I should know better than to ascribe one’s artistic work as wholly representative of the artist himself. Still, I feel I’ve seen enough of Alex Fine’s illustrations to safely say, “He’s got a great sense of humor and a real compassion for underdogs. We’ve got a lot in common.”
Even though I’ve never met the guy, that is.
But soon he’ll be here at City Café and I’ve got my metaphor all planned out: I’m going to tell Alex how his artwork has been a sort of silent character in the background of my life; how I’ve seen enough of his illustrations in the seven years that I’ve lived in Baltimore to recognize them as his. “Your work,” I’ll say, “is like my silent, omnipresent friend—it was there on the sides of buildings around town when I was drunk and weeping in the streets; your characters glared down at me from various store fronts as I perused various goods and wares reflecting back at me.” Then I’ll pause for effect, clear my throat, and say, “Your work… it was there.”
Alien vs. Alf – Special Edition Poster for Small Press Expo
City Café is bustling with happy hour patrons. They’re incredibly loud and relatively close. Why didn’t I consider this before suggesting we meet here at five o’clock on a Friday afternoon? How stupid of me.
I’m in the middle of this self-chastising when Alex walks up and says hi. At least, I think it’s Alex. He is a small-ish man with a friendly smile. He doesn’t look like a hipster, nor does he look jaded and edgy and super disinterested in the interview I’m about to conduct—a presence I misguidedly assumed he’d have, which just goes to show how much I really know the guy.
“It’s loud here,” I say. “Is it ok to move?”
“Of course!” Alex says.
We amble across the café to a different section in the bar, making small talk as we go. “How about that whole debacle with Garbage and that photographer guy?” I ask.
I assume this topic is my best, most reliable vehicle into a relaxed conversation. Yesterday, Alex had reposted on his Facebook page an open letter drafted by a former photographer for the band Garbage. In his open letter, the photographer, Pat Pope, wrote about how the band requested permission to use an photo he’d taken of them way back in the nineties. In return, the band’s manager offered Mr. Pope “proper credit” as compensation but because Garbage was “financially limited” could offer no more than that. Pope’s letter expressed a sort of disappointment at the disrespect of it all. And in the end, he publicly declined to allow the photograph to be used.
On his own post of the open letter, Alex had written: “This. Everyone read this and understand that when art generates money, the artist needs and deserves to get paid.”
Obviously still impassioned about the online spat between band and artist, Alex jumps right back into the debate. “I know!” he says. “It’s ridiculous.”
Made for Mutant and put out by Atomic Books
We sit down at a high two-top with stools. No sooner does the server come over to take our order than the café’s owner – Bruce – strides up to say hello. He nods at me and asks Alex how he’s doing. They get to talking about the Garbage photographer debate and as they do so, I notice that Alex is nodding and smiling to even more patrons around the restaurant. Apparently, he knows several people here already.
Bruce makes a comment about the handwriting on the chalkboard menu across the bar. “She does such an amazing job,” he says.
Alex smiles. “My wife wrote all that,” he says, gesturing toward the opposite wall, upon which the names of different kinds of cocktails—the most striking of which is “Aperol Spritz”—are meticulously listed in a cursive font strangely reminiscent of 1940’s ex-pat era Paris.
“That’s beautiful,” I say.
Bruce chimes in. “It really is.”
The three of us silently admire the cocktail menu a minute before Bruce speaks up. “What kind of articles do you write?” he asks.
Taken off-guard, I spit out the first thing that comes to mind: “Lesbian articles.”
We all fall silent again until Bruce tells us the history of City Café—how at one point in the nineties it was actually a lesbian bookstore.
Dickens / Batman– The Spectator UK
A few moments later, Alex and I officially commence with the interview. I’m grateful for Bruce’s “interruption” though—it made for a nice icebreaker.
“He’s nice,” I say.
Alex nods. “Yeah, he’s a great guy.”
“So,” I say, shuffling two pieces of paper on top of one another, over and over, feigning a sense of organization, “let’s get started. What do you love most about your lifestyle as a working artist?”
Alex is quick to answer. “Not many challenges,” he says. “Plus I have an awesome wife and an awesome cat. My cat’s name is Pepperoni.”
This makes me smile. I consider asking him his wife’s name but quickly decide otherwise, hoping she’ll read this interview and give him a hard time about it. In a “cute couples” way. Like maybe they’ll be at a dinner party at some point in the near future and she’ll tell their friends about this interview and about how Alex made sure to mention their cat’s name, but not hers. Then she’ll slug him on the shoulder. In a “cute couples” way.
“And who were some of your biggest influences?”
Alex lets out a long, thoughtful sigh and leans back.
It’s a loaded question. I smile to let him know to take his time.
“Well,” he begins, “my first illustration influence was definitely Rockwell. Norman Rockwell is pretty much ‘The Ramones of artists.’ But as a kid, I was really into Time Magazine covers too, especially the ones by Boris Artzybasheff. I had the Robert Kennedy Time poster hanging over my bed.”
I tell him I think it’s cool that his early influences are still so important to him. “Have you seen your posters on other peoples’ walls?” I ask.
Alex smiles. This, he tells me, is how he met his wife. “In 2005, I was at her apartment and she had an old poster of mine on her wall. The poster was from, like, 2000.” He then goes on to explain that they still haven’t had an official honeymoon. On the night of their wedding he got an assignment from Philadelphia Weekly. “We needed the money,” he says, “and she was cool with it.”
I write everything down as fast as I can, still opting to keep his wife’s name a mystery.
“What’s your dream assignment?”
“I’ve already accomplished it,” he says proudly. It’s at this point the server returns with a bottle of beer for Alex, a Diet Coke for me. We both nod thank you. “My first assignment for Time Magazine was to do an illustration of the girls from Broad City along with a bunch of other comedians. And doing artwork for Time was my dream. So it’s been accomplished.”
“How many assignments do you get each week?”
Alex shrugs. “Two to three is about typical. I don’t turn down work. I recently agreed to do a cover of ‘B’—”
I stop him. “What’s ‘B’?”
“You know, the Baltimore daily paper in the orange boxes?”
Oh right. I nod. “Go on.”
“Well, in order to do that I had to turn down a full-page artwork offer for Boston Globe.”
My mouth drops. “You turned it down?”
Alex laughs. “I didn’t mind.” He goes on to explain that he typically devotes one day to sketches for an assignment, because he churns out several options for each client, and once the client has picked their favorite, he devotes one more day to perfecting the final. “There was one piece I did for Billboard mag that I actually finished in three hours, got quick feedback and started the final that same day.”
But that’s atypical, he says. And it’s first come, first serve. “Plus my days are really full with other stuff too. I teach two courses at MICA and I’m in three bands.”
Poster for the Baltimore Rock Opera Society’s 2012 production “Valhella.” Collaboration piece with John Decampos.
The fact that he’s a musician doesn’t surprise me. A lot of Alex’s illustrations are of bands and musicians—the actual individuals who constitute various rock, hip-hop, punk groups, etc. Somehow, his renderings of these musicians have an almost hyper-believable presence to them. Like he’s been in the exact same situations his illustrations have. And whether those situations involve biting his bottom lip because he’s shredding away on some Warlock guitar or clenching his eyes shut because he’s screaming into a microphone is beyond me. But I’m not surprised he’s got musical talent too.
Record cover for TT THE ARTIST/Unkle Lulu(DDM)
However, the fact that he’s an art teacher does surprise me. Being the particularly self-absorbed artist that I am, I find the fact that he shares his creative process with others appalling. “Then your students are your competition!” I blurt.
“I had this conversation with my barber the other day,” Alex says. “He wanted to know why I’d share such information too. And I said, ‘Nothing would make me happier if my students were my competition.’ Because why teach if you don’t want to impart your secrets?”
That’s a very good point. Not only is Alex Fine not the jaded, super-disinterested artist-cliché I’d anticipated, he’s quite the opposite: he’s generous. “That’s amazing,” I say. “You’re… generous.”
Alex laughs again. I suppose something could be said about my automatic assumption pre-interview that he, being the well-established artist that he is, would be some kind of self-absorbed douchebag. But then again, something could just as easily be deduced about me—that I over-generalize, fall prey to the societal clichés, and exist in a stubborn cloud of the presumed ill intentions of others. And there’s that word “self-absorbed” again. I clear my throat. “Moving on,” I say.
But Alex stops me. “Wait,” he says. “I don’t want to forget, there are some people I’d like to publicly thank.”
Good Lord, he’s generous and grateful.
Lorde card for the Mann Center
“I got my first illustration job from Eduardo Sanchez. He directed the movie ‘The Blair Witch Project.’ He was going to do another film about Civil War-era sasquatches. It never came to fruition but he asked me to do the storyboards for it. I’m very thankful he did. That assignment helped me understand the importance of client and artist relationships.”
I am writing down everything Alex says word-for-word. The expression on his otherwise jovial face is one of intense sincerity.
He continues. “Also, Joe McCloud at City Paper. I pitched my first job to him a long time ago. It was to do the holiday cover. And he gave it to me on the spot.”
It occurs to me that the individuals for whom Alex is so sincerely expressing his gratitude likely taught him the importance of imparting one’s artistic secrets to others. A kind of “better the artist, better the artist’s work” deal. This, in turn, means his students at MICA are very lucky indeed.
But I’m sure they understand this. As does his talented wife, whatever her name is.