If you’ve ever visited the Park Slope bar Owl Farm or the Nu Hotel in downtown Brooklyn, you’re probably already familiar with the work of illustrator and writer Steven Weinberg. The children’s book author is responsible for murals at both places, not to mention an assortment of web and print illustrations and, per his biography, “the occasional tattoo.” Weinberg’s latest creation is the highly adorable book Rex Finds an Egg!, the tale of a delightful dinosaur’s process of discovery. We talked to Weinberg, a longtime Brooklynite who decamped further upstate, about dinosaurs, a not-quite-child-friendly cartoon called the Shitty Kitty, and moving to the Catskills to open a bed and bar.
Where did the story of Rex come from?
At some point on one of my many visits to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in DC where I grew up. That was my place of: It’s a rainy Saturday so please stop annoying Mom—and Dad could you take the kids somewhere??? I spent a whole lot of time staring up at T-Rex skeletons and those giant murals where every kind of dinosaur is out at the exact same moment. I’ve basically been drawing dinosaurs since.
How did you start drawing?
Crayons initially. I spent a lot of time coloring in Old Testament figures in Hebrew School. There’s nothing like aggressively adding blue texture to waves descending on the Pharaoh. From there, the usual stuff: drawing fighter jets in the back of classrooms, copying from comics, embarrassing myself drawing nudes in after-school classes and realizing I’ve only been drawing boobs for the past hour. Sometime in high school I found out that I could somewhat reliably draw the same character: a nebbishy ne’er-do-well called “The Shrew.” He was an art teacher who happened to look a lot like my art teacher, Mr. Drew, who I though was an idiot. I’ve since realized: I was a teenager; hence, I was the idiot, not him. I had a buddy who thought “The Shrew” was hilarious and he kept wanting more. From about that point on I figured if I could do this professionally, then I really should.
How did you get into children’s book illustration?
My mom was and is a youth librarian. That meant I spent a lot of time with kid’s books growing up. They never seemed like something you grew out of, so I kind of didn’t. Also, cartoons.
What are your favorite subjects?
Little guys with a ton of heart stuck in the maelstrom of life who are trying their best to navigate it. I felt that way a lot as a kid. With Rex, and other kid’s books I have coming out, I want to stay true to that feeling. So that, and of course dinosaurs, painting watercolor landscapes of up here where I live in the Catskills, and my dog Waldo. He is very expressive hound.
Your biography [on the book] mentions that your work has also appeared on tattoos—which ones?
“The occasional tattoo!” But yes. I’ve drawn a few for friends, most recently one of a Brooklyn Bridge for someone’s foot arch. To be fully honest, I’m more or less aggressively planting the seed that I want to do more. Like maybe of a cute dinosaur named Rex…?
What’s the story behind your mural at the Owl Farm?
Like any good bar story, it all began with becoming a regular. I got to know the owners at their sister bar Mission Dolores before Owl Farm opened because my wife and I would run these meet-ups where we would draw and caption this cartoon character called Shitty Kitty. (The cat has no place in children’s literature.) Despite the horrible things I would draw Shitty Kitty doing, the owners really liked the look of my stuff. When they were opening up Owl Farm they had my wife and I hand paint their sign and let me paint all over the walls of the bar. It’s kind of my ten-percent-as-cool-version of Bemelmans’ bar at the Carlyle.
And what do you miss (and what do you not miss) about Brooklyn now that you live in the Catskills?
I always tell people the number one thing I miss is takeout, which I think is pretty accurate. Because my wife and I moved to the Catskills to open up the Spruceton Inn: A Catskills Bed and Bar, and not just live in the woods and subsist off of deer carcasses, I don’t miss people. Our friends come up to the hotel, really exciting and interesting people come up to the hotel, and then when they’re not here I get to live the fantasy of being an artist and writer in the woods.
What I don’t miss is all of the baggage attached to everything that happens in Brooklyn: Are we gentrifying? Renewing? Hipsters? Though I suppose I’m doomed to forever live that life since now I’m part of a new wave of NYC transplants hitting the region and we’re getting all of the same trend pieces Williamsburg and Greenpoint have suffered through for the past decade. But going back to takeout—what an amazing thing, right!? What I would give to see a delivery man biking up my snow-covered road with plastic bags covering his hands to protect himself against the frigid winds!