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Winter 2004

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Who, What, When

Centennial spotlight

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Class notes


Artist’s everyman feels your pain

by Kathryn Gallien

Week in and week out, a big-nosed, bug-eyed little guy emerges from the inkpot of Hal Mayforth ’75 to gape, puzzle, and rage over the issues of the day.
The exuberantly emotional little man with huge, expressive eyes seems an unlikely alter ego for the tall, decidedly mellow cartoonist. “He’s really everyman, reacting to things beyond his control,” says Mayforth. From the pages of Time, Newsweek, US News and World Report, the Wall Street Journal, PC World, and Business Week, the character looks out at us as if to acknowledge our common frustrations and share an inside joke about them.

For each eye-catching cartoon, Mayforth creates a succinct minidrama: something happens, and his little everyman reacts. To nurture a creative process that relies on both rigor and spontaneity, the Vermont artist draws in his sketchbook every day in a kind of disciplined doodling he likens to brainstorming. He says he doesn’t spend a lot of time planning what to draw; he just starts. That way, “there’s no filter between brain and hand. You can’t be afraid to try stuff out. And you try not to edit yourself, especially when you are trying to solve the problem of an illustration.”

It’s not unusual for Mayforth to get an illustration assignment that’s due in just a few days—or hours. Most every Wednesday he conceives and executes the illustration for John Leo’s US News column “On Society.” He calls Leo at 11 a.m. to get a quick synopsis of that week’s essay subject, then starts drawing immediately. By noon he faxes a series of draft sketches, and once the two agree on the best one, he enlarges the sketch by projection and traces it in final form, then paints it with watercolors. He scans it into his computer, tweaks a few details, and e-mails the digital image to the US News art director in Washington, D.C., that afternoon.

While his take is generally humorous, Mayforth is frequently called on to illuminate hard-hitting issues—gay rights, abortion, the war in Iraq, constitutional rights to privacy. And since, as he says, “there’s no time to read every author’s work,” he must keep himself absolutely current on just about every issue. “Illustrators need to know a little about a lot,” he says. At a minimum, Mayforth reads Time, Newsweek, US News, the Boston Globe, and his local Montpelier-area newspaper “cover-to-cover, even the business section.”
A largely self-taught artist, Mayforth says he began drawing “just to express what was in my head.” Studying liberal arts at the University of Vermont, he recalls, “I took really good notes for the first fifteen minutes of class” before doodling took over. After two years, he made that doodling legit, transferring to Skidmore’s studio-art program. The transfer also reunited him with the band he’d played with as a high-schooler in Hudson Falls, N.Y. Indeed, in his professional bio Mayforth quips, “He was lucky to have graduated from Skidmore College with a degree in fine art because he spent most of his four years playing rock and roll in bars.”

“I wasn’t as involved as I probably should have been,” he admits about his Skidmore career. “I was a hick. I remember in my first painting class, the teacher asked, ‘What was the last exhibition you saw?’ and I had never seen one at all. I was out of my league.” Nevertheless, he has warm memories of art professors like Eunice Pardon and Henry Betak, and especially of his drawing class with Christina Anderson. “She had us keep sketchbooks, and I’ve been doing it ever since” (some 120 sketchbooks later, he still draws for at least an hour every day).

After graduation Mayforth headed to Boston to play in a band. But it was not an easy career path. His bio deadpans that he “started his illustration career in Boston after a succession of flaky drummers made pursuing a career in music unrealistic.” What actually happened, in the early 1980s, was what Mayforth describes as “my perfect storm”—the fortuitous combination of factors that started his illustrating career. He had done a few illustrations for health magazines and alternative newspapers like the Boston Phoenix. Then a technology boom developed along Route 128 just outside Boston, and high-tech magazines began looking for humorous illustrations to enliven their articles. Mayforth, who admits to something of a love-hate relationship with computer technology, filled that niche.

By the mid-1980s he was a regular in Newsweek. When he signed on with professional artist representatives, he says, “my visibility increased tenfold. I was one of their new wave of illustrators. We weren’t classically trained, and we had very individual voices, a certain energy of line,” he recalls. “My stuff was on the edge.It had a bit of an attitude.”

By 1993, when Mayforth was named Cartoonist of the Year by the National Cartoonists Society, he was frequently having to turn down work. He had a fifteen-year run illustrating humorist Dave Barry’s column for the Washington Post. And so successful was he in New England Monthly that when he ran a small ad in the magazine for his cartoon-printed T-shirts, he sold enough to remodel his kitchen.

But today things have changed, Mayforth notes.“The marketplace has been eroded,” he says—by computers (“kids think everything on the Web is free”), the slow economy, stock houses buying up illustrations. Contracts have gotten larger, and profit margins have shrunk. There is a loose network of illustrators who refuse to work for certain greedy publications;but, Mayforth shrugs,“organizing illustrators is like trying to herd cats.”

Some of his colleagues are going into children’s books, plush toys, andT-shirts. He has tried his hand at a few children’s books himself, and he’s working on a line of Southwest-inspired switchplate covers. “I’m surviving,” he says. “Although I haven’t been making a lot of money lately, I’m in a pretty good mood.” He’s happy to have time for guitar playing with his blues band, the Jupiter Kings; painting in acrylics, creating images that incorporate foreign phrases; and skiing and other outdoor fun with his wife, Ellen Magurn, and three sons.

Mayforth’s home, which he designed with Magurn, sits on twelve quintessentially Vermont acres, and his studio atop the garage looks out on gently rolling hills. Though he claims his studio is “usually a shipwreck,” it is cheerful and comfortable. Freelance work can be unpredictable, but his regular customers like his style and know what to expect when they call on him. He usually puts in a good nine hour day.

Just this fall Mayforth was hard at work noodling over issues from the proposed emergency-broadcast TV (for Time), to Muslim extremists in America (US News). to the fees that banks and businesses tack on to their services (Business Week). His little everyman is a busy guy.

Kathryn Gallien visited Hal Mayforth at his Vermont home last fall.


© 2004 Skidmore College