Original Fashion Illustrations: The Survivors

by Alden Cole on August 8, 2014 · 1 comment

Memoirs of a Quick-Change Artist #50

3CouplesCityWPJanuary 1974 was a momentous month in my life. Just a few months earlier – September of ’73 – I had broken up house-keeping with my second partner (temporarily, I thought) and started painting in oils for the first time in my life while vacationing in Maine (for more details on that major change, see one of my earliest postings from January 2013 http://consciousworldart.com/inside-looking-out-1/ ). I returned to New York early that fall a divided individual. I was camping out with a co-worker friend Jean Hill who shared her apartment on Bank Street in the West Village with me for what we thought was going to be just a few months. Still hopeful that I would get accepted in Indiana U’s Fine Arts Masters Program, I was quickly loosing interest in New York and making my way there as an illustrator in the fashion industry. The vistas offered by painting, and a possible career in teaching, convinced me that I had just found my new ‘path’ as an artist. However by mid-October I had received my letter of non-acceptance from Indiana. The advice to pursue more art training in NY and “Please reapply again in a year or two” stimulated me to action. I started taking an all-day Saturday life drawing class with dynamic figure artist Gustav Rehberger at the Art Students League. The freedom allowed by free-lancing inspired me to pursue the artistic antithesis of what I had been doing. Instead of dolling up those lithe figures I so loved to draw in fashionable transiency, I was stripping them of their time-specific fancy finery and revealing the timelessness of the nude. Gauguin’s “Where do we come from? Where are we going? Why are we here?” had finally caught up with me. However, I still had bills to pay, and fashion illustration had been paying those bills for the past three years. What to do?

Couplesw-DogWPAs the fall of ’73 wore on, the number of jobs that came my way diminished as industry conditions changed: my two biggest clients – The Merchandising Group and the Wool Bureau were switching to photography, a medium that was increasingly making its presence felt in advertising by the mid-70s. Once again I was forced to hit the streets with portfolio in hand, making cold calls occasionally, but more often asking for referrals from clients who liked my work, and were willing to send me to their friends. It was a very disconcerting fall, as certain obsessions waxed and others waned. I tried applying myself to my fashion work, but rather half-heartedly. I felt I had to make a choice between being ‘a commercial hack’ or ‘a fine artist.’ Increasingly I told myself that I should ‘get a job’ doing something ‘normal’ and totally non-artistic in order to support my painting habit. But the fear and loathing of the process engendered by past job hunting experiences kept me out of the help-wanted pages. Instead I made art and continued free-lancing; making calls, looking for work, and always trying to improve my drawing skills as well as the quality of my illustration portfolio, which had filled up with a lot of printed work showing my track record over the last three years. In addition to the printed pieces grouped in the back, I always opened the portfolio with a selection of original work in which I tried to show more adventurousness. With time and effort, those older originals were displaced by newer work.

Then in January I reached a breaking point and did something rash – one of the few occasions in my life of truly ‘burning a bridge’ behind me. I can still recall the afternoon: I had pulled out a half-finished illustration from a drawer of work in various stages of finish, and was about to set to work on it. I looked at the half-finished art, and thought “I don’t want to finish this piece now, or ever. In fact, tomorrow I’m going to start looking for a regular job.” So I immediately started disassembling the portfolio, thinking I would take all the pieces out and put them away in a drawer then forget about them. Midway through this disassembling process, another voice in my head said “And tomorrow when you get up you’ll probably reverse this whole process by putting your portfolio back together again.” My course was set as a silent other part of me took over: I speeded up the process of removing the individual pieces from the plastic portfolio pages, I stacked the selection of originals and printed pieces into a neat pile which I then rolled into a bundle, then tucked under my arm, then headed for the apartment door, and out into the hallway where there was a door behind which was a small metal door which I pulled which opened onto a garbage chute into which I crammed the bundle of papers then closed the door and stood back! It was DONE, and there was no going back.

The illustrations seen in this posting and several others to follow are survivors of that burning; pieces that were displaced by more current originals, and were thus saved from the incinerator for these latter days and reevaluations…

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Maria April 19, 2015 at 4:03 am

Interesting story, however you neglected to add that Miss Jean Hill called Richard Goodstein countless times until she proceeded to take my job of two years in pursuit of marrying Dick. (And how did that work out I wonder?) Did you stand up for me? No, you just needed a place to burn your portfolio, and poor Robert got tired of calling stops and just wanted a career in music.

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