Experiencing Yaddo First-Hand: An Interview with Cartoonist Dean Haspiel
Dean Haspiel on His Experience at Yaddo
A Look Inside the Artists’ Community
By Dave Bower
The Yaddo artists’ community in Saratoga Springs has served as a retreat for close to 6,000 of America’s most celebrated artists, writers and composers, including Sylvia Plath, Philip Roth, James Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Mario Puzo, Katherine Ann Porter, Bernard Malamud, Patricia Highsmith, William Carlos Williams, David Foster Wallace, Flannery O’Connor, and Langston Hughes.
Known for their elaborate Rose Gardens, which are open to the public, the mansion situated at the heart of Yaddo’s 40 acres remains private, in order to preserve the artists’ sanctuary, and “to nurture the creative process by providing an opportunity for artists to work without interruption in a supportive environment.”
Dean Haspiel is one artist who recently experienced what Yaddo has to offer. An Emmy award winner and Eisner Award nominee, Dean created BILLY DOGMA, illustrated for HBO’s “Bored To Death,” and was a Master Artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. Dean has written and drawn many superhero and semi-autobiographical comix, including collaborations with Harvey Pekar, Jonathan Ames, Inverna Lockpez, and Jonathan Lethem. Dino also curates and creates for TripCity.net, a Brooklyn-filtered, literary arts salon.
Dean recently did a month long residency at Yaddo this past August, where he embarked on several new projects. Dean and I recently spoke about relocating, changing his routine, and the overall experience of Yaddo.
The Free George: Overall, how was the experience at Yaddo?
Dean Haspiel: Yaddo, the way it was described to me, not Yaddo per se, but residencies, are like a bizarre gift that artists can get. My friend and sometimes collaborator, Jonathan Ames, had gone to Yaddo a few times and told me about it and was encouraging me to try it out. Eventually my girlfriend, Jen, wanted to go to Yaddo in conjunction with the Saratoga race track in August. She was hoping that we could both get in at the same time. She went in for art and I went in, weirdly enough, for writing only, as I’m mainly known for drawingand I occasionally write comics, but I’d been trying to write a screenplay and a novel, so I showed some samples of that, plus a couple of comics that I had written and drawn. I got in for writing and unfortunately Jen didn’t get in, but she was really innovative and found a way to be in Saratoga Springs in August while I was out there, at least for half of the time…she didn’t care about the races, she just loves horses.
As for Yaddo, I get the idea of the concept, that it’s this retreat and you’re basically taken care of and afforded time and space to fully indulge your ideas, which is cool, I can dig that. But it’s not until you really do it that you really get to understand how amazing that really is, and in this case, at Yaddo, they have this beautiful mansion, 400 acres of incredible landscape, a rose garden and there’s this pool that John Cheever, who wrote “The Swimmer,” gifted Yaddo a pool that I swam in, I played ping pong and I actually drew a picture. I did do one finished drawing…I’d promised myself to do no drawing while I was at Yaddo so I would only write, but I managed to draw a couple things while I was there. I was given a writer’s cabin, so I’d grab my lunch pail and thermos and walk over to my writer’s cabin, which was this other beautiful, little home during the day and we had really great weather most of the time. I mean deer, groundhogs and eagles and squirrels would just congregate at my cabin and I would see them, like I was in some weird Walt Disney movie…it was bizarre.
TFG: But, it sounds very interesting and relaxing.
DH: I’d look out the windows and it would really help me and manifest….I don’t know if I’m a good writer or anything, I did do a lot of what I call typing, but I managed to finish a screenplay and the first 50 pages of a novel and I even wrote a comic book script for a new idea. What Yaddo afforded me was the time and space just to be remote and be in this kind of shell as it were…and I’m a gregarious guy so that’s hard for me to do. I like to be around people, and there were a few times, I wouldn’t say full days, but a good bunch of hours where I was facing the man in the mirror as it were and I thought “Am I an auteur?” “Who the hell am I?” “How dare I spend this time not doing paid work, but working on speculative work and indulging myself” and then being fed and sleeping in a mansion and then going to swim in a pool…I felt a little guilty about that at times. But I think that was because I was trying to shrug of the rigors of some kind of guilt or, I guess I was wondering, do I have the stuff?
TFG: So it gives you a way to analyze yourself and determine ‘what is my focus’, but you’re probably living in a place where you’re by yourself, you’re not living with roommates, right?
DH: I was in a mansion with about 25 other people. I’m a night owl and some people would stay up late. There was a breakfast and a dinner time, breakfast was from 8-9 and dinner was from 6:30-7:30 and you would get lunch that you would bring out to your cabin during the day, so that meant getting up a lot earlier, and actually dinner time for me is more like lunch time, so I had to alter the way I lived obviously, in order to feed (laughs). But what was cool about those times was not only would you sit at a table with lots of different personalities, but it also created mini deadlines. So, if I knew during the day that I have to drop off my stuff by 6:30 then I get down to dinner from the cabin, I set little deadlines and goals for myself in terms of what I was writing that day, so I could earn that food, and it forced you to stop. When you’re working at home or working full time freelance, there is no time restraint except for deadlines. I could work 24-72 hours in a row to get the thing done, but this was a more healthier environment that would force you to stop and go eat, and often when you’re forced to stop, you’re forced to relax and indulge other people and other ideas. I think it’s very important to engage that.
TFG: It’s a way of re-training your creative process.
DH: Exactly. What happens is that you start to get influenced and trust me, I love being influenced. But regarding the varied personalities at Yaddo; obviously you’re not going to jive with everyone, but what I found peculiar; I’d be talking to a bunch of other writers and it seemed that the younger writers didn’t want to share anything about what they were writing. There was a couple of older writers, or what I would say peers in terms of age, that were much more relaxed and confident in what they would indulge and talk about, but it seemed that the younger writers never wanted to speak about what they were doing and they were constantly struggling, and it may have to do with youth and not getting to a place of confidence…or like this one woman told me that she was constantly trying to write the next perfect sentence. I was like “What the fuck is wrong with you? Just write a fucking story!” Why write the perfect sentence over and over again, that’s boring!” That’s not fun for me. Maybe it’s because I’m more story oriented than I am about writing some piece of eloquent dialogue…I feel that you trip on these when it happens, that happens by accident…I can’t force the perfect sentence.
The artists were curious because it was a whole new world of creativity. Yes, people can have talent and experiment with interesting avant-garde ideas, but it was almost more interesting to hear the artists talk about the process of the work or what they were trying to go for, than the end result. I remember from college that one of the reasons why I split from visual arts and moved into film was because I was more interested in narrative and I couldn’t deal with a lot of the artists that were just throwing everything and the kitchen sink against the wall to see what would happen. I respect that that’s a specific process for making things and maybe I do a version of that when I tell stories, but what it would often yield to me was just garbage and maybe I’m a dick for thinking that way, I don’t know, but what I did like was that I could jive with the artists a lot more with the young writers in that respect.
I met a couple of cool writers who are amazing, I don’t want to say any names, but I thought, okay, that’s why they’re good at this, or great, because they’ve thought about this stuff and even when they spoke…there was this one particular guy, when he spoke it was as if he was writing and it was beautiful. There were also the more avant-garde weirdos and performers who were really cool. Man, I don’t know, maybe it was because I was responding to them with my own gregarious nature, but I really love people who put themselves out there and stick their necks out. But, the oddballs, the real oddballs were the composers. There were a couple of composers there who were either suave or as nerdy as one can be (laughs). It was like the complete polar opposite version of what I imagined a composer to be….but they’re world builders, they’re these people who, they’re not just making music, they’re trying to change the universe (laughs). There was this one guy who was way into science and was trying to save planet Earth through his music, which was fascinating. And there was another guy who incorporated all these different ethnic sounds and was responding to different aspects of the world internationally through his music; it really was heady stuff. It was beyond…they were like the Jack Kirby‘s of Yaddo…they were cosmic and I wasn’t prepared for that because they were trying to do it with sound.
TFG: Did you get to see much of Saratoga while you were there?
DH: Yeah, I got to sneak out. Saratoga Springs is a beautiful place as you know…It’s kind of like….it’s in New York State but it really flies on its own merits. I’ve been going up to the Catskills for 25 years and as much as I love Margaretville and Roxbury, it’s tough to live out there; it’s not easy. So, I thought that’s what the mountains were and then I suddenly see Saratoga Springs and it was…Whoa! That’s really amazing and beautiful. So, my girlfriend came up, I sneaked out and saw the horses with her at the racetrack a couple of times. I also discovered the awesome fried chicken at Hattie’s restaurant.
DH: (laughs) I also tried the sulfuric water. The first taste you spit out and then you acclimate to it; you’re drinking nature. I also indulged one mineral bath at the bath houses. But, the rest of the time I was in this amazing mansion where you sort of go back in time, back into the past and create among the ghosts of gods, and it was really interesting.
TFG: Did you find relocating from New York City to be much of an issue?Was it a difficult adjustment?
DH: I basically let go. I realized that I would never fully adjust, but I let go and I brought a couple pairs of clothes, I brought two graphic novels: Darwin Cooke adaptation of Richard Stark’s PARKER: The Outfit, and a Jack Kirby KAMANDI collection, plus, a few DVDs which I never watched. However, I did watch The Wages of Fear, the film where the guys are driving trucks of nitro-glycerin through the rain forest. I’d never seen it before and it was amazing. It made me feel like I was going through my own Wages of Fear at Yaddo where, basically, I was trucking through terrain with all these obstacles and my artwork was my nitro-glycerin (laughs); I know that sounds really corny, but that’s where you go and you’re in this huddle with these other artists and you’re all driving these trucks (laughs). You know 24 days felt almost like a year and it was a beautiful time.
To hear more of our interview with Dean Haspiel, please click on the link below:
–Dave Bower is Co-Publisher of The Free George.
The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.
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