Old Man Gloom in wartime
Watch your troubles go up in flames along with Old Man Gloom on Friday, Sept. 2, at the annual Burning of Will Shuster’s Zozobra. The event, which kicks off the weeklong Fiesta de Santa Fe, is sponsored by the Santa Fe Kiwanis Club. It is the 92nd time the menacing effigy is lit aflame and the third year his construction is inspired by the Kiwanis’ Decades Project, a countdown to Zozobra’s centennial in 2024. This year, the theme is the 1940s. Artist Russell Thornton brings the ambience of that bygone era to his rendition of the fearsome figure who towers, dozens of feet tall, over Santa Fe. On the cover is Thornton’s official poster, a pen-and-ink drawing with digital painting. Burn him! But don’t burn the Pasa.
SMALL LIZARDS ARE A PART OF THE ROADRUNNER’S NATURAL DIET,
but what weapons could a brave-enough lizard use to face off against an adversary like New Mexico’s official state bird? Artist Russell Thornton depicts just such a confrontation, in which a blue-tailed lizard armed with sword and shield squares off against his natural enemy — only the sword is a cocktail pick, and the lid of an old tin can stands in for a shield.
“I imagined that he’s finding some trash that’s been lying around,” Thornton told Pasatiempo about Jack Bluetail vs. the Roadrunner: A Small Drama at Tent Rocks. The official 2016 Zozobra poster artist’s most recent illustrative artwork, including the roadrunner-lizard image, makes up a series called Visions Along the Camino Unreal. “This ongoing color series is comprised of imaginary residents of a sometimes real and sometimes surreal environment we call the Southwest,” he writes on his website, www.russellthornton.com, adding that the scenes are based on his own travels throughout the state.
“Since January I’ve been working on the series, and I’ve been waiting for them to turn into something,” Thornton said. “They’re about taking some of the elements and characters of Northern New Mexico and placing them in this sort of fantastic situation.” Odd juxtapositions come into play in his work — such as when he takes a familiar state emblem like a hotair balloon drifting over desert terrain and adds an element that doesn’t appear to belong, like a pterodactyl snatching a fish from a lake. In other compositions, a skeleton leans against a vintage automobile somewhere en route to Hermit’s Peak, and a horned toad hitches a ride on the back of a raven flying over the Ortiz Mountains.
The Zozobra poster competition, sponsored by Santa Fe’s Kiwanis Club, is a part of the Decades Project, the Kiwanis’ ongoing exploration of Zozobra’s changing appearance over the years. The club makes use of those historic representations in the annual design of the 50-foot effigy, informally referred to as Old Man Gloom, who is burned every September — this year on Friday, Sept. 2 — in Fort Marcy Park, as the kick-off event of the Fiesta de Santa Fe, which takes place from Saturday, Sept. 3, to Sunday, Sept. 11, on the Santa Fe Plaza.
The ominous specter of Zozobra was an invention of artist Will Shuster, who created the figure in 1924 as a symbolic threat to the city and its citizens, and whose ritual burning is a way to cast off worries and fears. Shuster turned the rights to Zozobra over to the Kiwanis Club in 1964. The Decades Project began in 2014, with Kiwanis mining images from Zozobra’s “grumble” beginnings in the Roaring Twenties. In 2015, they moved to the next decade, the 1930s. This year, the project, which is a countdown to the 2024 centennial burning of Zozobra, is focused on the 1940s. Artists who submitted their work to the poster competition are not expected to follow the Decades theme, although priority consideration is given to those who do. “They have some parameters,” Thornton said. “They suggested WPA types of colors and things from around the period of World War II. I started on my piece without knowing exactly what I wanted to do, but I love that era, the American WPA works and that great poster style that came out of the 1940s.” In addition to the official poster artist, Kiwanis selected Michael Martinez as this year’s T-shirt artist, Terry Bohannon as the ticket and merchandise poster artist,
and Sami Romero as the premium ticket designer. There is even an official Zozobra kid’s poster, created by Ean Garcia, and a child’s T-shirt designed by Natalia Canaca.
Thornton’s winning poster is a synthesis of photography, drawing, and digital processing, where a towering Zozobra looms over the hills as flames race up his spectral form, fireworks burst around him in bright rainbow colors against a bruise-colored sky, a fleet of World War II-era bombers fly off in the distance, and a train in the foreground heads out of town. “I’m using Photoshop brushes,” he said. “Photoshop has a bad name because a lot of people use it to manipulate photos, typically poorly.” Thornton starts not with Photoshop but with a black-and-white drawing. Different elements of the composition are separately scanned and then combined digitally. “The Zozobra poster was a real learning curve for me,” he said. “I was kind of a comic book, fantasy guy growing up and did a lot of self-publishing, doing fan zines and band posters, stuff like that. My thing is more illustration. I would like to make a serious comic that’s good enough to hang on the wall, a piece that’s good enough to be the cover of Amazing Stories or something.”
Thornton grew up in Austin, Texas, in the 1970s. He continues to be an avid comic enthusiast; his strip “Metroglyphs” runs weekly in The Santa Fe
Reporter. “I’ve always wanted to do book covers and graphic novels. One of my favorite artists is Bernie Wrightson. He was one of the creators of Swamp
Thing back in the ’70s. He did one graphic novel illustrating the entire Frankenstein story. Great book. All black and white. I sort of emulated the pen-stroke style of some of those artists, and I added these really saturated Southwestern colors.”
Thornton’s career in Santa Fe has mainly been in the restaurant business. “I was working for Gerald Peters’ company for 17 years,” he said. He managed several establishments for Santa Fe Dining, including Rio Chama and Rooftop Pizzeria. “At one point I had about seven restaurants that I was in charge of. Or they were in charge of me, I could say.” In 2015, Thornton retired from the restaurant industry to devote time to family and building his art career. “I’ve always done a lot of art, but not enough to satisfy my whim.”