by Dan Nadel
Friday, October 8, 2010
A decade ago I worked in the same office as Steve Brower when he was the art director of Print, and got to know him a bit then. At the time Steve was deep into Jack Kirby, and I think we occasionally rapped about that. But since then, Steve has produced excellent books showcasing hitherto little known aspects of the work of first Woody Guthrie, and then Louis Armstrong. Now he’s published From Shadows to Light: The Life and Art of Mort Meskin, for reasons I’ll let him explain. As a Meskin admirer (I put a Golden Lad story in Art in Time) I am thrilled to have a beautifully made book that showcases his thoughtful, vividly executed and highly influential work. Steve takes a back seat to the images, which are often printed as original art, and elucidates a great deal about just what made Meskin tick. We had a brief but fun email exchange, which follows below.
Do you see a through line between the three artists you’ve published books about — Louis Armstrong, Woody Guthrie and now Mort Meskin? It’s a great American array you’ve got there.
The three of them have more in common than one might imagine. All were compulsive creators who led their fields into new paths. Yet somehow that didn’t seem enough. Armstrong created 500 plus collages while touring 300 dates a year. Guthrie wrote over 1000 songs and created drawings, painting, journals, plays, poems by the score. Meskin would take a break from drawing comics or advertising art to draw, paint, collage, teach art. Plus there’s the cross discipline music/art connection. That doesn’t immediately come to mind with Mort, but he not only loved to sing but would sing into a reel-to-reel he purchased, along with Jerry Robinson, and experiment with sound. He also was a ballroom dancer. Lastly, all three overcame great personal obstacles and persevered: Armstrong poverty, Guthrie tragedy and illness and Meskin emotional instability.
What drew you to Meskin, of all artists? Has this been a long process? And what was your goal with this book? What besides, awareness/appreciation of the work would you hope would result from it?
There were two things that drew me to his story. The first was the mystery of why someone who began so strong, influencing his peers, faded so quickly from view. The second attraction: his personal story. Mort was someone who suffered greatly at times emotionally and overcame his struggles. I felt there was a larger story to tell than just someone who was a very good artist. I should mention it was Jerry Robinson who really turned me on to Mort, and his more private side. All in all it took three years from the time I contacted Peter Meskin till the book was finished. My goal was to hopefully tell an inspirational story, the art speaks for itself. And while most agree about the high watermark of his 40s work I hoped to show that Meskin maintained a high degree of storytelling and design throughout his comics career.
You allude a couple times to Meskin having had a nervous breakdown. But what, exactly, happened there? Was he diagnosed with anything? Medicated? It seems like an important part of the puzzle and I wonder how much it affected his later work.
Yes, he did have nervous breakdowns. He had a terrible stutter, which worsened under stress. As for a diagnosis, I wasn’t privy to any medical records. But nervous breakdown is a catch all phrase. I don’t want to paint Mort as a victim, but working in comics for a page rate, long hours and demanding and unappreciative editors while trying to raise a family I’m sure was extremely stressful and by all counts Mort was a very sensitive person. At certain points he simply wasn’t able to function. Medication and therapy did help. As for affecting the work, the 50s crime and horror work in particular is quite claustrophobic compared to his 40s art. And then as things improved in his life his art simplified once again. (more…)