A Conversation with Don Nace

The minute I saw the cover of Don Nace's Drawn Out, I knew it was something special.

Usually, I don't judge a book by its cover, but when it's a collection of drawings, the cover is a good starting place. Flipping through it while ignoring various other books that needed to be reviewed, I discovered I was incapable of giving it anything but my fullest attention -- it was too strange, too raw, too enchanting to be dipped in to. I went to the first page, then the second, the third, and continued on to the end. The effect was beyond any description that avoids the purplest of prose, although one person I showed the book to described the effect in a way I very much liked: "It hurts. But it's a necessary hurt."

Drawn Out became a book I carried around with me to show to people. Not just anyone -- the drawings are too emotional, the story they tell too painful, for them to be appropriate for just anybody. But everyone I showed the book to had the same reaction: Wow. And: Ouch.

I had to know more about Don Nace, so I contacted Richard Nash at Soft Skull Press, and he sent me Don's email address. I sent questions, he sent answers, and then we did another round. His answers were so rich and thoughtful that I felt very little need to edit them at all.

For some background, here's part of the description from the book itself: "Set in peculiarly American landscapes, from the empty vastness of the Southwest to the teeming crowds of New York, Drawn Out distills thousands of Nace's sketches into a spare and essential view of God, alcoholics, women, work, and the crushing details of daily life. Along the way, it is by turns brilliantly funny, deeply soulful, and quietly tragic."

To get a sense of Don's drawings, visit his website, www.drawingoftheday.com.

And the bio:
Don Nace's art has appeared in Gordon Lish's The Quarterly and Dan Halpern's Antaeus. Over the years he has worked as a ranch hand, teacher, advertising art director, and factory worker. These days he earns a living painting movie sets.

"Indeed, the especially attentive viewer will be able to spot Nace's work in films ranging from Adrian Lyn's Fatal Attraction (note Glenn Close's phone-side doodlings) to Jonathan Demme's 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate (for which Nace created the unforgettably tortured graffiti covering the boarding-house-room walls of Jeffrey Wright's shell-shocked madman).

He lives in South Nyack, New York.

And now for the conversation...

Despite having been written over thirty years, the various pieces in Drawn Out seem to me to have a coherence of style and story. When putting the book together, were you selecting from a large amount of material, or is the coherence simply a result of the drawings being autobiographical, held together by the flow of your life?

In 1982 Gordon Lish, an editor at Knopf, saw a sketchbook of mine and expressed an interest in publishing it. The sketch books were done with no preconceived notion or purpose other than my own entertainment. If a phrase occurred to me during the conception that seemed related to the drawing I would write it down often having one of the figures speaking. Those were the drawings Gordon liked which was wonderful news to me because it was my most natural style. With a new enthusiasm I began drawing in earnest, concentrating all my efforts towards my sketch books. The ideas for the drawing happened during its creation, which would often result in the first composition being layered over later as part of the search for the right idea and composition. I liked the complexity that occurred with this approach and I did not redraw. Hidden away in many of the drawings you can see figures from ideas that I covered up. This intuitive approach resulted in many failures, but almost all the drawings were approached the same way, and that probably accounts for the similar style.

Some drawings came from different time periods, for instance the drawings about psychoanalysis were from a series drawn while I was undergoing the treatment in New Mexico. That series was published by Antaeus in 1982, shortly after my meeting with Gordon. Of course, the childhood drawings were from my childhood and it is easy to see the similarity between them and the current style, which just have the influence of Kandinsky, Picasso, Jasper Johns, Francis Bacon and the whole bunch thrown in. I drew around 4000 drawings (usually in my car before work and during lunch) before deciding to it was time to put it all together. I eliminated 3000 immediately, then over a long (seeming endless) period of time I hammered, shuffled and strutted the book into shape through many editing attempts. Fortunately, each problem solved or each sequence clarified provided enough of a thrill to keep me going.

How did you happen to meet Gordon Lish?

I met Gordon Lish the first year I was in New York. I was working in an ad agency at 58th and it was a twenty minute subway ride to get there. At first I tried reading the newspaper but soon purchased a little sketch book and drew instead. The jostling of the cars made the drawing challenging and often I had to time the swaying of the car for a quiet spot to make the strokes on the page. It did not matter, I was merely distracting myself from the daily monotony of the ride. This was the first time I started adding captions to the page. A book designer from Knopf, Dorothy Schmiderer, saw the sketch book on my drafting table when she was visiting the owner of the ad agency. After looking through it she asked if she could borrow it to show to an editor she knew at Knopf, Gordon Lish. Soon after I got a call that Gordon wanted to meet with me. That accidental meeting began the long process that ended up with Drawn Out.

At what point did you decide that you wanted to share these drawings with other people?

Right from the beginning, although originally the drawings were treated as separate cartoons, so to speak, and Gordon even published them individually in his literary magazine The Quarterly, but what I really wanted to express was the sensation I got from doing my sketch books. It was the sensation of time. As the sketchbooks progressed from beginning to end the drawings changed in subtle ways so by the end it seemed to me as if a story had occurred, a little bit of life had happened. Of course it was far too tenuous a thread to be recognized by anyone else, so my goal was to bring that thread into focus. I was also interested in the other art forms like music, theater, and dance, which seemed to have no trouble diving into the subtle nuances of human behavior. Popular music was full of endless heartache and pure animal lusts, while plays could grind the last shred of dignity out of man with no attempt at resurrection and yet somehow save a little nobility. So with my mind cluttered with Giacometti and Jackson Pollock I set out to see how much of human nature I could visualize with my artist's vocabulary. I did attempt over the years to think of a storyline that had the classic structures, but that was, quite simply, beyond me. So I just drew as much as I could cram into my work-a-day, raise-a-family world, like some gorilla artist sneaking out at night to create something before scurrying back into hiding. Intuitive as the drawings began, I had planted in my head that I should try to bring it home, make it about something specific and gradually over the years it just happened on its own. All those dramas of life just emerged into little drawings.

When you were creating the drawings, were you thinking about any sort of audience?

I wanted my audience to be everyone. I was hoping that the images would express feelings that could be universal, whether a person was educated in the field of art or not. That it would be understood some of the distortions and ugliness of the lines were to help emote the drama of the situation rather than an indication of an inability to draw.

The intimate nature of the drawings made me very aware of the people who knew me and I was a little nervous about exposing more than they would want to know, but above all I was hoping that the love I have of drawing and quality of the drawings would give some sense of grace and dignity to the struggle of everyday life. So I was hoping to reach everyday people.

Have you felt that you've connected to the everyday people you were hoping would see the drawings, either when they first started appearing in The Quarterly or later? Have there been any reactions that have surprised you?

That is a very interesting and key question and the answer is: I think so. When you asked if I had, "connected with...people", my first response to that phrase was to question my motivation. I was thinking my primary motivation was to see if drawings could arouse the same sense of pathos that exists in music and literature, without becoming a cartoon. After the book was published, as if waking from a dream, I feared that I was merely screaming "look at me". So now I am searching for clues that what I did was legitimate.

I have had many positive reponses, some from very passionate people who believed in the book enough to see that it was published. That passion was so pure and, quite honestly, miraculous, that its intensity for me will probably never be matched again. I cannot begin to express the awe and wonder that these people even exist, let alone came to my aid. I speak primarily of Rob McQuilken, whose love and enthusiasm of birthing books brought me into this world, and Richard Nash, who took the big chance of producing and promoting it. After dealing with those two any response to the book after publication had to pale in comparison. But, like a typical new-born, I am in constant need of nourishment and am extremely grateful for any positive reinforcement.

I have been surprised by who among my acquaintances are silent and who are enthusiastic and helpful in promotion. It was not who I would have thought. In general it has been very good, especially compared to past experiences. The response I got from the first publication of a series of drawings in Antaeus in 1982 was what I call "the sound of crickets": no response at all. I had a couple of reponses from the Quarterly from people that were very positive. Other than that it was pretty quiet out there. So I knew it was quite possible that silence could be the only echo to the book. It is a curious sensation having a long-term project published. During the production I felt as if the book was a bubble rising from the deepest black bottom-most bottom of the ocean, wobbling and squeezing itself up through the water like an amoeba towards the surface. An intact self contained special little bubble heading towards the light. But once it reaches the surface it just pops and joins the rest of the enormous volume of air. That is the position I am in now, having joined the billions of words and hundreds of thousands of drawings in the world.

Do the pieces in Drawn Out have any relationship to your other work?

My other work is kind of all over the place. Once I decided on the book there were very few diversions into other areas but there were a few. For instance, there's a box I made that opens up into the shape of a cross. Box by Don Nace. Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.us On each inside surface of the box I drew a section of my friend's face so that as it closed his portrait was an inside 360-degree surface. I also, in moments that no longer seem rational, decided to copy Master paintings and paint in front my response. I painted DeKooning's woman and superimposed my son into her stormy swirls of paint. The meaning being, it takes that much energy to raise a child. I painted Goya's "Saturn Devouring His Children" and painted a realistic portrait of myself holding my young son in front of it. The title was "The Saturns Devouring Their Children" -- the meaning being that as benevolent as I appeared compared to the Goya, my lifestyle was destroying the very planet my son needed to thrive, so I was indeed a saturn who was devouring his child. I am a copier. I copied William Blake's "The Red Dragon" for the movie Red Dragon and I have copied other paintings for other movies. The drawings are the real me, however, until it gets to be time to explore other things.

How did the site www.drawingoftheday.com come about?

For awhile it seemed that everyone was asking if I had a web site and a few dedicated believers were always prompting me to get one to promote and advertise the book. The problem I had was that most of the artists' web sites I had visited were static and I only visited them once. It made no sense to me to have to promote a web site that would then promote the book when I could just promote the book. I did not believe that in the great sea of web addresses that a web site would attract any more attention than I as a person would. At the same time, work on the book was winding down and I was thinking about what I should do next. Putting the book together was so time consuming that I had stopped drawing, for years actually, so I was considering whether to get back into the routine of drawing daily again. I was a little reluctant to begin facing the empty page once more, but I was doing a little doodling here and there. It occurred to me that if I posted my daily attempts on the web site then the site would not be static but ever changing, always new. That interested me, because as I said before what I loved about the sketchbooks were the changes that took place over time, how the mind would be interested in certain grays for awhile then yearn for deep blacks and then for free easy lines. Different each day and occasionally, quite by surprise, an undeniably good drawing would pop out. For the first time, thanks to the internet, the audience can check in on the artistic experience in the same real time. Typically, the artist works up ideas in a sketch book then transfers a few ideas to a major piece which often goes through many changes in process. Then the major works are edited down further and put in a show, completely scrubbed clean of the creative impulses that drove the artist to make it all in the first place. Now it is possible for the artist to open his studio to his audience during the creation with surprise or disappointment available to all at the time it happens. I find that fascinating.

Of course the joke is that I do not even have a studio and I do the drawings during lunch at work. But that is the way I did the book, so I carry on. The first six months were rough. It was a little unnerving having my daily progress monitored, especially since there were many daily strips, from Gary Larsen to Doonesbury, that were brilliant each day and here I was with some really pathetic sketches making that unfortunate comparison. I had to keep reminding myself that the purpose of the site was exploration, not entertainment. Each day did not have to be a joke.

In the beginning I cracked. If a drawing was bad I put in one left over from the book. When the site was archived I was shocked at how many empty days there were and I went back and plugged them with old drawings. I feel pretty bad about that; I wasn't being honest to the experience, so I forced myself to stop, and for the last six months I have been true to the site. If I don't have a drawing the site says "sorry no drawing today". I feel pretty comfortable now after this first year. I am in old familiar territory, accepting the disappointments, and occasionally a drawing will appear that "pleases me no end," as my Mother used to say. Actually, now that I have a body of work, it gives me a cozy feeling even though each day has it own trauma. So the plan is just to keep going. Monitor my slow march into the future.

What's next for you?

Right now, there are only minor changes in my routine. I will continue to the daily web site but I have no plans for another book thirty years in the making. I do not know what I want my drawings to do. As yet, I have not regained that real urge to draw that I used to have, but I am extremely happy at the occasional surprises that come out.

The book and the web site did get me a job as the artist for the lead character in Julie Taymor's new movie. It is a musical based on Beatle's songs. Julie Taymor directed the Broadway production of Lion King, and she also designed all the puppets and costumes. I am very excited and nervous because it is the first time in my professional career that my own drawings will be a major part of a movie. The first time I will be so visible to people I admire.

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