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."