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telling stories without words

Bob Conge: Making a living
telling stories without words

Bob Conge lives south of Rochester on the edge of nowhere–nowhere being also known as Wayland, N.Y. It is the kind of place where trees outnumber people a million to one, a place with air so clean and clear that on Friday evenings for miles you can smell fish frying in roadside diners along Route 15. Conge and his wife, Susan, moved in February from their Harper Street home in Rochester to an 1840 farmhouse set back off a dirt road outside Wayland. The road is named after the Giles family, some of whom are buried in a corner of the 100-acre, foliage-dense lot.
On four acres of that property, Conge attempts to keep up with the lawn mowing while continuing his more than quarter-century career as a graphic artist and illustrator.
“I will forever be indebted to whoever allowed me to do this,” he says, looking around in wonder at his studio in the carriage house adjacent to the main quarters.
It is the perfect setting to do his work, Conge says, including pieces that hang in museums from Poland to Japan and work for clients such as Bausch & Lomb Inc., the New York Times and National Public Radio–clients that have hired him to tell with art stories that words cannot.
Conge and his wife spent four years looking for this perfect spot. The search devoured every weekend, becoming a way of life, he says, as they explored locations from Florida to southern Maine.
“Sue and I both came originally from rural environments, and we thought we’d try to go back,” he says. “We find the animals much more pleasant neighbors than many people.”
The large studio windows, and the parade of wild creatures like deer, raccoons and turkeys outside them, are the only distractions to his work, Conge says.
On a normal day, Conge rises around 11 a.m. and is in his studio by 1 p.m. He takes care of the business part of the design business–phone calls and paperwork–until 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. At midnight, he returns and works on the creative part of the business until shortly before dawn.
“He once gave me his personal phone number so I wouldn’t have to go through his message (service),” says Carol Stevens, executive editor of Print magazine in New York. “But he said, “Don’t call before noon because I don’t think my mind will be on at all.”’
The projects that most excite Conge are the ones that allow him creative license, he says. Ideally, the client presents him with the idea for a brochure or annual report, maybe with copy, and asks him to come up with an image.
Conge starts with the client’s material, defines the audience and begins “to play,” he says. He generates up to 10 thumbnail-sketch “solutions.” Clients see only 1 percent of his brainstorming effort.
“In actuality there is only one solution,” he says, “but if I’m off the mark, or (the client) is not comfortable with being uncomfortable (with a radical design), I’ll submit an alternative.”
Conge draws inspiration from all things, he says, from battleships to oranges. In doing so he tries not to edit himself during the creative process. He sometimes fights shutting himself off from attempting radical designs for fear someone might think they are corny, even though no one looks over his shoulder at the drawing board.
“Then within the confines of the medium, audience and client, I try to come up with a visual solution that will satisfy everybody,” he says, “not just my ego, but the needs of the client.”
Susan Conge, an artist, former clothing designer and former Monroe Community College arts professor, says her husband’s creative process is multifaceted.
“When he has a client, he does an awful lot of research and he sort of becomes that client, he becomes the public,” she says. “He has to view the pieces from every angle.”
The creative process that begins a project is what Conge most enjoys, he says.
“It’s like eating dinner,” he says. “The first bite tastes the best. After a point, you’re only eating for nourishment.
“By the time I get to (the work), it’s still interesting and I enjoy it a great deal. But the exciting part is in the conception–that’s probably why we always have more art directors than illustrators.”
Time is another element Conge needs for optimum creativity, he says. The best clients from this standpoint are the Japanese, who often start projects one to two years in advance and allow a year for Conge to create an image. The worst perpetrators of time-crunching are Americans: Three weeks lead time is average; many times, it is less.
“I always use all the time they give me. Another way of putting that …” He pauses, searching for a quote borrowed from an acquaintance, then adds: “A project is never completed, but always abandoned.”
Conge works with editors and publishers, advertising agencies, other designers or directly with corporate communications groups for commercial jobs. He also does a great deal of pro bono work, such as posters for Camp Good Days & Special Times Inc. and the Syracuse University lacrosse team.
He approaches work done for his own self-expression similar to the way he tackles commercial work, he says, only he knows the client much better. The work may be more personal, but it still is a form of communication and must be clear to the audience.
“I like his work because it’s adventuresome and graceful at the same time. And full of expression,” says Stevens, especially praising his recent posters for National Public Radio.
Over the years, Conge has worked with a variety of media. Now he is hot on traditional watercolors, he says, not because they can be fragile and wispy, but because of the way they can be fresh, pure and powerful.
One thing Conge is not hot on is the computer. His true love is the most basic of artist’s skills: drawing.
“I like the sound of the scratch a steel pen makes when it hits (a rough area) on the paper and spatters ink,” he says. “I live for that stuff.”
When he sensed the rising tide of computer design a few years back, Conge decided to position himself as an artist who does not use the computer, he says. Not everyone is going to want what he offers, but his difference will secure him a place in the market for those who do.
Conge did not really have a choice in careers, he jokes. During his troubled years in school, art seemed the only thing he could do right.
Conge grew up in Irondequoit in the days when a Red and White, a gas station, a soda fountain and the town hall practically made up the entire town, he says. He hunted wild turkeys on the way to school.
Undiagnosed learning disabilities such as mild dyslexia and attention deficiency left Conge with a bad taste for school.
“I didn’t do well with math or science,” he recalls. “I didn’t do well with anything except art class.”
Conge became a troublemaker and was kicked out. He enrolled at Edison Technical High School, at that time located on Clifford Avenue and harboring a tough crowd. There he did not learn anything except how to make brass knuckles.
After Conge and his classmates spent their high school careers causing trouble and goofing off, everyone graduated–except Conge. He was stunned that everyone pulled through except him. And then came a turning point in his life.
Conge already had dropped out of school twice. He could have done so again, but instead chose to attend summer school and take a biology course.
Conge’s teacher turned out to be exceptional, and Conge learned how to apply art to other areas after creating a full-color notebook of what he learned in biology. It was his first A.
“For the first time, I was turned on to learning–and at the very last minute,” he says.
Rochester Institute of Technology accepted Conge on academic probation. He struggled to learn what was required, as well as everything he never learned in high school. It was there he established his midnight-to-5 a.m. schedule for creative work, the only time he had to get everything done.
Though Conge often doubted he would complete the college program, he graduated with a fine arts degree in 1962.
Conge then joined the master’s program at Syracuse University. There, as a teaching assistant in the art department, he fell in love with teaching.
“He’s one of the kindest men that I know, and he shares all his knowledge of his craft with whoever wants it,” Susan Conge says. “He’s always been a teacher.”
Upon graduation from Syracuse in 1964, Conge opened and directed the J. Thomas Gallery in Provincetown, Mass. By the fall of 1965, Conge needed to find a more financially rewarding position.
At that point he received a call from the dean of the art school at RIT. A painting teacher had become ill, and the school wanted Conge to come back and teach in Rochester, where he had no intention of returning. He did.
During his four years as an assistant professor at RIT, Conge also was raising two sons, Mark and Jess, and trying to keep his troubled first marriage on track.
At this time he met his current wife, then a student. They fell in love, but Conge remained committed to working out his marriage. They did not see each other again for four years until after Conge’s first marriage ended.
Meanwhile, Conge also was battling alcoholism. He finally sought help after two near-death experiences within 24 hours involving alcohol and his car. He went through detox and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to dry out.
“When I came out of Clifton Springs (rehabilitation center), I was sober, but that was all I was,” he recalls. “I had no faith I would ever draw or paint again.”
But day by day he improved and within a year he was back to his work. He has not had a drink in some 15 years.
“I still don’t believe I could be sober,” he says.
Conge and his wife have been together for 24 years, four of them as husband and wife. She took care of him during the worst times, he says, as well as helped him raise his sons, now 24 and 30.
“She did an absolutely great job of raising all of us,” he says.
Now Conge is more of a listener and more understanding than he ever was, Susan Conge says. The couple also is happier than ever before, especially in their new surroundings.
Conge inadvertently ended his teaching job at RIT by becoming involved with the Title III project for the Memorial Art Gallery, a state-funded project to bring a day at the museum to schools with meager or no art programs. The grant was for three years, and in the last year Conge was offered the director’s job.
He asked RIT for a sabbatical to assume the directorship, and the school agreed, but Conge found he should have received their word on paper. At the end of the school year, six RIT professors left the staff and the school said Conge could not take time off to work with Title III. So in 1968, Conge became the seventh professor to leave.
Also while teaching at RIT, Conge began producing work for company audiovisual needs, such as for slide shows at annual meetings. Eastman Kodak Co. was the first company to ask him to do some work, and when he found out how much it paid, he quickly agreed. He says it was then he learned how the money behind commercial work can suck an artist in.
He did AV work until 1970 or so, when the dissatisfaction of having nothing to show for his effort finally got to him. He wanted to be in print.
An illustrator friend of Conge’s advised him to buy space in “American Illustration Showcase,” an annual book from which art directors and others find artists to do their work. The price was steep, but Conge found a way to scrounge up the funds to buy a page.
It took six months for the book to come out. And then for six months Conge received no responses.
“Then my friend said, “Now it’s time to take out a new (page),”’ he recalls. “I don’t know why I listened to him.”
Conge somehow found the money to buy another page. After three months, calls started coming in. His income grew fivefold, and he went from doing 100 percent of his work for clients in Rochester to 90 percent of his work for those outside. He has been buying that space ever since.
Conge also started entering poster competitions around the world, the path that brought his work to institutions such as the Museum of Contemporary History in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in Japan and the International Poster Museum in Warsaw, Poland.
“The poster is seen, particularly outside the U.S., as the bridge between commercial and fine art,” he says. “Unfortunately, this is the country where (the poster) is probably least appreciated.”
Nearly all of Conge’s art hanging in museums is in poster form.
From 1970 to 1973, Conge was an assistant professor in MCC’s art department. In the early 1980s he served as vice president and then president of the Rochester Society of Communicating Arts, the predecessor of the Rochester Advertising Federation. RAF sponsors the Addy Awards, of which Conge won two this year.
Conge still participates in the Rochester Illustrators Forum, a group of illustrators and designers that meets regularly to discuss each other’s work and organize an annual exhibition. The forum has attracted worldwide attention because, as Conge puts it, illustrators tend to be solitary creatures.
“Everybody seems dumbfounded that two illustrators would get together more than three times,” he says.
But then Rochester is uncommonly rich in illustrators and graphic designers, Conge says. It also is a city rich in entrepreneurs, inventors, wealth–well, almost everything. No matter what it is, Rochester has an unusually large amount of it.
Conge’s answer? Glaciers. The terminal moraine making up Cobbs Hill through Mount Hope consists of the best materials pealed off of Canada, as well as almost a magnetic power to attract the kind of people Rochester boasts, he explains with a grin. In addition, the terminal moraine, also running through Highland Park, is full of ingredients to make plants and trees grow large and healthy.
Back on Conge’s 100 acres, it is the grass that is growing and growing quickly. When the artist is not being an artist he likes to mow his lawn, he says. But spring growth has made the task slightly more daunting.
“In the city, our lawn was the size of this room,” he says, gesturing to his studio, bright from fresh paint and tree-filtered sunlight.
Conge also enjoys playing a target game, called metallic silhouette, and collecting antique toys, most recently Japanese robots and space toys from the 1950s and 1960s. He attends two or three auctions a month.
“When I retire, I will sell (toys) to people who want to buy back their childhoods,” says Conge, 56.
In retirement Conge also will take only the jobs he really wants to do, he says. He dreams of becoming recognized enough to make money from poster sales, or opening a gallery and selling originals instead of rights to his work.
In the near term, he and Susan need to finish unpacking at the Giles Road farmhouse, which should take another six months. Conge also expressed a desire to redo in his own way the 20 portraits of composers he recently designed for Sony Corp. compact discs.
“I have no fear I’ll run out of things to do,” he says. “I’m sure no matter how long I live, I’ll die with a great list of things I didn’t get to.”
[Rochester Business Journal Profile, 6/2/95]


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