Michael Sloan Profile
posted: August 6, 2007
On the terrace at the Society of Illustrators...
Michael Sloan, age 44, who I met before one of his gigs playing with the Half-Tones at the Society of Illustrators, is an artist with a lot of personality. Or, more accurately, personalities. There's Michael Sloan the editorial illustrator and creator of Professor Nimbus and other comics. There's his alter ego, Ewan MacLeish, fabulist painter of exotic architectural landscapes. And there's Michael Sloan, the musician and composer. Each version of Michael Sloan brings us his unique vision of the world.

"Since I was a child, I've been making two different kinds of artwork.

"I have my 'Michael Sloan' work: the work I've been creating as an illustrator since 1989, including my Professor Nimbus books and comics. This work comes from my childhood interest in comics, particularly 'Peanuts' and Mad magazine, and the Tintin and Asterix comics.

"I've been creating my other work which I make using the name 'Ewan MacLeish' since I was about ten years old. These were imaginary landscapes that I drew with colored markers, inspired by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. I did them in drawing pads, and it was sort of a rule that once I did a drawing, it had to stay in that pad and nothing could make me tear it out. I still have them and I show them to my kids from time to time. It was, and it still is, very meaningful work to me. They look like they came from a happy place within me at the time.

"One of my favorite drawings came about this way: when I was about 10 or 11, I was working in pen and ink and about halfway through I spilled the ink all over one half of the drawing. I remember feeling really distressed. But something made me start to blow on the puddle of ink, and it started flowing into these interesting shapes that looked like some kind of a wild, thorny tree, and it became part of the drawing. I added strawberries, and I called it The Strawberry Tree Growing. I wrote a song about it much later on, about how I was able to make a mistake that I was really distraught about into something that ended up being really kind of unusual and beautiful.

"A great inspiration for this Ewan MacLeish work were the yearly trips to Europe that my mom and I took each summer with her boyfriend Felix, who lived in Amsterdam. To me, Europe was a magical place, much like Narnia or Middle Earth, full of incredible history, ruined castles, and different cultures. During Felix's summer vacations we took incredible trips, driving in his Volvo from Amsterdam to Greece, Turkey, even to Jordan and the border of Saudi Arabia. The influence of these trips on me was tremendous.

"Europe really felt like home to me, and I missed it terribly when I was back in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I would draw and paint landscapes inspired by our trips as a way of re-connecting with a place that I loved and longed for. If there's a theme or emotion that describes this Ewan MacLeish work, I think 'longing' does it best.

"Having two distinct kinds of work was really a reflection on the two lives that I had growing up as a boy: my life in Cambridge, and my life in Europe in the summertimes. Unfortunately my life in Europe and all that it represented to me came crashing down when my grandfather died when I was 14. We got the phone call early on the second morning of what was to be a year's stay in Amsterdam; I had even been enrolled in a local school. We came back to Cambridge immediately to be with the family. My mom's relationship with Felix subsequently fell apart, and I didn't return to Europe again until I was 20.

"It felt like a lot had suddenly ended for me: my connection to my grandfather, to Felix, to a life and a place that I loved, perhaps my childhood as well. For the next four years until I entered art school my artwork stagnated. To fill the void, I started playing guitar. And I would spend hours copying the black and white scenes from European Michelin travel guides as a way of keeping my connection to Europe somewhat alive.
"The first year that I was at the Rhode Island School of Design, it was all about playing music with friends. And if I wasn’t doing that, then I was partying. After that first year, I felt I needed to choose some sort of career direction, so I ended up going into the architecture department for one year and dropping out. I realized that although I love drawing buildings as subject matter, I don’t like designing them. So I went into the illustration department, because I had some friends who were in it who had a lot of freedom. And I liked that, after the restriction that I felt in the architecture department.

"I very quickly settled on printmaking, and etching in particular. In my first printmaking class, ever, I did this etching of an abstract and sinister-looking city scene with featureless people kind of walking along roads with a big, spherical monument in the middle of a park. In the background were a lot of buildings and then the sky was filled with smokestacks and multi-layered smoke, a lot of pollution. I immediately felt really drawn to that kind of imagery and I ended up working it for a long time and still some of my work, I think, draws from that.

"I'd kept in touch with a friend of the family who was a printmaker in Europe, and when I was graduating, I showed him my prints and he suggested I work at this printmaking shop in Paris. It sounded like a wonderful idea, but how was I going to make this work? I talked to my printmaking teacher and she suggested I try applying for grants, which was something that wasn’t on my radar at all at the time. With her help, I applied and I got one and I was accepted as a student into the shop, and so, after I graduated from RISD, I went to Paris for 10 months.

"After that, I went home and lived in Boston with my family for about eight months and that was a pretty unhappy period in my life, working at an assortment of different jobs like telemarketing with Greenpeace. Through the connections that I’d made in Paris, though, I’d found out about another printmaking shop in Venice, Italy. It sounded like it would be the same type of situation that I had in Paris and I applied for some grants, again, and I got one and I was able to go work in the shop in Venice for about eight months. When the time ended I really wanted to stay in Europe but I didn't have legal papers, and I decided I had to move to New York City. That was 1989.

"One of my classmates and friends from RISD, David Goldin, had been living in New York for three years and had become pretty successful as an illustrator, getting published in The Book Review, The Times, and other places. I liked the lifestyle he had, the fact that he was more or less the master of his own time, that he worked at home and he stayed up late and he was getting published. I realized I wanted to do that too, and Dave was really helpful, he gave me his contacts, and told me I should go to The Book Review with my portfolio of prints.

"I went to The Book Review, I met Steve Heller, and he really liked my prints a lot but he said he thought maybe it would be more appropriate to the Editorial page, so he introduced me to the art director there at the time, Michael Valenti,  who called me a couple of days later and gave me my first job, which was an absolutely horrible experience.

"He had seen a copper engraving in my portfolio, and he wanted me to do one overnight. I spent all night doing it and when I brought it in the next morning, having not slept at all, he said, 'I can't use this. It doesn't work.'

"Well, I was totally decimated. It was terrible. I felt like this was the most important opportunity of my life, and that I was an abysmal failure. But he said, 'By the way, do you have that other print in your portfolio, from the other day? Maybe I can use that.' And just by some chance I had brought that print with me, so he took a Photostat of it and I spent about three hours making alternations to it, right there in the office. Every 15 minutes I would go in and say 'Is it okay now?' And he would say, 'Do a little more work.' But finally it was published.

"I needed about six or eight months to get the courage up to try to get more work with him. I realized I couldn’t do prints on deadlines like that, so I had to develop a pen and ink style that would allow me to have a similar feel to my prints, but that I could do very quickly. So I worked on that during those months and when I felt like I was ready, I called him again and he gave me a job for a second time and that went through really well.

"Also during those few months, I started playing with a rock band in New York called The Original Formula, and I was able to get something happening musically which was very satisfying. We played at clubs down in the East Village. We were successful, in that we were able to get gigs and play pretty often, but we never made money and we never got any record label.

"At first, all my illustration work was only black and white, so I was working for The Times and then I got my second job for The Washington Post and then I think the third one was for the Boston Globe.

"I think the single biggest influence on my work was when I started using color. At the end of the first year working as an illustrator, in 1990, I realized, seeing my friend Dave Goldin’s work, that there would be a lot more work available to me if I was working with color. Plus, it paid better. So I adapted my style to color. The second biggest influence was having children, which came about 10 years after that. I don’t think I ever would have written my Professor Nimbus books if I hadn’t had kids. And I think that work is about as close to my soul as you can get. The Nimbus books are about things which have troubled me, about the political feeling in our country right now, about living in a culture where there is a lot of greed, and self-gratification and acting without thinking about the consequences. I don’t think I would have thought of those issues in quite the same way without having children to give me a more human perspective on the world around me."
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