The Beautiful Philosophy of Nothing: Patrick McDonnell

patrick mcdonnell photo by dana sheridanThis fall, Abrams ComicArts released The Art of Nothing: 25 Years of Mutts and the Art of Patrick McDonnell. And while this is a wonderful opportunity to enjoy 25 years of the much-loved comic, what truly radiates from this book is the philosophy of Mutts and its creator, Patrick McDonnell.

the art of nothing by patrick mcdonnellGranted, “philosophy” is an unusual word to use to describe a daily comic. But longtime fans will immediately nod their heads and smile. As Patrick himself writes in the preface, “Since I try to see the world through the eyes of animals, most Mutts themes are quite basic: dogs, cats, snow, rain, the moon, the ocean, and what all animals (including us) want: food, naps, and love. And, because all art is personal, other themes explore the language of comics, the high art/low art discourse, the human-animal bond, the environment, animal rights, and spirituality.”

In short, Mutts is a beautiful philosophy of simplicity, compassion, and consideration.

At its very essence, Mutts is an assortment of souls who care for one another, play together, and advocate for others. The characters are often drawn on minimalist backgrounds, which enhances the purity of their interactions. Love and laughter. Inspiration and gratitude. The Art of Nothing both reaffirms and elevates these concepts. The book prominently features our beloved Mutts friends, but it also includes Patrick’s free-style art, his creative nods to artists who inspired him, his dedication to animal rights advocacy, and his growth into other areas of creativity, including his Caldecott Honor book, Me…Jane.

Recently, I was both delighted and honored to interview Patrick in his home studio. Artists’ work spaces are always interesting windows into their processes – Patrick’s studio was exactly like stepping into one of his Mutts panels. Minimal, comfortable, and with a distinct feeling of positive intent in the air. Oh, and there was an energetic terrier running around the house with a squeaky toy, as well as a glorious tabby cat lolling under a chair.

patrick mcdinnell studio desk


The title of your new book, The Art of Nothing is both a play on your first Mutts picture book and the process of a daily cartoonist. In the end, it’s about giving yourself, fully. On that note, can you tell us about the final pages of the book, the illustrated correspondence with cartoonist Lynda Barry?

I’m a big fan of Lynda and her work and had the pleasure of meeting her several times over the years. She was very close friends with my first editor at King Features comic strip syndicate. Charlie Kockman, my editor at Abrams, thought we needed an interview for the front of the book, and he suggested Lynda. But she had a really interesting idea…she didn’t want to do a conventional interview. She proposed that we be pen pals and do an interview via letter writing.

So over the course of three months she would write to me and I’d write back. She’s a teacher, so she gave me assignments. I felt like I was in high school again. I thought, and hoped, when she was done it would be a combination of her letters and my letters. But as you see in the book, she ended up putting together a collage of my letters and “homework.” It was a fun, intimate way of communicating. It came out really nice. Lynda’s a genius.

horizontal file drawers in studioYes, it was unusual in that it was non-linear and very open-ended…definitely not an interview format I’ve ever seen before! In fact, the entire format of The Art of Nothing really surprised me. A daily comic is very fixed…certain panels, certain rules, certain deadlines. This book unwinds those restrictions and let’s everything flow together – the comics, your original artwork, your thoughts, your collaborations…

Thank you. You know, when I look at the book, I feel like I’m like looking at not only the last 25 years of my creative life, but also inside the part of my brain that makes Mutts.

Charles Schultz, creator of Peanuts, is often cited as inspiring your cartooning career, and your new book is filled with your personal artistic tributes to N.C, Wyeth, Vermeer, Jasper John, Chester Gould, Jack Kirby and so many others…can you tell us the most recent artist you encountered who changed the way you look at your own art?

I recently visited the James Thurber House Museum in Columbus, Ohio. Afterwards, I started looking at his work again. I’m drawn to artists who give you license to be free, and he definitely does that so elegantly – to not worry about embellishments, to just get to the heart of something. Through his art he gave me additional permission to be even looser with mine.

cups inks and moochOver the years, both Mutts and your own life path have evolved to include animal rights advocacy. Were you ever surprised about where that journey has taken you and your characters?

It’s been an interesting journey. When I started Mutts, it was important to me that I kept my characters animal-like. The inspiration for Mutts was not only my love for comics, but my love for all animals. In particular my love for my first dog, Earl. I had wanted a dog ever since I was a kid, probably because I was in love with Snoopy from Peanuts. It took 30-something years, but I finally adopted my dog, a Jack Russell named Earl. He was everything I dreamed a dog could be. He was the inspiration for the comic. I felt if I could capture his joy of life and his spirit, I was doing my job.

Anyone who has a pet knows they’re funny. They don’t have to act like humans. They have their own personalities. I was trying my best to see the world through their eyes, and the more I looked, the more I started thinking how tough it is on this planet for other animals. In particular, I was thinking about the dogs and cats that are in shelters waiting to have Earl’s and Mooch’s lives in a forever home.

So I started playing in sketchbooks with ideas of shelter stories that I could tell in my strip. And around that same time the Humane Society of the United States got in touch with me about Animal Shelter Appreciation Week. I thought it was a perfect opportunity to share the shelter stories I was creating. That started the Shelter Stories part of the strip.

mutts bookendsThat led me to think more and more about the world and animals. When I joined the Humane Society’s board of directors, I learned so much more about how tough it is for animals on the planet. And that became integrated into the strip. Mooch and Earl helping farm animals, Mooch dreaming about Africa, and Shtinky the tabby, who became my animal advocate and took on the mission of trying to save tigers from extinction. Shtinky is able to help me introduce bigger issues related to animals.

So yeah, when I started this strip, I didn’t think it was going to evolve this way, but I’m really happy it did. Animals need someone to speak up for them. And it’s become a big part of my life and a big part of this strip. And I feel that any little help I can do is probably the reason I’m here.

orange chair and original artPlease explain the derivation of Mooch’s “little pink sock.”

You know what’s funny about that theme? I get lots of pictures of people’s cats with little pink socks. I didn’t realize that was something cats love, but I learned it is. It began as a  story line for one week. But it just fit so well with Mooch’s personality it became one of the themes I go back to regularly. Cartoonists have different devices we use – the little pink sock is one of them for Mutts. It seemed perfect that Mooch would be obsessed with a little pink sock – just the way real life cats do I’ve learned.

You’ve written 12 picture books, including Me…Jane which was a Caldecott Honor winner, as well as co-written two musicals and a screenplay for a feature-length Mutts animated movie. How, if at all, did these endeavors challenge your creativity?

I’ve enjoyed all of it. The comic strip – not that it’s a grind, but it stays pretty much the same artistically. Not the storytelling and the jokes, but the process. And it’s also just me, every day, just me with my dog sitting right here next to me. That’s about it.

But I love doing the plays. To collaborate with Aaron Posner, who’s a great director and playwright, and Andy Mitton, who wrote the music…it’s so nice to have a new family for a length of time. And creating something together, and to see it come alive on the stage was just so much fun. And theater is very similar to comic strips…

Really? How so?

They’re dialogue-driven, and they kind of stay in the same place. When you think about most comic strips, the setting is basically just a few defined areas. Comic books are great for movies because comic books are big stories with dramatic visuals. But comic strips are very quiet and kind of personal. And that’s like theater. The scenery stays largely the same…and it’s mainly dialogue and character driven. I love the theater. I had the chance to do The Gift of Nothing and then Me…Jane at the Kennedy Center and we’re hoping to do another musical someday soon.

The only unsettling thing with Me…Jane was that Jane Goodall was there on opening night. I have utmost respect for her and her mission and wanted her to love it, of course. I sat next to her at the performance. As the play was unfolding, I looked every once in a while to make sure she had a smile on her face. She was pleased with it, which was thrilling for me. But believe me. It was also very nerve-wracking.

paints in cabinetWhat’s your guiding philosophy for the next 25 years of Mutts?

My, hero Charles Schulz, did it for 50 years. Based on that, I’m only halfway done. That’s a scary thought.

What’s interesting about doing a comic strip – it’s one-day-at-a-time. It’s not like writing a novel, where you have to plan everything and figure out how it’s going to end and what the plot twists are. Doing a daily-comic strip is more like life…you just take it as it comes one day at a time. So other than continuing that process, I’m hoping the Disney animated movie might happen. That’d be a new world to explore with the characters.

I’m still planning to write more picture books, and I have dreams of doing a graphic novel. I might try that next year. The limiting factor is time. Doing a daily comic strip takes up so much of it. I wanted to be a cartoonist because of Peanuts since I was four years-old. That was my dream job. But I never thought of the reality of the job. I never thought, Oh, that’s every day for the next 25 years. It didn’t really hit me until I started doing it. Then I realized. It’s like a term paper that never ends!

patrick mcdonnell prizesAlso, you know, it sounds corny, but the characters, to a certain extent, do write themselves. You live with them so long, and you know their personalities. I think visually. When I think of new ideas, I’m literally just sketching funny pictures that make me laugh. So I think, where can I put them where they haven’t been in a while? If I draw Mooch somewhere new, I know how he would react and what he would say. That helps.

With a daily comic strip you’re not allowed to have writer’s block. Somehow, you have to have a lot of faith that it will get done. And so far, it has.

patrick mcdonnell in studio photo by dana sheridan

We’re giving away a signed copy of The Art of Nothing to a lucky blog reader! Just e-mail us with your name, and the name of your favorite Mutts character. And…the winner has been selected! Thank you everyone who entered, from Idaho to Puerto Rico!


Many thanks to Patrick and his wife Karen for graciously inviting me into their home, and thank you for 25 years of Mutts…the love, the laughter, and the little pink socks.

Illustrated, Dedicated

pinkerton-tileEven though winter is almost here, I’d like harken back to the golden days of July and share a trip I made to Findlay, Ohio this summer. The purpose? To teach two creative workshops at The Mazza Museum of International Art from Picture Books’ summer conference.

The Mazza has an astounding collection of original picture book art. It also has mission to educate, endorse, and share the joy of art and the picture book with everyone. In addition to two annual conferences, they host a number of programs, workshops, and initiatives for adults and children alike. During a break between my workshops, I dashed over to the Virginia B. Gardner Fine Arts Pavilion to check out the galleries.

mazza-gallery-1The main gallery is absolutely packed, almost from floor to ceiling, with children’s book illustrations.

mazza-gallery-2Notice the little black binders near the floor? That’s information about the different authors on display, along with reading copies of the book. Such a terrific idea.

mazza-gallery-3My favorite display, however, was a small side gallery containing displays of pop-up books.

pop-up-displayLike the main gallery, there were plenty of reading copies on hand. Here’s the Young Naturalists Pop-Up Handbook of Butterflies by Matthew Reinhart and Robert Sabuda (Hyperion, 2001).

butterfly-pop-upBack in the main gallery, there are some terrific whimsical touches. Like this Mother Goose flying from the ceiling:

mother-goose-in-galleryAnd an Owl and the Pussycat sailboat docked on the gallery floor!

mazza-gallery-4Did you notice the natural light filtering down in the above image? The central gallery has a large skylight that is partially blocked by an extensive loft area. Inside that light-filled loft is the MOST AWESOME PLACE EVER…a children’s space!

puzzle-chairsHere, you’ll find plenty of comfy, kid-sized seating and a number of hands-on activities.

dragon-tableThere’s a building table, a wall of gears, word games, drawing activities, some felt boards…and do you recognize this iconic library with the lions?

library-lionsTo exit the loft, you could take the stairs back down. Or, you could nip into the rabbit hole…

rabbit-hole

And ride down the twisty slide!

mazza-gallery-slideElsewhere in the building is an art studio for kids, a teacher resource center, multiple display of children’s artwork, and a gift shop with a big central area that encourages extensive browsing.

mazza-gift-shopIn the gift shop, I found a book so ingenious, I swear we have to do this for the Cotsen Children’s Library. It’s a custom picture book called Mazza from A to Z by Jenny Hanf (University of Findlay, 2016).

mazza-from-a-to-z-coverA class of adorable animals visit the museum and makes their way through the ABCs of visiting. Guess what the letter S is?

mazza-from-a-to-z-interiorBut the very best Mazza treasure I saved for last. Deep within the staff offices is a conference room filled with original illustrations, sketches, and notes from children’s book authors and illustrators.

mazza-conference-roomEvery inch of the wall is covered. It’s amazing to think of the talent that has stood in this very room, Sharpie in hand, sketching on the wall.

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The love, admiration, and dedication to picture books, illustrations, and education is clearly evident at the Mazza. Their conferences are intimate and well-thought out, with a wonderful array of talent. The Fall 2016 conference, for example, featured Tony Abbott, Brian Biggs, Nikki McClure, Sergio Ruzzier, Dan Santat, and David Wiesner. Simply splendid.


Many thanks to the Mazza for inviting me to teach at their summer conference, and for graciously allowing me to photograph their galleries and offices. 

Aliisa the Artist

self portrait_artwork by aliisa leeFor the past four years, I have had the privilege of working with an extremely talented Princeton University student artist. Her name is Aliisa Lee, and she has loaned her tremendous abilities to a whole host of artistic endeavors at our library – project templates, event posters, logos, illustrations for children’s stories and poetry, and more.

summer announcement logo_artwork by aliisa lee

Summer announcement logo

hungry caterpillar food drive logo_artwork by aliisa lee

Very Hungry Caterpillar food drive logo. Food drive title and art inspired by the work of Eric Carle.

bad hair day_artwork by aliisa lee

Illustration for “Bad Hair Day”

the dragon princess_artwork by aliisa lee

Illustration for “The Dragon Princess”

Below you can see some steampunk templates she designed for a Journey to the Centre of the Earth event (later, I used the templates for a Rube Goldberg-esque mechanism and a fanciful steampunk airship story time).

steampunk hat

And how about these delightful vanilla-scented French pastry ornaments? Mmmm.

ornaments

Aliisa’s also worked on completely random (and sometimes rather strange) projects. She didn’t, for example, bat an eye when asked to make 80s paint splatter background.

welcome to the 80s

Or create a police line up of book damage perpetrators

lineup of book baddies

Or depict Hiccup and Toothless at the movies…?

hiccup and tootheless at the movies_artwork by aliisa lee

Last month, Aliisa graduated from Princeton University with a major in English and a minor in Visual Arts. I caught up with her to chat about her experience at Cotsen, her process for illustration, and what she’s going to do next (including – and this is important – continuing to freelance for us).


Tell us a little about yourself!

I grew up in the sunny state of Hawaii, but have since moved abroad several times. I am the fourth of six crazy kids, and all of our names start with A. It makes for some fun confusion when we are all together! In my free time, I love reading, writing, and (you guessed it), drawing. I especially enjoy drawing digitally by using my computer, Photoshop, and a Wacom pen and tablet.

Name a few of your favorite artists / inspirations.

I really look up to the artists of my favorite childrens’ books, like Clement Hurd, Mary Blair, Bill Peet, and Henry J. Ford. I am also a huge fan of Pixar and Studio Ghibli, with all their inspiring storytelling and fantasy elements. I follow many digital artists on tumblr, but I also just I love getting ideas from literature, dreams, and of course, my family and friends!

What have been some of your favorite projects for the Cotsen Children’s Library?

Hmmmm, that’s such a hard question. I’m a bit of a podcast nerd these days, so I loved doing the album art for the BiblioFiles.

bibliofiles artwork by aliisa lee

I am also a huge fan of Alice in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth, so the Alice thaumatropes and the Digitopolis posters and logo were a great way to pay tribute to some of my beloved texts.

thaumatrope demo

digitopolis by aliisa lee

My favorite type of project is probably illustrating for our time’s new generation of writers and poets. If I have to choose one assignment that I especially treasure, it would be the art for “The Sun Lifted Me Away.” The young author’s father wrote to us later that his daughter loved the drawing for her poem; hearing that the young author was so happy with what I drew makes that illustration one of my favorite projects!

the sun lifted me away_artwork by aliisa lee

Illustration for “The Sun Lifted Me Away”

You’ve illustrated kids poems and stories. What’s your process for selecting and illustrating specific scenes or phrases?

It varies piece to piece! Sometimes Dr. Dana will have a fairly specific suggestion for a scene, which has trained my eye and always helps with the process. When the illustration is more up in the air, I often read for specific lines and imagery that stand out, and draw fairly literally from that. (For example, a line from “The Pit,” that says “He clasped the edge and began his ascent.” A very dramatic, specific scene gets a very dramatic drawing.)

the pit_artwork by aliisa lee

Illustration for “The Pit”

Or, if the piece has more atmosphere than narrative, I brainstorm for scenes or visuals that reflect that feeling. (For example, the poem “Autumn is a Color, Not a Season” is all about the feel of autumn. The drawing and colors reflects this.)

autumn is a color, not a season_artwork by aliisa lee

Illustration for “Autumn is a Color, Not a Season”

What surprised you the most about the process of developing, editing, and finalizing a drawing for Cotsen?

Before working for Cotsen, most of my art was just kept to myself or my personal site. When you are doodling in your notebook or drawing just to show your family and friends, you “finish” an art piece when you are satisfied or just get tired of it. One of the greatest things about working with Cotsen and an art director (Dr. Dana!) is having another pair of eyes to help look critically at a piece, then develop it with the ultimate goal of publication. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see how that process and push to make polished illustrations has just made me a better critical thinker and artist. Plus, it is a ton of fun to draw for Cotsen!

storm_artwork by aliisa lee

Illustration for “Storm”

In your opinion, what’s the most difficult thing about illustration?

This has probably happened to anyone who has tried to make art: you get a beautiful, inspiring image in your head and you just think, “I NEED to draw this.” But after you sit down and draw, you realize your art just doesn’t measure up to the image your mind conjured up.

This happens to me a lot, especially since the poems and stories I read have such beautiful and creative moments. But it makes we want to work hard to be a better illustrator, since I want to close that gap between what my mind can create and what my hand can draw.

Still, I know that even if I was the best illustrator in the world, I could never quite pin down exactly what my mind envisioned. That could seem frustrating, but it is also kind of beautiful! The imaginations we are given are actually the best artists we could ask for, you know?

the enchanted machine_artwork by aliisa lee

Illustration for “The Enchanted Machine”

Tell us a little about your senior show!

I would love to! My show was entitled “to wake” and included 80+ digital drawings, printed out in various sizes and placed around the space of the gallery. As you walked around left to right, the images sequentially told the story of a mother and daughter, plus a little bit of the fantastic as they traveled in the subway.

to wake 1_artwork by aliisa leeto wake 2_artwork by aliisa leeto wake 3_artwork by aliisa leeto wake 4_artwork by aliisa leeIt was very, very cool to have my own show, and to use the gallery space for both art and storytelling (two things I love!)

What are you going to do next?

I’m hitting the real world and getting a job. As a Princeton Project 55 Fellow, I’ll be working in communications at the non-profit International Schools Services, not that far from Princeton’s campus, actually. I can’t stop making art, so I will also be illustrating for Dana (and maybe a few other clients if I’m successful in expanding my freelance network). You haven’t seen the last of me yet! :)

poets_artwork by aliisa lee

Illustration for “Poets”


If you’d like to see Aliisa’s amazing portfolio, it’s online here. If you’d like to read a little more about her artistic process, she wrote a great post for Princeton University’s admissions blog here.

Thank you for 4 tremendous, tremendous years Aliisa! And here’s to many more!