Saturday, April 28, 2007

Thoughts On Drawing...

I've been thinking a lot about drawing lately. I love to draw, always have...always will. I love pens, pencils, crayons, and now I even use my computer to draw. I was pretty lucky as a kid. Both my parents encouraged me to draw and there were always art supplies around. My dad and I would even "draw stories" together, telling tall tales as we sketched out collaborative scenes on paper. In my small Catholic grade school, I was friends with the other 3 'artistic' kids. At recess, when I wasn't busy tying the classroom crybaby to a tree for bawling his eyes out over a lost game of four-square (sorry, Mark) my little arty buddies and I would draw.

Then I started 6th grade at a public school. The new school was huge. It smelled like bleach and hot dogs, there were boys who had those downy pre-teen mustaches, and girls with big boobs and bigger permed hair. I barfed on my first day because I was convinced that my preppy Esprit outfit, bob haircut and I would be devoured by the secular freak fest even though I was 5'7", and stood head and shoulders above my mini-mustached classmates. And then there was the mandatory Art Class, which scared me even more than climbing the rope in gym. My teacher was awesome and also good looking (he had a full-on Tom Sellick mustache). This guy really tried his gosh darndest to make art class an all inclusive atmosphere. But despite his best intentions, over time it became known amongst the tweenagers who the "good artists" were, and I didn't make the cut. This lucky half dozen were the kids who possessed that freakish ability to draw things with photographic realness. It bored the crap out of me, because I was more interested in making up weird looking people with big pointy noses and bulgy Gene Wilder eyes, and writing funny job descriptions for them. It's not that people didn't like my stuff. Sure, my drawings got the laughs but it was the smudgy shaded, pencil drawings of "realistic" unicorns, long stemmed roses, and portraits of Boy George that got the "oohs and ahhhs". These were proudly displayed in the trophy cases after winning blue ribbons at the county fair or the prestigious mall art show.

At that point my drawing practice became more and more private. I never really stopped drawing, I just did it less publicly. By high school I was convinced that I either wanted to be a doctor or an architect so I focused on science classes and drafting (which was still drawing, but I just didn't call it that). I had to walk by the art department every day on my way to the drafting room and jealously scoffed at the moody still lives in the display case outside the door. Somehow I'd become convinced I wasn't "good enough" to be in art classes, but yet I can't ever remember anyone telling me that I wasn't. What the heck was happening?

After I graduated I got the hell out of dodge and studied abroad in Holland for a year. I absolutely won the Exchange Student Lottery with the amazing family I got placed with. For my birthday two months after I arrived they bought me a museum pass that was good for any museum in the country. I skipped a lot of school those first few rainy months and spent my long afternoons visiting museum after museum getting buzzed and chubby on strong Dutch coffee with cream, and bags of black licorice. I had no idea who any of these artists were, but standing before gigantic Rembrandt paintings wacky Jeff Koons sculptures blew my mind. Then, just when I thought things couldn't possibly get any better, my sweet family signed me up for drawing classes in the center of Amsterdam one day a week. Maybe it was the fact that I was really in a place where no one knew me, or the fact that my Dutch vocabulary at that time made me sound like a 2 year old, but drawing was something I could do to communicate, and so I began to trust myself again. I kept an elaborate sketchbook journal that included writing and drawing, and it is still one of my most prized possessions. I love it for the honesty and fearlessness recorded on those pages.

When I came back to the states I enrolled in art school at a big university. It made me nervous in the same way 6th grade did, but this time I didn't barf and luckily mustaches were out of style. I soon found though that art school shook that confidence that I'd built up in my year away. Being surrounded by such varied and intense talent sometimes made me want to throw my art supplies out the window, and there were professors and grad students who tried to tell you that you weren't good enough. But instead of listening to them I listened to more interesting people like the professor who told our class one day that drawing was anything you wanted it to be. It didn't have to be with a pen or pencil. In fact, this guy had an art show where he showcased a large mason jar full of a year's worth of his family's collected toenail clippings. He called this drawing. If that was true, then my 6 by 4 foot drawing of something I called The Flying Cupcake Lady had every right to exist too. And I stared to notice something very curious. The more I put myself out there, the more people responded. It didn't matter what I made, it was more about the confidence with which I put it out there. I listened to the people I wanted to listen to and drew ugly pictures of those who I thought were full of doo-doo butter.

Just recently I left my job at a local theatre to pursue another life path. At the theatre I was the lucky soul who got to illustrate and design all of the posters. I remember the first time I saw one of my posters in public. It was hanging front and center on an espresso stand outside a cafe. I almost rear-ended the car in front of me, partly out of shock, and a little bit out of pride but mostly out of a kind of panic I hadn't ever felt. My stuff was out in the world, on espresso stands and the sides of busses and on free bookmarks in cafes. Everywhere. Exposed! Surely people would see right through me, call the theatre and demand I be fired for putting such ridiculous stuff out into the world. But guess what? That never happened, people actually liked what I was doing. Complete strangers wrote me emails to tell me so, and ask for my "secrets" (I promise I really don't have any). Again I was reminded of what I have been shown over and over. Show up at the page, do the work, and the rest will come. Trust.
What is it that keeps us from trusting our creative instincts? It is something that I and many other creatives struggle with consistently. It doesn't matter what the medium or how much experience you have, it just happens. But I do feel like I am turning a corner, and just starting to understand that doing the work is pretty much 99.999% of the equation. It doesn't matter if it is 'good enough'. I'm giving myself permission to expel those 6th grade art critics from my head, and get back to the work I love. How about you?

All images copyright The Flying Pencil 2007


Gwen said...

Wow, J, this is an absolutely great essay, and I wish I could see the Flying Cupcake Lady! And the journal from the Netherlands! I bet it is fabulous.

I love all of your illustrations, can I link to this post on my blog?? I think others should read it, too!

Your blog is tremendous!!

Molly said...

The funniest thing just happened. As I was reading your story aloud to Josh (he loved it!), the big boy pulled out his treasured Ed Emberly animal drawing book and began to work on a shark drawing. After I finished reading, Josh said, "Hey, I think miss J actually gave that book to Luke!"

I have goosebumps! It's like the art fairies are at work behind the scenes.

I remember the flying cupcake lady. She was bold and fantastic. Everything you create is infused with boldness, zaniness, spirit and warmth.

thanks for your terrific story!

Librarian Girl said...

Sistah, PREACH IT!

I love it- it's so so true. If only "just do it" wasn't a Nike slogan, because that's really what it's all about.

Anonymous said...

Hi J,
I loved the history of your art life. How lucky we are to be part of that history, watching your art evolve! I am a very proud mother in law.

biology girl said...

As if having Miss J as a friend isn't enough, I am proud to host some of her artwork in my home. I wonder if I should start charging admission?

gary said...

Okay, so I'm a little late getting to this blog. I love it! I had to chime in and let you know that this is an amazingly inspirational post. I'm not an artist by any means, but it makes me want to run to the U Bookstore and clean out their art supply section. Thank you! Oh and thanks for sharing your Illustration Friday drawings. I love them.