Deconstructing Barry

Inside the mind of illustrator Barry Blitt: how he created that controversial New Yorker cover, the reaction it provoked and what he thinks about his Obama fist-bump now

Ashley Walters
Summer, 2009 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

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 screams.

Then the phone rings. At the other end, a familiar voice: The New Yorker's art editor.

Her message: Brace yourself for fireworks.

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. He stops.

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.

There's more.

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 home.

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 12-year-old son.

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 Christmas tunes.

After ordering-tuna 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…."

The 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."

As 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 poorly."

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 publish."

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 freaky."

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."

The fist-bump 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.

Decades 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."

Blitt grew 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 intellectual play."

Blitt's early 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."

We enter 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 Blitt:

"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 least."

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." R

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