Art Basel Miami Beach
Cowabunga!, 2023 Oil on linen 35 × 46 inches
Cowabunga!, 2023
Oil on linen 35 × 46 inches

I love Charles Schulz and his historic Peanuts comic strip, which I’ve read since I was a small child and enjoy still today.  This image is an appropriation from a strip from August 9th, 1965, rendered almost a year before I was born:

This was from a series of strips where Snoopy becomes a surfer beagle, trying to impress a female “Beach-Beagle”, while Linus and Charlie Brown look on, and rescue Snoopy after he crashes—these strips were also appropriated by Charles Schulz’s animation collaborators Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez in June 1966’s TV special Charlie Brown’s All-Stars and in an animated movie I revered as a kid Snoopy Come Home in 1972.  Like his collaborators, I hope I am paying homage to the great master, while also adding my own vision, bringing the illustration into a fully formed world of a “real” ocean and Snoopy by making an oil painting of the same subject.  Charles Schulz would humbly say that if he could draw better, he would have become an artist, and if he could write better, a writer, but of course he was an amazing writer and artist who changed the medium of the comic strip, that in its time was the most popular comic in the world (translated in 21 different languages read in 75 different countries by over 355 million readers by the time of Schulz’s death in 2000).  Schulz did say he wanted to be remembered as one of the greatest comic artists of all time, and he succeeded.

My family had a Peanuts book called Yes, Santa, There is a Charlie Brown from 1971, which was beautifully designed (like all the Peanuts products that were approved by Schulz himself) that superimposed his drawings with Victorian-era drawings and engravings.  The effect was fantastic, as it seemed the Peanuts gang existed in a “real” rendered world that stylistically was so different but made the Peanuts figures seem even more “real” being in this detailed engraving universe.  I would stare at the pages for hours, pouring over the effect (and the humor and all the ideology it carried with it).  This was like another comic fascination of mine —the infamous “Mickey Rodent” comic in MAD magazine from Mad #19, 1955, illustrated by Bill Elder from a script by Harvey Kurtzman.  In this “adult” Disney satire, Mickey Mouse is a delinquent, who at the end of the strip, throws the Donald Duck character into a cage in a zoo—the last pages with the backgrounds rendered subjectively, “realistically”, in the noir/horror style of the EC Comics that these artists came from in that era.  Art Spiegelman, creator of the Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel MAUS also cites it as a major inspiration for his work.  MAUS is a story of Spiegelman’s father, who was able to survive the Nazi concentration camps, that used the “funny animal” technique of “masking”—with characters rendered like iconic, essentialized anthropomorphized animals, existing in more realistic drawn worlds.  The effect is that the reader can “relate” more to the iconic form—“anyone” could be the “happy face” as something drawn so essentialized (and yellow!) can be that persona, and they “suture” into the “icon” of the figure—and “become” them, “Masking” into that world so they “experience” the world of the artist so they “experience” and “feel” what the character is feeling, like being transported into the dream of the artist.  This is discussed in the book I’ve been teaching to both my fine art and comic classes Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud- and what could be more essentialized and iconic as an anthropomorphic dog—that doesn’t even quite look like a dog, than Snoopy?!

For this image, I was referencing photos of real surfers on similar looking waves and oceans, which keeping within the framework of the original Schulz drawing.  I use a grid, and while how it doesn’t look like the original is what is “me” about it, I wanted to honor Schulz mastery, like when Van Gogh would appropriate Japanese woodblock prints (the “manga” of his time”) to learn from it and emulate the linework, while also making it feel “real” and 3D.  Picasso loved the American strip Krazy Kat by George Herriman, and beyond his being inspired by African masks and Etruscan statues for how those cultures were able to essentialize forms to bring out new ways of seeing and feeling for Western Europeans, he was also inspired by comic strips, to make his comic-like forms in Guernica and more.  I’ve learned so much from Schulz, since I was a kid, drawing his characters and painting them on occasion as an adult, all the time, trying to suture in myself into his world and bring out what is “me” about it, and for oil painting, realizing another world.  I wanted to create movement in this work, arrest motion but also to “feel” the wave and the surfboard riding on top of it, and how Schulz’s linework can also really feel like an ocean wave and splashes, while still “cartoony” being able to suture the ocean waves and background into the frame of the linework.

Slowing down time, by making an oil painting of a comic panel, also means hopefully being able to arrest, and bring out the feeling and emotion, and the allegorical intent, of what I’m projecting onto the image metaphorically, as my own artist who loves Schulz and his characters but also what the image makes me feel that I find so attractive.    Schulz favorite artist was Andrew Wyeth of Christina’s World, the conservatives most favorite artist of the 60’s if you didn’t like Warhol.  Like how Wyeth can create atmosphere and mood and mysterious narrative intent in his great paintings, I hope that Schulz would have enjoyed how I’m taking on the challenge of making my painting appropriated from his panel.  Warhol and Lichtenstein were about making a Duchampian maneuver by silk-screening or oil painting comic Benday dots from panels of comics—as pop “Readymades” changing the original by putting it into a gallery and museum context to comment about how all we have around us is art, especially comics, which at the time were considered “low” material.  For my, comics are one of the best languages we have for communication, for the reasons above and how they can create warmth, compassion, and empathy for people, places, and ideas.  I hope to use comic forms (and painting real life icons) as relatable images that can “work” like comics, but also give feeling, emotion, and depth.  I also am inspired by Peter Saul (whom I’ve had a two person show with and consider a friend), the Hairy Who/Chicago Imagists, Phillip Guston, and more. 

When I paint figures, real life or fictional, I listen to audiobooks, films, speeches, and have music playlists that have something to do with what it is I am painting, to help get into the meditation of my painting the images. Proust’s In Search of Lost Time begins with his character biting into a Madeline cookie, which becomes a talisman for all the thoughts, feelings, and memories that constitute one of the longer novels and experimental fictions that changed literature.  For me, images that I paint from are those talismans, and I want to ruminate about what they engender from me while I make the painting.  This image makes me feel great, obviously Snoopy is the “Joie de Vivre” side of Schulz’s personality–as Charlie Brown was his “wishy washy” side, Linus his philosophical, Schroeder his obsessive artist side, and Lucy his crabby ex-wife, if you believe his biography, which I listened to while painting this work.  Snoopy is riding a big wave, totally enjoying it, and “winning”, as Schulz did with is career, and how I aspire to in my own life.  We’ve been through so much as a country (and recently for me in my own life), and as this painting is part of the “My American Dream” series I’ve been painting since 9-11, gives me hope.  I also listened to the still amazing Vince Guaraldi music that was the soundtrack for the many awesome animated Peanuts specials, the fantastic You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown original cast recordings, and music that in the documentaries and books mentioned Schulz would love to listen to, including Andy Williams Moon River, Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, Man of La Macha, and other 60’s and 70’s classics that brought me to my own childhood.  Ultimately, it was I who sutured into the avatar of Snoopy while painting, thinking of my own past, and waves of life I wanted to “surf” and stay above water with, riding the waves of my own life as I hope viewers will for themselves while observing the painting.

Schulz was intensely obsessive about his work, and dedicated completely to the creation of his strip, and began as teacher for the Art Instruction institute, a correspondence school for aspiring cartoonists and artists.  I come from comics, growing up in Colorado, in the suburbs outside Denver, the art museum wasn’t as interesting as I find it now, and I was inspired by comics and was the “comics kid” in all the schools I attended, from doing cartoons from kindergarten on for the school paper, to creating the daily comic strip at Brown in college for the Daily Herald, in additions to illustrations, while also being a Studio Art and Semiotics major.  When I graduated, I thought I was going to be a New Yorker cartoonist, but (I also edited the weekend magazine at Brown and more) worked for an art magazine called Contemporanea, and Robert Miller Gallery, back when it was a great gallery on 57th street, just after Basquiat and Mapplethorpe had died, who I loved as artists.  I soon realized that great art was about bringing up ideas aesthetically, just like comics, and realized that while I wasn’t a philosopher, like the semioticians, or playwright (I also studied playwriting and wrote and directed plays at Brown and studied with Paula Vogel, a Pulitzer prize winning playwriter), I loved rendering ideas more than anything else—more than just making people laugh, and took me on this path to being a fine artist.   But I still “keep it real” for comics, publishing a graphic novel in the 90’s that became influential (Horror Hospital Unplugged, a collaboration with Dennis Cooper) that got me on a track to teach comics, which I have done, alongside teaching fine art, for the 30+ years I have been an exhibiting artist.  I was the lead comics instructor and “cartooning coordinator” at the School of Visual Arts in New York, a historic institution for comics, for 25+ years (while teaching fine art at NYU, Columbia, Yale, Brown, Brooklyn College and Boston University for undergrad and grad students).  University of Southern California recruited me eight years ago to finally teach both fine art and comics under the same roof, and I’ve created a Visual Narrative Art program and interdisciplinary minor (a collaboration with the School of Cinematic Arts Animation and Gaming divisions, English, Theater Arts schools, to promote future generations of creators making work celebrated at the soon to open (in 2025) Lucas Museum of Narrative Art that I have also been in collaboration.  I’m proud that currently we have 7 classes with over 120 students taking Narrative Art classes I’ve written, generating millions of dollars for USC Roski, and enlightening many students who will join the thousands I’ve taught in careers in fine art, but also comics, animation, and more.  

Comics have always been at the core, the machinations of the language generate the ideas and influences for my fine art making practice—with my paintings “talking with one another” in non-linear narratives, and to bring out the emotion and feeling through my artmaking practice of working with allegory and ideas.  It’s been a long and intense journey, especially balancing with my full-time creating exhibitions and artwork, and hope that I’m currently “riding a wave” in my career, but also hoping to be able to stay on top of my production as an artist (like Basquiat has a dream of in the Julian Schnabel biopic of him!)—and staying on top of the tumultuous waters of my own life that may be good or bad but always hopefully moving forward.  Schulz had an extraordinary career, but also was a melancholic individual and artist, and used the meditation of making his work to think of life and lead the world in thought and understanding as an artist and creator, giving a voice for post-war America, leading generations of how to understand the ever-changing culture of life.  During the time of his divorce from his first wife, but also the tumult of the late 60’s and 70’s, Snoopy became his primary vehicle, more than Charlie Brown, Snoopy was his superhero, being able to live out his fantasies and ours, the “Joe Cool” of how to find the joy in life.

As America is going through so much tumult in our own disturbing times, I’m hoping this image can help make viewers feel better, to be able to ride the wave of troubles rather than get washed over by them, to think of the feelings of this country in an optimistic way—as opposed to the move towards fascism and authoritarianism, to ride the liberal waves of the great cultural change we have been experience with BIPOC and LGBTQIA communities, and of the once marginalized coming into positions of power and leadership.  I hope the everlasting spirit of Snoopy and Schulz is honored in this image, but also contemporizes and brings to new life and allegory that is almost 60 years old but made anew in this painting.  I signed it for him SCHULZ as he did in the strip in the corner, but also signed my own last name, in the sea foam nearby, as I hope he would enjoy this “collaboration”. . I don’t necessary believe in “channeling” and not sure about life beyond other worlds, but the evening Schulz died, I had a dream that he visited me, I could remember his soft spoken style of speaking, his glasses, his warmth as he seemed to communicate he was happy with what I had been doing teaching and promoting comics (?!) and I hope his spirit is also in this work, which I felt while painting.