Gilding a silver tassie


ART AND THEATRE:Illustrator Owen Smith has always been influenced by muralists and figurative work. So when he was asked to produce a poster for Druid Theatre’s The Silver Tassiehe came up with a picture that pulls together Irish history and has echoes of traditional theatrical poster design, writes AIDAN DUNNE

THERE’S A TOUCH of heroic grandeur to the poster for Druid’s forthcoming production of Sean O’Casey’s play The Silver Tassie, pictured on the cover of this magazine. The stirring image, by American artist and illustrator Owen Smith, cleverly combines the two interlinked worlds in which the story of the main character, Harry, unfolds. He is the ace footballer whose pride, prowess and well-being are pointlessly and cruelly sacrificed on the Western Front.

O’Casey’s bitter indictment of the injustice- and class-ridden nature of war has had a difficult history from the outset. Yeats turned it down for the Abbey Theatre in 1928. O’Casey had shown no interest in and had little knowledge of the Great War, he argued, and so wasn’t qualified to write about it.

On the contrary, O’Casey argued, the drama wasn’t based on uninformed opinion but on first-person contact with those who had borne the brunt of the suffering on behalf of their military and political masters. Dramas on the subject had been too meek and mild: no one was prepared to throw stones.

The Silver Tassie,” O’Casey later wrote, “was like a generous handful of stones, aimed a bit indiscriminately, with the intention of breaking a few windows. I don’t think this makes it a good play, but it’s a remarkable one.”

Garry Hynes, director of Druid, came across the work of artist and illustrator Owen Smith during a visit to the US. When Druid was discussing publicity for The Silver Tassie, his work came into her mind. For one thing, it was somehow right for the period. For another, it tells stories and deals vividly with a world of athleticism, testosterone and heightened emotions. And, as Smith himself observes: “There’s usually an element of humour in what I do. Sometimes, people don’t get that. I’ve heard The Silver Tassiedescribed as a tragicomedy, and it is – it’s a tragic story, but O’Casey gets that funny, wise-cracking thing going in the dialogue.”

He was surprised to be approached by an Irish theatre company. “But it went pretty smoothly. Working with Garry was actually a very relaxed experience. I get the feeling she’s someone who knows exactly what she wants, and once she finds the appropriate person to deliver that, she’s happy enough to let them get on and do it. That’s the way it was with me, anyway.”

Still, he was not an obvious choice as an illustrator for an Irish theatre poster. He was born and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Though he spent some years in Los Angeles and New York, he was drawn back to the Bay, and he lives in Alameda, California with his wife and two children. He comes across as a very West Coast guy, with an easy, laid-back manner. He has been working professionally as an illustrator for the past 20 years.

He is also a painter, and interested in moving more into the area of fine art. “It’s tricky,” he observes, “because my work is so figurative. The contemporary art world is mostly about abstraction, installation and conceptualism. I think figuration has always been more acceptable among the Bay Area artists, but even so.” He has also been involved in several ambitious public-art projects, including a set of murals he designed for the subway station at 36th Street in Brooklyn, and a long-term project for San Francisco Hospital that is nearing its conclusion: “That’s been on the go for the last six years, but we’re getting to the ribbon-cutting stage now.”

In both his illustrations and paintings, Smith has developed a distinctive retro idiom that reflects the influence of pulp magazine covers, film noir and B-movie characters. He brings to life a world of femmes fatales, crooked managers and boxers who might have been contenders, not a million miles away from the demimonde depicted by Graham Knuttel here in Ireland some years back. For Smith, the socially engaged art made by artists such as Diego Rivera and the other Mexican Muralists, as they became known, and work produced under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration in the Depression-hit US of the 1930s, have been important. He also looks to the German Expressionists, including Max Beckmann, who dealt with the nightmare of the first World War years and their aftermath.

One of his earlier significant commissions was a cover for the New Yorkerfiction issue late in 1995. “The art director had seen some book covers I’d done in this style, and had the idea of doing a lowbrow cover for what’s really a highbrow publication. Tina Brown was the editor then and she was trying to revive the magazine. She liked to push the envelope a bit. I did a kind of Rita Hayworth dame at a typewriter at night, with her gown off her shoulder. There were a few letters of complaint, a few cancelled subscriptions, I think, but Tina was very happy with it, for her it was all about putting the magazine on the map again.” Smith has done many New Yorker covers since, as well as working for other prominent magazines including Rolling Stoneand Time.

The New Yorkeris exceptional in its use of original cover illustrations. Smith teaches illustration at California College of the Arts, as well as practising it, and he says illustrators today face difficulties because of the economic decline, but also because of the way technology has developed. “Illustrators are pretty low down the food chain. When you look at the difficulties the print media are in, you can imagine the impact on illustrators. Then there’s a huge payment issue when it comes to your work being on the web. I’m lucky in that I’ve managed to stay busy, but a lot of illustrators are trying other things, other ways of using their work.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, the advances in digital-imaging technology, we’re not living in an age of great theatre poster design. “Cost is a factor. My impression is that theatres are inclined to use typography more these days in their posters.” That is, there’s a lot of software available that allows them to put things together quite cheaply onscreen using photographic sources and typography.

While there have never been so many images in circulation before, oddly enough, he argues: “Original images are much less common now.” Who knows, maybe Druid’s poster will start a trend.

The Druid production of Sean O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie, directed by Garry Hynes, is at Galway’s Town Hall Theatre from Monday, August 23rd until September 7th. It then tours to Ennis, Salford, Oxford, Dublin, Cork, Portlaoise and Tralee.