Tomorrow is November 9th, what would have been Jamie Bishop’s 39th birthday. I haven’t talked about Jamie in a while, because his untimely death is still as raw for me as it was three and a half years ago, but also because I was accused of using his murder and my connection with him to somehow vaguely further my writing career. This is of course a ridiculous notion, but as I’ve mentioned before, I’m now very aware of how egotistical and attention-seeking my public mourning of Jamie could have appeared to some.
So I cooled it for a while, at least online. But I’ve been thinking a lot about Jamie today, and celebrating his life, in a small way, by reading his father’s amazing collection Brighten to Incandescence, for which Jamie provided the cover art and design (and an appearance in the author photo). Art was a huge part of Jamie’s life, and one of the ways through which he defined himself. His portfolio website, memory39, no longer exists except in a broken fashion accessible only through The Wayback Machine, and this seems a terrible tragedy to me, akin to losing Jamie all over again.
A Google Image Search reveals some of the book covers that his art adorned (and a lot of completely unrelated images), but this is an incomplete picture of Jamie as an artist. He was highly influenced by mixed-media masters like Dave McKean, Cliff Nielsen, and Bill Sienkiewicz, coming across their work initially through comics. Jamie was a huge comic book geek; on my and Janet’s visit to Blacksburg in 2007, I finally got to see his massive drawer filing system for his comics (I don’t remember if Jamie built it himself, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he had), with rolling racks that slid out on whisper-soft ball bearings. The Sandman was one of his all-time favorite series (he seemed inordinately proud to have the entire 75-issue run bagged up; it is my presumption that this is where he encountered McKean’s art for the first time), as was Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil. He loved comics, but I think he appreciated even more the fine art touch that these artists added to them.
The first time I visited my sister Kristin up in New York, sometime in the early 2000s in October 2001 (yes, just a month after 9/11), she took me to Forbidden Planet, which had about a thousand percent more comics, comics-related, and SF-related items than even the chain stores back in Raleigh. (This was, of course, before Graphic Novels got their own section in the bookstore.) As I was browsing around, mouth open, I spotted a paperback copy of Dustcovers, a collection of McKean’s cover art for every issue of Sandman, printed on thick beautiful art paper, plus commentary by McKean and Neil Gaiman, and an eight-page meta-Sandman story. Though I’d seen (and bought) all of the collected volumes of Sandman in the science fiction section of my local Borders, I’d never seen this book before (I likely might have found it at my neighborhood comics shop, but I’d stopped going there years earlier).
I immediately bought the book, plus a set of McKean-illustrated postcards, and when I returned to North Carolina and next saw Jamie in Carrboro, presented the gifts to him. His face lit up as if I’d just given him precious treasure, and we spent much of the rest of that visit poring through the pages and talking about McKean’s techniques, and what he might have done to get a particular effect. (I later bought a copy for myself, although I don’t remember from where.) The postcards he ended up framing and displaying in his living room, which made me doubly happy each time I visited as I could see how much they meant to him.
His art style was influenced (in part) by Dave McKean, my writing style was influenced (in part) by Neil Gaiman, and so it felt only natural to collaborate the way those two great creators had. Jamie illustrated a number of my stories, some published professionally and others self-published, and the back-and-forth process as we discussed how to approach each piece felt natural and invigorating. He was not only a friend but an artistic soulmate.
As he worked on other projects, he’d sometimes email or call and complain about a part of a work that just wasn’t coming together, or the lack of time to complete it, or a number of other things, but in the end, he would always finish the piece, on time, and to everyone’s satisfaction. (I sometimes think that those missives were a way for him to work some things out verbally that he couldn’t quite do in his head alone.)
Whatever his day job, he kept coming back to his art, the one place he truly felt at home, again and again, always refining, always improving. His later work (and I’m thinking specifically of “Passing for Human,” “Thanatopsis,” and “A Reverie for Mister Ray”) was a quantum leap in style, subject matter, composition, and confidence from those earlier pieces I was exposed to at the Trinoc*con Art Show where we first met. He seemed to have finally found his “voice” as an artist, still wearing his influences on his sleeve, but also clearly producing a vision that was solely his.
As incredible as his late work is, he seemed to be on the cusp of true greatness. Steadily moving forward to something remarkable and awe-inspiring. To think that the world is now deprived of his future brilliance only adds to my depression. As does the fact that he had been accepted into the art school at Virginia Tech, ready to start classes in the summer of 2007; not content to rest on his talent, he saw the need for graduate study in VT’s MFA program, and I imagine him looking so forward to the new exposure and knowledge to come, but which would be denied to him several months too soon.
And so I must be content (although a part of me knows I never can be completely) with the art that Jamie did leave behind. I page through the digital prints that he gave to me, fresh from his own printer. I pick up my copy of Brighten to Incandescence and remember all the little secrets he told me about the composition of the cover art. (I’ll reveal just one: the besuited figure was taken from a photograph of Colin Powell; Jamie took a certain glee in giving the then-Secretary of State the head of a rat). My fingers touch his inscription on the book’s blank frontispiece, and I still somehow feel connected to my friend and his talent.
Illustrations and photography by Jamie Bishop under the jump…
Following are screen grabs from the index page of the now-defunct memory39 portfolio site (which was Flash-based, so I had to refresh it a bunch of times); they give a further indication of both Jamie’s style and interests, in both illustration and photography. Although it must be stated that these images are blown up from the originals, and do not represent each piece in their entirety.