Artist's Nov. 17 cover, 'Reflection,' draws outpouring of response
Prolific worker welcomes Chatham's seaside ambience
By James Kinsella
In the e-mail - sent to other artists as well as Staake - Mouly wrote the magazine needed an idea for the cover within 24 hours.
"That's what I like," said Staake, who for 16 years did drawings for the Washington Post on turnarounds as quick as two hours. "That short lead time."
Staake, right, began experimenting with ideas. There were variations on Barack Obama the plumber, coming to tend to a capital awash in trouble.
There was Obama inside the White House with a dog, looking down a handwritten list of problems - the economy, Iraq, etc. - and wondering what he had gotten himself into. That idea was titled, "White House training."
When Obama was elected, The New Yorker sent out another e-mail to its artists, seeking more ideas.
Staake began to put together another idea, one speaking to the gravity of the situation. "There's a way to play this," he realized.
There was a celestial alignment that would attend an Obama victory, extending from slavery to Lincoln's abolition of slavery to the first black president in "essentially, historically, a very short period of time."
Hence that cover, drawing the eye from the white "O" in The New Yorker logo to the Lincoln Memorial to the reflection pool before the memorial. The title: "Reflection."
The New Yorker got back to him: "This is the cover. We need it in two days."
"So I did it," Staake said.
Obama won the election, making history. And Staake, whose cover graced the magazine's Nov. 17, 2008, election edition, made some history, too.
Time magazine selected it as the best cover of 2008. The New Yorker was flooded with reprint requests. Staake, whose royalty statement from Conde Nast typically would cover one or two pages, received a 98-page statement.
The magazine also was flooded with letters from readers telling the magazine how much the cover meant to them. Not a few of them cried.
Lincoln and his memorial have become a continuing theme of Obama's journey to the presidency.
The candidate has been inspired by and identifying with Lincoln: launching his campaign in Lincoln's hometown of Springfield, Ill., studying and adsorbing his writing and speeches, and now planning to use the same bible that Lincoln did for his inauguration in 1861.
Last Saturday, Obama and his family made an impromptu visit to the Lincoln Memorial. Now the president-elect has chosen an openly gay Episcopal bishop, Gene Robinson, to open the inaugural events with an invocation on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday.
Staake's creation of the prime artistic image about Obama's election to the presidency is fairly heady stuff for an artist who first turned up on the cover of The New Yorker less than three years ago, with a drawing featuring an iPod-wearing grad, titled "Back to Cool."
But Staake - who had his first paying client, the National Football League, at the age of 16 - doesn't take a back seat to anyone in the world of professional art and illustration.
"Intellectually, I can compete with any New Yorker cover artist," Staake said.
Staake ultimately is competing to come through with the best idea. And his style - which can run the gamut from serious and reserved to funny and goofy - is sufficiently malleable to take his ideas where they need to go.
He ultimately is competing to come through with the best idea. And his style - which can run the gamut from serious and reserved to funny and goofy - is sufficiently malleable to take his ideas where they need to go.
His interest in drawing goes back deep into his childhood. While other kids would be interested in doing backflips for their parents' Super 8 film cameras, Staake would be off somewhere, drawing.
He would quickly become known as the best artist in class - not that he was, he said, but other talented students would tend to surrender the field to him and go off and pursue something else.
Staake did drawings for his school paper and an alternative paper in the Los Angeles, where his work came to the attention of the NFL.
After the league got over its surprise that it was dealing with a 16-year-old high school student, it contracted for his work, paying him the then-not-unsubstantial sum of $400 for drawings that were used in game programs.
Staake continued his unconventional course in college, where he majored in journalism and international relations. He had no interest in taking art as a major.
When he got out of school, he found little opportunity for jobs in the field he really wanted, drawing for a publication.
So he began to free-lance - and he's done it ever since.
Over time, he began to expand his work into a wider area. In the early 1990s, he illustrated a Jay Leno book on headlines, and since has started publishing children's books and graphic novels, including The Orb of Chatham, the tale of a mysterious black orb that takes a ramble through town one night in 1935.
He also has written an extensive book on caricature, celebrating and dissecting legendary practitioners such as Herbert Block ("Herblock") of the Washington Post, and Cape Cod's own Edward Gorey. He estimates he's published 45 books.
Staake, who started in the days of ink and paper, also has moved along with technology, to a point. These days, he uses Adobe Photoshop 3.0, a comparatively ancient software illustrator program that dates from the mid-1990s.
The artist said he can do everything he needs to do, including New Yorker covers, on his computer, left, with Photoshop 3.0.
"It has no bells and whistles," Staake said. "I hate bells and whistles. Adobe must think I'm the anti-Christ."
Francoise Mouly, art director at The New Yorker, said she is delighted to work with Staake, with whom she became acquainted through his children's books.
"It's a privilege to be at The New Yorker, considering it's the best magazine in the world, because we have access to the best artists in the world," Mouly said.
Their work, Mouly said, is "beautiful and sumptuous and a pleasure to look at" - and that in itself is not enough, but just the beginning.
"It has to be the right thing at the right time," she said.
An aspect of Staake that she welcomes, she said, is that "he pelts me with ideas... he begs me not to think of himself as psychotic. He has a very fertile mind."
And unlike other artists, who will tend to edit themselves to send what they believe the magazine will like, Staake essentially lets fly.
That was the case with the election edition cover. Among the ideas that Staake had sent was one that incorporated the "O" in The New Yorker's logo.
Mouly told Staake that it was "the beginning of an idea," and then saw it evolve into what became the magazine's cover.
"One of the reasons it stood out is that it worked at a metaphorical level," she said. "It wasn't a portrait of Obama. It was a kind of an image that was very hard to describe. It worked in part of the logo of The New Yorker, so [no other magazine] could have done it.
"You have to decode and decipher it. When you do, it has this emotional resonance. In a moment like this, the more you look at it, the more you think about it, the more layers it has."
- Francoise Mouly, art director at The New Yorker, on the Nov. 17 cover
"You have to decode and decipher it," Mouly said. "When you do, it has this emotional resonance. In a moment like this, the more you look at it, the more you think about it, the more layers it has."
Also, she said, "it looked great."
An animated version of the cover can be seen here.
So how does an LA guy wind up on the other edge of the continent, in Chatham on Cape Cod?
Staake began his journey east in 1987, when he quit drinking and moved with his wife, Paulette, to where she grew up, in St. Louis.
St. Louis can get warm in the summertime. And Staake was reminded of a place he had visited when he was in college, when his then-girlfriend was interning at a magazine and drew an assignment to profile inns in New England.
Among their destinations: the Queen Anne Inn in Chatham.
"It was just this foggy day," Staake recalls. "We stumbled on this place called the Squire. And I thought, 'I want to live here. I want to be here. This place is awesome.'"
Fast-forward in Staake's life. He and his wife are looking for a summer place. Staake remembers Chatham.
It's the mid-1990s, and Cape Cod real estate still is in a slump. Staake and his wife find a 200-year-old cottage on Main Street in Chatham, close to Shore Road, with a lot of land and 16-by-20 shed. Three elderly ladies owned the property.
"We lucked out with this house," Staake said. "We could not have imagined owning a house here. We just happened to come into the market at the optimum point."
The summer place eventually became a year-round place. Staake tore down the shed and built his studio on its footprint. A mooring ball bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Orb of Chatham sits on the back lawn.
These days, Staake, an admitted workaholic, goes into his studio about 9:30 a.m., where he works much of the day. He has dinner and spends time with his wife in the early evening. Then it's back into the studio, where he typically works until 2:30 a.m.
Staake and his family have embraced Chatham. The elder son, Ryan, 24, has gone on to work for Apple, but the younger son, Kevin, 16, attends Chatham High School, where he plays on the tennis team.
The historic property conceals hubbub of activity by Staake, who says a continuing case of attention deficit disorder has served him well.
"I take whatever comes along," Staake said. "The things I want to do, I find a way to do them... There are 80 things I want to do."
About his art, he said, "My career has been one of figuring things out, of taking chances, about not being afraid... I am enthusiastically, conceptually venue-oriented. I've never taken myself very seriously."
Chatham residents, known for their reticence, slowly have become aware that a nationally celebrated artist lives among them.
For his part, Staake prizes his quasi-anonymity, though some residents are starting to connect him with the New Yorker magazines that appear in their mailboxes.
"I can do what I do, I can go on my walks," Staake said. He loves living in a 200-year-old house that's 300 feet from the ocean.
"I love feeling a real part of Chatham," he said.