Iconic & Unseen
By Lou Fancher
During childhood, George McCalman was that kid so fascinated by human physiology, he couldn’t stop himself from staring at people. Today, one can thank the lucky stars he never stopped.
Born and raised in Grenada, a Caribbean island country in the West Indies, McCalman learned from his grandmother to adore storytelling. His appreciation of language and richly woven narratives, and the obsession with and keen eye for portraying human form and movement in portraiture, gradually fused and led to his work today as a graphic designer, creative director, artist and writer.
The San Francisco-based artist leads the design studio McCalman.Co and is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. In a conversation held moments after his flight to Los Angeles for a business trip has landed, he talks about his evolution as an artist and a new book he recently completed that is both a culmination of his work to date and a literary arrow pointing the directions he intends to pursue in the years to come.
McCalman’s book published by HarperCollins in late 2022 is Illustrated Black History: Honoring the Iconic and the Unseen. It chronicles the stories and portraits of 145 Black heroes drawn from 400 years of American history—a history that far too often overlooked or intentionally ignored the brilliance, excellence and contributions of Black activists, scientists, politicians and pioneering Black people working in business, medicine, technology, food, entertainment and the arts.
In addition to marvelous portraits rendered in pen and ink, watercolors, colored pencils and acrylics that encompass a variety of styles developed to reflect and reveal each person’s character and soul, there are concise, well-crafted biographies that in their totality tell stories of the true diversity and complexity of Black lives. The book includes essays by Emil Wilbekin (editor in chief, Vibe), Bryant Terry (author, Black Food), Patrice Peck (editor, Cosmopolitan magazine), Oriana Koren (editor, For the Birds Trapped in Airports) and Marvin K. White (poet, Glide Memorial).
Curiosity and where it originates launches his 60-minute conversation. He’s in agreement that it’s essential for artists and journalists and, more broadly, to have tenacity and intense curiosity. Sticking it out during a tough process requires digging below and beyond a pat plot or trendy tropisms or traditional viewpoints and characterizations, to uproot fresh dirt and reveal the seedling that branches with time, in this metaphor, into full tree-hood story form.
McCalman says, “I think my curiosity comes from two distinct areas. One is that I was in the magazine field for a long time. I was a magazine creative director for 14 years before I went out on my own as an artist. That process made a reporter out of me. Before the six years I spent on this book, I had been on my way to becoming an artist. I felt emboldened to move forward with my curiosity. I knew I could get the answers under my own steam.
“The book is something I would not have taken on years ago, because I needed a proxy to make the art,” he continues. “I already had the wiring for indulging my curiosity as a reporter because I was a cultural columnist for the (San Francisco) Chronicle and had done portrait projects that were series. This book was the big version of that, but I’ve been doing these incremental series my whole life. It didn’t come out of nowhere.”
A second force propelling his curiosity and causing McCalman to pursue his idea for creating the book that begins to define and establish his body of work as a fine artist was familial. “The second thing is my grandmother. She is the reason I’m a storyteller. The idea of telling long form stories is something I grew up with. I knew how to commit to the long game of searching, getting answers and staying with the story. I learned that from her. It was also the mechanics of being inside of publishing. It’s these things together that made me not just emboldened, but active in moving forward,” he states.
Less intrinsic, but no less genuine, was motivation rising from McCalman’s knowledge that Black portraiture was obsolete before the advent of photography in the late 1880s. That meant to him that references for countless numbers of Black people’s images in archival history were unavailable, but could be researched and rendered through artistry.
Similarly, the historical elitism of predominantly white, European representation in the telling of American history meant it has been enormously and tragically delivered minus Black Americans’ achievements. He speaks often in interviews about the book as a revolutionary act—one that should not be necessary, but is—to reclaim and introduce and pronounce the true achievements made by unsung Black people in the country’s economy, governance, law, science, technology, the arts, sports, entertainment, academia, scholarship and more.
For that reason, in addition to famous trailblazing figures in the book such as Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Nina Simone, Frederick Douglass, Shirley Chisholm, Anita Hill, Colin Kaepernick, Jean-Michele Basquait and others, there are less-recognized but equally vital people, including several the conversation turned to next.
About civil rights activist Claudette Colvin, McCalman says, “Why did I select her? It was the forgotten-ness. A person edited out of seminal moments. She was the original Rosa Parks that no one knows about. I found that fascinating. That’s also why (activist) Amy Ashwood Garvey, not (playwright) Marcus Garvey, is in the book. So many of the ideas Marcus had, came from her. Same with Rosa Parks, who is not in the book, but Claudette Colvin is, because people should know about her too.
“Rosa Parks was cast in that role. It was part of the strategy: She had no children, and was married. Versus Claudette, who was a teenage, unwed mother. It was all calculated and frankly smart, because civil rights activists knew they had to have a figure who Americans, and especially white Americans, could not dismiss. In so many ways, Claudette was that fighter too; she laid the groundwork and was a seminal figure in launching the civil rights movement,” he notes.
“I wondered if he felt as a slave owned by Thomas Jefferson (and the half-brother of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson), like an imposter, empowered or fraudulent,” he continues. “If he knew he could work hard but was always seen as less-than by the white community, and with suspicion by the Black community. Of course, that’s my own projection, but I love that there was a tension visually in his face.”
The portrait of Artist Mickalene Thomas was the last portrait he created. It is one of two digital pieces in a book in which all but one other are executed by hand. He used digital collage because the portraits of artists are each done deliberately in the style of their artistry. Thomas in her artistic practice takes found objects, patches them up, then collages them both by hand and digitally in the final art that defies categorization.
“Mickalene is one of my favorite artists. She’s been on the scene more in a public way in the last 10 years. What I love about her is that her commercial work is so wildly creative. She’s done a lot of famous album covers and other work, so it’s in the culture whether you know her work or not,” he states. “My selections for this book are biased. It’s through the filter of artistry, so I always looked for people whose story broke the mold without trying. Mickalene represents a lack of division between the commercial art and the fine art world.
“We have these categories that are mostly meaningless and usually come up around commerce and capitalism. But when looking at work and having a visceral response, there’s no real distinction. I kept coming back to people like her who are singularly in their own place and not trying to be anyone else other than themselves,” he adds.
McCalman says there was “no challenge” involved in making the art, and “it was only ever exciting” and “a fantastic treat.” If making the art was the purest expression of flow, every other part of the book was tremendously hard. Even so, when asked about a volume II and the near crime committed if the book is viewed as a one-and-done, he responds entirely with enthusiasm. “Do I plan a sequel? Yes. That’s why I started out with 500 names. People use this word ‘vessel’ too often, but I do believe I’m a vessel for this.
“My goal is to have this book in every home in America. People tend to check things off the box, but for me, there’s a whole ocean of information the average American does not know. So yes, there will be a volume II. I just met with my publisher. In the interim, I will be traveling with a fine art show of the book starting in a year. We plan to visit five to seven cities in two-month intervals. I will also be creating more work for that show,” says McCalman.
He expected people would be more critical and wondered if he would receive a barrage of negative feedback. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised. It has been almost universally positive,” he admits. “People are curious about a couple choices and the complexity of some of our Black icons. Ben Carson has come up many times. When I gave the answer last night at an event, the woman who asked nodded and said it made sense.
“I make so much of what I talk about and explain about the process because that’s my priority. It’s not only strategic; it’s holistic. I believe process is more important than results. If you have a good process, you’ll have great results. My focus on that has allowed people to assess how they might be thoughtful in how they respond to me,” he says.
“You know, thoughtfulness catches people by surprise because they want to think people are reckless,” McCalman continues. “But when I explain how much concentration, conversation, thought and deliberation went into it, it’s beautiful how people say someone might not have been their choice, but they can see logic in how I selected them. That’s all I can ask for.”
Setting aside the politics, the talk spins back to a shared fascination with stories told by portraits; stories told through movement, posture and energy beyond what mere words can convey. By studying how people move and don’t move, the things they say and don’t say, it’s possible to discover the truth of a human being outside of words.
Humans are like sociologists: “Who are you? Where does your vitality reside? It is in how your hips are aligned, if your hands are bunched up or fingers extended, Are your shoulders hunched; is your chest out? All of those things are truth without words,” he says. “I can (recognize) someone by their body language before I see their face.”
Asked about what has occurred in his artistic development and practice of studying human physiology during the years he has been working on the book, McCalman says, “That’s an evolving thing. The irony of having the book out on a national tour is that I have had no art practice for the first time in seven years. I do drawings when I’m out at restaurants, and I took a sabbatical from my column for two years. I know there’s a lot of information stored in me, and when I start making art again, I will build upon that and it will be in the art.
“I also know from doing this book that I am dedicated to the idea of documenting identity through the visual representation of body language and portraiture. I’ve barely scratched the surface. The stories keep presenting themselves,” he reveals. “For me, it’s not get an answer and then I’m satisfied. I’m continually looking for stories to tell. It’s how I’ve always been, but now, I’m fearless under my own steam. I trust my instincts.
“What am I not saying? I’m just deeply satisfied by this. It is my way of being. I get satisfaction,” he concludes. “I have integrated my personal and professional life. I work with people I’m close to. The process gives me such internal satisfaction; I feel as if I’m put on Earth to do this work.”