From “Abracadabra” to “Zeal”…An Interview with Keith Bendis
On any late afternoon in Winter, you can take County Route 7 right past the pink post office building in Ancram, and see the lights on in Keith Bendis’ studio next door. I’ve always enjoyed the sight of Keith hovering over his big drawing board, working on his latest project; a reminder that our little town is full of people in the arts. His current project is an illustrated edition of the legendary book, “The Devil’s Dictionary” by Ambrose Bierce. (1842 – 1914) This noted book, often referred to as one of the “100 Greatest Masterpieces of American Literature” was first published in 1911; and ever since noted illustrators like Gahan Wilson, Ralph Steadman, Joseph Low, and others have taken turns illustrating the various devilish definitions. Keith has provided over 55 rib-tickling drawings to accompany the 1200 mind-bending entries by Bierce. Even though it took over 108 years to join artist and author, I’d call it a perfect match.
Earning a living in the arts is never a linear pathway, and Keith’s career story is a notable example. One of those “best artist in the class” kids growing up in Pittsburgh, he tried a year of Law School, got a degree in American History, and then started taking painting classes at Carnegie Mellon University. Summers were spent (or mis-spent, as you will……..) in Atlantic City, where he would often lurk near the entrance of “Louie’s Artist Village”, a step-right-up emporium of artists-at-easels ready to do portraits of passersby. Louie wisely took notice of young Bendis, and finally popped the question:
“Hey kid – Can you draw?”. Yep, the kid can draw. Studying law and history were soon shelved, and Keith started his lifelong artistic odyssey. His natural abilities were enhanced by his enthusiasm, and a willingness to teach himself “how to do it”. Inventing jobs or assignments for himself came naturally to Keith, and he once asked an editor to send him to Washington for Nixon’s Inaugural. In a sea of people with cameras, Keith was there with his sketchbook. Low-tech/high humor ensued. Over the years, he’s worked his way up from “sub culture” publications, to The SoHo News, The Villager, Harpers, and New York magazine. And far more.
One of his early instructors at Parsons, J. C. Suarez, did an illustrated version of “The Devil’s Dictionary” and Keith decided: “I have to do it.” The project waited and marinated in his mind until art publisher Fantagraphics provided the current opportunity to “add his vision”. And although it reportedly took Ambrose Bierce over 3 decades to write the Dictionary, Keith worked on his illustrations for two years. All while doing other things, namely juggling a career in graphic facilitating, plus illustrating over 300 columns by William Safire, and 500 entries for the Washington Post. Plus, he’s illustrated several books, for adults and children. Never a dull moment.
Under the word “art” in the Devil’s Dictionary I read: “This word has no definition.”
But when I asked Keith to provide his definition of art, a host of interesting options emerged. “It’s a way of expressing yourself.”. Great. “It’s working with the form.” Even better. “The doing is the whole thing.” Brilliant. Bierce’s volume is often called “satirical”. Asked how he would describe the book, Keith offers “biting.” “On the mark, spot-on. It’s sustained itself.” Words that also describe Keith Bendis.
It is said that we all need our influences, and in fact are enriched and emboldened by them. I asked Keith about his influences, and he trotted out a list of brilliant artists, all with last names beginning with “S”. (seemingly, a coincidence) Ed Sorel, Ralph Steadman, Jean-Jacques Sempe, Art Spiegelman, William Steig, and Elwood Smith. And he tipped his hat to Picasso also – “He did it all”.
Now it’s your turn. If you love books, and intelligent words, and humorous brilliant drawings, you’re going to need your own Bendis/Bierce edition of “The Devil’s Dictionary”. And my recommendation is to get a couple more SIGNED copies at one of these two upcoming booksigning and give as holiday gifts.
Announcing: Two local book signings!
Saturday, December 7th (all-day Sale and creative emporium!)
Simon’s General Store / Historic Residence
Crossroads of Route 82 and Route 7
Ancram, NY 12502
Sunday, December 15th @ 1:00 PM
The Spotty Dog
440 Warren Street
Hudson, NY 12534
Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (www.fantagraphics.com)
Artist’s website – www.Keithbendis.com