The Bowie children's book spread. Before my thesis semester even began, I had a clear idea of what I was going to do. At least I thought I did. At first, the plan was to create 10 portraits of significant musical icons from the 20th century, rendered for children's book biographies. The idea being that the portraits would be cover proposals for each artist's respective bio. I added the criteria that the artist had to be dead, and had to have a somewhat subversive, troubled, or interesting life story. My long-list included some obvious (Robert Johnson, Billie Holiday), some slightly obscure (Harry Nilsson, Klaus Dinger) and some personal (Lou Reed, Joe Strummer).
The idea to cut the list to ten was difficult. I wanted to include a broad range of diversity (not only racial, gender and geographical, but diversity in terms of genre, as well) but also curate a list of artists near and dear to my heart. Not long after I narrowed my list to ten, I began to worry about how to express elements of their mythologies into their portraits without being gimmicky. The notion that these were proposals for children's books led to the idea to cut the list in half, and include with each portrait a two page spread from within each book, which would flesh out a bit of the artists' stories.
So, the list became Fela Kuti, Miles Davis, Edith Piaf, Nina Simone and Lou Reed. I knew their stories well enough, but began to research them all over again. I listened to hours of their music, which was no chore at all, and bean sketching their likenesses, figuring out what features defined them and how to consolidate them into a cohesive, kid friendly style for this project.
Then David Bowie died.
Bowie looms so largely over so much of my musical taste, and taste in general. He is connected directly to both Iggy Pop and Brian Eno (let that sink in) and indirectly to krautrock and The Velvet Underground. He was a bridge from the Beatles/Stones era (having recorded with both John Lennon and Mick Jagger) to a future that is still being defined. While punk was ripping up the rulebook and burning effigies of their elders, Bowie was the cool uncle who escaped their scorn. And as post-punk emerged, Bowie was still the template for a weird new generation. My first "real" girlfriend stole a copy of "Heroes" for me on CD, but before that I had bought "Diamond Dogs" and "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" on cassette (the Ryko editions, with bonus tracks) on a class field trip to Ashland, Oregon. I saw David Bowie in concert on my 18th birthday.
So, obviously Bowie jumped to the top of the list. I made a promise to Lou Reed that I would devote some post-thesis attention to him. In sketching all of my characters, I needed to find the one defining feature to make the likenesses work. For David, it was the mouth. Of course the unique eyes matter, but the recognizability is in those thin lips and British teeth. Now the only issue was to decide on "which" Bowie to draw.
I prefer the psychosis of the "Thin White Duke" and "Berlin Trilogy" eras of Bowie's career, as well as the long haired androgyny and occult-tinged folk rock of the "Man Who Sold the World" and "Hunky Dory" era Bowie. I was very conscious of the "Ziggy" angle, but I was hesitant to go that route, since it is the most popular version and I wanted to express him differently. Plus, Bowie himself was always perplexed at the enduring popularity of that single character (but probably not really). I did try, however...
Finding it hard to choose one, I played with the idea of multiple Bowies. I had the idea to have him as one version, pulling a kind of cocoon material and emerging from it as another version. It wasn't working out.
Finally I came to the realization that an older, distinguished Bowie would, by his very nature, encompass all of the previous versions.
To be continued...