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An Artist, an Addict, and a Life Cut Short

Local illustrator Richard Stoddard enjoyed the good times, suffered through the bad times, and paid dearly for his heroin habit

By Darryl McGrath

Stoddard in 1998 with ex-girlfriend Amber Briscoe (right), and another friend.

There 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.

In 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 there.

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.

Stoddard’s 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 revealed.

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.

“That 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.”

Viscosi 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.

“He 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.

“As 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 to friends.”

Stoddard 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.

“When 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.

Stoddard 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.

“He 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.

“I 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 field producer.

“He 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 clean.

“He 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 you do.”

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.

“He 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.

Briscoe 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.

“He’d 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 missing deadlines.

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 Springs.

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 Stoddard.

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 moments.

“An 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.”

Stoddard 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 her.

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.

“For 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.

“All 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.

“He 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.

“It 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.

Caught up in caring for her mother and still reeling from her brother’s death, Viscosi has not yet planned a memorial service for Stoddard.

“His family can’t, at this time, have what he deserves,” she says.

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.”

Darryl 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.


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