Our art editor Mike Sweeney recently had this exchange with James Warhola, featured artist for Issue #29. Here’s what he had to say about his work, the use of humor in art, and the influence of his family on his development.
You’ve illustrated hundreds of book covers—from Robert Heinlein’s Hugo Award-winning Stranger in a Strange Land science fiction work to William Gibson’s Neuromancer, one of the best-known cyberpunk novels, as well as many celebrated children’s books.
At Mud Season Review we work to find artwork that pairs well with each of our written pieces to help bring the writing to life visually. And so I think our readers would be very interested in hearing the perspective of such an established illustrator as yourself on how you work to bring a writer’s words to life through your artistic vision on a book cover. Can you share a bit about your process—and how you work with the author or editors when it comes to creating a cover?
When I first started my illustration career, I was very fortunate to fall into the field of science fiction and fantasy. I always had an interest in that area, so when I came to NYC in 1977, I was surprised to discover there was a niche for painting paperback covers. Unlike today, there were dozens of publishers to show a portfolio for possible work. Sci-fi/fantasy was a low paying category (unlike romance novels) and perhaps easier to get. The print runs were often low, making profit margins less. This made for a lower rate for the cover artist. That did not hinder the publishers from publishing a lot of new stories each month along with reissuing previous good sellers with new covers. This segment of publishing supported many dozens of artists. My process of illustrating a cover was to approach it in a logical way. It was trial and error at first as I worked with an art director who gave me advice on sketches along the way. They would also serve as the go-between to the editors who always had the final approval. My approach was to come up with one image that would represent the complete book without of course giving away a climactic ending. This meant showing the action of the main character(s) in an environment which, along with the title, would interest the customer. It could be medieval, Victorian, futuristic, or other-worldly, depending on the story. The words in the manuscript were my only inspiration at this stage. I would read and reread a manuscript, pulling out essential details to clearly understand the plotline. I would do thumbnails for my own use and work up about three pencil sketches to the size of the book to show the art director. I would then get a go-ahead to do a color sketch, which I would bring back a day or two later. Comments from both art director and editor were always expected, and this joint effort would improve the direction of the art. The final oil painting would take about two weeks to complete.
You have been a regular contributor to MAD Magazine since the 1980s. In fact, I remember picking up the “MAD Salutes the Jacksons” issue for which you illustrated the cover when I was about 10 years old and being really excited because it was one of the first times that I really “got” satire. Can you share what it’s been like to work on a magazine that’s such an important part of our culture?
I grew up with MAD Magazine, so when I was requested to visit their offices in 1980, I was thrilled. I’ve had the good fortune to be a part of the “usual gang of idiots” (their complementary byline) ever since. I love humor, so whenever I had a chance to break away from some of the more serious book illustrations, I welcomed it. The writing and the visuals have always been of top notch, even as the circulation has decreased over the years. It’s been an honor and a pleasure to be a part of their team for all these years since MAD has been such an important part of our culture.
For the benefit of our readers who may not know, you are the nephew of none other than Andy Warhol. Your award-winning children’s books, Uncle Andy’s: A Faabbbulous Visit with Andy Warhol and Uncle Andy’s Cats, are set in the environment of your uncle’s rather eclectic and exciting home—where you would go to visit as a child along with your six siblings.
Both of these books are just wonderful stories that capture so much childhood wonder and creativity as well as humor. Can you share for our readers a bit about the real-life stories—and the home of your uncle, which you’ve described as being like a giant amusement park—that inspired them?
When I came along, my uncle and grandmother had already been living in New York City. Several times a year our parents would pack our clan up in the car and make the journey from the countryside outside of Pittsburgh to New York City. Their apartment on Lex and 34th is where I first remember Uncle Andy illustrating women’s shoes. His next place was a townhouse that he bought in 1960. It was tall and narrow with 4 floors and yes, it was absolutely a great place for a kid. I often refer to it as a giant amusement park—packed with arcade machines, carousel horses, sculptures, and a lot of art. Uncle Andy and Bubba (our grandmother) lived a quiet existence there until we would arrive; then things would liven up a bit. My uncle was always hard at work, very focused in his two studio rooms, and Bubba, downstairs, was either cooking, cleaning, or busy with us. On occasion Uncle Andy had visitors, at which time he would shoo us away and shut his door. And yes, there were also lots of Siamese cats lurking in the shadows, probably waiting for us all to leave so they could have their place back. My book, Uncle Andy’s, came about when I asked my father if he had called ahead to announce our visits. When his reply was that he didn’t since it would ruin the surprise, it gave me such a chuckle, I realized it was a good basis for a kid’s book. I didn’t really plan the book being a window into Andy Warhol’s private world, but it seems it is.
Andy Warhol and his dog Archie
I’d like to talk about Uncle Andy’s Cats for a moment. I’ve personally read this story many, many times with my own children, and they just delight in it every time. There’s a wonderful sense of humor that runs through the book that is at once sophisticated and yet fantastical and completely relatable to children as well. Can you speak a bit to the humor in your work and where it comes from?
Uncle Andy’s Cats was my follow-up book, to explain the many, many cats my uncle and grandmother lived with. I suppose I did let my imagination go a little for that book, since I just loved the thought that their cats were overrunning the house. The humor of the situation was there, so it was easy to tell the story and make it work for kids. My favorite children’s books are always infused with lots of humor.
Uncle Andy’s: A Faabbbulous Visit with Andy Warhol speaks to how even “junk” becomes art in the eyes and hands of your uncle. Your dad ran a junkyard that often spilled over into the family’s home, I know, and then you would go to visit your Uncle Andy in New York, where you’d just be surrounded by so much that many would call junk but that your uncle found inspiration in—as well as many famous pieces of his and others. You even used to sleep amongst the silk screen Campbell’s soup cartons. Can you share how growing up surrounded by this way of seeing the world—seeing the art in the junk—inspired you in your own artistic journey? What was it like for you, coming up as an artist yourself, while also coming from this lineage of an art world icon?
My father, Andy’s oldest brother, was indeed a frustrated artist himself. He had the same appreciation of art as Andy—that art could be anything. Unfortunately, he had the responsibility of supporting a large family, so it was manual labor for most of his life instead of art. It didn’t stop him from recognizing found objects on an artistic level. Anything interesting that he’d find at his junkyard, he would bring to Andy. At other times he’d try to persuade me to do something with it. Uncle Andy was always thoroughly intrigued by these gifts. As for myself, I didn’t receive the avant-garde gene so much. I was instinctively more of a traditionalist, so I spent much of my childhood drawing from nature. My father tried very hard to loosen me up with his “crazy” ideas, but I didn’t give in—I continued to draw and paint trees and flowers. Watching my uncle illustrate shoes did instill the idea of becoming an illustrator like him. My uncle was proof that one can make a living doing art; therefore, my parents were extremely supportive, buying me any art supplies that I may need.
Speaking of your Uncle Andy, you’re working to help bring to life the upcoming Norman Rockwell Museum exhibit, Inventing America: Rockwell and Warhol, which will be on view at the museum from June 10 through October 29 and is billed as the first exhibition to examine the artistic and cultural influences of two of America’s most important visual communicators—Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol. Your work will be on simultaneous display in a parallel exhibit titled James Warhola: Uncle Andy’s and Other Stories.
Can you tell us about the exhibit: where the idea arose from, how the pieces have been selected, and the themes that run through the exhibit?
Inventing America: Rockwell and Warhol, the name of the new exhibit at the Rockwell Museum, is such a great idea that I am surprised a show like this hasn’t come about sooner. Here we have two vastly different American artists from opposite ends of the spectrum, both making powerful imagery and becoming an important part of our 20th century American culture. One common vein is that they both worked as illustrators, a very honorable profession if you don’t mind my saying so. Having Rockwell and Warhol side-by-side sets up for some great thought to the power of art and how it’s appreciated on different levels. I am sure my uncle was inspired by Norman Rockwell’s work growing up, because he was visually attuned to everything, especially the magazine world. His own illustration path took him into the advertising world, where he illustrated women’s shoes and accessories, as well as doing many book and record album covers. His prolific decade of illustration work was like the best college Master’s art program one could hope for before entering the world of fine art. His drawing and design skills improved greatly, as well as his great sense of color.
I am certainly very honored to have my work hanging at the Rockwell Museum during the Rockwell/Warhol show. I do have a strong connection to both artists. Though my uncle influenced me in becoming an illustrator, I am much more like Norman Rockwell than Andy Warhol. In Pittsburgh I studied at Carnegie-Mellon with some of my uncle’s teachers and ironically, when I arrived in New York City, I studied at Rockwell’s old art school, the Art Students League, under teachers who studied under his teachers. As a developing artist I grew to love the narrative and the ability to create personalities on canvas. Add to that my sense of humor, and how could I not be more similar to Norman Rockwell? I was also one of the many who appreciated Rockwell’s narrative paintings on a weekly basis with the Saturday Evening Post covers. Anytime I could see an original Rockwell at a gallery I would be there. My show is comprised of the best from the different areas that I worked—the science fiction and fantasy book covers, the MAD Magazine work, and my children’s book work. A larger part of my exhibit is devoted to the art that I did for the two books about my Uncle Andy.
What are your favorite pieces of each artist’s from the exhibit—and why?
As one sees the Rockwell/Warhol show, I think they should keep in mind that Rockwell was about 30 years older than Warhol, so both were from a different time and place. That being said, the exhibit shows the great intersection of commercial art and fine art—art serving a purpose for the masses and art for the individual. Throw in with that low and high culture, and you have quite a mix of how art is used. My favorite work from both artists is their early work. For Rockwell, it’s his early Saturday Evening Post covers when he painted from models and his technique was loose. As for Warhol, I love all of his illustration work, especially his practice drawings with a ball-point pen. He had such a beautiful fluid line! My favorite Pop work is from the early sixties, his most creative period when so much work flowed out of him. The substance of the work was so varied and wonderful, and he also allowed for happy imperfections in the silk screening process, which I preferred.
Going back to the discussion of humor a bit, I’d like to ask you about the sense of humor that runs through all three artists’ work. Can you speak to this common thread—and to the incorporation of art and satire in art from a wider perspective?
As for the concept of humor, I love using it whenever I can in my work, since it’s a great way of connecting to kids and even adults. Norman Rockwell’s use of humor was very clever. He easily connected with the viewer, young and old. I hoped my humor connected in a similar fashion. Much of Warhol’s illustration work, besides being decorative, had a lot of humor but in a more light-hearted way. Whether it was his cute, chubby cherubs, mischievous cats, or Elvis Presley’s shoes, the tone was mostly upbeat. His transition to fine art was definitely a shift to being more serious, though the idea of a soup can as art could actually be quite hilarious.
All three of you, as artists, enjoyed success in the field of illustration, each in different time periods in the field’s evolution. Can you talk a bit about how the field of illustration has evolved over time?
The world of illustration has gone through so many changes since the beginning of the 20th century. The golden age of illustration and the magazine has come and gone. Now we’re in the internet world; it seems illustration has transformed into something different. Norman Rockwell did illustration for over 60 years, Andy Warhol for about 12 years, and I’ve illustrated for about 40 years. I never thought about it, but I suppose together we’ve covered almost a century of illustration. The evolution has been very interesting in that time. Humans will always appreciate the visual, whatever form it takes, and now most of it is in a pixilated form on a screen. For better or for worse, imagery on paper is declining as the old uses of visual imagery gradually disappear and new uses appear. It’ll continue to evolve in our ever-changing world.
Finally, what’s next for you? Can you share with our readers what projects you’re currently working on?
My recent artistic endeavors are related to my stint, thirty years ago, as a “Garbage Pail Kid” artist. I was a part of those obnoxious trading cards from the ‘80s—actually, obnoxious to parents and teachers, but the kids just loved them. I’ve been adapting those gross little cards into a form of “high art”—large works of fine art that can be hung as centerpieces over a living room mantle. How wonderful is that! Is there humor in that? I sure hope so. These canvases can be viewed on a few different levels—recycling old work for a different use by appropriating something commercial from our popular culture, which may sound very familiar, or just using absurd humor in an all too serious art world. However anyone may interpret them, I figure it’s all okay, because in art anything can be art, and that’s what makes it such a fabulous form of expression.