Illustrator Profile - Vivienne Flesher: "My influences come from everywhere"

By Robert Newman   Thursday August 20, 2015

Vivienne Flesher creates a brilliant array of multi-textural illustrations and artwork, fusing a classic approach to technique and materials with a smart, modern visual sensibility. She is a frequent contributor to magazines and newspapers, especially The New York Times, and has illustrated an extraordinary series of book covers, many of them featuring powerful and graceful portraits. Flesher works is a wide variety of styles, using charcoal, inks, paint, and collage. In addition to her elegant illustration work, Flesher has created an eye-popping collection of psychedelic personal art that is astonishing in its layered graphic sophistication.

I now live in San Francisco, but I was born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island—the typical migration of my parents’ generation. I couldn’t stand the suburbs and left to study illustration at Parsons and remained in Manhattan for 20 years. In my heart, I'm still a New Yorker and often wonder what I am doing in a town where there are so few people walking around on the streets.

My grandfather used to regale us at Sunday dinners with stories of the garage he and his brothers owned in Brooklyn. It seems that one day the mob sent a guy to collect protection money and my grandfather, being the wild man he was, pounded the guy to a pulp. The following day a bunch of tough guys showed up and asked my grandfather to join the mob—they liked his style. He insisted that he never joined, but I know there were ties of some kind between them because there were also stories of renting out cars and getting calls from the police saying one of them had been found in a lake with a body in the trunk; did he want the car back?

When I graduated from Parsons I didn’t think my portfolio was ready to show, so I worked doing paste-ups and mechanicals for both the respected Atlantic Monthly and a porn magazine called Swank. One day at Swank I needed an OK from the editor and knocked on his door. When I got no reply I phoned him. He said to come back to his office; he’d let me in. He opened the door a crack and as I squeezed in, I found the curtains drawn, the furniture pushed around, the air warm and moist, his clothing disheveled—and surprise: there was a nude woman present. He introduced us rather matter-of-factly and as the woman and I shook hands I thought about what nastiness might be on that hand of hers. I decided my portfolio was ready enough and quit when we finished closing the issue.

Years before we got together my husband, Ward Schumaker, bought an old Victorian house in San Francisco. I work in what once was its fainting room—the room in which the women would retire after a meal when their corsets would have made it necessary for them to recline or literally faint, while the men remained around the dining table having cigars and discussing manly things.

When I first began illustrating I used pastels. I'd started using them in life drawing class while I was still attending Parsons. I found them quick and forgiving; if you used enough fixative you could make any changes demanded by clients. But after years of work I grew weary of the medium and began using charcoal. In particular, I began using charcoal sketches from life drawing classes I attended in SF as a basis for my illustration work. I'd photograph (rather than scan) the life drawings, then alter them as necessary in Photoshop. (I don't use a scanner because I prefer the off-hand, often out-of-focus quality of my photographs.) When the job is complete I ship the jpeg—done!

In the old days in NYC we would wait in line at Fed Ex just before closing time, often running into other illustrators who were also sending their jobs at the last minute. And if there was a snowstorm, there was no delivery! E-mail makes life so much less stressful these days.

Funny you should ask. It was when the very first American Illustration annual came out. I must have had a dozen pieces in it. Until then I had been struggling, but with the support of the book and its jury, clients followed.

My influences come from everywhere. On an evening walk we passed a shipyard and the color of the fabric tarps next to the rusty hull of a ship was a wonderful color combination. I was able to work that into an illustration.

That’s so easy! I admire my current husband, Ward. He is the best painter I know and he also taught me how to use the computer, how to be more creative and efficient as an illustrator/artist, and most importantly how to be a happy person. I never thought I’d marry; my parents had a ghastly relationship and I didn’t see how I could avoid such a thing, especially given some of the guys I dated. I was relatively ancient when Ward and I married, as well as uncertain about making a commitment. Since we live in California where everything feels temporary, we refer to each other as our current spouses. We’ve been together for 20 years and don’t see it changing any time soon. Though I still can’t stop referring to him as my Current Husband™.

When I’m blocked I try to attend an opera or some type of musical performance. I find that type of quiet brings forth many ideas. Recently, at the symphony, I was writing myself so many notes that a stranger to my right asked me if I was a reviewer.

I never really had another type of job and love working alone.

Any project that involves travel to exotic places.

This one’s easy: Lori Barra. She’s originally a New Yorker, too. At the time we met she was living and working in Tokyo and called me to do a huge campaign for Canon. I did the work in Tokyo, living there for three months; it was the beginning of my dearest friendship. Now we both live near each other in Northern California with our various husbands and families but feel like sisters without all the sibling baggage.  

Jillian Tamaki, Christopher Silas Neal, and Brian Rea. They are each doing unique work and bringing something special for us to share.

I paint and I draw. Recently my husband spent a month in Paris with his son. As soon as he left I locked the doors and began painting—not assignments from clients, just for myself. I spread paper and canvas all over the house—it was such a mess! And I didn't allow anyone in; I just worked alone for those four weeks. Solitude can be so helpful in working out a new identity. Having the time alone helped establish a rhythm for my personal work, and now I feel so confident in it that I've actually shown it to a couple people beside Ward.

I’d always appreciated the psychedelic-inspired photos Richard Avedon took of the Beatles, and they became the inspiration for some work I did combining my photography and the computer. I sent samples to three art directors I thought might use them, but only one responded: Kelly Doe of The New York Times. She was working on a personal project for the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC—a show mounted by the Japanese government. Kelly has often given me the chance to do experimental projects. She can see where I might take something even though I have little in my portfolio to prove it.

Later, Jian-Wei Fong (Ward Schumaker’s gallerist in Shanghai, who had previously shown no interest in my work) saw what I’d done for Kelly and offered me a show. He suggested I stay with him, doing the work in China. He was living in the suburbs of Shanghai, in a Chinese McMansion, with a huge studio. I prepared files in Photoshop at home in San Francisco and Jian-Wei had huge printouts created—some were 7 x 12 feet in size. I painted on top of these, adding additional shapes and colors. The fumes from the oil paint became bothersome and I had to open the doors of the studio. To my horror, neighbors, seeing the open doors, felt free to come in and comment on my work, while smoking and dropping ashes about the room.

I don’t know that I have stayed current. I have always been lost in my own world while enjoying what I see other people creating. Trying to stay current seems futile, like having plastic surgery to stay young—it never looks natural. I think we can’t help but be products of our time.  

I should do more to promote my work. I just remade my website and soon I’ll be sending out an emailing and a limited snail mailing. But I don’t do social media, because how social can you be when you type with two fingers? (As a teen I was fearful of somehow being forced to be a secretary so I refused to learn to type. That has come back to haunt me.)

Buy real estate, lots of real estate!

See more Vivienne Flesher illustrations, new work, and updates:
Vivienne Flesher website