NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 25


My Mentor: Brad Holland

Steven Heller

In 1968 Brad Holland became my first and only mentor – I was just 17 and he was 24 – and his most important lessons focused on the ethics of making art. He taught me that an illustrator, cartoonist, and even an art director could make a decisive contribution not only to publication, but the culture. Holland inspired this kid who desperately wanted to be some kind of an artist but was indoctrinated into believing that commercial art was a lesser art. Holland convinced me otherwise. 
He never illustrated anything verbatim but always reinterpreted a text in metaphorical visual terms. Moreover, he stuck to his guns sometimes at the expense of loosing a job. His actions seemed foolhardy. Yet I remember when they paid off – when something matchless was published in a national magazine or on a book jacket or even a poster.  I understood that Holland was not only fighting the conventional wisdom that an illustrator was merely the extension of an art director’s, or worse, an editor’s hands, he was trying to radically alter, if not expunge, the conventions of narrative, sentimental illustration and create a more intimately expressive art. For him it was win or quit, there was no middle ground.

It worked! Within the year that I met him he found sinecure in Playboy, Evergreen Review, and even the staid Redbook. He eventually became a key artist for The New York Times.  Drawing on the legacies of such acerbic graphic commentators artists as Kathe Kollwitz , Georg Grosz, Henrich Kley, and his beloved Goya, Holland’s stark black and white drawings raised the conceptual bar of an antiquated field that was rooted in Rockwellian romanticism. 
He once told me, “My model was always writers, guys who could write essays, poetry, plays, whatever they choose, and try different approaches. There’s no reason an artist can’t take a similar approach. Use charcoal one day and bright colors the next. Do a series of white on white paintings and then do a handful of messy drawings as if you were five years old. I mean you can’t get everything into a single picture. Every picture is just a piece of a whole. It’s kind of like the old cliché of the blind guys feeling the elephant. Every day you feel a new part of who you are.” Without Holland’s fervency and passion for mass art I am certain American illustration would not be as conceptually astute, but rather still locked between those old verities of sentiment and romanticism.

Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of SVA NYC's MFA Design / Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program. He is the author of over 170 books on design and popular culture and a columnist for the New York Times Book Review and Atlantic magazine online. He is the author of The Daily Heller and the recipient of the 2011 Smithsonian Institution National Design Awards.

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