BRATTLEBORO—Chances are if you’ve picked up a copy of The New Yorker sometime in the past five decades, you have seen an Ed Koren cartoon. And you have most likely noticed, with a smile of recognition, that this wielder of the cartoonist’s pen is a wry observer of human nature.
By the good graces of some benevolent deity, Ed Koren is one of us. Whether “flatlander” or farmer, we Vermonters ––transplants or been-here-for-generations folks –– get to see ourselves through Koren’s bemused and compassionate lens. Fortunately, plenty of folks out in New Yorker land relate.
The Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, in a show curated by editorial cartoonist Jeff Danziger — also of Vermont — has brought some of Koren’s cartoons in from the cold pages of The New Yorker to the warm environs of the museum’s small gallery.
It is a perfect fit.
Koren was raised in the New York suburb of Mount Vernon — which, he points out, “was by sheer coincidence where E.B. White [also a contributor to The New Yorker] spent his early years.” Koren went to high school and then college in the city.
“I really backed into wanting to follow what I came to love during my college years, where I first cut my teeth drawing cartoons for the college’s humor magazine,” Koren said in an email.
“I had more conventional ambitions first, which slowly morphed into the rewards of drawing, printmaking,” he said. “The supreme delight for me and my odd sensibility [became] telling stories by drawing cartoons and illustrations.”
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Two years out of college, Koren attended Stanley William Hayter’s legendary etching and engraving studio, Atelier 17, which he called “the fount of contemporary etching.”
To this day, said Koren, he feels “transcendently happy doing prints.”
As a young, aspiring cartoonist, Koren “feasted mostly on New Yorker cartoons” of those cartoonists he called “the greatest”: James Thurber, Saul Steinberg, Peter Arno, Charles Addams, William Steig.
“There were many,” he said.
A friendship with a fellow New Yorker contributor, illustrator Richard Merkin, opened his eyes “to the greats of the turn of the [20th] century — [R. F.] Outcault, [Winsor] McCay and, especially, George Herriman, who did Krazy Kat.”
But Koren doesn’t dwell on these much admired cartoonists.
“If you ask me about influences,” he said, “I will answer with a quote I just heard today, from Greek writer George Seferis: ‘The lion is made up of all it’s digested!’ I’ve spent a lifetime looking.”
As one might expect from a working cartoonist who eats and sleeps cartooning, Koren said he is in love with all visual media. He loves to go to museums to check out “the solvers of visual questions.” Romanesque sculpture of the 11th century is a particular favorite.
It took many tries before The New Yorker took one of his creations. Finally, in 1962, the magazine did, and there, staff members helped him to develop his work. Koren describes cartoonist Frank Modell as a mentor.
During the 1970s, Koren went back and forth between New York and Vermont. The arrangement back then, described in a Best of Central Vermont story, involved an Amtrak employee, its Montrealer train, and a New Yorker courier.
The internet and a scanner has since made life easier for Koren.
After traveling between New York and Vermont for years, he gradually “oozed up” to settle permanently in Vermont in 1986.
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All 14 cartoons in the show, “Seriously Funny: Ed Koren,” are originals, white-outs and all. Espying the little corrections, and barely visible pencil lines under the India ink, is thrilling — a little window into the artist at work.
Koren’s style has been described as “shaggy.”
His animals and birds have lots of fur or feathers. The people often have beards. The very lines he uses are scratchy, choppy.
“I find things shaggy quite funny … incongruous,” he said. “It shakes things up. I’m an antsy person — it’s who I am. I’m not good at sitting still.”
That pen line is just as antsy whether Koren uses it to depict a tractor or a moose waiting on the set of a news program to help the guest defend his anti-hunting views.
Also notable is the pervasive sense of anxiety in Koren’s characters — both his people and the animals that are amusing stand-ins for people.
“Anxiety, uncertainty, is the lingua franca of our species,” he said. “There is a lot of ambiguity in human nature. Even in science, there’s no fixed interpretation. I’ve always been intrigued by those who are certain.”
This sensitivity to uncertainty allows Koren to tap into the rich vein of humor he perceives as a sympathetic observer of the “abrasion of country ways and metropolitan ways.”
He adds that it is ironic to see transplanted city folks “push back” — when they moved here in the first place because they were drawn to Vermont’s “winning bedrock of values.”
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Perhaps the pieces that most succinctly and vividly capture the anxiety of our time are two recent (2014) lithographs: “Thinking about Extinction #1” and “Thinking about Extinction #2.”
Skeletal remains litter a bleak landscape. The creature staring out at us, as if into the void, is all bones except for his hairy face and big snout. A comment on mortality, certainly. But I found these images so resonant that on reflection it’s hard not to think, Isn’t this what so many of us are feeling?
As such, they are cathartic –– prescient comments on our heedless, self-destructive ways of late. The extinction of — fill in the blank: compassion, respect, reasoned solutions, etc.
And that parched landscape littered with bones and civilization’s ruins … what our world could look like if environmental and other regulations are done away with.
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Ultimately, “Seriously Funny” is a bright spot of levity in rather dismal times.
How often, after all, do you get to chuckle while looking at a museum show?
What comes of all those little scratchy marks from Koren’s pen is the comforting message, “We’re all in this together.”
And if we can’t laugh — or at least smile — at ourselves, we are foolish indeed.