Photograph of Roz Chast in her Studio, 2015, by Jeremy Clowe. Norman Rockwell Collections
In April, the Museum of the City of New York opened a new exhibit featuring the work of Roz Chast. While not every New Yorker may know Roz by name, most New Yorkers are familiar with her illustrations.
In 1978, just a year after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Art and Design, Roz dropped off her portfolio at The New Yorker. The magazine not only selected one of her drawings for publication but also told Roz to keep the work coming. Since then, she has published over 1,200 works in The New Yorker, including 18 covers. And perhaps more than any other contemporary illustrator, Chast—a born and raised New Yorker—has consistently managed to capture the humor, beauty and at times, the sheer difficulty of living in the city.
Ahead we catch up with Roz, who reflects on her New York upbringing, her love for interiors, and what makes NYC so different from other cities.
What do you enjoy most about drawing New York City?
Roz: New York is very dense. It’s dense with everything. It’s dense with visual information. I’m talking about Manhattan—every place you look, there’s something to see. There are stores, but it’s never just one level of stores. It’s two or three levels of stores. The first floor might be books, the second floor might be a place that does nails, and the third floor might be a place that stores furs. And then there’s the architecture—it’s one era of buildings slapped up right next to another with no space in between. That’s one of the things that I adore about New York City. There are not even words for how much I adore that. Everything smashed up against everything else.
From your perspective, what’s the most notable difference between New York and other U.S. cities?
Roz: One thing that has struck me when I travel to other cities is that you can be on the street in the middle of the afternoon—at 2:30 or 3:00—and there’s no body there. It’s like a zombie apocalypse or something! I guess, in some cities, people live more by the clock? Maybe they are all at work? But in New York, people are always on the street. It’s just not as regimented. I love that about New York, and I love the fact that the city is so visually interesting, but it’s that compression and density that make New York so interesting.
How does New York’s compression and density impact its residents?
Roz: When you’re in New York, you can’t be isolated in your own little car space, like you can in a lot of other American cities. And if you live in a building, you’re going to have to eventually be in an elevator with your neighbors. You might even be smooshed up against them. This has to impact us on some level.
What fascinates you about New York’s apartment interiors?
Roz: I don’t know about other city’s interiors, since I’ve never lived in any other big cities, but I grew up in an apartment in Brooklyn—not in the great outdoors. This means that all the images in my head, the images in my own personal image bank, are far more familiar with interiors than landscapes. When I’m drawing, I can imagine all sorts of couches and all sorts of end tables and coffee tables and what is going to be in the drawer of the end table and what is going to be on the table. This is quite different than how I imagine some place in the woods, which is more general.
What were you thinking about as you developed your new piece, “Subway Sofa”?
Roz: I wouldn’t say the MTA feels like home, but I grew up with it. There’s a familiarity for me. Whether I’m one of five people on a car or one of what sometimes feels like five million people, I like looking at and listening to people on the subway. But sometimes when I’m on the subway and its really packed, I think, “Wow, we’re all doing a really good job not being jerks!” Some people are obviously better at this than others, but people generally try to keep to themselves. Everyone realizes the car is incredibly crowded and unless you’re an idiot, you try not to take up more space than you need to. Everyone is just being very decent—keeping to themselves.
Is the exclusion of landmark buildings from most of your cartoons intentional?
Roz: Well, I’ve never been to the Statue of Liberty. Maybe I will go some day, but it there will probably be a long line up and it will be too hot! Of course, I’m familiar with these landmarks, but let’s say, I drew the Chrysler Building in the background of a cartoon—then people may think the joke is about the Chrysler Building. When you draw a landmark building, like the Chrysler Building, the location gets very specific for many New Yorkers—the piece becomes about the corner of 42nd and Lexington. I don’t necessarily want to pinpoint where the cartoon is taking place, because most of the time, these exact locations are not what my work is primary about.
Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs is on exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York from April 14 to October 9, 2016.
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All images courtesy of Roz Chast and the Museum of the City of New York