Jim Riswold: Wieden+Kennedy

It might be worth mentioning that Brian Druker saved Jim Riswold’s life.

Riswold, a self-proclaimed fake artist and absurd realist, had already begun working on his show Art for Oncologists when Phil Knight presented his landmark challenge to Oregon Health and Sciences University and Dr. Brian Druker. At a gala on Sept. 20, Knight announced he and his wife Penny would pledge $500 million for cancer research if OHSU can come up with a match within two years. Druker highlighted Dan Wieden of Wieden+Kennedy as he responded to the Knights’ challenge with a twist on Nike’s familiar ad slogan: “Just cure it.”

Druker is one of the lead revolutionaries in personalized cancer treatment. Read the AboutFace magazine interview of Druker at portlandinterviewmagazine.com. His research, and subsequent development of the drug Gleevec, won him the prestigious Lasker-DeBakey Award. Gleevec was designed to basically turn off the switch that drives the growth of cancer without harming the body’s normal cells. Since its initial breakthrough, Gleevec has been called a “miracle drug” and a “silver bullet.” It made the cover of Time magazine in May of 2001, the article within carrying the title, New Hope for Cancer. But as many a cancer patient will tell you, hope can also be a four-letter word.

Riswold’s show Art for Oncologists, which premiered at Augen Gallery on Oct. 2nd of this year, just so happened to coincide with the Knights’ challenge. “I’d been at work on this show for two years,” Riswold said. “I had already planned to donate any money that I made from it to Brian, then this half-billion dollar challenge a month or so ago.” If the challenge is successful, the $1 billion end-game sum will catapult the research done at OHSU’s Knight Cancer Institute and Druker’s molecularly targeted cancer treatments to premier in the world. It will also be the largest single donation in OHSU’s history. The deadline to meet the challenge is Dec. 15, 2015.

But let’s back up for a moment. Just who is Jim Riswold? He may say something like, “I think those questions are better answered by other people, and some of those other people have called me an idiot savant; a happy-go-lucky cynic; King Ridiculous, Papa Satan, Ice Cream Satan, Uncle Stalin, a delightful weirdo, a black hole sucking the life out of everything; a friend of mine, David Levinthal, a well-respected-and-deservedly-so artist, uses the term “perverse whimsy” when referring to me and my work. I guess if I had to call myself anything I’d call myself stupid. Wieden+Kennedy London’s motto is “Walk in stupid every day”—because you learn stuff, and you’ll experience things. I’ve walked in stupid every day for fifty-five years.”

During those years, death has come knocking for Jim on more than one occasion. In fact, Jim has beaten the odds with cancer twice. His friends like to say that Jim will do anything for attention. After all, he holds three bachelor’s degrees, in history, philosophy, and communications, and he also says that he stumbled into advertising. Well, that stumble later led him to become the creative director of Wieden+Kennedy Portland, which, in turn, ended up making him a bit of a legend around these parts.

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During the two decades Jim spent with Wieden+Kennedy before his cancer diagnosis, he created some of Nike’s highest profile ad campaigns. He wrote the script for a commercial that Spike Lee agreed to direct and star in with Michael Jordon, which developed into 15 episodes in 16 years. His work also includes “Bo Knows;” Charles Barkley’s “I Am Not a Role Model;” “I Am Tiger Woods;” and Lou Reed, Miles Davis, and Grace Jones selling Honda scooters. One of his favorite repartees includes, “Visualize a horse galloping on a tomato. Andre Breton said anybody who can’t visualize a horse galloping on a tomato is an idiot. I agree.”

I was able to catch up with Jim and ask him a few questions about his experiences along the path that led him to where he is today.

On Aug. 16, 2000, you were diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, an especially deadly form of cancer. What was your initial reaction when you received the diagnosis?

Well, this isn’t very good, is it? Leukemia’s bad, right? I attempted to use humor to deflect the seriousness of the situation. I’ve always felt life is that thing that doesn’t stop being funny when it’s serious and doesn’t stop being serious when it’s funny.

How did you first become acquainted with Brian Druker?

Well, my wife at the time worked at OHSU as an oncology nurse. She had told some friends of hers who worked in the lab about my CML and they said, “Have you guys heard of this guy named Brian Druker here? You should try to get a hold of him because he’s working on a medicine that’s specifically for CML.” Then I told a friend of mine that I played golf with about what I was going through and he said, “I’m on the board of OHSU, let me make a phone call.” That was a Sunday and on Tuesday I get a phone call from Druker. He says, “Hi, this is Brian Druker. I hear we have to meet.”

One could say the two of you struck up a pretty amicable relationship, right?

[Laughs] How do you characterize a relationship with a man who saved your life? I think we’re friends. I think I amuse him. He has a brilliant mind and a brilliant heart, which makes him the perfect doctor.

How did your treatment proceed?

They caught it early enough that Druker thought I could stomach standard therapy, which was daily doses of Interferon. I took that for about a year before the FDA approved Gleevec. And then he tried something. He told me he’d like to experiment with me a little and combine both therapies. We did that for a few years.

You then cleared the cancer. But after about a year of being free from CML you were diagnosed with prostate cancer. Again, what was your reaction?

I’ve said it once I’ll say it again. I thought cancer was like dessert; you only got one. I thought wrong. Also, I didn’t think I was old enough to get prostate cancer. Once again, I thought wrong. I call myself Mr. Wrong. So do a lot of other people.

For several years, a total of thirteen, you lived with the immanence of death in your life as you struggled with both forms of cancer. How did your experiences change you over time?

Sartre said it best when he said, “To do is to be.” I didn’t want to go out with, “Here lies the guy who did that ‘Bo Knows’ commercial,” on my tombstone, so I jumped into the art world as a self-proclaimed fake artist as a way to deal with my illness. A lot of people will still agree with that assessment of my artistic talents.

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Do you think you also may have lost any inhibitions you might have had about putting yourself out there as a solo artist?

You could say that. But you know, I think some people will tell you that I am shy; some people will tell you that I’m the biggest, loud-mouthed schnook they’ve ever met. I went from a career of selling people things they don’t need to making things they don’t want. And as I said in the article that I wrote for Esquire about the whole thing with the catchy title “Hitler Saved My Life,” well, I figured I’d be dead before any critic’s harsh words about my attempts at art could hurt my feelings. Again, I thought wrong.

And then somewhere along the way, I’d imagine gratitude enters in. How do you say thank you to the person who saved your life?

First you say, “Thank you.” Second, make sure you live a life worth living. And then you try to help him figure out how to raise half a billion dollars.

You have more than surpassed the odds. You are currently the executive director of Wieden+Kennedy’s advertising school, W+K 12, and you are part of the strategy to help raise this money. Are your students also involved in assisting with the challenge?

My students are the lead creative team for how we’re going to convince people to help us take Phil Knight’s money. Joe Staples, one of the executive creative directors in the Portland office, also had an idea. He said, “Just sell that candy dish [referring to one of the more iconic works in Art for Oncologists] for a half a billion dollars; you’ll be infamous, and it’ll be over.” To say that if I sell half of a billion dollars the whole thing is taken care of is absurd! But, you know, it makes for great press and draws attention to the bigger issue, which is how OHSU is going to meet Knight’s challenge. Something of that magnitude of fund raising is usually a seven to ten-year project. But Phil Knight likes challenges. I mean, what is “Just do it”? It’s the ultimate challenge. We can sit here and talk about it forever, or we can just do it. And he wants it just done.

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Part of your training for the work that you do today ultimately took place in a rather haphazard manner in your youth. Could you elaborate on that a bit?

I grew up a 98-pound weakling. In elementary school, Johnny Trasnosky beat me up religiously. In junior high school, Phil Keller took over for Johnny Trasnosky. In high school, Bob Newell replaced Phil Keller. Somewhere, between Bob Newell’s beatings, a couple things happened. I read some authors called Ionesco, Swift and Voltaire; and, I learned some new words like satire, sarcasm, sardonic wit and hubris. And, I discovered the absurdist wit of Monty Python.

If you’ve looked at some of my other shows, they’re on sensitive topics. I did a show about Hitler called Göring’s Lunch. I did a show about Mao called Mao Home and Garden. That was me tangentially dealing with my experiences with cancer. And that goes back to laughing at bullies. Bullies and evil people, be it Hitler or a deadly disease, don’t mind being called evil or bad, but they don’t like to be laughed at. Bad people take themselves very seriously. People will tell you you’re not supposed to laugh about the Hitlers and the Maos and the Napoleons of the world, but then I would counter, well how are you supposed to talk about them? People tend to talk in hushed tones, which I actually think pays these fools the reverence that they crave. A philosopher friend of mine has repeatedly said, “Jim’s art teaches us how to deal with evil, be it a Hitler or a deadly disease.” Those are kind words, maybe a bit grandiloquent, but I’ll take them.

How does all of this translate into Art for Oncologists?

I’ve always thought it was appropriate to laugh at bullies, and cancer is no exception. But I think my current show is a little different. I thought this show had to be about a lot more than me. Which led Druker to say at the opening, “I think I’ve been to almost all of Jim’s openings, and this is the first one where I don’t think I’m going to have to apologize to anybody for saving his life.”

I have overestimated the art market for Hitler art, Napoleon art, Mao art, and cancer art. My fake art is not for everybody, and a lot of everybodys will tell you that. I also finally figured out that my latest show wasn’t about cancer per se, but the people who deal with it regardless of whether they are oncologists, researchers, scientists, patients, or mice.

Plans have not been cemented yet as to where Art for Oncologists will end up next. Jim acknowledges, “It needs to travel. As we kick off this challenge, and more of my students here at Wieden become involved in helping to raise that money, there’s talk about maybe putting it in the lobby here for a month. The world’s largest candy dish, A Big Bowl of Chemotherapies (and One Zofran), will also sully the Portland Art Museum beginning in December.”

The most visceral images of the show are undoubtedly the two large black-and-white photos of Jim’s bruised, battered, and emaciated body. He stands at attention, laying testament to his own personal war with cancer. The photos are arguably the most serious elements in any show Jim has ever done. They project both a great deal of vulnerability, and tremendous strength. Jim sums it up best: “You can’t be creative unless you’re willing to walk around with your pants around your ankles. You can’t be creative if you’re afraid to make a mistake. What would you rather have on your tombstone, Jenn, ‘She didn’t make any mistakes,’ or ‘Oops’? I prefer the ‘Oops.’”

Another exhibit in the show is called “Don Quixote Fights Cancer.” Jim says that he admires Quixote, “Because he wasn’t afraid to hope and dream big. Period. And he suffered for it. He dreamt so big he wore a washbasin on his head and imagined it as a helmet. He wasn’t afraid to be a fool. And that’s another thing I teach my students—or beat it into them. You cannot be creative if you are not willing to make a fool out of yourself. If you’re not willing to be a fool, you’ll be inhibited and inhibition is the enemy of creativity.”

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As far as what Jim is going to be doing in the short term, he says, “I think I know what I’m going to be concentrating on for the next two years.” His office has been turned into command central for the fundraising extravaganza. In the long term, aside from just having the privilege of getting old, Jim is still dealing with a few health-related issues. Fingers crossed however, cancer has not been one of them. He has developed an interstitial lung disease that likely resulted from his confluence of cancer therapies, and he still has to undergo a barrage of check-ups and testing. Nevertheless, Jim says, “Brian took me off Gleevec, and I’m one of only a handful of patients that have gone off the drug, where the disease hasn’t returned.”

When asked what he hopes to accomplish with Art for Oncologists, Jim remarks, “What I hope is that this show is informative; that it is inspiring for people that are living with this disease, or have a friend or a loved one who is going through this disease; that it gives them, like I said in the artist’s statement, a big IV of hope. And that word is not easy for me to use. As a self-proclaimed joyous cynic, hope is a four-letter word a lot of times for us.” But I sat there when I wrote that, and I said, I can’t think of a better word to say what I want to say. And hopefully with Gleevec, and more drugs like Gleevec, that hope becomes a science rather than an emotion in dealing with this disease.”

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About The Author: Jenn Dawson