Friday, December 13, 2013

Garfield gives readers a big laugh, a psyche joke or just a nice thought, says creator Jim Davis

By Nancy T. Lu

Meet Jim Davis, the cartoonist behind the fat, lazy and cynical cat named Garfield. He identifies himself with Jon the most in the comic strip. As he put it, “Jon’s the cartoonist. He has the same big cheeks. He is also wishy-washy, a daydreamer.”

The casual and relaxed Davis was quick to add during an interview years ago: “I’m a little of Garfield. I love lasagna. I treat this as a joke. I didn’t realize that some cats do love lasagna. I don’t know if it’s because of the wheat, the cheese, the meat or maybe all of them.”

Jim Davis visited Taipei in 1991 with his wife, Carolyn, and then 12-year-old son, Alexander. As it was possible to know how advanced he had to be with his syndicated comic strip, he managed to get away occasionally whether for business or pleasure.

As the gags which newspaper readers go over each day could have been written six months or even a year ago, Davis made it a habit to tack ideas on the wall and to wait for the right time to use them.

People tended to wonder how Davis, only 46 at the time of the interview but 68 today, did his comic strip. In fact, many of the letters he received – 300 every week on the average in 1991 but many more today – showed his reading public’s curiosity in this area.

“I try to balance the gags,” Davis pointed out. “I don’t want the readers to think that Garfield is predictable.”

Davis also noted: “When people open the newspaper, they don’t know if they are going to get a big laugh, a psyche gag, or just a nice thought. I don’t make people laugh everyday. It is enough that I make them smile or feel better.”

According to the artist behind the Garfield strip carried by 2,000 newspapers all over the world and read by millions of people everyday then, one cartoonist told him that the secret behind a successful cartoon strip is “to get the character hit over the head at least once a week.” Therefore, Davis resorted to the so-called psyche gag.

“I also try to do quotable quotes once a week,” he explained. “Garfield says something that can be repeated. Lines like ‘I’d like mornings better if they started later’ help people cope with life a little better.”

Contrary to what some people may think, comic strip ideas do not come easily to Jim Davis at any time of the day. He revealed: “I have to concentrate very hard. When I am writing, I have to be so deep in my concentration that I sometimes can’t hear the phone ringing.”

Davis at work usually began by visualizing the feline creature in a place that must be very quiet. He elaborated: “I literally see him in my mind’s eye. There he can start forming. I am just a conduit for Garfield. I can create him but he does his own gags.”

He casually described his creative process: “By the time I find myself in a writing mood, my heart rate swells to over a hundred. I’m sweating, my toes are tapping. I can’t keep this up for long stretches of time.

“Writing is too physically exhausting. I can get in and out of it. In fact, it has its peaks and valleys. When the ideas begin coming in a rush, I can’t write fast enough. Three gags may come in a minute and then nothing for an hour.”

He continued: “I watch Garfield in my head. I wait for him to do something funny. He has to make me laugh first. I’m the toughest audience. I try not to second-guess the reader. I feel by and large I’m more of an editor than a writer. It’s easy to have funny thoughts but it’s tough to tell which funny thoughts make people laugh.”

Several second-generation cartoonists in America have carried on the work of their fathers with success. Asked about such possibility in his family, Davis said in 1993: “My son shows interest in what I do. He is, in fact, a much better artist at 12 (at the time of this writer’s encounter with his cartoonist father) than I was. He draws a lot. He does a wonderful job but it’s too early to tell how serious he is. He does have good instincts in judging what makes people laugh.”

The father and the son got together often to sketch. When setting out on the road, they brought along their sketchbooks and found time to draw together.

“Hopefully there will be some life to Garfield later on,” Davis thought out loud.

Successful as he has been, Davis shows interest in the works of his fellow cartoonists. In fact, many of them he could call his good friends. Only a month earlier before his Taipei trip, he played golf with Johnny Hart in the B.C. Open in upstate New York.

“Johnny Hart can draw a rock and make it look funny while I draw rock with a difference,” remarked Davis. This big fan of the B.C. strip, however, claimed that he was a better golfer.

Mort “Beetle Bailey” Walker was the cartoonist whom Davis wanted very much to meet at the time of his launching of the Garfield strip back in 1978. In a way, Walker influenced him, he admitted.

The late Dik Browne, in the opinion of Jim Davis, was one of the most well-loved cartoonists in history. Dik Browne, the creator of Hagar the Horrible, began working with Mort Walker on the strip called Hi and Lois in 1953. His two sons – Chance Browne of Hi and Lois today and Chris Browne of Hagar the Horrible – have followed in his footsteps and found success as cartoonists.

The artwork of Garfield is done today by the staff of Jim Davis. “We practice together every morning to control the consistency of the drawing,” he said. “There are 15 artists (actually more today) in the staff but not all of them are allowed to draw the character. Several are.”

What does Davis do when he is not working on Garfield, which is actually a full-time job? Or, how does he escape from escapism? He reads nonfiction like medical journals and cookbooks. As he likes wines, he pores over wine journals. He picks up trade magazines. He reads “anything that’s real.”

As for psychology, he considers it to be fiction.

“Young artists who send me their work tend to put in too many words,” said Davis when asked to reflect on the topic of humor. “They try to draw too well. I also ask myself what it is about the cartoons of Johnny Hart and Mort Walker that makes me laugh. I also ponder on why B.C. lines are funny. When Johnny Hart draws a rock, it’s funny. How can there be so few lines and so much expression? As it turns out, it’s a lack of discipline….It’s an attitude not only in writing but in artwork as well. The more you do it, the better you get.”

The personnel working for Davis back in 199l numbered 50. Three handled the fan mail broken down into 35 categories to facilitate reply. Some readers were autograph seekers. Others wanted to tell cat stories. From them, Davis picked up good situations for the comic strip.

Davis, however, made it a rule to be very careful about the sensitivity of the comic strip followers. In fact, Garfield did not tread on grounds like politics and religion to avoid triggering controversies.

The strips from Davis at one point showed Jon’s misbehavior while on a date, and this coincided with the debates on sexual harassment in the United States at that time.

A mother and a daughter took the trouble of writing to object to the mention of witches by Garfield, saying witchcraft was “a religion not to be treated with sacrilege.”  

“People try to read things that are not there,” said Davis.

In 1987, Jon went on a blind date with a caller who dialed a wrong number. Although she had a very nice voice, she turned out to be “the size of a barn” – in short, too big. Thus, she had to enter the house through the garage. Fat men wrote to object to Davis’ treatment of fat women.

Davis took precaution not to offend, revealing: “I keep some people in mind at times when I do a gag. Will it offend my parents? Will my wife understand it?”

Davis heads Paws, Inc., a company engaged in the merchandising of Garfield products ranging from the hot water bottle to the aquarium. Many were made in Taiwan in the 1990s. He described his studio as a room measuring 40 feet in width and 150 feet in length and holding 6,000 samples of Garfield products being marketed in the world. Davis was thinking about setting up a museum in Indiana, U.S.A. Garfield’s legions of followers just keep growing more than three decades after his birth. 

(Note: Photo of Jim Davis was downloaded from Internet.)

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Contemporary Filipino artist Raul Isidro looks back to 48 years of passion for art

By Nancy T. Lu

If an artist’s living and working space says something about him as an individual, then the interior of Raul Isidro’s three-story property in Paranaque gives away how organized he is. The walls at every turn are literally crowded with his colorful works of art. The paintings capturing his changing styles in making art statements are carefully arranged, in fact, maximizing in an interesting way the use of limited space and giving the impression of a private gallery and showroom ready to warmly welcome friends, art lovers and buyers.


Eight years ago, this very structure was a drab garment factory. For three months after acquiring it, Isidro personally oversaw the house renovation. Each day, he would sketch on the wall what he would like the hired workers to do to completely transform the place. He made sure that there was considerable storage room for his creative output before their gradual turnover to buying collectors. He even gave instruction to have a part of the roof done differently to allow the sunlight in. Changes were introduced section by section to suit the new owner’s personality and, of course, needs.

And now Isidro’s property has become a house of memories of an extraordinary art career. On display are his masterpieces from his different periods of art experimentation, highlighting his shifting reliance on different media of expression.

Early on, he chose the path of abstract expressionism and very rarely returned to figurative art. For a while he seemed very fascinated with the circular and oval form. But he also brought in diverse geometric shapes and patterns to make his inspired statements on art.

His play with colors dominated exhibits, too. Solid hues and shades introduced in his collections of abstract landscapes were a rich visual feast. In more recent times, his incorporating of the glitter of gold yielded dazzling art. His use of gold leaf began when he was living in the United States.

The still very active artist has come a long way since his student days when he sold his first small watercolor for a mere five pesos and also since his first one-man show featuring paintings inspired by man’s first landing on the moon in 1969. That year, American astronaut Neil Armstrong made that one big step for mankind. Isidro, too, marked his milestone as artist in 1969, announcing his readiness to hold his own at a one-man show at the La Solidaridad Gallery in Manila. After more than 50 solo exhibitions, he is now seriously considering an expansion of the second floor of his property near Taguig to satisfy his craving for a bigger working space. He intends to hold many more exhibits.

The 70-year-old Raul Isidro, a native of Calbayog, Samar, looks back today to a 48-year career filled with acclaimed creativity in painting, printmaking and even in sculpture, something attested to by his collection of awards over the years. He even earned special recognition as Ten Outstanding Young Men or TOYM awardee for the plastic arts in 1979. The artist, ever shining in his profession of choice, became a recipient of the “Patnubay ng Sining at Kalinangan” Araw ng Maynila Award in 1998. UST, his alma mater, gave him the Outstanding Thomasian Award for Fine Arts in 2006 and the Outstanding Samareno Award in 2011.

Isidro majored in advertising arts at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) College of Fine Arts for practical reason. Artists in those days were doomed to starve. Such was the common belief. Parents, therefore, were unlikely to approve a daughter’s entertainment of a painter suitor, recalled Isidro. His teachers included Victorio Edades and Galo Ocampo.

After graduating from UST in 1965, Isidro wanted very much not just to paint but also to join the prestigious Shell National Student Art Competition. As he needed to be a painting student to qualify, he returned to UST for painting lessons. Isidro was turned away though.

The young Raul Isidro ended up in the fine arts department at the Philippine Women’s University. As a PWU student, he finally competed and won. His “Way In” garnered second prize when he submitted it to the Shell National Student Art Competition back in 1967. In addition, he received a certificate of merit for his “Genesis of Man.”

A random look at Isidro’s albums of old newspaper clippings leads to the discovery that the erstwhile student of PWU won first honorable mention (100 pesos and a certificate) at the 1967 on-the-spot painting contest sponsored by the U.P. President’s Commission on Culture and the School of Fine Arts. His “Lunar Orbit” from his first-ever one-man show was similarly a first honorable mention winner at the Art Association of the Philippines annual competition in 1969. He kept up his winning streak, settling for no less than the first prize at the Printmakers Association of the Philippines annual exhibition and competition in 1972.

In his younger days, Isidro also made a name as a very promising sculptor. At the on-the-spot painting and woodcarving contest at the Third National Art Festival in Baguio in 1968, he placed second in the woodcarving category. Diego Silang was the subject of the woodcarving competition. 

The First National Sculpture Exhibition and Competition under the sponsorship of the Art Association of the Philippines (AAP) in 1968 saw Isidro’s “Apocalypse” declared a major winner in the outdoor sculpture category. Isidro, rather popular among fellow artists, eventually went on to be elected to serve as AAP president.

For his major exhibition to mark his first year as a septuagenarian, he promised to bring out some of his prize-winning works from the period when he was just starting out as an artist, meaning the late 1960s.

To pack up in preparation for a move to the United States years ago, he entrusted his prodigious artistic output to friends here and there for safekeeping. Some eventually got sold. But following his return to Manila after 10 years of living and pursuing his artistic calling mainly in California, Isidro failed to recover completely his works of art, including some winning entries not just in painting but also in sculpture.

A succession of two fires in 1977 – first at Isidro’s ancestral home in Calbayog and the second one at PWU - left him shattered. Many of his paintings from his first one-man show in 1969 were put away by him for storage in the spacious family house in the province of Samar. When fire gutted the place, his sibling tried to save the house, not realizing that proceeds from the sale of the invaluable collection of paintings, if saved, would suffice to cover the cost of rebuilding the razed structure. Isidro was also devastated to find his many paintings which were left in the PWU campus burned during another fire not long after. A painting which won second place in a contest was destroyed and lost forever during that heartbreaking year.  

Perhaps after misfortune struck not once but twice that year, he realized that material wealth and labors of love like paintings with high market value can turn into ashes and vanish leaving no trace without warning. But very significant in Isidro’s life are his sincere efforts towards leaving a meaningful and lasting legacy through his constant offer of help to aspiring young artists in many ways, including conducting art workshops to teach and encourage them.

Many artists who call Isidro mentor have fond recollections of his generosity in passing on his art knowledge and in sharing his experimental art experiences. His readiness to teach his art techniques indicates that he is a man confident in his success in the art world.

As president of the Philippine Association of Printmakers, Isidro initiated the project called “Bakat ng Limbag Sining” from August to December 2001. The traveling printmaking workshop and exhibition of fine prints by prominent Filipino printmakers moved around the country for several months. Isidro was there as teacher of printmaking most of the time. Covered were Baguio, Angeles City, Manila, Calbayog, Tagbilaran, Kalibo, Bacolod, Iloilo, Cebu, Davao and Butuan. 

Over the years, Isidro kept himself very busy and focused, holding since the mid-1970s exhibitions mainly of his abstract art. He unveiled his “Landscapes” and “Impressions” collections at the Yellow Door Gallery at the Power Plant Mall in 2007 and 2009 respectively. In 2012, the Crucible Gallery at the Mega Mall in Mandaluyong City was the venue of his one-man print show titled “Senakulo sa Crucible.”

Isidro is preparing for his big retrospective show at the Ayala Museum in Makati from December 2 this year to January 11.early next year. About 100 paintings will hang in the museum’s main gallery. In addition, there will be some smaller works.

Art collectors and aficionados will have a rare opportunity to walk down Memory Lane with Isidro, whose passion for art and whose creative energy have not diminished with the passing of the years. A part of his house of memories in Paranaque – specifically his selected paintings – will be transferred to the Ayala Museum for a few weeks to tell his ongoing success story. The shapes, the lines and the colors of Isidro’s artistic vision and imagination will return to the limelight to mirror fascinating glimpses in a modern art kaleidoscope.