Artist’s Interpretation: Barry Blitt
The renowned illustrator reimagines Amtrak’s National Route Map
The first thought I had was roadside attractions,” says Barry Blitt of his commission to reinterpret Amtrak’s route map. “My wife and I were just thinking of crazy stuff together. I thought, Where was Silly Putty invented? There’s a KISS museum and mini golf course in Las Vegas. There’s a Jimmy Carter peanut statue in Georgia. But that
idea was probably a difficult sell.”
How did he settle on Betsy Ross? Indeed, how does Blitt, who has designed more than 100 covers for The New Yorker since 1994, come up with any concept? Looking out at the lawn of his 19th-century Connecticut farmhouse, he takes a sip of seltzer. “Like so many other ideas,” he says, “I don’t remember. I was scribbling. I looked at the lines of the route map, and I thought they would be nicely depicted as stitching. And then I thought of Betsy Ross.”
As if to explain the strange ways that artists find inspiration, he walks to the side of the property, where there stands a white wooden shack built by one of the house’s previous owners, the playwright Arthur Miller. Opening the door, he reveals an interior barren save for a rug, a desk, and a copy of Death of a Salesman, which Miller wrote entirely in the shack. “Go figure,” says Blitt.
His own studio, in the basement of the farmhouse, is slightly less austere. The desk is covered in sketches of Betsy Ross; to one side is a blow dryer, for drying watercolors. On the wall hangs an illustration of a baseball player by his grandfather, a Norman Rockwell devotee and amateur artist who introduced him to The New Yorker.
When Blitt first submitted to the magazine, its art editor, Françoise Mouly, gave him some advice: “‘Don’t self-edit,’ she told me. ‘Draw whatever comesto mind.’” He nods at the memory. “Some of the best ideas are not conscious. I’m just spitting on paper.” The process begins with freeform sketches in ballpoint pen. “It’s a safe space,” he says. “I’m trying to think on paper. When it gets down to the final art, I’m worried about every little line. My life’s work will be to try to get a little bit looser. But it’s nerve-wracking to put pen and ink and watercolor down.”