Face off 


Giving up on sleep, I sat up in the back of Dave Thompson's van and offered to take a turn driving. Thompson declined. "I'm in my zone," he said. "I just put on cruise control, and I can pretty much go all night."

We were on our way from Baltimore to Orlando for the 11th annual convention of the National Caricaturists' Network (NCN), held in February at the Rosen Plaza Hotel on International Drive. Thompson, a Baltimore painter who derives most of his income from drawing caricatures at parties, had made the run down I-95 before. Riding shotgun, our colleague Dan Ginter would help him stay awake.

Over the course of our 15-hour drive, the conversation rambled, but always came back to caricatures, caricaturists, the art of caricature and the caricature business. In a few days, our immersion in the subject would be total. By then we'd be surrounded by men and women whose livelihood, hobby or passion is the rendering of exaggerated likenesses. I had to smirk at the notion of three middle-aged men driving from ice-bound Baltimore to sunny vacationland to spend five days sequestered in a hotel drawing pictures of other people and having them draw us. But -- I admit -- I was almost as excited as my sleepless comrades. It was time to stretch some faces.

Like you, only more so

The word "caricaturist" triggers a variety of associations, not always good ones. One might think of Al Hirschfeld, whose elegant, iconic work chronicled showbiz for Vanity Fair and The New York Times from the '20s until this past January, when he died at the age of 99. One might also think of David Levine, who (to quote John Updike) "flung himself in a fury of crosshatching" on the giants of literature for the "New York Review of Books." For those whose tastes are slightly less rarefied, one might think of Mort Drucker's uncanny remodeling of movie and TV stars from that other fine Manhattan-based periodical, MAD Magazine. Or one might think of that guy at the mall who drew the lame cartoon of you that's hanging in grandma's basement.

For 25 years, as an illustrator, I've aspired to the refinement of a Hirschfeld or Levine. But I've made a lot of money on the party and festival circuit, cranking out five- and 10-minute renderings that look (so they tell me) just like mom, dad, little Ashley and little Zack. ("He even got his freckles!")

As long as I've been drawing these quick, big-head, little-body pictures -- what some of us disparage as "cute-icatures" -- I've imagined that someday I would stop.

Genuine caricature, whether it's done for a national publication or at the grand opening of a 7-11 store, has wit and takes risks. The artist's goal is to create an image that, despite obvious exaggeration, is immediately recognizable: It should, as we say, look more like you than you do. A truly great caricature transcends mockery and expresses an element of insight about the subject's personality or -- in the case of celebrities -- public persona. The tradition goes back at least 500 years, when Leonardo da Vinci and his contemporaries entertained themselves by doodling grotesque heads.

Unfortunately, much of the noncelebrity public has come to expect the inoffensive likeness, suitable for, well, grandma's basement. And lamentably, the demand for such bland entertainment has exceeded the supply of competent practitioners. I know a few self-styled caricaturists who utterly lack the knack, but they've been in the business for years nonetheless.

Thus it took my colleagues in the trade about five years to talk me into attending an NCN convention. Despite my respect for Ginter and Thompson, both of whom are talented and discriminating artists, I'd figured that the industry confab would be dominated by graceless hacks and entertainment brokers scouting for new talent. It didn't help that most NCN events are held in places like Orlando and Las Vegas: I don't tan, I don't gamble, and I don't care for ersatz castles and pyramids.

But my resistance weakened as, year after year, my buddies came home laden with fantastic pictures of themselves rendered in a dazzling array of styles. "You've gotta come!" they'd say, "You've gotta see how radical the rest of the country is!" I sent in my money -- $45 for a membership, $125 for the convention -- last fall.

Then, on New Year's Day 2003, I had a moment of clarity: I suddenly knew, and accepted, that I will go on drawing these damn things at bar mitzvahs and company picnics until I'm dead or blind. Sure it's the artistic equivalent of flipping burgers, but the pay isn't bad -- $65 to $100 per hour -- and it's a hell of a lot more fun.

Funny looking

The weather in Orlando was about 55 degrees warmer than in Baltimore, a fact we noted approvingly before marching into the Rosen Plaza Hotel on International Drive. The lobby was filling up with people lugging easels, drawing boards, portfolios, airbrush paraphernalia and computers. While veterans of past conventions hailed each other, I scoped out the facilities and learned that the in-house restaurant, Jack's Place, boasts "the world's largest collection of autographed caricatures," all drawn by the late Jack Rosen, father of the hotel's owner. The elder Rosen had worked at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan, and made a hobby of sketching famous guests and getting them to sign his work. Deftly employing a surprising range of styles, Rosen had drawn everyone from Mahatma Gandhi to the ubiquitous (for caricaturists) Sammy Davis, Jr. NCN's decision to quarter at the Rosen Plaza was, it turned out, just a happy coincidence: The hotel simply offered the best deal.

As the artists assembled, I found myself wondering whether, on average, caricaturists are themselves funnier-looking than the general run of humanity. I spied one guy with a foot-long neck and an Adam's apple nearly as big as his tiny chin. There was a round little Santa Claus type, button-nosed and rosy-cheeked, wearing a red-plastic derby. At the front desk hovered Dion Socia, NCN's current president, who runs the caricature franchise at SeaWorld Orlando. Barrel-bodied and well over 6 feet tall, Socia keeps his head shaved, exposing his cartoonish, pear-shape and ears that seem poised to fly away.

Of course, any random collection of people has its share of funny faces. What was special about this bunch was their willingness -- their eagerness -- to have their own features squashed and stretched ad absurdum. Many caricaturists are show people, live performers who self-consciously accessorize their rakish personae. I met Travis Jenkins, from Austin, Texas, who sports a waxy handlebar moustache; Teresa Farrington, known professionally as "The Okie Artist," who wears a floppy hat reminiscent of a comic-strip hillbilly; and Etsuko Takahashi, a tiny Japanese woman who dresses in primary-colored silk duds and oversized berets. The Japanese contingent -- the largest group of non-Americans -- was a wacky collection of shaved heads, dyed hair and funny hats.

While the characters were entertaining, the caricatures were astonishing, in both quality and variety. Portfolios and studio pieces, exhibited all week in Ballroom "C," included everything from pencil drawings to disturbingly lifelike clay heads. Some artists preferred the Hirschfeldian approach, distilling their subjects to near-geometric essences. Many more, however, employed a highly exaggerated style typical of amusement-park concessions. Within this "tradition," a small cadre of youthful ultracaricaturists were pushing beyond comic exaggeration into the realm of violent distortion, combined with bravura, pseudo-photographic rendering. Certain familiar mugs were repeatedly violated by these young turks: Angelina Jolie's bee-stung lips became immense, shimmering, vulvate forms; George W. Bush's eyes converged and shrank to a pair of incisions.

This sort of savagery has been popular in Europe for decades; think of the British "Spitting Image" puppets. If it's gaining ground in the United States, some thanks is due to NCN's own promotion of two European masters, Sebastian Krueger of Germany and Jan Op de Beeck of Belgium, both of whom have served as guest speakers at past conventions. (In this country, Krueger is best known for his outrageous paintings of rock stars, particularly The Rolling Stones. He and Keith Richard are pals, but Mick Jagger doesn't like what Krueger has done to his lips.) This year's big draw was the return of both heroes, who not only lectured and demonstrated, but hung out with the awestruck conventioneers, autographing posters and sketching their fans.

Among the home-grown extremists, two young artists struck me -- and other envious artists -- with particular force: Loy Bouttany, of Sandusky, Ohio, and Joe Bluhm, who currently works with Socia's crew in Orlando. For me, Bluhm's pencil portrait of Donald Rumsfeld stood out as the most powerful single image in the show: The artist turned the Secretary of Defense into a mottled, shriveled pumpkin-like object gashed by a sunken mouth with septic-looking teeth.

Comparing their own work to such tours de force, a number of artists felt humbled and even depressed, to the point of creative paralysis. But the games had just begun.

In Monday's likeness contest, artists crowded together to sketch a series of anonymous, smiling faces projected overhead. That was fun, but the "World's Fastest Caricaturist" race on Tuesday looked too much like work, so I skipped it. The top contenders knocked out 24 faces in the allotted five minutes -- a picture every 12 seconds.

The main, ongoing event -- the heart of the convention -- was the "professional competition." This basically meant 168 artists sitting around the hotel's Ballroom "A" drawing each other. Each artist got a vertical strip of wall space, two-feet wide, on which to display finished pieces. The idea was to produce a body of work on-site which would, on Thursday, be judged by all members present using a rather complicated ballot. Categories included best exaggeration, best color and best black-and-white technique. The top caricaturists, as judged by their peers, would receive the coveted gold, silver and bronze Noseys. The statuettes are self-descriptive -- life-size, metallic-painted schnozzes mounted on stands.

The high-tech caricaturists set up their drawing tables, airbrush kits and easels around the walls, or staked claims in mid-carpet. I had deliberately traveled light, bringing just a large sketchbook and markers so I could float, drawing where and whom I pleased. It soon became apparent that certain artists were favorite models: Whiz kid Bluhm got picked on for his curled-back lips and dangling gums (and maybe because he's good); my homeboy, Dan Ginter, was popular for his narrow, angular face and Fu Manchu whiskers. Nearly everybody seemed to take a shot at Eve Myles, a Houston-based freelancer and the only NCN member to have attended all 11 conventions to date. Myles has one of those already-stylized faces that caricaturists love, with swooping curves and volutes.

By Wednesday, Ballroom "A" was a madhouse. The hotel management agreed to keep the room open 24 hours, allowing artists to pull all-nighters. Drawings crawled up the assigned wall spaces as high as artists could reach. One grinning desperado knocked out so many faces that his wife finally trimmed them to fit into his space. Ultimately, he taped them all together in a continuous strip that draped down the wall and continued across the floor.

That evening, Op de Beeck and Krueger held court, with artists lining up to have their features twisted. I wandered over to the corner where Ginter and Thompson sat at French easels. While Thompson drew me in careful layers of colored pencil, Ginter attacked with high-intensity oil pastels, defining the planes of my face with strokes of unexpected color, nailing the likeness. All told I collected seven versions of my undeniably peanut-shaped head.

Old school

I never got to draw Eve Myles, but we dined together, surrounded by Jack Rosen's caricatures, and she told me about the early days of the NCN.

Vegas-based artist Buddy Rose founded the group as a sort of union to protect caricaturists from exploitation by modern-day carney hustlers. In 1992, fewer than 50 artists held a very laid-back first convention in Cozumel, Mexico. "We stayed up all night partying, not working," Myles laughed.

A lot of the old guard have stopped coming to the annual events, put off, perhaps, by the competitiveness, or perhaps the trend toward grotesquery. Myles herself is more open-minded. Her on-site work included small images in spidery, broken ink lines, with entire features omitted -- a far cry from the adorable kiddies and animals that she does for her bread and butter. "This," she says of the convention, "is my therapy."

Despite the frenetic activity in Ballroom "A," many artists' spaces remained vacant right through Wednesday night. Thompson tells me that in recent years, some contestants have kept their oeuvre under wraps until right before the judgement hour, not wishing to give away their best gags. Alas, I had to fly home early on Thursday to keep commitments back in the real world. I missed the final show, the voting and the awards -- but I'd had my fun.

The contest results came as no great surprise. The prodigious Joe Bluhm -- a lad of 22, attending his first NCN event -- swept the field, winning the Golden Nosey and eight other awards, including first place in the likeness contest, best portfolio, best studio piece (that Rumsfeld head), and artists' choice for best overall work, plus a special award from our two European guests. Thanks to his bodacious gums, Bluhm even came in second as his fellow artists' "most desirable face" to draw.

In that lopsided context, it is all the more wonderful that my own Baltimore squad came home with something shiny: Ginter took the prize for best color technique. Again, I'm not surprised. The Lucite plaque joins several others Ginter has won over the years. "That'll keep me goin' all year," he says as we drive off to a three-hour gig back home in the Baltimore in the suburbs.

An unrepentant physiognomist

Remember, folks, you read it here first: Joe Bluhm is one of the most talented caricaturists in the country. And for a limited time, you can catch his act right here in Orlando at SeaWorld, where he's working until the glaciers retreat from Ohio.

A word of warning: Bluhm's art is not for those insecure about their looks. In his hands crooked teeth and bulbous noses will become even more crooked and bulbous. And here's the disturbing part: the monster he creates will really look like you.

At 22, Bluhm is no neophyte. "When I was 5 years old, I remember saying specifically that I wanted to be an artist," he says. "And I've pretty much never changed that notion."

At 10 he was already drawing funny pictures of friends and family members but didn't know there was a special word for what he was doing. In his teens, Bluhm had mastered the challenge of drawing realistically, to the point where his pencil still lifes were mistaken for photographs.

A native of Laceyville, in northeastern Pennsylvania, Bluhm attended the Cleveland Art Institute for three years as an illustration major. Ultimately he found the academic environment "stifling" -- teachers kept nudging him to get over his obsession with human physiognomy.

"The only thing that's always interesting is the human face," Bluhm says, although he holds little interest in conventional portraiture. As for caricature, "I deem it one of the hardest art forms and one of the most compelling. You have to `work within` limits, to hold the likeness, but still be crazy enough to push things."

Working on his own, Bluhm developed a personal style combining highly naturalistic rendering with increasing degrees of exaggeration. "I could really see where I was going," he admits, "but didn't have the guts to go all the way."

Less than a year ago, he decided to make a profession out of drawing grotesque portraits. He spent his first spring and summer in the trade at Six Flags Worlds of Adventure, in Aurora, Ohio, working for Kaman's Art Shoppes, a theme-park concession chain. Only then did he discover that other, older artists -- such as Sebastian Krueger and Jan Op de Beeck -- had already mastered the sort of hypercaricature he'd been working towards.

But unlike his heroes, who work in full color, Bluhm's favorite medium is the humble pencil. "If you can handle pencil," he says, "it's really pretty amazing. There's a lot you can do with it."

As remarkable as Bluhm's draftsmanship is his sheer speed -- a quality highly prized in the production-oriented environment of amusement park concessions. Many "live" caricaturists are fast, cranking out a likeness every few minutes. But highly exaggerated work like Bluhm's takes more time. Caricature masters often work through successive sketches, stretching a face in increments until they've gone as far as they can. Bluhm, on the other hand, goes all out the first time.

"Joe does 'em pretty quick," says Dion Socia, president of the National Caricaturists' Network and Bluhm's boss at SeaWorld. "But he does 'em as exaggerated as he was doing them at the convention."


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