Go to Homepage   David Cherry: In Search of Transcendence

David Cherry (courtesy Bill Fawcett and Associates)

Inspired by the classical masters of the 19th century, David Cherry felt out of place in art colleges that valued political messages above humanism and skill. Besides, Cherry wanted to marry and start a family. He couldn't afford to pursue the pipe dream of an art no longer in fashion when practicing law promised him everything else he wanted from life. Except the itch for art refused to go away.

More than 20 years after he traded financial security for the life of a freelance artist, the itch remains. But these days the multi-awardwinning Cherry satisfies the craving by painting the new myths of science fiction and fantasy, and re-interpreting the classics for the game company Ensemble Studios. Recently, Cherry talked to Teresa Patterson, his collaborator on Terry Brooks: The World of Shannara, about how a lawyer learned to paint and what happened then.

Teresa Patterson: You were originally a lawyer, and a very successful one at that. What made you give up law to become an artist?

Book: david cherry, the world of shannaraDavid Cherry: In school, I had thought about art as a career, but the only art schools available to me were teaching "modern" art, i.e., throwing paint at a board and then melting toy tanks over it in protest to the Vietnam War. I wanted to do art like the works I had seen in my Latin and Greek texts, which were illustrated using the works of Gerome, Alma Tadema, Lord Leighton, etc. I didn't think spending my college years having my work criticized by a bunch of dope smoking morons would result in my being able to make a living that would support a family. And being able to marry and start a family was, beyond anything else, my greatest dream.

So instead, I concentrated on the thing that would make me the best possible provider -- plus give me a field of endeavor so large that I would have little chance of learning it all in a few months only to be bored to death with it for the next 30 years. I decided law fit the bill rather well, so I set my sights on a Juris Doctors degree.

But when I had finally obtained that and graduated, I found myself alone, with no one to marry and no real idea what to do with myself. I had the degree, so for want of anything better to do, I set out to be an attorney. It was a not altogether pleasant experience. I was good at it. And there was enough variety in it to keep me mentally occupied for many years, but it was unfulfilling. The worst part of it was that I spent my day surrounded by other lawyers. This meant that I had few friends because I had discovered that, on the whole, I don't actually like or respect most lawyers.

So, I took a deep breath, closed the law firm and set out to teach myself how to paint. Nearly starved to death.

A few years into my practice I was surprised to learn that my sister (C. J. Cherryh) had landed a contract to have a fantasy story published, and that she was to appear at something called a Worldcon because she was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer of The Year. She invited me along. It was Big Mac, the 1975 Worldcon in Kansas City. I was very impressed. I got to see people like Isaac Asimov and actually meet Marion Zimmer Bradley.

Then I wandered into the art show. I hadn't been aware that there would be an art show, but it sounded interesting, so I went. I found myself looking at the original painting for Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Bloody Sun, which I happened to be reading at the time. I found that I even knew the name of the artist since it was the same fellow that Sis's publisher, Don Wollheim, had chosen to do the cover of her first book. Very cool. Here was art I liked. It occurred to me, "So this is where you go if you want to do representational painting in the classical style." I bought the painting and got to meet the artist, a handsome young blonde fellow named Michael Whelan.

For the next few years, I kept thinking about what it would be like to do what Michael did and live the life of a freelance artist. I wouldn't be a good provider. But what the heck. No one was jumping at the chance to marry me and have babies. So, I thought I might just leave law and do what I really wanted with my life. Only problem was, I had no idea how to paint, and was only roughly good at drawing.

Teresa Patterson: So how did a lawyer learn to paint? Did you have any art training in college?

David Cherry: No. I spent all my school time getting the law degree. I had no formal training in art at all. Fortunately, art is one of the few fields left where a degree is not required. If you can create a winning portfolio, you can show it and get jobs. No one will refuse to hire you just because you don't have a degree. So I reasoned, "I am a good lawyer not because I know all the laws but because I know how to research and find out whatever I need for a given case. I can just research how to paint." So, I took a deep breath, closed the law firm and set out to teach myself how to paint. Nearly starved to death.

My theory, basically, was that if I locked myself in a room for 12 hours a day with nothing but art supplies for a year or two, I would come out a pretty good artist --or be dead of boredom. I lucked out in that one of the other attorneys in town approached me to do some contract legal work for him that I was able to do out of my home. I could do that for 20 hours each week and make enough to pay the bills, barely. Every other hour I was awake, I was drawing and painting, reading and researching. That was in 1982. Two years later, I had learned a ton, but my work still wasn't what I needed it to be. I had no hope of being able to make a living from art alone, and my contract legal work began to be less and less available. I was faced with having to get better fast or move on to something else.

The Chew Magna, from The World of Shannara. This piece was originally planned as the cover for The World of Shannara
Copyright © 2001 Bill Fawcett and Associates. All rights reserved.

Some time earlier, I had met a wonderful artist named James C. Christensen. He was a Professor of Art at Brigham Young University, was a respected fantasy artist and had done several covers that I admired. I called him, told him my dilemma and asked if he could help me with my acrylic painting technique. He was willing but warned that, while he could show me all he knew about it in four or five hours, it took his students four or five years of work to internalize it all. I responded that I had just put in several years of study; I just wanted those four or five hours of instruction from an expert. Being the great gentleman he is, he gave them to me.

Fortunately, I had chosen the perfect person, given my own approach to acrylics. He was -- and is -- a master. But when I saw him work, I was shocked to see that his early stages were as loose and messy as mine. He never showed me any particular thing I didn't already know how to do, but he showed me when to do what, when to keep going past points where I would have stopped, how to get the best effect from washes and glazes, and he stressed the fact that I needed to be able to draw better before I could paint better.

It took me a month of preparation before I did my next painting. I changed the ground I was painting on, changed the way I applied gesso to the board, sewed costumes for models, took my own photography of friends to get the best possible reference, then drew my heart out. I drew the same image over and over and over until I finally knew it like the back of my hand and had figured out every nuance of shading. Then I began to paint. It was a miracle. I pushed myself to see far more detail than I had ever noticed before, and then studied it until I could reproduce it with photographic accuracy in monochrome. I did a painting called Scattered Reflections, which I will never sell, since it is the first one I ever did well enough to like myself.

Then I did one, using my friend Real Musgrave as a model, called Man of Prophecy. I showed it at the 1984 Art-Con in Dallas (which you chaired, as I recall). Tim Hildebrandt was the Art Guest of Honor. I was sitting with him in the audience as the art show awards were announced. He won Best Color for one of his pieces, and I congratulated him. Then -- and I will never forget my amazement -- I heard you announce that the award for Best of Show had gone to me, for Man of Prophecy. Wow. That was a rush.

Teresa Patterson: I remember the fans loved your reaction.

David Cherry: The next time I showed the painting, it sold to my good friend, Lilly Schneiderman, for a considerable amount of money, given that it was only an 11 by 14 image. Those two events told me that I had made it. I could, from that point on, make a living at art.

Teresa Patterson: At that point you could have painted anything. Why choose science fiction and fantasy?

David Cherry: As I mentioned earlier. My idea of what art should be was not in sync with the mainstream of art in this century. Before she was a best selling author, my sister, C.J. Cherryh, was a Latin and Ancient History scholar and teacher. In her textbooks, I stumbled across the works of the Hellenistic sculptors. I don't think man has ever created anything finer. I found their work stunning and magical. They had studied reality but gone beyond mere representational art. They showed men and women, not necessarily as they are, but rather as they should be, glorious and transcendent. I never forgot that.

None of us has yet reached our peak. Can you imagine what we will be able to do when we get really good?

I am no sculptor. But I loved to draw and yearned to learn to paint. I looked for that same transcendence in the works of the masters. I never quite found it but came close in the works of Bouguereau, Alma Tadema, Gerome, and Waterhouse. If I could only be that good, I thought, I could die happy. But I was born in the wrong century. For several centuries prior to ours, representational depictions of myth and legend were the mainstream of art. But in the 20th century, the art schools spoke of the masters I loved only as examples of what "art" should never be. Too much skill. Too much technique. It was merely craft, they said. "Art" should be a dirty toilet seat mounted on a blank canvas. Skill, technique, and craft should not be involved. What utter tripe and insanity! With thoughts like that dominating our so-called culture, where was I to turn?

The answer came, that day when I entered the art show at Big Mac. Here was a room filled with works of modern day masters doing beautiful representational paintings of myth and legend.

It was not classical myth and legend. It was science fiction and fantasy. But what is that but the same message in a new form? The old myths and legends attempted to define man's place in the universe and to examine our struggle for balance between what is mortal and material and what is infinite and spiritual. They were the repositories of generations of collected wisdoms and moral lessons. Science fiction and fantasy, as a literary genre, does much the same.

In story after story we find the protagonist facing impossible odds in situations that would crush the soul of most people, only to find that, by adhering to certain principles, he or she can rise above the situation and win through. It is like the works of the Hellenistic sculptors in a way, holding out to us a mirror that shows, not necessarily what we are, but what we should be, what we could become. I love that. I respect it. What more suitable genre of literature could there be for the art that I hope to produce?

Computer Game: Age of Empires 2, Age of KingsI am not bad now, but I am nowhere near good enough yet to do the works I dream of. But then, I am still learning day by day. I have always thought that I will do my best works when I am in my sixties. I have eight more years to practice and improve, God willing. Then perhaps, I will be able to produce something that is worthwhile, something that will touch people as I have been touched by the works of great artists.

And if I ever reach that point, I know that I will, in one way or another, still be doing works of fantasy and science fiction. And that I will have Michael Whelan, Don Maitz, Bob Eggleton, Real Musgrave, Jim Gurney and countless other friends right beside me, pouring out works that dazzle and amaze, because they are filled with the same fire to reach for something better with each painting. And they are constantly at work, honing their skills. None of us has yet reached our peak. Can you imagine what we will be able to do when we get really good?

Teresa Patterson: I only hope I am there to see it. From your description, it sounds like you needed only to learn how to paint to have a career. I know there was more to it than that. How did you manage that all-important step between learning to paint and actually landing a contract?

David Cherry: First of all, I had good friends. That was the best thing about turning from law to art -- the people. I had done law for eight years and didn't have one friend in the business, one person I could respect. When I turned to art, the money was nowhere near as good, but almost every one of my peers is someone I would be proud to have for a friend, a brother, or a sister.

As a matter of fact, my first actual illustration job did come through my sister, C.J. It was back in the late Seventies. She knew that I had been doing art again in my spare time, ever since seeing the art show at Big Mac. I had shown her some of my efforts. She was doing a book that was to be published by Don Grant. Most of the books he produces are illustrated. Sis saw this as a good chance to nudge me in a direction that would force me to take my art more seriously. She had me put together samples of some of my drawings and send them to Don. To my surprise, he liked them and said he would trust me to illustrate the book [Ealdwood], even though I had never done anything like that before.

Failure by failure, my experience and skill grew.

But as fun as that project was, and as important as it became in finally convincing me to leave law, it doesn't really count in answer to your question. At the time of that sale, I was still a lawyer playing at doing a bit of illustration. I was a total amateur and enjoyed it as a lark -- something to tell my grandkids about, if I ever had any. Later, after meeting Real and Muff Musgrave and leaving law to teach myself art, getting work on my own as an illustrator became a deadly serious business.

It was Bill Fawcett who gave me my first actual assignment after I closed the law firm in 1982. It was $25 an image for several black and white interiors illustrating a manual for a game from Mayfair Games. I have forgotten the name of the game. But actual illustration jobs were few and far between from 1982 through 1984. I didn't really expect to have many, mind you. I knew I wasn't good enough to compete with the pros. So I held onto my day job [doing legal work on a contract basis for another lawyer] and practiced my heart out to get better.

The Airship Jerle Shannara by David Cherry From The World of Shannara
Copyright © 2001 Bill Fawcett and Associates. All rights reserved.

During that time, if I did a painting and it was a success, I counted it as a waste of my time. I needed to get good, really good and fast. And how could I do that if I limited myself to painting things I already knew how to do well? Failures, on the other hand, were exciting to me. With each new painting, I always gave myself something to do that I had no idea how to handle. I would, of course, fail at it. But then I would examine the effort I had made to see if I could isolate what the failure was. If I could detect it, I could research it, find a solution and implement it. That was how I spent those two years, forcing myself to fail, and then learning how not to.

Failure by failure, my experience and skill grew. That was why, by the time I went to see Jim Christensen, I was ready to hear what he had to say, and why I knew what to do with it. I already had all the pieces to the jigsaw puzzle. Jim showed me how they fit together. He gave me a pattern, a procedure. After that, the work got better fast. But there was still a lag between the time that I was good enough to get work and the time that work actually started coming in.

Why? Because one or two good pieces does not a portfolio make. And I had to have one. I tried sending slides. That didn't work. We didn't have PCs then, so I couldn't just email a bunch of jpgs to the art directors. I had to get 8 by 10 photographs of my best paintings, put them in a leather-bound portfolio, and schlep it around New York from publisher to publisher.

Betsy Wollheim and Peter Stampfel, who live in Manhattan, were kind enough to open their home to me and let me bunk with them on my annual visits to show my portfolio. That was great and saved a lot on hotel costs. Later, Janny Wurts and Don Maitz [when they still lived in Connecticut] let me stay with them.

It was Don [Maitz] who taught me an invaluable lesson about portfolios. I had stuffed mine with everything I had that had any possible merit -- many of which were truly amateurish -- and I had put the best things first. Don looked at it, shook his head, told me to…

David Cherry - Continued