Dancing Bears and John Cuneo’s portable therapy

(Photos by Dion Ogust)

John Cuneo, the renowned illustrator and cartoonist known for his New Yorker and Esquire work who’s created the Woodstock Film Festival’s 2018 poster, has a distinctive line. It squiggles, threatens to meander chaotically, yet is always telling of the basic humanity in all the artist draws. Cuneo’s composition can cut to the key characteristics of a subject — the suspicious glance of a Churchill, the ecstatic bend in a dancing bear’s back; but it’s in his line that something faultlessly faulted is brought to an empathetic foreground. Plus, it’s inherently funny…especially when combined with the dark truths John Cuneo has never backed away from, including plenty of personal revelation.

“I draw all the time,” the longtime Woodstocker says of what defines him. “Waiting at Jiffy Lube, on my couch during the NCAA’s, on the back of menus at bars or on the back of Phoenicia Diner postcards at AA meetings. Drawing for magazines is how I make my living, but I also do a good deal of sketchbook and personal work in between assignments. It’s more than a little bit compulsive…It’s also probably a coping skill for some social anxiety — there’s is an element of portable therapy about it I think.”

How did Cuneo’s work get associated with the film festival this most auspicious of years? Turns out his son, Jack, was in the same high school class as WFF founder/executive director Meira Blaustein’s son Adam.

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And how did the idea of bears come into the theme, this year?

“Well, bears are part of our life out here; it seemed like a fun way to locally identify the festival,” the cartoonist answered. “And as an illustrator I’ll jump on any excuse to anthropomorphize pretty much anything.”

Look through the man’s work online and besides the innate beauty and rightness of his compositions, the acuity of his observations, and the uniqueness of that line arises a wildly self-reflective man’s ability to mingle the most personal of meandering thoughts, as we all know we have, with the most public of subject matters. He tackles great literature, famous musicians, historical figures, and the hypocritical nature of all that human’s think, do and touch with equal precision, be it published or in sketchbook. And as he himself notes, much of it is quite salacious (while also quietly lugubrious), to say the least. 

“Jack draws a little sometimes and has grown up seeing all my stuff,” he says of having parented while exploring his darkest sides publicly. “He seems pretty nonplussed by the sex and violence in my sketchbooks and published work. Or maybe he just tolerates it, like having a parent with a serious Hall and Oates karaoke habit — it’s a little embarrassing but ultimately harmless…Initially he put a few of my New Yorker covers up in his college dorm room but they were eventually obscured by hockey posters and delivery pizza menus.”

We asked whether Cuneo has dreams of longer works, like many in his field. He says he’s had his “people” animated occasionally for commercials, done character development work for “big screen animated features” that haven’t gone anywhere yet, but has no interest in comic strips or graphic novels. Yet he has been in discussions about a kids’ book. “I’m not that funny in short bursts, or that interesting in long form,” he said. “Having to draw a recurring character would give me hives.”

As for this layperson’s thoughts that today’s news must be a goldmine for cartoonists, Cuneo answers in two directions. “I  really don’t do a whole lot of political work for publication. The New Yorker bought  a Trump cover I did a while ago that may yet see the light of day, and I did several drawings of the first family for a satirical feature in The New York Times Book Review,” he answered. “But most of my social commentary is self-generated, un-commissioned and too profane for mainstream publication. It’s not sophisticated political satire — it’s just me with a pad in my little room in the woods, peevishly venting away.”

Finally, we ask about his hometown of years. Need his neighbors fear showing up in caricature form?

“I don’t draw the local folk, as I am trying to stay on their good side,” he replied. “And as a  freelance illustrator I have done the same kind of drawing whether living in Denver or San Francisco. I live a pretty isolated life here and I’m an ‘interior’ kind of person so my environment doesn’t do much to influence my work. I’m not the type that’s gonna set up an easel and paint the Kaaterskill Falls, wherever they are. If I’m outside at all, I’m more the scowling guy hunched over a sketchbook in a coffee shop wrestling with my ‘issues.’ I think of myself as a city person, and still feel like I’m adapting to small town life. It took me half a dozen years to realize it wasn’t a giant coincidence to run into a familiar face in line at the meat market.”

And yet John Cuneo further notes elements of a growing fondness for this, his home. It may be what accounts for that spring in his film festival bears’ apparent dancing joy.

“I don’t have a macro, collective feel for Woodstock as a ‘community.’ It’s a lot of  little things I like. Once in a while I’ll get off my ass, put the dog in the car and go up to the Byrdcliffe trail at Mount Guardian. In the parking lot, in the fork of a tree at the trailhead, there is usually a small bunch of walking sticks left by previous hikers — just left there for the next guy. Me, in other words. It’s like how you can ride up dark roads during the holidays and see Christmas lights in windows and on trees and homes that are only visible to maybe one or two neighbors through the woods, and to whatever random person happens to wander up that way on a winter evening. Such kind, selfless little gestures. I like that kind of thing about Woodstock.”

Will he be going to the Film Festival, we finally ask?

“I used to attend the festival more often,” John Cuneo, the cartoonist and observer, replied. “I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with crowds over the years. Also, sitting in the dark next to strangers has become problematic. But my social anxiety aside, I  feel like the film festival is one of the shining jewels of the local cultural scene, and I’m flattered to be part of it, even in a non-moving picture capacity.”

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