Wrestling Crocodile

by David Guinn

Excerpt from All Boy

“You get out this corner!” the driver shouted, motioning toward the rapidly approaching intersection. He was dark-skinned and turbaned. I scanned for numbers over doors that I could see. The cab reeked of evergreen air freshener, the source of which I spotted dangling in the shape of a pine tree from the rearview mirror. Trembling with nerves and excitement, I clutched the handles of my well-stocked black vinyl portfolio. It was a vivid, early spring New York City day in 1983. The city blurred by outside the window, a bright over-stimulating collage that could only be taken in if you let your eyes go slightly out of focus.

“26-1/2 West 37th Street?”

“You get out this corner!” He repeated and mumbled something in what I imagined to be Swahili or Pakistani. I reached through the metal grid separating us and handed him a five-dollar bill for the $2.25 fare. I told him to keep the change—I could never do math under pressure, so I made no attempt. Half a block back I thought I saw “26” on a building, so I headed in that direction.

“SmokeCokeSpeedSex,” chanted a black man with waist-long dreadlocks walking beside me when I made eye contact with him. I had to remember not to do that. Not to say, Excuse me, or I’m sorry, every time I bumped into someone or stepped on a toe in the throng. I needed to remember to look straight ahead—to shut down—to be wary. I had to put my blinders on. “SmokeCoke…” he repeated.

“No thank you,” I responded, hurrying along. Another rule broken.

As I approached the address, I saw that it was a store that sold fabrics and trims and such. Just past the entrance was a second door with partly flaked-off gold-painted letters over rippled, frosted glass that read “26-1/2.” An ambitious, terrified 27-year-old had arrived at the first stop on his quest to find an agent.

To the right of the dull metal and frosted glass door marked “26-1/2” was an intercom and buzzer, above which was a small black and white sign that read, “Bernard Goldman Reps.” I took a deep breath and pushed the buzzer.

My illustration career was on an upward trajectory just as fashion illustration was meeting its demise. Until the mid eighties, every large department store in every major U.S. city employed a staff of illustrators to create their newspaper ads in their particular style. But bland, gray photography was replacing elegant illustrations in department store ads all across the country, leaving New York City the only remaining major market for fashion illustration.

In January of 1982, when my employer, Rich’s in Atlanta, announced the long-rumored corporate decision to switch to photography, a huge trash bin was rolled in and all the files of fashion drawings from the 1970’s and early 1980’s were dumped into it. There were masterful ink wash gestural drawings. Immaculate graphite renderings. Super-elongated figures draped in elegance and attitude. Even Rapidograph mechanical pen renderings of furniture and refrigerators. I could study a well-executed drawing for hours and learn from observing its details. I rummaged through and gathered a stack that I couldn’t bear to see go to the incinerator. A few other illustrators did the same. Not that any of us ever held any illusions about the sacredness of our art—our daily obsession. We all knew that today’s newspaper ad was tomorrow’s birdcage lining.

One by one, we were summoned to the personnel office, told we were being laid off, and offered jobs behind sales counters on the store floor or behind desks in offices. None of us accepted.

“If you are still interested in this art thing,” my exit interviewer said to me. “We will try to place you in the advertising department at one of our sister stores.” But we all knew that most big stores were undergoing the same transition to photography that we were. If not yet, it was only a matter of time.

Through my contacts at the store, I had already picked up a couple of jobs for small New York fashion houses—ads featuring my illustrations that ran in Women’s Wear Daily, Harper’s Bazaar and W. If I had any chance of continuing my illustration career, I had to go to New York to find an agent to represent me.

Bernard Goldman was a top New York illustrator’s rep who specialized in fashion. I was flattered and surprised that he had agreed to see me. He repped only the best illustrators in the city: illustrators on the same level as my idols of fashion art, Antonio Lopez and George Stavrinos. They did fashion drawings for advertisements for Bloomingdale’s, Saks and Bergdorf’s. Each week I eagerly awaited the Sunday New York Times to see the new, full-page ads. The clothes, of course, were beautiful, but the drawings were true works of art. I had studied New York illustrators’ work for years and emulated their styles. I felt I had paid my dues in South Carolina and Atlanta, in nine-to-five department store jobs. Now, with encouragement from mentors and friends back home in Atlanta, there I was in the Big City.

“Bernie Goldman’s office,” a sharp nasal female voice on the other end snapped. I lifted my right foot back and polished my loafer on the back of my pants. Why did I wear these pants? A police siren blared up nearby Sixth Avenue, echoing in the stone and glass canyon.

“I’m David Gu…” The buzzer rudely cut into my introduction.

“Third floor up, first door on the right,” the voice announced. I lurched forward to grab the brass handle before the buzzing ceased.

It was a walk-up. A third floor walk-up. This was what Antonio and Stavrinos had to do if they came to Mr. Goldman’s office? The tattered, well-worn carpeting was testament to many years of use. Probably lots of visits from people like me—from the provinces—portfolios clutched eagerly in hand, starry-eyed. Likely too, there were many quick ins and outs, not to mention ups and downs judging from the looks of the stairs. I had envisioned glass and chrome on the 90th floor of a sleek Midtown high rise, with models going in and out of the revolving doors. Not a third floor walk-up over Wasserstein’s Upholstery Supply. I opened the door.

“Mr. Goldman is on the phone, Mr. Guinn,” I was informed by the woman to whom the voice on the intercom belonged. She pronounced my name like the Irish beer, Guinn-ess, instead of like “Quinn” is pronounced, except with a “G”. A placard on her desk identified her as Rose Klein. Her hair was the color of cologne, not quite gold and not quite copper, and looked like cotton candy. I wondered if she was related to Calvin. I doubted it. I surveyed the dingy office and its state of disarray. Books, magazines, file folders, loose papers piled up everywhere. It was dark and small and drab and definitely not the glamorous fashion atelier that I expected. In fact, if it hadn’t been for Rose Klein, there would have been no color in the office at all.

What if Antonio or one of the other illustrators I idolize comes in while I am here waiting? Would I even know them if I saw them? My hands began to sweat, gripping the black plastic handles of my heavy portfolio.

“He won’t be long,” said Rose, with a squinty smile between sips of her iced coffee. I tried not to outwardly tremble as I sat in a small, hard chair facing Mr. Goldman’s closed office door. He was talking on the phone.

“NO! Goddammit!” the voice bellowed from behind the closed door, giving Rose and me both a start. From the smell of the stale air in the office and the gruff sound of his voice, I imagined that he must have been a cigar smoker.

“Send him in now!” the voice barked over an intercom on Rose’s desk, although his voice through the door was louder than its amplification. Miss Klein gestured toward the door.

I stood and took the two steps to his office. I felt blood throbbing in my temples. I thought I could even hear it. I reached for the knob just as the door swung open in front of me.

“Let’s take a look at what you got,” said a short, balding, unkempt looking man. He wore a rumpled white shirt that looked as though he may have slept in it, and a dark skinny tie that made no attempt at being fashionable. Mr. Goldman may not have even smoked cigars, but he had the kind of face that would look natural chewing on a thick, smoldering stogie. He had a gravelly voice and a New York accent. He talked loud.

“You live in Georgia?” he asked.

“Atlanta.” I responded in a tone as though to imply Atlanta wasn’t really a part of Georgia. There was a case to be made.

“Don’t usually take on out-of-towners,” he said, unzipping my portfolio. “But I’ll look at what you got.”

I swallowed hard. I sat facing him looking over a desk cluttered with newspapers, magazines, and stacks of mail. He pulled out a large drawing that I did for a Chanel ad for Rich’s and perched his half-reading glasses on the bulb of his nose. He grunted. I wasn’t sure if it was a good grunt or a displeased one. He held up a drawing for a men’s Armani suit ad.

“You have a specialty?”

“No, not really,” I said.

“Not good,” he said, and let out a deep exhale. “You need a specialty, if you are going to move to New York.”

“I wasn’t really planning on moving to New York, sir. I was looking to work via Federal Express from at home in Atlanta.” Unless, of course, Bergdorf’s insisted that I immediately relocate to Manhattan to begin drawing their full-page ads, I thought to myself as I answered him.

He grunted again. This time I thought it was displeasure. He took a deep, wheezing breath. He’s about to give me the boot, I thought. He closed up my portfolio, the sharp z-z-zip sounding cold and final.

“Well,” he said, “I think…” A telephone ring almost jolted me out of my seat.

“Bernie Goldman!” he barked into the receiver in a tone of voice that sounded to my Southern ears like, Who the hell is calling me? He looked at me and waved his index finger in the air, indicating for me to hang on a minute. I tried to. Maybe he was talking to Antonio or Altman’s or Armani.

After a short barrage of “yes’s” and “no’s,” he dropped the receiver into its cradle, and peering over his half-glasses, he turned his gaze back to me. I squirmed discreetly.

“You’ve got some nice work here—it’s all over the place—but I think I could use you, IF you lived in the city. Retail clients just don’t want to work with an illustrator from outside Manhattan. Too many last minute changes!” he advised. “Give me a call if you relocate to The City.”

The next day I was to meet Pamela Neail, Artist’s Representative, at the Society of Illustrators Clubroom on the Upper East Side for lunch. She had expressed interest in my work and asked to see some samples. The address was in a very tony neighborhood of 1800’s carriage houses, and the Clubroom fairly reeked of its earlier incarnation as a private men’s club. The kind of men’s club with dark cherry-paneled walls, brown leather tufted club chairs, pressed white linen tablecloths and very discreet service. I told the –doorman? concierge? maitre’d?—who greeted me at the door that I was the guest of a member whom I was meeting for lunch.

I was immediately awestruck by the paintings that covered the walls. An original Leyendecker illustration of one of the Arrow Collar men of the twenties, done a few years after his iconographic Saturday Evening Post covers. An N.C. Wyeth painting from an illustrated picture book of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island completed before Andrew was even conceived. A Norman Rockwell painting for the cover of Life magazine. I was breathless. I was in the Holy Temple of Illustration. I wanted to gawk at each of the paintings and drawings around the room, one by one. But I had to sit underneath one of Charles Dana Gibson’s original “Gibson Girl” pen-and-ink drawings from the early 1900’s and be sophisticated and charming and have lunch with the woman who I hoped would be my agent. I needed to control my awe.

“Mr. Guinn?” the man asked. I nodded. “Ms. Neail’s table is right this way.”

Pam was a member of the Society of Illustrators. Even they used to not allow women in the Society, much less in the Clubroom where we were lunching. She told me that some of the older members still didn’t like the fact that women were now admitted.

I heard her talking, but my thoughts drifted with a nymph in a Maxfield Parrish painting across the room—he too gazed out on a vista his eyes could scarcely believe. I somehow managed to conceal my inner giddiness. It took great effort to not outwardly appear as a quizzical puppy dog that didn’t comprehend what was being said to him but desperately wanted to.

“I really like the samples you sent, David,” Pam said to me. “They showed a broad range of style and subject matter.” This was the exact opposite of what Mr. Goldman had said. Pam already had several top illustrators in her stable, and it was always a concern to an artist’s rep that she not duplicate the style of any artist already on board. I was worried about that. I drew men’s, women’s, and children’s fashion, along with accessories of all kinds: cosmetics…shoes…handbags. I had to be intruding on someone’s turf. New York illustrators specialized in one type of illustration, and that was the only thing they drew.

You gotta have a specialty, I heard Bernie Goldman say.

Pam Neail said, “I can sell your style to several different segments, not just the fashion illustration market.” She began telling me what duplicates she needed from my portfolio for her mini-portfolios to promote me.

You gotta live in The City or fashion clients won’t want to work with you. Too many last minute changes! Bernie Goldman’s voice rang in my ears.

“You could be living in Jersey, for chrissakes,” said Pam. “No difference from Atlanta—still overnight FedEx. If they ask me, I’ll say you’re in Jersey.”

I liked Pam’s way of thinking.

Ferragamo Shoes

Ferragamo Shoes

A month later, on the phone, Pam said excitedly, “Salvatore Ferragamo’s new agency is going for a totally new look for their ads and they have narrowed their search down to you and two New York illustrators. They will pay $650 per shoe illustration.” That was more than my monthly paycheck at my first advertising job. “But to help them make their decision, they’ll pay each of you to draw a pair of shoes. The ads will be 2-A placement, weekly in the Times, the Miami Herald and whatever that Los Angeles paper is,” she said in a dismissive New York tone. “Not large ads, but they’ll get noticed.”

Salvatore Ferragamo was one of those venerable old European family aristocratic brands. Their shoes were part of every Italian count’s or French baron’s bespoke wardrobe. They were looking to create a larger presence in America and begin more aggressive advertising in magazines and newspapers to appeal to a younger, hipper—albeit still very wealthy—crowd.

Three days after our telephone conversation a package from New York arrived. Return address: Salvatore Ferragamo, Fifth Avenue. It was the box containing the “audition” shoes for me to draw. My heart raced. My fate rested inside that box. According to Pam, my ability to accurately render in the minutest of detail, to the point of super-realism, was what caught their eye about my work. They had considered photography for the ads, but wanted better reproduction than that afforded in the newspaper. Illustration had the ability to pick out and emphasize every detail. One of my specialties was drawing textures—such as leathers of all kinds—patents, suede, highly polished calfskin. And I loved rendering fur. I didn’t have a single shoe illustration in my portfolio when Ferragamo called. My ability to capture those shoes could give my career a huge boost.

I took a deep breath and tore into the box. Inside awaited an elegant, deep burgundy shoebox with the Ferragamo logo, inspired by Salvatore’s signature, in gold on the top. I lifted it to reveal two cream-colored wool felt bags with burgundy silk drawstrings. I tugged the tasseled end of the cord and reached into one of the bags and pulled out an exquisitely formed, hand constructed and sewn, gleaming loafer of black lizard skin—the kind of loafer that went for $750 a pair.

I was awed by their perfection until I realized that my assignment was to execute a detailed rendering of lizard. Lizard skin. Oh, fuck. And they weren’t even in my size.

After three hours hunched over the drawing board, the cheap white metal desk lamp blaring its unforgiving light over my right shoulder, I had to get up and pee. I’d been so engrossed obsessively rendering the minutest of details—the hand stitching, the thin stacked layers of leather that made up the soles, the reflective gold logo printed inside the shoe—that hours passed before I realized I hadn’t gotten up. In front of me, tacked to my slightly tilted drawing board were several 5x7 photo prints of the shoes, taken from several different angles. Pam told me that Ferragamo wanted to see one shoe in profile and the other rendered from an angle looking straight down on it. I had taken a whole roll of 24 photographs for reference, adjusting the light’s angle to create different shadows and highlights on the loafers. I was sure that the guy at the one-hour photo thought I had some sort of fetish for those shoes, and in a way he wouldn’t have been wrong. An array of my tools cluttered a side tray, affixed to my drawing board top. I drew with mechanical drafting pencils, the kind you had to reload with lead and push the metal-tipped eraser end to extrude the graphite. I used the thinnest grade lead available, 0.3mm, which came in three different densities: super-hard, like an F pencil lead; HB, more like a number 2 pencil; and B, even softer and darker for deep shadows and blacks. Paper blending stumps of all sizes were cleaned and sharpened on sandpaper pads. I could create a fine point and blend the smallest of details with care, such as a single pore of the lizard skin. My illustration was rendered on hard, smooth Hot Press Illustration Board that looked like it had been pressed with a very hot iron so that it had no surface texture.

After I completed the profile shoe, I began the process over again rendering the second shoe. I drew them about 3/4 actual size. In the newspaper ads, they would be about four inches tall. I dipped the tip of a Number 4 Winsor & Newton sable brush in a bottle of India ink and then swished it around to make an ink wash in one of the small, water-filled wells of a palette tray. I swiftly painted the gray wash inside my carefully drawn outline of shoe number two. Ink washes were difficult to master. It was easy to create streaks from overlapping brushstrokes if you let your first pass dry before reloading your brush and continuing. You had to make sure you had a wet brush; your drawing surface was tilted so that gravity worked with you, and you had to work quickly! The light gray wash provided a surface on which to draw. I had to be careful not to cover the brightest highlight areas with the ink wash—the white of the paper had to show through. Sometimes I used a kneaded eraser to pick out highlights in pencil-shaded areas—a very useful trick when rendering lizard. The overall effect was smoothly blended and very contrasty with lots of highlights. When my drawings were reproduced, they were sometimes mistaken for an airbrush illustration or even a photograph, which I did not take as a compliment. This was beyond realism with razor-sharp overall focus and contrast—details were over-emphasized in a way that photography could not replicate. Two more hours at the drawing board passed by unnoticed.

Within a few days of FedExing my trial drawing, I received the news from Pam that I had been selected to illustrate Ferragamo’s newspaper campaign. Those exotic, exasperating, yet exquisitely beautiful audition shoes were the first of many I would illustrate over the next three years—crocodile, lizard, alligator, snakeskin, and fine Italian hand-buffed and finished leather. I prepared to make a return trip to New York to meet with the agency that handled their account.

Hammson Associates, Ferragamo’s advertising agency, was in a building just off Fifth, which somehow managed to have a Fifth Avenue address even though the entrance was on 56th Street. “Seven Twenty-Nine Fifth Avenue” was spelled out in brass letters over the door. The oatmeal-colored travertine-lined lobby was set off with polished brass trim and elevator doors.

I was meeting Mrs. Hammson, the owner of the agency—that’s how she introduced herself, stepping into the small, beige waiting room—for the first time in the six months I had been illustrating Ferragamo shoes. She looked like a matronly sixty-plus-year-old ladies foundation garment saleswoman. Like she would be a natural with a cloth tape measure draped around her neck, at the ready. Ferragamo was trying to branch out into the fashion market, she explained.

“I don’t remember if you draw fashion too, but I have something I want to show you,” she said. I was glad I brought my portfolio. I waited as she disappeared into a smaller back office. She emerged unfurling a glistening, ankle length, black patent leather raincoat for the next New York Times ad. It would become the first ad I drew for Ferragamo that had a figure included, meaning a model was illustrated wearing the garment. Ferragamo accessories had always been drawn as if they were still lifes­—a pure representation of the beautiful objects that they were. In addition to men’s and women’s shoes, she would soon have me drawing intricately detailed silk scarves with repeat patterns and borders of bridle bits and crops. Evidently, Italian aristocrats were very horsey.

I suppose I was in denial about the impending death of fashion art. Within a short time, fashion illustration was removed from the curriculums of schools like Parsons and Pratt. The illustration market in New York evaporated as quickly as Bernie Goldman’s alleged cigar smoke. In a few years’ time, my idols of illustration would have died young, like so many others in the fashion world. Pam had a kid and, fed up with city life in the West Village, she sold her business to her assistant and moved out to Long Island. Her assistant, Lisa, struggled along with the repping business in a declining fashion illustration market for a couple of years. I continued working for Ferragamo, and she managed to get me some new assignments. I also drew illustrations for several large East Coast department stores that would soon disappear: Garfinkel’s in D.C., Wannamaker’s in Philadelphia, and Bonwit Teller in New York and Miami. In addition to illustrating ads, I became involved in ad design. Refocusing my career on graphic design was a natural transition for me.

In the years that I freelanced in Atlanta, from 1982 until 1986, I lost all the discipline I had acquired while working regular nine-to-five hours. I could never sit down and really start drawing until it was late in the evening and then I would draw all night. It was like perpetual finals week in art school, when big projects were due—always trying to beat the clock and make the deadline.

Again and again, I would find it near midnight—another burgundy shoebox sitting before me expectantly. This time, a pair of hand-sewn crocodile men’s lace-up oxfords. My task awaited me. After the usual four or five nonstop hours at the drawing board, I’d get in my car, weary and spent, and drive to Hartsfield airport. I’d put my $650 illustration of $750 crocodile shoes on a northbound flight to LaGuardia and the first light of dawn over Manhattan.

I’d stop on my way home in Midtown on Peachtree and meet a fellow bleary freelancer for coffee. By the time I got back home at 7 am, the morning sun would be blaring into my seventh floor apartment. I’d draw the blinds tight and climb into bed, a coffee buzz battling my exhaustion, still wrestling with crocodile the moment I closed my eyes. As I surrendered the fight and sank into sleep, some eight hundred miles to the north, my drawing was reaching its first destination—just off Fifth Avenue—and by the time I awakened later in the afternoon, it had arrived by courier at the New York Times, just making the deadline. The following day, in print, my shoes would arrive on doorsteps and in mailboxes across the city and nation. With 2-A placement.

David Guinn is co-founder and Creative Director of Design One, an Asheville-based design and marketing communications firm. After an early career as an illustrator doing work for Rich’s, Bonwit Teller, Garfinkel’s, Harlequin Books, Reader’s Digest Books, Fred Perry and Salvatore Ferragamo, in 1986 he moved to Asheville and turned his focus to graphic design. Seeking another creative outlet, he began what has evolved into a memoir entitled All Boy.

About Wrestling Crocodile—This is the final chapter of my memoir. As a boy growing up in South Carolina I was always drawing. And it wasn’t cars or wildlife or landscapes that interested me, it was people—more particularly, what the people were wearing. I didn’t know that a career was possible as a fashion illustrator, but after a failed attempt as a fine art major I studied fashion illustration in Atlanta and eventually started getting work. What I didn’t know then was that I was a part of the last gasp of fashion art—the end of the era when every American city had its flagship downtown department store that employed fashion artists to create their daily newspaper ads.