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Brian Strassburg launches into a theatrical rant. "I've done all this myself," he says, gesticulating around his studio toward displays of his art.
"No one has helped me. In fact, everyone has fought against me to do anything I could possibly want to do," he raves, feigning frustration.
"Wait, wait," interjects Anastasiya Chepil Craig, laughing. A couple times a week, the Ukraininan-born artist and interior designer lends her fine hand and keen eye to the execution of some of Strassburg's work. "He's a big liar. He's slaving me, making me do all the work while he gets all the credit," she says, toiling over a cigar-box diorama celebrating the late Broom Street Theater impresario Joel Gersmann.
This stops the rant in its tracks. "Yeah, that's not true," a smiling Strassburg concedes.
His mind often pivots en pointe like this, agile and fluid. In conversation, his banter is improvisational, meticulous, irreverent, substantive, off-leash.
After studying at MATC's commercial art program in the 1970s, Brian Strassburg successfully made his way as an illustrator. His unmistakable drawing style has graced a series of books, from children's titles by Matt Cibula and Sandra McLeod Humphrey to The Longitudinal Muscle in Esophageal Disease. His cartoon "Mad City" appears in Isthmus every week.
But in recent years Strassburg has seen demand for his cartoons and commercial illustrations evaporate. He cites a number of reasons, including the rise of the Internet and easily available clip art and stock art, as well as the decline of print media and their budgets.
You might call that bad news. But it has given Strassburg time to work on other projects: found-object sculptures, small hand-crafted books and a series of boxed three-dimensional elaborations on his pen-and-ink illustrations. Except for friends and visitors who climb the stairs to his second-floor King Street studio, much of it goes unseen.
In his 60s, Brian Strassburg has all but abandoned commercial work to create art for himself first.
Art in a box
"This is a good example of what's been going on," says Strassburg, pointing to the piece Craig is laboring on. It started as a "Mad City" cartoon when Joel Gersmann died. "We're basically taking a one-dimensional pen-and-ink piece of art and making it a three-dimensional little diorama in the cigar box," Strassburg explains. Craig is draping Strassburg's illustration of theater curtains around the edges of the box, shading his caricature of Gersmann in a way that suggests a final bow.
The cigar-box dioramas sprang from a moment of boredom when, about five years ago, Strassburg put one of his drawings in a box. After illustrating in two dimensions for 30 years, "it was almost like a revelation in the sense that you're reusing your work in a different medium," he recalls. "I just went, whoa, I really like this."
Thus began what he calls "the ongoing saga of cartoon boy to box man." A devotee of baseball history, Strassburg realized that the nostalgic nature of the cigar box lent itself to framing his illustrations of vintage baseball players like Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, singers from the 1930s and '40s such as Ma Rainey and Nat King Cole, even classic Universal Studios movie monsters like Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man - all touchstones from his youth.
The cigar boxes weren't Strassburg's first venture into sculpture. Around the turn of the millennium he began assembling figures and scenes from found objects. These works can sometimes be years in gestation. The inside of an adding machine that sat in his basement for four years serves as the torso for one figure. Strassburg says it took him another two years to figure out how to put a face on it. He sometimes wanders up and down the aisles of hardware stores, looking for pieces that are missing but undefined until he recognizes them. He likens the exercise to problem-solving.
After Strassburg hit on cigar-box dioramas, he played with the concept, poked at it, rolled it around and shaped it into something funny, unexpected, insightful. He tends to do this in conversation, too. Engaging him can feel like going along for a breakneck ramble through his brain while he roots around for the necessary cues and artifacts to think things through.
Matt Cibula summarizes Strassburg's imagination as "unhinged, unbridled insanity," but the children's author means this in the most amiable terms. Strassburg has illustrated Cibula's books, including The Contrary Kid and What's Up With You, Taquandra Fu?
"He puts a lot more thought into everything he does than even he thinks he does, on a subconscious level," Cibula says. "We would sit down and talk about ideas and then he would disappear." Time would pass; then Strassburg would "emerge from the cave of art," Cibula recalls, with illustrations that sometimes included unanticipated elements. "He'd say, 'I don't know where these penguins came from,'" Cibula laughs. "'They just showed up.'"
He ascribes this to Strassburg's "confidence and bravery to put something down that has leaped to his mind - or maybe not even through his mind but through his arm and pencil. It comes shooting out and he says, 'Okay, I don't know where this comes from but I'm going to go with it.'" Cibula perceives most of Strassburg's artistic decisions as subconscious, and has seen the artist recognize a rationale upon later revisiting a work, as if recovering a primitive impulse.
Cibula also has close personal knowledge of another Strassburg talent: "He can drain three-pointers from virtually anywhere," he notes, recalling a lopsided game of HORSE the two once played before an audience of schoolkids. "He killed me," Cibula laughs.
Vestiges of Madness
Strassburg's talents were evident early on. Born in Chicago and raised "all over Wisconsin" as his father pursued his career in school administration, Brian was the oldest of three children. His mother, Ruth, remembers taking Brian to church when he was 4 or 5 years old, still an only child. "We'd sit in a pew in the church and he'd always keep a pad and pencil in his pocket and when the sermon started he would start drawing," she recalls by phone from Waupaca. By third or fourth grade, "he would draw anything," adds Strassburg's father, Carl, 88.
A retired elementary-school teacher, Ruth remembers cleaning her oldest son's room and finding piles of comics under his bed. "I wanted him to read," she says, "but he knew I didn't much approve of comics."
It was the rare mother who did approve of comics in those days - especially Mad magazine, an early inspiration for Strassburg. He cites its sarcasm and its artists, including Jack Davis and Don Martin, as major influences.
Some vestiges of Madness remain discernible in his work, though they've long since been overwhelmed by Strassburg's own personality and his shift to sculpture and boxes, which come in an astonishing variety of shapes, sizes, woods and features. Some become containers for his hand-crafted one-off children's books. When the market for children's book illustration collapsed, Strassburg's response was, "Why should that stop me? Is it more important that it gets published in thousands of copies, or is it just as important to make one book? So I started making my own."
He attributes "this whole thing with books" to his mother, "who has a lifelong love affair with kids' books and illustrations. Even at 90, she still keeps up with the new books that are coming out, calls me, sends me books she thinks are really good."
Get some catnip, man
If any of Strassburg's works strike someone's fancy, that's gratifying. He sometimes takes commissions. One recent visitor, impressed by his series of cigar boxes celebrating baseball legends, commissioned him to depict another particular player. At about $250 for one of his cigar-box collages (depending on how much time and effort go into the box), such commissions amount to a modest and sporadic income. "I'm not making stuff 'cause I think somebody wants to buy it," Strassburg says. "I'm doing it because I like it."
In this regard, he has become an adult version of the lad in the church pew, compelled to doodle through the sermon. He is now a tinkerer on small projects like his concise volume of seven deadly Cheesehead sins. Other small projects grow large. He is well into a Wisconsin alphabet of animals for kids, returning to his pen-and-ink cartoon days to illustrate state fauna from A to Z.
Some letters are pushing back. "Well, X, hello," he says. "I wasn't thinking about this when I started." And what to do with Z? "Somebody said zebra mussel, that's an invasive species," Strassburg laughs. Someone else suggested it has been here long enough now that it could be grandfathered in.
As if on cue, Pierre, the office cat, saunters into the room and jumps up on Strassburg's lap. "Pierre's good for putting everything back in perspective," Strassburg says, scratching behind the feline's ears. "Look, lie on your back. Kick your legs in the air. Get some catnip, man. Chill."
Strassburg says the last time he laughed hard was when his wife, Lois, was doing the couple's taxes. "I looked at my income," he says. "Now that's funny." Lois didn't see the humor. Since the demise of his commercial illustration career, Strassburg has taken on landscaping jobs, house-painting, shoveling sidewalks and other hard labor to support his artistic restlessness. Lois, meanwhile, has what he calls "the good job" that affords them a decent living and health insurance.
Strassburg has another benefactor in architect John Sutton, who owns the King Street building where Strassburg maintains his studio. "For 20 years, he's put up with me," Strassburg says. "He's got this artist up here with not a lot of financial wherewithal. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have this. I couldn't do this."
The studio, with its quirky angles and spaces, is critical to Strassburg's work. To feed his imagination and keep current, he grazes on images from magazines and TV, watches Letterman and Sports Center, and reads the New York Times. "I react to all this stuff washing over me," he says.
Strassburg's mind pivots en pointe yet again, to the days when he shared this studio with illustrator Hawley Wright (before she relocated from Madison to Cyprus). The anecdote about Strassburg's notes to himself is a concise example of a breakneck ramble through his brain.
"I used to joke with Hawley, I'd have a crumpled-up piece of paper and it would say, 'Soglin: big huge mustache and nose,' and below that, 'milk, asparagus, Tommy Thompson nude from the back,'" Strassburg says.
"And then I'd get hit by a bus and somebody's going through my pockets and they pull out the piece of paper. 'What does it say?'" he mimics, affecting another voice. "'Soglin big nose mustache Tommy Thompson nude from the back,' and then 'one quart of milk and some asparagus.' Must be some kind of code."
This is punctuated with a laugh that spills forth like the contents of an overturned box.