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The (Annotated) 2002 John Arcudi Interview – Part Fourteen

Stout’s annotations are all in italics.

PAINTING ANTARCTICA
ARCUDI:
You’ve had a commitment to the environment from at least the early ‘70s on and probably earlier on in your life, right?

Stout Slow Death cover, inspired by a Kurtzman Two-Fisted Tales cover

It ties somehow into this whole dinosaur thing, which has come to sort of possess your life.

STOUT: In some ways dinosaurs are a symbol of the environmental situation.

ARCUDI: Exactly, given the extinction theme. Those things sort of came together when you got the opportunity to go to Antarctica and embark on your latest all-consuming career project: depicting the history of life in Antarctica. Is it something that was symbolic in your mind and came together, or is it just coincidence that dinosaurs are a part of that, too?

STOUT: Here is how that all came about. In as many areas of disagreement I had with my father, there was one really valuable thing he passed on to me. My father had a great love of nature and of the outdoors. Every year he’d take my brothers and me up into the High Sierras. We’d go trout fishing and camp out. It gave me a great love of the wilderness, the land and its creatures. I’ve always been nuts about animals and nature anyway.

When I was a teenager, although we really had our differences with each other, I remember one specific event with him with crystal clarity. My father never admitted to being wrong about anything. But this one time he did, he said, “The one thing I feel really ashamed of is what my generation has done to the land and how we’ve left it for your generation.” He said, “I’m deeply sorry about that.” That had a real impact on me.

I’ve always been aware of the land and the animals and the life that we lose each year. I’ve mainly contributed in the most typical way: writing checks to groups like Greenpeace, Defenders of Wildlife, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy. I got a chance to go to Antarctica in 1989 as a tourist. One of the main reasons I wanted to go was that I discovered that The Antarctic Treaty was due to expire in 1991. It’s an extraordinary treaty that came out of the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58. That was a year of international cooperation among the world’s scientists. It was so successful that President Eisenhower wanted to come up with some way to continue this amazing international scientific cooperation; hence, the Antarctic Treaty.

The Antarctic Treaty, among other points, basically states that no country owns Antarctica; all wildlife is protected; there is no commercial exploitation of the continent – no mining, no oil drilling; there’s no nuclear waste storage there; There’s no nuclear testing. It’s one of the most extraordinary documents in world history. It went into effect in 1959.

Once you’re down there, it’s really amazing; you see how artificial all of the conflicts are that are happening in the rest of the world. Because here’s a place where thirty-nine nations, although they may be fighting north of the Southern Ocean, in Antarctica, everyone’s cooperating just fine. You begin to see how the war situations, the battles and the conflicts are all artificially promoted and produced. This treaty was due to expire in ’91, and ironically it was the Americans, the originators of this remarkable document, that were going to keep it from being re-signed. That’s because George Bush was the president at the time. He’s a Texas oilman; he wanted to keep the continent open for drilling.

ARCUDI: We have to make it clear that of course this is the first George Bush; King George the First.

STOUT: Yes — not Dick Cheney‘s front man. I thought, if I don’t get down there soon, if they don’t renew that treaty, I may never have a chance to go down there as a tourist. So I went down on a cruise ship with the American Museum of Natural History in 1989 to Patagonia and Antarctica. I wasn’t prepared for how spectacular this place was – the most spectacular place I’ve ever seen on the planet, and I’ve pretty much been all over the world. Now – not to dilute my noble intentions — there was another reason I wanted to see Antarctica that at least relates somewhat to our Comics Journal audience. I had read H.P. Lovecraft’s novel At the Mountains of Madness. The whole novel takes place in Antarctica. Lovecraft painted such a haunting and realistic picture of the place that I was just sucked right in. I compared his writing with maps of Antarctica and saw that he had used actual places. Intellectually I know that the guy never went there, but boy, he really did his homework. Because of him, Antarctica held this mystical quality that still haunts me today.

Hellboy pin-up depicting Stout, penguins, Hellboy and a Lovecraftian monster from At the Mountains of Madness (Collection of Guillermo Del Toro)

ARCUDI: What you’re saying is that that mystical quality came through when you saw the reality of the place – its actual landscape?

STOUT: Absolutely. The place had an extremely profound effect on me. So profound that I thought I couldn’t return home and face my kids without doing something to try and save that continent from despoiling and exploitation. While I was on the ship I found out about a group called The Antarctica Project (now called the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition or ASOC). They’re a low overhead umbrella organization helping to coordinate all of the activities of environmental groups like Greenpeace, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy, to make what I call Antarctica: the first World Park (some groups have described it as a “World Commons”).

That idea of Antarctica being the first World Park really excited me. I thought, “What can I do on behalf of Antarctica, on behalf of the treaty?” I reasoned, quite rightly, I think, that one of the main reasons there was no public resistance to Bush’s plan to drill and mine down there was that like almost everyone I talked to before going on the trip, the general public figured that it’s nothing but a bunch of snow and ice down there. Why save it? My plan became a scheme to show Americans that Antarctica is much more than just snow and ice, that it is an incredibly beautiful part of the world with a spectacular array of wildlife, diverse species living in a variety of ecosystems.

ARCUDI: So you want to save it because it’s pretty?

STOUT: It is beautiful and that’s often the key to getting backing from the public. But if you investigate a little and do a little science homework you’ll find that disruption of Antarctica and its ecosystems would be catastrophic to life on the rest of the planet. Sadly, that’s not as sexy a message as saving seals with big sad eyes or whales or penguins. You’ve got to put on your political hat here. In doing so, I thought I’d put together a show of 45 paintings for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County depicting this diversity of wildlife in Antarctica and at least make people in southern California more aware of what we risk losing. Then my devious little promoter brain thought, “Now, to really make sure that everybody sees this show, I’ll include the prehistoric life of Antarctica so that every kid with even a passing interest in dinosaurs will grab their parents and take them to this show.”

Lower Cretaceous Antarctica by Stout

As soon as I got back from my first trip to Antarctica, I flew to Columbus, Ohio to the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State and got a crash course in Antarctic paleontology from Dr. David Elliot. I noticed in studying prehistoric Antarctica, the same names kept coming up over and over again. There are just a special handful of people who do their studies down there. I contacted each of these scientists and became friends with them. To create reconstructions of prehistoric life in Antarctica, my process was to draw sketches of a particular creature, then contact the person who had actually found the fossilized animal and run the sketches and my ideas for the pictures past him or her, involving them in each step of the production of the painting so that it would be the most accurate piece possible.

Triassic Antarctic Thecodont (Crocodilian ancestor) by Stout

I did five large sample paintings and showed them to Dr. Craig Black, the director of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. I got his okay and go ahead to do the complete show, 45 paintings, for the museum. They then indeed held the exhibition in Los Angeles.

“Fantasia Antarctica” by Stout

The Museum’s Special Exhibits Department then traveled the show around the U. S. and the world for about seven years. Mikhail Gorbachev personally requested that the exhibition come to Moscow. It profoundly changed my life and the direction of my career.

For those two and a half years it took me to paint the show, I pretty much dropped out of the entertainment business. Obviously this had a dramatic effect on my bank account. I was making less than 10% of what I was making prior to that, but I was never happier in my life than when I was doing these paintings. I really felt for the first time in my life that I had finally graduated from that Pinball School of Career Planning. I had a direction; I had finally come home. I felt these paintings were something I could do for the rest of my life and really be happy and satisfied. This was real Fine Art — not commercial art. Other guys run out and buy Corvettes at that age. My midlife crisis resolved itself in a much more positive and productive way, a way that’s completely in-sync with my personal philosophy regarding the earth.

ARCUDI: Which is…?

STOUT: We have not inherited this planet from our parents; we are borrowing it from our grandchildren. That philosophy drives most of my politics, actions and decisions.

ARCUDI: The Antarctica project wasn’t just that one show. Your dedication to that project didn’t end with that one show. You went back to Antarctica again a few years later, right?

Post-show painting of Fin Whales by Stout

STOUT: As soon as I finished my first Antarctica show I knew I wasn’t finished with that subject.

ARCUDI: We should mention the name of that show, shouldn’t we?

STOUT: Dinosaurs, Penguins and Whales: The Wildlife of Antarctica. As I finished that show it I felt like I’d come home; I was doing something that I really wanted to do a lot more of. I said to myself, “Why stop? Why not continue to paint on the same theme?” I got the idea of doing a book, which, when it’s finished, will be the first visual history of life in Antarctica from prehistoric times to the present day; one hundred oil paintings and fifty drawings. It’s never been done – and after all this work on it, now I know why!

After I completed the first show I discovered that the National Science Foundation has a program called the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. I believe I found out about this program from fellow Chouinard graduate and brilliant photographer Robert Glenn Ketchum. It’s a competitive grant program; every year the NSF picks one or two artists, writers, or photographers to go to Antarctica and live. The NSF gives them full support. What the artist, writer or photographer has to do in return is come back and produce something that conveys information about Antarctica to the public. That could be a book, a series of articles, an exhibition, a video, a comic book, a children’s book. I was awarded that grant for the 1992/1993 Season. They gave me a year’s advance notice, so I was able to really prepare for the trip. That lead-time was important because one of the things I had asked for in my grant was the chance to scuba dive underneath the Antarctic ice.

ARCUDI: Why did you want to do that?

STOUT: I felt that the scope of my book wouldn’t be complete without showing the diversity of life on Antarctica’s nutrient-rich shores. All of the Antarctic scientists I talked to said that it was the most spectacular diving in the world. Life under the ice is incredibly rich and diverse. I also found out that it indeed is the best diving in the world. In the Great Barrier Reef or in the Bahamas, on a good day visibility is 120 feet. In Antarctica diving visibility on a good day is 800 feet – clearer than the air I’m looking at right now in Pasadena. You don’t feel so much like you’re diving; it’s more like you’re flying through thick air. It’s absolutely unbelievable.

ARCUDI: But it’s really cold.

STOUT: It is cold: 28 degrees. Our more astute readers will say, “How can that be? 32 degrees F is the freezing temperature for water.”

ARCUDI: Salt water, right?

STOUT: Right. Salt water freezes at a lower temperature than fresh water. But you dress appropriately. To do dives under the ice I put on Patagonia extra heavy weight long underwear. On top of that I put on a Thermalite jumpsuit, sort of like an astronaut suit; after that I’d put on my dry suit, which is the opposite of a wet suit. The wet suit uses your body heat and the water to keep you warm. Antarctica is too cold for that; you wear a dry suit. It allows you to do that cool James Bond thing – do a dive, come out of the water, unzip your suit and reveal your tuxedo.

ARCUDI: For all of the soirees at McMurdo Station.

STOUT: Party Central.

ARCUDI: We may have gotten ahead of ourselves but anyway you probably want to go back to the point where you started training for the scuba diving.

STOUT: The National Science Foundation told me that I had to contact James Stewart, not the actor, but the head of the dive program in Antarctica.

Jim Stewart, Antarctica OAE (1927–2017)

He’s a great old time diver (OAE is an honorific term in Antarctica. It means “Old Antarctic Explorer”. You cannot give this name to yourself; it must be bestowed upon you by others. Jim Stewart was a genuine OAE). He created the dive-training program for the Navy SEALs, an amazing guy.

I found it thrilling and hilarious whenever I was around the older divers in Antarctica, listening to their tales. Always, at one point in their conversations, they would start taking off their clothes to show each other their massive shark bite scars!

He said in order for me to dive in Antarctica – and mind you, I’d never done any scuba diving in my life at that point – I’d have to get Open Water certification, Advanced Open Water certification, Medic First Aid certification, Rescue Diver certification, Dry Suit Diver certification, and Ice Diver certification. So thank God I had a year to do this; my very last dive to complete my certifications was made just two weeks before I left for Antarctica. It was really intensive training, especially when I became a rescue diver. That certification made me a really good diver.

My first Antarctic dive is probably one of the most astounding memories of my entire life. I was sitting on the edge of the hole – they’ve cored out a hole with a big drill through the ice; the ice is 12 feet thick – and I’m looking down into the water. Because diving is ordinarily a stressful activity, ice diving in Antarctica is exponentially stressful. And dangerous: A 22-year-old diver had died during a dive the previous year when he got a carotid squeeze from a too-tight dive suit neck line that resulted in his losing consciousness. He rocketed upwards, cracking his skull on the concrete-hard underside of the sea ice. So as a diver, before your dive you don’t do much of anything. You have dive tenders to check all of your equipment for you and put your equipment on you so you don’t have to think about anything except for the dive, which is –

ARCUDI: …Enough.

STOUT: I’m sitting there with my feet dangling in the water; I’m looking down and I make a remark that, “I thought our first dive was going to be a deep dive,” because I can clearly see the bottom from where I’m sitting. The tenders asked, “How deep do you think that is?” I said, “Well, it looks like it’s about 20 to 25 feet deep, 30 at the most.” The tender said, “You’re looking at a 100 feet bottom.” The water was so crystal clear – it was just extraordinary. I get all of my stuff on and there’s a rope called a “down line” that goes from the top of the hole down to the sea bottom. I start going down the rope through the ice. Intellectually I know this is not happening, but I swear to God that the tube I’m descending is getting narrower and narrower. I’m getting more claustrophobic going down this twelve-foot tube of ice. The sides of the tube are like milk glass, really extraordinary. I finally clear the bottom of the ice; this enormous vista opens up for me. I can see forever. The visibility is astounding. As I said, it felt like I was flying, hovering in thick air. There is so much to see; I’m trying to take it all in – I’m just on total sensory overload, just short-circuiting all over the place. I felt like the fetus baby in 2001: A Space Odyssey on Jupiter, just trying to take all this stuff in.

At the same time, this was a test-dive for me; I’m supposed to be diving responsibly and doing all of this stuff that the other diver on the bottom is telling me to do. And at the same time as that, my brain is completely shorting out from the input, from all of this spectacle. This goose egg-sized and egg-shaped creature floats past me. It’s clear like a jellyfish; it’s called a ctenophore, a comb jelly. It’s got psychedelic rainbow track lights that are zipping up the sides of its body. I’m seeing this ten-foot jellyfish drifting by in all of its different colors. It was just unbelievable. At the same time, I’m thinking, “Oh, yeah. You’re supposed to be following particular instructions and functions as a diver.” It was absolutely exhilarating.

I was surprised, too, by the cold. The things that get coldest first and fastest are your fingers because you’ve got an enormous amount of surface area surrounding your fingers. Just before you make your dive, the gloves are the last things that you put on. The tenders pour hot water in the gloves, you plunge your hands into this water, they snap the top of the gloves around your wrists and your gloves seal tight. You make the initial part of your dive with gloves full of hot water. The only area of you that is really exposed to the icy water directly is parts of your face, because you’ve got the mask over most of your face. You’ve got a hood over most of your head and the hood also covers your neck and the underside of your chin. Mostly, what are exposed are your lips and your cheeks. I thought that would be really painful, but in actuality I found it exhilarating. It felt like my skin was sizzling from the cold – not an unpleasant sensation at all; an extraordinary feeling, although in a very short time my lips were frozen numb. I couldn’t feel my regulator – my breathing apparatus. Every once in a while I’d taste saltwater; I’d know that my breathing apparatus had drifted out of my mouth without my realizing it; I’d just mash it back in.

OK. This seems like the most appropriate spot to tell my best Antarctic scuba dive story. When I wanted to make a dive and the conditions were right, I would tag along with a small group of Antarctic marine biologists and dive with them. On one occasion, we stopped to make a dive in what’s called a “seal crack”. That’s a fissure in the ice that seals surface out of. Two divers went in. They shot out of the water about two minutes later followed by an angry Weddell’s bull seal. That was his crack!

We moved to another location. The two divers went in. They emerged a little over half an hour later.
“How was it?” I asked. “Is it worth suiting up?”

“It’s cathedrals of ice.”

I immediately suited up and went in with two female divers.

It was truly fantastic. Underwater I could hear the Weddell seals communicating with each other. They sounded like a combination of Japanese Taico drums and electronic synthesizer rising and falling trills.

One diver signaled to me that she was cold. She went back to the fissure hole and got out.

I didn’t want to be the last diver down there, so I made my way over to the down line. It was heavily flagged so that it would be difficult to miss. I went up the line hand over hand until I reached the under surface of the ice sheet. But instead of the hole I had entered from, there was just a thin crack in the ice just big enough to fit my fingers. What had I done wrong?

I went back down to the bottom and tried again. Same thing.

“Hmmm,” I thought. “Is this my worst nightmare come true? Trapped beneath the Antarctic ice?”

I checked my air; I still had another half an hour (I had become really good at “sipping” my air, using very little of it during my dives).

I swam over to the remaining diver and explained to her using sign language of the difficulty I was having. She pointed to where I had been, then made a broad “No! No!” gesture, then pointed in a different direction. I swam in that direction — and found my entry hole! I was elated.

Here’s what had happened: The divers I was with were making four or five dives each day (I was just doing one per day). In doing so, they had become a bit cavalier in regards to watching the down line. The ocean current had taken our down line from the wide entry point of the crack down to the narrow sliver of the crack — with no one noticing.

I did seven dives total down there. I feel really privileged. I am on the extremely short list of people who have scuba-dived in Antarctica [pause]. I also made the very first telephone call from Antarctica. AT &T were testing their new satellite equipment down there and offered me the chance to speak to my wife.

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