Drawn to Chatham

Award-winning illustrator Bob Staake, known for his New Yorker covers and dozens of children’s books, loves living and working in Chatham. “It’s quiet and the perfect place to create, to be myself.”

By Joseph Porcari| Photographs by Dan Cutrona

Bob Staake in his Chatham studio, surrounded by some of the tools of his trade.

Chatham artist Bob Staake commutes a distance of 50 feet from his house to his studio. He greets me at the door, looking both avuncular and puckish—compatible characteristics for a children’s book author and contributor to Mad Magazine.

Situated near the corner of Main Street and Shore Road, the studio building is tiny and unassuming, and one might easily walk or drive by without noticing it. It is, however, a powerhouse of creative activity and the source of more than 70 children’s books, New Yorker Magazine covers, product and greeting card designs, cartoons and advertising illustrations for corporations ranging from American Express to Sony.

But Staake is probably most famous for his New Yorker covers, which he has been producing since 2006, including the one-titled “Reflection” marking Obama’s election victory in November 2008. It features a nighttime image of the Lincoln Memorial under a full moon, which was inspired by a full moon over Chatham witnessed by Staake a few nights before. The moon forms the “O” in New Yorker and doubles as the “O” in Obama while the reflected columns suggest iron bars and recall the slavery period. It is cited by The New Yorker as their most popular cover.

His snug space, which Staake likens to the below-deck cabin of a boat, is lined with bookshelves filled with his own books and a collection of vintage toys. He bounces around the room showing me sketches for New Yorker covers and flips through a pile of notebooks crammed with drawings, doodles, notes and fragments of ideas for new work. His enthusiasm for his work is contagious; he embraces multi-tasking and professes to being bored if he’s working on only one thing at a time. Francoise Mouly, his editor at The New Yorker, speaks highly of the award-winning illustrator. “Of all the artists I work with, Staake may well be one of the most prolific idea generators.”

A full-time Chatham resident since 2004, Staake fell in love with the town in the summer of 1974. He was staying at the Queen Anne Inn with a college girlfriend who was an intern at Seventeen Magazine and writing a piece on the inns and B&B’s of New England. In telling the story, he says it was after a walk in the quaint seaside village when he experienced an “aha” moment and realized this was the place he wanted to call home. He pauses to add, “Maybe it was all the beers at the Squire.”

He didn’t return to his dream village until the summer of 1994. Living in St. Louis with his wife and two children, he decided to rent a house in Chatham to escape the unbearable heat. They rented the 200-year-old Lambert Nickerson house on Main Street, and finding it perfect for their needs, they were able to purchase the property for use as a summer house. By 2004, with their oldest son in college and the youngest about to begin 7th grade, and freelancer Staake able to work anywhere, they became full-time residents.

Staake loves living and working in Chatham. “It’s quiet and the perfect place to create, to be myself.” Although he describes himself as a workaholic, Staake finds enough time for afternoon walks to Lighthouse Beach, canoeing on Mill Pond and riding the bike trails through the National Seashore. In the winter, he and his wife enjoy movies at the Orpheum, reading and playing Scrabble. He cooks dinner almost every night as a way of relaxing at the end of the day. “He trashes the kitchen, but it’s worth it,” says Paulette. “His food is so good. It’s humbling.”

He calls himself a “DIY guy and problem solver” and loves to build things with found objects. Among his creations are a table on wheels with a top fashioned from a vintage paper cutter discovered at Brimfield, and an easel made with the back of an old plywood Eames chair he calls an “Eamesel.” He built the cupola which crowns his studio roof and devised an ingenious system consisting of an extendable ladder, skids and rope to hoist it to the top.

Staake’s award-winning children’s books have been translated into 12 foreign languages, including French, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese and Korean. When contemplating a new book, Staake always asks himself, “What kind of art would little 5- year-old Bobby Staake, growing up in Redondo Beach, California, want to see in this book?” That he successfully answers this question can be confirmed by booksellers like Caitlin Doggart-Bernal, co-owner of Where The Sidewalk Ends, who says “his books are magnets for both kids and parents. The level of detail and whimsy in his illustrations keep children engaged and adults can find little jokes embedded in the art.”

Influenced by sources as diverse as Russian constructivism and mid-century poster art, design and typography, many of his illustrations are filled with bold colors and energized by the interplay of basic geometric shapes and what he refers to as the poetic dance between words and illustration. Staake refuses to be pigeonholed and strives constantly to reinvent and challenge himself. While well known for his colorful illustrations and rhyming text, books like “Bluebird” and “The Orb of Chatham” are wordless, with a subdued or black-and-white color palette, and explore darker themes or mystery.

He is fond of demonstrating to children and adults alike how much information can be conveyed by a simple line. Using traditional techniques like pens, pencils, brushes and sponges, combined with digital media, he astounds fellow artists when he tells them he creates his illustrations with the ancient Photoshop 3. “Drawing with a mouse is a little like drawing with a bar of soap, but it works for me.”

At 61, Staake has no intention of slowing down and basking in the success of a long and varied career. He’s happiest when he’s creating, and doesn’t feel what he does is work. As for creative inspiration, “I just try to keep my eyes and mind open, and welcome it whenever it shows itself.” When I ask him if he has a favorite among his many books, he answers, “It’s always the one I can’t wait to get to next.”

For more information, visit bobstaake.com.