Sunday, September 27, 2020

“Yukon Traffic Jam (circa 1900)”

Some things are well worth the wait, which is good because I was four freakin’ years late with this. Further on in this post - after the jump - I’ll do a deep dive into some behind-the-scenes and backstory buildup, but briefly, this is a long overdue component of my 2016 Artist In Residency with Bureau of Land Management up in Eagle. It hung briefly in the UAF Faculty exhibition, and also doubled as a Nuggets panel captioned with a few lines of additional text about the program. It’ll also get a nice print run as an official agency poster promoting the AIR program – I'll keep y'all posted on any upcoming artist’s talks and other events.

The image depicts a collision of culture at the turn of the century, set in an ambiguous season and time of day (Morning? Evening? Late fall? Early spring?). Over the gradual development of the piece I was fortunate to receive lots of feedback from many folks on all sorts of details - their perspectives were extremely insightful, and ultimately any errors reside purely with me. Special thanks to Collin Cogley and the folks at BLM’s Fairbanks District Office, the Village of Eagle, the Eagle Historical Society, and the National Park Service at Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve for all their support.

Guess the creative clock keeps getting reset when it comes to one-upping myself. It was only just earlier in the year that I had thought my most recent pushing of the personal envelope had already peaked with “Hibernate With a Good Book.” Not to mention ever-escalating levels of intensity and complexity in the regular feature – here are some snippets from a few panels in the proverbial pipeline. In retrospect, these initially overwhelming designs were simply warm-ups.

The foundation of the original concept can be seen in this loose doodle. A couple elements that were eventually dropped were the mule barn, and another antique vehicle, plus the entire background scene (stretching from Eagle Bluff over to the Ogilvie Mountains in the neighboring Yukon Territory) was at first relegated to only the upper left half of the composition.

Another amusing observation is the change in mood that would happen from this preliminary sketch (and the accompanying value study done in pen & ink + wash) when everyone was basically pissed off and angry at each other. I’m more than enough tired of that attitude from all the a-holes in real life, just simply from driving into town on any given day. So be the change you want to see in the world and give a friendly wave instead. (Especially to the a-holes)


After reaching this point, I was frustrated by some serious misgivings about the composition and direction of the panel. The pieces were just lying about, scattered around on various scraps, some even still stuck inside the (mental) box. A real mess, though over a succession of seemingly endless stream of reworks the basic design stayed throughout all the different variations on the theme. And then it just sat on the back-burner, temporarily eclipsed by other demands.

Then a few years later came a day, while on the semesterly field trip to the UAF museum with one of my art classes, (link to back post) I was struck by a particular piece, one that I always point out during our group’s quick little walk-through of the permanent collections on display upstairs. Inupiat artist George Ahgupuk’s panoramic drawing illustrated a possible solution to my problem, after four years of mulling it over. That and a little extra dose of inspiration that comes from seeing another artist express another take on an idea – widening your field of vision to the perspective of others often opens up new vistas in your own work. That’s at the heart of how + why I teach, and damned if I don’t mean what I say: what works in class also works in my own life.

So back to the proverbial drawing board – new arrangements, new possibilities, new challenges. This is the trance state of staring off into an imaginary world, projecting yourself into an imaginary scenario and taking a look around at all of the different points of view with another slew of compositional roughs and thumbnails. It’s akin to working out a chess game entirely in your head, or positioning actors on a stage within a web of interrelated setpieces. Again – this is the same exact process I apply to my students in the classroom: let’s see the ideas unfold in the sketchbook. The idea of the forces of technological change facing off against tradition started to solidify with a motor engine versus a mule-drawn carriage; canoes going up against sternwheelers; military communications network set against a more holistic way of life, and the extraction of natural resources such as clearcutting for fuel contrasting with a balanced, natural environment

The foundation of my reference material came primarily from all the snapshots taken on site while researching the displays in Eagle itself. Some outstanding interpretive displays across multiple venues between the Eagle Historical Society, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management provided me with raw material to literally draw from.

A brief note here on the omnipresent soundtrack running in the background to all of this: my main mix contained Max Richter’s score to “Hostiles” (a gut-wrenchingly intense homage to Terrence Malik - including some overlapping actors from the next film); James Horner’s exquisite pieces for “The New World” (including the requisite “Vorspiel” by Wagner); Randy Edelman & Trevor Jones’ soundtrack to Michael Mann’s 1992 version of “The Last of the Mohicans”; and obvious but iconic samples from John Barry’s “Dances With Wolves.” Bonus Beethoven (Symphony #6) on repeat during the entirety of inking.

Not for the first time, invaluable resources specifically for this project were found in the Rasmuson Library on UAF campus, at the Alaska & Polar Regions Collections & Archives. It was there that I found a book containing artwork depicting the traditional dress of the Han Hwech’in, the indigenous people of the area. All the other image references that were dated from around the approximate timeframe of my cartoon reflected one immediate visual effect of colonization: assimilation meant adoption of what white people wear. Hence all of the photographs I’d seen so far showed Alaska Native groups only wearing European clothing items such as button-up shirts, vests, jackets, hats, blouses etc. With some assistance and suggestions I tagged a couple deliberate visual markers as specific cultural cues: a moosehide dress w/denatalium + birchbark basketry and hints of beadwork.

It was crucial to try and avoid any Disney-fied Pocahontas impression – a challenge for artists whose stock in trade is manipulating symbols and stereotypes. Portraying any representation without resorting to cliché or tropes like treating culture as costumes is quite rightly an ongoing concern of mine, and is a significant challenge to cartoonists in particular, who often rely on visual “short cuts” to trigger associations. For example, if one wanted to quickly sketch a “miner,” one would include such items as Xtratufs, suspenders, pickax, goldpan, period-style hat, and requisite bushy beard.

I looked at recent mass media successes for positive examples like with “Molly of Denali,” “Never Alone” and the growing catalog of indigenous creators in publishing comics and graphic novels. In relation to this specific piece, I thought about it for a long time, and the most ideal solution would have been someone else more rightfully appropriate to draw the image, but that would negate the authorship of the piece (ie as the creator who was supposed to make a work for the residency). I’ve successfully collaborated on cartoons before, so that was a possibility. The only other route to take would have been to dodge the issue and resort to my usual MO of animals-only, but such an erasure would have been a bigger insult to injury, and simply not an option as they are literally a part of the picture. It’s an ethical conundrum if one is aware enough to recognize the inherent problems, and always well worth trying to find any answers, thought they’re never easy, and which in my experience continue to evolve in tandem with one’s skill – both take practice.

Another aspect to this issue that I mulled over for quite a while perfectly illustrates the hazards of injecting one’s own editorial opinion, and how it can exemplify and amplify one’s own privileged position. Take for specific example the smiles on their faces, which merely mirrors most the other expressions in the composition. But the longer I looked at them, the benign blandness seemed instead to evoke the usual Hallmark card/oil corporation portrayal of happy smiley people used as token representatives for marketing and/or value signaling. My personal gut instinct was to acknowledge the anger and fear and sadness at the fact their land was being invaded and overrun with accompanying European diseases that were currently decimating their people. So the smiles got a little fainter in expression. But the last thing needed is another white savior charging in and telling everybody what’s right and what’s wrong. This is neither the piece nor the venue to promote activism – I have other options for that. Now the absolute best possible situation would be for ideally a local to step up and illustrate a whole graphic novel about the history. And that empowerment is in fact is what I’ve had the good fortune to foment amongst the many students over the years to do. And many have gone and done just that, so in essence my work is almost done. “It’s your story – you tell it the way it should be told.” This is also the reasoning behind my inching up the ladder of residencies so that maybe some day I can extend my tour of duty across the whole state, and reach many more communities and people with my mission and my message.

During my residency in Eagle I was graciously invited to hang out for an afternoon with some elders + youngsters at the Village of Eagle’s tribal hall. Together with my time working at the Morris Thompson Center, which exposed me to a lot of many similar connections of cultural importance, it reminded me of a strong sense of artistic appreciation in paying attention to details with responsibility and respect. And speaking of such, there’s an obvious homage to an actual person with my take on Chief Isaac, for those of our viewers keeping score at home. And then there’s also the hallmark profile of the Athapaskan canoes, for which I was assisted by another old acquaintance that specializes in such matters, not that anyone would notice in the end.

While on the topic of exacting level of detail in rendering, or, in this instance, the utter lack thereof, let’s draw down on another subject. That would be my routine failure to expend anything beyond the bare minimum of care or attention to firearms. Turns out you can waste a lot of time chasing reference images down the internet rabbit hole of military fetishist sites, but there’s really never any need to draw any gun with any degree of specificity beyond that of cartoon, a fitting aesthetic when dealing with toys. Pew pew pew.

All of which points up how much I don’t normally really give all that much of a dang about such details when it comes to the vast majority of my cartoons. That’s a lot of what makes a cartoonist a cartoonist, hence, cartoonist > cartooning > cartoon. Moose and sheep don’t really look like that, and neither do birds, beavers and ‘bou. (Most) people don’t look anything like a Don Martin Muppets, and based on looks alone my boats wouldn’t float, nor would the vehicles run.

And yeah for sure I’ll catch something for my, ah, interpretation (to put it charitably) of a 1915 Jeffery Quad. Reference images from both my own residency records + a shot courtesy of another acquaintance who’s a member of the local Vernon Nash club. Now from people and props to…

… the place itself. Again my resources for reference came primarily from snapshots taken on site during the residency: clockwise from upper left is an archival image posted in one of the museums in Eagle; a couple sketches done by me while having the morning coffee at the hotel right downtown on the banks of the river (looking up to the left at the iconic Eagle Bluff and downriver to the right at the Ogilvie Mountains); and an aerial shot taken from the seat of the bush plane that flew me home on the last day.

I marked up on that last photograph a yellow arrow where my theoretical point-of-view was strategically situated for the composition: up on a high point of the slope that starts approximately around the swath of open lawn (right below the base of the arrow), and continues downhill in the arrow’s direction towards the river. This imaginary layout was the source of no end of confusion at the early stages of sketching out the scenario, as I for some reason kept hanging onto some semblance of reality in trying to maintain correct perspective. In other words I knew the orientation and order of some of the buildings on the grounds of the fort were factually wrong (for example the commissary would be seen instead from the back at this angle), but artistically correct, or better. That degree of exactitude is a struggle for balance when concocting what is essentially a work of “historical fiction” that’s made up but still based somewhat in reality.

I had also been bemoaning the lack of reference images of an establishing shot of the background hills and mountains as seen from directly across the river. But while showing my work-in-progress to another friend, who just so happened to have been visiting Eagle last year, he pulled out his phone, found exactly what I needed from that exact viewpoint and shared it with me. Small state.

Here’s an inked version of the second attempt to draw the panel, again, not with any intention to produce a finished piece, but to do just a practice run, like a recital before the command performance. Along with upping the numbers to both flocks (the Canadian Geese are relegated to the appropriate country-of-origin’s side) I also doubled the numbers on the herd. Here’s a partial list of even more changes I would make based on reflection and off of feedback from various folks:

“show more of log cabin + sod roof; swap coonskin cap for one w/muffs (ushanka/trapper’s hat); show more backboard to pack; change handles on sled + add leads; add more dogs + change arrangement; increase herd from 11 to 24 caribou; fix windows on commissary + add tin roofing; increase military presence/add officer + cannon; reorient/foreshorten sternwheelers (foreground = big > distance = small); tweak profile on canoes; more snowbank in foreground; Jeffery Quad driver waving to carriage driver (+ gender swap); redo bluff (enhance/enlarge); add telegraph wire tripods; add Dall sheep family + beaver couple; add fishwheel”

I admit I stalled out again when confronted with the overwhelming amount of details that began to bog down the process at this point, kind of reaching a cartoon singularity where the piece was imploding under the weight of its own gravity. In other words, starting to take itself way too seriously, and I needed to pull out and get away for another reboot.

The evolution of the final penciled panel was an exercise in basically filling in the blanks, and methodically moving down across the composition in bands (the sky, the river, the midground + buildings, the herd, the pack, and the final foreground elements. Like a lot of stylistically similar “cartoon maps” you see on diner placemats around America, relative proportions went out the window so as to ensure visibility at the expense of accuracy. So no, the canoeists aren’t actually half the length of a sternwheeler and so on.

Caribou antlers are one of the few things that can drive me completely crazy, and serve as a great example that at some point it just simply doesn’t matter how weird the drawing gets, it actually winds up coming closer to how they actually look. I drew the mockups for the flock, herd and pack on tracing paper so as to better facilitate flipping the horizontal axis as needed in accordance with each animal’s respective direction. Faster than a light-table trace or the usual method of holding the paper up to a window for a quick reversal.

The scale + scope of this particular panel precluded any accurate documentation of how much time was spent overall on the piece. I estimate around twelve hours went into various shifts for penciling, which transpired on weekends over a couple months; then one massive 6-hour session to ink (both sitting and standing up); about ten more hours for cleanup of the raw scan (which took only two passes on a Epson tabloid); and lastly, twelve hours of coloring plus another ten more for tweaking + digital editing spread out over another week. So a ballpark estimate is at least around fifty hours total. Not counting research or writing this director’s commentary (itself about 3.500 words/9-page Word document).

One main reason that the coloring took so freakin’ long was that I kept redoing entire sections when it became apparent (after zooming out to literally see the big picture) certain areas or objects were disappearing or conversely contrasting overmuch. Normally I can easily see how everything relates to everything else in the composition in one glance at the page and/or screen, but this composition was six times bigger in scale than my average cartoon. Plus working @ 300% and with 6-8 pixel-wide tool you can pretty quickly lose yourself in the usual search-and-destroy mission tracking down errant pixels. Most of the time it’s irrelevant as the details will get lost somewhere along the way in production to the final printed form – except this piece needed to accommodate scaling out from a 3-column wide panel in the newspaper to a full 18x24” poster. In the end the black & white line art made for a 200meg raw scan, which eventually blossomed into over a 500meg color file.

Another major speed bump happened when the inking began, and I slowly came to the realization that I was using the wrong kind of paper - not my standard smooth Bristol but a heavy drawing stock instead, which made for a much difficult and different (scratchy and rougher) than intended line quality. I ultimately went through 2/3’s of a bottle of Sennelier India ink, which presented its own set of logistical speedbumps when it began gradually thickening after being open so long, thus clotting from continual exposure to air. This in turn necessitated using a pocketknife to scrape off buildup of ink deposits on the nib itself. Throughout the this phase my hand cramped up just like my students during their pen & ink assignments, and I also went through half an eraser in just one sitting after the inking was done.

There was also an awful lot of revision and fixes on the fly, for example discovering a caribou was maybe missing a head, or had mysteriously vanishing hooves that somehow had gotten lost in the crowd. Or yet another pass for pupil enlargements, or some major editing like adding more snow on the ground in the foreground. A common question from many an art student is “How do you know when you’re done with a piece?” In this case the answer was when I couldn’t find anything else to fix.

For some time afterwards other minor, miscellaneous details began to emerge: like the fact that the cannon was actually added to the Fort long after this scenario supposedly took place; the telegraph wires on spruce tripods are headed off in the wrong direction; fish wheels were later technological advances and so a weir would have been more regionally appropriate; and the paint job on the building is in contemporary antique white + battleship gray official government colors, etc. etc. (pulls out wallet, displays artistic license). 

But the one (obvious in retrospect) detail that slipped through the cracks and almost didn’t get caught in time was realizing that Fort Egbert was actually abandoned in 1911. This meant the original caption needed a date change from “circa 1920” to “circa 1900” instead. But then that in turn tripped up on another detail requiring yet another revision: the Alaskan flag flying over the commissary. It was pointed out by an astute observer on my ad hoc committee that the Big Dipper design was actually adopted in 1927 during Territorial days (official statehood was in 1959). So what’s shown is the Seal of the District, our official status starting back in 1867. Which technically wouldn’t have been used on an actual flag - and as it’s on a military site it would have also been flown under the U.S. flag (with 48 stars natch). What’s funny is that way back in the second version of this panel you can see that I had originally doodled out the seal on the flag… sometimes your first instinct is true. Which still doesn’t mean a period in introspection or review and revision won’t improve the end product, and, as evidenced by how this whole process played out, that’s when the benefit of having critiques can be very helpful… yet another real-world application of lessons in the classroom proving themselves beneficial.

I’ve been really pleased at the reception this piece has gotten so far, and one of the things that has really made it all worthwhile has been the reaction in folks when they first see the full-sized version. Not mention all the mileage the Bureau of Land Management will get out of it promoting what their Artist in Residence program has to offer. Which for me was an awesome opportunity and a wonderful experience in a special place with great people.


  1. Man, I love this one! This was a mind-numbing amount of work, and I really enjoyed your write up of the process. Can't wait to see it in real life (not the newspaper version)!

    1. Hey thanks - appreciate the comment. A full-sized version will be displayed when I'm supposed to have a show in November for the 1st Friday (the 6th) down at the Chamber of Commerce, one day only alas - but we did extend the opening time to 12noon - 8pm so as to spread out attendance.
      And then it'll be up for the annual show at Ursa Major Distilling the whole month of January too... arguably even better after a libation or two.
      I'll keep folks posted and there'll be plenty of promotion of both events. Cheers.