Tuesday, December 27, 2016


A man is supposed to take care of his family. You live in my house, fill your belly with my food, put your behind on my bed, because you’re my son. It’s my duty to take care of you; I owe a responsibility to you.” – Troy Maxson, Fences

*The following blog post is written as though we're all familiar with the source material, and contains gentle spoilers. That's all the warning you get.*

During a scene in the final act of the movie FENCES, based on the decorated August Wilson play of the same name, the presence of lead character Troy Maxson is described by his younger son as being outsized, subsuming his own life and sense of self. This particular testimony is unique in that it comes from the only person in the story who has lived their entire life with the main character looming over them. The elder Maxson is angrily eulogized as a fearsome being whose shadow crept over and into everything in their home, including their souls. By this point in the narrative, the audience knows this to be true, but our vantage point also allows us a more nuanced perspective. At times, Troy is shown to be every bit as menacing as his son Cory sees him; at others he makes us laugh as he weathers each new indignity with a tall tale, a shrug, and a bottle of gin. By the end though, we can’t help but pity him for the self-destructive complexities he seems incapable of reconciling.

Not unlike Troy, Wilson similarly casts a very long shadow over his hometown. Thanks to his Pulitzer and Tony winning stageplays, many of the nooks and crannies of historical life here in Pittsburgh have been preserved in the arts for the ages. The esteem of being a musician who played onstage at The Crawford Grill and the significance of having once belonged to a Negro league baseball team that took to fields in Homestead are no mere footnotes in Wilson’s works; here, they are mythic undertakings, the stuff that defines the character of fictional constructs and the real-life individuals they are based on. The author took his responsibility to this duty seriously, at times so much you might wonder if he liked his own characters, so achingly earnest are the labors he visits upon them.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Spinning Our Wheels

I was asked just this morning if Christmas 2016 feels off somehow. A friend mentioned how they were struggling to get through the holiday and not finding joy in the normal seasonal routines. This person isn't the only one I've heard express similar sentiments, and my response was that, yes, it does feel off for a myriad of reasons. The perpetually slate-gray skies of Pittsburgh and the lack of snowfall or any other natural yuletide distinctions haven't helped, and the ever-advancing crawl of Father Time changes our perspective. Christmas rotates back into play so fast these days it barely seems as if we've had a chance to recover from the last one before we have to stop and consider what to buy for who again.

But still, there's something more at work this year. You know a big part of it, and I know a big part of it: The looming specter of The Ghost of President Future waiting to make his anarchic appearance on January 20th. It's cast a huge pall over celebrations for many this year, and there's no denying it. Some of us managed to get through Thanksgiving with family and loved ones, biting our tongues as much as the food on our plates, without drawing blood. But the whole thing is so effing depressing, it's still been sapping the lifeblood out of our spirits. There's an emotional lethargy that's palpable. How can we sing carols about tidings of joy when we're all suspect of what's to come? The notions of peace on Earth and good will toward all ring hollow in this hallowed season when we know how many of our neighbors don't truly have good will toward all.

Last night, I may have discovered a way to get through the next four years. It involves relearning some dormant skills, staying flexible, and learning when to go with the flow and when to pick up speed and roll your own way.

Last night, for the first time in over thirty years, I went roller skating.

Friday, November 11, 2016


CAN YOU THINK of someone you know who has radiated vibrance to the point where you either couldn’t look away from them or look directly at them? Maybe it was because of their looks, or their personality, or their intelligence, or their talents, or their empathy, or some magical combination of these elements. They had a “star quality” that affected how you interacted with them. Playwright Anna Deavere Smith has referred to this as having presence, and stated the qualifier for having presence is being completely and utterly authentic. How many people have you encountered in your life who you’d describe as completely authentic? Probably not enough but, if you’ve been lucky, there’s been someone who fit that descriptor.

Let me tell you about my friend Wanda, rock star extraordinaire. She had serious presence.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

To Tell The TROOF, Part 1: On a Mission

PEOPLE OFTEN WANT to know when I realized I wanted to draw as my vocation. That came very early on, when I was about five years old. My father had introduced me to comic books, and he was a talented artist himself. He did all kinds of things, but none of them fully professionally. He could draw, he could sculpt, he was good at woodworking, and he was adept at photography. (The latter is the reason why our family albums are so full.) He also introduced me to my first comic books. That may have been just to keep me occupied, or he may have wanted to share something he loved with his son; regardless, comics fascinated me from the outset and that never went away.

Knowing that my father could draw so well, I would pick out my favorite pictures from within the various comics he’d buy – the comics ranged across genres too, and included everything from superheroes to cowboys to Archie comics to monsters to Richie Rich – and ask him to redraw them for me. He would, and to my eyes they looked just like the ones in the books. I’d toddle off for a while, satisfied with his latest handiwork, then I’d find another one and come back and ask him to do it again. This went on for a good while, and one day he turned things around on me and told me to try drawing the chosen picture myself. This had never occurred to me as an option, and to this day I don’t know if my father had grown weary of the incessant requests or not. Regardless, I was so happy with my end result that, while I would occasionally seek his approval of my own handiwork, I never asked him to do another drawing for me.

I also knew, with the absolute certainty of a five-year old, this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to make comic-books. I didn’t know anything beyond that about the actual work involved, where you went, how you trained, what you earned, etc., but I knew I’d be making comic books one day. In a sense, even though I didn’t know it at the time, I had already started making comic books.

This would be a very long journey, and the destination was uncharted, but my compass was pointing true north.

Sunday, June 19, 2016


I HAVE A lot of friends, which anyone who knows me would agree to. I’m one of those people who you can’t walk down the street with, practically any street, here in Pittsburgh without someone calling out my name. I have artist friends, and comic-book fan friends, and friends from various neighborhoods (as Fred Rogers demonstrated long ago, neighborhoods are all-important in Pittsburgh), and friends from various workplaces. The latter is a particular source of pride for me. Over the years, I managed to forge incredibly solid friendships with people I worked with. I’ve designed their wedding programs and even been in some of their weddings, babysat their children, and had at least one child (so far) named after me. I’ve been adopted into numerous families, and laughed and loved and cried with them. My places of employment changed, but I’ve still managed to stay close to scores of these people who support me every day.

My sister Jami is one of them. I call her sister because she has been that to me, and much more. We worked together at two different places, and know each other through and through. I was adopted into her family, the Marlowes, while in my twenties, and had no idea of the depth that this relationship would develop. Through her, one by one, I met the other Marlowes, and each one embraced me without reservation. Billie, the matriarch, adopted countless kids via her own kids, and you always knew that she cared about you. She even had a phrase related to her children I’ve taken to heart: “I love all of my kids equally. But sometimes, one might require more attention than the others.”

Think about that. Isn’t that the smartest way to spread the love around? By not worrying about comparative volume, but instead focusing on the need, we address what really counts. And Billie let you know you were loved, even when she cracked the whip. She fed her kids and kept them stuffed, and she made everyone laugh. I made a drawing of her once at a party, just a quick sketch to pass the time, and tried to capture that vivacious spirit. She loved it so much that it hung in her home for years afterwards. When she passed away, the Marlowes used it as the cover image of Billie’s memorial program. I’ve rarely been so humbled and flattered. But it goes to show that a few moments can mean a lot over time.

Another Marlowe family member I met was Jami’s brother-in-law Jake. His last name wasn’t Marlowe, but for all intents and purposes, he was a Marlowe and he knew it. I think he was proud of that. The very first time I saw him, it made an impression. I’d been commissioned, via Jami, to draw a portrait photo of her young niece Denise (yes, we’ve made many jokes about that cadence) who was taking dance lessons at the time. This is back when Jami and I were working for the same company, but at different locations. She called my store one day to inform me that Jake was in town from West Virginia and would be stopping by to see me, as I recall to drop off reference photos of his daughter to draw from. He was described as a big, tall man, who would probably be wearing boots which made him even taller. He sounded like a good ol’ country boy with a genial nature. That’s exactly what he was.

Eventually, the front door beeped opened and made every coworker snap to attention, and Jake walked into the store. The second I laid eyes on him I thought, “Yeah. That’s a big guy.” Whenever I think about this initial encounter, I always remember the impression he made in that moment, basically filling up the store. There was never anything more complicated about Jake from that moment forward. This was a very open and genuine person. What you saw was what you got, and what I got in that first encounter was a sincere man who was very enthusiastic about celebrating his family. That never changed.

What I had no way of knowing was how what I saw and got was what everyone else who knew him was seeing and getting too.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Classical Music, Inspiration and the Importance of Superman

The following post originally appeared as a guest blog on the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's PSO BLOG. Special thanks to their Director of Media Relations, Joyce DeFrancesco, for extending the invitation to contribute!
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Me and my artwork in front of Heinz Hall
Photo: Kristin Ward
SYMPHONIC AND CLASSICAL music entered my world when I was eight years old. It wasn’t in a particularly sophisticated way – if one goes in for notions of art belonging to “high brow” and “low brow” classes, which I don’t – but rather the same way it does for a lot of people. I was exposed to it through the release of a specific film which resonated with me before I’d seen a single frame: SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE. I had already been a fan of the Man of Steel for half my life, and was at the perfect age to see that film. SUPERMAN was big and full of spectacle and it perfectly brought to life a character I needed in my topsy-turvy home life. Much of my early years were characterized by dysfunction and instability; Superman always delivered the opposite of those elements, wherever I encountered him. He was always strong, smart, caring, and dependable. These traits immediately made him my lifelong hero.

Reading his adventures in comic-books directly inspired me to start drawing, which in turn became my lifelong profession. I realized that most people decided what careers they wanted to have as adults only as they got older. Some wanted to be doctors or police officers, and some wanted to be firefighters or astronauts. My mother was a gifted musician, and her siblings and their children always said she had “the gift” of being able to naturally play the piano in church from a very young age. I ended up taking a cue from my father, who had visual arts talents, which led directly to my exposure to comic-books and the worlds of superheroes. Every time I opened the covers of another issue, I knew, without question, that making stories with my own artwork was what I wanted to do with my life.

Other media reinforced this notion. I watched cartoons and television, like every other child, and Superman and his cohorts were there as well in various incarnations. Reruns of the 1950s television show The Adventures of Superman brought a different kind of thrill into the living room. I instantly memorized the opening title march and heroic music became synonymous with the character. In much the same way, The William Tell Overture had, over time, became synonymous with another fictional hero who also had a tv show in the ‘50s, The Lone Ranger. Unlike that western hero, however, Superman merited his own original music, and no one understood this more than composer John Williams. Having just scored a hit, literally, with the soundtrack of the original STAR WARS, Williams then turned his attentions to helping us all believe a man could fly. His results have since proven to be one of the most impressive special effects to have ever been derived from comic-books.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


Art by Rob Rogers
FOR THE SECOND year in a row, I was on the committee which put together the ToonSeum’s annual fundraiser, KA-BLAM! It’s a really fun event that allows us to get together with friends and comrades to celebrate and support our local bastion of the cartoon arts. Everyone who I’ve ever talked to who has attended one enjoyed the experience immensely, so it’s a pleasure to be one of the people who help put this together.

It’s also a lot of individual and collective work. Fundraisers don’t throw themselves, and there are tons of organizational details involved in making it to the big night. Fortunately, KA-BLAM! isn’t the first event of this type I’ve participated in, so a lot of the challenges were anticipated. Like last year, my primary role involved networking with local artists and coordinating their art donations for auction and sale. As before, the pieces we received were beautiful -- in some cases so beautiful I wanted to outright steal them. (I didn’t, but the temptation was real and I have some regrets over being ethically responsible.) I ended up handling some organizational aspects of the project this year too, and it definitely took time and attention and more than a little bit of support to pull it off.

This year’s theme was “CAUSE-PLAY” and guests were invited to show up dressed in costume. It’s a theme that was previously used for another event, and it seemed like a natural fit for KA-BLAM! this year. Most of the thematic elements were then designed around popular media characters, especially comics and cartoon characters. Our event poster had some fun riffing on this, but once the big day arrived, a lot of the folks who dressed up put flair and creativity into their costumes. It was a great call to include this, and I hope we revisit the costume-party theme again.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Telling the Storyteller's Story or How to Dance with Fire and Not Get Burned (Much)!

The first photo! Many, many more followed!
KRISTIN WARD IS a lot of things, chief among them being impossibly industrious. I know a lot of people who work incredibly hard at their respective jobs and professions – librarians and professors and artists and musicians and poets and art community champions and much more – but even among this elite company, Kristin stands out. From the moment I met her she was demonstrating her greatest talent, which is the ability to make an observer’s jaw drop in wonder.

Her list of trades almost single-handedly drives up the stock-market price on slashes: bellydancer/fire-eater/balloon-sculptor/stage-props designer/physical fitness trainer and even more. It is truly hard to keep track of what she is doing on any given day. But it’s probably safe to say that the one thing that strings all of the other things together is her love of storytelling. In one way or another, most of her talents are directed toward that end goal and she’s tireless in finding new ways to express herself. It’s fitting that she eats fire, because she’s definitely got a fire inside of her. Maybe it’s how she recharges.

So, indulge this moment of adulation as I tell you about the force of creativity that is Kristin Ward…or as I first came to know her, the mystical Morgiana.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"Love You, Black & Gold": An Open Love Letter to Pittsburgh

View of Downtown Pittsburgh from the West End Overlook
by Marcel L. Walker (that's me, folks!)
LAST WEEK I attended an event at The Union Project in Highland Park in commemoration of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. It was wonderful. The level of community participation was high, and by all accounts the event has grown bigger, better, and more popular with every one of its fourteen years. There was discussion, creative activities, singing, and food, all of which were shared in the spirit of fellowship. It was a truly uplifting event.

I participated in the love-letter writing activity. The organizers provided letterhead adorned with different quotes from Dr. King and gave us a prompt, written directly to the attendees, as an example of what we could write. The sample letter thanked us, told us that we were loved, and encouraged us to keep the world around us in mind as we moved forward. We were allowed to write to anyone we wanted to, which was surprisingly daunting. One of the organizers explained that an earlier participant had written a letter to the 1960's, which inspired me. This could be more abstract than just telling a single person how much I loved them. And it could be bigger.

Not wanting to be outdone, I chose to write a love letter to the City of Pittsburgh. The writing went on for two-and-a-half pages and only stopped when the food was served. What follows is a slightly-expanded upon version of that letter, which was debuted at the PAGE open reading series last night in Lawrenceville.

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