Conjure Man: The Evocations of Mark Andresen

Note: In 2008, Eye magazine published my profile of Mark Andresen, titled “Pesky Illustrator.” It was actually the second version I produced, after editor John Walters requested a different slant to the article. While I was content with the directive and the result, I remain fond of the original piece, which is reproduced below.) 

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The VouDou practice of conjuring is an evocative metaphor for illustration. A conjurer employs common, native materials to “evoke Spirits for practical ends.” An illustrator crafts an image to summon awareness toward a worldly result. There’s also the magical, unpredictable, and somewhat spooky aura that surrounds conjuring—it’s otherworldly. And the most profound imagery is ultimately ineffable—affective beyond its constituent colors, forms, and materials.

This comparison is apt when applied to illustrator/graphic and type designer Mark Andresen, long-time New Orleans documenter, and now, exile. He fled an hour or two ahead of Hurricane Katrina, accompanied by his wife Paula and their cats. Among their few belongings were some notebooks Paula insisted on taking, and the computer hard-drive he grabbed. Nearly everything they left behind, including the bulk of his life’s work, was ruined. The hard-drive contained images of most of his work. But of the physical pieces, little more than a tenth was eventually saved from the subsequent storm damage and looting.

Now situated in Atlanta, Georgia, he simultaneously downplays his personal account while doing all he can to invoke the memory his former, adopted home. He’s determined not be defined solely by his personal tragedy, yet is resolute in keeping its spirit animate. Like a psychic medium, he’s conflicted: charged with giving voice while uncomfortable being the focus of attention. At the same time, Andresen’s voice is distinctive on its own.

That voice is a rough mix of channeled personalities. Andresen describes himself as a blend of Marcel Duchamp, the reincarnated White Russian spy Sidney Reilly (who’s still grudged about his Bolshevik murderers), and Klattu—the Michael Rennie character from the sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still: “I’m a bit alien to what passes for normal and I think my karmic task is to wake up planet Earth to change.”

Andresen has strong opinions about art, design and politics—especially what he considers the corrupt and callous practices of the U.S’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)—and is unreserved when expressing them. During its heyday, few discussions on the Speak Up design blog lacked a demonstrative post from “Pesky Illustrator.” He’s keeping at it, rambling, determined, selfless, and sardonic.

The ideal of making something enduring and preserving the past was impressed upon Andresen early. He grew up in the New Jersey suburbs, where his parents were artists, but his father gave up art to work on the 1960s U.S. space program. His mother was an amateur Egyptologist, capable of writing hieroglyphics. On a trip to New York’s Metropolitan Museum, one image captivated him: “I saw the hand of some ancient Egyptian artist in the moment of putting quill to papyrus . . . it struck me what immortality is.”

He studied art at the Pratt Institute in New York from 1967–1969, but dropped out before graduating, and hitchhiked across the country. Back in New York he began work at an ad agency, “drawing things.” In the mid-80s, moved to Atlanta, to work as a designer on Atlanta magazine. Andresen enjoyed the work, and was successful at it, though he seldom lasted long in a job.

He moved to New Orleans in 1987 when he was offered a position redesigning New Orleans magazine. Andresen found the city to be an endless, vivid source of imagery-the people, the culture, the architecture — 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.”

His fascination with VouDou led him to be initiated into the religion. VouDou isn’t a practice you can observe: you must be a “participant or nothing” to witness its activity. VouDou brought Andresen a new perspective on his creative activity. Illustration and VouDou are joined in “pulling out the hidden meanings of things.” The true essence of VouDou is service to others, as image making is also a revelatory act for its audience.

Andresen’s New Orleans job ended in a year, after a falling out with the editor, so he moved into freelance illustration, primarily for ad agencies. But Andresen’s mercurial nature extends to his illustration and complicates matters. He found illustration representatives befuddled by his responsive, chameleon changes of media in his work. 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.

When he was called on to create an image of the seventeen Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs, Andresen turned for the first time to realism. He wanted a recognizable, group portrait. Four hundred hours of study of gouache technique resulted in the final work, reproduced in a now rare poster.

Illustrators are proficient in a variety of methods, and Andresen, like a good conjurer, is adept with what’s on hand. He presses letterforms (in the form of rub-downs) into image service.

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 on-going relationship with McIlhenny Tabasco Sauce. Andresen has crafted thousands of illustrations for the family-owned business over just a few years, from the de rigueur leprechauns for St. Patrick’s Day ads to dancing Cajuns adorning Tokyo subway cars. Andresen’s commissions from McIlhenny are now on hold, as the company recovers from being hit hard by both hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

In 2003, Andresen was contacted Monique McCall of the New Orleans mayor’s office to remake his city’s symbol. McCall, who handled graphics for the city, had begun restyling the iconic fleur-de-lis. Andresen investigated other symbols but was directed to return to McCall’s original drawing. By hand, he redrew the symbol, providing a symmetry that was missing from previous incarnations. Andresen considers himself a “co-creator” with McCall of the resultant mark, as she established the “essence” of what emerged.

Still in use, the logo was used broadly, from stationery to chocolates. This widespread treatment became another bittersweet aspect of Katrina. Normally, a designer would thrill to behold his logo on every city vehicle. However, not if those vehicles ended up on the TV screen—awash in floodwaters.

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 patronized, except for the anointed few. If it’s changed up in the star-celebrity designer Pentagramworld Pantheon someone tell me differently.”), the vulgarity of popular culture (“There will never be another Guernica because that requires a consensus of decency and outrage. I think the absence of both is a sign of a death culture in progress.”), and his choice to employ a pseudonym when posting comments (“I’m for anonymity whoever wants it. The reassurance of non-traceable identity in a world were real privacy issues are eroding seems like a subject worth studying. As Hakim Bey, author of The Temporary Autonomous Zone writes, in the future being anonymous will be a privilege.”)

His visual punditry went public in the early 1990s when he sent Emigre editor Rudy VanderLans “funny faxes” — some of which ended up in its pages — that commented wryly on the magazine’s obsessions. Such as Andresen’s conceptual “My New Typeface.” “The typeface consisted of only two characters,” VanderLans recalled, “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. His tongue-in-cheek type submission made good fun of the absurdity of some of the so-called experimentation of the time.”

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One of these whimsical submissions became an actual typeface. For the text on a early 80s music club poster, 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, appropriately dubbed “Not Caslon,” in 1995.

In the midst of 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 Madonna and Lou Reed CD packages, to scarves, wine bottle labels, and Cirque du Soleil.

Andresen showcases the entirety of his talents in a 2001 specimen booklet for the typeface. He wrote, designed and illustrated an episode when his VouDou godmother, Reverend Lorita Honeycutt Gamble (“a decent lady working spiritually”) dispels 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 is induced to return to his casket.

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The sampler is just a taste of the visual flavors cataloged in Andresen’s 2006 book, New Orleans As It Was. It’s an elegy to the city that’s comprised of work scavenged from saved notebooks and what survived in the storm. Andresen’s original intent was to create a limited edition as a gift to people who had helped him after Katrina. Rudy VanderLans offered to help with the design, and suggested contacting Gingko Press for wider distribution. At his wife’s urging, Andresen proposed the book. Gingko agreed and put the project on a fast track to release.

The publisher took the book as submitted. For Andresen, the process of organizing the images was wrenching but therapeutic. To do the project helped him from “unraveling” 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 book final page: a man, chest high in floodwater (his T-shirt sporting the fleur-de-lis symbol), balancing a box containing a child on his head. The sketch is made on a Red Cross info sheet for evacuees.

Images of New Orleans’ “fleeting moments” — musicians, preachers, chiefs, monuments, ‘absurdly comedic’ structures, the ‘walking, talking Surrealism of Mardi Gras — are interspaced with brief texts and captions by Andresen. While he apologetically terms his words “purple prose,” they are sentimental but never maudlin. “The population of this city always knew they shared the land with ghosts of the past. You can count among those spirits the pirate Jean Lafitte, Buddy Bolden and Louie Armstrong; the fancy ladies of Storyville; the countless drifters and adventurers who came down the Mississippi River looking for work or trouble; and the elegant Creole families who carved civilization 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 Color 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.”

VanderLans designed an all type cover for the book that resembles a placard, or historic marker. It also suggests those New Orleans houses with plain doors Andresen cherished. VanderLans’ own photographic explorations of Western landscapes make the book the product of two artists intimately engaged with place.

Katrina was a diving point for Andresen and the city, and ending that stretches on. He lives and works now in his wife’s hometown of Atlanta, still a struggling “working stiff,” who gives little thought to career building. Practically all the work he scrapes together comes, ironically, from New Orleans. Andresen remains a “sucker for pro bono.” He teaches occasionally, stays connected to the designers’ network. “Designers cluster,” he says. Illustrators are lone wolves, who, more than designers, regard their peers as competition.

Andresen’s house in Metairie section of New Orleans has since been repaired and sold. Work still comes from New Orleans but not enough to make a move back feasible. He doesn’t foresee returning—physically—anytime soon. New Orleans is a “cubist city now,” he says, “all angular and broken.” For the 2007 design annual issue of Print magazine, Andresen wrote a short piece on illustrators from New Orleans, that typically directed attention away from himself, and contained far less of the story he could write.

“I’m still feeling dislocated. I am now a man caught between two cities: one I remember and one that survived.” He’s adamant that Katrina will not dominate his life but sometimes he’s breached by the anger and sorrow of the loss. The sorrow is for the city, and a way of life. Andresen isn’t sentimental or despairing of the work that he had to dispose of after Katrina. “I can always draw again,” he says. He knows too many people who suffered 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. A conjurer if you want…”

It is this broader sense that’s Andresen’s strength, and a rare example of his full potential and ability. As skilled and inventive as he is as an illustrator, it’s almost a disappointment that he represents other people’s words, and writes in blog posts. Andresen is a natural storyteller, possessed with a unique voice and the ability to wholly 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 through and effecting work. An Andresen account of Katrina could be that tragedy’s In the Shadow of No Towers (presented with this proposal, Andresen demurs; he evacuated and didn’t experience the full calamity.).

However, though he’ll always, by choice, be associated with New Orleans, his stories could be about anything. The stories would likely be lush, discomforting and very real.

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