One Impossible (Or Maybe Not-So) Treasure
Hunt Before Breakfast with Artist Scott Teplin

h1 April 27th, 2010 by jules

This is artist Scott Teplin. Or his alter ego. “From when I was sixteen until Sept. 11, 2001,” he told me, “I used to wear insane disguises (wigs, black-eye makeup, prosthetic pimples, bandaids, cotton stuffed in cheeks, weird eye twitches, etc…) for driver’s license photos. Wisconsin, Washington, and NY. After 9/11, it pretty much had to stop, unfortunately.” This picture makes me laugh so hard that it’s making up for the fact that I haven’t had my coffee-with-Bailey’s yet. But I will soon, as Scott’s here to have some with me. And chat. More on that in a second.

If you saw Betsy Bird’s March review of The Clock Without a Face, to be released in early May from McSweeney’s, you know that she called this “the world’s weirdest book.” To this I say: Word. Word up. Coming from her (and from me, too), this is a compliment.

As Betsy further explained, this is a treasure-hunt book, à la Kit Williams’s Masquerade, which was published in 1979 and which ended in scandal. No scandal here, though: Children’s book author Mac Barnett; long-time editor of the wonderful McSweeney’s, Eli Horowitz; children’s book author and illustrator Adam Rex; high-fashion jewelry designer Anna Sheffield; and visual artist Scott Teplin, who—as mentioned—is visiting 7-Imp this morning, all collaborated on this title, which tells the story of the mysterious Ternky Tower. (The two hairy-knuckled, fat-sneakered doormen of Ternky Towers, brought to us all by Adam Rex, are pictured here.) There has been a robbery on each floor, thirteen total, of the penthouse. Gus Twintig is still in his PJs when he gets the call from the great detective Roy Dodge: They now have thirteen cases to solve. “A crime spree,” Gus murmurs as he stares up at the tower. Gus is Roy’s assistant: “As anyone with a knowledge of detection knows, confidential assistants are essential to the crime-solving process. It’s simple, really: I have an eye for detail, and Dodge has a genius for figuring out what the details mean… {I}t is a detective’s job to help others, and a confidential assistant’s job to help with the helping.”

Bevel Ternky (“the kind of man you disliked before he even opened his mouth”) lives on the thirteenth floor of the tower. His Emerald Chroniker, an antique, cursed clock, has been stolen. “I’m surprised you never heard of it—it’s only the most valuable timepiece ever created,” he tells Roy and Gus…

“It was built by Friendly Jerome, the legendary pirate of ancient seas. Each time he pillaged a city, he would take a single number from the city’s grandest clock. Jerome looted twelve cities, in twelve foreign lands, until he had twelve numbers. Each number was emerald-studded, each was unique, and each was a masterpiece. The 12 was the finest of them all, encrusted with jewels and precious metals—stolen from the bowels of a pharaoh’s tomb. And when all these numbers were united on one clock…It was very shiny. Very twinkly. Very expensive. And, they say, very cursed.”

Bevel’s clock remains, but the numbers? Pried off. And the robber? Still somewhere in the building.

Roy and Gus are on the case, proceeding down the tall tower, floor by floor, interviewing each resident. There’s P.K. Quello, an alchemist; General Klobberduck; Bert D’Grnp, a mime (pictured here); Jigsy Squonk, an off-duty clown; Vera Mazel and Josie Grey, puzzle-lovers; the very paranoid Krieger Manzarek; and many more.

And here’s the kick: There really are buried treasures for readers to find. And that would be the twelve emerald-studded numbers pried from the Emerald Khroniker, which are really twelve emerald-studded numbers designed and hand-crafted by jewelry designer Anna Sheffield. The numbers are buried in twelve holes across the country. To find them, you have to study the clues in this detailed book and check the website. If you find the treasure, it’s yours. When someone else finds a number, it will be announced via the website just mentioned, this website, and Gus Twintig’s twitter feed.

Or you can just read the book and try to solve the mystery from your own comfy, trusty reading chair.

And have I mentioned the book’s shape, the new penthouse-board-book look?

Will this old-skool armchair treasure hunt fly in our new-fangled, internerdy world? Time will tell, but shoot. As you can see here, some online forums have already been created.

The highly detailed art in the book (with the exception of the caricatures of the Ternky residents, brought to us, as mentioned above, by the one and only Adam Rex, two of which are pictured above) was created by artist Scott Teplin. I invited him over for some cyber-coffee to discuss his work, this book, and what’s next. I thank him for stopping by.

* * * * * * *

Mmm. Coffee.7-Imp: So, I focus primarily on illustration and children’s titles at 7-Imp, but can you talk about your work as an artist to enlighten readers? Can you describe some of your series and where your work has been exhibited and basically give us a Scott Teplin 101?

Scott: After moving to Manhattan from Madison, Wisconsin (college), in 1995, I started hanging around a bunch of book-artists. (We eventually formed Booklyn, a collective of book artists that’s still around today.) We would collaborate late into the night in our tiny Lower East Side apartments. They would bind books, and I would draw in them; they would collage over my drawings, and so on. I still work with a couple of them today. Eventually, I learned to bind my own sketchbooks (I’m a sketchbook fanatic — for the past eight years my sketchbooks have all been bound in vegetable-tanned Nigerian goatskin with Fabriano or Lana watercolor paper), which I loved because I could make them super durable. My friend, Chris Wilde, the artist who Booklyn was initially centered around, was very adept at placing our books in major collections. As a result, some of our books now reside in a deep, dark drawer somewhere in the bowels/collections at MoMA SF and NY, Stanford, Yale, The New York Public Library, The Smithsonian, The New Museum, and a bunch of others. Since then I have had shows in several different cities, but I mostly sell my drawings through the Adam Baumgold Gallery in New York and Jeff Gleich of g-module in Paris.

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Scott: I live with my wife and two boys (4 years old and 2 months) in Brooklyn, but I maintain a studio in the Times Square area of Manhattan.

7-Imp: Can you talk a bit about how this idea for a 21st-century reinvigoration of the classic puzzle-mystery book came about?

Scott: I’m super lucky to have been asked to be part of it. I wasn’t sure I was interested at first, because I didn’t know if I had the chops to do it, and because it would take so much of my studio time away from my other work. (I’ve been exploring a series of crash drawings for a couple years now; images below.) But, ultimately, I said yes because:

* My wife showed me her copies of Kit William’s Masquerade and Graeme Base’s The Eleventh Hour, neither of which I had ever seen before, and I thought they were amazing;
* I thought my boys might think it would be neat — at least my four-year-old;
* I had recently been turned down for a couple of grants that I thought I had a good chance of winning.

Now I can’t be happier to be a part of this book.


(Click to enlarge.)


(Click to enlarge.)


(Click to enlarge.)

7-Imp: Can you talk a bit about the collaboration process involved amongst you, Mac, Anna, Eli, and Adam in creating such an unusual book?

Scott: Eli and Mac were super fun guys to work with. I like how Eli knows just what he wants, and he doesn’t allow me to get too lazy, which I am apt to do. After reading Mac’s first draft, I became even more excited, because his prose was so fun to read. (I had recently been reading his—and Adam Rex’s—Billy Twitters, {pictured below}, to my son, coincidentally.)


“‘That’s not just any blue whale, Billy. That’s your blue whale. And it’s your responsibility to take him wherever you go. Now, hurry up and get moving.’”

Next, I did a ton of sketches to try and figure out how to make this whole thing work visually, something I wouldn’t typically do. Once I came up with the format, I drew a basic room-structure template, copied it onto twenty sheets of paper, and sewed them together into a book that I could carry around with me everywhere I went, making notes and figuring out layouts for each resident. I’d periodically send scans back to Eli, and we would discuss them. Eventually, I drew a master template, cut holes through it, and used that to make the actual drawings.



My studio is in the garment district, and I see people walking around on the sidewalks with these bundled paper templates for making clothes in the sweatshops in the buildings above. Oh yeah, I also bound a top-secret black leather clue book where I would figure out how the puzzles would look and how they would need to be integrated into the layouts. (Sorry. No photos are available of that.)

7-Imp: How crazy-making (or wonderful or both) was it to create such painstakingly detailed spreads for this book — and, I would think, to not screw up any little element of the mystery?

Scott: I’ve been making these room drawings for many years (I did the cover for McSweeney’s 27 in this style), but usually I just draw whatever I feel like filling a room with at that moment in time. No themes. This project was very different. I was forced to draw things that didn’t come naturally to me, and instead I had to do research to figure out how something was supposed to look, a method I’ve since embraced in my studio (when I’m not feeling lazy). That’s one great thing about working collaboratively — it forces me out of my comfort bubble, and in the end I learn quite a bit.



7-Imp: What was your medium-of-choice for this title? Is it your usual pen-and-ink watercolor?

Scott: Yes, the usual. HB .003 mechanical pencil, Gillott 290 nibbed dip-pen into Dr. Ph Martin’s india ink and watercolor.

7-Imp: Tell me about the Adam Baumgold exhibition in May.

Scott: I’ll be showing all of the original pages for the book, some sketches {pictured above} from making the book, and a large 4′ x 5′ drawing of an apartment from above (sans roof). I promise to serve pink frosted donuts at the opening on May 13—sort of a tradition—and then Mac, Eli, and I are holding a special event for the book on May 27th at the gallery.

7-Imp: Describe your studio or usual work space.

Scott: The building, run by the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, is filled with artists’ studios. It’s a very cool place to work. Many of us have been there a while (I’m on my 10th year), so a lot of us know each other.


7-Imp: Any new titles and /or projects you might be working on now that you can tell me about?

Scott: I’m working on a kids’ alphabet book with text, written by Eli. Here’s a link to some drawings.

7-Imp: As a book lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Scott: Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, Daniel Pinkwater. Pinkwater’s Lizard Music was the first book I remember reading for pleasure (though it was undoubtedly for a book report), and I still think about that book to this day. I bought a Flat Stanley audio book for my son, because I love to hear Pinkwater narrate it (and it’s a cool story). To be honest though, as a kid I was never much of a reader. If Ritalin existed when I was growing up, I’m sure I would have had a prescription. What really inspired me (sorry — this isn’t very literary) above and beyond anything was MAD Magazine and Wacky Packages.

7-Imp: If you could have three (living) artists (or illustrators)—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Scott: David Hockney, Jim Nutt, George Tooker.

7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Scott: I burned my right nipple off when I was in 8th grade (it eventually healed), playing with fireworks. You’d think that would teach me a lesson, but no. In high school, I came about one second away from blowing my hand off with a home-made “firework.” The sound waves alone broke three nearby windows.

7-Imp: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.

Scott: What is the best radio station in the universe?

WFMU 91.1 fm. I listen to it all the time — true free-form and always 100% commercial free. It’s out of Jersey City, NJ, but it’s online, too, at wfmu.org. I can’t emphasize enough how great they are. There’s this one particular weekly, three-hour long show, The Best Show of WFMU, hosted by Tom Scharpling, that I haven’t missed in nine years. I call in while it’s on the air every once in a while.

* (A Portion of) the Pivot Questionnaire *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Scott: “Slather.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Scott: “Slither.”

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Scott: Creatively: seeing a bunch of bad gallery exhibitions. It makes me want to run to my studio and make really good work; Spiritually: I’ve never been sure what that means; Emotionally: Seeing my kids grow, being surprised by new stuff they do.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Scott: Preachers in subway cars: There’s no escape. But in terms of my studio? Taking down one of my solo exhibitions. I get really depressed. I think it’s because I work for one to two years alone in the studio for it and, after that month-long exhibition is over, I can’t go back in my studio for a while.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Scott: “Basket-packer.” But, really, the F-word is a close second. I’ve tempered my swearing quite a bit since I’ve had kids, but if I hammer my thumb or something, sometimes the F-word is the only thing that will suffice (though my kids haven’t heard me say it yet).

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Scott: When my son tells me he has a secret for me — and then he crunches a pickle an inch from my ear. It’s very satisfying.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Scott: The noise it makes when a bag of powdered milk is squeezed.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Scott: Pyrotechnician. I still have an adolescent love for the kind of fireworks that you light yourself, but I’m (finally) smart enough not to mess with them anymore.

* * * * * * *

THE CLOCK WITHOUT A FACE. Copyright © 2010 by Mac Barnett and Eli Horowitz. Illustration copyright © 2010 by Scott Teplin and Adam Rex. Numbers copyright
© 2010 by Anna Sheffield. Published by McSweeney’s. All rights reserved.

Scott Teplin’s art/sketches/images used with permission. Adam Rex’s caricatures—and Billy Twitters image—used with permission. All rights reserved.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, © 2009 Matt Phelan. Thanks to Matt, Alfred now lives permanently at 7-Imp and is always waiting to throw the Pivot Questionnaire at folks.

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8 comments to “One Impossible (Or Maybe Not-So) Treasure
Hunt Before Breakfast with Artist Scott Teplin”

  1. That driver’s license photograph is going to haunt my dreams. Hilarious!

    Graeme Base’s book was one of my favorites as a child (it frustrated me, but I simply couldn’t put it down), and The Clock Without a Face sounds just as intriguing. Thanks for sharing the sneak peek!

    (And “slather” IS a great word.)


  2. I would LOVE to see a book of all of those driver’s license photos!!

    And wow, the premise of this book sounds so intriguing- sort of like a real-life Westing Game.


  3. Great Interview Scott.. very generous.. thanks for sharing all of the prep drawings and wisdom.. I want a pickle crunched in my ear!


  4. Thanks everyone, I love being a part of the Impossible Breakfast club!


  5. Thanks for the great interview, so much fun stuff in one post.
    I also loved the pickle crunch in the ear, kids are great.


  6. Always a fan of McSweeney’s fare. Scott’s apartment lay-outs are destined to keep kids (and me) amused and busy studying the details. (Okay. The dunk tank-as-bathtub in the off-duty clown’s apartment cracked me up.)

    Thanks for sharing this intriguing art and book.


  7. I’m buying this book for sure – my son will LOVE it! Thanks for highlighting it here Jules!!!


  8. [...] I am now the proud owner of a limited-edition hand-crafted book from artists Scott Teplin and Mark Wagner. It is very funny, very clever, very entertaining, and handsomely-made. It’s [...]


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