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An interview with artist Eric Drooker

An interview with artist Eric Drooker

Eric Drooker at his studio in Berkeley. Photo Hanna Quevedo

Eric Drooker is a painter and graphic novelist who lives in the Bay Area. He started out in New York creating political street art in the 1980s, his paintings now often appear on the cover of The New Yorker and hang in various collections. He most recently designed the animation sequence for the film “Howl” (2010) directed by Ron Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman and starring James Franco.

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The film is based on the life of the iconic poet Allen Ginsberg, a prominent figure of the Beat Generation, and the landmark obscenity trial in 1957 that involved his groundbreaking poem, “Howl”. Drooker and Ginsberg were friends and collaborated on projects together before Ginsberg died in 1996. “Howl” was released on DVD January 3, 2011 on Amazon and the graphic novel is also available.

This past MLK day, El Tecolote had the opportunity to sit down with him in his Berkeley studio and ask him about his animated contribution to the film, Ginsberg and his own approach to art.

What is your background and how would you describe your work?

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I was born and raised on Manhattan Island. Virtually all of my work is about the metropolis. It’s not necessarily always New York City, and it’s not always recognizable, but it’s usually about some big city somewhere with tall buildings. In that sense, it’s mostly autobiographical. The city is my muse.

How did you meet and befriend Allen Ginsberg?

He was just a character from the neighborhood. He was very organic – just someone you saw in the streets. I was quite young when I first saw him. I was 8 or 9 years old, and my mom pointed him out to me on the 14th Street cross-town bus. I didn’t attach too much significance to it until I was a teenager when I started reading some of Ginsberg’s work, and I liked where he was coming from. But by the time I was in my twenties, I would see him around, and I found he was very approachable. Not only was he accessible but very encouraging to people in the arts—music, poetry and even visual artists like myself. He was curious to see their work and giving them constructive criticism and feedback. So I consider him to be one of my teachers.

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Allen Gingsberg & Eric Drooker. Photo by Denise Kiem

Tell us about Ginsberg and the Lower Eastside during the time you lived there.

The Lower Eastside was very similar to the Mission District. It was the Latin quarter. It was a Spanish speaking neighborhood—not Chicano but mostly Puerto Rican—and Ginsberg was just a part of the city. He was just a vivid example, or specific example, of the metropolis, like the Brooklyn Bridge is a vivid part of the infrastructure of the city or the Chrysler Building, the Statue of Liberty. There were just as many poets and artists in the Lower Eastside as [there are now] in the Mission District. The neighborhood was overflowing with creative energy. At least it was then. It’s less so know since it’s been largely gentrified, but when I was coming of age in the ’60s and ’70s, it was a hotbed, not only of political activity, but cultural activity: music, art and poetry.

How did you eventually collaborate with Ginsberg?

It turned out that he was familiar with my work from seeing it on the street–in the form of protest posters. I was always one of the most conspicuous artists who was always re-pasting work on the street during the ‘80s and ‘90s when we had a lot of confrontations with the police. It was the peak of the squatters’ movement.

When he realized I was the artist responsible for so much of the street posters, he suggested that we collaborate on a street poster together—which we did. And we ended up doing a series of collaborations pairing his poetry with my paintings and drawings and it culminated in this book we did together called “Illuminated Poems”. It came out in 1996 and he died a few months later so I think it was his last book published in his lifetime.

How did you get involved in the film “Howl?”

When Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman started making the film they were shown my book, “Illluminated Poems,” that I collaborated with Ginsberg. Based on that, they were interested in perhaps using some of my artwork in the documentary, but when they came to the studio, they saw some of my graphic novels, and that’s when the light bulb went off over their heads, because they saw I was doing this sequential art, and to a filmmaker, a graphic novel looks like a storyboard. So they said, “Hey! You could animate this.” I learned through production that graphic novels and storyboarding for animations have major differences. They are both examples of sequential art, which has been getting more respectability in recent years with the commercialization of graphic novels.

“Howl” is arguably one of the most important poems of the twentieth century, if not certainly for the Beat Generation. What was your approach to stay true to a poem, by which its very nature is always subject to varying interpretations? Do you think your imagery might change the meaning somehow?

Adding a picture to poem changes the experience in a way because if you are just looking at a poem without pictures, you are forced conjure up an image in your own head. That’s one of the magical things about poetry. That’s why it’s risky–even creatively dangerous–to add pictures to a poem–especially one that is famous. It’s the same way as it is a dangerous thing to make a movie out of a book that is a classic where everyone already has their own idea of that the characters and landscape should look like. So I had to be careful that I wasn’t being too literal. I wasn’t simply illustrating but bouncing my pictures off of his words. The pictures all have to stand on their own without needing words just like the words of the poem are able to stand on their own and then we put them together. That was my approach rather than seeing it as an illustration job.

How is making an animation sequence different than making a painting or print. Had you worked with animation before this project?

I had little experience with animation. The producer hired an animation team of 50 animators to bring my art to life. Animation is so labor intensive as an art form. You can’t do it by yourself, you need to be in a group. It’s more like being a bandleader. You are composing your music and then you are putting a really good orchestra together to interpret your work. The studio was interpreting my artwork. It was adding pictures to Ginsberg’s words but it was magnified a thousand fold. The picture is just on a page but it exists in real-time with the spoken poem. It’s in temporal form like music or theater or cinema. I had to keep up with the rhythm of the poem. Each chapter of “Howl” has a very specific rhythm. I was trying to be harmonious with the stanzas of the poem. I was extremely pleased with the way it came out.

The second chapter of the poem, with Moloch, has intense rhythmn and imagery. What was your approach to animate that part of the “Howl”?

Well that was the chapter that always grabbed me the most so I fleshed that out a bit and researched the history of Moloch—the pagan god of fire and war who was worshiped by the Canaanites and ancient Hebrews. They way they worshiped Moloch was by sacrificing their children to him. The same way we do now, the same way Barack Obama even worships. He my call himself a Christian and go to church on Sunday but during the week he’s sending teenagers to places like Afghanistan and Iraq, or he’s simply sending out unmanned drone planes and bombing children and civilians in places like Pakistan.

So I tried to bring it up to date. I saw an opportunity to bring “Howl”—which was written over 50 years ago and was a critique of Cold War America–and make it subtlely about now. I used a scene with burning oil fields–which aren’t in the poem—and scene in which children are thrown into the fire and then morph into soldiers being marched into Moloch’s flaming jaws. So that’s where I was trying to have the most social critique in that chapter.

What did you think of James Franco’s portrayal of Allen Ginsberg?

I was skeptical of even hiring an actor to play the young Ginsberg. It’s a risky thing to do. It’s done a lot in movies and docudramas and it’s usually done with lame results. It’s usually really corny so I was nervous when they were hiring an actor, James Franco, who I had never heard of. But I was pleasantly surprised by his performance. He was amazingly good. It was much more convincing than I had expected. I met with him before the film and he picked my brain a bit—not so much about what Ginsberg was like but what the neighborhood was like in order to widen his scope of the person. The guy really did his homework. I also gave him several recordings of Bebop music—Charles Parker, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. It’s not only what Ginsberg and Kerouac were listening to but trying to emulate. They aspired to improvise and be spontaneous like those artists.

Ginsberg is well known counter-cultural figure but the film seems to have an element of patriotism regarding the necessity of free speech in democracy and the willingness of even conservatives to uphold such ideals.

It certainly has a patriotic flavor but in a way that was twisting it around trying to make it legit — this poem that was partly homoerotic and had a lot of social critique — that even that is considered protected speech. I feel that the filmmakers overall watered down Ginsberg. They didn’t get into the politics and it didn’t have the subversive feelings of the Ginsberg I knew. Even as an old man, he was pretty subversive and blacklisted from the mainstream media. Anytime they had him on, he would immediately talk about the CIA importing cocaine into the country when Reagan was president during the Contra-gate. He was always drawing attention to contemporary politics. The film just really focused on the young Ginsberg—just coming out of the closet—and I suppose that’s enough for a subject for a full film right there. You can’t put everything into a movie. So I think the filmmakers did a fine job and it was perhaps a wise decision on their part to just focus and view him through that lens.

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Did Ginsberg ever reflect on this event with you?

Not so much. He was always very engaged with the present and that is what was amazing about him. In fact, he didn’t always like reading “Howl” all that much. He didn’t want to over do it and wanted to read his newer poetry. What he did dwell on was his relationship with (Jack) Kerouac and (Neal) Cassidy. These are people that he was in love with and they both died young in their forties. He couldn’t get those guys out of his system. He was constantly dreaming about them and writing poems about them.

What do you think about the state of art and politics today?

I think art continues to be a potent means of communication and of persuading masses of people to question not only authority but to question their own values. If you’re just standing on a soapbox or writing an article in a newspaper, not as many people will listen but you have a beautiful melody, image or an rhythm that’s so contagious, you are going to get a huge crowd—a young crowd that are literally moved.

If you want to talk about art as a form of propaganda, it’s the most powerful means. That’s why advertisers or corporations are always hiring the best artists to do their ad campaigns whether it’s Apple Computers or you name it.

Throughout history it hasn’t changed much. Whoever was in power always was hiring the best artists like the Vatican. Now it’s the corporate state. Even for myself, I’ve seen a piece of my artwork used to advertise for the Ipad. It’s hard for an artist not to be co-opted. The artist needs to pay rent and eat food too. A certain amount of prostitution is usually necessary if you want to support yourself with your art.

When we are talking about political or radical art, it’s usually where the artist doesn’t expect to make a cent, because if you expect to make money off of it, you have to tone it down a little bit. When I did my street posters in the late 1980s, not only was I not expecting to make money, I wanted to remain anonymous, because if you signed your name on them, the police could bust you.

What do you want people to get from this film—especially the younger generation?

One of the reasons I jumped at the offer when Epstein and Friedman contacted me was I thought this would be a good opportunity to bring “Howl” and Beat literature and politically outspoken art to a younger generation that I think is more visually oriented than it was 50 years ago.

I’m hoping people enjoy the film. It’s about candor and openness, some one finding their own voice as artist and finding one’s own path. Being true one’s own voice and having the courage to speak up and stay with it even if it is not immediately recognized.

Do you have any other projects in the works?

I’m working now on another animation project. A young animator is interpreting the final chapter of my last book “Blood Song”. It’s going to be a short—about a seven minute long film. Of course, as I have learned, seven minutes is an extremely long time in animation. I worked on “Howl” for two solid years and it totaled up to be about 20 minutes of animation that’s woven in the feature-length film.

Eric Drooker will be giving slide lectures on “The Art of Animating Howl'” on Wed, Feb. 9, 7:30 p.m. @CounterPULSE, 1310 Mission St., San Francisco and on Wed, Mar. 16, 7 p.m. @The Jewish Community Center, 3200 California St., San Francisco. Also you can check more of his work at www.drooker.com.

Story by: John Nuño

El Tecolote is 51 years strong this month!

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