Spring 2008

Pesky illustrator

Kenneth FitzGerald
Mark Andresen
Profile / Mark Andresen

Mark Andresen is a graphic one-man-band, with deep roots in the VouDou of pre-Katrina New Orleans

Design never had a term equivalent to ‘multi-instrumentalist’ in music. It’s an awkward expression but it describes a demonstrable ‘cross-platform’ ability. Modern recording technology allows musicians to become one-man bands as well as composers. The skill in design is arguably broader: there is potential to write text, design type, make images and pull it all together into a product. Though practical considerations make this rare, examples of such multi-skilling go way back as far as Geoffrey Tory, the sixteenth-century French wood engraver, designer and royal printer. But we still don’t have a term (‘polygraph’ is already taken). Usually, we choose the most prominent skill.

Yet illustrator-designer Mark Andresen is a prime example of a one-man graphic band: a jack-of-all-trades and master of many, including illustration, type design, writing and graphic design, with strong opinions about everything: few discussions on the Speak Up design blog lack a demonstrative post from ‘Pesky Illustrator’.

Lush on the inside
The child of artists, Andresen grew up in the New Jersey suburbs, and studied art at the Pratt Institute in New York from 1967 to 1970, although he dropped out to hitchhike across America. After a period at an ad agency in New York, he moved to the South in the mid-80s, to work as a designer on Atlanta magazine. The offer of a job redesigning New Orleans magazine, in 1987, brought him to Louisiana. He found the city  – the people, the culture, the architecture – an endless, vivid source of imagery; a ‘place of carefree joy and mysterious pleasure’. What isn’t outwardly flamboyant can contain wonders: ‘The front door is nothing to speak of but it’s lush on the inside.’

A fascination with VouDou led him to be initiated into the ‘religion’ (it isn’t a practice you can observe: you must be a ‘participant or be gone’). This brought him a new perspective on creative activity. Illustration and VouDou are joined in ‘pulling out the hidden meanings of things,’ and just as the true essence of VouDou is service to others, image-making is also a revelatory act for its audience.

A year later, after a falling out with the editor of New Orleans, Andresen moved into freelance illustration, primarily for ad agencies, but his mercurial nature complicated matters. Illustration reps were befuddled by his responsive, chameleon changes of media. One-trick ponies are easier to place (and show). But Andresen’s expressions go beyond pragmatically marketing himself. Ultimately, the demands of the project determine the illustration method.

Illustrators are proficient in a variety of methods, and Andresen, like a good conjurer, is adept with what is on hand. He presses letterforms (in the form of rub-downs) into image service. When he was called on to create an image of the seventeen Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs, Andresen turned to realism. He wanted a recognisable group portrait. Four hundred hours of study of gouache technique resulted in the final work, reproduced in a now rare poster.

Andresen moves between illustration and design, sometimes combining the tasks on jobs, and regards himself as more the latter than the former. To any given project, his awareness of the entirety of the process brings ideas beyond the typical illustrator. He strives for literate graphics, responsive to the design situation and possessed of a depth of knowledge of the subject.

Some jobs have paid long-term dividends, such as his ongoing relationship with McIlhenny Tabasco Sauce. Andresen has crafted thousands of illustrations for the family-owned business over just a few years, from leprechauns for St Patrick’s Day ads to dancing Cajuns adorning Tokyo subway cars.

In 2003, Andresen was asked by the New Orleans mayor’s office to remake the city symbol. Monique McCall, who handled graphics for the city, had begun restyling its iconic fleur-de-lis. Andresen redrew it by hand, providing a symmetry missing from previous incarnations. Andresen considers himself a ‘co-creator’ with McCall of the resultant mark, as she established the ‘essence’ of what emerged. The logo was used everywhere, from stationery to chocolates. Normally, a designer would thrill to behold his logo on every city vehicle. But not if those vehicles ended up on your TV screen, awash in floodwaters.

Down to earth
Merely observing has never satisfied Andresen: he remains an informal, often mordant commentator on design blogs. He’s likely to weigh in on anything: sexism in the field (‘Must seem irritating to competent women designers to always be excluded or patronised’, the vulgarity of popular culture (‘there will never be another Guernica because that requires a consensus of decency and outrage’), and his use of a pseudonym when posting comments (‘I’m for anonymity whoever wants it. The reassurance of non-traceable identity in a world where real privacy issues are eroding seems like a subject worth studying.’)

His visual punditry went public in the early 1990s with ‘funny faxes’ he sent Emigre editor Rudy VanderLans that commented wryly on the magazine’s obsessions.  Some, including the conceptual ‘My New Typeface’, ended up in its pages. ‘The typeface consisted of only two characters,’ VanderLans recalls. ‘One had all vowels placed on top of each other with the instruction “use for vowels”.’ Consonants received a similar treatment. ‘This was during the days when we published a lot of experimental typefaces in Emigre. Mark has a way of bringing people down to earth.’

One of these whimsical submissions became an actual typeface. For the text on an early 1980s poster for the club 688 (legendary stomping ground for new wave acts such as REM and Black Flag), Andresen used fragments of Caslon swash italic press type. He repeated the process to expand on the few original letters. Zuzana Licko then tweaked Andresen’s creation, establishing a baseline, while Andresen expanded it to a full character set.

Emigre released the font, dubbed Not Caslon, in 1995. In a decade littered with extremist type fabrications, Not Caslon was a conspicuously sly creation. It transcended the timely and disposable faces that proliferated, being contemporary in conception and historic in reference. Not Caslon remains an eccentric and refreshingly unaffected typeface in name and form. Applications have ranged from CD packages for Madonna and Lou Reed to scarves, wine labels, and work for Cirque du Soleil.

Andresen showcased the entirety of his talents in a 2001 specimen booklet for Not Caslon. He wrote, designed and illustrated an episode when his VouDou godmother, Reverend Lorita Honeycutt Gamble (‘not a cartoon … a decent lady working spiritually’), dispelled a troublesome ghost, the former occupant of a coffin discovered buried in Andresen’s front yard. Through the Reverend’s ministrations (which include cigars, beans, rum and a rooster), the 200-year-old spirit was induced to return to his casket. 
Andresen is a long-time documenter of New Orleans, who fled only an hour or two ahead of Hurricane Katrina, with his wife Paula, their cats, a box of notebooks that Paula insisted on taking, and the computer hard-drive containing images of most of his work. Of the physical pieces, little more than a tenth was eventually saved from the subsequent storm damage and looting.

His 2006 book New Orleans As It Was is an elegy to the city, comprising work scavenged from saved notebooks and what survived in the storm. His original intent was to create a limited edition as a gift to people who had helped him after Katrina. VanderLans offered to help with the design, and suggested contacting Gingko Press for wider distribution. For Andresen, the process of organising the images was wrenching but therapeutic, and stopped him from ‘unravelling’ in the year following the disaster. Portrayals of the after-Katrina destruction were set aside. The lone image related to the aftermath is on the final page: a man, chest high in floodwater (fleur-de-lis symbol on his T-shirt), balancing a box containing a child on his head. The sketch is made on a Red Cross info sheet for evacuees.

Images of ‘fleeting moments’ – musicians, preachers, chiefs, monuments, ‘absurdly comedic’ structures, the ‘walking, talking Surrealism’ of Mardi Gras – are interspaced with Andresen’s brief texts and captions, which are sentimental but never maudlin. ‘The population of this city always knew they shared the land with ghosts of the past.’ Among those spirits, Andreson counts Buddy Bolden, ‘drifters and adventurers’, and ‘the elegant Creole families who carved civilisation out of the swampland; the French, Arcadians, Spanish, English, Germans, and later the Irish and Sicilians.

And of course the slaves and ‘Free People of Colour’ who brought their own Afro-Caribbean secrets to this wild place. When his relatives wonder why he didn’t draw ‘nice things’ instead of ‘hookers, old buildings and winos’, Andresen dryly replies that ‘They stood still for me.’

Andresen now lives and works in his wife’s hometown of Atlanta, still a struggling ‘working stiff’, who gives little thought to career building. He teaches occasionally, staying connected to the designers’ network. ‘Designers cluster,’ he says. Illustrators are lone wolves, more inclined to regard their peers as competition. 

Natural storyteller
Andresen’s house in New Orleans has been repaired and sold. Nearly all the work he does still comes from New Orleans, but not enough to make a move back feasible. New Orleans is a ‘cubist city now,’ he says, ‘all angular and broken’. For the 2007 design annual issue of Print magazine, he wrote a short piece on designers from New Orleans, which typically directed attention away from himself, and contained far less of the story he could write.

‘I’m still feeling dislocated … caught between two cities: one I remember and one that survived.’ His determination that Katrina should not dominate his life is sometimes breached by his anger and sorrow. The sorrow is for the city, and a way of life, not for the work that was lost. ‘I can always draw again,’ he says. He knows too many people who suffered much greater losses.

Atlanta yields some subjects for his sketchbooks – ‘water and trees’, ‘outcroppings of weeds’ – but nothing like New Orleans. There will be no more jubilant images of that city from Andresen. But there will be others. ‘I need more. I don’t think of myself as only an illustrator but some broader, designer sense … a conceptualist.’

It is this broader sense that is Andresen’s strength, and a rare example of his full potential and ability. As skilled and inventive as he is as an illustrator, it is almost a disappointment that he represents other people’s words, and writes only in blog posts. Andresen is a natural storyteller, with a unique voice and the ability to give the tale form, from the shape of the words’ characters, to the accompanying images. In this way, the Not Caslon type sampler stands as his most thorough and affecting work. Though he’ll always be associated with New Orleans, his stories could be about anything: lush, discomforting and real.