Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Studio: Wrightson, Kaluta, Windsor-Smith & Jones

In 1975 four figures came together in an art commune setting and formed what would be called "The Studio". Those four people were Wm Michael Kaluta, Barry Windsor-Smith, Bernie Wrightson and Jeffrey Catherine Jones. They lived and worked together in the Chelsea District of Manhattan. These guys were unique because their incredible comic book work more than hinted at fine art. Anyone familiar with the work of Arthur Rackham will see his enormous influence on William Michael Kaluta. The line work and themes are unmistakable. It might be a reach, but one might see a bit of Albrecht Durer in the awesome Frankenstein pages by Bernie Wrightson. Check out the recently republished book by Dark Horse Comics. It is an awe inspiring work and as I understand it, Bernie met up with a kindly benefactor who made the pet project possible. Bernie spent seven years fine tuning these works of art which total fifty full page illustrations. In Barry Windsor-Smith's work the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites is worn on his considerable art sleeve. Last, but not least, the legendary Frank Frazetta once referred to Jones as "the world's greatest living painter". No small compliment indeed. 

To think that all of these incredible talents lived and worked together is mind boggling. They assuredly encouraged and pushed each other to do the best work of their careers. They are all still very talented, but the seventies were the pinnacle creatively for all of them. Don't get me wrong though, Kaluta and Wrightson still crank out some very nice work. I can't remember the last time I saw any new work from BWS and sadly, Jones is no longer with us after succumbing to illness in 2011. But what a glorious heyday that must of been. Oh to have been a proverbial fly on the wall. These are the things that keep me up at night.
Barry Smith, as he was known back in the early 70's, hit it big initially with Conan and his work is considered the standard in that niche. Later adding his mother's surname, Windsor, I suppose to sound more distinguished, but I'm pessimistic that way. Maybe he just wanted to give mad props to the ol' boid. Smith, while a creative super nova was his own worst enemy on the business side of things. He supposedly has major works for both Marvel and DC that have been promised to eventually see the light of day after many years. Only time will tell, but it is looking doubtful and this either points to an individual that can't complete a task or has trouble working with others. If I could pick a dream scenario to work with an artist on a project, BWS would be way up there.

Kaluta made his bones on the seventies DC book The Shadow. It still remains a character he remains closely associated with. For the most part, Kaluta has made a career out of cover work and more specifically his work has found a home in the DC Vertigo line. He did countless covers for the series Books of Magic and some of the spin off titles. I met him once at a little convention and wile maybe a bit gruff, he was very charming. I suppose we have to forgive New Yorkers for that though, eh? He seemed to be the Michael Cain of comics. He was serious about his craft, but he was also focused on making as much money as possible. If you don't know what I mean by the Michael Cain bit, IMDB him and take a look at his list of credits. That dude wants a paycheck whenever possible.

Jeff Jones later became known as Catherine. Yup, Jeff had always wanted to be a woman and eventually went through the process. While all of these characters are interesting, Jones' life has to take the cake. Sadly, it was not always an easy life for Jones who battled depression and even put down art for a time. To be so supremely talented but to be weighed down with demons that wouldn't allow for the creation of art just seems an incredible tragedy. Jeff, or rather Catherine later rebounded and started making art again before succumbing to emphysema, bronchitis and hardening of the arteries around the heart. You will be missed Catherine.

I have heard tale that Wrightson, for all of his virtuoso talent, broke his drawing hand in a bicycle accident and that his line was just never the same afterward. I would agree his work has slipped, but he is still very talented. 70% of Bernie Wrightson is better than most artists ever come close to.

The Studio was fascinating zeitgeist moment in the little insulated vacuum of comics, but they forever left their influence on generations to come. There are probably tons of interesting stories about these characters, so if you have one feel free to share in the comments or email it to me and I will post it.

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