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Arts & Life

Artist Hector Curriel's historic graphic novel takes to the skies with Joe Foss

The interview posted above is from SDPB's daily public affairs show, In the Moment with Lori Walsh.

When Joe Foss was only four years old, he climbed to the top of a farm windmill for his first bird's-eye view of the world.

When author and illustrator Hector Curriel first heard the name Joe Foss, he didn't know who the man was. Now Curriel has written and illustrated a graphic novel biography of WWII flying ace and former South Dakota Governor Joe Foss.

Hector Curriel joins us in SDPB's Kirby Family Studio in Sioux Falls to tell us about the book, the man, and how the project became reality.

The following transcript was autogenerated and edited for clarity and length.

Lori Walsh:

You and I have known each other a very long time.

Hector Curriel:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lori Walsh:

And since the day I first met you, you were one of the most dedicated and devoted artists and creators that I've ever known. You have not stopped working one day when so many people want to be artists and then can't quite make it happen. This book feels like a huge breakthrough for you with all the other work that you've done. So, congratulations.

Hector Curriel:

Thank you.

I appreciate all your words. Yes, I've been working very hard on this project. I was so passionate about what Joe Foss had done because it's a great story. I think his life is still is relevant for many of us. This story had to be told, especially in new generations.

Lori Walsh:

Joe Foss was somewhat new to you. You were researching an art proposal for the airport and you dove into his story, but you also discovered a lot of people surprisingly didn't know who he was either.

Hector Curriel:

After I read his whole autobiography — it was a very large book — I started asking myself, "How much people really know about him?" So I conducted my own survey and sadly, I didn't find too many people who knew him, especially in new generations — probably zero, zero knowledge about him.

Lori Walsh:

You have a passion for children's literature and children illustration that brings kids into a story in a compelling way. Where does that come from for you that you would make art for adults, make art that's intergenerational, but also make art that you know is going to bring kids into literature and story?

Hector Curriel:

Because I feel a call in my art. What I do is try to engage people, communities, be like a bridge. I am storyteller when I do my art, and when I find something really helpful for children especially, I try to bring it through my art because I think they need those kind of values to help them.

Lori Walsh:

There is so much in this book that is about the prairie, that is about South Dakota, because it's about Joe Foss. So also kids and adults who read this graphic novel get to see themselves portrayed in a way that I think is rare in literature.

Hector Curriel:

Yes. When I have friends who are seniors or elders, they read this book and they connect with their roots when they're connecting with their childhood, and they feel so amazed to see a book that can portray what they've been through as well.

For example, one chapter, we talk about when Joe Foss was little and he started using, learning how to use the BB gun to protect the livestock and his family. That's something they did also when they were little.

Lori Walsh:

My brother used to climb the windmill, and I think my daughter would probably think of a windmill as a wind turbine. She would think of it as large structure, but to us it was scalable, but you had to be really brave ...

Hector Curriel:

Absolutely.

Lori Walsh:

... to scale it. So that's my first connection with this book at the very beginning. We used to do that, too, and it was always my brother who had the courage to climb the windmill. I had the courage to climb maybe three steps...

Hector Curriel:

Yeah, I had the opportunity to met his son, Dr. Frank Foss, and he told me about this story because it's something he used to tell to his children. And that was his favorite secret place. He used to go up there and play saxophone, read. It's amazing.

Lori Walsh:

And when you talk about hunting, Joe Foss gets his first BB gun, and he is given a lecture on how to use it responsibly ...

Hector Curriel:

Right.

Lori Walsh:

... and safely. And when he disobeys this rule, his gun is taken away from him for a year!

Hector Curriel:

Yes, that's correct.

Lori Walsh:

Is that right?

Hector Curriel:

Yes, mm-hmm (affirmative). Yes

Lori Walsh:

Where did you learn that story?

Hector Curriel:

Well, through his autobiography.

Lori Walsh:

Because he takes aim at an electrical pole with his BB gun!

Hector Curriel:

Yes.

Lori Walsh:

Not a good idea.

Hector Curriel:

Right. No, not at all, even at this time, yeah.

Lori Walsh:

How did you approach illustrating some of the pictures in pen and ink of places like the Old Courthouse, Museum, back in Joe Foss' time? The State Theatre. Downtown Sioux Falls. Tell me about some of the research you did into the places he lived so that you could get it accurately portrayed.

Hector Curriel:

Right, this project took for me about three years to complete. And my first year was collecting a lot of research information. I've been through many books on and I watch no idea how many videos on YouTube, trying to be very accurate because it's not fiction. Accuracy was so important for me and to recreate the environment. It was very important for me to take all those details very serious.

Lori Walsh:

This is also a book published by the South Dakota State Historical Society Press.

Hector Curriel:

Right.

Lori Walsh:

So accuracy is important as well.

Hector Curriel:

Yes.

Lori Walsh:

What was it like to work with the publishers and the editors as an artist who has a vision, but then also with historians who say that vision does need to be grounded in the historical accuracy that we want our press to portray?

Hector Curriel:

Right, it was a great experience. I learned a lot from them. They gave me a lot of information to complete this book.

And because my book requires a lot of action, I try to really bring the emotions to the readers. When they read the story, they follow the sequence, and they are able to experience that moment I describe in my book.

Lori Walsh:

Yeah, for the average listener who maybe doesn't know quite what a graphic novel is, it is not a comic book.

Hector Curriel:

It is not.

Lori Walsh:

The graphic novel grew up at some point in fairly recent history, and some artists, really high-end artists and illustrators have taken it to new levels. And you're working right square in that genre and being part of that renaissance with this. Tell me a little bit about the storyboards that we see lying in front of us, which I'm going to try not to touch because they look original.

Hector Curriel:

Yeah.

Lori Walsh:

How do you plan it out and create an action sequence like this one that I see here.

Hector Curriel:

Yeah, it's very important for me. When I start the project, first I work in thumbnails, we call them, the small sketching. I work in many ways. And that part of the process, I don't really care about the details much at first. Yes, the action, the movement. I can convey that moment, that drama, that I try to describe in that page and continue to follow that sequence is very important as well.

Lori Walsh:

That's fantastic. Are you selling individual storyboard prints for this project? Are you displaying them anywhere or ...

Hector Curriel:

Yeah, we are talking about ... probably, yeah. We want to make a lot of prints for the cover, especially.

It's in color and we'll also ... This artwork will be displayed. We are working with Augustana University ...

Lori Walsh:

Awesome.

Hector Curriel:

To get some book presentation. Also they want to display all those panels because it's a lot of work in this. And I think I would love people really enjoy to see the whole thing.

Lori Walsh:

Yeah, that's what I want. I want the whole gallery.

Hector Curriel:

Yes.

Lori Walsh:

And I want to walk through it with an exhibition of what the art really deserves.

Hector Curriel:

Yes.

Lori Walsh:

We should talk a little more about Joe Foss.

Hector Curriel:

Sure.

Lori Walsh:

You focus and help the reader understand failure and the opportunities, the doors that were close to him. He didn't have money, his grades weren't very high at one point, he was too old to fly in combat.

Hector Curriel:

26 years old.

Lori Walsh:

Right, at 26. So he had a lot of obstacles to overcome. What did you think you learned from that and that readers might feel that they can learn from the way he approached failure?

Hector Curriel:

Right, because that was my goal with this book, because there's another book about Joe Foss, but mostly they focus on his greatness when he was a hero and how much he was a high ranking ace who shot down planes. But I want to show the person, the man, what made Joe Foss who he was. And I think in order to present that, you need to go back to his roots, his background, all the challenges he faced when he was growing up, living in Great Depression. He lost his dad at a very young age and very dramatically. He failed in school because he had to help the mother with working, and then go to university and be rejected to the, as you say, because at that time, the Air Corps looked for a range between 18 to 23. That was the range to be a combat pilot. Obviously he was 26. He was out even when he had a great skill to be a pilot. So he's overcome many things, many obstacles, and that's something we can learn from.

Lori Walsh:

Yeah, Chuck Anderson, who was a radio broadcaster who died in 2020 I believe, he'd been a guest on our show, and he brought audio of Joe Foss from an interview he had done with him. And he told this story on the radio, it's been a while since listeners have heard it, but when Chuck went to interview Joe, Joe took a handgun out and put it on the table ...

Hector Curriel:

Yeah?

Lori Walsh:

... between them. I don't know if it was in his holster and he was making room before he sat down? We don't know if he wanted Chuck to see the handgun and feel something because of it, but Joe Foss was very comfortable with his gun. And so I always think of Joe Foss from that story and what a big personality he had.

Hector Curriel:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lori Walsh:

He loved the spotlight. He was brave and courageous, but yet he had this humility about him as well.

Hector Curriel:

Yes.

Lori Walsh:

Did you get that sense from him, too?

Hector Curriel:

Yes.

Lori Walsh:

Yeah.

Hector Curriel:

I get that information, and also I heard from his wife. Yeah, he lived putting his feet on the ground. He was such a humble ... He treated people in the same way, regardless of your origin or what your position in life. He was a tremendous man.

Lori Walsh:

The book is called American Ace: Joe Foss, Fighter Pilot. It is written and illustrated by our guest, Hector Curriel, and it is from the South Dakota State Historical Society Press. And Hector, if you don't know Hector, is one of our great South Dakota artists. We look forward to more work from you in the future. And thank you so much for joining us here in the studio.

Hector Curriel:

Thank you, Lori, for giving the opportunity to talk with your people. Thanks.