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Bob Staake: future of newspapers belongs to visual artists.

Watch out, all you ink-stained wretches who went to journalism school!

Your day for calling the editorial shots will soon be at an end. Your day of bossing cartoonists and graphic artists around is waning. The future in news is for the visually enabled, not for those who think in column inches of black, mind-numbing type.

So proclaims St. Louis artist and newspaper cartoonist Bob Staake, who is riding happily down the information age to greater and greater visual glory.

Staake insists that as the Internet becomes more powerful, and the electronic newspaper finds its way onto American TV screens, it's going to become apparent that images really matter. They may come to matter - dare we say it - more than words.

"The ink-stained wretches are going to have to realize that print is not the future," says Staake. "It's already obvious as we look at the newspapers on the Internet. You can't just put a bunch of words up on the screen. There has to be plenty of illustrations, graphics and pictures.

"What's going to happen is more and more artists are going to be brought into the electronic news process," declares Staake. "Artists are going to be pad of the decision process. And, we are not going to have to answer to editors who tell us to change our images because it doesn't quite work with their copy."

Staake says he already senses a new respect for his work, and his role as an information artist, from such clients as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.

According to Staake, these big city dailies will give him some copy and details by e-mail for an editorial cartoon assignment and then let him "have at it." He says there are few hassles over his finished product and he can turn such assignments around in as few as three hours.

Staake says more than 90 percent of his work is done for clients in New York City, although he still does some artwork and cartooning for local firms, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

"The Post-Dispatch offered me a job when I came to St. Louis 12 years ago," recalls Staake. "But I had my mind made up that I wanted to stay free-lance and diversify. They set up a free-lance budget for cartooning and they are still paying me at the freelance rates they established 12 years ago.

"Recently they asked me if their pay was comparable to what I receive from the Washington Post," adds Staake. "I told them not to ask me that question unless they were serious about doing something with their rates. They didn't pursue the matter.

"I think The New York Times and the Washington Post see the writing on the wall," continues Staake. "I think they value cartoonists and graphic artists and see the future and the importance of the visual. I'm not sure the Post-Dispatch gets it."

Staake may be irked by some Post policies, but he doesn't just have a handful of raspberries for the St. Louis daily. He has words of praise for some of the paper's recent visual experimentation as well as for "Sam The Dog" cartoon feature in the Saturday tabloid.

"I don't know the cartoonist who draws 'Sam The Dog,' and I do know that a lot of people are critical of it," says Staake. "But I believe it's a healthy departure for the Post. It doesn't lay everything out there for readers. Readers have to do a little work and bring their own experience to figure it out. And if they don't figure it out, that's okay, too."

"Out there"

Staake concedes that his own work is not always readily accessible or easy to figure out. His own cartooning has been described as odd and quirky - and "out there."

That's how Hallmark Cards used to describe the artistry of Bob Staake. The greeting card giant examined the Kirkwood artist's work for possible use in the Hallmark product line and simply pronounced it as: "Out there."

"Year after year they invited me to submit some sketches, and year after year their artists and creative directors would tell me how much they liked my work, but that it was just 'too crazy, too out there for us," laughs Staake. "Then in 1991, I got a letter of congratulations, saying they wanted my stuff.

"That really gave me a scare," recalls the 40-year-old Staake. "I began to wonder if I was losing my edge. I asked other clients about it, and they reassured me that I hadn't changed at all. It kind of inspired a motto for me: 'Be true to yourself and the market just may come around to you.'"

The market certainly has come around to Staake's way of seeing things. His clients now include Time Inc., McDonald's, AT&T, TWA, Sega, American Express, Nickelodeon, Hanna-Barberra, Sports Illustrated for Kids, MAD, the Ren and Stimpy Show, Disney, Hallmark Cards and many more.

"I'm very fortunate that I have a signature look," notes Staake. "A lot of art directors and creatives know what my look is, and when they look at the right kind of project, they will instinctively identify this as something Bob Staake could do."

Staake's most recent book projects have been for Simon & Schuster and consist of two new entries for the children's market. The bright and colorful children's selections are entitled "My Little 123 Book" and its companion, "My Little ABC Book."

"Reviewers say these books are unique because they appeal to both adults and children," says Staake. "I used a totally computer-generated style that draws upon the French lithography of the 1930s. It's a bold and angular look that melds realism and abstractionism.

"The books show a certain sophistication, but they're still very accessible to kids," says Staake. "They just don't insult children. There's not a bunch of little ducklings running around. The books have a certain digital aesthetic with lots of graphics."

Staake says the books are selling well in their first month, but he says he's "just not anal enough" to check weekly sales tallies. He has to focus on what projects are next on his plate, and the Staake plate is a very diverse, artsy-fartsy goulash, indeed.

There are editorial cartoons and assignments for those major dailies, such as the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times; there's a greeting card project for Gibson Greeting Cards; there's some young people's artwork for the Weekly Reader and the adventure magazine published by Disney.

Getting Started

Staake was destined for the life of a cartoonist from an early age. He recalls home movies from his childhood in southern California. His brother is doing acrobatic acts for the camera, while Staake is showing off his latest coloring book.

At West Torrance High School in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, Staake achieved acclaim drawing editorial cartoons for the campus newspaper. His cartoon about the issue of smoking on campus won a state journalism contest and a People magazine article followed, as well as offers to syndicate his work.

As a result of the school journalism competition, Staake's work came to the attention of contest judge Paul Conrad, a respected editorial cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times. Conrad became Staake's mentor, and later helped the young cartoonist receive a full scholarship at the University of Southern California (USC).

At USC, Staake turned out five political cartoons a week for the Daily Trojan, as well as taking courses in history, political science and journalism. Staake never took an art course, and his academic fare reflects the advice of his mentor, Conrad, who told him "that a good cartoon was 90 percent idea and 10 percent drawing."

At USC, Staake hung on the words of other mentors, including some journalism professors who warned him about his cartoon work: they told him that one day computers would make ink and paper obsolete. They even told him that one day, in his lifetime, print newspapers would be largely replaced by news information carried on home computer screens.

"All of this stuff made me kind of depressed," says Staake. "I wondered if my work had any future. The way it was, it was always being beat into my head that I would end up being a 'starving artist.' That's just what happens to people who want to be cartoonists."

Nevertheless, Staake persisted. After graduation from USC, he took a job as an assistant art director and editorial cartoonist for an alternative newspaper, the Easy Reader. At the paper, he met Glendale (Mo.) native Paulette Fehlig, who was working as an ad salesperson.

The pair became an item and they enjoyed the beach life of Southern California together for several years. But in 1984 a son, Ryan, came along and two years later the couple decided to pull up stakes in favor of a more family-oriented lifestyle near Fehlig's relatives in suburban St. Louis. The couple now has two sons, Ryan, 13, and Kevin, 5.

Working in St. Louis, Staake says he made a conscious decision to work as a free-lance artist rather than as a political cartoonist. He said he became disenchanted with editors always asking him to change a nose on his sketches or to "tone down" a sharp message.

Staake says he's always wondered why it's okay for editors to tell cartoonists to change something in their artwork, while cartoonists would never think of telling an editor or reporter to change something in their editorials or stories.

Staake's gripes with newspaper editors notwithstanding, his decision to widen the scope of his work has proven to be a wise career choice. It's also added to his popularity with his sons, who enjoy seeing dad's work on television on the Nickelodeon channel or within the pages of MAD magazine.

Working In Webster

From his second floor studio on North Gore Avenue in Webster Groves, Staake has diversified to the point where he works in five different areas: greeting cards, advertising, book illustrations, magazine graphics and newspaper cartoons. He also has a list of television entertainment accounts. An animated series, "Cop and Donut Show," featuring Staake's drawings and character designs, is set to debut soon on Nickelodeon.

Staake says that computers, the digital age and the Internet have all made it possible for him to diversify, to increase his volume of work and to transmit finished artwork all over the United States within seconds. He says his USC professors were correct when they said computers would put a dent in ink and paper creation, but Staake insists they could not foresee what a creative tool computers would become for artists.

"I get an assignment and I can quickly do a line drawing. Then I scan it into the computer and color it on the screen," says Staake, explaining his work process. "Then I just e-mail it to a client within seconds. No more FedEx-ing. It makes it possible for me to do five or six assignments in a day.

"And I don't have to send out a prospectus to market my work. I have a really large Website and it covers my entire portfolio," notes Staake, who can readily be found on-line at www. "No more of this ripping up tear sheets and popping them in the mail."

Staake's hours of work in his two-room Webster studio have paid off. He and his family do their share of world traveling and have a second home on Cape Cod. And in the digital age, Staake can communicate with clients and send out his work to them from just about anywhere in the world.

"When I got into this, I was pretty much resigned to the idea of being a starving artist," says Staake. "I'm amazed that you can make a healthy living at it. And there's a lot of stability with my work. I just zig and zag from one client and project to the next.

"The secret is to diversify," insists Staake. "I'm sort of like this shark forever moving forward looking for what there is to do next. A few years ago when the advertising market went sour, I got all these phone calls from free-lance artists who worked in that area, and they were desperate. I told them to diversify."

Don Corrigan is a professor in the School of Communications at Webster University and he also edits two weekly newspapers
COPYRIGHT 1998 SJR St. Louis Journalism Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:artist and newspaper cartoonist
Author:Corrigan, Don
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Date:May 1, 1998
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