Local illustrator John Mavroudis captures the moment.
Amid all the volume surrounding the Kavanaugh confirmation, this week’s TIME Magazine cover depicting Christine Blasey Ford swiftly broke through the national noise to command everyone’s attention. Comprised of words and phrases from Dr. Ford’s poignant testimony last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, TIME’s cover is an instantly iconic image that captures the essence of the American moment.
And interestingly enough, it was created here—over the course of two days—in the Bay Area.
Local artist John Mavroudis grew up in San Jose and now lives in Discovery Bay. His work adorns many Bay Area hallways in the form of the numerous Fillmore posters he has created over the years, for the likes of Sia, TV on the Radio and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (to name just a few). Mavroudis has also turned heads nationally with a wide range of striking magazine cover illustrations, such as his visceral cover for The Nation on the topic of torture and U.S. interrogation techniques. In 2006, Mavroudis won Magazine Cover of the Year by the American Society Of Magazine Editors for an issue of The New Yorker focused on the 5th anniversary of 9/11.
Amazingly, his current cover—which has been getting attention around the world—is his first for TIME Magazine.
The Six Fifty caught up with Mavroudis over the phone to discuss the concepts, creativity and criticism surrounding his show-stopping illustration.
So first off, congratulations on the cover. Can you walk us through how it came together — the concept and art direction — with TIME Magazine?
A couple of months ago I had sent TIME a few different ideas and illustrations to show them the kind of stuff I do. And their art design director, D.W. Pine, got back in touch with me and said he liked some of the stuff that I had sent and would keep me in mind. That was a couple of months ago.
Then on Monday I got an email in the afternoon with [Pine] showing me what he wanted to do. I had done a typographical illustration like that before with Trump in The Nation magazine, and also one with Hillary (which was being considered by The Nation, but we all know what happened in the election, so it never ran). Pine showed me an example of the Hillary illustration in TIME and asked if I could do something like that for Dr. Ford. And I thought— “TIME Magazine, sure.” And the turnaround was really quick, like two days. I usually work on those things for anywhere from a week to a month. But when the opportunity presents itself like that, you just say, “Okay, let’s go for it.”
I had watched all of her testimony live. And like most of the nation I was riveted by it. When it came time to focus on this project, I went back and found a transcript and started reading through and highlighting different words and phrases that kind of struck me as powerful, or at least a fair reading of what she had experienced and what she was going through, as well.
TIME wanted to stay away from the more graphic aspects of her testimony. We wanted to convey what happened, and the emotions of then and now. So I started putting certain phrases in certain places on her face: words on the forehead were related to her memory, and then I put the word “help” where her teeth were.
I was trying to keep her in mind while I was doing this, because this is not her. This is her in this event. She is a much more complex person, obviously, than what happened to her then and what’s happening to her right now. But I think the illustration is representative of the event and the courage in the moment.
I’m curious how you felt about the illustration when it was finished but still had not gone out to the public?
It’s a gradual thing. At certain points along the way I’m hoping that it’s going to work; like when I’m first starting to put things together and then I’m watching the clock, as well, because I have one day to finish it. I don’t want to be all the way at the end of the process and say, “This is not working. What am I doing? I have three hours to go!”
But it started coming together fairly well. We swapped out some quotes here and there. When it was finally done I came close to midnight and I had to send before I went to bed. Overall I thought it worked really well. I popped it into a TIME Magazine frame to see if it was working and it seemed to hold up. So I was feeling good about it. But then when I sent it to them…[laughs]…there was still a little apprehension before I got their email back and they said that they loved it.
For you personally, how do you navigate the tidal wave of social media criticism and commentary that comes in the wake of such a high-profile piece like this?
Oh, very badly! [laughs] Just kidding. I’m engaged in social media, sometimes to my detriment. I thought I was ready for this, but it’s been an absolute onslaught. When I finally got to Twitter it was like 4,000 notifications, and same with Facebook—it just said 99+ notifications. I couldn’t even deal with looking at it. I would go in and post, but I wouldn’t touch the notifications until last night when I got home from work — I kind of just settled back and stayed up way too late going through a lot of it and being pleasantly surprised and horrified. But mostly surprised. The proportion was way positive and I heard a lot of nice stories and a lot of emotional stories, which meant a lot to me.
Both you and Dr. Ford are Bay Area residents…..and sometimes the Bay can seem like a bubble. Like there is the saying that “SF is 7 squares miles surrounded by reality.” Do you try to think outside the bubble for these national magazine covers…to anticipate how someone in North Dakota or Kentucky is going to perceive it?
Yeah, in some ways I do. In terms of this particular cover, people have said, “What about Kavanaugh?” And I understand that point of view, but my feeling was this illustration was not about Kavanaugh. This is about Christine Blasey Ford and her allegations, what happened to her and what it represents to so many women that have gone through some kind of trauma like this. So I wanted it to be about this moment, and then we can continue yelling about these things later.
But I know that this is political, too. And I do try to listen to the other side. I have more than a few conservative friends on Facebook and we argue all the time and discuss things. I think in this era of everyone unfriending each other, it’s important to hear what other people are saying. I can argue and take issue, but to walk away from the conversation seems not very productive in the long run.
This cover seems like a case study in the power of the artist. There’s so much volume right now on Kavanaugh’s confirmation in every direction….and yet this cover really seems to cut through that and demand attention, which is no small thing these days. So I’m curious of your thoughts along those lines?
I’m a big media fan. I’ve worked for newspapers and magazines. I’ve always appreciated the history of media, especially in terms of design. Now, there is so much of an information overload, and when I look at a newsstand now I just see a wall of photos. So in some ways I see illustration as a way for publications to differentiate themselves from everything else. So what TIME and The New Yorker and The Economist are doing right now kinds of stands out from the crowd. It’s different and works to employ minds to think a little differently.
You know, I felt I knew your name from somewhere, and then I realized that you created the Fillmore poster I have for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs…
Oh! That was my very first Fillmore poster. I remember it well. I look back on it with a mix of fond memories and horror, because I’m not exactly happy with it. Karen O actually invited me into the tour van after the show. She was very happy with the poster and signed it for me. The rest of the band was not crazy about their depictions. Eventually I picked up more on what I wanted to do with the posters, but I do remember that one fondly.
I think I’d ask any Bay Area artist this right now — there is such a great legacy of art and culture here — but what is it like surviving as an artist here these days?
The history here is fantastic. I’ve always wondered what it would have been like to be an artist here in the 60s when stuff was happening. But I have a feeling if you think back on those times then you might be missing what is actually happening here now. And I think it is kind of a new golden age of creativity in a lot of ways. I think that is a response to what is happening. You’re seeing a lot of artists, writers and journalists stepping to the forefront, which coincides with the times. It’s an interesting dynamic.
Well, thanks for your time. I’m amazed by what you came up with on this and I do think that 20 years from now when we’re watching a documentary about all these events, that cover is going to be used to illustrate this moment and what was happening.
Well, thank you. I’m…[laughs]….not exactly confident of that. But I am blown away by what is happening around this image. Maybe I’m just being dragged along for the ride at the moment. When I get my bearings in a few weeks , maybe I’ll get a chance to step back and be able to really assess all of it. It’s certainly a ride, that’s for sure.
(This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity)
Check out more on John’s work on his website at ZenPop.com
Follow him at Twitter @ ZenPopArt
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