Background Blurs

Below: Tone, the bike messenger
Above: The drum circle’s Chaka
While I was living in New York City I would sometimes find myself musing, while strolling in a city park or speeding along a subway tunnel, about the strange fact that, while the details of my existence were endlessly fascinating to me, they meant less than nothing to other park-strollers or straphangers.

I was a background blur to most everyone in view. They knew nothing about my career anxieties or artistic dreams or family crises. I was merely part of the scenery.

All of those folks in my field of vision, meanwhile, were similarly engaged in lives that I would probably go to my grave knowing nothing about. Were they store clerks? Fellow artists? Nobel laureates? Were they thrilled by freshly minted romances? Distressed by impending divorces? Did they realize, in certain cases, how very sexy they appeared to others? Were they worried about growing old, or might they take pride in every wrinkle?

To notice sexiness or a wrinkle, of course, a viewer has to focus. But even if one idly penetrates a blur’s surface to meditate on its details, one still knows nothing about the person within. And that goes both ways. If the oddly intense subway passenger across the car from me happens to allow her eyes to focus on me, she may decide that I look like an interesting person who is probably living an interesting life. Or she may not. Unless we break the barrier and converse, I will remain a mystery, whether blurred or in focus. Her event-and-emotion-stuffed life will proceed without my involvement once our train has reached its destination.

My friend Zina Saunders breaks through the blur barrier to converse. She is a painter who likes to stop and look closely at those bicycle messengers and musicians who cross her path. She asks them about their lives and passions. And then she paints them.

Her paintings will probably become a book someday, but while we’re waiting for that eventuality we can enjoy them by visiting the web site where she’s archiving them. It’s called Overlooked New York.

She doesn’t sweat realism when it comes to depicting her subjects’ bodily proportions. She likes drawing oversized heads so she can pack more feeling into the facial expressions. As the guy who brought Barefootz into the world, I can relate!

Zina’s DNA condemned her to be an artist. Her father was the late Norm Saunders, after all, who painted the legendary Mars Attacks! cards for Topps. If she hasn’t been on your radar before now, here’s a nicely done interview that will fill in some details.

Zina and I met while sharing microphones a few years ago on a panel of past-and-present Topps contributors in Philadelphia. Along with carving out her own niche as an illustrator, Zina has followed in her father’s footsteps by becoming a Topps contributor in her own right. I was there by virtue of the Bazooka Joe comic strips I drew during the 1980s along with the smattering of bits I contributed later on to the Garbage Pail Kids series.

When she told me a couple of weeks ago about her Overlooked New York project, I told her that I admired her ability to "nail [her] subjects’ inner lives with such economical brush strokes." Every blur in our world should have a chance to be coaxed into focus with such respect.

About Howard

I'm a cartoonist and writer, best known for my graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby, and my comic strip from the 1980s, Wendel.
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