Tuesday, April 20, 2004
Artist Eric Drooker's passionate renderings have been seen everywhere from the covers of The New Yorker and The Village Voice to the brick walls and lampposts of South America; from the New York Times Op Ed page to finer comic book stores. He's collaborated with Allen Ginsberg and Rage Against the Machine. And whether it's with a harmonica, a booming bass drum, or graphic depictions of class struggle, he's getting a message to the people: discontentment, tempered with optimism. lawrence.com spoke with Eric about creativity, responsibility, and his upcoming week in Lawrence.
The current political carnival must be creating a fertile time for your art.
That's right. The difficult thing is trying to caricature any of the players involved is futile. They've already beaten you to the punch.
You've done a lot of editorial illustration, but you also do a lot of fine art. Do you differentiate between artists and illustrators?
I don't differentiate much myself. Technically speaking, an illustrator is an artist who's illustrating someone else's work; usually creating images to bounce off of someone else's words. I did that for years, and I still do that for some newspapers like the New York Times Op Ed page. But for the most part I'm illustrating my own work. I don't call it illustration. I'm just telling stories with pictures.
Tell me about your focus as an artist, your style and the media you've chosen.
- Thursday, April 22, 2004, 7 p.m.
- Kansas Union, 1301 Jayhawk Blvd., Lawrence
- All ages
Much of it is inspired by history as well as by current events and the realities that I see with my own eyes. My graphic novel are all drawn in scratchboard, which is a woodcut-like medium; very graphic. I also paint in different media; watercolor, oil paint, pastel. Painting is what's used on covers of the New Yorker magazine. Those are my paintings. ...
Is your work cathartic for you, or does it serve as a reminder that our world is screwed up?
It's cathartic to a degree. When doing visual art, or creating sequential art - comics, graphic novels - the process is so slow and laborious, and usually takes me at least three years to create a book. So it's hard to think of that as a catharsis when it's such a slow, drawn out process. It's much more cathartic for me to go out in the street and bang on a large bass drum during an anti-war protest.
You do that?
I'm always out there. I'm part of a rhythm section; a street protest. I play the bass.
Kind of like shock and awe.
Yeah, but more creative. Slash and burn. Music is more cathartic because it's more immediate. It pours out instantly, so it's more of a direct emotional expression.
We'll get more into what people can expect from your upcoming Lawrence visit in a moment, but music is a big part of what you bring to the stage, right?
That's right, yes.
Were you an artist or an activist first?
I've always been an artist. My original language is pictures. Before I learned to read or write I was creating images with crayons, so pictures are truly my mother tongue.
You seem to handle your press arrangements and so forth on your own. Do you have an agent?
I have a literary agent in New York City who handles book contracts and things like that. Tours I usually handle on my own. They tend to fall into place. I was invited by a student activist to come out to Lawrence, and then I was contacted by the woman who wrote for this newspaper, she passed along my info. Because at the same time I was contacted by a student activist in Luther College in Iowa, where I'm going to be a couple days before. So it's almost as if I'm being beckoned to the Midwest.
Does handling your own tours give you more latitude and freedom?
It just keeps it a little simpler because there's no middleman. I only put my agent into effect when it comes down to negotiating money and contracts and things like that. I'm usually able to negotiate most of these things myself. In Lawrence, just for example, I was invited to give a lecture at the university. That's gonna be on Thursday night. Then I went ahead and contacted an old activist friend who's based in Lawrence, about doing a benefit performance on Saturday night for Lawrence's underground community of artists and activists, musicians and poets and other troublemakers, where I wouldn't get paid, where any money that is raised is going to go to the Solidarity Library, which is kind of a autonomous community center there in Lawrence. So that's the idea of my visit. I'm gonna have two different events. One of them focused for the students at the university, the institution that's flying me out there and has a budget, and then the second performance is going to be to raise money for this local resource up there in Lawrence.
You're going to be here for a few days.
Yeah, I'm gonna be in town for a week or so.
Is there anything else you'd like to accomplish during your stay here?
I'm just very curious to meet people and see where the cultural scene is at. I'm gonna be spending time with the local muralist David Loewenstein, who I spoke to, so he's gonna be showing me around. So I'm very eager to make contact with some of the people there in Lawrence who are working along similar lines, creating art that's full of content.
You've been in Berkeley for about five years, but I've read that you feel that you'll always think of yourself as a New Yorker.
That's the way it feels. In fact, the longer I stay away, the more of an angle I'm given on New York. I feel like I never saw New York clearly until I moved away and have more perspective on it, and can see it with a little more objectivity. I'm working on my next book right now - I'm in the middle of it - and the entire story takes place in New York City.
The graphics on your website aren't dated so I don't know when or where they were done, but they have a very New York feeling. Is Berkeley inspiring you artistically?
In some ways being here on the West Coast has influenced my imagery. There are a lot more organic forms and vegetation; trees and plant life, and animals in my latest book, "Blood Song." And that was largely inspired by living here in a place that's a lot closer to nature. And where there are palm trees everywhere, and all kinds of plant life that we simply don't have in New York City, where wherever you look you're looking at a manmade creation. There's virtually no trees there.
How much latitude are you given by clients? Do they simply give you a framework, and because of your reputation and experience they just let you go?
Generally yes. It depends. The New York Times always wants to see a rough sketch first. Not for the art director, who generally is already familiar with my work and digs me and trusts me, but that they run by the editor-in-chief upstairs, who has all kinds of political and ideological obligations, and usually is the one to say no and catch something that looks a little bit too lucid, or a little bit too critical of the status quo.
What can we expect from your Lawrence performances?
Well, it's a feast for the eyes, primarily. I'll be projecting hundreds and hundreds of recent images, sequential images, pictures that tell stories. And I'll be accompanying myself with live music; that is myself playing harmonica. Imagine a silent movie in the olden days, when there was a guy playing the piano on the side of the stage. Though a harmonica is much more portable. I can travel around the country with a harmonica in my pocket. And then I'm gonna be doing some spoken word, doing some singing and some poetry to bounce off some of the images. And part of it will be a lecture, talking about some of the issues of the day, issues of war and peace, issues of questioning this word democracy; what does it actually mean? Is it political democracy? Are we aiming at economic democracy? Is the word spent? Has it been co-opted? And the role of artists and culture in society, and the use of art as a weapon for the hearts and minds of people in this country who are feeling very powerless right now, and overwhelmed by this mass media which is controlled by about five corporations at this point.
Many of the graphics on your website are available at high resolution, without watermarks or anything. Is that to make them available for public use?
Yes, that's a global phenomenon. Progressive activists use my work for flyers and posters. If I go to Europe for instance, I'll see my work plastered all over the street. If I go to South America, I'll see the work up and around. Often there's some guilt attached; people didn't know how to contact me, and they felt like they were stealing my work. So the purpose of the website is to encourage people. If you're a nonprofit, progressive activist group, then you should feel free to use my images for this purpose. And you can download them hi-res so you can get excellent results, and print large posters, and they'll look great.
Any advice for aspiring artists and/or activists?
I would say that it's an uphill fight all the way. It's never a dull moment. And to not be intimidated by the censorship that's going on, and all the threats that are going on. And the fact that Picasso's "Guernica" was recently censored at the United Nations, that was a red flag for me. It was a shocking moment. And yet it also betrayed the fact that the government is actually very concerned, it wants to create all the images, and actually takes art very seriously; more seriously than most artists do, who are simply trying to get there work into art galleries some day. I think that activist artists should literally be thinking out of the box, and be putting their work out on the streets, directly in the public eye, like Dave Loewenstein does, like all the multi-national corporations do. They're very hip. They study this scientifically. Philip Morris - they'll put big billboards up all over the place. They're not putting their messages in the back of some dark little storefront where only a sector of the population would go. So I think that the context of the art is key. Putting it in the public eye, plastering lampposts, brick walls, stencils on the street, creating underground newspapers, creating pirate radio stations, website, other ways of getting information out. Because this is the weak link, that people are not getting information. And if people are not informed as to the facts, then there's no possibility of having a democracy where people then choose after seeing the facts. So this is the role of culture, to hit people on an emotional level, and by hitting people on this unconscious level, it creates a possibility for physical action to take place, and opens a possibility for dialog and for political change and elevation of consciousness.