Andrew Nemethy is a veteran journalist and editor who lives in Calais. In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places.
From his rambling 1840s farmhouse in Brookfield in central Vermont, Ed Koren looks out on Sunset Lake and a quintessential Vermont village whose famed floating bridge is an icon of the state.
But as a cartoonist, Koren’s off-beat, pinballing mind is focused on a different view, as he scans the strange landscape of human foibles, fads, social mores and culture. It’s a scene that has sustained him for more than five decades.
“There’s something always new, or quirky or nutty or outrageous,” he says, describing the lode of material that keeps inspiring his cartoons. “To me, it never ends, and it’s great for that.”
By a cranial alchemy that even he is hard-pressed to explain, what he sees out in the world gets distilled into cartoons populated by fuzzy big-beaked creatures and captions that capture the essence of whatever tickled his perceptive fancy. What emerges in his cartoons is at once universal but also artisanal and localvore because of the settings, which reflect the terroir of his adopted state.
Take a recent New Yorker cartoon whose locale was instantly recognizable to any patron of the Three Penny Taproom in Montpelier, from the layout to the bartender to the list of beers, which included “Curtis India Pale Ale” (his wife’s name is Curtis) “Onion River Saison” and “Camel’s Hump Imperial Stout.”
“I kind of bring it home,” he says simply. “It’s like a tribute to friends. … It’s capturing what I like about living here.”
It’s entirely fitting, then, that on Feb. 27, Koren will be recognized as Vermont’s Cartoonist Laureate at the Statehouse, and will give a talk at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, which nominated him for the award. (Burlington’s James Kolchalka was the first.)
Koren is honored and, typically, quick to riff humorously about the nomination, quipping that he may have to wear a neck brace. “It’s a weighty thing,” he says of the honor and a potential swelled head. He then dredges up a quote from his literary mind, attributed to politician and UN ambassador Adlai Stevenson: “Flattery is all right so long as you don’t inhale.”
Truth is, there’s little danger of flattery going to his head. Koren lives a well-grounded rural life in Brookfield: For 26 years he has served in the volunteer fire department, a job he loves, though he admits at 78, hauling hoses and pouring water on house fires, the “real grunt work,” is beyond his capacity today.
“I’m getting to be too old,” he says.
When it comes to cartoons, few artists have a style as distinctive and easily recognizable as Koren’s squiggly creatures, which have appeared all over Vermont, his donation to nonprofits and other organizations he deems worthy. Koren himself is small-beaked and not very large, with a bushy gray mustache, a frequent twinkle in his eye and a sprightly gait that reflects his exercise pursuits, which range seasonally from cross-country skiing to biking and paddling. He’s famed for exercising daily, which he says refreshes his mind and his sense of the beauty in the world.
Imagine a lean, fit fatherly elf with a curmudgeonly tinge, and you’re not far off (though it’s more grandfatherly these days, thanks to grandkids from his first marriage). He now lives with his wife Curtis and an elderly Siamese feline named Catmandu.
Koren, who was raised in Mount Vernon, N.Y., was doing a teaching gig in graphic arts at Brown University when Vermont beckoned and he moved here permanently.
“I fell into this house in Brookfield from a year-old copy of Country Journal,” he explains. He saw an ad for the house in the magazine, checked it out, fell in love with its village location, and, while living in New York City, bought the place in 1978 as a second home.
His ties to the Green Mountains go much further back, however, to his teens when he attended a summer theater camp in Waitsfield. The lush landscape and way of life was beguiling. “Like a lot of kids, it stays with you,” he says.
While Vermont offers fodder and settings for his cartoons, he admits to living a yin and yang existence. “I’ve always been a New Yorker because I’ve spent so much of my life there. I’m at a heart a city guy, but I’m at heart a country guy,” he says. And like many a Vermont country guy, he’s now, in mid-February, admitting to being weary of winter as he lugs in firewood from the shed to keep his Vermont Castings stove going and his house warm.
Koren was drawn to the arts early. As a kid, he was inspired to draw by Al Capp’s Li’l Abner, especially the simple lovable cartoon characters known as “Shmoos.” He began drawing cartoons in the mid-1950s at Columbia University for the college humor magazine, “Jester,” and then went on to study graphic arts in Paris and to receive an MFA from Pratt Institute. He was feeling tugged in several career directions – city planning, architecture, and graphic arts – when a “kindly response” from The New Yorker about looking at his cartoons put his future on course.
Koren landed in the magazine’s pages in its literary heyday when the legendary William Shawn was editor. His illustrations and cartoons began appearing in The New York Times, Time and Newsweek magazines, as well as in ads for financial publications and Fortune 500 companies, and in a wide range of books. Always a freelance artist, for a number of years in the late 1990s he fell out of favor at the New Yorker (it was “an unreliable family member”) but now seems to be back in the magazine’s cartoon graces.
Koren is vague in describing how he came up with the creatures in his cartoons, which he roughs out and then refines in a lengthy process using pen and ink on large pieces of art paper measuring about two feet on each side. Those squiggly lined creatures of his just sort of happened, he says, explaining his style had a “lax way of evolving” and that he “wasn’t trying to do any of what I achieved.”
Koren draws in a spacious and cluttered studio at one end of his house, with two tables, stacks of books and walls pinned with illustrations, hand-written quotes and mementoes. Underneath one table is a bank of 40 drawers that hold decades of his life in pen and ink.
“I save everything. I’m a pack rat. I hate to throw things away,” he admits.
As for his captions, which often nail smug and self-important people and modern life in general, he says he keeps his ears open – “like two giant antennas,” especially when he is visiting New York City. At home he reads a lot and listens to radio (WDEV, VPR and NHPR.)
Does he ever think of retiring? “Never!” he says, recoiling at the idea. Besides, humanity is constantly providing inflated egos to puncture and trends to lampoon.
“It’s part of my life. If I didn’t do that, what would I do?” he asks.