By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun
7:21 PM EDT, May 13, 2011
Viewers see first the beast's ravenous mouth, with six fangs increasing in size and as pointed as daggers. The fiend is wearing a "Vote" button with an image of the American flag, and its tail snakes into a dollar sign.
Even before gallery-goers scan the caption — "Monstrous costs: Total House and Senate campaign expenditures" — they have a good idea which dismal fact of modern life is being illustrated. Moreover, they know exactly how artist Nigel Holmes feels about the increase.
For nearly five decades, the 68-year-old Holmes has been one of the nation's premier creators of explanation graphics, the charts and maps appearing in newspapers and magazines. His visual data demonstrate everything from U.S. troop deployments overseas to how to knot a cherry stem using only your teeth and tongue.
The stick figures that Holmes creates in his studio in Westport, Conn., might not resemble the "Mona Lisa." But, according to staff members at Stevenson University, where the first-ever exhibit of Holmes' work is on display through June 12, that doesn't mean his designs aren't art.
"Nigel really has been a pioneer in creating graphic forms that convey information," says Diane DiSalvo, Stevenson's director of cultural programs.
She adds that Holmes is following in the tradition of the Paleolithic hunters who sketched animals on the walls of underground caves in France to communicate herd locations.
"Nigel has figured out a way to convey complex data in an appealing visual form," she says. "An entire generation of modern designers has been influenced by his work."
The show, curated by Stevenson art department chairwoman Amanda Hostalka and seniors Sylwia Surowiec and Lawrence Seaward, contains more than 100 of Holmes' designs since 1964.
Hostalka says that Holmes "took the field of information design to the next level" in the 1980s by incorporating humor and emotion into his work.
"Nigel's designs are characterized by their creativity," Hostalka says. "He realized that people didn't relate to standard, black and white charts, so he began experimenting with color. And there's always a good joke in Nigel's designs."
One of Holmes' admirers — whether he realized it or not — was the King of Pop himself.
In 1981, Holmes created a graphic for Time magazine in 1981 illustrating the federal budget deficit. The nation's outlays and expenditures are superimposed on a silhouette of former President Ronald Reagan's profile. Four years later, Andy Warhol created a virtually identical silkscreen.
Reproductions of both hang side by side in the gallery; the most obvious difference is that Warhol's "Reagan Budget" removes some letters included in Holmes' original captions.
Holmes admits to being startled when he first saw Warhol's "Reagan Budget" hanging in a gallery.
"I was with my son, and he said, 'Dad that looks like your work,'" he recalled. "I said, 'It IS my work!'"
But, it never occurred to Holmes to seek compensation from Warhol's estate.
"I was kind of flattered," he says. "Andy Warhol was an appropriation artist, but he's not the only one. We all borrow from each other."
It's understandable that Warhol responded to Holmes' work; the graphic designer has an uncanny ability to look at a set of numbers and find an embedded visual image.
In the early 1980s, Holmes was illustrating the initial spike, and then precipitous drop, in diamond prices. He graphed the numbers and connected the dots — and realized that the line formed the underside of a chorus girl's leg, bent at the knee and wearing a high-heeled pump.
Holmes sketched in the rest of the figure. He added blond curls peeking beneath a top hat and fishnet stockings along with the caption, "Diamonds Were A Girl's Best Friend."
It's hard not to smile. It's hard not to spend time gazing at an image that inviting — and just as hard not to absorb the information the caricature contains.
But critics claim that the same qualities that make Holmes' graphics enticing also make them manipulative.
One, retired Stanford University statistics professor Edward Tufte, thinks that Holmes' sketches ought to be labeled as editorial cartoons, not fact.
Holmes admits that graphics such as "Monstrous Costs" express an opinion and attitude, but says he's only making explicit the bias inherent in even seemingly straightforward bar charts.
"If I'm drawing a picture — any picture — I'm saying in a sense, 'This is good news or this is bad news,'" he says.
"The very selection of what facts I choose to show and what I don't show is a form of bias. I have opinions, so it's best to just admit them outright."
Tufte argues that even Holmes' less overtly political designs such as the chorus girl interfere with readers' ability to grasp content.
But a paper published last year by six researchers from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada concluded just the opposite.
Their test subjects interpreted plain charts and those embellished with Holmes-style sketches equally well. And after two weeks had elapsed, participants more readily recalled details of the graphics adorned with color, drawings and jokes.
As Hostalka puts it: "You have to look at a graphic before you can understand it. Nigel wants to reach out to people and get their attention, to make information accessible."
Even Holmes will admit that occasionally he's gone too far. For example, in the middle of the 1979 oil crisis, he created a graphic for Time that tracked the rising price of oil against gasoline consumption.
To his eye, the points on the graph formed the shape of a humped back. It was just a small step to drawing a sheik in Lawrence of Arabia-style robes and headdress slumped drunkenly over a barrel of crude.
The message couldn't have been more clear: Iran had the United States over a barrel.
Twenty-three years ago, the anti-Arab sentiment provoked an avalanche of angry mail. Today, that drawing would spark a jihad.
"I wouldn't do it again," Holmes says. "It caused a terrific upset. The drawing did distract from the data."
But at times, a sketch has helped readers — and even Holmes himself — make surprising discoveries hat would never have emerged from a standard chart.
For example, after John Hinckley Jr. shot Reagan on March 30, 1981, Holmes created a graphic that recreated the positions of the various parties at the moment the bullets were fired.
No matter how many times he looked at his sketch, checked his angles and calibrated the distances, he kept coming back to the same two conclusions:
Hinckley had to fire the gun with his left hand. And the bullet must have ricocheted off the automobile before striking Reagan.
"Before we printed the illustration, we sent it to Time's Washington bureau, and they ran it past the investigating agents," Holmes said.
"The FBI confirmed our findings. It was quite thrilling."
If you go
"Picture this. The Explanation Design of Nigel Holmes" runs through June 12 at the Stevenson University Gallery, 1525 Greenspring Valley Rd., Stevenson. Free. Call 410-486-7000 or go to http://www.stevenson.edu for gallery hours.
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