Authors & Artists profiles

Eva Niewiadomski and the Catalyst Ranch

Tucked inside an historic brick building just steps away from the site of the Chicago’s infamous 1886 Haymarket riot, Illinois’ best conference venue (as voted by readers of Illinois Meetings & Events’ magazine) has been hosting meetings and events for the past twelve years. In that time, it’s grown from a simple idea to today’s layout of two floors packed with eclectic decor designed to inspire and get creative juices flowing.
The founder and owner of Catalyst Ranch, Eva Niewiadomski started with the concept that bigger and better ideas are born out of stimulating environments. The initial prototype for the Ranch was born at her previous job as a marketing manager with Quaker Oats. Sensing the need for an area there where creativity could flourish, she transformed some underutilized space into two ‘Innovation Hallways’ and a Creativity Room. After being let go from Quaker Oats, she quickly got to work realizing her dream of opening a dedicated meeting and events facility.
Having worked a number of graphic recording/ideation jobs for meetings at the Ranch, I can attest that the fun ambiance and the attentiveness of the staff puts all attendees immediately at ease and in a creative mood.

I recently spoke with Eva about how Catalyst Ranch came to be, and she agreed to a quick Q & A:

Q: Thank you for sharing some of your insights with us, Eva. The story of how Catalyst Ranch came to be is explained well on your website. I’m wondering where you found the confidence to invest so much of yourself in terms of time and money into a new and unique business?
Eva: I wonder about that myself, Dave. I had never thought of myself as being especially brave, especially when it came to spending money. I’ve always been fiscally conservative, stashing away as much as I can into savings. One contributing factor was the severance pay that I received as part of my layoff. Here was a nice reserve of money that someone was handing me to pursue a dream. If not now, then when? It probably wouldn’t happen. But I think more importantly, I believed that the idea was absolutely what Chicago needed. The positive response to my projects at Quaker Oats by my co-workers along with their wholesale enthusiasm for my idea of Catalyst Ranch was probably the biggest motivator. I felt that here was something that I was doing that I was uniquely qualified to do and around which I had a lot of passion. This was work that wouldn’t necessarily feel like work and I could feel like I was doing something positive for society. I get the greatest sense of satisfaction in shifting people’s perceptions of themselves and their capabilities. I believe everyone is creative and imaginative, if only given the right circumstances in which to explore the possibilities.

Q: I get the sense that family is very important to you. Your parents especially seem to have been quite supportive from the outset. How instrumental were they in launching Catalyst Ranch?
Eva: My family is very important. There are not that many of us here in the U.S. The extended family is in Poland and New Zealand. When you think about the fact that my parents (neither of whom have ever had a corporate job let alone sat in a meeting) said that they believed in me and would help me in whatever way they could despite not understanding at all what my venture was about, it’s pretty amazing and very empowering. My dad truly was my first employee and worked very hard at refinishing and reupholstering the furniture along with a million other tasks that encompass a build-out, despite the fact that he was already 78 yrs old. He turns 90 this year! The irony for me is that my dad continues to bemoan the fact that they didn’t help me enough since they couldn’t provide financial assistance. He doesn’t understand all the money that he saved me by doing all the labor for free. Without his help I truly wouldn’t have had enough money to furnish the space and definitely wouldn’t have been ready to open in time for my first client booking. Do you know how much furniture it takes to furnish 9,000 sq. ft.?? My mom was great too. She helped where she could and spent a week just polishing all the furniture and scrubbing the place to a shine after we moved everything in. Then there were all my friends and ex co-workers who painted, helped with the move in and provided their ideas, leads and continuing moral support. Definitely wouldn’t have made it past year one without all of them!

Q: In your twelve years there, what’s the most unusual event or activity that the space has hosted?
Eva: It’s incredibly hard to sort through all the doings here at the Ranch over 12 years but I would have to say that one of my favorites was an event we hosted for the Anti-Cruelty Society called “Paint Your Pet.” Guests brought photos of their pets and artists from Bottle and Bottega supplied canvases, paint, brushes and basic instruction. You can’t imagine the fever of concentration as 50 people sweated over their canvases, creating the most unusual breadth of artistic renditions of their pets. So much untapped talent! And so much laughter and fun! We’ve also hosted meetings where clients constructed some very interesting (and unusual) models and structures, built bicycles for needy kids as part of a team building activity and hit the breakfast buffet in a variety of headgear and boas. We’ve accepted delivery of refrigerators, composters and other top secret prototypes of unusual dimensions. Makes you want to be a fly on the wall to see what they are up to behind those closed doors!

Q: Given the economic problems and layoffs in recent years, there’s been an influx of hopeful entrepreneurs of late. What sort of advice would you give to someone looking to launch their own business?
Eva: I’ve actually met with a lot of people over the years who were in flux with their careers or just unhappy in their current jobs. What I tell all of them is that whatever you decide to do, you must have a passion for it, validate the need in the market for whatever product or service you want to offer, be comfortable with numbers and running financials (do not defer this to someone else without having a working knowledge of how to do a forecast and a budget and the questions to ask), have enough money to survive the bad times and the fortitude to work harder than you think. There is no way to foresee everything that you will have to deal with once you start your venture. But that’s also the fun of it! There are many rewards to be found in following your own path but you must have at least a small appetite for risk. This is just the start of a very long conversation as there is so much to consider and weigh.

Thanks very much, Eva and continued success with Catalyst Ranch!

Catalyst Ranch is located at 656 W. Randolph, Suite 3W, Chicago, IL 60661
For more information. visit the Catalyst Ranch website at




As a side note, the pose in the accompanying illustration was appropriately (very loosely) based on Rembrandt’s ‘Polish Rider’, shown here:

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Van Morrison: One Irish Rover


This year as always, Chicago’s St.Patrick’s Day celebration will involve downing large quantities of green beer and and dumping green dye into the Chicago River, should the ice floes allow.

I’ve chosen to mark the occasion by featuring one of Ireland’s most brilliant and crankiest musicians in his native environment. Van Morrison has been steadily making music nearly five decades and has written and performed some of the most soulful songs ever recorded.

The title “One Irish Rover” is a title from his 1986 release “No Guru, No Method, No Teacher”. The song is one of several from the disc that express his love for Ireland and its traditions.

Another inspiration for the image is “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push the River” from the vastly underrated “Veedon Fleece”, which sold poorly upon its release in 1974, and is now generally regarded as one of his masterpieces. (Jon Oye wrote an excellent essay discussing the album on his blog Contemplations on Classic Movies and Music) The brilliantly surreal lyrics defy explanation (Typically, when asked, Van said that Veedon Fleece means nothing and “I just made it up”.), and together with the flowing instrumentation, form a rich tapestry of Celtic mysticism, nature, and spirituality.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! And for for an extra bit of Irish luck, find the four-leafer in the illustration.

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A new “Cosmos”

Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson CosmosBefore cable’s TV’s specialization, science programming on television was a rarity, so when PBS originally aired the 13-hour series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage in 1980, it was an immediate hit and remains the most widely viewed PBS series ever worldwide. One of the primary reasons for Cosmos’ popularity was its creator and host, Carl Sagan, who came across as a kindly, wise teacher gently leading viewers through the wonders of the universe.

I, like many others, first became acquainted with Carl Sagan during the initial run of Cosmos and attribute my layman’s interest in science to his contagious sense of wonder. One of the first books I ever bought was his exploration of evolution and how it relates to religious mythology in The Dragons of Eden. And if there’s one book that I believe should be (but alas never will be) mandatory reading for every high school freshman, it’s The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Darkness, his very readable primer on the scientific method and maintaining a healthy skepticism, or what Sagan calls ‘baloney detection’.

In 2014, a new incarnation of Cosmos will find its home, surprisingly enough, on the Fox network. In another unlikely twist, the series’ producer is Family Guy creator and Academy Awards host, Seth MacFarlane, who has long been interested in bringing the series back to TV. With Cosmos’ originator and host no longer around to MC the proceedings, his duties are being assumed by esteemed astrophysicist and Director of the Hayden Planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who succeeds his hero and mentor Carl Sagan as the nation’s most popular ‘popularizer’ of science. During his early academic career, Sagan tried to lure the young Mr. Tyson to study at Cornell University, where he taught, to no avail (Tyson instead chose Harvard for his undergraduate studies.). Nevertheless, they remained close friends and colleagues in the years to follow. With the involvement of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Ann Druyan (Dr. Sagan’s widow and a highly respected author and producer in her own right), I’m hopeful that this new Cosmos will soar to the heavenly heights of the original.

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Tavi Gevinson at Unity Temple in Oak Park

Last evening, Oak Park was treated to a double dose of style when the Frank Lloyd Wright designed landmark Unity Temple played host to wünderkind fashion blogger/online magazine maven Tavi Gevinson.

Being about as far removed from from her demographic as is humanly possible, I was unfamiliar with Ms. Gevinson and her popularity until recently. But the story of her rise to prominence in her field is intriguing.

Four years ago, as a 11 year old Oak Park student, she took it upon herself to start a blog called Style Rookie, mainly commenting on fashion and style from a pre-teen’s perspective but also touching on topics of feminism, relationships, and high school drama. Before long, Tevi’s blog not only amassed a following of like-minded teen and pre-teen girls, but also caught the attention of some prominent fashion designers and editors who invited her to some of the world’s most exclusive runway shows. Tevi’s parents first became aware of her growing popularity when she asked their permission to appear in a New York Times magazine story.

Now 16, Tavi has started a new and wildly successful online magazine aimed primarily at teen girls, Rookie, which is edited by Anaheed Alani, wife of NPR radio personality and host of “This American Life”, Ira Glass. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Tavi and Ira, who has served as one of her mentors, trade tales of mutual admiration. This month alone, besides the Wall Street Journal article, Tavi appears in the current issue of Newsweek and on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

At Thursday’s gathering, Tevi and three other writers from the magazine took turns reading selections from the just released Rookie Yearbook covering topics as diverse as a friend’s death, kindergardeners caught discovering each other’s bodies told from the teacher’s viewpoint, and a hilarious overview of Burl Ives’ acting career. Tavi possesses a poise and self assuredness that’s rare in someone who’s still a high school sophomore. She was dressed fairly conservatively compared to some of her pre-teen outfits, in an subdued orange shirt with hair pulled back and wearing glasses.

It will be interesting to see where her path heads next. After appearances in a Wilco video and rumors of an upcoming feature film role, it’s clear that road may take her well beyond the teen fashion world, though in answer to an audience question regarding her “2-year plan”, Tavi expressed her great satisfaction with what she’s doing with Rookie magazine and didn’t have a vision beyond that.

As a side note, my daughter was originally supposed to join me at the event, but was unable to attend because of last minute work duties. I ran into graphic novelist Chris Ware before the reading and was happy to find that I wasn’t the only male in attendance. Chris, whose latest work, “Building Stories” comes out soon, is giving a presentation next month at Unity Temple.

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David Byrne and “How Music Works” at the Music Box Theater

The “big suit” may be gone, and the hair has turned white since his days as front man for the Talking Heads, but David Byrne still possesses the same creative energy that fueled one of the most critically acclaimed bands of the 80’s, and lead to his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Coming from an art school background background, it not surprising that Byrne’s creative work includes books, photography, and film in addition to his music. Since 1986, he’s written or contributed to nine books, including the Tabloid inspired “True Stories” and 2009’s “Bicycle Diaries”, which chronicles his experiences pedaling through the streets of New York City and other cities around the globe.

David Byrne’s latest book, “How Music Works”, explores the business and the process of making and experiencing music . Last night, I attended a talk by Byrne and Bettina Richards of Thrill Jockey Records at Chicago’s beautiful Music Box Theater. Music critic Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune MCed the proceedings and he did a terrific job of coaxing some thoughtful answers out of his sometimes bemused subject. Byrne, looking fit and more youthful than his 60 years, still has some of his trademark quirky mannerisms,and his occasional spontaneous chuckle makes you think there’s more going on his head than he sometimes lets on.

Some topics that came up in the discussion:

•On mp3s: Though he knows many musicians who despise the artificial sound quality, Byrne doesn’t see it as a big issue and thinks it’s remarkable how up to 80% of redundant sound information can be tossed out and still retain an enjoyable listening experience.

•Licensing music out for advertising: Given the declining revenue generated for record sales, Byrne sees the need for modern bands to sell music rights to advertisers, though he’s steadfastly declined commercial offers himself, saying simply “I don’t need to”.

•Visual aspects of performing: Byrne believes that every music act, even those bands that opt for street wear and no frills,  makes a conscious decision regarding what the audience will see as well as hear. He related a couple of anecdotes regarding his own “performance art” including a pre-Talking Heads’ performance which involved shaving his Amish-style beard onstage to the accompaniment of an accordion player, and more recently, emerging onstage in a tutu.

In all, Byrne came across as analytic but amiable, like a seasoned Sheldon Cooper.

David Byrne will perform this evening with St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) at the Chicago Theater, which he will presumably commute to via bicycle.

Bob Dylan’s “Tempest”

Soon, Bob Dylan will release his 35th studio album, Tempest. Rolling Stone has called it a “dark masterpiece”. The centerpiece of the album is its 14 minute title track dealing with the sinking of the Titanic.
Dylan’s typically offhand response to those who’ve found significance in the fact that “The Tempest” was the title of Shakespeare’s final play was simple: “The name of my record is just plain ‘Tempest.’ It’s two different titles.”
Though Dylan has never lacked for creative energy, stuff since 1997’s “Time Out of Mind”, he seems to have entered a new creatively fertile period that, from all accounts thus far, continues with “Tempest”.
The name of the album is a reminder that weather conditions (often violent)  have featured prominently in his lyrics and song titles, even from his earliest work.

Consider the following:

“Blowin’ in the Wind”

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” (Subterranean Homesick Blues)

“Buckets of Rain”

“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”

“A messenger sent me in a tropical storm” (Sara)

“You were born with a snake in both of your fists while a hurricane was blowing.” (Jokerman)

“Shelter from the Storm”

“When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky”

“Thunder on the Mountain”

“I ran into the fortune-teller who said beware of lightning that might strike.” (Idiot Wind)

“A change in the weather is known to be extreme.” (You’re a Big Girl Now)

“Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood)”

And this is by no means a comprehensive list.

Of course with any songwriter who’s released around 500 original songs and whose career spans over five decades, there are bound to be a number of references to a topic as ubiquitous as the weather, but just as the authors of ancient myths, Bob Dylan often seems to find inspiration in the heavens.

In keeping with the somber mood of the album, “Tempest” will be released on Sept. 11th.

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LP: New Artist, New EP, Amazing Voice

Chances are you might not recognize singer-songwriter LP by name (or initials),  but you’ve no doubt heard her unforgettable voice belting out her just released single “Into the Wild” in the Citi Bank commercial with the girl rock climber.
Though she’s already achieved some success as a songwriter and released several smaller label CDs, her just-released breakout EP featuring audio & live video versions of five new songs, and recent stories in Rolling Stone and on CNN confirm that she’s an artist on the rise.
From her recent live appearances at Austin’s SXSW festival and on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, it’s clear that LP delights in performing for a live audience. It’s also clear that her voice doesn’t need any studio wizardry to make an impression.
LP is scheduled to appear at Lollapalooza in Chicago on August 4th.

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Into the Twilight Zone

This past weekend, while others rang in the New Year with parties and Bowl games, I entered a dimension not only of sight or sound, but of mind. My daughter alerted me to the Syfy network’s “Twilight Zone” marathon early on NewYears Eve and from that point on I was hooked. Though I’m by no means a Twilight Zone expert, over the years I’ve seen the show seemingly countless times, so I was surprised to find that some of the episodes this go-around were new to me.

Of course the entire series is the brainchild of the ultra cool and stern narrator Rod Serling, who wrote most of the stories and opens each episode with a wry introduction. The series began in the late 50’s, and just as Playboy magazine was redefining the girlie magazine, Serling, who comes across as “Hef’s” more cerebral alter ego, brought the “bug-eyed monster” sci-fi genre from the pulp comics store into mainstream living rooms. The stories endure, despite low budgets and (by today’s standards) cheesy special effects, because of the deep psychological insights that Serling brought to them. He also addressed controversial topics and contemporary hot button issues such as the Holocaust, nuclear war, and racial inequality.

Though “The Twilight Zone” only ran for five seasons, there were a stunning 156 episodes in total, 96 of which were written or co-written by Serling. Two of them, “It’s a Good Life”, which features child star Billy Mumy as a spoiled kid with terrifying mental powers, and “To Serve Man”, in which earthlings are lured to an alien planet only to discover that they’re to be “served” as food, were cited as being among TV Guide’s “100 Greatest Episodes of All Time”. So it’s no wonder that I find it difficult to pick a personal favorite episode. Still, here are a couple that stand out for me:

“Sweaty” Nettie

“The Midnight Sun”:
NYC apartment tenant Norma (played by Oak Park, IL native Lois Nettleton) struggles to remain optimistic and cheerful despite the fact that the Earth has left its orbit and is plunging ever nearer to the sun. She finally collapses in fear and despair. (SPOILER:) In a twist on the “it’s only a dream” ending, a relieved Norma awakes from her nightmare oblivious to the news that the doomed earth is actually RETREATING from the sun.

The recent Lars von Trier film “Melancholia”has a similar theme of people trying to keep it together in the face of impending celestial doom.


“The Dummy”:
Cliff Robertson stars as Jerry, a ventriloquist with problems. Besides battling alcohol, he’s convinced that his creepy and malevolent dummy, Willie, is controlling his mind and his act. When Robertson resolves to replace Willie with a more docile costar, things get out of hand.
As a kid, I was thoroughly weirded out by ventriloquist dummies, which I managed to overcome through immersion therapy when I asked and received one from Santa one Christmas. Still, this episode brings back those unsettling feelings, and the final scene, which features a role reversal with the doll/ventriloquist looking directly at camera, is unforgettably eerie.

So now that the “Twilight Zone” marathon has concluded, I wonder whether a new series of half hour sci-fi stories could be as successful today. The Twilight Zone was resurrected for a three season run in the late 80’s and Serling himself hosted the series Night Gallery from 1970-73, which centered more on horror/fantasy stories, but neither attained the cult status and reputation of the classic Twilight Zone series. I’m sure there are many talented writers who could share the duties of scripting some incredible stories. As I see it, the main challenge would be wowing today’s audiences accustomed to lavish sets and production values, something hard to attain with “one-off” characters and situations.

For a complete online list of the original Twilight Zone episodes along with brief descriptions, see “The Croc’s Domain: Original Twilight Zone Episode Guide”.

So what’s your favorite episode? Comments and thoughts welcome.

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Interview with Raid Bug creator Don Pegler

Update: It was with great sadness that I received the news that Don Pegler passed away yesterday, Dec. 26, 2011. He was a giant in the business of advertising and truly one of the nicest guys I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. RIP Don. You’ll be missed.

(Originally Published Oct. 1st, 2010)

With bedbugs, stinkbugs, and R1N1 in the headlines these days, what better time to check in with Don Pegler, the creator and artist behind one of the most successful ad campaigns ever?

The Raid bug campaign, originating in 1963, is part of advertising history, and Don Pegler designed and drew them for 40 years of his career with Foote, Cone & Belding ad agency (now DraftFCB) in Chicago.

I was just beginning my career with Foote, Cone, & Belding at a time when Mr. Pegler was a veteran of the agency and held the esteemed position of “Artist in Residence”.

When I called on him for an interview all these years later, he was as cordial and generous with his time as always, crafting a thoughtfully written twelve page letter in response to my questions.

Were you surprised at how enduring the Raid campaign has been?
DP: When I started on the Raid account I really liked it, but I never thought it would still be going 50 years later. And I got to go out to Hollywood and work with famous people like Mel Blanc (voice of Bugs Bunny and many others) and Tex Avery (Animation Director). At the time, I didn’t realize how famous they were…just a guy making funny voices- and driving a Rolls Royce. Years later at an animation show, some people wanted to touch some of the notes Tex Avery had sent me as if they were touching the Holy Grail.

Where did you learn to be an illustrator?
DP:  I went to The Art Institute of Chicago for a semester, but they weren’t teaching us how to get a job. So I took a night course on how advertising works- one week at a studio, next a printing house, then an agency, etc. At the end of the course, the teacher got us jobs. I was an apprentice at a large art studio- delivering packages and mail, cutting mats, etc. I made $20 a week. But I could use the studio as a downtown base to shop around my samples and look for a real job. One time I went to the office of Esquire magazine on Michigan Ave. to show some cartoons I had done, but they were packing up the office to move to New York. And one of their people had just quit to start a “girlie” magazine. It was Hugh Hefner going to start Playboy. Years later, I was introduced to his daughter, Christy Hefner and I was tempted to tell her that story, but I didn’t.

Did you have other jobs before FCB?
DP: Before joining FCB, I had been a magazine illustrator for five years, and then an animator for five years. A former Disney man taught me animation at a studio called Cartoonists, Inc. in Chicago. But Chicago style animation meant doing the whole job yourself, not like in LA, where you had backup people to do the hundreds of in-between drawings- 12 drawings for each second of film. So I started to feel I was drawing pictures by the pound. And I couldn’t show off because the agency guys would be afraid to change anything after they had sold the idea to the client.

Who would you say were your main influences?
DP: I’d have to say Jack Davis, of course. And a guy named John Huehnergarth, who was a great idea man and artist from the 50’s and 60’s.

Earlier, you mentioned a comic strip of yours that was never published. What happened there?
DP: One day Henny Youngman called me from New York. He told me he was a comedian with a thousand and one jokes and asked if I was interested in drawing a strip. Of course I was. Henny’s strip was about a grandfather who is showing his grandson around New York City. The only gag I remember drawing was: The grandfather takes the kid down to see the subway. When they come back up, the kid says, “I don’t know who lives down there, but he’s got a great train set.” Unfortunately, most of Henny’s jokes were for nightclubs and the syndicate that ran comics had strict rules about what went into the comics, so most of the jokes he sent me couldn’t be used. How do you illustrate “Take my wife….PLEASE!”? They even had words you couldn’t use because “creative” kids could doctor them into swear words. Henny couldn’t understand why I couldn’t use his jokes, so he asked me if I didn’t think he was funny. I told him he was maybe the funniest person I ever met, but his jokes weren’t for the comics, so we gave up. I’m glad I did because even though it was a chance at big money, I wouldn’t want to do the same thing day after day.
I remember walking down Michigan Ave. with Jeff MacNelly, the Chicago Tribune political cartoonist who had just earned his 3rd Pulitzer Prize. I asked him how he had time to draw the strip “Shoe” and do the editorial cartoon AND the cover of the Sunday Magazine section. All he said was “That’s not all I do.” He died young. Too bad. He was a great talent.

What do you think of the more recent computer animated films as opposed to traditional cel animation?
DP: I’m from the horse and buggy days. It’s changed so much that I have no idea how it’s done. Last night I watched the movie “Avatar” and couldn’t tell the real from the fantasy. When digital artists started at FCB, I asked if they drew pictures. They said yes, but it wasn’t that important to what they do. So maybe it’s the end of drawing as we know it.

Any advice for aspiring illustrators?
DP: Because of the difficulty I had getting into the art business- no contacts- no one to ask questions- I always try to help others who want to make a living in art. Through the years, I’ve been asked to look at young people’s portfolios. I’m happy to do that, but I only look at their drawing ability. If they don’t have it, I tell ’em. There’s other kinds of art jobs- designer, art director, etc., but illustrators have to have drawing ability. And I tell them to be careful of what samples they show. One bad drawing or layout or design will stay in the client’s mind over a bunch of good stuff.
My many years at FCB were helped by my being able to draw realistically and also draw comic line stuff. I would be asked to do a client’s portrait one day and a cartoon the next. And I looked forward to it. Every day.

I’m very thankful to Don Pegler for taking the time to share some of his memories of those early days of advertising. Funny how the Raid bugs meet their end in every commercial, yet they’ve somehow managed to endure through all these years.

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a Pee-wee Herman timeline

Sometime during the early 80’s, I first saw Pee-wee Herman on the David Letterman show, where he was a recurring guest. At the time, I really didn’t know what to make of the character, an invention of improv comic Paul Reubens. But with every appearance, his brand of humor grew on me. The release of “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” made me a fan for life and “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” was must viewing for my wife and I and later, for our kids.
His recent “renaissance”, with a wildly successful broadway show and plans for a new film, was welcome news to me and I’m sure to his many other fans. There were rumors of Johnny Depp taking over the role of Pee-wee in a movie sequel (only SLIGHTLY less ill-conceived than having James Brolin play the part) and there seems to be a grassroots internet movement to draft Jim Parsons (“the Big Bang Theory) as a replacement Pee-wee should that time arrive. As I see it, Reubens is, and will remain, the one and only Pee-wee Herman.

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“The Book Table” goes it alone

This week’s announced closing of Borders Bookstores leaves just one remaining major U.S. brick-and-mortar bookseller, Barnes & Noble. Within the past year, one independent (or as their awning states..FIERCELY independent) bookstore in Oak Park, IL, The Book Table, has witnessed the closing of two of its rivals, Borders and Barbara’s Bookstore, both within a block of their store. But husband and wife Book Table owners Jason Smith and Rachel Weaver view it as a solemn occasion rather than a cause for celebration.
I asked Jason about their business and the outlook for the future of independent bookstores:

Q: How have you managed to survive when others around you have gone under recently?

Jason: I think our biggest strength is that we have two owners that are very involved in the day-to-day operations of the store. One or the other of us is always behind the counter. We’re able to respond to customers in ways that other stores aren’t and it allows us to be more involved in the community as a whole in a way that chain stores aren’t.

Q: You’ve cosponsored some very interesting guest lecturers at Oak Park’s Unity Temple, some of which I’ve blogged about. How did that series come about and how do you decide who to book and who would you most like to book for an appearance?

Jason: Writers at Wright is a partnership between The Book Table, Friends of the Oak Park Public Library, Unity Temple Restoration Foundation and Midwest Media. We came together because we felt there was a need to bring high quality authors to Oak Park and we thought Unity Temple is a perfect venue for them to showcase their talent. Midwest Media and The Book Table share the responsibility of booking authors. Since it’s a partnership, we all need to agree on the various authors. I have a list of my favorite authors and am very excited that one of them, Neal Stephenson, will be at Unity Temple in September. In the world of graphic novels, we’re very excited to have Daniel Clowes and Seth coming in October. Art Spiegelmanm and Craig Thompson are probably the two graphic novelists that I’d most like to have at Unity.

Q: Where do you see the book selling business heading in the next few years?

Jason: The book business is in flux right now and anyone that thinks they know what’s going to happen is just pretending. With Borders liquidating, this country is losing 6.2 million square feet of books display space. The big winner will be Amazon and eBooks. I think any industry that is dominated by one company isn’t a healthy industry and if that industry is selling ideas then it’s even more dangerous.

Q: What do you like best about Oak Park and your Lake Street location?

Jason: We’re constantly amazed by the feeling of community in Oak Park. We get to interact with so many amazing people every day at our counter and just walking down the street. We love the impromptu community meetings as people run into each other browsing in our store.

Q: Do you have a personal all-time favorite book or author?

Jason: My list of favorite authors is Haruki Murakami, Richard Powers, Neal Stephenson and David Foster Wallace. Rachel’s is John Ashbery, Kazuo Ishiguro, Audre Lorde, Sylvia Plath and Zadie Smith.

Thanks to Jason and Rachel for providing some insight into their livlihood. Please support them and other independent bookstores, which are becoming all too scarce in the current economy. And when you stop in, say “Hi” to Jason and Rachel and let them know you read about them here.

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Interview with “The Bird Machine’s” Jay Ryan

In the world of band show posters, known as “gig” posters, there are few artists with the stature (physically as well as artistically) of Chicago’s Jay Ryan. From his storefront screen printing facility in Skokie, Illinois, called The Bird Machine, Jay cranks out thousands of posters for famous and not-so-famous bands including his own, Dianogah. Gig posters have become recognized as a cool and collectible art form that are prized long after many of the bands whose shows they promote are no longer around. Along with graphic novels, gig posters have seen a surge in popularity that goes far beyond their core audience.

I recently caught up with Jay at the Daily Planet Rock and Art Poster Party to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Steve Walters’ Screwball Press and he was kind enough answer a few questions:

Q: In one of your previous interviews, you mention one of your painting teachers, Peter Kursel, by name, but it doesn’t say where you went to school. How important do you think a formal art education was for you and do you think having an art degree is a great advantage for artists in general?

Jay: I went to the University of Illinois in Urbana, which was the only school to which I applied where I couldn’t get into the architecture program. I started in industrial design, but soon switched to painting, largely due to a cute girl in the painting program (and 19 years later we’re still together). Peter Kursel was mentioned in that interview, but Roger Kotoske, Barbara Kendrick, Sarah Krepp, Tim van Laar and Dennis Rowan were all important to my education. I think Tim van Laar is the only one of those I’ve mentioned who is still teaching in Urbana.

While there are tons of exceptions, including some of my favorite artists, I think that a formal education is generally a good foundation for making work, so there’s a sense of context to what you’re doing. Learn the rules so you understand where the lines are, and then you’re able to decide when you want to work inside the lines or draw outside of them.

For me, the “formal” part of the education played a minor role in what I now perceive that I learned in school. The figure drawing, line weight, color sense, painting techniques and proper way to cut foamcore were all important, but as I mentioned in that previous interview, I got more from a couple “lessons” I learned about how to redefine what a drawing could be, to lower my expectations away from “drawing well”, and to be able to work around the tendency to freeze up when trying to create an image.

Q: In your book “100 Posters:134 Squirrels” you mention that one of your pieces, the cover for Michael Chabon’s “The Final Solution”  was originally colored in Photoshop then recreated using traditional screen printing techniques. As a traditional screen printer, what are your feelings regarding digitally created art as a medium? Do you use the computer at all at any stage of your creative process?

Jay: Generally, I don’t use the computer for my poster work. I usually* pride myself on making my prints entirely with hand-drawn linework and text, and hand-cutting the separations for printing. I do use Photoshop when I design album covers or t-shirts for bands, but I use the program in the same way that I make my screenprints, by scanning in a pencil drawing, and coloring the layers in the same way I would by hand. This is useful when the project is something that’s not going to be screenprinted, or isn’t going to be printed by me.

* I say “usually”, as I am currently without access to a good Xerox machine for making my key plate films, so for the last 3 or 4 months I have been scanning my pencil drawings into Photoshop and having them output as a film by the service bureau next door to my shop. So I can’t technically claim to be computer-free right now.

Q: On the subject of the creative process, how do you work out your ideas? Much of your finished work seems to have a fresh, sketchy look to it.  Do you keep a sketchbook or written journal of ideas?

Jay: No, I take forever to fill sketchbooks. I don’t
normally just draw for drawing’s sake. I guess I get that itch scratched by pretty much all of the projects I work on, as I feel like they’re all my personal work. I just go “Oh, okay, next is a Melvins print.” I listen to the Melvins, and hope that something comes to me quickly.

Q: Has the recession affected the gig poster market? Screen printed gig posters seem like a great way for music fans and art lovers to get original limited edition artwork at an affordable price and I’ve got to say, as nice as the pieces look in the book reproductions, nothing beats seeing the richness and grain of hand pulled screen prints.

Jay: As a small business owner with employees, I have the same economic concerns as everyone who isn’t a banker-pirate, oil baron, or overpaid conservative talkshow pundit. However, due to the fact that our business model is accidentally based on the idea of getting lots and lots of little paychecks instead of a couple of big paychecks, we’re continuing to do slightly better every year.

Q: As a new and first time dad, do you find your perspective has changed in terms of balancing home and work and when will you give your daughter her first lesson in screen printing?

Jay: This is sort of an ongoing struggle, which we don’t see resolving for a couple of years. My wife and I both run our own businesses, and we’re trying to find the right ways to balance spending as much time as possible with the baby (who turns 6 months next week) while maintaining our respective careers. What we each do is unlike a job at the store, where you can take off for a year, then get another job at the store and things are basically the same. If I were to drop out of working for a year (or more), I think I’d lose some of my audience, and many of my clients. As for lessons, we’ll see if my daughter has any interest in what I do. At the moment, she’s way more interested in getting her toes into her mouth.

Many thanks to Jay Ryan for giving me a rare peek inside The Bird Machine. His posters have been published in two collections including the aforementioned “100 Posters:134 Squirrels” and “Animals and Objects In and Out of Water”. His work and that of many other incredible gig poster artists can also be found at

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Author Sarah Vowell at Oak Park’s Unity Temple

The weather was cool and clear at Oak Park’s Unity Temple for yesterday evening’s “Writers at Wright” presentation featuring author and humorist Sarah Vowell. It was the last stop of her media tour in support of her latest nonfiction historical work “Unfamiliar Fishes“.
The presentation itself was free with $10 of every book that was sold there going toward the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation. As expected, the turnout was near capacity for the building, which, though not huge, has a main floor and a double balcony on three sides. After a short introduction, Vowell took to the elevated podium and read a couple of short passages from the book and then opened the floor to questions. She confessed to some distraction as she took in the view from the pulpit. Along with being a history buff, she’s also a big fan of noted Chicago architects Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham in addition to Frank Lloyd Wright. She says she’s considering writing a book, or better yet, a musical based on the lives of the builders.
Most audience questions dealt with the current work, which covers the early U.S. involvement in Hawaii and culminates in the year 1898, which Vowell argues may have been the most pivotal year for the nation, when the U.S. officially became a superpower. Under President McKinley and at the urging of Rough Rider Theodore Roosevelt, the U.S. annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam and invaded Cuba and the Philippines in that year alone, which Vowell characterizes as an “orgy of imperialism”.
It’s her knack for finding the human interest and humor in what could be a pretty dry subject that gives her books their charm. In both her writing and speaking style, Vowell will at times go off on a tangent to make a story more relatable to modern readers.
Other audience questions involved her interest in history, which Vowell attributes in part to her 1/8 Cherokee ancestry, which was easy to research in her home state of Oklahoma. With her sister, she recently retraced the steps of the Native American “Trail of Tears” to get a better sense of their plight.
When asked what interested her as a child, she admitted that, being from somewhat “redneck” part of the country, the list included The Dallas Cowboys, Charlie’s Angels, country music, Elvis, and Jesus, and noted that she’s “still an Elvis fan.”
At the conclusion of the presentation, Vowell noted how lucky we are to have such architectural treasures in our midst and to appreciate them and contribute to their preservation.
Many thanks to Sarah Vowell and to the organizers of this event including The Book Table, Friends of the Oak Park Public Library and the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation for a fun and informative evening.

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Graphic Designer Chip Kidd at Columbia College

Last evening, as part of its Art & Design lecture series, Columbia College in downtown Chicago hosted a presentation by legendary book jacket designer and author Chip Kidd. If the term “rockstar” can be applied to graphic designers, he would certainly fit the bill. Though his name may not be familiar to those outside of the graphic arts, if you’ve been near a book store in the past couple of decades, chances are you’ve seen his work.
I arrived early which was good, since apparently word had spread on Twitter, and the place was filling up fast. After a short introduction by talented cartoonist and Columbia College faculty member Ivan Brunetti, Chip Kidd took the podium, sharply dressed as usual with a wide striped jacket and his trademark round glasses. The informal lecture was accompanied by a Powerpoint presentation featuring a number of case studies.
One of the earlier ones involved the designing of the dust jacket for Michael Crichton’s novel “Jurassic Park“. At the time, the film rights for the book had already been sold to Steven Spielberg, so Kidd’s instructions were to “think JAWS”, meaning that he should come up with an iconic image that could be repurposed for the film, in the same way that the image of the shark emerging from below was used on both the “Jaws” book and film poster. The now famous Tyrannosaurus skeleton image was inspired by a drawing from an old book purchased at the New York Natural History Museum. Kidd drew it with a Rapidograph pen on tracing paper and the image was used on the book cover and later as part of the movie poster and on countless merchandising tie-ins (apparently without any further compensation.)
Despite 25 sucessful years as a graphic designer, Kidd makes it clear that rejection is still part of the job. One of the most entertaining case studies centered around a cover design for “You Better Not Cry”, a collection of twisted Chistmas stories by Augusten Burroughs. Kidd had already designed several book covers for Burroughs and the subject seemed a perfect fit for his daring and subversive wit, but the project hit some snags. The first couple of ideas were rejected for either being too tame or too “mean” (One involved a ceramic Santa figurine carrying a sack full of G.I. Joe weaponry). Finally, after weeks of stagnation, the project was completed by the publisher’s in-house staff and featured a not-so-subtle rearview image of Santa exposing himself, which apparently was more in keeping with the publisher’s sensibilities.

Besides his work as a graphic designer, Chip Kidd is also the author of two satirical novels which have attained a devoted cult following. Seated behind me at the presentation was graphic novelist extraordinaire Chris Ware, who illustrated the cover for Kidd’s first book “The Cheese Monkeys“, centering around a graphic design student’s art school misadventures. His sequel, “The Learners” follows the main character, Happy, as he lands his first job at an ad agency. Both books are breezy, fun and convey the same wit and style as his book cover designs.

Many thanks to Columbia College for opening the event to the public and to Chip Kidd who kindly chatted and signed books and posters following the presentation.

Next up: Author Sarah Vowell at Oak Park’s Unity Temple

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Cartoonist Lynda Barry at Unity Temple in Oak Park

Cartoonist/ artist/ author Lynda Barry spoke and signed books at Oak Park’s Unity Temple this past Tuesday evening at another wonderful event arranged by Oak Park’s premier independent bookstore “The Book Table”. Recently a similar presentation spotlighted graphic novelist Chris Ware”, and while Lynda Barry’s loose childlike drawings are in many ways the antithesis of Ware’s tightly rendered work, they share a talent for getting deep under the skin of their semi-autobiographical characters.
While I was familiar with Ms. Barry’s work as a cartoonist from her strip “Ernie Pook’s Comeek”, which ran in the Chicago Reader from 1979 through 2008, I haven’t kept up with her other efforts, which includes seven books and a spoken word CD.
Her latest book is “Picture This: The Near-Sighted Monkey Book”. While those looking for a cohesive storyline may be disappointed, “Picture This” is a gem for those in search of inspiration and dry humor. The book is a celebration of Ms. Barry’s child inspired art, with recurring motifs including meditating monkeys, chickens, rabbits, and pseudo ads for the fictional “DON’T” brand cigarettes.
The event was moderated by Oak Park author Elizabeth Berg, who is clearly a huge Barry fan. One slightly awkward moment occurred when Ms. Berg asked about Lynda’s school day romantic flings with Simpson’s creator Matt Groening and NPR radio’s Ira Glass, at one point asking “What kind of a kisser was Ira Glass?”. Lynda politely deflected the question, simply saying “That was a long time ago.”
Today Lynda lives in her birth state of Wisconsin with her husband, a prairie style restorer and watercolorist who added color and backgrounds to some of her pictures in the book. While his additions are skillful, I personally prefer the non-collaborative work in “Picture This”.
Among other surprising revelations of the evening’s presentation is the fact that her favorite printed comic is the mainstream “Family Circus”. She recalled being literally overcome with emotion at finally meeting FC cartoonist Bil Keane in person.
The main theme of the night and the core message of “Picture This” is Lynda Barry’s mission of helping everyone recapture the creative spirit that we all possessed as children. She credits her Evergreen State College teacher Marilyn Frasca with many of the techniques she uses in her creativity workshops.

Many thanks to Lynda Barry and “The Book Table” for a wonderful presentation.

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Chris Ware and Charles Burns at Unity Temple

An audience of about 200 fans was afforded a rare opportunity to see and hear two modern masters of the graphic novel, Chris Ware and Charles Burns. The setting was Oak Park, Illinois’ beautiful and historic Unity Temple, built by Frank Lloyd Wright, which is undergoing an extensive and much needed renovation. In addition to numerous structural issues, recently there was news that vandals had stolen the bronze lettering above both entryway doors.

Chris Ware, best known for his masterful “Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth”, is an Oak Park native, and Wright’s prairie style comes through in the clean architectural precision of his work. Charles Burns, the senior of the two and one of Ware’s “childhood heroes”, on the other hand, claims to be no good at rendering mechanical objects and says he relies heavily on photo reference for things like cars. His latest work is the nightmarish “X’ed Out”.

Throughout their presentations, both artist’s came across as genuine, modest, and reserved, somewhat surprising given Burns’ roots as a “punk comic artist” (Both have had work published in the alternative “Raw magazine”). Both Ware and Burns share a mastery at getting under the skin of their characters and exposing their darkest sides and most disturbing thoughts. Much of their imagery and story lines are aimed at mature readers in every sense of the word.

When asked if they ever had to police their own thought processes in order to avoid offending family and friends (both are now family men), Burns said that he has to consciously fight the temptation to censor his darker themes in order to avoid dulling his art. Ware said he isn’t sure where his darker themes of family dysfunction come from, as he grew up in a comfortable, middle class home environment. Both confessed to occasional awkward conversations with a parent, having to explain that “The mom and dad in the story are purely fictional…REALLY!”

At the book signing following the presentations and Q & A, both artists were personable and the fans patient despite long lines. Given Ware’s methodical signature style, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the line is still snaking throughout the temple.

Many thanks to Chris Ware and Charles Burns and to Oak Park’s “Book Table” book store for arranging the event and to the Unity Temple for hosting. A portion of the event’s book sale proceeds go toward the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation”.

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