Frances Jetter Profile
posted: February 15, 2010
One of the best things about Drawger is the friendships I’ve made, and one of the closest of those is with Frances Jetter. Drawger also sparked my series of profiles of illustrators, and I’ve always felt it wasn’t quite complete without Frances, a deficiency I’m finally remedying.

“My family worked in factories and my grandfather was a clothing workers union organizer. After I became an illustrator and was working for The Nation, he told me that around 1910 he spilled acid on cloth in shops that were open seven days a week. We are very pro-union in my family.

“When I was in high school I saw an issue of Ramparts at a friend’s house, with an article about Napalm in Viet Nam, and the first political piece I ever did was a portrait of a Vietnamese mother and baby. This was during the Viet Nam war.

“I didn’t want to go to a collegey-type place -- that was my protest -- so I went to Parsons for graphic design, not really knowing what graphic design was.

“The teacher that had the most influence on me, in the first year there, considered graphic design to be a mixture of illustration and problem solving. So it wasn’t the corporate-identity type thing --that didn’t interest me -- it was about coming up with ideas. Sometimes I built things and sometimes I did linoleum cuts, or other kinds of prints, but anything was welcome. We also worked with type, and I got to like type then, but I really liked solving problems with images.

“Later on, I majored in photography, because the photography teacher, Larry Fink, was the most interesting person and did the most interesting work. Then I studied with his teacher, Lisette Model, at the New School. She was very old then and she was very scary: very tiny and terrifying. She was ferocious. Really a unique person and tough and interesting.

“At one point I had a work study job involving taking pictures in prisons and mental hospitals. It was for an organization called Hospital Audiences which sent the entertainment to institutions. They sent good entertainment to the prisons and some ridiculous entertainment to the mental hospitals; they sent Charles Mingus to the Queen’s House of Detention. They were actually very afraid of what might happen with some of the prison  audiences, because they didn’t have enough guards there, so they weren’t going to send them anyone boring.

“But for the mental hospitals ... I remember a performance where dancers had nude body suits on ... a really pretentious piece.

“I was supposed to take pictures of the audiences as they watched the performances, but then somebody  in charge of the volunteers said, ‘You could end up here as easily as any of the people -- any of us could -- and would you like your picture taken here?’

“That got in the way of my taking pictures. Not just there, but in general, because it’s capturing someone when he or she may not want to be captured. I don’t view it as something wrong, but I started to think it was questionable to photograph a person in a mental hospital. And I missed  drawing also, I guess, so I didn’t follow photography.

“I started to focus on linoleum cuts when I was showing my work around -- this was when you could still get appointments with art directors -- and one of the art directors selected one of my linoleum cut prints and said, That would show up best in my magazine. So I was hired for that place.

“I don’t know at what point I decided I wanted to work for The New York Times to do editorial work. I worked with the Book Review for awhile, which was pleasurable, but I really wanted hardcore political things. I was also working for the Ideas and Trends section of the Week in Review, which were softer articles. I think that’s the kind of things women were given.

“In my head, you could be one of the boys if you did the hardcore political things. Now I see that there was probably more freedom in some of the softer pieces.

“I didn’t want interference from a very young age. I thought it was a right not to have what you do interfered with, in any way. I don’t know where I got that from, but I thought that making these pictures was the best thing to do with your life. I was very bothered by even tiny interferences – I wanted my things to be left alone.

“I think I always had the feeling that it’s Us against Them, that it’s workers against management, and that management is the bad guys and that things aren’t equal.

“What I liked about editorial work is that I could make the subject matter my own and that I pick parts that I could relate to. The whole idea of playing with things and turning them upside down and finding what the article really meant ... plus the reading part was always the most fun.

“I spent lot of time reading the encyclopedia and I’d see if there were words or images in the reference material; that part was just delightful. And then playing with things and seeing the connections; when you’re really looking and you’re not nervous, you see how things connect to one another.

“By reading those articles, I became more interested in politics and social issues. I guess I’ve always been sort of angry or aggressive or looking for a fight and I think that fit in well with some of the political subject matter. For me it was having  some  feeling for  the underdog as well as being somebody who is pissed off and rebelling because someone else is in control.

“I’d use up all the time doing sketches. I could go through one and a half pads of tracing paper doing sketches, trying to get the expression on the face and in the hands just right. At a certain point, if I’d been up all night, I’d decide, ‘Well, this has to do,’ because the piece was due in a few hours.
“Sometimes, when I handed in an illustration after being up the whole night, I’d be up the next night thinking of what should have been done with the color or what could have been better and really feeling miserable about it. And agonizing over it when it was in print.

“And then if it was something that was killed, then I’d be more in love with it than ever, because it would be like this dead thing that wasn’t realized or appreciated. If too many people like one of  my pieces, I’m immediately suspicious.

“It’s different now that I’m doing almost no illustration or what I’m doing is not for a client; whether you call it fine art or illustration, I don’t really need to define that. But I’m doing it without someone interfering.

“I just finished a book about torture. It’s called Cry Uncle. It was largely based on what went on at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and some secret CIA prisons. It’s a picture book with some words in it. It’s a large format book -- the images are 18 by 24 -- and it’s hand printed. It has letter-pressed type; the type mattered to me as much as the images, as well as how the book itself how looked and felt.

“I wanted the paper to feel like skin on the cover. It’s got the words done in letter press, pressed in, and the paper is sort of fleshy looking and wrinkled, it’s paper from Nepal, and it looks like skin. Some of the other papers are from banana leaves and there’s something very much like human skin about the paper.

“The paper is also translucent, so you see everything that has come before, when you’re looking at the pages. It’s in an accordion fold -- and unraveled, about 40 feet long.

“It’s a very interpretive book, it’s based on what they did and my visceral reaction to it, because what they did was so appalling. In most cases they had a list of things they could do to the prisoner that wouldn’t leave physical scars, but it was intended to make somebody crazy. It’s not like they could even get information out of somebody after this kind of torture.

“Some of the descriptions of what they did were so disgusting that I’d realize that I was making the face myself, of someone who is being victimized. I think to get the feeling into the piece, you have to be reacting to what’s going on in it.

“In working on the book, there was a weird mixture of feeling disgusted over what went on and feeling really excited about making the pieces. I’ve always felt a little bit of guilt about that, because I was always doing things about tragedies and wars and illnesses.

“I love the idea of doing books. I’m planning another book that I started even before this one. But in between I’m going to be working on some other things. We’ll see.“

To see more illustrator portaits and interviews in the series, visit the Art Talks Gallery here.