Garden Rant
Gardening While Intoxicated
Buffalo Spree


A year ago, Licata became the fourth member of a group of garden bloggers with an attitude. Garden Rant one of my favorites: A blend of gossip, news, crusade and, yes, raw rant, it blows the cobwebs out of gardening's mustier corners.

–Adrian Higgins,
Washington Post

... co-curators Elizabeth Licata and Amy Cappellazzo have magnificently transcended the limitations of what is, at bottom, a show of books. ...Preciousness—the bane of such exhibitions—is nowhere in evidence.

–Richard Huntington,
Buffalo News

"Garden Walk Buffalo: A Celebration of Urban Gardens," is a tour guide into dozens of gardens during the annual event held the last full weekend in July. It's knowingly written by Buffalo Spree editor Elizabeth Licata, and packed with gorgeous photographs...

–Mark Sommer,
Buffalo News

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Art Writer

"Real World Arts Education,"

If Alan Cober's Advanced Illustration class had to pick a physical symbol of the no-illusions "Buffalo aesthetic," they couldn't do much better than their own Bethune Hall, head-quarters of the State University of New York at Buffalo's Fine Arts Department. Formerly the Buffalo Meter Company, the slightly dilapidated structure is a pure, stark reminder of the heyday of Modernist industrial architecture. Its neat rectangular concrete frame is correctly exposed, while inside high ceilings are lined with the pipes, tracks, and pulleys of heavy industry. Like many other facets of the Buffalo urban milieu, a deceptively down-to-earth façade covers up a cutting-edge plethora of cultural riches. Very soon, Bethune will be deposed by a slick new arts facility on the University's suburban Amherst Campus, and there are some who regret the necessity of abandoning it.

But right now, the chattering, gesticulating group of art students gathered in the small lounge area couldn't seem more completely oblivious to their surroundings. With alternating bursts of confidence and despair, these young, aspiring illustrators discuss their current assignment in Advanced Illustration--a "live" competition that will end with one of their drawings being published in Texas Monthly, the highly-regarded regional magazine. The students are taking the Fine Arts Department's Illustration Option, which happens to be one of the most prestigious illustration programs in the country. It's run by Professor Kathleen Howell, who built the program up from 52 majors to 200 majors in four years, and by Professor Alan Cober, the internationally-known illustrator who possesses 17 medals from the Society of Illustrators and New York Art Directors Club.

The live assignments are just one of the factors that sets the SUNY program apart from all others, but the concept is revolutionary given its academic setting. As many as nine times a year, Cober contacts an art director from a regional or a national publication and asks them to use a student entry to illustrate one of their articles. The article is sent to Buffalo, the students go to work, and a couple of weeks later, one piece of artwork from the roughly 20 students who participate is chosen for publication. He or she even gets paid (a little). Not too many art professors have the connections to pull something like this off, but Alan Cober isn't just any art professor. He's a working illustrator who knows all the major players in his field. More importantly, they know--and respect--him.

Cober's students are both challenged and frustrated by their current assignment. Texas Monthly has asked them to produce a full page image to go with their annual feature on the 100 richest people in Texas, and today, art director D.J. Stout has flown up to Buffalo to give an in-person critique of the preliminary sketches. At first, illustrating the Texas myth might seem almost too easy. There's plenty of images to choose from. Ten gallon hats, cowboy boots, spouting oilwells, monstrous Cadillacs, longhorn steers, and bucking broncos are just a few of the more obvious choices. Even the physical shape of the state of Texas seems absurdly familiar--an icon of the lost frontier. But the class has been forewarned that a fresh and unusual treatment of these symbols is needed for the assignment.

Stout is a little late in arriving at the crit session--he's been checking out the Albright-Knox Art Gallery with Howell. When he walks through the door, he's greeted by a wall covered with thumbnail sketches. Many are vivid demonstrations of what happens when Cobers' students allow their conceptually-trained imaginations to run wild. One joker has developed the idea of highway "road kill," another has portrayed a pipe smoking cowboy puffing out tiny rich guys, someone else has taken the amusing but unusable theme of a Texas "pissing match." Looking at these initial sketches, Stout seems both amused and surprised: "I'm amazed at what you've been able to do with this very boring subject matter. There's some really funny things here." But before Stout gives his official critique of the sketches, he delivers a Texas-style (opinionated and anecdotal) monologue to the class about the history of the Texas 100 feature.

"This is an idea we stole from the Fortune 500," he confesses. "The interesting thing about it editorially is that when we first did it, we got all this criticism. People complained that it was such a Texas thing to do, that it glorified materialistic values, that we should be covering the everyday people that really make up Texas. So we did an issue where we went around the state and interviewed ordinary people. We called it Talking to Texas. It was our worst selling issue for that year. We continue to this Texas 100 issue, and it continues to sell like crazy. People are just intrinsically interested in wealth."

Stout goes on to talk about some of his coups as art director--like getting William Wegman to put his oft-photographed weimaraner Fay Wray in cowboy boots for a cover story on boots--and deftly connects the individual anecdotes with his overall theme of "embracing the Texas myth."

Stout, a native Texan, obviously embraced the myth a long time ago, and it still seems dear to his heart."I decided that all that ----, I mean, cowboy boots, big cars, beautiful women, Mexican food, and all that stuff is what makes Texas Monthly such a good magazine," Stout explains. "By assigning the myth, certain artists can make it unique, can really make it different. A lot of illustration is using symbols that everybody knows about. I'm looking for something that gives it that twist, that takes the cliche and makes it interesting."

"I like this wagon wheel of fortune idea," he says to Kirstin Anderson, turning to the first of the groups of sketches awaiting his judgement. "And I like this idea of rich guys hanging around the campfire. Texans like their good old boys up to a certain point." Later, to Sam Giannettino, he suggests, "This guy with his leg up on an animal says something. Why don't you work on that, just the guy and the cow."

Stout goes down the line of tacked-up sketches, providing brief but thoughtful commentary for each student, occasionally pausing for input from Cober and the class. "Am I doing this right?" he asks. "If y'all want to speak, go ahead." Stout's casual approach relaxes the class, and soon the crit session becomes an animated cluster, with Cober breaking in every now and then to add his own authoritative pronouncements to the cacophony of voices. When the exhausting, exhilarating session is over, each student is headed in a specific direction. Now they have concrete ideas to develop for their final products.

Kristen Springfield feels that Stout has been helpful: "He wants me to take out the skyline--I hadn't realized how overdone that was--and stay with the little cowboy with the big hat. I like it because it says, I'm rich, everything I have is big." Most of her classmates are equally satisfied.

"He offered a lot of good ideas," says Tom Hutchinson. "We get so many different art directors here, and they don't always give good advice."

It isn't often that undergraduate design students have the luxury of comparing professional art directors' reactions to their work, but the students in the Buffalo program can afford to be nonchalant. They've benefitted from roundtable discussions and in-person critique sessions with some of the best visual heads in the country. Heavyweights like Sue Coe, Milton Glaser, Fred Woodward (Stout's predecessor at Texas Monthly), and Brad Holland have visited Buffalo to lecture, or to participate in seminars. Art directors who have been assigning work to the class this year include Lucy Bartholomay of the Boston Globe Magazine, Richard Steadman of Governing, Barry Fitzgerald of the Detroit News, and Tina Adamek of Post Graduate Medicine. Fitzgerald is a former graduate of the SUNY illustration program, an obvious target for outreach and an example of the network of connections that will continue to resonate from this program as the years go by.

Alan Cober isn't at all hesitant to take credit for this extraordinary tie to the professional community: "I know a lot of people and I call on a lot of people. The art directors respect me and I respect them. Milton Glaser came here because I asked him to come here. Sometimes it costs me a favor, but that's O.K." Cober is a high profile illustrator who's done covers for the Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, and the Boston Globe Magazine as well as regular appearances in countless other magazines and newspapers. A retrospective of his illustrations opened last month at the Katonah Museum. So Cober has plenty of leverage when he picks up the phone to ask an art director to take student work. He guarantees the work by promising to do the job himself if the students' pieces aren't good enough, but this has never been necessary.

"I think it's great. At first I was concerned about being in a situation where I wouldn't have anything to use, but it's never been an issue," says Lucy Bartholomay. Bartholomay has been participating in the live assignments for three years. She was also one of several art directors who took turns teaching the class when Cober was away doing a brief stint as the Lamar Dodd visiting Professor of Art at the University of Georgia. Bartholomay immensely enjoys the opportunity to work with students, "It's great for the students because they become more invested, but it works both ways--critiqueing work by 15-20 students really hones my skills as an art director. When I taught his class, I did a hypothetical assignment on illustrating the jeopardization of our Bill of Rights, so it was very intense intellectually as well as creatively. You see yourself opening a door for them, and once it's open you know it will never close again." The live assignments Bartholomay has given to the class have all been for the magazine's health column: issues like cerebral palsy and the interaction of foods and medications.

The students get paid a small percentage for the illustrations that are chosen, and the rest goes to the U.B. Foundation Illustration Fund, which helps finance everything from bringing in the Society of Illustrators traveling show to buying matte board. Cober is quick to point out that even without the live assignments, SUNY's program would stand out from most others: "In many of the other programs--not all--students will work on maybe two to three assignments in a semester. I give them an assignment a week. If I could I'd give them two assignments a week, but they have other classes. I get them to the point where they understand what conceptual thinking is, what metaphors are. I want the student to be cognizant of cause and effect, to learn how to think for the image. I also teach them the business: how to write a ledger, how to produce a mailer, how to promote themselves."

SUNY's program is characterized by a heavy emphasis on basic artistic skills, a point Kathleen Howell insisted on when she designed the program. Howell feels that the students should be trained as artists first, and makes sure they take every drawing and painting course available. She also cites the University's high academic reputation as a bonus for the students: "We think that the academic courses--psychology, English Lit., biology, whatever--are very important. Students need to have interests to bring to the class, so they'll have some passion and ideas in their art." Howell, like Cober, is a working artist herself, who specializes in illustrating junior books (most recently a book of children's poetry called The Singing Green by the late poet Eve Merriam).

When the fun and passion die down, however, there is still a pragmatic bottom line to this story. Only one student can win each live competition, and many of the students in Cober's class have never had one of their drawings placed in a publication. "I tell the students that there are many reasons for being picked and many reasons for not being picked and that a lot of it is subjective," Cober says. Cober and Stout agree that it's impossible to predict when other editors will get into the act, or when even something so small as a color choice or a physical gesture might turn the tide against an illustration. It's all part of the cutthroat, often heartbreaking process the students will encounter when they enter the field in earnest.

Whether they win the assignments or not, however, these students are establishing a databank of name recognition it would take years to build up on their own. "We've gotten to meet a lot of really well-known people in the field," says David Donati, who had an illustration chosen by Bartholomay. " It's going to be a huge help for when we get out there," Lisa Cebriski agrees. "I think the art directors will remember us from the class."

A week after the crit session, it's time to send completed camera-ready drawings to Austin, Texas, where D.J. Stout will make his final selection. Just before the drawings are packed up, Sam Giannettino hastily wipes out the face of his rich Texan, and paints some dots around the now blank outline. His amendments meet with mixed reactions: "I think you need a face," one classmate states bluntly. Cober comments on Lisa Cebriski's completed piece: "I still find that drawing weak," he says. "It's still the same guy that we left." Although most of the finals have exact correlation to initial thumbnails, a few students have trashed their original ideas entirely, allowing their instincts to lead them to new ideas.

During a phone conversation soon after his final decision is made, D.J. Stout admits that the assignment was not the ideal one for an illustration class. He would have preferred a smaller, more specific theme, but because of the real time constraints of getting a magazine out, he had to use the rich Texans story. "It's a little bit too broad," he says.

Stout's final choice is Sam Giannettino's drawing of a faceless man with his foot up on a cow, but the decision was difficult to make. "It was a hard choice between two of them: Colleen Ayers' steer/dollar bill roping piece and Sam's," the art director says. "Colleen's is more conservative. She used the cliche well; there's nice colors and nice drawings. Sam's is more stylish, more 'out there.'" The contrast between Stout's two final choices is somewhat startling. Although Ayers' concept is hardly groundbreaking, her technique is elegant and effective. The symbolism in Sam Gianettinno's drawing is kinkier--almost perverse. A thick-bodied, skinny-armed, faceless Texan stands with his foot up on a cow. The bright colors and trendy artificiality of it all saves the image from cruelty, but it's still an eyeful. Giannettino has encapsulated an "attitude" into his drawing--some might term it the cocky indifference of wealth, others might call it the eternal anomaly of style versus substance.

Regardless of whether they've won a "live" assignment or not, most of the students in Cober's class seem to be willing to plunge into a career of professional illustration--with all the risks and uncertainty that involves. They're used to having jobs hurled at them just like in the "real world." They've undergone harsh criticism and heavy competition, and they know how to promote themselves. Most importantly, they've been taught that images have an intellectual component, that a simple outline can resonate with meaning and metaphor.

Laura Rankin, a full-time artist for the Buffalo News, the local daily, took Cober's Advanced Illustration class to broaden her horizons as an illustrator and to meet Cober, who had been "my shining star for 15 years." Although she didn't win a live assignment during the class, last year she published a book called The Handmade Alphabet, a beautifully illustrated rendition of the manual alphabet for the deaf which won a Notable award from the American Library Association and is on nearly everyone's recommended list. Like many other alumni, including up-and-coming illustrators Scott Swales, Jane Marinsky, and Joel Peter Johnson, Rankin comes back to visit the classes, keeping in touch with Cober and Howell.

A few days after the Texas Monthly competition, Joe Thiel, a 1988 MFA graduate, called Alan Cober from Baltimore to tell him about his new teaching position as Associate Professor of Illustration at the Ringling School of Art."The benefit of the program was that it convinced me that I wanted to be an illustrator," says Thiel, whose first professional assignment was with the Washington Post. "Without it, I'd probably be somewhere pasting up mechanicals. I think teachers should be doing what they teach. Cober doesn't allow you to give anything but your best."

Step by Step Graphics, 1991

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