Artist, an Addict, and a Life Cut Short
illustrator Richard Stoddard enjoyed the good times, suffered
through the bad times, and paid dearly for his heroin habit
in 1998 with ex-girlfriend Amber Briscoe (right),
and another friend.
is an image of Richard Stoddard that will forever be fixed
in the memory of the people who knew him in Albany, in the
good years. It’s Richard standing outside of a bar or Lark
Street Tattoo, rocking back and forth on the heels of his
pointed cowboy boots, cigarette in hand and his Buddy Holly
glasses tilted just so. Looking hip and artsy and always
a little restless. Looking like he owned the street.
a city where so many people in the arts know each other,
Richard Stoddard crossed a dozen different paths in his
15 years in Albany. He was a classically trained illustrator
who honed his craft at the Parsons School of Design in New
York City. He was a graphic artist and illustrator at the
Albany Times Union who for many years formed his
closest friendships in the newsroom. He was also a tattoo
designer who loved the simple, clean lines of flash, as
tattoo art is known.
Stoddard had friends in the music scene, friends in the
bars and acquaintances all over the city. He was an artist,
a journalist and a stylish presence at parties, who could
switch from rockabilly to suave between social functions.
He once went to a party at the wrong address and mingled
so seamlessly, chatting and sipping a drink, that it was
some time before he realized he didn’t recognize anyone,
and that his party was at his boss’ house, next door.
Always immaculately turned out in vintage attire that matched
the film noir tone of his drawings, Stoddard nonetheless
felt an irresistible attraction for late-night street life
in seedy neighborhoods and a pull to the people he found
And he was a junkie, who managed to keep his heroin habit
at bay for weeks, months, even years at a stretch, but could
never really get it out of his life for good.
Stoddard died last spring, at age 46, at his mother’s home
in Gloversville. He suffered a massive heart attack around
dawn April 30, and died a few steps away from the room where
his bedridden mother was sleeping, before anyone knew he
had been stricken. The heroin racked him badly in those
final months, though, and in the minds of his friends, heroin
certainly shortened his life by decades.
death was a combination of genetics—an uncle had died of
a heart attack at exactly the same age—and 25 years of abusing
his body with a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit and a diet
straight out of a vending machine. Stoddard’s penchant for
junk food and his aversion to exercise were a joke among
his friends, but the joke stopped being funny when his cholesterol
level went above 400—more than twice the acceptable maximum.
Always slightly built, and emaciated at the end of his life,
he nonetheless had severely blocked arteries, the autopsy
He died quietly, as best the coroner could determine, without
pain or even the time to feel afraid. It wasn’t the sinking
“Uh, oh, I really did it this time” sensation of an overdose
that every addict subconsciously awaits, as his sister,
N. Shelly Viscosi, puts it.
Instead, Stoddard’s death was a gradual slipping away, a
loss of consciousness that caught him unaware in the kitchen.
The coroner could tell, from the posture of his body and
the position of his arms, that he braced himself against
the counter and hung there as the lightheadedness worsened.
Then he slid to the floor, bending slowly over on his knees,
and gently crumpled facedown on the carpet. His family found
him that afternoon.
was the most blessed death this young man could have ever
hoped for,” Viscosi says. “And there were so many other
places this could have happened.”
has a series of drawings that Stoddard did very early in
his career—either in his last year of high school, or just
after he began at Parsons—that he called Toys in the
Attic. The pen-and-ink drawings depict the attic of
his childhood home as a carnival fun house. Richard drew
himself as a puppet toy in those scenes, with a Christian
cross formed by two intersecting support beams in the ceiling.
Religious motifs often appeared in Stoddard’s work, and
his later drawings expanded on the macabre tone hinted at
in Toys in the Attic. Vampish women, fantasies and
a sensual, slightly deviant twist marked his art, especially
his art outside of the Times Union.
He carried small sketchbooks everywhere in which he recorded
scenes he wanted to remember. The pages were filled with
charming drawings of his beloved cats stretching, sleeping
and sunning themselves. He wrote meticulously illustrated
letters to friends, and produced limited editions of storybooks
featuring characters he drew in series.
really appreciated beauty,” says Richard Lovrich, a classmate
of Stoddard’s at Parsons and a coworker in the Times
Union art department. “He would draw the women he was
with. He probably did more of his cats as totally natural
work. When he did women, it was always stylized.”
The sketchbooks were free of the influence of the computerized
drawing programs Stoddard eventually began to use in the
newsroom, as were his early illustrations for the paper.
far as he was concerned, I lament the day the computer was
invented,” Lovrich says. “The stuff he did in his own hand
was so beautiful—more fantastic, more detailed—and the sense
of fantasy was heightened. He was always very taken with
the flash world, so there were always skulls, devils, tortured
figures. He didn’t do shows; he didn’t do any large-scale
pieces. His best work was in sketchbooks and correspondence
would pick up small objects he found—matchbooks, gum wrappers,
the frayed remains of a firecracker found on a street—and
glue them into the sketchbooks for future reference. He
taught this practice to another coworker and friend in the
Times Union art department, Jeff Scherer.
you’re an illustrator-artist, anything that sparks your
interest may show up in your work,” Scherer says.
Stoddard was not a prodigy, as former Times Union
editor Jeff Cohen described him in the Times Union
obituary. It is unlikely that Stoddard would have applied
that label to himself. He embraced the persona of an artist,
he hung out with artists, and he would talk art with anyone
who would listen. But he never called himself an artist.
He was, instead, a talented kid from Gloversville who thrilled
his high school art teacher by getting into Parsons, one
of the leading design schools in the country. There, he
studied under eminent teachers such as Maurice Sendak, known
for his beautiful drawings of a child’s nightmare monsters
come to life in Where the Wild Things Are.
Stoddard never intended to become a newsroom artist. He
graduated from Parsons in 1977 and worked in New York City
as an artist and gallery director until 1986. Then he gravitated
back upstate, an hour from his hometown, and joined the
Times Union. As his friends in Albany would later
learn, he was trying to leave parts of New York City behind,
and he thought that was best done by making a clean break.
came home from a trip into New York City when he was 14
and told his sister that he had shot up heroin for the first
time. He showed her a credible needle mark on his arm, and
her reprimand didn’t phase him at all.
said, ‘Yeah, but it was great,’” she recalls.
As friends gradually learned, he got into heroin heavily
in New York City, and then got clean. It wasn’t something
he discussed casually; people who worked with him sometimes
didn’t know for years. But those who knew him best in his
early Albany years generally agree that Stoddard got off
heroin shortly before moving upstate, and stayed clean for
close to a decade.
He flourished at the Times Union, pushing the boundaries
of what a newspaper would print. His illustrations often
dominated a page, such as his drawing for a feature on television
addicts: a human figure bound with the rubber tubing that
junkies use to find a vein, with a television instead of
a head and one hand holding a syringe.
Jeff Cohen moved to Albany in 1994 to become the Times
Union editor after spending most of his career in Texas.
A product of the Hearst newspaper chain, Cohen was fascinated
by design and graphics. He immediately gravitated to Stoddard.
think Jeff had a history, too, in the past, in Texas, of
really liking some really artsy, avant-garde types,” Lovrich
says. “Richard was there (in Albany) before him; he helped
Jeff understand the graphic environment there.”
Cohen left the Times Union in May to become the editor
of the Houston Chronicle. He declined to be interviewed
for this article.
Stoddard’s life outside of work also flourished. He fell
in love with a University at Albany student named Amber
Briscoe, 10 years younger than him and with the striking
looks of a model. They lived together and talked of marriage
as she finished college and started working as a television
was at once incredibly warm and sensitive and masculine
and nobody’s fool,” says Briscoe, who moved to New York
City in early 1995. “He was a very unselfish person in a
relationship in a lot of ways. I was head over heels in
love with him. And I really wanted to have a baby with him.
We told our families that we were getting married. We told
our friends that we were getting married.”
But after the fireworks faded, the marriage talk faltered.
Stoddard loved the bars late at night, a habit Briscoe never
acquired. He talked about his former addiction, and told
her he could not absolutely promise that he could remain
told me when he was clean and we were together, that being
a junkie makes you a great liar and a great actor,” she
recalls. “And he wasn’t proud of that, but it’s just what
Briscoe thought Stoddard found it difficult to fill the
time once taken up by his habit. After so many years of
looking for heroin, of looking for ways to pay for heroin,
of waiting while it cooked and then waiting while it took
hold and wore off, he never found a leisure activity to
completely fill the void it left in his life.
One night he fell coming out of an ATM booth and fractured
his elbow. A doctor prescribed a codeine-based painkiller,
and Briscoe got an illuminating glimpse of Stoddard’s old
life. The painkillers seemed awfully important to him.
had to wait a certain number of days before he could get
his refills,” she recalls. “And I remember him sitting outside
the pharmacy, so he could get his refills.”
She moved out soon after that. His craving for the painkillers
didn’t drive her away, but it was part of a growing disillusionment,
and she knew they would never get married.
and Stoddard broke up in late 1994. Sometime in the following
months, Stoddard’s friends began noticing something wrong.
The signs were subtle at first. He was tired. He rambled.
He began punching out the same computer-generated images
over and over again at work.
get a little spacey. He’d disappear,” recalls Michael Farrell,
a Times Union photographer who had become one of
Stoddard’s close friends. “I know he was back to using.”
Stoddard was working a night shift, and strangers started
showing up in the newsroom. Coworkers took note. He began
On a Monday in January 1997, Stoddard was summoned into
a conference room at the Times Union for a meeting
on a project. Cohen, several other members of Times Union
management and two Newspaper Guild representatives waited
in the room.
They were blunt. They knew he was using heroin. He could
go into rehab, or he would be fired. Either way, he was
leaving the Times Union that day.
Stoddard chose rehab. The guards escorted him out, and he
entered St. Peter’s Hospital that day to detox. From there,
he entered a 90-day rehab program at Conifer Park in Saratoga
He came back three months later, professing gratitude for
the second chance. Actually, the 1997 rehab may not have
been the first time the paper intervened. Several of Stoddard’s
former coworkers believe the Times Union also sent
him into rehab in 1996, but very quietly and for a much
shorter time. The 1996 rehab was cast as a vacation, says
Mark Sharer, a Times Union artist who sat next to
The paper’s decision to go far beyond the call of duty for
Stoddard was controversial. Staff members still debate whether
it was Cohen, management or the Newspaper Guild that insisted
on rehab. There is little doubt that Cohen was among those
who pressed for such a humane approach. Stoddard’s rent
and utilities were paid, his pets were cared for, and his
job was held.
It was well known that Cohen had favorites, and that he
showed his favoritism lavishly. There was some grumbling
in the newsroom, but most reporters and editors viewed Cohen’s
action on Stoddard’s addiction as one of Cohen’s better
amazing thing for a corporation like that to do,” Stoddard’s
sister says. “I’m a registered nurse. I hear a lot of things,
and I’ve never heard of a corporation doing anything like
that for an employee. And I bless them for it.”
never married, but he came the closest he ever would to
having a family of his own the summer after he got out of
rehab. He stopped hanging out in bars and started hanging
out in a Lark Street coffee shop, Café Dolce. He struck
up a friendship with a young woman working there, and soon
was spending whole Sundays there just so he could talk with
Heather Fortunato was 15 years younger than Stoddard. She
was a funeral director, working temporarily in the coffee
shop, and was about to land her first job in her profession
when Stoddard met her. Over their first dinner, he told
her he was newly clean, so she would not hear it from someone
else. They became inseparable.
They were an unusual match, but Stoddard’s friends recall
that time as an idyllic period for Stoddard. Fortunato was
a single mother with two little boys from a failed marriage.
Stoddard found himself trying to win over Fortunato’s toddler
son, who resented his presence. Stoddard engaged the little
boys with his drawing; he stayed up late with them watching
Nickelodeon and called their time together “The Crazy Boys
Club.” And he won their affection.
me, it was like, instant family; just add water,” Fortunato
recalls. “I went from single mom, trying to get by, and
he went from junkie to family. He said we did everything
better than anyone else. We fought better than anyone else
and we were happy better than anyone else. I don’t think
he was used to having to communicate that way.”
They were together two years, and—as with Amber Briscoe—everything
went beautifully until they had to decide to marry or move
apart. They had never given up their own apartments, and
Stoddard began telling Fortunato that he needed space. He
grew moody and withdrawn, and the romance ended.
He kept coming back to her, though, for help, not love.
Many of his friends had married by then, and he was often
alone. She saw that he was slipping badly, but it was so
hard to help him.
the people who would have noticed something was wrong, he
distanced himself from,” she says.
His job started to implode, even though by then he had been
promoted to graphics editor. His longtime friendships with
Jeff Scherer and Mark Sharer frayed; they both transferred
to the advertising art department. Cohen was either oblivious
to Stoddard’s slide or unwilling to confront it again.
was showing up at the Times Union to get a paycheck
to feed his habit,” recalls Scherer, who still finds it
painful to speak of Stoddard. “It’s really tough when you
start working with someone, like them, and then this comes
along and you get blindsided. I can’t get past that stuff
to remember when we were just hanging out.”
When it seemed the situation could not go on any longer,
Stoddard suddenly quit. The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
offered him a job as head of the graphics department. He
headed to Rochester in November 2000, and returned days
later. No one knew what happened, but many of his former
coworkers suspected he had failed the drug test. The Times
Union would not take him back.
Stoddard started down the last slide of a junkie’s life.
He began selling his possessions; he looked unkempt. He
had already lost his car because he couldn’t pay a repair
bill. He was crashing at different apartments, having been
locked out of his North Lake Avenue loft for back rent.
Realizing he was desperate, his longtime friends Tom “T-Bone”
Martin and Bruce Kaplan, co-owners of Lark Street Tattoo,
offered him a part-time job. Stoddard sported elaborate
tattoos on both arms and had worked casually at the shop
for years, designing tattoos.
In late December 2001, Martin fired Stoddard. Money had
started disappearing, and Stoddard kept missing work.
was the worst day of my life,” Martin says. “I said, ‘Richard,
time will pass and maybe we can work this out, but you can’t
be here right now.’ And he walked out and that was the last
time I saw him alive. His connection here was the last connection
to reality he had.”
A few days later, a friend drove Stoddard to Gloversville.
His sister had asked him to help care for their mother,
and Stoddard had no other place left to go. It was the first
week of the new year.
up in caring for her mother and still reeling from her brother’s
death, Viscosi has not yet planned a memorial service for
family can’t, at this time, have what he deserves,” she
Stoddard’s friends in Albany are still sorting through anger
and grief and sorrow. Some find it difficult to get past
the memories of Richard the needy junkie, who borrowed money
and broke promises and betrayed people who trusted him.
Others try to focus on better recollections of the loving,
generous friend that Stoddard was for so long when he was
clean, the talented young artist whose most lasting memorial
outside of the newsroom may be in his sketchbooks.
In chronological years, Stoddard died young. But those who
knew him well think his greatest surprise in life—even to
himself—may have been that he lived as long as he did.
As Michael Farrell says, “I don’t think he ever thought
he’d be older than 35.”
McGrath worked with Richard Stoddard at the Albany Times
Union from 1995 to 1998. Examples of Stoddard’s later work
can be seen in the Johnny Meow panels posted on the cartoon
strips link of Jeff Scherer’s Web site, www.finestamphibians.com.