Can't Touch This

Can't Touch This

You may have your fancy SPD medals, but I gotta tell you, I think I have something that's pretty hard to top. I have an original Paul Davis portrait of my own--literally.

I needed an illustrated portrait for The Society of Illustrators (you know, like you do) and pondered who I should ask--beg--the favor from. I mean, it had to be someone I had some history with since it was pro bono. And since you don't get that many chances to be captured for the ages, I knew the decision really had to mean something to me.

I first came across Paul Davis's work in the late 1970s in my high school art class. I was completely captivated by his poster for The School of Visual Arts, to the point where I pretty much picked my college based on it. (I actually got to tell him this years later at an SPD Gala after a few cocktails and he looked at me like I was nuts.) Something about that dignified, deliberate signature got to me, even as a teenager.

Early in my tenure at Rolling Stone, Fred Woodward commissioned Paul to do a cover portrait of Martin Luther King for a special 1988 "Portrait of a Generation" issue. On one of our closing nights, Fred came into the design room after dinner with a quiet gentleman in a hat and safari jacket. "Gail," he said, "This is Paul Davis."

Okay, this is over 21 years ago, but I can remember it like it was yesterday. Joele Cuyler, who was then the senior associate art director, and I were applying hand lotion--liberally, as I recall--and as I extended an oily hand to greet Paul Davis, Fred dryly commented, "They're birthing calves in here." Paul looked at him the same way he later looked at me when I mentioned the SVA poster thing.

I later taught a continuing ed class in the room above Paul's class on Wednesday evenings at SVA, and we stopped for tuna sandwiches at the Lyric Diner when we bumped into each other as we left the building one night. He told me stories about when he was a student at SVA--when it was the Cartoonists and Illustrators School--and I'd later run into him downtown walking his dog and stop to say hi. We worked on several more pieces together in my 14 years at Rolling Stone, and I always loved chatting with him on the phone. I'm glad I met Paul before that World Wide Web thing took off and made it too easy to just send a note.

I've only gotten to work with Paul Davis once since my Rolling Stone days, and the project ended up switching gears to photography at the last minute. I was terrified that he'd be mad that things sort of went up in flames, but of course he wasn't--Paul Davis types are always gracious, as I've learned over the years.

So, when the opportunity for the fancy official Gail portrait came up (now called Fusilli Gail at work), I figured, why not ask the illustrator I go back the farthest with; you know, my actual hero? I made it easy for him, though--I sent Paul an e-mail so he could bow out without an awkward phone moment. He didn't, though, and a few weeks after shooting reference pictures at my office, Paul Davis returned with a painting. Of ME (with slightly whiter teeth than my own, God love him).

And here's the kicker--PAUL DAVIS said he was nervous because he didn't know if I'd like it or not. Other than the fact that it's, you know, ME--I mean, really? Really? For the first time in my life, I actually can't stop looking at myself.
Do you have an illustrated portrait of yourself? You know you do--I've seen them on your Facebook pages. Send them to me at and I'll post them for your SPD cronies to enjoy. But you KNOW you can't top my Paul Davis tearjerker...


  • Bashan Aquart

    So correct! Neither an illustration I've commissioned for my own frontal, nor any of the illustrations I've drawn of Gail can come close to this very masterful piece ;) It's just a great story. How often is it that we simply ask, and actually receive above and beyond? It's almost fictional. Paul, you're the man. Gail, you scored a true treasure.

  • Amanda Spielman

    The portrait is stunning, and the excellent back story makes it even better. Who knows, Gail, maybe someday you'll be asked to do an all-type portrait of one of the numerous people you've inspired.

  • Ward Sutton

    AWESOME. Thanks for sharing this fantastic portrait and backstory, Gail!

    Paul Davis is a wonderful guy and super-talented artist. I know I am just one of many who can say that I am so inspired by and have learned so much from Paul.

  • frogers

    Beautiful post, Gail. One of the things I love about this business is the thought that something that you create could potentially have a positive impact on someone's life. Like his SVA poster, you never know how your work will affect people. The portrait is amazing.

  • Mia Song

    I always find it reassuring and inspiring that some of the most talented and biggest names in our business are the most gracious and grounded. Love this portrait, Gail.

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