He works by creating visual imagery steadily, whether it’s on-the-go jumping off planes around the word, or while settling in different parts of the country. He also manages to fold adventure into everything he does.
Joy Chu: For years you’ve been known for books that feature your cartoon-style of drawing, including No Peas For Nellie, Kitman and Willy, The Animal’s Song, plus numerous series projects for school texts, poetry anthologies, board books, and much more.
CD: That’s funny that you remember the red Miata. Yes, I bought that after going to race driving school.
You say I’m a fast “draw-ler.” That was several years back. I had the record for the fastest turn-around at the Boston Globe: Eight minutes from start-to-received fax, for a b/w illustration!
JC: I loved your line drawings [in your children's books], with bursts of bright watercolor, full of humor and wit!
Later on, you embraced a much more realistic, painterly approach. How and why did that happen?
Chris Demarest: I was a realistic painter/printmaker in college. I’d always been “drawn” to action images: skiers, ball game players, race cars, generally “boy’ things as a kid.
In college, the focus was more on the human form. The key to drawing is in both numerous life drawing classes and HOW to draw. We were never allowed to use anything but a sharp pencil. Anything less allowed us to cheat.
We all know how hard hands are to draw. So, in having to work with a fine line, it sharpened our eyes and taught us to draw not what we knew in general (hand = four fingers + thumb with lots of joints) but what we saw. A hand is like a face: It’s unique in size; shape; length.
Having that line skill made transitioning to line cartooning easy. I knew anatomy well enough so translating that into a cartoon human was simple— or let’s say easier.
I also liked the shift away from a painting that would take a couple of weeks to something that was done in a matter of minutes.
In 1990, I re-located from New York City to Vermont. That move changed my life. I had a family, and we happened upon the local town’s fire department’s open house. Thinking my son Ethan (he was one at the time) would enjoy visiting, I joined their all-volunteer department.
Over the course of two years, I developed a book on fire-fighting while working with them. It started out as kind-of-a Richard Scarry approach (using my own line work).
I like using the alphabet as a template when it works. But as I wrote the story it became edgier.
As the tone of the book changed, so too did the art. It went through a phase of Virginia Lee Burton/ Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel-like flavor.
My editor at the time told me that it was too scary (“Kids are afraid of fire”). That was when I sensed I had the wrong editor.
Long story short, I later met Emma Dryden. Her only comments after looking at the completed artwork then was “Add MORE fire. Add MORE smoke!” She was so on target!
CD: It had to be realistic, if I was going to talk about the dangers of fire and fire fighting.
That book became Firefighters A to Z, which subsequently was chosen as a New York Times “Best Book”.
I visited the US Forest Service Smokejumper base in Redding CA for research. Ironically, this was before the Coast Guard book and 9/11. At the jump base, I was never allowed to leave the ground. No shots from the air, only ground shots.
I was fortunate to see them do a practice jump which was very exciting. Seeing people leap out of a plane at only 1500 feet is impressive. If one didn’t open a chute, the drop would take about eight seconds. That’s not much time if something goes wrong.
This is where it got interesting. As unhelpful as the US Forest Service was with the smokejumper book, the US Coast Guard bent over backwards to help.
Their first email response (after validation from Emma) was: “When can you come? We’ll take you up in the Falcon jet and the Jayhawk helicopter…”
When I forwarded this to Emma, she immediately shot back with: “You get to do all the cool stuff while I’m stuck behind this desk.” Little did she know…
After the three firefighting books, Emma said: “What can you do with water?” After Mayday! Mayday! (and inspired by Sebastian Junger’s book The Perfect Storm), I wanted to cover hurricanes. So again, I wrote to my intended target, got clearance and made preparations.
The only difference is no one can predict the evolution of hurricanes. Whereas the Coast Guard could set a schedule for me, I had to wait to hear from the US Air Force Reserve out of Biloxi, Mississippi. The biggest problem is that it’s expensive to fly commercially at the drop of a hat. All summer, I kept missing storms because I couldn’t just get up and leave!
Finally in August, I made plans to visit the air base. Then if a hurricane rolled through, lucky me! As it turned out, the day after arriving in Biloxi, they called to say a flight was scheduled the next day [to witness hurricane work first-hand]. Finally I was able to go!
JC: You seem to be entering a new chapter now.
CD: Emma Dryden told me several times: “You have an uncanny way of reinventing yourself”. She stated that over ten years ago when Firefighters A to Z came out, and she said this to me again recently.
There were a few transitional books like Cowboy ABC and Lindbergh, where my art style reverted (from light linework) to realism. But with the firefighting book, I was also able to play the boy again, going out on actual adventures. Previously, my themes were imagined; this time they were all very real.
At the first acceptance art ceremony, I met the Rear Admiral (mid-Atlantic). “Sally” became a good friend and ally who got me into places one normally isn’t allowed. I got to experience so many avenues of the Coast Guard because of her.
Then one cold and depressing day in February, an email from USCG Headquarters arrived. It began: “Dear Mr. Demarest. We’re contacting you to see about your availability to go to Bahrain…” Thus began a two month process of working both with them and the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet (Bahrain). It was an incredible journey and experience.
The Coast Guard sent me to the Persian Gulf living aboard patrol boats, to document their work guarding the oil platforms off the coast of Iraq.
Nine paintings and drawings from that trip are in the USCG permanent art collection, Washington DC.
In 2007 I flew over twenty-five missions with DHART, the medical evacuation team out of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, NH. An exhibit chronicled this period. An article I wrote up on the experience appeared in their publication, Dartmouth Medicine.
Working with the military prepared me for where I am now, working at the Women’s Memorial, talking to service people almost daily.
JC: And you were here in San Diego recently!
CD: I was deployed to San Diego to cover border patrol operations aboard a small cutter and in their rescue helicopter.
Headquarters sent me to San Diego to cover border patrols on both boat and helicopter. Like any mission, it’s hit or miss about seeing anything of note. As it was, there were no incidents.
Spending eighteen hours on the patrol boat Haddock I did get to see them practice rescue basket operations. I’ve seen it countless times from above in the helicopter but this was new.
This boat was an 85-footer as opposed to the ones in the Persian Gulf (110-footers) and the size difference was thirty five feet shorter. That meant it bobbed about like a cork.
To date, I’ve never gotten sick either on ships or flying but I was tested. Sleeping presents a problem when the boat pitches a lot. My concern was less about getting sick than falling out of the rack. Tucking myself in, literally, saved me from rolling out of the top berth.
JC: Tell us about your most recent projects.
CD: My most recent release, a picture book called Arlington: A Story of Our Nation’s Cemetery (Macmillan/Roaring Brook, 2010) honors the history of the grounds and those who made the ultimate sacrifice to their nation.
My father was buried at Arlington in 1989 and I got to see the whole show. Caisson, bugle sounding taps and the rifle salute. I also covered a USCG funeral.
By the time it came to do a book on the troops, I chose to cover it as Arlington’s history. That history in itself is interesting, as it ties George Washington to Robert E. Lee together, via bloodlines and marriage.
Somehow coming to the women’s memorial last year made it feel like I was coming full circle back to my father and his WW II military service, by working on portraits of WW II people.
With my move to Washington DC, my work with the military continues as an on-site artist at The Women in Military Service to America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, creating a massive collection of World War II portraits honoring the “greatest generation”.
My next project for the memorial is to create five life-size dioramas, one for each service branch, showing the contemporary work women do in the military.
Working on-site has provided another avenue. Interacting with the public, who stroll the hallways of the memorial daily has often brought me face-to-face with those who’ve lost loved ones in the recent wars.
For them I created a “wall of thanks” which allows anyone to leave drawings and messages as a kind of therapy for all.
It’s my greatest joy, being able to reach out to those emotionally hardest hit by letting them have a voice.
One retired Navy commander, who works at the memorial, calls me “Father Dave” because I remind her of a chaplain she was close to while she served.
JC: She calls you “Father Dave”? Why, Chris?
CD: In part, because of the conversations I relate to her [from my interactions], with people who’ve lost a loved one in war.
JC: You are producing amazing portraits! They reveal a wholly new dimension to your body of work.
And those faces. They radiate layered stories telepathically when they stare back at us.
Are you looking for donors / patrons / corporate funding for your on-going efforts? On behalf of World War II portraits honoring the “greatest generation”? If so, where can prospective folks contact you?
CD: Yes, please. For official recognition, contributions of any size can be sent to:
Women in Military Service For America Foundation
200 N. Glebe Rd Suite 400
Arlington VA 22203
Check out highlights from the exhibition “The Greatest Generation” here.
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Wait wait. . . there’s more!
@ Everyone: For those who would like to have a portrait (WW II, Korea, Vietnam era) of a beloved veteran created, the fee for a 16×20 acrylic on canvas, the fee is $500 (slightly higher fee for oils on canvas).
Contact: Chris L. Demarest