October 31, 2009

Dreams Of More Than Mere Shadows

An Interview with Diana Bryan – illustrator, designer, educator and more

Part 1 of 2 (link to
Part 2)
Click on any picture to enlarge it to original size

When I finally caught up with Diana Bryan for an interview - not an easy task mind you considering how many demands she has on her time - she alerted me that a pretty menacing thunderstorm that was approaching her way might interrupt our conversation. ‘It’s getting really dark and the lights are flashing, so I may have to run’ she told me; in fact, after some distant rumbling, she even counted once to see how far away the storm really was. It sounded ominous, but wound up being a pretty good setting for our conversation, as thunderstorms speak to me with the same kind of emotion that it seems dark, creepy shadows and caricatures speak to Diana.

For those of you who associate silhouettes as I did with those old-fashioned portraits hanging in my Grandmother’s living room – those stiffly posed, crudely cut black profiles of all various grandchildren, our noses adjusted to be a little bit more presentable or our chins cut out just a little rounder just so we’d seem to be a tad bit more cute than we really were – well, you need to clear your minds-eye before you become acquainted with Diana’s works. Growing up a self-described strong-willed child, Diana began her journey some years ago with her fascination for the illustrations of a special children’s book. Granted that this same children’s book had been faithfully illustrated to match the story-lines – meaning there were assuredly no smiling gum-drops or happy ponies to be found. Instead, the artist portrayed an array of monsters (both real and imagined, human or not) as the author had originally described them. The particular illustrator involved,
Arthur Szyk – one of many talented artists who would eventually flee Europe and the atrocities of the second World War and complete his career in the USA – wound up being a life-long inspiration for Diana, helping her along as she found beauty and truth in shadows, caricatures, and even joy at seeing the familiar features of her Jewish kin.

However, Diana is not only a well-known and accomplished artist, with a career in illustration covering more than the unique silhouettes with which she is most associated. She is also an award-winning animator, sculptor, puppeteer, educator and much more. In addition, she is a very well-respected and sought after-lecturer (and advisor), skilled at making some sense out of being an artist in today’s world. Her on-going education – both in terms of her own training and her lectures with countless students and peers – spans the better part of four decades. It’s no wonder then that when you talk to Diana, you get the feeling indeed that she is sitting back in a comfortable lawn chair (we’ll just assume the storm has passed for now) and is waxing ever-so-poetic – yet firmly, as she exclaims ‘Listen!’ yet one more time – holding audience and sharing her feelings about the world, man’s place in it (perhaps best replaced by animals often seems to be her sentiment) and everything in between.

Our conversation was filled with lots of reflection, hearty laughter and some good old-fashioned high emotion (please, whatever you do, don’t call mention the ‘C’ word [= ‘consultant’]). And, as I find many times in this ‘business’, Diana provided me with a wealth of new inspirations and great artists to learn more about. We are very pleased to bring you our interview with this talented illustrator:

Diana, with your impressive résumé in both teaching and the arts, you must receive constant requests for advice in how to start a career in illustration. What advice do you tend to give to people about getting started?
Oh yeah, people are always asking for opinions or asking me to consult with their kids who want to go to art school, or even for me to review their kids’ portfolios. What I always recommend to anyone is get a double degree, including with a defined Major and also a defined Minor. For your Major, you want to go to a college that has a good department in education or in arts administration or even in arts therapy. The reason I say this is that all of these are viable ways to support yourself and still have tremendous flexibility.

You can then have your Minor be in whatever kind of art – fine art, illustration, etc. – so that you have training and all in something that you love, that you have a passion for. You want this hopefully to also be something that you can earn some living from – but obviously it would be harder to support yourself with just this, at least compared to the way it used to be some years ago. It’s just I always tell people that they should give themselves something practical to go along then with their ‘art’, as a sort of co-career.

This is how I got started. When I first got going, I was teaching and then using my income from this to support my illustration career. And I’ve continued to teach throughout a good deal of my career not only because I love it, but it also has given me at least some predictable income throughout all these years. Because if you’re self-employed and only doing free-lance work, you want to have something to fall back on if you’re at any point out of work – or even if the client is slow to pay you.

Had you decided ahead of your own initial education to go this way? Was this part of any master plan you had?
I have to admit that I never said or even thought in my wildest dreams that I could make it just as an illustrator, never in my whole life. But at the age of 5, I already knew that I wanted to be an artist, and I knew without a doubt that it was definitely my passion.

I really had two things that I loved: one was illustration. I had this great children’s book – a collection of Hans Christian Anderson stories - that was illustrated by Arthur Szyk. He was by far my favorite illustrator at that time and remains so even today. Szyk was born in Poland and even studied art in Paris. He was involved in World War I both with the Russian Army and also the Polish Underground. During the 2nd World War, he immigrated to Canada and eventually wound up working in New York City. But even before World War II came around, he was already well known as a master illustrator. For me, it was not only his illustrations that I knew from my childhood, but also later his political cartoons and all the extremely hard, pro-Allies depictions he made of Hitler and his cronies. It really is just amazing and like I said, it’s a life-long inspiration for me in terms of caricatures.

But this particular children’s book had some of the creepiest illustrations I’ve ever seen in my life in it. He did these macabre caricatures of really grotesque people and animals and monsters. It was all very dark and extremely disturbing but yet still very beautifully done. I mean, he makes someone like Tim Burton seem sort of wholesome. But he was a master and I loved pouring again and again through these magnificently illustrated pages.

Plus, I have to say that as a Jew growing up in the South, I never saw children’s books with anything that looked like a Jew. But all of Szyk’s characters were very true to their ‘origins’ and even looked like my own family, like my Uncle Izzy or even my Grandmother, that is, with droopy noses or other traditional ‘Semitic’ traits. I’m not being racist at all, it was just how these people in my life looked! And of course, the heroes in all of the books never looked Jewish! If anything, the villains looked more like my family than any of the fair-haired heroes or maidens did. So I loved this book not only because of all the wonderful illustrations but also because it was the only place I saw anyone that looked like the people I really cared about!

The other thing that inspired me was that I loved animals. I spent not only an enormous amount of time drawing them, but also sitting up in tree’s and watching them. I remember even when I was 5, I started my own business. You see, the kids in our neighborhood would steal birds nests and destroy the eggs that were in them, for whatever reasons kids do things like that. I even had a little bird cemetery that I took care of, where I would bury the baby that had fallen down or had otherwise died. And I’d even put moss over their graves, so that they wouldn’t be disturbed.

The whole thing made me really sad, but I was a determined and head-strong little kid and decided to do something about it. So I’d create my own birds nests, even intricate and big bird’s nests, because I’d watched exactly how birds made them. Then I’d sell them for a nickel. I really liked this, because I was not only making a little bit of money but I was helping the birds, too.

I even thought I wanted to grow up to be Jane Goodall or Diane Fossey or a veterinary surgeon... AND also a children’s book illustrator. However, I was from the generation where women were told that they couldn’t be veterinarians because we couldn’t handle big animals. Which I think is totally ironic because nowadays probably AT LEAST 50% of all vets are women. But again, back in the early 60’s, girls were just pushed away from the field. I was even told that to my face by some local veterinarians so that really discouraged me.

But I always loved art and I drew constantly. And I also had jobs in a hospital and the Philadelphia Museum of Natural History when I was a little older. I loved biology, too, and I would sometimes do biological illustrations. So that and the animals have always been a part of my art. Somehow to me, I’ve never thought that you could separate these. I’ve always used animals and skeletons and representations of the body and all of that in my work. I even had a couple of years of pre-med in college which I still rely on today!

In terms of your own education and career, what role does Art Therapy play in your work?
First of all, I’ve only had so-called Fine Arts training, I was never trained in any commercial art at all. I did take business courses after I got my Masters degree. Prior to that, every arts school I went to was a ‘Fine Arts’ one.

But I always took some courses that the Fine Arts schools would call ‘Mere Illustration’ because, again, this was in the early 60’s and 70’s. The reason I liked it was that it was recognizable story telling and it was frequently very funny. However, the prevailing notion of what you were supposed to do in that era – and that was before
Red Grooms rose to popularity (who in my mind was an illustrator, because he was funny and told stories) – was anything but going into illustration. You were either supposed to be a pop artist like Andy Warhol or become an abstract expressionist, which was really the preferred ‘in’ thing to be. Or you were even extremely hyper-realistic like a salon artist. But I didn’t fall into any of those categories, even though I was doing all kinds of eclectic and interesting things.

I was always drawing from life or dreams. I did a lot of annunciations and I was doing political satire, too. But I think the process of being the type of illustrator I was – which was always drawing from life using animals or people on the subway or in night-clubs or wherever they were – that process of observation is not very different to that required for being a good therapist. You see, I actually did get back to your question! (laughs)

See, there are many different kinds of illustrators. There are decorative ones, metaphoric, and more – but I don’t do that. I’m a story-teller. And part of what I like to capture is the personality or the emotions. I love doing caricatures, although my cut-outs frequently don’t show that or maybe it’s just a little harder to see. But certainly when I was a puppeteer, all my puppets were totally caricatures. Perhaps in my cut-outs you see it more so in the animals I illustrate which are more anthropomorphized. But I do try to put personalities into the characters in my illustrations.

When you spend your whole life drawing people and trying to figure out who they are when you’re observing them, that’s not very different from being a therapist. And if you’re any good, you’re trying to develop good powers of observation. Either watching or listening or frequently both – because a lot of times people say one thing but their body language is saying something else. So in my mind any good artist who’s fairly observant probably would make a pretty good therapist. Because sometimes when you ignore what someone’s saying and instead focus on how they’re saying it, you’re actually getting more accurate information. And since I enjoy observing – either observing to illustrate or observing in order to help someone – it’s not that hugely different to me.

You’ve been involved in Art and Art Education for many years. But how did you get started helping others with their business sense? I’ve read that in part you’re even working with and teaching people to survive financially.
Among other things, sometimes yes, surviving is part of it. But there’s much more to it than that. Listen, I have to tell you: every business course I have ever taught has always had a large focus on earning a living (a) doing something that you not only get emotional pleasure and satisfaction from but also (b) something that allows you to give back to society. I believe very strongly in that and I’ve never separated those things. I’ve always made them an important part of my lectures. Because I have to tell you, if you want to earn a living being an illustrator, it’s not the easiest way to go.

Plus, depending on your style and also your emotional proclivity, it can wind up being an even tougher route. For example, I had absolutely no taste for advertising. I worked for 3 years in advertising and didn’t like it. I was treated a thousand times better doing editorial work but I didn’t make nearly as much money. So clearly, money wasn’t my main motive. And earlier you asked about if I had a ‘master plan’: well, that didn’t exist. I mean, I went to a Fine Arts school and nobody there had ever heard of an artist making a living. Everyone knew if you wanted to make a living you had to be a bartender or a cab driver or you did something (or you had to teach). But you didn’t make it as an artist.

I’d just get so (sighs)... I mean, at first, I’d take my work to magazines and publishers. And they’d say to me, ‘oh it’s very interesting but it’s too much like fine art’. So between this and people at the Fine Art school insulting me about my ‘mere’ illustrations, I just decided everyone was full of shit. I mean, I had this pretty good-sized, over-developed ego when I started out when it came to my work. Maybe not in other areas, but I’ve always trusted my work more than almost anything else with few exceptions. So I just thought people were crazy when they didn’t love my work as much as I did. I thought if they’d just keep looking at it long enough, that it would grow on them and they’d learn to love it.

I just never internalized anyone’s – my teachers’ or any else’s – criticism. If they were willing to tell me how to make it better, okay, then I would listen. If they just wanted to tell me it was crap, I would simply ignore them. But I never thought that I had could have a career doing that. And in my mind when I was growing up, ‘little girls’ or women illustrators did fashion drawings, which I knew I would never do. Or even biological illustration: I didn’t want to do that, even though I did do that a few times on the side.

It was just that I would get so crazy when I would open the New York Times or a book or a magazine and just see this horrible stuff. And I thought I could do so much better than that. I just knew that I was better than what they were publishing. Still, I needed the satisfaction of seeing my stuff published, even if I didn’t actually think about making a living at it or having a career in this area. So that’s why I got all those degrees in teaching, in Fine Arts and in Education. Again, I took Fine Arts because I loved it and got a Masters in Education because it suddenly occurred to me I might actually have to earn a living some day. Sure, like any good artist, I had a lot of menial jobs earlier in my career. Still, I knew that because my knees were starting to go, my chances of being a waitress or bartender forever in the East Village were going pretty quick.

But it took me 8 years to get published for the first time. Every time I’d present anyone in publishing with one of my paper cut-outs, they’d never even really look at it. They’d just dismiss it and say ‘oh, it’s too old-fashioned’. Nobody would see or understand that I was doing unconventional work, they’d just view it in terms of the traditional American style silhouettes, a lot which are frequently extremely boring.

Instead, in my mind, I was more in my mind a German or let’s say European illustrator. Many of these, like
George Grosz and other artists, were very sardonic and dark with their work. Just as Szyk, a number of these great illustrators had immigrated to the United States, fleeing the Nazis for one reason or another. There were just so many outstanding artists from that time even though I can’t remember all their names.

For example, this included
Boris Artzybasheff, who was absolutely amazing. He was not only honored for his work caricaturing the Nazis but he also did a lot of simply classic TIME Magazine covers. And there were other children’s’ book illustrators as well that influenced me. There were simply so many different images that just blew me away, back when children’s books were done in those wonderful oversized formats. I remember I had several of these large-sized children’s books and they had all these dark images and pictures including animals and people, and so many were so dark and creepy and yet so poignant in their messages.

And also Disney’s Fantasia, especially ‘A Night on Bald Mountain’ may have been my favorite thing (even though Disney stole that). It was originally from
Alexandre Alexeïeff whose animation technique involved using a screen filled with thousands of movable pins, which he gave movement to by pressing the image out onto the screen. The screen was illuminated from the side so that it created these fantastic shadows and he would manipulate all the pens so that it created these really surreal images. His film, made along with Claire Parker, had such a hallucinogenic quality to it and yet it looked so real, almost like photographs even with all it’s morphing images. (ZN: even though the video is obviously crude, it’s truly impressive if you consider both the time in history as well as the technique!)

Continued in
Part 2


All pictures, videos and other media are used with written permission of Diana Bryan, or are available in the public domain (noting copyright and other restrictions, accordingly). No further reproduction or duplication is permitted without contacting the artist directly. For further details to the illustrations, commercial pieces, sculptures, puppets and much more, please visit
www.dianabryan.com for more!

1 comment:

Francesca Prescott said...

Beautiful work, great insights, and fascinating life story. I also love all those old fashioned children's books illustrations. Diane, your work is beautiful. Love the cut-outs!

Thanks for sharing this interview, Ziggy.