Illustration West 53 exhibition

Posted on March 9, 2015

The Illustration West 53 exhibition at the Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles gallery opened this past weekend. Although I was unable to make the opening, I’m glad my illustration Past Present was able to.


Illustration about childhood

Past Present. Personal piece. A bittersweet look back at childhood from the perspective of an adult.

This is a lethal weapon!

Posted on February 9, 2015


Ceci est une arme létale ! [This is a lethal weapon!] ©2015 Michael Glenwood Gibbs

This artwork was created shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January 2015, an attack in which 11 were killed, including 4 cartoonists who worked for the magazine. It was the work of those cartoonists — satirical drawings of the Prophet Muhammad — that incited the two attackers, who claimed they were avenging the Prophet, in accordance with the Islamic prohibition against depicting the Prophet.

It’s not the first time the depiction of the Prophet has resulted in death threats or outright violence by a peaceful religion’s most extreme adherents. From the Jyllands-Posten controversy, to incidents involving Lars Vilks, South Park, or Molly Norris, the disproportionate reaction—and in the cases of Charlie Hebdo and Lars Vilks, the barbaric reaction—to a drawing has been hard to comprehend.

The idea that someone would respond to a drawing as if it were a physical threat requiring a physical response — rather than a representation of an idea calling for an intellectual response — was the central, maddening mystery to me.

It was this juxtaposition of representation versus reality that brought Magritte’s Treachery of Images — aka Ceci n’est pas une pipe — to mind. A French expression of the absurdity of confusing an object for the representation of an object. (Although Magritte was born in Belgium and spent most of his life there, he lived for 3 years in Paris, during which time he painted The Treachery of Images.)


Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images”

I debated whether or not the text should read Ceci n’est pas une arme létale— This is not a lethal weapon, or Ceci est une arme létale—This is a lethal weapon. Either version had merit, but “This is not a weapon” seemed to state the obvious since it depicts a pencil, and thus loses the irony that was the gist of Magritte’s original. I wanted to express the idea of absurdity, thus “This is a lethal weapon.”

But of course, it’s not. It’s just a pencil. And it’s just a picture.




Posted on August 21, 2012

Not long ago I discovered a way to magically turn an assignment for one illustration into eight. No miracles involved, no smoke and mirrors, no Photoshop clone tool. All it took was failing to see what, in hindsight, should have been obvious: proposing an illustration that incorporates lots of “found” travel stickers before finding out that the “found” travel stickers I already own wouldn’t do the trick.


The story:
I was hired by a wind energy company to do a series of illustrations to be used, among other things, for advertising and trade show displays. The first image in the series was to illustrate the theme, “Travel is for people, not parts.”

Because many of the parts in question (precision gears, wind towers, etc.) are large and require specialized processes in their manufacturing, they are shipped by sea, going from country to country before the fabrication is completed and the final product delivered. This, the client noted, is costly, time consuming, and not necessarily in the best interest of the American workforce.

6a00e554ee61ca88330133f148ea87970b-piFor the art, I suggested the idea of “parts” going on an ocean voyage. My thought was to recall the look and feel of a travel poster. The key to the concept would be travel stickers on the suitcase, suggesting that the parts had traveled to many countries. (Sketch is at left.)

One of the techniques I often employ in my art is to mix painted imagery with found objects. For this illustration, I would use actual machine parts like gears and hardware. And vintage travel stickers. Luckily, I had a collection of them.

Well, the client — with whom, by the way, I have a very friendly relationship — loved the concept, but had some “minor” changes. The gear needed to be more in keeping with an actual wind tower gear, the ship needed be a freighter and not a cruise ship, and lastly, seven specific countries need to be depicted on the travel stickers.

While I thought the first two changes weakened the aesthetics (the gear and hardware) and the overall concept (ocean voyage) somewhat, I understood the client’s point. They were not arbitrary changes, and the client’s point was well taken, even though my feeling is that artistic license can, and should trump technical accuracy, up to a point.

The third change was the most valid and understandable, but also the stickiest. I didn’t have travel stickers for the seven countries in question (surprise!), and short of getting incredibly lucky on eBay or making a quick sprint around the globe, there was only one way around it: create them. And they couldn’t be mere suggestions of travel stickers; they needed to be detailed since the artwork for the trade show would run so large. No fudging. That meant not only creating seven pieces of art (they were created as roughly full-page illustrations), it meant doing research on the countries, travel sticker design, and typography.

That was fine. In fact, it would be fun. But there was a catch: because various deadlines for the various uses had been discussed at various times by various parties — the client, the PR firm, the design firm, the trade booth fabricator, the trade magazines — the actual deadline for artwork had gotten buried in a blizzard of emails. The trade show was months away. But the ad was due to the printer in three days.

For some reason, this didn’t seem to faze my client, who, to my amazement, was not in a panic.

I, on the other hand, was fazed. But one thing I’ve learned over the years is that when there’s no possible way you can meet a deadline, you always somehow meet it anyway (panic has a way of focusing the mind). And like most illustrators I know, I love working under this kind of pressure.

Here are the seven travel sticker illustrations, followed by the final art.








And here is the final art:


Striking a nerve is not blasphemy

Posted on September 23, 2008

post_gibbs_jesus_criticismOn Dec. 9, 2006, in a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, one Cary Cusumano, of Ashburn VA complained about an illustration I had done for The Washington Post Magazine a week earlier.

Mr. Cusamano said:
“The selection of Michael Gibbs’s illustration depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus with a symbol of the Democratic Party is not only insensitive to Christians, especially Catholics, but is also blasphemous [“The Gospel According to Jim Wallis,” Magazine, Nov. 26]. Christians should be afforded the same respect for their beliefs as other religions or groups. Sadly, such respect cannot be found in The Post or other news media.”
— Cary Cusumano, Ashburn

Mr. Cusumano doesn’t seem to understand three things:
1. Skewering a well-known image is a time-honored form of visual communication, closely affiliated with parody and satire, which is “the use of irony… in exposing, denouncing, or deriding …folly”. It only works if the underlying image is well known. A couple of well-known examples are Duchamp’s parody of the Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa,” and the numerous parodies of Grant Woods’ “American Gothic.”

parodies_c2. Blasphemy is “the impious utterance or action concerning God or sacred things” or, in Judaism, “the act of cursing or reviling God.” What was parodied here was not God or Jesus, but a painting (any number of paintings actually). The paintings of the Sacred Heart first appeared as the result of visions experienced by a 17th century French nun. These paintings are not sacred things. They are a 17th century representation of an abstract concept— “the Love of Jesus.”

3. I was expressing my view — a right that even artists and Democrats (the last time I checked) have under the US Constitution. At the same time, I was reflecting the content of the article I was illustrating, which is my job. That view, distilled down to its essence, is that Jesus was, in his heart, a Democrat. (Get it?)

gibbs_jesus_2As a Democrat and a Christian (I was raised Catholic) I have long been rankled by the GOP’s hijacking and exploitation of Christian values. Those sentiments were echoed by Jim Wallis, the subject of The Post article and author of “God’s Politics.” What Wallis sees as the true mission of Christianity — righting social ills, working for peace — is in tune with the values of liberals who so often run screaming from the idea of religion. Meanwhile… religious vocabulary is co-opted by conservatives who use it to polarize” [].

A political party that promotes corporate greed over the rights of those with the least among us (including immigrants and the poor), opposes controls on Saturday Night specials, opposes basic rights for gays and lesbians, opposes stem-cell research that could save lives, practices racism (remember Willie Horton?), wages an unnecessary and illegal war that kills thousands of innocents — does not represent the heart and love of Jesus. It is the Democratic Party that does. That sentiment led to the imagery I chose.

What I find fascinating is that it is the artwork, rather than the text, that seems to get people in a tizzy. Art is meant to disturb, said the French painter Georges Braque. And it seems to disturb conservatives disproportionately.

I have to admit I took a great deal of satisfaction in reading this, and other such Letters to the Editor. They’re a reminder that artwork still has the power not only to inspire and reflect the beauty of this world, but to piss people off and illustrate the ugliness of this world. And noting the political direction from which these Letters to the Editor invariably seem to be fired, they’re also a reminder of the truth of Social Realist Ben Shahn’s observation, “The artist is likely to be looked upon with some uneasiness by the more conservative members of society.”