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The Scratchy Line-R. O. Blechman

Few illustrators have had such an impact in a variety of media forms for so long and remained so largely unknown as R. O. Blechman. The scratchy or squiggly lines that are the signature element in his drawings and paintings and films are unique to him. It would be hard to imagine not having seen his work countless times, but I can't imagine you could find more than one person in a thousand who can identify him by name.

Blechman has been an award-winning artist and illustrator for most of his 92 years. His work is regularly seen in The New York Times and on the covers of The New Yorker magazine among many other venues. Adweek named him Illustrator of the Year. In 1984, his animation of the film "The Soldier's Tale" earned him an Emmy! The National Cartoonists Society bequeathed their Lifetime Achievement Award to him, and a decade ago he was inducted into the Illustrators Hall of Fame. Here are a few of his delightful holiday New Yorker covers and a Story cover entitled "The Power of the Pen":

He also regularly contributes interstitial sketches and drawings to complement essays and articles by writers in publications like The New Yorker, Esquire, The New York Times, etc.

Bob Blechman was born in Brooklyn (of course!) in 1930 and was encouraged (read pushed) by his mom to apply to the High School of Music and Art. His cartooning career began even before he was graduated from Oberlin. He took his cartoon and illustration portfolio and returned to New York in the 1950s where his career took off with the publication of his first book The Juggler of Our Lady, "a sort of Christmas story". It was even adapted into a short film. You may recognize the voice of the narrator as that of Boris Karloff, famous for many cinematic performances but notably to my students as the voice of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

Blechman began his own studio--"The Ink Tank"-- in 1977. He was an apprentice to legendary illustrator John Hubley. Blechman's unique style was immediately recognized by the advertising world. When I was in high school, his commercial for Alka-Seltzer became famous (The voiceover of the neurotic stomach is none other than Gene Wilder!). Here is the link in case it is pulled. It is one glorious minute long.

More than anything else, I will remember the Christmas greetings Blechman created for CBS television in the 1960s. These PSAs from 1966 still resonate today:

I'm sorry I missed the retrospective the Museum of Modern Art held for Blechman some years back. His children's books are still in print.

Blechman contributed one of six segments to a collection of holiday stories for CBS called "Simple Gifts" in 1977. He gives a modern "take" to the Bethlehem story that was both wry and poignant. A few years later came his masterwork, "The Soldier's Tale", an adaptation of a theatre piece with music by Stravinsky, which copped him the Emmy. You may want to give it a shot. I've included a short clip and a link to the entire film on Vimeo. I'm also adding a link for an interview with Blechman if he interests you. Blechman's squiggly lines reflect 20th-Century anxiety in a way much more complex art often fails to. I hope you will appreciate those "scratchy" lines as I do.


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