Sunday, June 23, 2013

Talking with R.O. Blechman

It was a privilege to speak with a guy whose work I've admired for years.

STOCKBRIDGE — You may not know his name, but if you've watched television or read The New Yorker, the New York Times or the Huffington Post, you've seen — and will recognize — his work. 

R.O. Blechman's distinctive squiggly line is featured in a new exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum called "R.O. Blechman: The Inquiring Line" through June 30.

Blechman has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Cartoonist Society, won an Emmy in 1984 as the director of the PBS animated special "The Soldier's Tale" and has been featured in a exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, among other honors.

Blechman has also done a series of children's books, and has collected many of his cartoons in the book "Talking Lines."

In his statements made at the opening of the exhibit, Blechman marveled the exhibition even existed.

"A museum for a Saturday Evening Post illustrator? That's important. Me in that museum? That's fantastic," he said. 

The exhibit features a wide selection of original examples of Blechman's work from New Yorker covers to advertising work. Some of his animated productions play on a monitor.

Perhaps no two artists could have such different style as Blechman and Rockwell. Blechman said growing up in New York City in the 1930s and '40s, his world didn't resemble the warm images of small town America there were the herald of Rockwell's most famous work. 

He came to appreciate Rockwell more, he added, when the painter's liberal politics came through in later paintings in the 1960s. Blechman also said that he really rediscovered Rockwell when his mother and father-in-law moved to Stockbridge and he visited the predecessor to the current museum.

"It was a revelation ... that guy could really paint, really paint and he could design," Blechman said. 

Blechman described himself as a self-taught artist who did some cartooning for his college newspaper. After graduating from college and serving in the military, he drew what would now be called a "graphic novel," "The Juggler of Our Lady" in 1953. Published by Henry Holt, the book was huge success, which Blechman said actually negatively affected his growth as an artist. 

First love is animation

Ask him what his favorite medium has been and he answers it before this writer could finish the question.

"Animation," he said snapping his finger for emphasis. 

The medium combines his interests of telling stories and illustration, he explained.

He has an idea for an animated feature that he would love to produce.

Animation was the first step in his career as a professional artist. He began as a storyboard artist for acclaimed animator John Hubley who was impressed with "The Juggler of Our Lady." Blechman wanted to animate, but he said, "I could not draw in those days." 

"The Juggler of Our Lady" was later made into a cartoon as a collaboration between Blechman and directors Gene Deitch and Al Kouzel. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts nominated the production as best animated film.

He was pleased with the results and later turned down an opportunity to remake the story in color with animation director Chuck Jones. Today, he expressed his regret not to have worked with Jones, but said with a laugh he wouldn't rate his mistakes. 

Blechman is still busy working, but he admitted, "I've lost projects because I'm told [my style] is old fashioned." 

He added that while more realistic illustration may be of favor now, he believes the pendulum will swing back to more idiosyncratic styles.

"[Johann Sebastian] Bach was lost for 150 years," he noted. "Illustration will come back."

Although he expressed concern for the future of two-dimensional animation, he is no Luddite, though. Of digital techniques he said, "I love the stuff. It can be well used if you have eye [for design]."

Digital techniques can enhance hand-painted art, Blechman said. For him an understanding of design is essential no matter what medium is used.

"If you have an eye, the hand will follow," he said.

His own squiggly line is part of his design, which he admits was sometimes a challenge for his animation staff when he operated an animation studio. The Ink Tank produced numerous television commercials including a memorable one for Alka Seltzer in which a man and his stomach argue for his love of spicy foods.

"[My drawing style] was very difficult to animate, but I was fortunate enough to deal with two animators who took to it as if it was their own," Blechman said.

On his Emmy Award-winning production "The Soldier's Tale," Blechman recalled the best animators "supplemented, not just complemented" his designs.

Blechman was effusive in his praise for the late animator Tissa David who worked at his studio starting in the 1970s, calling her a "great animator, an animated filmmaker." He said he could look at a scene in real life and "animated in her mind."

The most obvious question this writer reserved toward the end of the interview: how he did develop his own distinctive drawing style?

He admitted that is both natural and designed. 

"My stuff was so stiff and dead," he said. The non-straight line work "loosens" his compositions.

After decades of drawing in this style, Blechman said, "Now it's natural. I don't even think twice," he said. 

For more information on the Norman Rockwell Museum or this exhibition, visit

© 2013 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

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