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Comix!

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Ken O’Connell, “Chinese Garden in March” (left) and “Villa Lante in Bagnaia”

If you’ve never been to the Duck Store’s annual Tools of the Trade show, here’s a quick orientation video: 

That’s about what it’s like when the Creative Duck slaps “25% off” signs on everything and unleashes a horde of creatives into its winding corridors. Someday I’ll produce a little action movie re-enacting my Copic marker duel with an orc– I mean, artist.

The downside to all of this is that people often rush past, bowl over or nearly impale the awesome local artists stationed at tables throughout the store. When I found Ken O’Connell, he was tucked in a stronghold on the main floor, sketchbooks stacked around him like a great battlement.

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Ken O’Connell, “Venice”

I first encountered O’Connell’s sketchbook art at his DIVA show last year. He’s a UO professor emeritus and a professional sketchbooker, which is a job that involves (1) European travels, (2) a million fancy art pens and (3) pastry eating. Dream.

O’Connell patiently answered my incessant questions about his drawing habits, all borne from my own recent sketchbook obsession. My notebooks usually end up being akin to angsty teen diaries, while his are filled with intricate architecture and quirky characters he encounters during his travels. I wanted to know how much his emotional state affects his work.

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Ken O’Connell, “Saturday Market”

He flipped through his books and found some drawings that he colored with airbrush pens. There was a little airplane docking at the San Francisco airport lost in a puddle of melancholy blue, and two views of a Saturday Market performer highlighted with bright tones of robin’s egg and mandarin.

“People kept telling (American master photographer) Alfred Stieglitz that he made all of his portrait subjects look like him- stern and serious,” said O’Connell. “So he decided to photograph clouds. You can’t change the weather, right? But his pictures of clouds ended up looking just as stern and serious.”

It was an interesting meditation on how feelings influence an artist’s work. It’s easy to get swept up in the romanticism of Europe– did O’Connell don a pair of rosy glasses to sketch Venice? How might a jaded Venetian teenager portray his town differently?

At the end of our conversation, O’Connell and I exchanged cards… and I found out that he happens to be the PRESIDENT (of North American distribution) OF COPIC MARKER, which has headquarters in Eugene. Let me tell you, these are the highest quality markers in the world. For real.

Trying not to mention my recent duel using his product, I humbly begged for a tour. Oh, it’s coming folks. It’s coming.

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Joe Sacco, art from Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995

“There was this Sumerian leader whose face appears over and over. There are lots of statues of him,” said Joe Sacco.

“Yes! yes! His name was…” I said, as enthusiastic and stupid as a golden retriever puppy. “It was… umm…”

Gudea,” said Sacco. “I was looking at statues of him at the Louvre. Sometimes, his head has been cut off from the statues. I saw tourists posing behind a beheaded statue and taking pictures, putting their heads where his was. I thought, this would be perfect material for a comic.”

Sacco is featured in an exhibition in the Jordan Schnitzer MOA, and I was at a little “meet the artist” luncheon in the Marche Museum Cafe. I was pleased and shocked to end up sitting right across from him.

It’s crazy. Last week I remember pondering the fact that Mesopotamian and Egyptian steles, which often show plot sequences in stacked registers, are the original comic books. Now, I was discussing this idea with an internationally renowned cartoonist and journalist.

Sacco is known for his in-depth investigative reporting and its products- ink-and-paper journalistic epics. His comic books tie together the stories of people caught in war zones and areas of conflict, from Palestine (his most famous work) and Gaza to Bosnia.

Sacco’s Schnitzer exhibition shows original work from Safe Area Gorazde, which follows the residents of a small Bosniak town literally caught in the middle of the Bosnian War of 1992-1995. After reading the book, it was great to be able to lean in close to the original drawings and inspect the line work, some of which is so dense and detailed that a single panel must have taken hours.

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Joe Sacco, the evidence

Of course, every page of the book couldn’t be hung on the walls, but additional materials bring the story alive. Photographs, work permits, maps, objects, press sketches… two glass cases on either side of the exhibition room are full of interesting knick-knacks, some of which are instantly recognizable from the book. The shots of Gorazde are especially thrilling to see. The intricate black lines of the comics are suddenly blasted with color.

Here’s a little interview I did with Sacco by email the other day about the exhibition:

Me: What’s your research and recording process? (While you’re on the job, do you sit down every night and write in a journal? Do you pencil and ink the pages in short bursts or all at once? Do you doodle while you’re taking interview notes?)
Sacco: My process begins with research so I feel I understand some of the background of whatever place I’m traveling to.  When I’m “in the field” I basically do what any journalist does — I interview people and take notes the scene.  I seldom sketch because I find it takes away from interview time; I take photos for visual reference.  I do doodle somewhat while I’m taking notes, but those doodles are for informational purposes.  For example, if I am in a room with some people having a conversation and I think that conversation might appear in a book, I might quickly sketch out the layout of the room and where people were sitting.  That helps me build a realistic image when I’m drawing that scene later.  Anyway, after I’m back home, I index all my notes and photographs, transcribe my tapes (most of my interviews these days are taped), and then begin the long process of writing a script.  I seldom start drawing before I complete the script, which can take weeks or months depending on the nature of the material.  The drawing itself can take years, but I have a fairly good idea of how far I can get each day.  Writing is actually the hard part.  The drawing is either pleasurable or tedious, depending on the day or the material.
Me:  Why did you choose Safe Area Gorazde for this exhibition? What do the book and exhibition mean to you?
Sacco: Though Palestine was my first extensive journalistic work, for me Safe Area Gorazde is a more fully formed and, for better or worse, self-conscious journalistic project.  When I went to Bosnia in 1995, I had a better understanding of what I was trying to accomplish and how I should accomplish it thanks to the experiments, successful or not, I’d tried in the Palestine series.  I think my drawing is better, too.  I treasure the memory of the time I spent in Gorazde because I met some amazing people there.  They let me into their homes and getting to know them was a privilege.  So the book remains dear to me.  As to seeing my art in an exhibition, I’m a little ambivalent because comics art is meant to be published in book form, not seen hanging up on a wall.  On the other hand, I’ve always enjoyed seeing the work of other cartoonists on display and seeing their line and brush work up close.  
Me: Can I be your apprentice please please pretty please? Take me with you!!!!
Sacco: (answer pending)
Sacco repeated that part about his ambivalence to the exhibition during the luncheon. The idea of hanging comics on museum walls struck me as a little strange as well- until I entered the exhibition and was suddenly surrounded by those stark black-and-white pages. The style and themes of Sacco’s work are suited for the interactive art exploration that is a gallery exhibition. Just as the residents of Gorazde are trapped in the awful limbo of a war, so the exhibition traps us in a black wicker cage of sometimes terrifying images. 
Sacco’s most recent book, Footnotes in Gaza, investigates two 1956 mass killings that were swiftly bumped to footnote status for history books. “It was awful,” he said of the research process, which was at times incredibly emotional. “It took seven years to make, and now I’m done with it.” After one more reporting project, he’d like to verge away from journalism altogether and do a comic book on ancient civilizations, which is why he was hanging with Gudea at the Louvre.
I’m with you, Mr. Sacco. Like, seriously with you. I’ll buy my own plane ticket, just let me stalk you to
the Louvre.