The nightmare that would culminate in such
e-mail venom as "I hope your wife gets ovarian cancer" and "Your
mother should have aborted you" began on an early summer evening
in rural Connecticut.
Two middle-aged men
sit in the loft of a refurbished barn, riffing off Gershwin's "I
Got Rhythm." Every Sunday they get high on grass and play music
with several friends. Tonight, however, it's just the two of
them: one, a writer for Esquire, is the
guitarist; the other, an illustrator, is the pianist. There isn't
much talk, certainly nothing about the illustrator's latest
New Yorker cover, which will hit newsstands
the next day. The old barn in which they're playing doubles as
the illustrator's studio-and much-needed sanctuary. It is here at
his drafting table that he captures, according to designer Donna
Braggins, the zeitgeist. "He doesn't simply interpret content,"
she says. "He creates content and he has this wonderful sense of both humility and insecurity."
The illustrator doesn't know it yet, but in
approximately 14 hours he will sit at that same table, staring
numbly at a computer screen. He will receive e-mails with threats
of physical harm. He will be frightened. For a brief moment, he
will regret what he has done.
But as he plays
his keyboard this calm Sunday evening, he does have a sense of
foreboding, a not-unfamiliar feeling for him on the evening
before one of his New Yorker covers debuts.
And, as is usual, he fantasizes about worst-case scenarios: his
career drying up, his home burned down, his body savagely beaten.
Still, Gershwin and getting high mute his inner
Then the phone rings. At the other
end, a familiar voice: The New Yorker's art
Her message: Brace yourself for
He would later admit, in his
characteristic deadpan style: "I mean, marijuana, it's a good
drug for playing jazz. But it's not great for enduring an
international crisis." After hanging up, those e-mails started to
trickle in. The first, says the illustrator, was from
The Huffington Post: "I was high and paranoid,
and they were saying, 'Do you regret this?' Regret it?! It hasn't
come out yet! I got really defensive-and I wish I hadn't. I wish
I had just shut up. I wish I had just stayed completely quiet and
hadn't tried to explain it."
It's the morning after. Barry Blitt had been awake until his
usual 2 a.m. His panic has subsided now, at least until he checks
his e-mail: 1,000 new messages, an escalating barrage of outrage,
hatred, and accusations of racism and intolerance. Shock washes
over him, then defensiveness, then fear. He tries to placate his
accusers, at first attempting to answer each with a response, an
explanation, a justification. After 50 replies, he's exhausted.
Voices of broadcasters wail in his
ear: the BBC, NBC, Fox News, CNN, ABC are all talking about his
drawing of presumptive presidential Democratic nominee Barack
Obama standing in the Oval Office, dressed in a
kurta and lungee, the
knuckles of his left hand triumphantly bumping those of his wife,
Michelle, an urban guerrilla, with an ammo belt slung across her
torso and an AK-47 on her back. In the background a portrait of
Osama bin Laden hangs above a fireplace in which an American flag
burns. What does it all mean? Is The New
Yorker racist? Why would it do something like this? The
commentators are debating, discussing, disseminating.
Another phone call. It's his mom. She's screaming:
"I … I turn on the TV and…. What did you do?! You're
disgusting!" He rests the phone on his drafting table,
hearing her now-faint voice, feeling guilty for being impatient
and curt with her, for often avoiding her phone calls. She
doesn't understand. She's unsophisticated. There was no
New Yorker in his house growing up.
An aggregation of
African-American media and political organizations, reports
The Globe and Mail, is demanding The
New Yorker be pulled from shelves, while incensed
readers barrage the publication's midtown offices with phone
calls and e-mails. Novelist Trey Ellis, who blogs for
The Huffington Post, weighs in, stating, "I
get the intended joke, but dressing up perhaps the next president
of the United States as the new millennium equivalent of Adolf
Hitler is just gross and dumb." Both McCain and Obama camps agree
the illustration is "tasteless and offensive."
And in Toronto, where Blitt lived for close to a
decade, his friends are concerned. "I had the impression he'd
never experienced anything like this," says Toronto Star
columnist David Olive. "I was worried about his
health." A few weeks later, designer Bob Hambly, a longtime
friend, phoned Blitt: "Well, Barry, if I know you, I gotta tell
you: I imagine you in a fetal position, going, 'God, just make
this all go away!' I said, 'I imagine you being frightened.'"
It's four months after the
nightmare began. A biting late-November wind whips strands of
hair across my face as I wait for Blitt outside the Wingdale
train station. It's about 2 p.m. "I'll be the small, hatted,
ridiculous gentleman," his e-mail read. I'm trying to assuage a
tide of shivers when a black Subaru Forester comes to a halt.
Looking through the window I see a man in his early 50s, of small
stature, with grey hair, a short beard and wire-rimmed glasses. I
lean in and awkwardly shake his hand. Pulling out of the station
he cradles a portable GPS device between his shoulder and ear,
his guide for the 20-minute drive to his house. This worries me.
Is it a deadpan comic quirk? Surely he knows the way to his own
Blitt is a terrible driver, and for a
few minutes I have trouble focusing on conversation for fear
he'll steer us straight into a tree. It's at this point he
reveals he's tired. Trying to appear calm, I blurt: "What do you
do for that? Do you smoke weed?" Seemingly unsurprised by my
outburst, he explains that he tried but didn't like the smoke,
looked into buying a vaporizer but didn't like the price and,
instead, bakes marijuana cookies. "I've got to make sure the kid
doesn't get into those," he says, referring to Sam, his
As the Subaru swerves
along, we talk about U.S. politics, Obama, and Blitt's 1989 move
from Toronto to New York City: "We got a limo driver, I think for
$700. We had our cats with us-it was awful, a little litter box
on the floor." Blitt pauses, amused at his delivery, before
explaining that neither he nor his wife, art director Teresa
Fernandes, knew how to drive at the time, and that his fear of
flying left them little in the way of options. Soon enough, we
pull into the gravel driveway of his home. He laughs as I stagger
out of the car and asks if I'm having trouble standing. "I'm all
right," I squeak, stumbling into pastoral rural America, complete
with a handsome old farmhouse surrounded by acres of land, a red
barn stationed in the distance and a metal water pump rooted in
the front yard.
We enter his home, heading
to the kitchen, where two overexcited, glossy-eyed, snorting pugs
trundle over. We turn away. "I'm allergic," I say. "Yeah, me
too," Blitt mumbles as he wanders into another room to chat
briefly with Sam, who is at a computer. On return, he opens the
fridge door. Dissatisfied with its contents, he suggests we
conduct the interview at a nearby café.
Again in the car, I think, shuddering anew.
But this time the trip is without incident; clearly he's more
comfortable on this route, which ends at a coffee shop that has a
well-to-do rusticity. "Isn't it twee?" says Blitt as we enter,
stand at the counter and listen to piped-in gospel renditions of
sandwich and juice for him-we head to a large wooden table in the
back. He is quick-witted, disarmingly candid, critical and
self-conscious. His wordy sentences occasionally trail off into
stilted silences that he uses as springboards for unexpected
sarcastic jabs, such as "the hell with her," referring to a shy
colleague at The New Yorker whom he admires,
and, constantly, at himself. At one point he mumbles, "I don't
know what the hell I'm talking about…."
self-effacement continues throughout lunch, as when he says:
"It's hard to not feel, at the bottom of it, that what I'm doing
is frivolous and kids' stuff." Or: "It's in my nature to be meek
and afraid." Or: "I probably should be eating one of my cookies
by now. That should help." The man is a curious mix, not just of
humility and insecurity, as Braggins says, but also of a
confidence that, for reasons I can't yet fathom, he tries to keep
hidden. After all, he must recognize at some level that as a
New Yorker cover artist and illustrator for
Frank Rich's popular column in the Sunday New York
Times, he does wield considerable influence over how
events and personalities are perceived.
Midway through bites, Blitt explains that more than once he tried
to quit the Times in frustration over what he
calls the paper's archaic rule of forbidding likenesses on its
op-ed page. But the Times, he adds, didn't
want to lose him: "They said, 'Come in and we'll have a meeting,'
and I did, and it was like a mid-level, mid-management meeting at
Wal-Mart. I was armed with four or five drawings that had been
rejected [and] they couldn't figure out why the things were
turned down, and then in the next few weeks they let me do things
they never would have let me do before."
for The New Yorker, Blitt says, "It's real
nice to do covers, but you do a drawing inside [the magazine] and
it's a fucking nightmare. I recently did a drawing of some
congressman and they said, 'His eyes look sewn shut.' That's what
they said to me! And [they asked via e-mail], 'Would you open his
eyes a bit?' And I just answered, 'No!' And they did it anyway:
'We're having our person fix it digitally, if you won't fix it.'
And I didn't answer them. They just treat people really
Although Blitt prefers not to be at
the whim of an art director and the "murky chain of command" that
presides over the interior illustrations, he does admit that in
general, "I really like the people at The New
Yorker; they've been so great to me." He also feels a
deep respect and genuine affection for both its editor-in-chief,
David Remnick, and its art editor, Françoise Mouly. He says he
often relies on Mouly to vet his ideas and knows that she "will
fight for an artist's vision for the cover."
Blitt recalls a time, seven years ago, when his insecurities got
him into trouble with Mouly. He "freaked out" a day before one of
his covers was about to hit the stands. It was during the
aftermath of 9/11, when the U.S. had bombed Tora Bora while
looking for Osama bin Laden. Blitt's illustration pictured bin
Laden tooling around the White Mountains on a Segway: "I just
thought, 'Oh, we're being really disrespectful here-people died,
and we're making fun of the situation.'" So a day before the
cover was released, Blitt frantically brought it to a friend at
The New York Times to see if he found it
insulting: "Françoise heard that I was showing it to other people
and she got real mad at me. 'Cause, first of all, you can't show
a magazine to other people before it comes out, and, second,
implicit in that was that I didn't trust her opinion and
The New Yorker's opinion that it was cool to
Although Blitt says he "got over
that fast," he'll admit later he still worries about offending
readers even though, giving me a further peek at the confidence
that lies within, "You can't worry about offending audiences.
That's the job of illustration. You're always looking for where
the line is and if you step over it people are eager to take
offence. I learned that with the Obama cover. Everyone wants to
be a victim; everyone wants to be offended and to proclaim how
offended they are."
A coffee-shop employee
walks past us, offering an affable hello to Blitt. A few minutes
later, he tells me he's still unsure whether the Obama fist-bump
can be considered a success: "I don't know if that was so
notorious because it was a failure or because it was a success."
What he does know is that "after the Obama cover I worried about
everything I was drawing. For a while it was making me a little
Blitt is halfway through his tuna
sandwich when I ask him about his creative process and how he
develops ideas. He says it's almost separate stages, the
development of an idea-"The first thing I'm doing is looking for
a laugh"-and the drawing. First comes the idea, which he
solidifies in a rough sketch and then refines through an "almost
mechanical" process. As for inspiration, it's just the small
"crazy" details that he notices while sitting in a café with his
sketchbook. That, and U.S. politics in general: "I thought the
Bush era was great. Dick Cheney shot someone in the face. I mean,
you can't buy stuff like that."
wasn't an assignment, he explains, but began when Blitt, feeling
thoroughly saturated with the ongoing smear campaign targeting
the Obamas, submitted a sketch to Mouly of Barack and Michelle
dressed as jihadis. The cover was "supposed to be making fun of
everything that was said-but at the same time it was almost
presenting [the accusations] at face value." Upon receiving the
first sketch, Mouly immediately understood the satire and Blitt
got down to work, executing five drafts. At first, continues
Blitt, he and Mouly "flailed around a lot with it, trying to make
sure it was clear. Then, ultimately, we just said, 'Fuck it.' We
were trying to make it as outrageous as possible. We talked about
putting a Nazi swastika in there; we had a swastika plate on the
wall, but the editor said no. We talked about having some other
things that were grossly offensive, just to make the thing as
implausible and ridiculous as possible."
Blitt says that although the Obama cover made him famous, it
doesn't capture the overall tone of his work. "Some artists are
screaming all the time. I don't aspire to that," Blitt explains,
adding that he doesn't consider himself particularly politically
savvy and has drawn many illustrations that don't fit within that
realm. "Barry has a whole world where his pieces are not biting
commentary; they are small incisive insights and
he's brilliant at that," comments Braggins.
Blitt is forthright about his professional struggles, personal
phobias and self-reproach. Work is difficult: "It's hard for me
to commit things to paper. Why? 'Cause once you do them, they're
there. It's hard living with the shortcomings of them. So it's
much easier not to do them." He has frequent bouts of insomnia
and doesn't enjoy travelling because, "When you go away, you lose
control of your environment," which, he adds, "would probably be
really good for me."
Blitt glances at his
watch. It's around 5 p.m. Sam is home alone, likely hungry. As he
orders a club sandwich for his son, I'm thinking about our next
stop-Blitt has offered to give me a tour of his studio-while my
host mumbles something about how he's going to catch hell for
feeding Sam so late.
before Obama in Muslim garb and Osama on a scooter, Blitt was
making an artistic mark in, of all places, professional hockey.
As a gawky teenager he would sit in the
Montreal Forum, his hands cold as he frenetically sketched
players during practice. Some would approach him out of
curiosity; others might buy illustrations from him. Aware of his
budding talent-"I knew I could do likenesses at that age"-Blitt
would track down teams at their hotels, wait in the lobby for a
player to pass and present him with a portrait. He developed
friendships, and was given pucks and tickets to games. Sometimes
security threw him out, but he'd sneak back in. Blitt's efforts
became worthwhile; his first publication credit was a series of
drawings in the Philadelphia Flyers 1974 yearbook. Each
illustration earned him $5.
One night in the
early 1970s, TV viewers across the country were introduced to
Blitt, 15and dressed in an argyle vest and
bowtie, when he appeared on Hockey Night in
Canada presenting one of his illustrations to Bobby
Orr. Reflecting on his early obsession with hockey, he now says,
"I think I reached puberty at 25, so I had a long time to live
out this stupid boyhood stuff."
up in Côte Saint-Luc, an upper-middle-class Jewish suburb in
Montreal. His grandfather, the owner of a dress factory, was a
hobby painter, often copying works by Norman Rockwell. "We were
both left-handed and I drew like he did," recalls Blitt, who
regularly accompanied his grandfather to art stores for supplies.
Although his parents were supportive of their son's talent, they
had no interest "in painting or art or good music."
After high school, Blitt jumped from Dawson College to
Concordia before moving to Toronto to attend the Ontario College
of Art, where he met a kindred spirit, illustrator Amanda Duffy,
who describes her friend's early work as having "an edgy humour."
Duffy explains that while other students were obsessed with
perfecting their style, Blitt was more interested in using
illustration to illuminate his ideas. "A lot of us were careful
to stay within some imaginary boundary to be financially
successful. Barry was probably a little more comfortable being
himself. He was a thinking illustrator, and not everybody was
like that. Some people were more involved in a stylistic or
painterly approach-I think his exploration was always more with
illustrations appeared in a slew of Canadian publications,
particularly Report on Business
(ROB) magazine, for which he
illustrated the monthly Spectrum column-a Harper's Index clone-
of which he says, "My work looked like [illustrator Edward]
Sorel's back then; it was sort of this loose pencil kind of
drawing." And as Blitt's career has evolved, explains Hambly,
"His drawing style has gotten less controlled, dare I say sloppy.
It's almost as if he can't get the drawings out fast enough. It's
more about the ideas."
When leafing through
Blitt's New Yorker covers, one sees his
rosy-complexioned characters and the style that Mouly describes
in her book, Covering the New Yorker, as
"casual and loose." Blitt labours over his work. "If there's a
single part that he doesn't like he redoes the entire picture,"
writes Mouly. Even after five or six finished versions of an
illustration, Blitt "manages to retain the looseness of the
initial sketch in the final version, and the sense of spontaneity
that he has been able to preserve adds to the humor; it gives you
the feeling that the artist had such a great idea he couldn't
wait to show it to you."
Blitt moved to New
York when his wife, Teresa
Fernandes-whom he met and
fell in love with when she was art director of Toronto
Life and he was doing an award-winning back page for
the magazine-was offered a job at Sports
Illustrated in Manhattan. "When he decided to move on,"
says Fernanda Pisani, an art director at ROB
back then, "he did a wonderful card. It was a
self-portrait, where he had a little angel on one side who said,
'Be happy with your lot!' Then on the other side there was this
little devil who said, 'Don't be a fool-move to New York!' And I
think he went to the U.S. to expand his horizons."
Building on his base of clients he worked with from
Toronto, which included The Atlantic Monthly
and Entertainment Weekly, Blitt
branched out to include about every top U.S. and Canadian
magazine. His work has been showcased at the Norman Rockwell
Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the Royal Ontario Museum
and the Museum of American Illustration in New York.
Despite his success, Blitt is modest and prefers a low
profile. "I think he just doesn't like the limelight," says
Hambly. "He isn't comfortable being in a big crowd, being around
people-he'd rather be behind the table, you know, doing his
drawings." Anita Kunz, a well-known Canadian illustrator and one
of Blitt's colleagues at The New Yorker, says
his illustrations "require a unique kind of courage and
self-confidence"-qualities that are well-hidden beneath his
self-effacing demeanor. Olive says his friend still has trouble
accepting praise: "I don't know whether he suffers from impostor
syndrome or whether he's just incredibly modest and
self-deprecating, but it takes some doing to convince him of your
sincerity when you try to compliment him on his work."
It's after 5 p.m., and
we've just returned from the
coffee shop and are
walking along the path behind Blitt's house to the barn, where
most of his days are spent. "It's a real controlled environment,"
he says. "Even my son isn't in there. I mean, I love him, but
sometimes he'll hum and it drives me crazy."
Blitt admits there's "a certain pathology" to spending all of his
time by himself: "I'm very compromised in my dealings with
people. It's true. Sometimes I just can't stand talking to some
people, and I'm hard on them. Even when I have people I like
over, sometimes I'll go out to my studio for a few minutes,
sometimes I just crave being alone."
the barn and I spot two red restaurant-style booths with vinyl
seats. While I slump down on one Blitt bounds up the loft's
stairs. I'm dreamily gaping at a watercolor when, less than a
minute later, he returns. He sits across from me and looks
expectant. I suddenly feel devoid of energy. "Is that all you've
got?" Blitt quips after politely responding to a feeble inquiry
about his childhood. "No." I languidly reply. We laugh.
Heading upstairs we pause to look at an illustration by
Sue Coe, an English artist known for her animal-rights advocacy.
"She did this series exposing the pork industry," Blitt explains.
"It's nice there are people out there who try to effect change."
A pregnant silence follows. I think of a
comment he made earlier in the coffee shop: "I wish I was working
on a larger scale, and righting wrongs and pointing out
injustices, but really my tools are looking for absurdities and
finding ridiculousness and making myself laugh."
I follow him to the large drafting table on which his
computer rests, along with brushes, pens and inks. Blitt sits at
his laptop and begins to scroll through rejected New
Yorker cover illustrations. He shows me one with
members of the Bush administration standing in a clump, staring
at a map of Iran. All of them, including Condi Rice, have
erections. Tables littered with sketchbooks and stacks of papers
border the perimeter of the space, above which drawings by his
son, personal illustrations and a recent birthday card are tacked
on the wall.
As conversation wanes, Blitt
scans the room and says: "I expect there'll be a time, probably
when I'm 60, when I'll never leave the house."
It's now dark outside and we agree that
Blitt will put me on the next train to New York. He checks the
schedule on his laptop and tells me it leaves in 20 minutes. I'm
pretty confident that if we speed, we can make it. A frenzied
17-minute car ride later, we arrive at the station. Blitt walks
me to the track: "You look like you're carrying a mouse in
there," he says, gesturing to the white cardboard box that houses
my half-eaten sandwich from lunch. The train roars in and squeals
to a stop. I'm on. Relief washes over me but doesn't last. Three
minutes later I realize I'm travelling in the wrong direction.
Ten minutes later, I'm in Wassic. I ask the conductor when the
next train departs to Manhattan. "Ah, about two hours," he says
with a smile. It's freezing. I wait under a heat lamp in a glass
shed that sits beside the tracks and open my laptop to discover
I'm picking up a wi-fi signal. I'm delighted. I e-mail
"Thanks for being so generous with
your time, and putting me on the wrong train. I'll probably be
home at around 3 a.m." I am more amused than annoyed. It's around
11:30 p.m. when I arrive at the Upper West Side apartment I'm
staying at. Slumped on the sofa, I read Blitt's reply, "Ugh. How
could I have been so stupid. If that had been me getting the
wrong train, waiting a couple of hours, etc., it would have
changed the direction of my life and messed me up for a decade at
Or so he says, but is he really that
much of neurotic?
Weeks later I contact
Blitt's musician buddy, John Richardson, the Esquire
writer who was with his friend the evening the Obama
nightmare began. Richardson doesn't buy it, saying Blitt's "got
that sort of 'Woe is me' shtick, and talks about how miserable
life is. In fact, Barry's a pretty self-confident and proud
person. Aware of how good he is. He doesn't walk around with a
puffed-up chest, but he's not Kafka either."