- Amuse-bouche | john cuneo | pen and ink with watercolor | 2018
John Cuneo is one of the last specimens of a dying breed. When he got his start four decades ago, pen and ink with watercolor was a common medium for advertising illustrations, and he gigged for ad agencies nationwide. "It just takes its toll on your soul," he says. "So I purposely stopped doing that kind of work, and decided I wanted to just do the drawing I wanted."
Cuneo's deft and often humorous work is regularly featured in the pages of high-profile periodicals like The Atlantic, Esquire, and The New Yorker, whose covers he has graced several times over the years. After his first cover was accepted, he recalls someone telling him, "Congratulations on the first line in your obituary." Cuneo says, "It seemed to be a backhanded compliment. But I'm lucky I'm one of those freelancers that is still able to do it. A lot of my colleagues have gone on to other things, whether it's children's books or animation work."
Cuneo has always been a doodler. "I hate to admit it, because my own family just presumes that I was this epic nerd-goth kid. I wasn't, dammit, I played basketball," he says with amiable defensiveness. "But yeah, I was the kid that friends came to for posters for school elections. I covered my desk and margins of books with little drawings."
All Cuneo's work is done by hand. When we speak he has just put down the pen, touching up the artwork for the cover of this issue. He admits that he doesn't know how to use Photoshop or other newfangled technology. "I hate to sound like the Get Off My Lawn guy, but I refuse," he says. "I am just sitting here in the woods saying 'I don't wanna fucking learn a whole other element to making pictures.'" His old-fashioned ways have earned him a handful of awards from the Society of Illustrators.
This month's cover art, an orphaned New Yorker submission, reflects endless hours spent contemplating the futility of gardening in the Upstate wilderness. "It is an eternally optimistic thing to try and make anything grow up here with all the animals," says the Woodstock resident. "I always think about it when I see these fortresses of chains, electricity, and barbed wire. But I am heartened by that kind of naive optimism—it's endearing."
His bemused admiration for the determination of weekenders and recent city transplants has tinges of resignation and envy. "I've been thinking about these people from Brooklyn who have visions of azaleas and ivy...It's not going to happen," he says. "We've already had bears in our shed and recycling bins this year. You've gotta surrender to Mother Nature a little bit. You can't dictate."
Cuneo's 2017 book of illustrations, Not Waving but Drawing, features a mix of profane, hilarious, and raw works that document his ruminations on "domestic politics," exploring taboo themes like sexuality and aging, the human body, and arousal and repulsion. "All those things sort of fascinate me," he says simply. The book is available online.