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Barron Storey's Life is an Open Comic Book 

The demons -- personal andfantastical and pop cultural -- that have shaped the art of a San Francisco illustrator

Wednesday, Jan 17 1996
Barron Storey is searching for an illustration, determined to find a specif-ic piece of his work among the many stashed away in a hall closet. He bends down, flipping back one piece after another -- beautiful and abstract paintings that make up his as-yet-unfinished "Dream Series," portrait illustrations he did for Time magazine in the '70s, among so many other works grand and small -- desperately hunting for the one piece he says will explain it all.

When he finds the illustration he's looking for, a charcoal sketch contained within a cheap silver frame, he holds it aloft, more careful with it than he is with the others.

"This is my mom on her death bed in Parkland Hospital," he begins.
Standing in his cluttered North Beach apartment now, Storey holds a sketch of a person lying on a bed, a tracheotomy tube protruding from the neck. But it is difficult to tell from the gray-and-white drawing whether it's a man or woman, only that the figure is, most likely, dead.

The skin is taut, contracted tight to mold around bone and teeth. The mouth is a gaping black maw, no lips. The hair is thin, the eyes closed.

Storey explains that he drew the portrait as a 23-year-old in December 1963 while sitting next to his mother, who was being kept alive on a respirator at Dallas' Parkland Hospital. Storey had received a phone call from his father, who told his oldest son that his mother was sick, and that perhaps she'd feel better if Barron came home from New York City. Only a couple of weeks before, John Kennedy had been declared dead at Parkland.

Of Juanita and Lewis Storey's four children, Barron was the closest to his mother. She had nurtured him, taught him, prodded him to become a great thinker. When the other children were playing ball in their middle-class Dallas neighborhood, he would be reading Shakespeare; when the other kids from Thomas J. Rusk Junior High were listening to rock 'n' roll, Barron would be listening to Beethoven. It was Juanita who encouraged Barron to use his childCR>hood skills as an artist so he might someday become famous.

Juanita Williamson Storey loved her son, wanted him to be all the things she couldn't. But that was before. Before she went crazy, before she swallowed all that rat poison. "Enough to kill an army," the doctor told Barron.

He had been in New York working in advertising at the J. Walter Thompson agency. His mother thought ad work was beneath Barron's prodigious talents. But he had also been studying art on the side, learning under his mentor, Robert Weaver ("a man I admired like a god"), at the prestigious School of Visual Arts. Weaver had challenged his students to tackle serious subjects, so Barron decided to draw the dead. With the help of a friend at Bellevue Hospital, Barron would slip into the morgue with his sketchpad.

"It was vivid," he recalls. "It was totally antiseptic. All the corpses were on steel drawers you'd pull out like a filing cabinet. All the walls were polished stainless steel; the floors were tile. There was no voodoo. They had a room called 'The Floater Room' where they kept the corpses that were fished up out of the river, and I can remember drawing the image of a doctor talking to a student, leaning on the rib cage of this grotesquely mutilated corpse like it was an armrest. They were that casual about death.

"And then, a twist of fate. I was off to Texas not knowing why I was going, and there was another corpse. I had been drawing all these things in the city morgue, and my reaction was to draw it. It was my mom, but it was a corpse. The minute someone's dead, it's just meat."

That was 32 years ago, and Barron Storey has not stopped drawing his mother to this day.

Despite his success as an illustrator, his work in Time and National Geographic, the paintings he has hanging in Smithsonian museums, and the comic art he helped reinvent, suicidal Juanita Storey still inhabits his drawings, journals, plays, and songs.

"Sidney Deepscorn?"
"Sometimes. No money right now."
"Why not?"
-- from "The Adjustment of Sidney Deepscorn," Barron Storey, 1992

Storey lives at the end of a dead-end alley in North Beach. He lives here in anonymity, tucked away from the outside world. Wearing his usual outfit of gray pants, gray socks, and black shoes -- "I used to wear all black," he says, "during the Reagan-Bush years" -- he ventures out a few days a week to teach at the nearby California College of Arts and Crafts or another art school in San Jose. But most of his time he spends in this modest-size flat draped over his easel in his front room, on frenzied deadline with an illustration for the likes of Boys' Life, Reader's Digest, National Geographic -- his mainstream stuff.

Or he is illustrating leather-bound classics for the Franklin Library, books like War and Peace and The Good Earth and the collected works of Theodore Dreiser -- "which my mom made me read when I was a kid." Among his most-seen works is the cover for the 1980 reissue of Lord of the Flies, which for years was the best-selling paperback book in the country, in part because of its provocative cover painting of a young boy who looks half frightened, half fearless.

Or Storey is creating murals for the American Museum of Natural History: His giant painting of the South American rain forest hangs in the Washington, D.C., gallery, a rich and elegant and finely detailed piece of work. Another of his celebrated pieces -- a 1979 rendering of the space shuttle commissioned by NASA, the first official painting ever done of the flying machine -- hangs in the Air and Space Museum on the National Mall. His covers for Time, portraits of Howard Hughes and Yitzhak Rabin and many others, hang in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.

About The Author

Robert Wilonsky


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