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The Heart and Art of Milton Glaser

by Peter Yarrow

Aug 24, 2020 | Culture

PHOTO CREDIT: I Love NY More Than Ever, Milton Glaser, 2001. Exhibited at SFMOMA.

Milton Glaser—the peerless graphic designer, painter, and visionary for humanity—was a dear and generous friend and ally to me and to Peter, Paul & Mary. His passing, in my life, is that of the loss of a surrogate father, though he was only nine years my senior and I’m sure he never knew that this was how I held him in my heart.

In the beginning, in 1961, it was Milton who stood at the back wall of the stage of the Bitter End (a Greenwich Village coffeehouse where the trio played its first gig) and, in colored chalk, drew a heart with the letters PP&M inside. In this way, Milton epitomized, in graphic terms, what happened when these three 22- and 23-year-olds shared the legacy of songs we inherited from folk music and its champions (most notably and meaningfully, to us, Pete Seeger). In a similar way, Milton epitomized New York City with his iconic “I Heart NY” logo for a city that was, like our trio, faulted in not unexpected yet human ways. As was Milton’s way always, he chose to encourage those whom he visually depicted to live up to their potential for being their best and most caring selves.

For almost 50 years, Milton continued, through his graphic design created for Peter, Paul & Mary, to help shape the trajectory of our careers and the pursuit of our ideals and causes. Whenever I asked Milton, which I frequently and shamelessly did, he’d rise to the occasion to create a graphic for the trio’s efforts, or for me individually, for which I am endlessly grateful.

Milton did much more than draw people’s attention to a person or a cause. As long as the effort was one that sought to make the world better or more just, Milton would create a graphic piece that would amplify the moral impulse he judged to be at the heart of such a project and, for these efforts, Milton never said no and never charged a dime. He walked the walk of his ethic as he covered the gamut of causes from civil rights, the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, homelessness, anti-apartheid, and more. You name it and Milton’s “heart and art” were there to give it a face so that people would understand the effort’s intent and be moved by its purpose.

>Case in point: In the wake of 9/11, Milton added to the “I Heart NY” logo a dark bruise and the words “more than ever.” What a powerful statement for us then, and what an inspiration for us now.

In spite of (and even more because of) what we are suffering, we can come to love each other more in the wake of today’s tragic injuries to our humanity, our basic decency, and our moral center. These injuries will not, must not, break us. In the spirit of “I Heart NY,” we must care for each other, stand up for each other, and sacrifice for one another so that we might emerge stronger and better from this terrible era.

The above are not Milton’s words but I think that, if he were still with us, this might be what he would say, or draw, or bring forward to reach our hearts, our minds, and our senses.

Were Milton alive today, I believe he would urge us to call upon the better angels of our nature to heal our deeply demoralized nation. What images might he have produced to spur us to awareness, unity, and action so that we might recreate ourselves, today and for the first time, to become a nation of anti-racists and allies who stand up for each other’s dignity and pride of identity, especially when it comes to those who continue to be marginalized and oppressed, not to mention sent to their graves for simply being who they are? How might Milton have spoken to the murder of trans people and to the cultural (if not legal) exclusion and oppression of LGBTQ+ Americans that is inextricably tied to the Black Lives Matter movement? How would Milton have visually personified the long-awaited emergence of Americans across color, race, background, and status in life, who have risen up and united to champion a moral imperative? In this case, at last, Americans have taken to the streets to proclaim, week after week, that the historical sins of our country perpetrated against Black people and people of color are no longer tolerable.

How would Milton have celebrated this victory of humanity and decency over hatred and fear? How would he have let us know, with his unerring gift for telling the truth in imagery, with the wisdom of a prophet, that the America for which we are now standing up never ever was what we have told each other it has been: that we were born in racism and the unaddressed atrocity of genocide against our First Nations? But, because it would come from Milton, his visual depiction would bring us to this awareness of the truth—which inevitably must precede reconciliation—with love and celebration, rather than a condemnation that could impair our efforts to heal and recreate ourselves.

The degree to which Milton influenced the world of graphic design is inestimable—and is gratefully, respectfully, and beautifully documented. However, today, as I memorialize and honor my friend, my mentor, and my unwitting surrogate father, I want to focus on the giant heart of this great humanitarian, which was as big as was the collective heart of New Yorkers when he told us, instructed us, and inspired us to recognize and resurrect in ourselves our love for our city and for each other.

May Milton’s memory be a blessing in all our lives.

Peter Yarrow, the “Peter” of the legendary folk group Peter, Paul & Mary, is an award-winning singer-songwriter and a longtime activist on behalf of liberal causes.

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