By Ben Marks, Senior Editor, Collectors Weekly
On October 13, when Emek pulls into the Hall of Flowers parking lot for the 14th annual Festival of Rock Posters, he’ll do pretty much what he’s done the last few years he’s attended the show. With the help of his wife, Ronni, he’ll painstakingly unpack his past year’s crop of posters (Blacks Keys in Charlotte, Bon Iver and Radiohead in Santa Barbara, Sigur Ros in Edgefield, Pearl Jam in Stockholm, My Morning Jacket at Red Rocks, Erykah Badu in Istanbul, Neil Diamond in New York, and more), hang examples of each onto metal grids set up by volunteers from The Rock Poster Society, and then spend the rest of the day selling, signing, and doodling for collectors and fans.
This year, though, there’ll be a new addition to Emek’s routine—coping with rheumatoid arthritis, which he was diagnosed with earlier this year.
To get the melodramatic analogies out of the way, being an artist whose known for his dexterity with a Pigma Mircon, and then finding out you have rheumatoid arthritis, is like being a cyclist with an inoperable knee injury, a jazz lover who’s slowly going deaf, an art aficionado who’s gradually losing his sight. You get the idea.
Emek doesn’t do melodramatic. He’s more comfortable with the glib quip. “I like to think I have it under control,” he says of his daily struggle with RA, “but it has slowed me down, so get your Emeks while you can, because this may be my last year. Wink, wink.”
Sure it’s gallows humor, but not bad for a guy who’s still coming to terms with a disease that is generally degenerative and for which there is no cure.
Emek knew something was wrong at the beginning of 2012. “All of a sudden,” he recalls, “my fingers would start swelling up around the middle knuckle. I didn’t even notice it at first, then it slowly got worse. I’d walk past a countertop and my finger would knock into it because it was fatter. At first it was little things like that. Then I couldn’t turn a doorknob, I couldn’t open a jar, I couldn’t tie my shoes. I actually had to force my kids to help me put on my socks: [sing-song voice] ‘Who’s going to help daddy put on his socks?’ I could only draw for an hour at a time, then I’d have to take a break, then draw for another hour. It hampered my work schedule and sapped my spirit. I would take naps every day and sleep for a couple of hours at a time. I just had this chronic fatigue.”
Initially, Emek sought the best traditional medical advice he could find, getting opinions from no less than five specialists. He learned that rheumatoid arthritis is a disease of the autoimmune system. Since RA didn’t run in his family, the doctors he saw were concerned about why it was showing up in him, and at so young an age (40). But there the usefulness of Western medicine ended. “The head rheumatology doctor in Portland prescribed a hard-core cancer medicine with huge side effects. I said, ‘Hell no.’” The same expert also dismissed the impact of diet on his condition. For Emek, the doctor’s prescription and analysis simply didn’t ring true. “I basically said, ‘I don’t believe you.’”
Frustrated, last spring, at the suggestion of several people, including his mom, Emek spent two weeks at the Optimum Health Institute in San Diego. “Their treatments are based on the ancient idea that diseases thrive in acidic conditions. The basic philosophy that I took away is to eat a lot more raw foods. With raw foods, it’s easier for your body to get at the energy and nutrition to help alkalinize your system. The more you can alkalinize your body, the more it can heal itself.”
For now, Emek says he mostly has his condition under control. “It’s a day-to-day battle,” he sighs. “It’s really hard. If I drink a beer, the very next day my fingers will swell up like hot dogs. It’s triggered by yeast and fermented things, and if something has gluten and wheat in it, that’ll do it, too.”
Though Emek hasn’t gone out of his way to discuss his arthritis, he hasn’t tried to hide it, either. As a result, he’s been hearing from lots of fans, which he says has been completely energizing. “People have been very supportive. I’ve been getting all kinds of recipes from people whose aunts, uncles, and even grandparents have changed their diets to manage their arthritis. Having experienced this first hand, I know there’s a lot of truth to a lot of these folk remedies, if that’s even the right terminology. Mostly, though, it’s just been cool to get all this feedback from people, ‘our thoughts are with you,’ that kind of thing.”
There’s a curious irony to Emek’s current predicament. “I’m very interested in the engineering of human anatomy,” he told me in an interview in 2011. “Bones and blood and guts are the moving parts. I go to the mechanics of things.” Now that those mechanics are not cooperating, people who have followed Emek’s career can’t help but wonder how rheumatoid arthritis will affect his work. Have we seen the last of posters like the one he created for Pearl Jam’s Edmonton show in 2011, in which each meticulous, boney feather in the chief’s huge headdress was drawn by hand?
“Maybe that’s what caused my arthritis,” Emek muses, only half jokingly. “It came on right after I did that Pearl Jam poster.”
But even though rheumatoid arthritis is having a major impact on his life right now, it has not been the sole determining factor of his 2012 output. In fact, Emek’s work has always been characterized by its range, from the appropriated-graphics look of posters such as the one for Primus in 1996 to the obsessive detail of Pearl Jam Edmonton.
“I like to work in different styles,” he told me last year, well before arthritis began to drain his energy and balloon his fingers and toes. “I like using different techniques, but to me the most important thing is the concept. I like to come up with a concept that reflects the vibe of the band, but also something that will motivate me. Sometimes drawing can be a chore, so I like to have a story I’m excited about. Then I can decide on pens or scratchboard or whatever.” How his hands feel on a given day comes after that.
“Sure I like to get lost in the noodley details,” he admits, “but there’s also a part of me that loves the simpler, big-impact stuff. My parents are artists, so I grew up around World War II propaganda posters, opera posters, rock posters by Kelley and Mouse, Russian Constructivism. I still dabble in a simpler, bolder language, and I always have. I’m working on a piece right now that’s probably going to be one of the busiest, craziest, most detailed pieces I’ve done. On the other hand, the ZZ Top branding-irons poster may have been complicated from a branding-iron perspective, but because of the nature of the poster, the design needed to be simple. I like to balance things out.”
And then there are purely practical variables such as deadlines. “What people don’t always understand,” he says, “is the deadline-aspect of this game. Bands call you and they need something right away. Sometimes you can’t take a job because you can’t do it in time. Other times I can get something done in the week they’ve given me because I’ve figured out the way to express an idea I think is cool in a short period of time. Besides, the need to be noodley may not always go with the band’s vibe.”
Whether there’s a deadline looming or his RA is acting up, Emek usually tries to come at the assignment from a couple of different directions. “I start with a simple image,” he says, “then I’ll see how much time I have left. But it’s not like the noodley pieces always take longer. Sometimes simple ideas take a lot of time to get going, like the Deadmau5 poster in 2010.
“I’m looking at my calendar for the next three months,” he continues, “and I don’t know how I’m going to get it all done. In some cases I may go with simpler approaches just to make the deadlines, but it won’t be because of the arthritis per se, because so far I’ve been managing it pretty well.”
Which brings us back to the Hall of Flowers. Is there an arthritis etiquette that people should be aware of? Should fans feel bad as they stand in line watching Emek signing and doodling, knowing he’s probably fighting his arthritis at that very moment? “I had a couple of book signings where I had to wear a brace on my hand,” he says, “but people felt bad about it so I probably won’t wear one. People should not feel bad,” he adds, “unless they are hiring flippers to wait in line for them. Then they should feel really bad.”
In the end, for Emek, an event like the Festival of Rock Posters is too good to pass up. “I work in a studio. It’s kind of a sequestered existence, so this is my chance to get feedback, to complete the equation that I think is important for most artists, to meet their fans. I love going to TRPS to see familiar faces, new faces. As for food, this is my chance to cheat a little. You gotta enjoy life, too. But I will say this: Sometimes it hurts to shake hands.”