “Look at yourself! You’re Dalí! And you’re talking to a jerk in a cardboard hat!”
Well, it was a short ride to the lobby. Salvador and I—we were on a first name basis by then—wished each other a good life and went our separate ways.
I never saw any of these characters again. Later, I found out that Dalí lived at the St. Regis and often used the King Cole Bar as a sort of office. I don’t think The Cowboy and the Cossack ever made it to film, although when I did my drawings, I drew Slim Pickens as one of the characters. Just in case they ever did make it, he’d have a ready-made part.
A few years ago, a man emailed me, asking for a complete set of prints from the book. After he got them, he wrote to ask if there were any anecdotes behind the drawings. I said I’d try to write up something and send it to him, but I never got around to it. Maybe I should send him a link to this interview.
You can see Brad Holland’s work on his website, Illoz, and Tor.com gallery. His essay, “Express Yourself – It’s Later Than You Think” is well worth the read. And for information on his artists’ rights advocacy, visit the Illustrators’ Partnership of America.