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Public Eye sees the heroes we need

The cover of Public Eye magazine.
The cover of Public Eye magazine.
The cover of Public Eye magazine.
Credit Provided
The cover of Public Eye magazine.

As freelance artists in a time of pandemic drought, David Cowles and Josh Gosfield sensed it was time to put matters in their own hands.

“Let’s not wait for art directors to give us jobs,” Cowles says, “let’s do something that we really love.”

Heroes. We love heroes. We need heroes to get us through tough times. Cowles and Gosfield have given us 63 heroes, as defined by 63 artists, for this moment in a new art-driven magazine, Public Eye.

There are distinctive portraits of heroes of the moment, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci and Stacey Abrams. Heroes of the long past, who seem relevant today: Frederick Douglass. Heroes such as the artist’s mother. Or boxer Jack Johnson. Or Betty Crocker, a pioneer of today’s TV cooking heroes.

Betty Crocker? Was she even a real person?

“I, I don’t know…,” Cowles confesses.

Ask Google. No, it says, Betty Crocker is a fictional marketing tool. No matter. Emma Peel and The Lone Ranger are among the 63, and they weren’t real. Jesus Christ is in Public Eye as well; historians and theologians have been debating for centuries whether or not he was a real person.

As the artists see it, heroes can be ideas. “Tibetan Buddhism.” Or “Slow Things,” where Oregon artist Elizabeth Haidle suggests snails or “mushroom spores drifting on a breeze.” And “The Great Quiet” by Steve Brodner, a satirical illustrator from New York. He’s picked out five heroes whose names have never been called, such as an ICU nurse who confesses she can’t grasp the escalating numbers of the COVID-19 dead. “But as a frontline healthcare worker,” she says, “I can understand the sound the zipper on a body bag makes.”

Cowles is a Rochester artist and Nazareth College teacher whose work has long been seen in local publications, as well as Rolling Stone, Time and Newsweek. As an animator, he’s worked for Disney, Sesame Street and done videos for the rock band They Might Be Giants. In fact, the band just got in touch with Cowles to do video work for their upcoming album.

He and the New York City-based Gosfield go back to the early ’90s, when they put together an exhibit on censorship for Monroe Community College. The art, and the message, was presented as a series of trading cards. 

Over the next few years, Cowles and some of his artist pals put out themed booklets, under the name “Public Eye,” showcasing their art. Something that might catch the eye of an art director, while doing stuff they really love. Story-driven art on Mexican wrestlers, B-movie monsters, movie directors. If you have any of these booklets, you’re either an obsessive collector of pulp art, or you don’t clean house often.

It all evolved into the slick magazine of Public Eye.

Of the artists, “Maybe a third are people I really know, whose work I know,” Cowles says. “Some are complete strangers.” 

They searched Instagram for diversity and to find unknown artists deserving of attention.

“We told them, ‘Listen, this is not a paying project, this is a fun project, and it’s a chance to do something you really want to do and have published,’ ” Cowles says. “ ‘But we completely understand if you don’t want to do it.’

“We got some nos. Some people’s rules were, ‘I don’t work for free.’ And yep, I get that.”

David Cowles' portrait of Janelle Monae.
Credit David Cowles
David Cowles' portrait of Janelle Monae.

But a wide range of artists agreed to be seen in the Public Eye. Three are from Rochester. Cowles’ hero portrait is the musician and actor Janelle Monáe, rendered in his signature big blocks of color. Each of the artists also get a few lines to explain their choice. “Janelle Monáe is a hero of mine because everything she does is original and brave,” Cowles writes.

Shawn Dunwoody produced the only superhero image: a black-and-white sketch of Frederick Douglass. Dunwoody gives the abolitionist a superhero’s challenging posture and muscle definition, plus a little bow tie. “I had to turn his strength as an orator into a superpower,” Dunwoody writes. “Sonic blasts!”

Maria Friske sees Anna Vincelli as a colorful pop-art tattoo with angel’s wings. “I watched the arc of my mother’s life travel from a homemaker with a high school education,” she writes, “to a single mother who hid her fear of raising three small children on her own after her husband died.”

Many of the 63 artists are big names in commercial art. Roz Chast’s illustrations will be familiar to readers of The New Yorker. Her portrait of the ghoulish cartoonist Charles Addams doesn’t even show Addams. It’s just a scene Addams would have created: A group of people on the roof of a building, about to pour boiling oil on carolers on the sidewalk below.

“For the most part,” WNYC radio host Brian Lehrer writes in the introduction, “the heroes are real and famous people. But the imagination of the artists takes us to the visual, visceral next-level place, that’s as much about how the hero makes them feel as about what the hero did.”

Frederick Douglass is a superhero in Shawn Dunwoody's artwork.
Credit Shawn Dunwoody
Frederick Douglass is a superhero in Shawn Dunwoody's artwork.

Cowles and Gosfield left it to the artists to define a hero. “Sometimes artists are artists,” Cowles says. “That’s the problem. That’s what I learned on this project.”

So artists being artists, some ignored the instruction to first propose a subject and then pursue their muse. So Public Eye offers two portraits of anthropologist Jane Goodall, perhaps the world’s foremost student of chimpanzees.

And three David Bowies. “We didn’t actually make that connection for a while,” Cowles says. “We just kept getting Bowies in. We’re like, ‘What’s going on? Oh, he did have a song called “Heroes,” maybe that’s part of it.’ ”

The reasoning behind some of the heroes can be more difficult to understand. Is a 2005 Dodge Grand Caravan a hero? How about pigeons, “who have evolved to live among humans for thousands of years,” writes photographer Andrew Garn.

These artists hear music from The Beatles, Solomon Burke and Jimi Hendrix. And artists, of course, from Vincent Van Gogh to the underground icon R. Crumb. Words from Mark Twain. Politics from Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, presented as a cake. A towering Anthony Fauci.

Maria Friske's hero? Her mother, Anna Vincelli.
Credit Maria Friske
Maria Friske's hero? Her mother, Anna Vincelli.

Hope for the future in young people such as 2021 presidential inauguration poet Amanda Gorman. And Greta Thunberg, teenage spokesperson for the environment, talking down to Donald Trump.

“It would be nice,” Cowles says, “if we could avoid these dystopian futures that people write about.”

Sorry. There’s George Orwell, author of “1984.”

You won’t find “Public Eye” on the magazine rack at your local drug store. It is published to order through MagCloud.com.

Cowles and Gosfield have casually talked of it putting it on as a gallery show, and they’re tossing around ideas for the next theme. Maybe publishing one or two a year. If at all.

“It’s the childbirth thing where, once it happens, ‘OK, that’s it,’ ” Cowles says. “And after a little while, ‘OK, we can do another one.’ ”

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.

Copyright 2021 WXXI News

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle. He has also been published in Musician and High Times magazines, contributed to WXXI, City newspaper and Post magazine, and occasionally performs spoken-word pieces around town. Some of his haikus written during the Rochester jazz festival were self-published in a book of sketches done by Scott Regan, the host of WRUR’s Open Tunings show. Spevak founded an award-winning barbecue team, The Smokin’ Dopes, and believes Bigfoot is real. His book on the life of a Lake Ontario sailor who survived the sinking of his ship during World War II will be published in April of 2019 by Lyons Press.