January 20, 2022

5. Nico Van Den Heuvel, Art Director


Thirty years? Really! That made me 47 at the time and still no mid-life crisis! Of course, working with this great bunch of over-stimulated idealists created its own crises—financial, material, work/living space, time and deadlines, just to name a few.

Today, sitting on a grassy hill in front of the studio on my ranch in Cayucos, California, my eye follows the ocean’s current, the one that still connects with Topanga, the birthplace of the Messenger. Flashbacks to the mid-’70s come to mind unannounced and frequently. One of those dealt with the design of the cover page for the first issue, when we decided that “Cornelius,” one of my kinetic sculptures, should be part of the group picture. He would be our imaginary production robot, cranking out great numbers of Messengers at record speed. If only that had been true!

5.	Nico Van Den Heuvel, Art Director

Van den Heuvel's robot Cornelius, which was featured on the cover of the first edition.

The stage was set in my front yard on Keller Road, where Colin shot the cover photo, with most of the crew crowded around Cornelius surrounded by bundles of the newspaper, which I painted into the original photo. What can I say? We were dreamers with a vision of hundreds of papers, ready for circulation to a hungry public. The one thing we lacked was a name, and Cornelius was no more successful than the rest of us in dreaming up a title. The first issue appeared with a “Name Your Newspaper” contest as a placeholder for a name and logo. Todd Haile was the winner, proposing the name the Topanga Messenger and even drawing the logo of the traveler hiking his way through the Santa Monica Mountains. Great choice!

The Messenger powers-that-be ordained that we had to have a cartoon and I was given the assignment. Juggling among many established cartoon characters to create my own was a major hurdle until I drew Mr. Hashbeen, a Canyon nitwit, who got into a tight spot every other week.

Another of my assignments was the painstaking and time-consuming task of opaquing the negatives of the paper’s pages, in my case, hundreds. (For readers not familiar with this term, opaquing is inking out pinholes of light in the negatives from which the printing plates were made. The computer age has relegated this and many other processes to ancient history.)

5.	Nico Van Den Heuvel, Art Director

Mr. Hashbeen, a Canyon nitwit created by Van den Heuvel, was the Messengerís first cartoon feature.

Armed with the plates, I arrived at Sid Francis’s goat barn/print shop. Inside was an impressive, ancient six-foot-tall printing press looming above us in the center of the room. After all our work up to now, the rest surely would be “a piece of cake.” Sid, ever the optimist, was still fine-tuning the machine—a squirt of oil here, some grease there, test printing on a variety of stock, including butcher paper. Some pages came flying out too fast, only partly printed; others hiccoughed out, thick with ink. Sid, wading through wall-to-wall rejects, many ejected of their own will, smiled broadly at our worried faces.

It was getting late, I was hungry, but in came Jean, Sid’s wife, with incredible sandwiches heaped with slabs of soy, plucks of alfalfa sticking out with, of course, goat’s milk. Thanks again, Jean!

After raking up piles of half-dry misprints, I was introduced to a paper-cutting gadget without a blade.

“Hey, Colin! Isn’t there a knife that comes with that cutting board?”

Colin: “What’s wrong with a utility knife?”

I drove to my studio and came back equipped with my knife and a couple of packs of blades.

I loaded a stack of pages on the cutting board, clamped down the straight-edged ruler and cut the stack of paper in half, a quarter-inch at a time. Sid now had complete control over his printer and by 10 p.m. the first batch was done. A second load would be ready after the ink had dried.

5.	Nico Van Den Heuvel, Art Director

Nico Van den Heuvel pictured with some of his art.

I backed my VW van to the barn as a slow rain started to come down. Loading the van while keeping the paper dry was kid’s stuff. Getting the van started was another matter, but Sid’s mechanical wizard son, Matt, took care of that. There was another half-hour gone. “Let’s get out of here before midnight.” It was not to be! The truck was stuck in a muddy mix of clay and goat manure, mashed into a smooth puree by my bald tires. Fortunately, Colin dropped by to see how I was doing and with Sid’s help pushed my valuable load out of the mud hole. The paper was finally ready to deliver to the Community House.

As I left with my cargo, I worried that the volunteers had gotten tired of waiting for the pages to be delivered, since it was much later than expected. In her eternal wisdom, Mary Colvig convinced some of our local supporters to bring in a supply of wine, cheese and crackers, just to keep all in good spirits, figuratively and literally. What a relief to see everyone there!

Rain was coming down hard as I made my way up the steep, potholed driveway to the Community House, where a horde of tired but relieved helpers quickly emptied the load and carried them, dry and well, to picnic tables set up in the Community House’s great room. The next and final batch would arrive when the ink dried; the rain slowed the drying of the ink big time.

A lot of action was going on with organizing the pages, jogging them so the pages were even, and hand-stamping each cover page. As if on cue, Colin walked through the back door, rain-soaked and bleary-eyed from hours in the darkroom. He poured himself a glass of wine, walked straight to the old piano and clanked out a boogie-woogie ala WW II. I decided to join him in a quatre-mains (four-handed piano) that played havoc with the echo of this large, brick-walled space and fired up the sleepy workers to finish the task at hand well into the early morning hours…right on time for the Post Office opening at 8:30 a.m.

Those were the days when people’s energy, faith, love and talent translated itself into a successful whole.

Yeah, really … 30 years … Cheers!

Nico Van den Heuvel owns and lives on a working cattle ranch in Cayucos, California, where he pursues his lifelong career as an artist.