Thursday, October 3, 2013

Mickey Duzyj - Escape Artist

Mickey Duzyj

Mickey's home studio

A page from a book Mickey's mother made for him as a child.

Mickey's cover drawing for issue 3 of Grantland.

A poster commemorating Mickey's remarkable winning streak in round-the-world on the studio mini basketball hoop.

A few months after delivering the commencement address to his classmates at the prestigious School of Visual Arts in New York, Mickey Duzyj found himself back in his native Michigan, working in a factory assembling lunches for the prisoners of the Michigan State Department of Corrections. 

“I was making canned lunches called "Norwegian Jakes" on the line, working the mustard/mayo/moist towelette station. Somewhat ironically, I was told that the Jakes--which had a picture of a Sisyphean hiker climbing up a mountainside, with hills extending back into the distance-- were designed to give the inmates a small window into freedom. I'd never been more depressed in my life.”

It may have seemed at the time like the end of a dream. Mickey had used art as his ticket out of town. He had left behind his home, moved across the country. He spent years working hard and had found some success. He thought he’d escaped, only to wake up right back where he’d started.  
They say “Everyone loves a winner” but I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. Beyond prodigious talent or genetic superiority or dumb luck, people want to see perseverance and hard work pay off. And more than the undefeated, more than simple rags-to-riches, people love a great comeback story. We want our heroes to have at least tasted defeat, to show their character by picking themselves up, to try again knowing failure is a real possibility.

In 2005, Mickey found a way back to the city by working with Chris Isenberg- the brilliant founder of No Mas. At the time No Mas was a fledgling clothing company whose t-shirt designs celebrated the off-beat and infamous in the world of sports. Isenberg had found Mick's work by chance in an SVA catalog that had been sent to his mother, and he reached out to him to collaborate on a project. 

They began work on an art show entitled “Fall Classic” that would focus on some of the iconic Icarus figures in contemporary sports, larger than life heroes turned punchline or worse. It’s a rich subject, as each year there can be only one champion but innumerable failures. Mickey’s incredibly intricate and sensitive drawings of boxer Mike Tyson were a pitch perfect cornerstone for the exhibition. 

“When Chris and I started working together, I was living with and taking care of my grandfather (who had advanced Parkinson's disease at the time) at his suburban house in Warren. I didn't even have a cell phone back then, so when Chris would call the house, my grandfather would answer the phone and call me over. It was a very weird and significant time- I'd take care of him during the day, and then work long night hours in silence in a tiny room making that Tyson artwork. That No Mas show that Chris put together for me, and working on Tyson's multi-parabolic life story, was definitely my way back into the game. I knew it when it was happening.”

The show was a big success, and from there began the virtual training-montage of Mickey’s career.

Since then Mickey has had his work in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Vice, Time, McSweeney’s, The Wall Street Journal, Maxim, and on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. He’s continued to work with No Mas and the agency it’s become a part of, Doubleday & Cartwright, having regularly contributed apparel design and artwork to their Victory Journal publication. In one issue he illustrated a redesign of "The Marvelous Mouth" by Tom Wolfe, in another a detailed biography of Orlando Hernandez.  He’s designed book jackets. He's self-published comics. He’s even designed a series of themed candles to be sold at the Echo Park Time Travel Mart in Los Angeles.

Grantland #3 (photo courtesy Mickey Duzyj)
As a lifelong sports enthusiast and one-time aspiring tennis player, Mickey has a keen eye for the inherent drama and theatre of sports. It has served him well in his work and has lead him to many projects. He created the amazing cover art and endpapers for issue 3 of Grantland, Bill Simmons’ popular journal for thoughtful sports writing (see above). In 2012 he worked with Nike on commercials and apparel commemorating the 20th anniversary of the US Men’s Olympic Basketball “Dream Team” 

Last year he was asked to create a series of animated vignettes to be included in the incredible ESPN biography of Bo Jackson “You Don’t Know Bo.” In a span of just 3 months he completed not only the drawings for the animations, but also drew the titles and created an awesome series of biographical portraits to be used in the program. The show debuted as the highest rated ESPN documentary ever, and Mickey’s work was suddenly, simultaneously in front of millions of people. He wasn’t center court at the US Open, but he had found a way onto ESPN after all.

I was thrilled to visit Mickey’s studio(s) and see some of his drawings in person. We met at the house he rents in Red Hook, Brooklyn where he showed me his workspace in the basement. I was surprised as it seemed somewhat out of scale with the volume of his production. The spartan setup consists of a small drawing board at a somewhat cluttered desk in what appears to be a closet. A large pile of his work rests unceremoniously on a nearby couch. Mickey said he loves tiny rooms, and this is his latest in a series. This home studio started as a night desk, but has grown to become more of his regular work space. 

I was privileged to preview an awesome mini-documentary he’s working on, and while I can’t reveal the subject, it’s safe to say it’s in keeping with his oeuvre. I saw an early edit of the film, which he is co-directing and co-editing, and got to see some of the early drawings for the animations he’s creating. It’s an ambitious project, 

We walked a short way to his more spacious (and bright) studio space in a beautiful old building overlooking the Brooklyn waterfront. As I ‘m somewhat familiar with the process behind making comic books and illustrations, I was surprised to see the small scale of many of his drawings. Instead of oversized bristol boards with layers of pen and ink on top of blue line sketches, they were small, tidy, cleanly executed on small sheets of drawing paper. I was shocked. Considering the complexity of some of the drawings, and their commercial applications, it seemed crazy to me that he could work without a net.

Mickey is humble and funny and self-effacing in conversation, but it's clear he takes his work very seriously. He keeps his grandfather’s cane at his desk as a reminder of perseverance and perspective. He's still excited about his illustration work and eager to take on new challenges, exploring different media and even more ambitious projects. He’s working hard to make the most of his abilities. As one well versed in the dramatic career arcs of both athletes and artists, he understands that these moments can be fleeting; that the line between following a dream and working a factory floor can be a thin one.

For further reading:

Visit Mickey's site and see a ton more of his finished work or check out his blog.

Check out this interview with Mickey from a while back over on Formatmag.