Remain Sane: Draw!
Spartan Holiday Books is the publishing house associated with DB Dowd, a writer, illustrator, curator and critic in St. Louis, Missouri; he is a professor of art and American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, and a senior faculty member in the new (2019) MFA in Illustration and Visual Culture (IVC) at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, is also the Faculty Director of the Modern Graphic History Library, which was renamed in his honor in 2016.
He publishes the illustrated journal Spartan Holiday, a non-fiction serial tracking his travels to diverse locations, including Shanghai, China; Paris, France; and the Western United States, now in its third issue. The intriguing publication, designed by Scott Gericke, is a fine example of “artrepreneurism” providing outlet for the artist as author. I asked him about the goals and ethos of the work on the occasion of the new edition. Oh, yes, and the sanity it brings to his life.
This is #3 of Spartan Holiday. What is your rationale for these “zines”? And why is it Spartan?
Above all, drawing is a kind of sense-making for me, a strategy to remain sane. As you have plainly noticed, judging from some of your recent posts, we are living through a plague of bad faith. What is true? What can I be sure of? I can use my senses. The observed world has come to seem quite urgent. Listen. Look. Make marks. Describe first, interpret second. That’s what’s “Spartan” about the “holiday.” Pencil and paper. Drawing and writing.
As for the zine itself, the fact that I am a writer and curious about other places guarantees me interesting subjects to report on. So I go here and there, near or far, and take on the role of correspondent, both verbal and visual. (I am also interested in visual journalism for publications. Trials, conventions, sports, day-in-the-life, etc. Spartan is proof-of-concept in certain respects.)
Tell me about this edition about Paris. Do you just sketch everywhere you go?
I find it takes me at least a week to get my bearings. What’s superficially noticeable may not be particularly germane. So drawing isn’t always the best investment right away. I walk, I shoot photographs, and write in my little book. Sometimes I make design notations for pictorial ideas, more diagrams than drawings. I am looking for a beat in the story, and ultimately an argument. For example, in Paris I made a drawing of the 13th-century city wall that’s still visible along rue de la Jardins-Saint-Paul in the Marais.
The Spartan text reports as a historical matter that Paris repeatedly outgrew its walls, only to be contained by the périphérique, the Paris ring road (an “inner belt” to Americans). How do you show that? It took me a long time to figure it out. Finally I made four little gouache paintings from surveillance camera images of selected “city gates” (Portes) of Paris, accessible on the Internet. I was nowhere near Paris at the time.
What does doing a zine do for you? What does this make you feel?
Earlier in my career I struggled with focus. I would make promising starts, then get bored and move on. The Spartan Holiday project is a consistent problem—40 pages of content, maybe 1500 words—that can be solved across infinite range. Drawing, painting, photography, lettering, type, spot color palettes—that’s a lot of room to maneuver. I have invented an engrossing problem for myself. I could make 20 issues.
Meanwhile audiences seem to respond well. Diverse readers have reported to me that the zine makes history and culture interesting and engaging. As an undergraduate history major many years ago, that pleases me.
There’s also a sub-theme of the history of visual culture. Each issue excavates illustration history in some way, which touches on the work I do as a curator and critic. I like crediting and engaging with the work of other times and places. I redraw historical works, like the sunken submarine from a 1905 issue of Le Petit Journal illustrée. Also, I cite everything compulsively in the notes at the back.
For you drawing is design. What is design then?
Drawing is learning, first and foremost. I apprehend something structurally by drawing it. But you are correct that two-dimensional, compositional structure—the way things are put together—is of immense interest to me. The integration of drawing and design in the work of others inspires me deeply. Maybe another way of saying that I savor the tension between description and abstraction.
Spartan Holiday is designed by Scott Gericke, and we work very collaboratively—intensely so, really. (He also designed my book Stick Figures: Drawing as a Human Practice last year, and did so beautifully!) Scott brings a typographic intelligence that I simply do not possess. His work on the project highlights tension, too—like negative leading in Didot italic, or use of scale shift to dramatically shrink an illustration to my dismay, followed by surprised relief.
I assume that everything in this issue satisfies an aesthetic lust. What is your favorite piece?
Lust is quite the word. My friend Craig Yoe just told me he thought that Spartan Holiday was “text-and- image coitus XXX rated”, which alarmed but pleased me. I guess I am fondest of the opening spread with my baroque self-portrait with CDG airport, the lost submarine spread, and the heroic football mural overlaid by David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps. But I love all my children!
What’s next in the Spartan 4?
I recently made an extended driving trip through Western Nebraska and South Dakota to Wounded Knee, the Badlands, the Black Hills and the Powder River Basin in Eastern Wyoming. I will return to do more reporting, writing, and drawing. Spartan Holiday No. 4, as yet untitled, will engage the northern Great Plains as a historical and contemporary site. Release date early 2021.