What is a chapbook?
“Chapbook” is something that can be many things to many different people. It also has a long history with its original use dating back to the 1500’s when “chap” was a kind of rough binding. But for the most part, since about the 1960’s until now the word “chapbook” usually refers to a small production book often made by hand by artists and poets. Sometimes they may even be loose leaf like a folio. Generally speaking they are collections of drawings and writings that were created by the artists and authors for a very select audience. The affect is usually intimate and deliberately handmade.
This section of the website features various collections of drawings that stretch the already loose definition of what constitutes a chapbook. Some really are more like folios of related drawings with little or no literary content. But in all cases, they were put together in some kind of mindful fashion with the idea that they belonged together to create an affect larger than the sum of their parts and usually to enhance or expand upon the literary component.
I have been blessed to have the opportunity to work with many truly gifted writers. And perhaps it’s fair to say that I have been gifted with an ability to be truly moved by poetry and literary writing even though I myself am not a writer. My collaborations with Douglas Newton, Scott Ezell, Eileen Fix and many others have been some of my most enjoyable moments as an artist. And their writings have inspired some of my best work. Wherever possible I have included their writing here and noted credit where appropriate.
“17 Drawings: The Evolution of an idea”
People who don’t make art often wonder and even ask me sometimes, “how do you come up with that stuff?” This series of 17 drawings does not explain the essential mystery of where anything comes from. But it does show how an initial idea can morph and grow into many other things.
Arguably the first drawing is the most original in that it came closer than the others at having come from nothing. But even that is not entirely true. I may have seen or done something the day or week before that was still lingering in my mind. In any case, after setting it down on paper I was immediately inspired to make the second drawing. The remaining 15 followed shortly.
This is not formally speaking a chapbook. But it is a rare occasion where I kept the initial drawings of a “session” in one folder. So here they are. Maybe it’s worth pointing out that some drawings are a big creative leap from the previous one. Others are more like a tidying up or attempting to clarify an idea. Others attempt to take the same idea but make it a “better” composition than the previous.
It is my hope that you can see several kinds of developments happening from one drawing to the next without me having to point out each detail. It is also my hope that seeing how incremental and gradual the process is as well as how it started from little more than a floral like scribble will help others trust and yield to their creative potential.
It may not answer the deepest mystery of all, but it does illustrate how little it takes of that essential mystery to get something started and how much of the rest is just borrowing and fudging together some stuff from some other stuff. To some this may be disappointing in that they feared and hoped that everything an artist did sprang from the great beyond. But to me it only reenforces the power of even the tiniest spark from the nothingness that great sages and wise ones have been saying since time immemorial is the seat of everything.
Over the course of my art career I have produced hundreds of big impressive oil paintings. But to me these little “runs” of creativity may be the closest thing I make to express some of the deepest and most profound mysteries about how creativity works or where anything comes from: Initial sparks and then a lot of fudging and farting.
God is Burning
Poetry by Douglas Newton
Poetry by Douglas Newton
Once in a while, a friend would inspire me to create a group of drawings inspired by one of their stories or poems. Sometimes these would correspond to an event or Holiday such as this one. In this case, my friend Doug wrote a poem as an ode to his sweetheart. We decided to collaborate on a chapbook for two; his sweetheart and mine.
So, I did a group of drawings inspired in part by his poem featured here and in part by the life we were living, which was our own little version of the Left Bank in Paris circa 1910. It was Romantic in the sense that we were having fun pretending we were true artists who had devoted our entire life and soul to art. And it was romantic in the sense that we were both very much in love with our respective girlfriends.
And so we did.. make a chapbook with a run of two. The drawings featured here are a few that stood out when I came across the file for this little project. Both Doug and I have long since moved on and are no longer with those partners. However, these drawings definitely conjure the excitement and commitment we both felt as artists at that time.
“Ramone and Horse”
A story by my friend Lewis.
In 1994 or 1993 I started working with a man named Lewis. He was a nudist and just wanted to hang around my studio being nude. I eventually made many paintings of him and his lover James as well as him alone and with other friends. Lewis was also a very sweet soul and a good writer.
One day he had a dream and in that dream he was gifted a story. When he woke up he wrote the story in one sitting while modeling for me. I loved his story and immediately did a suite of drawings to illustrate it. The story also caught my attention because I had just seen Picasso’s Boy with a Horse at a traveling exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum.
Eventually I did a painting which captures the moment of exultation in the story when Ramone and the horse bond. To me this was a powerful metaphor of a boy becoming a man through integration and acceptance of his deeper self or animal spirit guide.
I gave the painting to Lewis but years later he decided to move to Isreal to explore his Jewish heritage and was downsizing his possessions. And so he gifted the painting back to me. Unfortunately the only copy of the story I had was taped to the back of the painting and that too has gone missing.
So Lewis… if you ever see this website please contact me and send me a copy of the story so that I may enjoy it and add it to the website.
“Carved in Bone, Seared in Hide”
A book of poetry and drawings inspired ancient Chinese text.
Poetry by Douglas Newton, drawings by Jeff Hengst
This was the second chapbook Doug and I put together. The first one is called “Where We Begin and End” and can be seen on this website later in this section.
This was a much carefully edited and produced effort. Among other things, Doug and I had a shared interest in Chinese history, philosophy and language. And, being a man of letters, Doug had an added level of curiosity about the written language. Because written Chinese is very much an art form, we had a lot of shared excitement on this topic as well.
We decided on the concept of this book before we did the work. The idea was for Doug to write a poem inspired by the visual impression of ancient Chinese “characters” or words. The poem would be inspired by both the meaning of the word as well as its visual impression.
Then, I would look at both the ancient Chinese as well as its modern equivalent and Doug’s poem. My challenge was to do a drawing that somehow brought all of these things together while adding fresh insight about how the Chinese character got started looking like it did in the first place and how it came to look like it does now.
Then we did the work. After we felt like we had enough material for a book we did our best to arrange and design it. And here it is. I think we may have sold 35 copies or so. Not a big economic success for sure. But now, nearly 30 years later, it still looks relevant and insightful to me. Who knows, maybe one day Taschen will pick it up and produce and sell a quarter million copies.
“Requiem for AIDS”
A selection of studies for “Requiem for AIDS”
Various media on paper
Even as I write this short essay in the middle of a worldwide pandemic due to a virus, I have not forgotten the impact that AIDS had on my life. It was devastating to gay men, galvanizing for art culture and reshaped a generation of young people coming of age in the 80’s and early 90’s about sex and promiscuity. It was, without a doubt, the first return to a more careful and calculating notion about sex since the invention of “the pill” in the early 60’s.
I was of that generation. I graduated from college in 1983 and had I been gay I would very likely be dead. I was young and cute and very much looking to become an artist of consequence and that meant moving to the edges of society. But perhaps more insulating than my sexual orientation was the fact that for most of the 80’s I was living in remote parts of China. And by the time I returned and wound up living in Manhattan, there was a very developed understanding about what caused HIV/AIDS and how to prevent it. As it turns out, preventing the spread of HIV was theoretically pretty simple; just wear a condom. That proved to be as difficult for some of my peers as wearing a mask does now. Of course there were other ways to contract it such as sharing needles or having a blood transfusion from someone’s tainted blood. But for me, the risk was sex.
And what made HIV significantly different from the current viral outbreak is that contracting HIV was flat out certain death. And worse, a long slow painful death fraught with shame. The slow deterioration of the flesh was grim and the damage to one’s family, professional and social circle was potentially alienating at best and all out destructive at worst.
Well, the gay community got organized and got to work on many fronts. They quickly realized that as terrible as AIDS was, and as unfortunate as it was that anal sex was perhaps one of the most sure ways to spread the disease, gay men realized that the AIDS epidemic could actually help the larger public come to accept homosexuality. They leveraged the threat of shame and secrecy as being forces that would help spread the disease. And they capitalized on whatever compassion for the sick and wounded they could to win converts to accepting the essential humanity of homosexuals.
All of this became increasingly personal to me as more and more of my friends and associates died from AIDS. In May of 1993 one of colleagues at Seattle University died from AIDS. He was the same age as me.
Up until that point the only social issue that inspired me to create art was the famine that had been going on in Sub-Saharan Africa. My art is often motivated by broader philosophical and cultural trends, but not specific issues or singular events.
But for reasons I still don’t understand, I decided to do a large AIDS painting that I hoped could be used to call even more attention to this already inescapable part of everyday life in the early 1990’s.
So, I began drawing. I decided at some point to make the piece similar to Picasso’s famous anti war painting, “Guernica.” That painting was a large painting meant to be displayed in public to draw attention to the atrocities being wrought by Franco’s alliance with Hitler and specifically the firebombing of the Basque town of Guernica where thousands of civilians were deliberately killed. I saw what was going on around me as a kind of war on a disease as well as a war on homosexuality and by extension, a war on culture and art.
I decided to make the piece long and thin like Picasso’s and to organize a lot of various particulars and “ideas” around an almost classical geometric design principle. And, I decided to restrict the palate of colors to just black, white, ochre and cerulean blue to keep the piece from becoming even more chaotic than it is.
In the middle is a kind of Pieta where a gay couple struggles to “let go” as one of the partner’s dies. On the left side there is a sailer who has burst in to mutilate a musician whose instrument is scattered in pieces. He also topples a classical statue in the process. This was inspired by an actual current event that happened in Denver that year. A navy man attacked and killed a fellow navy man accusing him of being a homosexual. They were members of the navy band. To me this also represented an attack on art and music and an upending of the principles of civility and restraint represented by the statue. On a personal note, I made the bust of the statue resemble my friend Gary who had just died from AIDS.
On the right side there is a horse rider who is falling of his horse. This scene was inspired by the Medieval depictions of St. George slaying the dragon. That is a story of easy stereotypes where good is good and evil is evil. Here, though, nothing is certain. The hero has fallen off his stead and his weapon is broken. Here, the weapon is a test tube which was meant to represent science and its failure to save my friends. Eventually it did save some of my friends, but by that time AIDS was 10 years in and there were still no effective treatments and certainly no cure.
There are countless little symbols and historical and art historical references. I have just shared a few to get you started. This website is not the place for a complete analysis or description of this complex piece.
I will say that seeing the piece on a small scale is always disappointing to me. It looks jumbled and formless like a bowl of noodles to me. The overall organizing form of the piece is lost. It’s interesting to me that Picasso’s Guernica does not do this. I saw the original in New York City before it returned to Spain and subsequently I have seen it in reproductions many times. It looks good small. But I must say I was underwhelmed when I saw the original. It’s also interesting to me that Michelangelo’s Last Judgement on the front wall of the Sistine Chapel also does not work on a small scale. It too looks like a pile of rope or a bowl of fettuccini. However, when I visited the Sistine Chapel I was more moved by the wall than the more famous ceiling.
I can’t count the number of times I have unrolled the large Requiem painting with the thought that I would cut it into 3 paintings and possibly discard the middle section. And then, once it was up I could not bring myself to do it. And it is not for lack of fortitude to destroy my own work if I deem it not worthy. I often cannibalize my own work in order to paint over it, to both eliminate a substandard work but also for the convenience of a canvas all primed and ready to paint.
So, for now, it is safely rolled up and stashed in a corner of my studio.
It has been shown on several occasions and to some extent it did its intended job of raising awareness for AIDS. But not really. In the end, I think it was mostly experienced as a painting… moving or beautiful to varying degrees. And now, already, just 30 years later if it is ever exhibited I don’t think it will be experienced as an “AIDS” painting. It will simply be a painting. Maybe it is classism and unabashed allegiances and references to older works of art where the very things that made is less relevant and effective in its day but may keep it worth looking at in the future. Hard to know. Someday I may unroll it on the floor. Get out my scissors, cut in several pieces and make some new paintings.
But for now, it is safely rolled up and stashed in a corner of my studio.
“The Man on Horseback” (Right side of painting)
“Letting Go” (Middle of painting)
“The Sailor” (Left side of painting)
The Piece in its Entirety
A Second Version
37′ x 33′
Where We Begin and End
This loosely organized and deliberately underproduced compendium of writings and drawings was the first effort towards a chapbook that my friend Douglas Newton and I put together. Not long before these works were created and assembled we had discovered each other and become instant friends. Shortly after we met he dropped out of the University of Washington’s graduate level writing program and became a full fledged bohemian. He devoted all hours of the day to writing poetry and stories. Sometimes my drawings and paintings would inspire his work and sometimes it was the reverse.
I had just quit what was to be my last job. I too was devoting everything I had to creating art. And we were poor.
But we were on fire. We also shared a belief that the underlying principles and motivations of the “moderns” is what our culture and respective art worlds needed. This shared sense of energy, drive, creative capability and talent were further matched by a shared sense of vision for our culture and professions.
The result was an outpouring of art with no where for it to go. Neither of us had an audience for our work. So, we started putting together things like this 200 page xerox copy of drawings and literature. They were cheap to produce and fun to sell or give away…mostly the latter.
This one is loosely organized around Doug’s stories. But clearly I was packing more into this than mere illustration. The point for me was to organize and see just how much was coming out… not in simple volume but in the range of styles and ideas I was absorbing and synthesizing.
What we decided to include here is a random sample of some of the work in the book. It’s simply beyond the scope of this website to include it all. But hopefully even with this sample one can experience the range and pace of ideas flowing from and between Doug and I in the winter of 1993.