Friday, January 15, 2016

Once A Press Artist

© Edward Riojas

I once told a dear friend that I’m terrible at good-byes. When the time came for us to part ways, I simply wasn’t there. That’s how bad I am at farewells.

One would think, therefore, that I was being done a great favor a few days ago by being escorted to the office’s front door after nearly 31 years, and bypassing my own desk and colleagues. I eventually returned to collect my things and was able to talk a bit with a few former coworkers, but leaving without saying something would be wrong, especially when considering the scope of my employment, so here are a few words:

I am extremely grateful. It’s admirable for a company to stick its neck out, take a chance on a green artist like I was, and to provide for me and my family for 30-plus years – especially in an industry that is fraught with so many challenges, including change.
Measuring Time: This gross paint rag, which
had been languishing in my office desk drawer,
was my daughter’s infant T-shirt. She now has
children of her own. Yes, I burned it.

When I first came to The Press, I was one of very few people without a degree in journalism, and immediately I jumped into a sea of journalists. I had a fine art degree, and arrived with only a few years experience in ad agencies. Frankly, I wasn’t even a subscriber. I was definitely the odd duck.

Most everything is now accomplished by computer. My office drawing board has gotten pretty dusty in recent years. Not so when I first arrived. Those were transitional years. The hot lead of linotype machines was already gone, but computers were not yet a universal thing. There were none in the art department.

The jargon was sometimes unique to the newspaper industry, and outsiders might be confused when confronted with things like grid sheets, waxers, rollers, rubylith, zipatone, flourocolor, feet, wheels, knives, lupes, flexible border tape, and pica poles. If you didn’t crop a photo before dropping it out back, you’d hear about it. If you put in the wrong coding for type from Atex, you might “gum up the rip” – and then you’d REALLY hear about it. Back then, there were still a few spikes around the office, even though stories were getting spiked electronically. And smoking – in locomotive fashion – was the norm in the office.

In the early days, every chart was plotted by hand; drawn by hand. The same with maps, and if you didn’t know where in the world someplace was, you would go to this place called a library. It has books. And maps. Text was added afterward. I still have a map of Manhattan, drawn by hand, for one of our fashion story jaunts. And yes, many of the streets are labeled – the text held in place by scotch tape.
Mac Training: I was the first artist to be sent
from The Grand Rapids Press to train with
other “Boothies” in Ann Arbor on the mighty
Mac SE – scroll, and scroll and scroll.

But a career is not merely measured by the age of things you touch. Rather, it is measured by the lives touched. During my stay, I have crossed paths with an immense crowd of extremely talented folk, whose standards of excellence, integrity, and love of their craft hovers near the stratosphere. After 30 years, many of the names have become like vanishing mist, recognizable now by precious few. It is impossible to name them all, so please don’t feel slighted by your exclusion – you ALL loom large in my memory.

Charlie Moore: The first Press person I met – even before I started working at The Press. I had won one or two cartoon contests in the now-defunct Grand Rapids Press Wonderland Magazine, which led to a few free-lance illustration projects for the same publication. Charlie – being Charlie – cheerfully offered to pick up the drawings at my parents house. I still remember the sunny day when an ancient blue car pulled into the driveway. I would soon find out Charlie’s car was a rolling kitchen pantry and drug store. I also learned to be judicious when deciding on any tableware found in the back seat. His office desk drawers were pretty much the same.

Jim Mencarelli: For the same free-lance assignment, I sat down with Jim as he enthusiastically explained the gist of his first-person story – his near-death experience while spelunking. His East Coast, gum-chewing voice thinly veiled a deeply-caring man. Sadly, his rugged, outdoorsy life would be shortened by – of all things – a cut on his finger.

Jim Starkey: The dear boss who hired me. The man who handed me keys to his Porsche on my first day so I could go to the clinic and have my blood tested. I never could find reverse in that thing, so I sheepishly returned the keys and told him that I preferred to walk. No sense in totaling the boss’s sports car on the first day.

Bob Kubiak: He was an older artist from a different department in the building, and he would often drop by to see what I was doing. He hounded me about the speed at which I could stipple a drawing, when I so chose to use the technique. Time after time he would ask the same question, so I finally timed myself – seven dots per second.

Jef Mallett: The rascally part-time artist who, if you could cut him in half, was composed of nothing but enthusiasm. All this without caffeine or drugs. It was almost annoying. He once came into work with a broken finger, and days later had to be told to have it checked out. The doctor had to re-break it. On a table. With the doctor’s knee on the finger. Now Jef has his own syndicated cartoon strip – Frazz – and presumably still has all his fingers.

Aaron Phipps: From the time he arrived as an intern in the art department, I could tell the quiet redhead was different. A school project of his own design necessitated romping through woods in search of ox-gall and ordering vellum from a British firm that was the exclusive purveyor to Her Majesty the Queen. Aaron and I discovered that the shortcomings of Adobe Illustrator 88 could be put to our advantage, so we proceeded to use the excessively-slow image rebuilding time to create animated tank battles. Yes, on company time. Aaron now runs the entire print facility.

Charlie Albright: I never met the man, although I might have once seen him wandering the halls. I owed my job, in part, to him. He was a victim of Alzheimer's, and I was his replacement. It was a difficult task to clean out his flat file drawers, seeing graphics that lacked all sense and order, and knowing it was because of his illness that the Lord was blessing me.
That was Then: The Editorial Art Department,
from left, Frits Hoendervanger, Ed Riojas,
Nancy JonesFrancis, Yolanda Gonzalez,
Diann Bartnick, Aaron Phipps, and Jim Starkey.

Of course, an exhaustive list of past colleagues still would not give the entire picture. There were the readers. I worked in a bubble, but the apparent impact I had on readers is telling. While recently babysitting my entry during ArtPrize, I had several visitors relate their favorite Press illustrations from years past. One gentleman even remembered one of my cartoon contest entries. At the very least, countless visitors would see my name and exclaim, “OH, you’re the artist from The Press!”

And then there were the assignments. I had to be ready for anything. I might be working on a hilarious illustration, and the next hour I’d be on the site of a fatal house fire, talking briefly with a firefighter in the snow, and quickly working up a graphic to show the position of victims relative to doors and windows.

One last-minute assignment evolved because the Police Department’s artist was vacationing. A man was found dead and without identification. The police wanted the public’s help in identifying the man, and I was given the task with 30 minutes to deadline. Problem: He was killed by a massive blow to the face. I received two photos from which to work and bring the man “to life” – one on the slab, and one after the undertaker had done his best.

I once became a courtroom artist for a month or so, bringing the faces of some rather unsavory folks to readers. I’ve chatted with architects and pored over blueprints before doing cutaways of some of the more impressive facades of Downtown Grand Rapids. I’ve illustrated medical procedures and visually explained things in laymen’s terms so the public could have a better understanding. Through it all, it has been an honor and a privilege to invade the homes of readers for a few moments and help them understand; make them laugh; allow them to weep.

To say my efforts were unappreciated by my colleagues would be very wrong. I have a couple of ignored walls in my home that are covered with dusty awards. I have a shelf with awards stacked three and four deep. When cleaning out my office desk this week, I found two forgotten Associated Press awards with my name on them. However, there is one award that, in spite of its small size, is head and shoulders above the rest. The award was not given willy-nilly, as the following inscription testifies: 

“The Robert S. Day Award”
“Robert S. Day, a reporter and editor at The Press from 1946 until his death in 1979, was a dedicated newspaperman. His efforts contributed to the high standards of reporting and editing for which The Press continuously strives. This annual award is given in his memory to the News Department employee who most clearly personifies those standards. We hope that honoring the qualities of professionalism and commitment for which he stood will become a legacy to his life.”

Time has a way of eroding the words of men – even for such a man, and even for me. I much rather prefer to put my trust in another place. As Jeremiah 29:11 states,

“”For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.””

No, I’m not very good at good-byes. Echoing the words of a dear pastor, let me simply say that, by the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, I WILL see you again. If not here in time, then there – in eternity.


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  2. 1st lede writethru: Just beautiful! Love the “gum up the rip” part. ;) I'll miss you, I'm sorry we didn't get to say goodbye ... and thanks for the parting gift. Your work will be missed, no doubt, but also your steady character and sharp, humorous wit.
    I wish all the best to you and yours.

  3. Ed, as someone with an artistic appreciation that far exceeds my technical ability, I considered it a gift to watch your varied works take shape, like watching magic tricks. I remember a last-minute request for an art department "tribute" portrait of Mary Sue Coleman for an Ann Arbor A1. When I reported up the chain that there wasn't sufficient time, the chain reported right back down to me that that was the wrong answer. I dutifully broke the news to you. You nodded and got to the drawing board. Boom. Now I know how you did that: seven dots per second. As for your avoidance of goodbyes, I recently observed that after nearly three years of working with you, I don't think I ever saw you leave for the day. Granted, my desk faced away from you, but still. I'd look before 4, there was Ed. I'd look sometime after 4, no Ed. You'd slipped away like a ninja, to return unseen before dawn the next day. I'm sorry I wasn't there for your most recent goodbye (I won't say last), and I look forward to our paths crossing again. In the meantime, travel well.

  4. Ed, this is wonderful. And touching. It’s perfect Riojas. Of course it is — there’s not a disingenuous cell in your system.

    I love your description of me, and if I may, I’ll add what you modestly left out. You’re spot-on that I was composed of nothing but enthusiasm. That’s really about what I had, and it really wasn’t enough. I needed substance, I needed skill, I needed industry. I needed a teacher, and when you came to The Press, I got the best one I would ever have. I’m still drawing Frazz, I still have all my fingers, and I’m enjoying a life that should have been beyond me.

    I still have that enthusiasm, a handy trait since I exaggerate things for a living. But I’m not exaggerating this: I wouldn’t have gotten two steps past the Press art department if it weren’t for you. Thank you, Ed, for all that art you created so purposefully, from the artist you created by accident.

  5. Thank you all for your kind words, for your prayers, and for not saying "good-bye."