Michael Gross never planned on joining the front lines of the fight against cancer.
The guy who once put a terrified-looking dog on the cover of National Lampoon magazine with a gun to its head and the words, "If You Don't Buy This Magazine, We'll Kill This Dog," was only thinking he'd have a little fun with his art students when he told them to draw a hand with a raised middle finger.
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"Makes a dramatic statement and teaches a little about anatomy," the gruff, gravelly voiced artist quipped one recent morning as he sat on the deck of his beach-front bungalow in Oceanside, sipping coffee.
It was only after he reviewed the drawings that Gross, who is dying of kidney cancer, had one of those white-light bursts of inspiration: "I said to myself this is really funny. And I said this also makes a nice statement about how I feel about cancer."
So the artist who spent a career corralling others to work with him on magazine covers and films began calling in favors from muralists, abstract expressionists, illustrators and others. Whether they worked in oil or acrylic, pen or pencil, they would all do the same thing: Create a drawing of a hand with a raised middle finger.
Having gathered more than 30, he plans to organize them into a touring gallery show this fall, eventually sell them and also screen some onto T-shirts and limited-edition prints for sale. He plans to donate whatever money is raised to Scripps Health's cancer-treatment programs.
The works run the gamut from Gross' own pop-art drawing of a green hand with a raised middle finger to graphic designer Tracy Belcher's nude woman in profile flipping somebody off.
Everett Peck, who created the popular cartoon character for the 1990s TV series "Duckman: Private Dick/Family Man," decided to go with a leering, cigar-chomping, eight-fingered spider.
"I just thought if one finger is good enough, then seven more is better," laughed Peck. "I wish it were deeper than that, but that's about it."
Like others, Peck says he was flattered to be asked for a drawing. Gross is a legendary figure in art circles, not only for his quirky, oversized personality but for his impact on popular culture.
When New York's prestigious Pratt Institute held a 125th anniversary celebration two years ago it surveyed people for their thoughts on the 125 most admired icons created by alumni. Gross' "Ghostbusters" logo, created for the films of the same name, came in first, beating out the Chrysler Building.
When the American Society of Magazine Editors released its list of the top 40 magazine covers, the artist's dog with the gun to its head was No. 7, not bad for an illustration that wasn't even planned for the cover.
"We were just going to do it as a subscription ad in the magazine," recalled Gross, who was National Lampoon's art director. "Then we thought the next one would be, `OK, we killed the dog. Now we're going to kill the cat. We really mean it.'"
Fortunately, he learned the humor magazine's editors were planning an entire issue making fun of death. The dog was promoted.
From the Lampoon, the New York-born artist segued into producing films, everything from hits like "Ghostbusters" to flops like the Sylvester Stallone turkey "Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot."
The films brought him to California, where he eventually retired to a career of curating and offering private art lessons. He'd recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer when he gave his students the raised-finger assignment.
"I've got a year or two, they tell me. So I thought, `Well, let's do some new things and have some fun.'"
Among Gross' art students is popular veteran San Diego radio personality Madison, who had organized a pair of benefit concerts for Scripps' Loren Nancarrow Healing Garden Project, an ambitious effort named for the late San Diego news anchor who died of cancer.
The program provides a calm garden setting for people undergoing radiation treatment at Scripps, as well as funds for cancer-related therapies not covered by insurance. If enough money is raised the entire garden will eventually be named for Nancarrow.
Madison and Gross, meanwhile, have partnered on a kickstarter project aimed at raising $12,000 to mount the gallery shows and create the initial T-shirts and prints. Whatever they raise from the sales will go to the garden project.
"I don't see it raising a lot," Gross says of the effort. "But maybe the shirts will sell and maybe it will grow and maybe it will be a recurring thing after I'm gone. And that would be nice."
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