Sep 20, 2014

Mitch Shostak: A Great Life by Design

This is the text of a talk I gave on September 16, 2014 at a memorial service for Mitch Shostak. The memorial was a gathering of Mitch’s many friends and colleagues, at the School of Visual Arts Chelsea Gallery in Manhattan. Many thanks to Arthur Hochstein and Fred Woodward for advice and inspiration in putting this together, and to Sean McCabe for the illustration.

Like many people, my relationship to Mitch Shostak was initially professional. I first met him at the Society of Publication Designers, where we were both on the Board of Directors. And of course I was an admirer of his studio work and the many cool magazines that he created and art directed. I always enjoyed talking with him, learned a lot from him, and admired his zen-like centeredness and rich humanity. I really didn’t know him well enough to refer to him by his formal name, Mitchell, which is what I’ve learned his wife and some of his closest friends called him.

When I think of Mitch’s professional legacy, I first think about the time a few years ago when SPD was in a desperate situation. A very dedicated group of people stepped up and saved the organization. Many deserve credit for that moment, but as Fred Woodward will tell you, it was Mitch whose unique talents and personality really saved the day. Just think, that thousands of current and future art directors and visual magazine makers will be able to be inspired, educated, informed, and be a part of an affirming community because of Mitch’s wonderful selfless efforts. I can’t think of a better way that he could have helped to ensure that the field of work that he loved so much would have a chance to continue to grow and thrive.

This alone would be more legacy than most of us will ever have. Mitch of course, left us with much more. The man was a master craftsman and a righteous artist, a brilliant teacher and an earnest advocate for his profession. His love and passion for his work was evident in everything he did, and he did it with tremendous grace and style. Mitch carried on the tradition of the great art directors of an earlier era, creating tasteful trade, custom publishing, and business magazines, showing us how design could elevate and advance any kind of publication. He made his clients’ magazines look smart, elegant, and state-of-the-art. He was a brilliant visual storyteller who never ran out of stories. And the part I like the best, his chops just kept getting better as he got older!

I used to think of Mitch as a seasoned jazz musician. The young cats will get up there and strut their stuff, make lots of noise, play lots of notes. But then a guy like Mitch steps up and blows one note, and that single note is filled with 100s of layers of meaning and emotion, and reveals the wisdom of the ages, a note that is true and solid and rich. That was how Mitch approached his work, playing that true art director note.

There was a time in the go-go publishing world of the 1990s when it felt like there was a magazine design studio on every corner, but one by one they shut down as people went back to staff jobs or became solo consultants. Mitch was one of the last with a thriving studio, and he continued to lead and mentor a stream of talented designers. A visitor to Shostak Studios saw a humming center of activity, with Mitch calmly directing multiple projects. The walls were filled with works-in-progress, printers churning out page proofs, designers battling deadlines, and stacks of just-printed magazines piled around the office. Every time I visited that studio I got weak in the knees: I just wanted to sit down at one of those computers and get to work and be a part of that amazing environment! Mitch was an ongoing inspiration; as long as he kept the studio humming, many of us could dream that we could do that someday, too! I wish now I could take every young budding graphic designer back to Mitch’s studio and tell them, “this is what an art director’s studio is supposed to be!”

My personal connection with Mitch began really just a few years ago. We had weekend houses near each other in a lovely small town in Northwest Connecticut. Mitch liked to ride around on his Vespa scooter on the back highways, and several times he stopped by my place and left friendly notes and drawings tucked into the front door. We always talked about getting together for a drink or a barbeque, but things got in the way, as they do. My kids were young and active and wanted attention; he was fishing, working, traveling.

In late 2012 I went to visit Mitch at his downtown studio. I had been laid off from my job and was looking for advice on how to get freelance work and run some kind of business. Mitch was always the master, and I wanted to tap into some of that genius! I found that Mitch had basically shut down his studio, although he did have abundant good wisdom to impart. He was most excited about his latest project: elegant, detailed paintings of birds, which were breathtakingly beautiful.

Six months later, I was in a hospital on the Upper East Side, recovering from a serious accident and head injury. I was barely conscious, passing in and out of awareness. I never knew how he did it, but somehow Mitch slipped through all the security that was set up and the strict “no visitors” rule and stopped by my room to deliver one of his paintings. I opened my eyes and there he was, standing over me with a beaming smile. He slid the painting on the bed, and walked back out. I had to ask later if Mitch had actually been there because it felt so dreamlike, but the painting remained as proof of his presence. I spent many hours in the hospital admiring it and reading the inscription Mitch wrote: “May the blue bird of happiness and good health smile upon you!”

I’ve learned a lot more about Mitch’s personal life over the past few months. I’ve met Carolyn, his wife, and have met friends and neighbors and family, and heard them talk about the riches and richness of his life. There are days when I’m happy if I get one thing done, and then I hear what he did every day and I think, “Mitch! How did you do all that?” And by “all that,” I mean not only be a remarkable art director, but also a teacher, mentor, friend, husband, traveler, and fisherman; a rare human being who was fully-realized, completely well-rounded, and filled with love. Mitch showed so many of us how to live a life with intelligence, dignity, passion, and artfulness, and a word that you’ll hear associated with him a lot, class. His whole life will always be an inspiration to me, and I know countless other people as well.

And I hope, when I get to meet him again, that I can call him Mitchell.