New Yorker Cover Artist Bob Staake Reflects on His Creative Process
Each week, The New Yorker magazine hits newsstands with a cover that often reflects not only the news of the moment, but also the feel of the moment.
Chatham resident and illustrator Bob Staake created that cover. Staake is a prolific artist whose work has appeared in many outlets, including dozens of children's books. CAI's Kathryn Eident talked with Staake about his creative process, both as an artist and a journalist.
Eident First, can you just describe what the cover looks like?
Staake Well, it's the simplest thing you can imagine. It's simply her collar, against the stark black background. When your eyes zoom in, then you realize it's comprised entirely of the international symbol for women.
Eident It's simple, but it is powerful. And it does take you a minute to realize that it's not just lace, that it is the symbol for women. How did you arrive at that image?
Staake Once I heard the news, I immediately had the idea. I told my wife, I said, "I'm going to take a walk. I'm go going the studio and finish the art and get to New York right now. "The moment I did the piece, I just said, "Every 200 other New Yorker cover artists are submitting the exact same thing because it's such an obvious idea." I mean, many of us illustrators will look at the ideas of our peers and we'll say, "Why the heck didn't I think of that?" It is one of those ideas.
But, I do think that the power in it is that it really elevates the importance of the reader in that you see the image, you see as a collar and it's like, "OK, big deal. It's a collar. It's kind of nice." But, it's only when you zoom into it and you reflect and you really focus on it, that you then bring something to the table and say, "Oh, my gosh, there's something far deeper here."
Eident Do you often try to add that element in to your work conscientiously, meaning bringing the reader in and using the reader's intelligence or current affairs knowledge in the work that you do?
Staake I certainly rely on intelligent reader when I do my New Yorker covers. Those are the pieces that I try and keep as simple as possible. And, I want them to work on a visceral level with the reader.
That's the same thing that happened when Obama won the presidency. I did a cover showing the Lincoln Memorial glowing at night, reflecting on the reflection pool and then the O in the New Yorker logo glowing like a moon. That was a piece that required the same thing; it really required the knowledge of the reader to bring to the table. And when you do that as an illustrator, it does give the reader some ownership in the idea.
Eident These two covers are huge moments in history. And so, it does really allow the reader to remember that we're all part of this moment in a way, because these are really influential people that have an impact on our lives.
Staake Right. I've been kind of lucky because I have done a number of covers about big historical moments. The ones that are most remembered are really the ones that I immediately came up with. I mean, just in a flash of inspiration that came up. If I'm called on to do a New Yorker cover on any subject, I may sketch out 10, 12 different drawings; different sketches from different points of view. With the RBG cover, I immediately had it in my mind. I knew what it was. I didn't bother coming up with any more ideas because I thought, you know, "This may be really good or it may be really bad. I don't really know, but I don't know if I can top this."
It was very gratifying when I heard from David Remnick. He said he knew the moment that he saw it, it was "unsurpassable." That was very gratifying to me.
Eident Do any of these moments or these covers feel personal to you?
Staake Oh, this one certainly did. I had an unusual education and I didn't take the normal route of what an illustrator would be schooled in. I interned at the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial in D.C. for the Student Press Law Center when I was in college. So, I had some background in Supreme Court cases and things like this. And when I heard the news, I thought, "What a vacuum that's going to leave with RBG's passing" and I got downright sad.
Eident The news of RBG's death was just a few weeks ago, but we're in this rather insane news cycle. So now that news feels like a long time ago, and the top news is the president's illness. Does this fast paced 2020 kind of news cycle—how does that affect your work in trying to get through some of the noise down to the essence of things you do?
Staake I thrive on that deadline. I mean, that's what I was trained to do. It's an artistic restriction put on the illustrator. You only have a certain amount of time and you have to get this job done, OK? And I've done so many times that when that opportunity comes up again, like, "OK, different story, different facts. But we'll get this thing done."
Eident We have a few more months left in 2020 and there are going to be some more big moments. Do you have any advice or perspective for listeners who may be feeling a little weary or a little overwhelmed by all of the headlines?
Staake Boy, I don't know. As long as you're quarantining, why don't you go ahead and pick up a piece of paper and start doodling and maybe you can submit a New Yorker cover? I really don't know. I think it's a frame of mind, this is a reality. We we just get through it. And I'm very fortunate that I love my work. I do have real empathy for parents who are sending their kids back to school right now. Service workers, people who are furloughed. Jeez, my heart just goes out to them because this is a new new new normal.
Eident Bob, thank you for taking just a few minutes to talk with us about your work and stay healthy.
Staake Thanks so much, Kathryn. I appreciate it.
Here are links to Bob's work:
Bob's New Yorker covers: https://condenaststore.com/art/bob+staake?searchType=artistname
Bob's website: https://www.bobstaake.com/biography.shtml