The Matchbook Drawings

One evening, over 30 years ago, after a night out, at about two in the morning, when emptying my pockets, I noticed that I had several blank matchbooks in my pocket which I had taken from the bottom of a cigarette machine in some bar somewhere.

I had taken them, not because I smoked, but because they were free–and I thought, might otherwise “prove useful somehow”. I found this same situation repeated itself and in this manner I accumulated a large number of them.

Generally, I’d throw them into a drawer next to my drawing table.

Needing to break the day-to-night monotony of lettering page after page of comics,  I would often reach for one of these little blank squares upon which to inscribe some kind of picture. Even just a little bit of drawing provided me with much needed respite from the tedium of hand- lettering page after page of comics.

At first, I meticulously copied engraved black and white images of hats from an old men’s wear catalog I had found in the trash while out walking the dog. Then, I went through a period of drawing hammers and saws, tools based on images from an old hardware catalog.

Then I’d flip the matchbooks over and carefully letter the salient information from the listing on the other side.

At some point, perhaps an evening when I was feeling particularly stressed, wondering where my ex was, and when, or even IF she would be coming home, I reached for a blank matchbook and drew on it.

In a matter of a minute or two at most, a forlorn-looking face peered back at me. I stared down at him (it was always a him) wondering from what dark recess of my psyche he had come.

Strangely, I would feel an odd sense of relief.

I sensed that there were others like him, still inside my head, desperate to be let out. So I’d dip my pen in ink and draw another.

And another.

They all seemed to have something in common. They looked like inmates in some kind of penal colony or escapees from a mental institution.

After drawing the face on the front, I would flip the matchbook over and give him a name, and a hometown, and write a sentence or two about him.

They all seemed to have even more troubles than I had.

In fact, the whole process was SO liberating that actually I found it difficult to go back to lettering the comics pages!

Subsequently, when out for the evening with my ex, the first thing I did, even before we sat down, was to check the cigarette machine for more blank matchbooks.

Soon I was stopping work and leaving home in the middle of the afternoon and rushing around on foot to the different bars in my neighborhood in search of more blank matchbooks upon which to draw.

Soon, I discovered a company name in tiny writing on one of the matchbooks. It was in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. I called them up, and for about ten bucks they mailed me a thousand blank matchbooks. Typically, I would pick up a blank one from beside the envelope full of Spider-Man pages which I was supposed to be lettering.

But this was a lot more fun.

And then I’d grab another.

And another.

I would literally have to force myself to stop and do my lettering work.

I was out walking the dog about ten-thirty one dark February evening when I noticed a light in the window of Tootsi Plohound— a hip new shoe store that had recently opened down the block. All their shoes were black. As I looked at the shoes in the store window, I remembered that one of my idols, Andy Warhol, had gotten his start by drawing pictures of shoes for I. Miller.

I took Winston back up to the loft and grabbed a handful of matchbooks and my pen and went back downstairs. By midnight, I had drawn a dozen or so.

I had to admit they looked pretty good.

I decided that the next day I would take them into the store and show them to the people who worked there. I was actually surprised at their reaction. They wanted to display them in the window next to the shoes themselves. One person even suggested that when the shoes sold, the buyer could also have the drawing. 

This wasn’t as exciting as having my work in the window of the Hundred Acres Gallery, around on West Broadway, but it was in a store window in SoHo. That felt familar as I had exhibited my work for years in the store window of my studio on Grand Street. The Barking Dog Museum.

As the weeks rolled by and the weather got nicer, sidewalk artists and vendors of clothing and handmade jewelry began to appear in my neighborhood.

Several times they were set up the the doorway of my building and I would have to politely ask them to step aside, or to move their display so that I could take the dog out–and then move yet again, twenty minutes later, so I could take the dog back in.

I’ll admit, I did find this a bit annoying at first.

But one day it suddenly occurred to me that rather than being annoyed all the time, maybe I should join them.

Besides, on a particularly nice day I didn’t think there would be any harm in my taking a little break from lettering to go outside for some fresh air.

My life was pretty miserable in those days and consisted of working day and night and walking the dog in between.

Anyway, I felt like I had earned it.

So one sunny afternoon, I took a small folding chair and a TV tray and a small jar of ink, a pen and some blank matchbooks and set up shop across the street near the post office on the corner.

I would do a drawing  and place it on the table in friont of me and then start on another.

At first no one paid much attention to me but when there were three or four of them on the table, I noticed passersby begin to glance at them out of the corner of their eye. Soon a woman walking a dog sauntered over. “How much are these?” she asked.

I was surprised to hear myself saying, “….three dollars each, two for five and no reasonable offer is ever refused.” She bought a little drawing of a combat boot and I made my first art sale since arriving in New York sixteen years earlier.

From then on, whenever the weather was nice out, I would take a break about one o’clock in the afternoon and head out for a couple of hours with my table and chair. SoHo had become a tourist destination by then and there were a great number of people on the street. My work seemed especially popular with Japanese tourists who had arrived by bus. Usually the first one to discover me would buy everything I had on the table and sometimes I would make $60 or $70 in just a couple of hours. I met some really interesting people this way,  some of whom were famous and known to me. Joel Grey, Geoffrey Holder, Fred Gwynne and Keith Haring all bought my work. Jim Warren, the publisher of Creepy and Eerie Magazine stopped– and although he didn’t buy anything, he said he “liked my style” and suggested that I should be doing commercial illustration. (I didn’t tell him I was working for Marvel). He took my name and address and a week later I received a humorous publication in the mail depicting how men’s hairstyles and their sexual organs were related.  I wasn’t sure whether to be appreciative –or insulted that he thought I would be appropriate for this sort of thing.

I experimented by moving around to various locations.

Once I set up shop in front of the Mary Boone Gallery and promptly drew a woman’s butt. I decided that I would do a new series “Butts of the Art Dealers” and wrote that on the top of the matchbook in tiny lettering. Then I added Mary Boone’s name to it.

A nicely-dressed young man who was going into the gallery stopped to look at it. He told me he worked for her.

“She wouldn’t represent me, so I decided to represent her,” I told him.

He seemed amused and bought it and went inside the gallery.

Something told me it might be a good time to find another location.

After a few months and hundreds of sales, I was eventually confronted by the police, who confiscated my work and issued me a citation for “blocking the sidewalk and obstructing the access” to the businesses and advised me to obtain a vendor’s license.

The idea of being licensed by the City of New York did appeal to me and I did operate as a street vendor for a while longer, but my marital problems and having to move elsewhere eventually put an end to to my operation.  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s