Monday, February 18, 2013

Interview: 10 Questions with Genius Toy Inventor Mel Birnkrant

Mel Birnkrant
all videos and images copyright Mel Birnkrant

10 Questions with Mel Birnkrant

1.... who is your favorite artist?

From the age of three, all throughout my only childhood, my favorite artist, god, and hero was that magnificent multiple entity, made up of the collective sweat and souls of many gifted men combined, known to the World as “Walt Disney”.

Later on, while a student reluctantly studying illustration at Pratt, I became a Ben Shahn fan.  Then, as a Beatnik hanging out in Paris, I was blown away by James Ensor’s Masterpiece , “The Entry of Christ into Brussels”, at the 1958 World’s Fair.

Back in the USA, again, my dear friend of 45 years, Maurice Sendak became my favorite artist, and remains so, to this day.  From a guy who created the Wild Things, because his editor told him he couldn't draw horses, [The book was originally titled “Where the Wild Horses Are”] he became, a master draftsman.  To watch him drawing was amazing.  He could start at the top of a page, and the image would magically appear, growing downward from there, a little at a time, until it reached the bottom, like lowering a curtain., He explained that he could see the image in his mind, and the rest was just tracing the lines.

2.... do you offer workshops for artists?

No., But, in the early 1960’s, I did give weekly drawing lessons to a young boy from Harlem.  He was eleven and far more talented than I am.  He was obsessed with creating his own comic strip.  I found it curious and somewhat sad, symptomatic of the times, that all the super heroes he created were white guys.

3.... what do you like to listen to while you work?

I used to play the stereo continuously.  That tapered off dramatically when my cat, Peewee passed away.  He loved music and always listened with me.  Then, I turned on the TV and got hooked on cable news, instead.  Ever since this last election, I've, started playing music again.  My tastes are eclectic: slightly off-beat classics, Leos Janacek, Eric Sati, Francis Poulenc, Vincent d’Indy, Renaldo Hahn, and Edward Elgar, stuff like that.  I also have a large library of Chinese music.  At the local Chinese Buffet, I can often  name what they are playing.  The titles are romantic, like “Song of the Night Fishermen” or “Colorful Clouds, Chasing the Moon”.

4.... what medium and tools do you use to create your art?

I am beginning to believe the most exotic tool I ever used was the common pencil.  I'm amazed to realize that nearly no one draws with one, these days!  In later years, I saved a step by transforming my pencil lines into stronger black ones, using a Minolta copier.  Then, I colored those printed drawings with waterproof markers.  This was a tricky operation, for if a marker touched a line, it smeared and bled. Then again, small mishaps didn't matter, for none of the art I ever did was destined to be seen.  It was all intended to, hopefully, sell a product, or aid in its manufacture.  For sculpting, I adored Super Sculpey, in its heyday.  That was before they changed the formula, making it nontoxic.  Now it’s good enough to eat, but not so good for sculpting.

5.... during an average week how many hours a day / week do you work on creating art?

When I was working on a project, and really into it, I'd work nonstop from sunrise, until well after midnight.  Time, except for dinner time, did not exist for me.  These obsessive work habits were tough on my family.

6.... are you working your dream job?

Jobs often walk a fine line, somewhere between dream and nightmare.  Actually, I never really had a “job”, dream, or otherwise.  Nor did I have a “career”.  Instead, I perfected the fine art of scratching out a living, while “avoiding pain”.  My true passions always lay elsewhere.  Collecting was my Quest.  I lived a life of High Adventure, hunting mice and other comic characters, at every flea market, toy show, and antique show, on the East Coast, for over forty years.  Discovering an incredible object, not intended to be art, and anointing it as such, by purchasing it to add to my collection, was the equivalent of “doing art” for me.  Each new find was, essentially, a thrilling moment of creativity, spontaneous and instantaneous!  At exhilarating times like these, I could sense my entire body tingling, and, ever so slightly, levitating.

7.... do you feel it’s important for others to pursue their dream jobs?

Of course!  Elementary, my dear Watson!  If one is fortunate enough to have a dream, they MUST pursue it.  But, in this complex world we live in, getting a dream isn't easy.  We are bombarded with so many choices, attractive, only momentarily. You can't just go out and shop for one.  A true dream, one that will shape and sustain your lifetime must be imposed upon you by Fate, and circumstances from beyond.  The very phrase Dream Job is an oxymoron;  two words that do not go together.  Doing something unique, something that can be titled “self-employment” is, by far, the better route to take.

8.... where can people see your work (online, conventions or exhibits)?

My work ,my memories, my life, everything, is on display; some things are easy to see, others are buried deep, in my not so little website.  Like me, it keeps growing bigger, every day.  The stuff that succeeded, and a lot of what did not, is all there to be discovered:

This link goes directly to what I've been involved with lately, updating the Outer Space Men:

Here are my most recent drawings, introducing, among other things, “Outer Space Women”.  Meanwhile, two new Astronauts from Planet Earth: “Terra Firma” and “Jack Asteroid” will appear this year.

9.... was there a certain moment that you knew you wanted to be an artist?

Absolutely!  By curious circumstance, I was just writing about that, yesterday.  If you don't mind, I'll simply cut and paste:  One time, while lecturing our Freshman class at U of M in 1955,  my art teacher made a statement that I'll never forget.  He said: "A person must “Catch Fire” at some point in their lifetime".  He meant become inspired, set ablaze with a passion and desire that will govern the course their destiny will take.  And he added that: "If this event does not happen during one’s college days, it is never likely to take place."

Wondering, if and when, I ever became inflamed, I suddenly realized that I did!  And I recall the exact time and place.  It was not when I was in college, but many years before then, when I was four years old, living on my little street in Berkley, Michigan.  There was a girl there, a playmate’s teenaged sister, living down the street from me.  She had borrowed a marvelous book from the Detroit Public Library.  It was an impressive volume called “The Art of Walt Disney” by Robert D. Field.  And, being something of an artist, she had rendered what seemed to me to be a perfect copy of the most wondrous illustration in the book, a scene from Walt Disney’s Pinocchio.  It depicted Pinocchio, on stage, with the provocative French marionette, alluring to me, even then.  I thought this large impressive work of art was the most wonderful thing that I had ever seen.  Yes, it was there, at that moment, beholding my young neighbor’s magnificent painting that I first burst into Flame. Simple isn't it, beginning then, a future that embodied Art, Disney, and even France, lay ahead of me.

10.... is there anything else you would like to add or say to other artists?

To all you “other” artists out there. I'd simply like to say, “Enjoy!”  Glory in your gift!  Your talent, whether hard won, or handed to you on a silver platter, is your ticket to escaping a life that might otherwise have been mundane and ordinary.  When agonizing over how to mix a certain color, or confronting a problem in perspective or anatomy, never lose sight of the fact that merely being permitted to indulge in these activities is a Luxury.  You are among the World’s most Lucky!

The computer has changed the way that Art is done, dramatically.  Art jobs that were once akin to drudgery, paste ups, mechanicals, engraving, retouching, have all been swept away.  Even so-called “art supplies” will eventually be made obsolete by the computer.  There is now more talent in the World than ever.  Artists learn and grow by seeing the work of others.  In my day, others were the few students sitting in art class, beside me.  Today, all the others in the World are just a Mouse click away.  The Massively Fantastic artwork on this site, alone, is proof enough that everyone has upped their game!

Mel Birnkrant Interview


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images and videos copyright Mel Birnkrant

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