CHATHAM – The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg hit Bob Staake like an emotional punch.
“I just really lost it,” the Chatham artist said. Along with grieving the loss of the iconic jurist, “I anticipated what it meant, the vacuum it created. I knew it was going to be big,” he said.
After taking a walk, he went straight to his studio outside his Main Street home and completed an illustration he knew would make a perfect cover for the New Yorker magazine.
“I had the idea immediately in my head,” he said. He knew other artists would also be submitting covers, but he also knew his simple idea – the lace collar that became Ginsburg's trademark against a black background – would resonate with the magazine's readers and editors.
Three days later he learned that the cover had been accepted and would appear on the Sept. 23 issue. The magazine took the unusual step of pre-releasing the cover online, something it rarely does, said Staake, who has illustrated many New Yorker covers. He received a note from editor David Remnick lauding the cover as an “instant classic.”
“I've been fortunate to do a number of really big covers for the New Yorker on very pivotal moments,” Staake said. “Reflections,” his cover painting published following the election of Barak Obama, is a best-seller in the New Yorker store; he also did the cover for the issue following Donald Trump's election. His last cover before the Ginsburg illustration was a year ago after the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
The Sept. 23 cover, which is titled “Icons,” seems at first glance a simple depiction of the collar associated with Ginsburg, but closer inspection shows that the image is created out of the international symbol for the female gender. That deepens both the symbolism and the power of the image, Staake said.
“That was the key right there,” he said, adding that it requires some work on the part of the viewer. “It requires the reader to suss out what's going on, then they have what I call the 'ah ha' moment, there's something far, far deeper here.” That sort of multi-level meaning is common with New Yorker covers. “You need to be a smart reader to figure out these covers. It doesn't hit you over the head and say 'here's the point.' There's a lot of breathing room in the piece that says we're giving you the clues, now you figure it out,” he said.
“That's when art is able to transcend the boundaries of that two dimensional space and really come at a human being from a completely different perspective,” Staake said.
Staake said he expects President Trump and Senate Republicans to fill Ginsburg's seat with a conservative who will tilt the court's majority. “It's not good to have a court that is decidedly too liberal, and it's not good to have a court that is decidedly too conservative,” he said. “It does nobody any good. It's a deliberative forum where smart people discuss the law and its impact on society. To tilt the balance that way is just in no one's interest.” He said he wanted the cover to reflect Ginsburg's legacy of honesty and her no-nonsense approach to the law.
Staake is the author and illustrator of more than 75 books, the latest of which is “Welcome to Bobville.”