“He’s my alter-ego. He has his head in the clouds. He likes to travel. He appears in places that I love and have lived in: Hong Kong, Paris, New York. I miss them. So when I’m working on a drawing or painting like that, it allows me to go to that place for a while, through Nimbus.”
Nimbus, a quirky “mad scientist” with oversized glasses, long white beard and a horns-like hair-do—bald but for two screwy tufts reaching skyward—is a fictional character in an award-winning, and so far wordless, series of books and comics. And while Nimbus is often portrayed in far-flung scenarios—including on the moon, where he orders Chinese food, and prehistoric Earth, where he seeks enlightenment near flaming volcanoes and lunching dinosaurs—he likely wouldn’t exist without New Haven.
He certainly wouldn’t exist without his creator, East Rock illustrator Michael Sloan. Sloan’s professional artwork, which began decades ago with printmaking and has more recently expanded into oil painting, feels vital yet whimsical, recognizable yet agile. His style is paradoxical and beautiful, seamlessly integrating moments of heavy contrast and wispy diffusion, geometric solidity and curvaceous motion, rich detail and airy minimalism.
Not coincidentally, Sloan has enjoyed a career of rare pedigree, having sold thousands of illustrations to publications like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, the Village Voice, The New Yorker, Barron’s, Forbes, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, Reader’s Digest and US News & World Report, plus book publishers like Wiley, McGraw Hill and Fantagraphics.
It was 1990 when Sloan, then primarily a printmaker, arrived in New York. Before then, and after four years of study at the Rhode Island School of Design, he’d taken an intensive years-long sojourn through Paris, France, and Venice, Italy, working as a visiting artist in established printmaking studios. “It was a great way to make the transition between student life and reality,” he says. “I had gotten some grants and was very lucky with that. But after the grants ran out, it seemed like the only alternative was to move to New York City.”
Encouraged by his college friend David Goldin, who’d already established a career as an illustrator there, Sloan immediately took his own run at the profession, and not just for the creative fulfillment. “I wanted to emulate [Goldin’s] lifestyle,” Sloan says. “I wanted to work at home and be the master of my own time. I’m also a musician. I wanted to have time to play music and be in bands and sometimes that requires being out late at night. I wouldn’t have been able to do that with a conventional job.” (He’s still a bassist for the “all-illustrator jazz band” The Half-Tones, which plays at trade events.)
He remembers his mortifying first attempt to get a foot in the door. Still a New York newbie, he took a “notoriously slow” subway line that carried him 45 minutes late to a portfolio review he’d scheduled with the art director of the New York Times Book Review. “I knew it was the most important appointment of my life at that point,” he says, “and I figured I’d lost my chance.” But the meeting went forward, producing an introduction to the art director of the Times’s op-ed page, which publishes small cartoons among its letters to the editor. That fellow told Sloan he might call him sometime with an assignment.
A week later, he got the call. But the learning curve was just getting started. Given an overnight deadline, Sloan was hampered by his laborious method of creating images through etching and printing. “I spent all night working, on a plexiglass plate,” he says. “Then I printed it at 9 in the morning and brought it to the art director at 11, and it was still wet!” Worse still, upon seeing the work, the director summarily rejected it.
Fortunately, albeit with significant on-the-fly tweaks, another piece from Sloan’s existing portfolio suited the art director’s tastes, and that one was published instead. “It took me about seven or eight months to get the courage to ask for more work, because that was such a horrific experience,” Sloan says. “But by then I had adapted to pen and ink, so I could do those overnight assignments.” For later letters column assignments, he would find himself with even shorter windows, sometimes just a single afternoon. “I love those jobs,” he says. “They’re very stressful, but they’re some of my favorite work.”
Including more than 100 items for the Times op-ed page’s letters column, Sloan estimates he’s sold nearly 3,000 cartoons to newspapers and magazines throughout his career. Though he and his wife, Leslie Stone, moved to New Haven in 1998, he’s continued to work with big New York-based publications and publishers.
He keeps many of the fruits of that work filed in his studio, tucked away in folders and binders. To one side of the space is his ergonomically slanted drawing table fitted with an adjustable task lamp. That’s where he showed me pads full of quick color sketches he’d done of sights he’d seen while living for a year in Hong Kong, often with shocking amounts of detail and from shockingly artful perspectives. “I would love to do this kind of work here in New Haven—doing sketches of characters and scenes downtown,” he says, like “[Harper Keehn], the knife-sharpener guy at the farmers’ market, or Matt Feiner at Devil’s Gear. I seem to be very productive at sketching while traveling, but then I’m here and I’m thinking about bills to pay and assignments to do. There’s always something that seems to get in the way.”
An effort that you might suppose has gotten in the way of that sketching—but which has been a source of great fulfillment, pleasure and, as mentioned above, professional awards—is drawing and painting good old Nimbus, who’s now gotten three books’ and two comics’ worth of Sloan’s attention, with a fourth book on the way. One of his primary diversions from assignment work, it was 2003ish—so, about five years after coming to New Haven—when Nimbus was born. As the artist was doodling one day, the cerebral, adventure-prone scientist who would be Nimbus sprang forth onto the page, peering through an observatory telescope.
If that sounds sort of random, well, it wasn’t. Sloan had been bringing his children to Yale’s Leitner Planetarium for the Tuesday shows, which got his subconscious working on Nimbus the astronomer. “Because we were going to Leitner so often, I had that on my mind.” At the same time, Sloan was taking a bookbinding class at Creative Arts Workshop, which gave him the knowledge he needed to turn Nimbus and his adventures into fully realized printed stories.
A student as well as a master, “It’s important to me that my work change and develop,” he says, and to that end, he’s gotten deep into oil painting over the past few years. Much of the art hung up around his studio is original oil work he’s done in that time. There’s a painting of a man on the roof of a tall building, looking out over a utopian city—one of Sloan’s favorite settings to paint—with an even taller skyline. There’s also a painting of Nimbus sitting at a desk, looking through a giant paned window into a high-up cross-section of another utopian city, where mini-zeppelins and a bullet train wend through a dense network of funky towers.
Given the pen painted into Nimbus’s hand and the sheet of paper painted onto the desk—and given Sloan’s admission that Nimbus is his alter-ego—it might even be fair to consider it a self-portrait.
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Written and photographed by Dan Mims.