The Daily Heller: “The Assistant,” Peter Phobia

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Welcome to the third installment of “The Assistant,” a paean to the usually unsung designers working behind the scenes. In this episode, Peter Phobia (a nom de crayon) shares his experiences with master of the Lincoln Center theater poster and veteran watercolor and drawing virtuoso James McMullan. Over the next few months we will continue to feature those who are currently assisting various designers, or those who did so in the past. If we are lucky, as we are now, the two will be on the same call. Take it away, Peter …

McMullan and Phobia in the studio. Photos: Eva Zar

What tasks were you hired to assist with?Phobia: I started out helping with managing the studio, ordering art supplies, communicating with clients, scanning and editing Jim’s original watercolor artworks. My work expanded. Now I’m also assisting with photo reference shoots of Broadway actors and singers, organizing exhibitions like Jim’s recent show at the Norman Rockwell Museum, and taking part in client meetings.

How much do you work with Peter in terms of oversight? Or after three years, is it pretty much routine?McMullan: Our work together is usually very specific to each project, so I wouldn’t describe it as routine. Particularly now, with Peter working mostly from home, he can’t really help with routine studio chores that he might usually do.

How often are you in McMullan’s presence (either in his studio or via computer)?Phobia: Before the pandemic started, I worked at Jim’s studio once a week, sometimes twice. During the past year we’ve mainly switched to working remotely. It worked out well but I’m looking forward to working together in person again.

How do you work with him? What is a typical day or week? How much is technical vs. creative? In short, what is your role?Phobia: Besides the scanning process of Jim’s original art and digital edits, every day is different. Even though Jim is well-known for almost 100 Broadway theater posters he illustrated for Lincoln Center Theater over the past 40 years, we’ve worked on several book and magazine covers, books about Jim’s drawing process, projects for TV shows and museum exhibitions. This variety brings new challenges for every project, and that’s very exciting. One thing that has been consistent: Jim always makes sure we eat well at the studio. I’ve become a true sandwich connoisseur!

What is the principal reason(s) for needing to have an assistant?McMullan: Having an assistant, apart from all the help in scanning, researching and dealing with paperwork that they give, is a crucial human element in my life. I choose assistants that I want to spend time around and whose opinions I value. (They also know how to type better.)An assistant should be talented and smart enough to figure out what help they can give me beyond what I ask them to do. Peter brings this extra quality to the relationship in that his aesthetic taste often clarifies a difficult choice I’m trying to make.

Has your own work changed since you began this job?Phobia: Experiencing Jim’s work process in person and spending so much time with his drawings has definitely influenced my sensibility for color. I’ve become much more aware of the play between shapes of colors working together, creating harmony or demanding attention.

What have you learned as an assistant that you don’t think you’d have otherwise learned?Phobia: Jim is a master of drawing the human figure and has as much experience in art as he has in life, but he’s still pushing himself and his skills with every new drawing. His energy is really inspiring and has helped me grow so much as an illustrator and in my personal adventures. I feel very lucky to have Jim in my life, not only as my employer, but as a mentor and good friend.

Peter has obviously learned a lot from you. What have you learned from him?McMullan: First of all, Peter has shown me a subtle use of the computer that improves the art without undermining the basic “paint and paper” style of my work. It has encouraged me to experiment with slightly different ways of drawing and adding color. Also, seeing Peter’s ongoing illustration has given me a deeper insight into the flatter, more graphic attitude of many of the younger generation of illustrators.How does your sensibility or aesthetic intersect with McMullan's?Phobia: Even though my illustrations are much more stylized, drawn digitally and aesthetically very differ- ent, we share the same love for energetic poses, strong colors and the effe
cts of light and shadow. Sharing these sensibilities with Jim makes working together a smooth process.

What have been the most exciting or challenging projects? And how deeply do you get involved?

Phobia: Preparing Jim’s exhibition at the Norman Rockwell Museum was a long-term project with a lot of preparation involved and a true highlight. Being surrounded by hundreds of sketches and original drawings in one big museum was a unique experience. It put years of work in context and made me realize artistic patterns I had not fully been aware of, which is a great way to learn from an artist.

Since McMullan is a singular artist with a distinct graphic personality, are you asked to contribute your own “voice” to the work?

Phobia: Jim and I often discuss his concepts, sketches and colors during the process. I’m happy to share my thoughts but as his assistant I help execute his vision. Whether that’s through a conversation, doing research or digital editing—those are the moments I learn the most.

So many assistants do things behind the curtain. What do you think is your most valuable contribution?

Phobia: We live in a time of constant distraction and availability. I’m helping Jim focus on his creative process by taking over tasks that would occupy his time and mind. Jim once said to me, the only app he needs is the “Peter app.” Similar to my own work, I see technology as a tool to enhance the work process and I’m happy Jim is always open to discuss, experiment and try out new ways of working.

Could you work without him?

McMullan: When I first came back to the city from Sag Harbor, where I had an assistant, I tried for a few months to work alone. I soon found out that I was overwhelmed by the details that piled up that I was too busy to deal with. Also, I realized that my knowing how to do emails and simple scanning were far from adequate skills for dealing with all the technical complexities that faced me. So I asked Mirko Ilic if he knew of a student who might be an appropriate and willing assistant for me. He introduced me to Brian [Britigan], who turned out to be a wonderful and talented artist and who took on, among all the other tasks, the laborious and very detailed cataloguing of my theater archive for the Library of Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. He also did all the organizing and communication for the traveling exhibit of the art from Leaving China. Peter has continued to work on both those projects with his amazingly organized mind.

You attended the School of Visual Arts' MFA Illustration program. What is your ultimate goal?

Phobia: Both SVA and Jim have made the past three years very special. I know that the support and advice I’ve received has been a game-changer and I’ll be forever grateful. Ultimately, I’m hoping to have a positive impact on future generations of illustrators with my work and position in the industry.

Previous "The Assistants" here and here.