Where Do We Come From?
With a noise so pervasive it becomes its own brand of silence, the hollow hum of the road beneath the station wagon tires lulls me into a state between wakefulness and dreams. In the forward-facing seats behind me I hear the disjointed and distant murmurs of my family: Mom and dad talking about some kind of adult thing or other, far in the front seats, my older sister and younger brother giggling or playing bingo. Texas unravels before me.
I’m traveling in reverse. Time unwinds, lights flit by, small constellations mixing with the headlights of oncoming cars vying for position with my dad. The sky in places is quite dark and the Milky Way scatters across my vision. On various horizons, though, I can see the hot red glow of the refineries pumping toxic cotton candy into the night sky. Thousands of tiny lights straining in the haze.
Leaving or entering Houston, a giant neon eagle flaps its wings in a strange syncopation, a strange but welcome beacon to my young mind, broken by cement cloverleaf columns as they glide by. There were few turns on that long Texas ribbon, and my mind burgeoned with a crazy quilt of superheroes, swashbuckling pirates, barbarians, spaceships, detectives and God knows what else. There was plenty of time for reverie and recovery.
My children and I visited my mother for Christmas and while in Texas I invariably get in an incredibly reflective state of mind. I visit a pile of my old haunts, dig through the attic and through what books I still have at my mother’s.
I love this, but it also brings me down. That’s not always a bad thing, really. At least I don’t think so. I’ve always felt that feeling those things keeps me in touch with the emotional connection an artist should have with life and all that, and it keeps me honest with who I am, where I’ve come from and where I’m going. There’s a price, for sure, but the good memories far outweigh the bad and it’s worth it to me.
When my mother drove us back to the airport in Houston, day before yesterday, I found myself reflecting on all the car rides I’d had from home to Houston and back again over the years. It’s not a short ride (two hours), especially for a kid, though if you live in Texas long car rides are de rigeur. We used to drive to my grandparents (on my father’s side) in Amarillo. This was an eighteen-hour ride which my dad would do in one go. We never left the state. One long, lo-o-o-o-ong, interminable thread of road we gathered before us, and unwound behind us.
We usually made this trip in a large old station wagon that rattled and clattered endlessly in the back seat. I have an older sister and a younger brother and when we were on the road we couldn’t stand each other’s company. This led to all kinds of mischief, and retribution from my father who had no problem slewing the car off of the road to give us a taste of his belt. We deserved it, actually, as there had been plenty of dire warnings preceding (glares from the rearview mirror) and mom twisting in her seat to whisper to us that dad was watching, etc. My brother and I were probably slamming bubble gum in each other’s hair, or my sister was antagonizing us to no end. So it was a slow burn to defcon 1. No surprises there. But beyond that stuff, and there was plenty of it because we couldn’t keep still for more than thirty minutes at a crack, I remember lots of time to watch the world go by, an interesting pageant in the sixties and seventies.
I remember occupying the farthest seat in the back, which was pretty neat actually. You felt totally separated from the goings on in the front of the car. Sounds were muted and one was left with the drone of the tires over the road and one’s own thoughts.
You watched the other cars behind you, watched the landscape delivered like a movie through the back windshield. And this got me thinking about nature versus nurture and how we receive and parse information, then and now. Lots of people had the exact same experiences I had in that strange rumble seat of the time, but for me it was time to think and to dream (which it was for them, too), but I wonder if this isn’t partly responsible for my becoming an artist.
Certainly lots contributed to that, but watching my own children now, I notice that they rarely look outside the confines of the car unless I specifically point things out along the way. They usually have their noses buries in an ipod or iphone, playing some game or other. How different is that, ultimately, from my comic books or other stimulus that I had? Except that road trips, though sprinkled with the ephemera of my youth (comic books, toys, etc.) were mostly long drawn out affairs where the show really was the landscape rushing by and the ache in one’s legs and ass from being cramped up in the car for too long. And in Texas the landscape can be pretty monotonous, to be sure. But one found interest, even then: The cricket pumps bobbing in the fields, each to its own rhythm. Cows lowing, white cowbirds lifting off from the wet reflections of the sky in the rice fields. Barbed wire outposts zipping by, while we struggled to see if there were condensers to know if it was electrified or not. The shimmering reflection of heat on the blacktop, where cars and trucks looked to be melting in the distance. Visually collecting states from the license plates of other cars coming and going. Waiting at a railroad crossing counting the rumbling steel cars as they flew by, while dad talked about the old Rock Island express that would stop in Amarillo during the Depression. A parade of tunes through our ears as accompaniment, CCR, CSNY, Cat Stevens, Janice Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, The Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, my father whistling some big band tune from WWII, or him akin us what we wanted to hear him sing next. The reply was a unanimous “Nothing!”, after which he’d launch into “Nothing, nothing at all!” at the top of his voice. The crinkly rustle of mom turning the pages of her magazines, or the clicking of her knitting needles, her glasses riding low on her nose.
My father would point to the cows along the roadside and tell us to “look at the kitty cats!”, and we would, then groan because we knew better. But we liked it anyway, his plays with words and the meanings of things. He talked of Hummingphants coming to our hummingbird feeders, little elephants with wings like hummingbirds. We would crack up. So I do this with my children now, calling out the kitty cats along the way. They groan too. But it’s a great connection to each other, really.
Anyway, I bring all this up because I think a lot about how we arrive at our creativity, or our drive to be creative. What formed us in that way? Why are some predisposed to this type of stuff and others not? Why do some arrive at this later in life and others seem born to it? How much is nature versus nurture?
I don’t have any answers, of course, but I think about it constantly. I’ve blamed my generation’s creative drives to “Space Food Sticks”, a weird chocolatey, slightly malleable food stick from the Vietnam era Space Race that came wrapped in a plastic foil-like material that looked like it was ripped right from John Glen’s spacesuit. They tasted like shit but we gobbled them up because it’s what the astronauts ate! They’re not around anymore, so it’s a convenient thing to hang conjecture on, along with Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop Tarts, another of the great brain foods (interestingly, also wrapped in a spacesuit sort of plastic). Maybe the Fluoride in the water, though that had been around since 1945. Who knows?
I do know that I have always been interested and transfixed by things in print, the graphic image. I can remember being stopped dead in my tracks at a very early age by printed material, the look of ink on the page, the way the closely packed dots actually worked together to create this facsimile of a painting on a paperback book cover. I was fascinated by this stuff. I could not get enough of it! Still cannot. It wasn’t just the artwork on the printed page that was killing me, it was the process of getting those images on the paper that did it to me too. I was one of the ones that ordered that crappy pressed tin printing press from the back of the comic book in the late sixties. It was dinky, but not too bad for my kid hands, and you had to actually set the type, small rubber letters that you slid into a thin metal strip, which then fit onto the roller. I was so excited! In my head I had visions of full-color comic books rolling off my press! Yes! I couldn’t wait. It was a letdown, of course, the black and white thing with type that rolled out of my press, but I was still proud of it. It was one step closer to the real thing!
I remember having to take piano lessons when I was a kid. I absolutely did not want to do this. I wanted to play more baseball and to spend my time running around the old oil fields, reading my comics and drawing. But my mother wanted her children to be able to play an instrument, which is really a pretty cool sentiment. I wasn’t into it then, though now I wish I had been! As there was there was no choice, I would dutifully go, usually dressed in my baseball uniform, and would put in the requisite amount of time on it all, but didn’t really have the heart for it. What made it bearable was watching my teacher, Mrs. Thompson, write out the music, along with various instructions for me in a spiral notebook. She would sharpen her pencils into long, long points, and there would be close to five or ten of these sitting in a row on the piano lid, and when she wrote she would bear down on the point, the lead digging into the paper, the wonderful grey line spilling out. She wrote with utter grace, conviction and speed, even power and it blew my mind. I could watch her write all day long. How weird is that?
I would memorize what I was supposed to do, hitting the right notes at the correct times, able to put the right inflection into it all, knew when to turn the pages so it looked like I was reading the music, and all that. But it was watching her write on those crisp, creamy white pages, those pencils and the lines! I can still remember all that. I also loved the graphics on the sheet music and the way the notes looked on the staff paper. Loved all that. Just not the playing or the insistence that I do something I didn’t want to be doing. Stupid kid. But I found a way to love it all.
My best friend, Lum Edwards, and I would ride our bikes all over town, hitting the couple of stores that sold comics and we’d haunt the racks for a half-hour or so, struggling over what books to get. Then ride to a different local grocery store that seemed to be the only one that would carry Creepy or Eerie magazines and repeat the haunting. I remember going to the local library and pulling out the bound volumes of Time magazine to look at the covers, which mostly all sported painted pieces on them. They were from a different era and yet they packed a visual punch. We were in thrall to this stuff.
We spent hours and hours and hours writing and drawing various comic book stories and publishing our own little fanzine back then. It was an all-consuming passion for us.
At that time I think anyone who had half an interest in the visual arts could be roped in by the plethora of illustrations that graced the covers of most magazines and all books.
And I return again to the idea of what really was the deciding factor in my becoming an artist. Was it just a dearth of interest in anything else and so I was drawn to the colorful world of make-believe? I had plenty of artistic genes running in my family. My dad’s brother, Uncle Joe, was a very good painter and pastel artist. When I was a kid he and I would sit before the fireplace during the Christmas holidays and he would draw me various characters from literature, most notably, and my most requested, being Sherlock Holmes. I was fascinated by this. Watching him draw, indeed watching anyone draw, is magic to my eyes. No other entertainment comes close, even now.
Uncle Joe’s son, my cousin Jake, also was a wonderful draftsman, though he didn’t pursue it. He was the one that introduced me to piles of stuff (quite a bit that my parents would have been dismayed by), like underground comics, Doc Savage, Conan, Creepy and Eerie, all of which I found endlessly fascinating and copied religiously. My father’s sister also had lots of artistic abilities and she was instrumental in loving up on my early efforts. Further back in the family lineage on my mother’s side, the woman we called Uncle Nel (my mother’s tomboy aunt) was good at drawing and my mother still has some of her charcoal drawings about the house.
My mother took painting lessons and was quite good, though she can never admit it. I try to get her to paint even now, but she rarely has the time or the inclination. So, to some degree it was in my blood.
There were also several artists locally that I was friends with and they pushed me constantly as well. Phyllis Lee is a wonderful painter and I met her through my mother who was taking painting lessons from her. She had as a student Lyn Sweat who did the Amelia Bedelia illustrations, but who is an excellent painter as well. Phyllis did it all, sculpture, paintings drawings, and all were really great.
Another artist was George Farrar who did lots of cowboy scenes but who was also into the sword and sorcery genre and into Frazetta. He worked on the original “Charlotte’s Web” cartoon painting backgrounds. I loved to hang out at his studio and hear his tales of living in San Francisco during the 1960’s. Lots of fun. His pen and inks were meticulously detailed with a Rapid-o-graph drafting pen. He taught me a lot about leaving things open.
I also think that my being cooped up in the hospital as a kid had a profound effect on my leaning in this direction. I had two open-heart surgeries as a kid. The first I was too young to remember anything about as I was only one year old. The second I do remember quite a bit about. I was five or so in 1966, confined to my bed at the Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, Texas, and Batman was on television. I was hooked on that show. My family saw my interest and started bringing me comic books to read. It was all over at that point. They were colorful and graphic and so much more interesting than a hospital room!
I never looked back.
I remember, too, a television show that was local back then called Cowboy John. He was the local weatherman on one of the channels, but he would dress up as a cowboy and draw famous cartoon characters on television. First he would draw the character, then show you how to do it. I loved it.
Thanks to Chris Williams’s response in the comments section below for reminding me about my next door neighbor who was an architect, which got me wanting to do that when I was younger as well. I would sit and watch him work and quiz him on everything. I was very serious about it for a time. I loved the tools that went with being an architect! Bright shiny precision instruments! Very cool. So I took mechanical drawing classes in high school where we did exploded view drawings and where attention to detail was the order of the day. This was when calculators had just come out and their use was forbidden in school — it was seen as cheating. The more I delved into the idea of being an architect the more the math convinced me it wasn’t for me. But my sister and I (as you can read in my comment to Chris’s memories) used to sit on the floor of the den and create incredibly detailed floor plans for crazy mansions we would dream up. Lots of fun! But I wonder, too, if my early attraction and push for architecture helped me in understanding the importance of craft at an early age? Craft is something for another post, really. Hmm…need to work on that one!
I was incredibly lucky in that my father was a voracious reader. He read any and everything under the sun. From heady scientific treatises, world history, military history, dime store detectives, autobiographies, and magazines of every stripe. He had several books going at once on his bedside table, on the coffee table in the den. Everywhere. I waded through it all, enamored of the images they all presented. “The Annotated Sherlock Holmes” full of those Sidney Paget illustrations. The Robert McGinnis covers I found on the Carter Brown novels, and the John D. MacDonald novels blew my mind. The James Bama covers on the Doc Savage novels, and the Frazetta covers on the Burroughs and Robert E. Howard books! There was so much to see, to visually wallow in. And I wallowed to my heart’s content, usually at the cost of my grades. That’s when my parents pulled out the big guns and started threatening to burn my comic collection and take me out of baseball. They were threats only, and it worked. My grades would come up, briefly.
And because of the wonderful trove of reading material that was scattered throughout my home, I too became a voracious reader. One of the greatest gifts handed to me by my father. And certainly the reading contributed to my visual language. Reading is seeing. It’s an amazing extra form of what John Gardner in “Becoming a Novelist” calls the “waking dream”. And while we’re there the writer, with our help and blessing, constructs these wonderful images in our minds. And that leap of faith is very much the same as what artists do all the time in making their images. Maybe that’s the lure? It’s what I imagine drugs are to an addict and why it’s so hard to give it up. It’s a place that seems to hold so much more promise than the real world.
Anything can happen, and (as Alan Gurganus mentions in his essay for the book Scout, Atticus and Boo –
“It’s a form of dreaming, an extra form of dreaming; it’s a kind of algebraic balancing act, a kind of working out of equivalencies. And it’s a place where where justice can actually happen. That’s one of the unacknowledged powers of the novel, is that here in this little town, in these two hundred pages, a life is saved, something is salvaged, perfect justice is achieved, however improbably. And I think that that’s one of the reasons we read, is to have our faith in the process renewed.”
Though he’s talking about writing, really, the impulses are the same.
It’s a comforting place, mostly, drawing and painting. Yet, there’s so much that is hard about it all, though only practitioners know this. It’s why so many laypeople have no idea how tough it is, and have this false impression that we’re all just having a great time doing what we do. It’s not work, right? Yet they admit they can’t do it and gave up quickly ever entertaining any desire to pursue it. Why is that? Because it’s HARD TO DO! But it’s easier to pretend that we’re having fun rather than they not having the wherewithal to struggle through the hard thing.
It also irks people that we love what we do. I get it. Most people aren’t happy with what they have to do on a regular basis. But as I tell my students, if you’re in it for the money, then you’re in the wrong business. Not that it can’t be financially rewarding, it can be. But that’s not the reason to ever want to be an artist. And if you’re not into, there’s lots of easier ways to make money. Also, if you don’t love this job, then there are lots better jobs out there where you don’t have to mentally show up and actually “be there” in mind as well as body.
Doing art for a living as an illustrator is being able to turn on the spigot and be creative at the behest of someone else— instantly. It can also be hand to mouth for years and years. When it’s good, it’s great. Nothing can beat the feeling of doing a piece of art that really works out. On the flip side, when it’s not going well it can be the worst nightmare one can imagine, the most self-defeating and frustrating thing on the planet. Every piece has a mind of its own. They rarely are what I intended them to be. Many are better than what I was striving for, which is wonderful. Lots, more probably, are not and fall way below what I saw in my mind’s eye.
But I digress. Where does it all come from? I’d love to hear from you, dear reader, about your own ideas on this. I have something I ask my students each semester, which is, “Have you ever had an art epiphany?” One of mine was when I was living in New York. I was there eighteen years and I loved visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the weekends. I invariably found myself in the Impressionist wing as I loved wandering among the Monets and Degas pieces especially. I also could spend an inordinate amount of time in front of Bastien LePage’s “Joan of Arc” piece. I was not a fan of Van Gogh at the time, though now I find it hard to pinpoint why. Probably I was turned off by the drawing, which I didn’t get then. Now my threshold for naive drawing is lower and I can appreciate stuff I once could not. Maturity has its benefits.
On this particular day I meandered my way to the Impressionist wing and found myself in front of one of Vincent’s pieces, the poplar trees. I remember standing there and immediately being assaulted by this piece, and incredibly powerful emotions welled up inside of me. I stood in front of this painting literally weeping from the sheer beauty of it. I was embarrassed but I couldn’t help it. And ever since I’ve been a Van Gogh maniac. I cannot get over his work.
When I bring this up in my classes there are usually a couple of responses. The girls think it’s cool and are happy to offer up lots of epiphanies they’ve had. The guys, generally, are uncomfortable with the direction this story takes the class. They are more closed mouthed about any epiphanies they might have had, not wanting to look like a wuss or something. But once the stories start to come out, they loosen up a bit and tales will come forth.
What I do find, pretty consistently, is that most of my students do not know why they want to be artists, much less illustrators. And no amount of prodding can seem to drag a coherent answer from them. Maybe they really don’t know, which surprises the hell out of me. I always wanted to be an artist. Always. Yet maybe my questions spark an inner dialogue with my students and they begin to question their motivations. Who knows?
But pursuing being an artist in this day and age is a curious thing. Why would people knowingly put themselves in a position where failing is consistently part of the plan? Is in fact how one gets better. In a field where the odds are so staggeringly against success?
I’ll probably continue to add to this and try and clean it up a bit, maybe even adding some imagery, but I’ll go ahead and publish now to try and get some momentum from you guys.
So let me know your thoughts on this! I’d love to hear them and get a discussion going on this topic.
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