The Daily Heller: Beware of The Blob … The Art Blob

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If you’ve never heard of Art Blob, don’t feel ashamed. He/him/it is an alt-ego for the data-viz pioneer Nigel Holmes. If you ever wondered what a data visualization artist does when not vizual-izing, here you go:

Sometime in the early ’90s, Holmes, who evolutionized Time magazine’s charts and graphs, started to make birthday, Christmas and anniversary cards for his wife, Erin, that were usually retellings of funny things that had recently happened to both of them. Some stories were more elaborate, with images drawn like comics, and some were more like folded greetings cards. He is still making them for her. From the very first, there emerged a little character, immediately called Art Blob. Recently, Holmes published the images in DIY form, and I am a lucky recipient of the subsequent book. I asked him to explain the Blob-o-sphere below.

First and foremost, what is the Art Blob?

Art Blob is me. His amorphous shape (lazily easy to draw!) was a good canvas to show “art” patterns on his body. But I soon realized that the body could have anything on it, not just colorful “arty” dots and squiggles. For instance, food stains. Many a meal at our house results in some sticky bit of goop landing up right beneath my chin, on whatever I’m wearing. Art Blob is a messy eater. Also a terrible punster. In the very short bio on the book’s flap, it says: “[Art Blob] considers this a sort of autobiography, but thinks that ‘autobiographies’ should really be about cars.”

Since I found it hard to ever draw a good likeness of Erin (or at least one that didn’t produce “That doesn’t look anything like me!” or “Is that what you think I look like?” comments, she was eventually left out of the picture, or relegated to the margin, even though the stories were usually about some domestic cooking accident or other family event that involved both of us. In the new book, Erin appears cut off by the edge of the pages, making comments.

What was your reason for making it into a book?

Erin kept all the cards. Carefully. They were love letters.

That’s so romantic …
In March 2020, when we were more or less COVID-confined to the house, she thought that perhaps it was time to release Art Blob to the world: “I’ll share him (reluctantly) with other people. Let’s make a book.”

After 30 years, there was a lot to choose from. We worked together from April to September 2020, editing out some of the more intimate parts, and redrawing bits so they made (some) sense to other readers. A few of the episodes in the book are almost exactly the way I had drawn them originally, and some were new. The gallery episode at the end is just a collection of pictures that we liked, scanned from the originals.

I couldn’t find a way to make them into one story, so at first they were separate unconnected chapters. Then the chapters became “episodes,” and we made the book seem as though it was a “season” of episodes, like a TV show.

So, now that you’ve got it, who is it for?
We didn’t consider the audience. We just had fun at our regular Friday evening “meetings” (plus drinks). I put all the pages completed that week on the floor of our living room. Erin edited and simplified the text so that it read better. We were working towards a 120-page book that we had printed locally and then sent to publishing colleagues (and cold to some publishers that I thought might be interested) and also to friends, especially those with young(ish) children.

The drawing is so different from your data-viz style, yet similar nonetheless—is it all you?
Yes, it’s all me! I had enjoyed drawing the cards in the first place—no restrictions on the style (and no client). They were, and still are, mostly hand-drawn with lots of colored pencils and paints, adding collaged paper and photos. It was the same with the redrawn and new episodes. While the originals were all one-offs, the pages for the book went through a lot of computer manipulation so that they could be sent to the printer as pdfs.

The typeface is based on my handwriting (easily produced through I couldn’t resist using a little of my favorite font, Gill Sans, for the episode/page numbers.

Who are the “guest artists?”
The mining episode includes the most extreme examples (so far!) of something that has appeared on Art Blob’s body. The idea comes from a time when I first met Erin, in 1985, and we went to MoMA in New York City. Afterwards, I drew tiny thumbnail versions for her of some of the artists’ styles as a reminder of our visit. Later I incorporated that idea into the mining episode, which is almost exactly the way the original card/comic looked, with my versions of different artists’ styles on Art Blob’s body. Since the artists came along for the ride, they were “guest artists”!

I sent the book to my family in England, too, and there’s one reference that only they would get. In the mining episode, the four images in Andy Warhol’s guest artist appearance are of my brother Jeremy, who died a few years ago. In the 1950s, he went to Africa for a year to work on a tobacco farm.