Design Matters with BARRY BLITT

Published on 2017-12-23
Barry Blitt, photographed at the School of Visual Arts Masters in Branding Studio by Emily Weiland.
Barry Blitt, photographed at the School of Visual Arts Masters in Branding Studio by Emily Weiland.

Interviewing Barry Blitt was a dream come true. I've been subscribing to the New Yorker for what feels like decades and especially treasure Barry's covers. They are always spot on, both politically and aesthetically. When I received the copy of his book I knew I had to interview him. But Barry rarely gives interviews, so I was super lucky to be able to speak to him in this episode of Design Matters. Since 1992, Barry has contributed more than 100 covers and countless illustrations to the New Yorker. He's a master of political satire, and he is fully engaged in the Trump error with devastating characters of the people in power. His most controversial cover, however, came during the 2008 campaign with his illustration of President Obama dressed in Muslim garb, fist bumping an armed and Afroed Michelle Obama. Barry's work has also appeared in many other publications and periodicals, including Vanity Fair and The New York Times. The best place to see it all is in his magnificent new book, titled simply, "Blitt." I'm was so honored to have him on Design Matters to talk about his career and his extraordinary body of work, and hope you enjoy this interview. PLEASE NOTE: I will not be charging for this post...HAPPY HOLIDAYS! Thank you for supporting my Design Matters community!


Debbie: Barry Blitt, welcome to Design Matters.

Barry:  Thank you, Debbie. I'm delighted to be here.

Debbie:  Barry, I'd like to read the first sentence of your new book. You write: "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth." That line is vaguely familiar to me.

Barry:  Right. It's the first line of "Catcher in the Rye."

Debbie:  What made you decide to use that line?

Barry:  What made me decide to use it? I was scrambling.

Debbie:  Really?

Barry:  Yeah. I don't do a lot of writing about myself. I mean, there is an anonymity to just contributing drawings to publications, you know? I mean, the New Yorker, it's very visible, but it's not    you know, it's about them. It's not about me. Putting the book together is not something I would have suggested.
An editor at Riverhead, Geoff Kloske, called me with the idea, and it's every illustrator's or cartoonist's ideal to have a collection of their stuff in one tome. I was delighted to do it, but it does come with a certain amount of vim. I'm sitting here, being interviewed here, with uncomfortable headphones. I'm out of my comfort zone is what I'm saying.

Debbie:  We'll try to get you to feel a little bit more comfortable.

Barry:  You don't have earbuds I could wear? Forget it. Keep going. I'll get over it.

Debbie:  [laughs] Good. Barry, you were born in Quebec, Canada, and have said that you were born a smart aleck, a wisenheimer, a jokester, a punster, and a fool. You just popped out that way?

Barry:  Well, my dad was like that. My younger brother is a funny guy. So, there wasn't much choice, really.

Debbie:  As a toddler, you drew cartoon characters on shirt cardboard. I understand that it was then that your parents saw potential and encouraged you to go into dry cleaning.

Barry:  Right. Those are jokes.

Debbie:  See, I'm trying to seem like I'm the one that's funny...

Barry:  Please, better you than me.

Debbie:  ...when in fact it's really you I'm quoting.

Barry:  It's no picnic trying to be funny all the time. I think that was the thrust of what I was trying to get across. You get into trouble, like the fist bump, like countless other times. Trying to be funny, it's a blessing and a curse.

Debbie:  What kind of drawings are you making on that cardboard paper?

Barry:  I was drawing Popeye a lot, as a very young kid. Then I was sort of drawing my own cartoon characters. We're talking about very young.

Debbie:  Very young, yes. When did you realize that you might be artistic?

Barry:  I think I was just told by adults, and peers, and friends that, "That kid could draw," basically.
Debbie:  When you were a teenager, your focus was on drawing hockey players, baseball players, Elton John, all of which I can understand, but you also had a focus on drawing Dorothy Hamill. Why Dorothy Hamill?

Barry:  I don't think we have to talk about this, really.

Debbie:  Why?

Barry:  I don't know. I liked Dorothy Hamill at a certain age, where I was vulnerable.

Debbie:  Oh, wait. You had a crush on her.

Barry:  I had a crush on Dorothy Hamill.

Debbie:  I was thinking that it might have had something to do with her hair.

Barry:  Well, she had good hair.

Debbie:  But you had a crush on her.

Barry:  I did.

Debbie:  Did you ever send her any of your drawings?

Barry:  I hope I didn't.

Barry:  I can't totally remember.

Debbie:  Did you send your drawings out a lot to people?

Barry:  I did. I grew up in Montreal, so I was a hockey fan, as you pretty well had to be. I had a sort of a scam going where I would draw hockey players, usually the visiting teams, and I would go down to the hotel where they stayed. I would wait for them to come down into the lobby, and I would present them with their drawings. I ended up befriending a lot of hockey players and getting free tickets to hockey games.

Debbie:  That was the scam part?

Barry:  That was the scam. It maybe wasn't a scam. It was more of an angle, but I had my work published in the "Pittsburgh Penguins Playoff Yearbook," and the "Philadelphia Flyers Yearbook."
Debbie:  Can you see, if you were to look back on those drawings now, the beginning of your signature style?

Barry:  No. They were reverential. I was a smart aleck, as I mentioned, but I kept that out of my work. I thought one's art shouldn't be sullied by your wise cracks and your attitude.
Debbie:  From all the research that I've done about your early drawing, and going to college, and so forth, it seems that you really had two separate camps of work. You had this, what you called crazy pictures that you kept out of your portfolio. They were for your friends' eyes only, and then you had the more serious, what you considered to be artistic work. What kind of work was that?

Barry:  Once I, at a certain age, learned to capture a likeness, it was hero worship, basically. When that started to feel uncomfortable, it was photo realism with very soft pencils, charcoal and stuff like that. At the same time, I was doing pen and ink stuff, so I had a dual portfolio that I brought around to magazines in Toronto after I finished school.

Debbie:  You never took any art classes before you went to college. Yet you got into the Concordia University in Montreal, and then the Ontario College of Art, on the strength of what you referred to as your humorless portfolio. Those were just drawings that you made on your own that weren't hockey players or Dorothy Hamill. What kinds of things were you doing at that point?

Barry:  There was probably some Dorothy Hamill. There was rock star drawings.

Debbie:  When you got into school, you decided, "OK, this is it. I'm going to be an artist. I want to do this for a living."

Barry:  I felt I was going to do this for a living. I thought maybe I'd be drawing portraits in hotels...I'm not sure what I thought I would be doing.

Debbie:  You wrote that you were intimidated when you first got to college.

Barry:  Just being around so many terrific artists, I wasn't used to that, being surrounded by people who were damn good at this, for one thing. Maybe realizing that what I was doing was crap, which I feel every day, but that's when I first got introduced to it. When I was 14 and drawing hockey players, I thought I was just doing fantastic work.

Debbie:  Given that the bulk of your work for school assignments was, as you put it, "Authentically realistic, with slavish adherence to likeness and mood," what kind of response were you getting from your professors? Did you ever show them your more slapdash pen and ink drawings?

Barry:  I did, some. I remember one of the first pen and ink drawings I did the slapdash style was a drawing of Rodney Dangerfield that I haven't matched since. The colors were bright. I wish I still drew like that.

Debbie:  You still have that drawing?

Barry:  I still have that drawing, and it should be in the book. It's not.

Debbie:  Yeah, it should be in the book.

Barry:  I got a good response to that particular drawing, but after that, I went back to the charcoal stuff.
Debbie:  At that point, you just said that you were thinking you might make illustrations in a hotel or something like that, but did you have aspirations? Were you thinking, "I'd like to be a cartoonist in the vein of...?"

Barry:  I was fighting against the cartoonist label. I had a roommate in art school who was a fine artist, an aspiring fine artist, and he would look at my drawings and say, "Oh, that's cartoons, you know, what you're doing." He would belittle it by that, and I took that as a pejorative. I was trying to do something higher, but I'm not sure what it is I was trying to do.

Debbie:  How did you go about getting work when you first graduated?

Barry:  I brought around a portfolio of my pieces I was proud of, but I wanted to stack the portfolio, and I also had some funny stuff. Every art director I went to, except for a few notable ones, preferred the funny stuff.

Debbie:  Did that worry you at the time?

Barry:  I was happy to get work. I was happy that I expected to bring work in and not have it be well received, so I was excited that they liked something.

Debbie:  You wrote how you felt that indulging in the humorous for money, in real magazines and newspapers, felt like cheating. Is it because you enjoyed it so much?

Barry:  I don't know about the money part. I would have happily sold the realistic stuff for money, but I thought that art was something higher than wisecracks. Little did I know...

Debbie:  [laughs] You can make a good living at this stuff.

Barry:  Yeah, and there's tremendous art in wisecracks. I've come to appreciate that.

Debbie:  Your work is really more than just wisecracks. It's not "Three Stooges" kind of, "Ha, ha, ha," work. There's a real biting satire to it, not that there's not some biting satire as well to the Three Stooges, but how did you start to bring politics and satire into your work?

Barry:  I started getting work with the funny stuff, the so called funny stuff, and then I started sending my portfolio to the United States, and getting work there. Before too long, I had a regular gig with "Entertainment Weekly," and I was doing pop culture stuff. It still had echoes of Dorothy Hamill and The Electric Light Orchestra, etc. The political angle emerged with the Monica Lewinsky scandal when suddenly it seemed like politics became pop culture. I was being asked by Entertainment Weekly, of all places, to make Bill Clinton jokes, and politics was everywhere, and it happened that way.

Debbie:  From what I've uncovered in my research, when you first started out doing this type of work, you, by your own admission, you say that your knowledge of politics was superficial. You don't still feel that way, do you?

Barry:  I think so. I don't have strong feelings, or understanding of the economic policy, or anything like that. I find I go to a dinner party and everyone is left wing there, which I consider myself strongly left wing, but I argue with whoever I'm talking to. I'm a contrarian. It's easy to make jokes about stuff, but to understand it deeply, I don't think I do.

Debbie:  There really is a deep ethos embedded in your work, at least that I perceive, that leads me to believe that the person behind those drawings is deeply feeling the humanity in any situation now...

Barry:  Not me. [laughs]

Debbie:  You're just making it up?

Barry:  Sure. I hope I am.

Debbie:  You don't like compliments. I have to be careful.

Barry:  I just would rather not think about these things too much. If I were to worry or to look inward too far, it would kill every artistic impulse I had and make me too self conscious, not that I'm not enough already.

Debbie:  When you first started working at "The New Yorker" in the 1990s with Chris Curry, you began drawing illustrations for reviews and for articles in either pen and ink or water color. At that point, do you feel that you had found your style, your look?

Barry:  Yeah, quite a bit before that, by the late '80s.

Debbie:  How did you get your first big break with The New Yorker?

Barry:  The first big break with The New Yorker...I remember they still used to see artists then. I don't know if they do any more, but I brought my portfolio in, I called Chris Curry. She came out into the lobby, and looked through my portfolio, and then gave me a movie review to illustrate. I did several of those, and then she introduced me to Francoise Mouly who had just started at the magazine.

Debbie:  I read when she first reviewed your portfolio, you showed her a few panels on a page about a beard museum.

Barry:  Right.

Debbie:  Does that really exist, or was it an idea to develop one?

Barry:  That was an idea just I had kept showing to Francoise. Part of my relationship with Francoise was to try and make her laugh. If I would bring her a sketch that she didn't like, I would make sure to bring it back, and she said, "That's ridiculous. We're not going to run that," so I kept bringing it back to her.

Debbie:  In 1993, Francoise invited you to "try" a cover. What does it mean to "try" a cover?

Barry:  At the end of a phone call about something else, she just said, "Why don't you...You should be pitching covers. Why don't you..." I was doing a lot of spot illustrations by then, so the amount of real estate a cover has is intimidating.

Debbie:  There's a shroud of mystery around how The New Yorker covers come into being. I learned a lot reading your book about it. It's really fascinating, especially the speed in which it happens, but I do know that there's this process of pitching ideas for the covers. How do you go about doing that? You just decide that this is a topic that you believe is worthy of a cover, and then execute, and send in a sketch? Is that how simple it is?

Barry:  I guess so. Back then, this is before I had a scanner probably, it was before I was doing political stuff, I would walk around the city, and have a sketch book open, and see things that amused me.
This particular time, I'm sure I sent in quite a few sketches, but one I was watching people congregating outside of buildings, smoking cigarettes. That was a new law that you couldn't smoke in an office, and so I had them standing on window ledges. That was the sketch.

Debbie:  You showed some of those sketches to Edward Sorel, the legendary illustrator.

Barry:  Right. How it happened was, I sent the sketch in, the rough sketch, and Francoise said, "Tina likes it. Go ahead." Which sent me in all kinds of bad directions, but I did several versions of it, and none of which were usable at all. They were bad drawings.

Debbie:  Why? What makes something...?

Barry:  They tightened up, and I was approaching it wrong. Francoise looked at them, and rolled her eyes, and said to me, "Why don't you go talk to Ed Sorel? He's done lots of covers, and he'd be a great person to talk you down and give you some advice," which terrified me.
I said, "No, I'm not going to talk to Ed," but he called me a minute later, invited me over, and it was an amazing thing. I went to his house for lunch, and he said, "Show me what you've got." I showed him some drawings, he said, "No, no, no. These are terrible. Where did you get these buildings from?"
I said, "I made them up to fit the image," and he said, "Some people can make up buildings. You can't, I can't," and he showed me how he would do it. He just did a very rough sketch of the composition of the image.

Debbie:  When you ended up with the final, he was still somewhat underwhelmed.

Barry:  He was. You can't win.

Debbie:  What was his critique, because he just said...

Barry:  He didn't say. He just said, "Not your best work."

Debbie:  [laughs] That's just so cruel.

Barry:  Which is almost encouraging, from Ed.

Debbie:  [laughs] Despite Ed's misgivings, on January 10th, 1994, your first cover was published. It was titled, "Resolute Smokers," and featured smokers all over buildings, on the ledges in the windows, desperately trying to get their fix.

Barry:  Ed's comment wasn't the worst of it because about a month later, The New Yorker got a letter from Arnold Roth, another legendary cartoonist, showing that he had done the exact same idea in "Time" magazine, maybe a year before. The New Yorker themselves found that they had run a black and white cartoon inside the magazine, before Arnold's, of people standing on window ledges smoking.

Debbie:  Did you feel doomed?

Barry:  I felt doomed. That's exactly how I felt.

Debbie:  How do you recover from something like that?

Barry:  You recover. I've produced some duds, more than my share, and you just go onto the next one.

Debbie:  I want to talk a little bit about how you work. Illustrator Steve Brodner has said that the most important tool a satiric artist can have is a space to play, but every issue of The New Yorker closes the print issue on Fridays. You often get a call on a Wednesday or a Thursday, asking for ideas. You're then expected to send in sketches in a matter of hours. How do you go about doing that?
Barry:  A good example would be the Brexit situation. That was a Thursday night. Usually, the magazine goes to the printer on Thursday, but because the results were so unexpected and profound, there was an email that went out to artists on Friday morning saying, "We're going to hold the cover we have at the plant. If anyone has an idea, let us know right now." I remembered walking into my studio and scribbling couple of things. I wish there was a dramatic sequence I could describe for you, but it was just a matter of panicking, and drawing, and trying to make myself laugh in a second.

Debbie:  It's a fairly remarkable cover. [laughs] It's British men in top hats and jackets, walking off a cliff.

Barry:  Yeah, it's from Monty Python. It's a silly walk.

Debbie:  How do you come up with the ideas?

Barry:  There's much less than meets the ear here. There's nothing. There's really nothing. I can tell you that there was the cover we had of the guy being dragged off a plane, and that's an objective, is to try and mash a couple of storylines into a single image, and that was...

Debbie:  Jeff Sessions was pulling James Comey off, and Trump, in the background, was a flight attendant.

Barry:  Right, and that was shortly on the heels of the guy getting pulled off the United Airlines flight. It worked as a commentary on the situation. The truth is that I came up with that idea a few weeks before, when Steve Bannon was rumored to be on the outs, and he was going to be fired. He wasn't, at the time. It was much later, but I originally sketched it out as Steve Bannon being pulled off, which wouldn't have worked at all. You want to be sympathetic with the guy who's being pulled off, so it had some resonance with James Comey being pulled off. The idea, as I thought of it, was a lousy idea, with Steve Bannon, but it just happened to work. There's a lot of luck involved.

Debbie:  Luck is there when you show up time, after time, after time, after time and maybe one day if you're lucky, luck is there waiting for you, but let's talk for a second. I disagree that the Steve Bannon version of that cover wouldn't work. It would be appropriate, but it might not be as funny.

Barry:  It would be funny, but intellectually, if I can use that word here, it wouldn't work on any other level other than as a joke. It was not so cheap a laugh the way it worked out I think.

Debbie:  It's not a cheap laugh. It's a sad laugh. It's a tragic laugh.

Barry:  There's nothing like a sad laugh.

Debbie:  You and Chris Ware, you have that sort of sense. Alison Bechdel, as well. You can convey humor, sadness, heartbreak, pathos, with one stroke of your pen.

Barry:  You're mixing me up with Harry Bliss actually.

Debbie:  No, I'm not. You've said that you still have to force yourself, with every drawing and every sketch, not to hold back, not to be too timid on the page. Francoise has written about how she never wants you to edit out the gross, the vulgar, or the unpublishable. She goes on to state in the book, "A humorist like Barry Blitt is often referred to as having an edge, and to find that edge, he has to go beyond it. Sometimes, far beyond." My question is, how do you struggle with forcing yourself not to hold back in order to go beyond that edge? It seems like there's real push pull of not wanting to be too timid, but also getting to that place where you've gone too far and it does become unpublishable.

Barry:  This isn't challenging, and probably isn't hard to explain this aspect of it. I always have bad thoughts, and I go too far in my sketch book. It's just stuff I wouldn't send to her, so she just encourages me to send it to her. Half of the time, like the beard museum, I know it's something that she's not going to publish and that's fine. It's fun to make Francoise laugh. At that point, I'll send her 10 sketches and I know 3 of them are absolutely pointless.

Debbie:  It seems to me that that signifies there's a real trust there.

Barry:  Sure. [laughs] I only once got a bad reaction from her from something I sent.

Debbie:  Can you share what it was?

Barry:  Yeah. I'm not sure if I sent it or mentioned it to her, but when she was telling me to not hold back, I had an idea of...This is a terrible idea but it's one of those train cars going to Auschwitz. It's everyone packed into the car, and there's this one guy talking on his cell phone, and everyone is irritated because he's talking on his cell phone.

Barry:  She said, "Thank you very much for showing me that," in a tone of voice I hadn't heard before, but otherwise, probably you need to go too far to get to where you're going, or some...

Debbie:  In a conversation with Steve Heller, you implied that much of your best work was the results of accidents that somehow succeeded. Again, in that specific essay, there was a reference to luck, and he didn't believe that for a minute, but I was intrigued. I was intrigued because I wanted to understand, how do you get to that accident to begin with? That gets us back to that other question about, how do you come up with ideas? I know that Steve Brodner, in your book, talks about how he feels that it's important to write drunk but edit sober. That plethora of ideas, that flurry of connections that you're making, how does even a happy accident happen? How does that mash up?

Barry:  You want to have your pen on the page. There's times when I'll walk around and try and think of things but three quarters of the battle is scribbling, and making something visible, not keeping it in your head. Luck is just another word for it. It's definitely part of the process.

Debbie:  You mentioned before, the notion of your first few sketches for your first ever cover for The New Yorker being tight.

Barry:  Not sketches. This was final art work.

Debbie:  Final art work being tight. I've read that you will often do more than one finished cover so that each version appears casual and loose. How do you achieve that casual looseness so that it doesn't appear tortured?

Barry:  It does appear tortured plenty of times, but it's trying to distract myself. It's trying not to think about it too much, which is hard when your brain's going, "Blah, blah, blah, blah," in your head, but it's just a matter of doing it.

Debbie:  If there's a single part of an illustration that you don't like, I read that you redo the entire thing, and yet your work always looks entirely spontaneous, and I guess that's the result of that looseness. What gives you the sense? Is it just a personal assessment that something looks too tight or something looks too forced or tortured?

Barry:  Absolutely. On the other hand, when you say something, an entire image will look loose, there are times when I'll send several versions to Francoise, and maybe she'll take one figure out of one and digitally put them together.

Debbie:  Really?

Barry:  Yeah.

Debbie:  In The New Yorker cover of Martin Luther King hailing a cab, Francoise Mouly suggested that you have a face in the taxi driver.

Barry:  Through the rear window.

Debbie:  You drew this inside of the taxi cab, and then the driver is looking out, and yet you can see the driver in the rear view mirror, as you just said. How many ideas do you get from Francoise, because I know she was the one that said, "Can you put the driver in the car?" How much of that is collaborative? How much of the work do you do together?

Barry:  It's collaborative. Often, they're happening at the very last minute, so she might get the final art and say, "It might be a good idea if I do this. Are you OK with that?" She'll digitally move something, but...

Debbie:  How often does she say no to you?

Barry:  How do you mean no?

Debbie:  As in, bad idea, Barry?

Barry:  That was spelled out. Ultimately, the magazine publishes 50 issues a year or so, and I'm lucky if I get four or six covers a year or...

Debbie:  Seems like you're getting a lot more now.

Barry:  My math could be wrong, but I've never done 10 in a year, or 8, I don't think. I'm not sure how many I do, but...

Debbie:  I bet you you'll come up this year with about that many.

Barry:  There's a lot of nos. I'll often send 10 sketches, and none of them will go. My batting average is like a pitcher's. It's not a great batting average.

Debbie:  If you think about somebody like Babe Ruth, one of the greatest baseball players of all time. What was it, 400?

Barry:  Right. I'm not in Babe Ruth territory.

Debbie:  [laughs] OK. We're not going to argue back and forth about...

Barry:  We're talking numbers, and if you're asking numbers, let's say I have 6 covers a year, or 7, I'm sure over the year I've sent 70 sketches at least. Probably more than that.

Debbie:  In an essay in your book, Francoise stated that when you first met, you had her watch "Fox News" rather than "MSNBC."

Barry:  I had her watch?

Debbie:  Yes.

Barry:  I wasn't aware of that. I told her that I made sure to listen to Rush Limbaugh when I could stand it, and to watch Fox when I could stand it, and now I can't even watch MSNBC. I don't watch any televised news. I find it all showbizzy and crap, but that's just me, but yeah, it's important to see what the country is consuming and see what people are looking at. I have some friends who are extremely right wing. It's distressing.

Debbie:  How do you manage?

Barry:  We don't talk politics at all.

Debbie:  Isn't that hard to do?

Barry:  Which? Not talk politics?

Debbie:  Not to talk politics with people that you know have different politics than you do?

Barry:  Yeah, it is.

Debbie:  It's a lot easier not to talk politics with people you know have the same politics with you.
Barry:  Right. It's unsatisfying. If I have an argument with them, and even if I feel like I've won the argument, I feel bad afterwards.

Debbie:  You have some absolutely wonderful photographs in your book showcasing the tools of your trade. They include synchromatic, transparent water color, India inks, quill pens, but on another spread, you have Zantac, and Aspirin, and Pepto Bismol. Do you find the work very stressful?

Barry:  I'd probably be stressed out whether I was working or not.

Debbie:  It's not really about the times? It's just about the way you are?

Barry:  I'm sure it's the way I am, probably. I just went and did a live drawing thing with "The New York Times" there. I thought it would be hilarious to have a pill bottle on the drawing surface there, but apparently the last person they had did that too.

Debbie:  When it first came out that Tiger Woods had been unfaithful to his wife, you created a rather cheeky image of Tiger Woods trying to get a golf ball in about 130 holes. The illustration was accepted and then rejected by The New Yorker, then subsequently accepted and rejected by "Vanity Fair," and then rejected by "The Huffington Post." You've said that this is what is known in illustration as a triple bogey.
How do you know what is appropriate for what type of magazine? Why would you send something to The New Yorker, versus Vanity Fair, versus The Huffington Post?

Barry:  That's probably the only time I ever sent anything to The Huffington Post, and my objective is to send things to The New Yorker, first and foremost. I send everything there first, and then when it was killed, I thought that Vanity Fair might go for it, possibly.

Debbie:  Even though it might be rejected by Francoise or some other art director at The New Yorker, if you feel really strongly about something, they're not the final word. You might consider taking it elsewhere?

Barry:  If I thought it was still viable.

Debbie:  No one ever published that illustration. First time that anybody could see it is in your book.

Barry:  Right.

Debbie:  There's a reason to buy the book.

Barry:  I've had stuff published in other magazines that The New Yorker didn't go for. I did a drawing of a flag draped casket being supported by pallbearers. I wrote, "Support our troops," below it, and The New Yorker didn't go for it, but "The Atlantic Monthly" did. It was around the time of the Iraq war.
Debbie:  Let's talk about some of your most famous covers. Throughout the eight years of the second Bush administration, you were persistently brutal on George W., most deservedly so. In the September 8th, 2008 cover titled "Deluged," which featured Bush, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and Condoleezza Rice sitting in a flooded Oval Office. How do you see this type of idea before you draw it? Again, this goes back to the creation of ideas, but that one was so vivid and struck such a deep, deep cord in our society. I'm wondering if you could just give us any kind of back story on that particular illustration.

Barry:  I wish I could make the process dramatic, or even give you a sequential tour of what the hell is happening, but it's a pencil moving on a page and I don't know what the hell is going on, to be honest with you. It's a terrible answer, but I'd rather not know.

Debbie:  That's fair. That's actually wonderful. Let's talk specifically then about Condoleezza Rice's hair.

Barry:  It's quite an architectural thing.

Debbie:  That is quite an architectural feat.

Barry:  It is. How does she do it?

Debbie:  [laughs] How did you do it? You just got it so perfect.

Barry:  How did she do it? It's like there's a duck in the back, and it's an interesting structure.

Debbie:  You're able to convey hair really well, and the way in which you are able to capture President Trump's hair is extraordinary. The "Belly Flop" hair is amazing, the hair in the rain is amazing. How much time have you spent perfecting his hair?

Barry:  There's not much perfecting. It's served on a platter. If only everyone...

Debbie:  Saw the platter your way?

Barry:  ...looked like that. He's so caricaturable, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders for instance, I haven't drawn her yet but there are so many great drawings of her just on Facebook. Everyone draws her and some people are just screaming to be caricatured.

Debbie:  As tough as you've been on the Republicans, one of your most controversial illustrations, as I mentioned in the introduction, was the 2008 cover titled, "The Politics of Fear." It featured Barrack Obama, dressed in Muslim attire, fist bumping Michelle Obama, who was dressed like activist Angela Davis, and armed with an AK 47. They stood in the Oval Office with a portrait of Osama Bin Laden on the wall, and an American flag burning in the fireplace. When it came out, it was labeled, "Tasteless and offensive," by Obama's campaign spokesman, Bill Burton, and even Republican senator John McCain condemned the art.
Did you or the editors of The New Yorker anticipate the controversy that exploded around the cover?

Barry:  I thought it might be a touchy kind of image that might provoke some outrage, but I didn't expect there'd be so much from "my own side." I should have been a little bit more aware. The Internet helped that. I don't know if that would have happened pre Internet, but I was taken aback, that's for sure, especially the first few days after it came out.

Debbie:  The New Yorker got thousands of angry emails, nearly all of them from self proclaimed liberals saying that of course they understood the intent of the image, but voters out in the big square states never would. While talking about the image on "CNN," Wolf Blitzer compared that issue of The New Yorker to those of "Der St¸rmer" a magazine in Fascist Germany. Did you get scared at all? Were you worried?

Barry:  I'm glad that David Remnick handled that interview much more ably than I might have been able to. I was scared. I was a little freaked out. I told you that my book, it's a little bit more attention than I'm happy with, so that particular image, it was a frightening couple of days. I was getting threatening emails...

Debbie:  That was my next question. Given what's been happening now in our culture when people get angry, they just go out and start killing people.

Barry:  [laughs] I don't know. I guess.

Debbie:  Do you ever worry that if you cross a line or offend someone that your life could be in danger now?

Barry:  No. I haven't got any Trump anger from right wingers, or maybe I'm not doing my job, but...

Debbie:  The New York Times called the image the most memorable image of the 2008 presidential campaign. In a wonderful twist of fate, after taking office, President Barrack Obama chose a different New Yorker cover to hang in the White House. That cover is of the president picking the family dog at the same time he was vetting candidates for his national security cabinet. That's definitely a, "Ha, ha," funny picture.
He also requested a signed New Yorker cover you created that depicted the president walking on water. Is that how you felt about him? How much of your own affection for or dislike of a particular politician gets embedded in the work that you do?

Barry:  Some of it gets embedded. I'm not a Hillary Clinton fan, but God knows I was hoping she would win. I did a cover of her after she beat out Bernie Sanders. With what we know about that now, it changes the meaning, but I did a drawing of her as a boxer, a battle scarred veteran, and the sketch I had done in my book, she was brawny and looked beaten up. As I did the final in the few hours I had to do it, I noticed I was prettifying her and making her look young and svelte. It just got away from me, and I guess it was my inherent liberal bias or something, but I had to try and beat her up a little bit afterwards, so I did a black eye and some scar...

Debbie:  You put a Band Aid on her nose, which I thought was...Again, these little touches that tell you so much more. There's layers of information that you are able to glean from just a Band Aid, and the placement to the Band Aid, which is what makes your work so genius.

Barry:  It was Curad as opposed to the Band Aid brand, which tells us she's off market. I'm sorry.

Debbie:  Is that true?

Barry:  No.

Debbie:  OK. I was like, "I didn't notice that." [laughs] I would notice brands.

Barry:  As far as President Obama, the walking on water image, it was a several panel image, and then the last panel, he's falling in. He's human, after all. Someone did request that from the White House, and I signed it to him, "To President Obama, stay dry." When I started to work on the book, my editor, in his wisdom, suggested we try and get President Obama to write an intro for it. I wrote him a handwritten note, and drew a couple of pictures on it, and sent it to him, but we still haven't heard from him.

Debbie:  Oh, rats.

Barry:  It's probably not going into the book.

Debbie:  Have you heard anything from the Trump administration about any of your work? Your palmistry, your hand cover with the short vulgarian fingers?

Barry:  He referenced it obliquely in an interview saying, "I don't know why they're saying I have small hands. I have normal sized hands." Apparently, he sends Graydon Carter...Regularly when he appears photographed on a magazine cover, he'll circle his hands and send a copy to Graydon and saying, "See? Normal hands."

Debbie:  [laughs] I love it when we know we're getting to him. I have two final questions for you. You and your wife, Angie, live in Connecticut, and I believe that you bought a house that Henry Miller once owned?

Barry:  That was a typo in the book. It's Arthur Miller.

Debbie:  A typo? Interesting.

Barry:  I ought to have caught that.

Debbie:  Either way, Arthur Miller, did you find any ephemera in the basement, or in the attic, or?

Barry:  That's funny. In the garden shed, we were cleaning it out, and by cleaning it out, I mean she was cleaning it out, not me, Angie found a...He had carved his initials into the foundation, A. M. '57.

Debbie:  Was it in the heart that said AM & MM or anything like that?

Barry:  No MM, and there's a little shed in the back that he wrote "Death of a Salesman" in, and people come and ring our doorbell asking if they could go take pictures of it.
Debbie:  Now you're going to get all kinds of people coming in asking about Henry Miller. [laughs]

Barry:  Exactly.

Debbie:  I read an interview with you wherein you were asked, if you were stranded on a desert island, and only got to have one pad of paper, excluding toilet paper which would be provided on the island, you had a very interesting answer. I was wondering if you remember what that answer is.

Barry:  Did I say EZ Wider? Is that what I said?

Debbie:  Yes you did, Barry Blitt. [laughs]

Barry:  That's so embarrassing.

Debbie:  That was all I wanted to know, if you remembered that that would be the paper that you requested.

Barry:  That was a few months ago. I remember that, but if you ask me what went on in school, or what teachers thought, I can't remember that stuff.

Debbie:  What did they think when they realized that you were drawing caricatures of them?

Barry:  They probably didn't like it.

Debbie:  Well, the rest of the world does.
[background music]

Debbie:  Barry Blitt, thank you so much for being on Design Matters, and thank you for making the world, especially our current world, a much more tolerable place, with your work.

Barry:  You are very kind. Thanks so much. Nice to be here.

Debbie:  Barry Blitt's book is called "Blitt." You can also find his work in The New Yorker or on his website, This is the 13th year I've been doing Design Matters, and I'd like to thank you for listening. Remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.
I'm Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.