Steve Martin teams up with Henrietta native on bestselling book 'A Wealth of Pigeons'

Marcia Greenwood
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

It’s a little before 10 a.m. on a Monday, and Harry Bliss has just wrapped up a call at his Cornish, New Hampshire, retreat.

“I was on the phone with Steve,” he says. “We were talking about the next book we’re doing.”

Steve being Steve Martin. The actor, comedian, writer, producer and musician.

The next book being a follow-up to their first, the newly released New York Times and Amazon bestseller A Wealth of Pigeons, a collection of more than 120 single-panel cartoons (and a dozen or so multi-panel works) written by Martin and drawn by Bliss, who gets top billing on the cover.

The retreat being J.D. Salinger’s old place, where the reclusive novelist moved two years after publishing The Catcher in the Rye. Bliss bought the rustic property four years ago and splits his time between it and a residence he shares with his wife in Burlington, Vermont.

Steve Martin

Not bad for a kid from Henrietta, who was around 13 when he first became aware of Martin, then a wild and crazy guy who wore a fake arrow through his head and was having phenomenal success doing stand-up.

“I remember going into my sister’s room and seeing Let’s Get Small and listening to it, and I just laughed,” Bliss says of Martin’s 1977 platinum-selling, Grammy-winning comedy album. “I have been a fan since day one.”

The idea that decades later, Martin would become a fan of Bliss, the two would work as collaborators and even be dubbed "2 wild and crazy guys" in a New York Times headline is something that not even Bliss, a wildly imaginative guy, could have envisioned.

“It’s bizarre,” he says.

Back in the day

The youngest of four children born to Jack and Roslyn Bliss, Harry Bliss graduated in 1982 from what was then called James E. Sperry High School (now Rush-Henrietta) after completing his freshman year at McQuaid Jesuit in Brighton.

Henrietta native Harry Bliss, a longtime New Yorker cover artist and cartoonist, has collaborated with Steve Martin on a best-selling book called "A Wealth of Pigeons."

He has mostly fond memories of his Sperry experience, where a couple of empathetic art teachers stood out and he spent time paging through art books in the library. However, “I wouldn’t say I learned a heck of a lot,” says the 56-year-old, who mostly relished the role of class clown and made regular appearances in the principal’s office. “In public school in 1970s, you didn’t learn or retain a lot, and I believe that’s not such a bad thing. Our education was in some respects a life education — how to get out of situations that are possibly detrimental to your well-being or future, how to navigate the social landscape. That in itself is a very important education.”

So was being brought up in an immediate and extended family of artists. Bliss’ oldest brother, John, a longtime educator who has taught art and now works as a kindergarten teacher in the Rochester City School District, explains, “My cousins Jim and Phil were incredible (artists) for their age. My brother Charlie was remarkable, my sister, father, mother and uncles were all artists.”

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Because of that, and the fact that they’re six years apart, John says Harry’s artistic abilities were a little lost on him during their early years.

“His humor was not. He and Charlie have been funny since birth,” John says.

He remembers Harry starring in a Bliss family movie production of Frankenstein. Their dad had Harry stand on a block to make him appear taller. At one point, he fell off the block and went from looking 6 feet tall to less than 5 feet tall. “It was hysterical because he just kept acting,” John says.

Setting a course

But Harry was serious about being an artist, and following high school he studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and illustration at University of the Arts, both in Philadelphia. He earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1990 after temporarily pausing his education. “I spent a few years discovering girls,” he says. In 1994, he got a master of fine arts in illustration from Syracuse University.

In the late 1990s, as a single dad living in a basement apartment in Nyack, Rockland County, and trying to make ends meet as a waiter and book-cover artist, he sent a handful of cartoons to The New Yorker. That led to him being invited to try illustrating a cover for the magazine and, based on that work, he was hired. His first cover — a drawing of man and a woman walking up a staircase, leaving behind a trail of New Year’s Eve party debris — published on Jan. 5, 1998.

From "A Wealth of Pigeons," by Harry Bliss and Steve Martin.

To date, Bliss has done 22 New Yorker covers and hundreds of New Yorker cartoons. He also has illustrated more than 20 books, including a children’s book he also wrote, Bailey, about a dog that goes to school and charms his human classmates. His single-panel cartoon, Bliss, runs six days a week in more than 50 newspapers in the United States and Japan.

His initial professional breakthrough and the success that's followed hasn't solely resulted from talent, he says.

“I knew that my work was good enough,” he says. “I didn’t have any apprehension about that. But persistence is an integral piece of this. If you are not savvy about people and not good at being persistent in a non-annoying way, you’re gonna have a hard time.”

Brother John agrees.

“Harry can obviously draw and paint,” he says. “Lots of people can draw really well, and many of them may be smart, but they may not have the drive or personality to get through to people face to face. Harry sells because he broke through and created, like, a brand. That requires artistic talent but also interpersonal skills.”

A Wealth of Pigeons has exposed him to an even larger, more mainstream audience — the kind delivered not only by a bestselling book, but by appearances on shows like CBS Sunday Morning, Good Morning America and The View.

Bliss doesn’t mind doing publicity for the project, despite preferring the solitude of rural Cornish, where he notes his Zoom connection isn’t all that strong. But it’s the work itself that drives him. And it is informed, to a large extent, by those early experiences in Henrietta.

‘You will use everything’

He relays a story that Martin told him about being on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. During a commercial break, the legendary late-night talk-show host leaned over and told Martin that, as a comedian, “You will use everything you’ve ever known.”

That has been true for Bliss, too.

“Any experience you have in your life,” including, he says, “all the things I digested in Henrietta … it’s gonna find its way into your work, if you’re open like that. That’s really key, because there are people out there who for whatever reason don’t have the capacity to open all those doors and let all that stuff in.”

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Bliss does, including stuff that a lot of people would just as soon keep packed away. Like the memory of a stammering schoolmate’s struggle to speak in class or childhood friends grappling with their parents’ messy divorces, or this: “I remember road trips,” he says. “We used to go to Cape Cod. It was me and my siblings driving in the wagon with my mom and dad. And the Doors’ ‘Riders on the Storm’ was on the radio all the time back then, and when that song would come on — I was 6 or 7 years old — it just scared the shit out of me, and I recently did a cartoon based on that.”

Bliss’ drawing style may be whimsical and sweet, but the content of his work can tend toward the dark side. That’s why it’s been nice to team with Martin, he says. “He pulls me back from that a little bit.”

The two were introduced by Francoise Mouly, art and cover editor for The New Yorker. A couple years ago over cocktails, Martin, having conquered every other form of entertainment, told her he had some ideas for single-panel cartoons and asked whether she could recommend an artist to draw them. Right away she suggested Bliss.

Martin’s response was, “I love him.”

From "A Wealth of Pigeons," by Harry Bliss and Steve Martin.

Bliss had no idea that Martin — also a serious art collector — was aware of his work, much less an admirer, but “Francoise knows I like to collaborate. You have certain cartoonists who are purists and only want to do their own ideas,” Bliss says. “I don’t have that.”

Once Martin and Bliss connected, they agreed they wouldn't want their project to be sardonic or cynical. “There’s just way too much of that in the world right now,” Bliss says.

Instead, the humor in A Wealth of Pigeons is sophisticated and sly but light and nonpolitical.

In one panel, Santa Claus sits atop a chimney, looks off into the distance and, with a cellphone to his ear, says, “I’m here. Flash your nose.” Another panel shows a group of people introducing themselves above a caption that reads, “This is our son, Charley. He’s a souvenir from Woodstock.” In a third, a dog sleeping in its bed dreams of itself sleeping in its bed below the headline, “Never give up on your dreams.”

Martin and Bliss did the majority of the work from a distance, via email or phone. In the book’s introduction, Martin jokes that Bliss is the perfect creative partner because, “We rarely speak to each other, and we live in different states.”

"A Wealth of Pigeons," by Harry Biss and Steve Martin, is a New York Times and Amazon bestseller.

In reality, the process involved continual back and forth and give and take. “We’d workshop things,” Bliss says. Sometimes Martin would send Bliss a concept or a caption in need of an illustration. Sometimes Bliss would send Martin “orphan cartoons” in search of punchlines.

Overall, Bliss deferred to Martin on the writing.

“Steve is an expert at humor and mirth and writing,” Bliss says. “He’s the consummate entertainer. To be on Johnny Carson 70 times — that’s just unbelievable to me. … But the thing I like about Steve is that recently he said, ‘I’m the writer. But Harry is the director and the casting agent and the lighting guy. He’s all these other things.’ So Steve writes the gags and hands them off to me, and I still direct (the panel) and flesh it out. Super fun.”

Up next

As for their forthcoming project, “The only thing I can say is that it will have more comic strips in it, more narrative in it — strips that are two and three pages long, and my dog’s in a lot of them,” Bliss says.

And once again, he and Martin will collaborate from across the miles, with Martin likely working from New York City and Bliss based in Cornish. He’s good with that.

“There is an energy here that I can’t explain to you,” he says. One recent night around 11 o’clock, he finished a sketch and stepped outside. “The full moon above the house lit the entire landscape. It’s like I was standing in a Maxfield Parrish painting. It was incredible. That sort of environment for me, it fuels my creativity and gives me hope. It’s what I need. It’s the thing that keeps me going.”

Reporter Marcia Greenwood covers general assignments. Send story tips to Follow her on Twitter @MarciaGreenwood.