Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Straight for the top/Politically collect

In early 1989, I got a new sketchbook. It was for school. I was in 7th grade and enrolled in an art elective class. Most of the other kids took gym class during this timeslot. Each drawing basically represents one week of class, and most are based off assignments we were given. I was 12 years old.
The last year had found me obsessed with weapons. The incident at Tienamen Square was just around the corner, and Operation Desert Storm almost a year away, but I was ahead of the game. I remember drawing this skeleton dozens of times. The first assignment was of our choosing.

Next comes a different message. My views had started to form already, and I had begun using colored pencils.Next we were supposed to make a still-life with all our favorite things. I chose my fish trophy, my bow & arrow, my ski-boots, and my Nintendo Entertainment System. The composition is pretty boring, but my skills were definitely evolving.

The next assignment was to take an empty 35mm slide frame and find a picture in a magazine to crop. Then we were supposed to add our own elements to fill the entire background. I made a cow into a rocket, going to the MOOOOOOOOON! The original scene was a landscape, but I merged it into the smoke.
Our next assignment involved evolving an old drawing into something new. A few years before, I had developed a cartoon character in another sketchbook, here I revisited the same character, only tried to make it look real.
here's the original:
Then we were told to make a doodle using as many variations as possible. Not my favorite assignment, but I had fun hiding lots of little things. I started with a Lacoste alligator.

We learned about surrealism and were told to make a surrealistic image.
We were told to draw a household appliance, other than a refrigerator.We were supposed to invent an interesting character. Mine was very badass. He's killing a butterfly with numchucks.

The next assignment involved animation, and multiple frames.

We were to blow up one frame on the next page. I learned this knot in Boyscouts.

We were told to do a value study with volumetric shapes.

For this drawing, I went into my dad's toolroom and made individual drawings of different tools, then assembled them all into an absurd weapon. This is a precursor to the found-objects sculptures I would eventually create.Our assignment was to draw a portrait. I chose Morgan Freeman from Driving Miss Daisy.

In Biology class, I was doing a report on wolverines. The classes overlapped.At this point, I had begun working outside of class using pen and ink to make African animals. This Zebra is one surviving example. I was using lots of dots and studying books from the library.
I also made this Rhinoceros, making thousands of little circles to produce the texture of his skin...
...and this crocodile.
I entered it in the Scholastic Arts competition, and received an acceptance letter.
I remember this being quite exciting for the art teachers in my school district, as very few students had been accepted in the past. I was the first in many years. This next sketch represents a milestone in subject choices. Bush Sr.had just won the election and I stepped into the contemporary political arena.
At the end of the year, we were told to design a logo for Youth Art Month, which was held every year at the capitol building in Madison. I came up with the following design.Not only was my logo picked, a facsimile of it appeared on the cover of the brochure, redrawn with additional elements by one of the event staff. I think my original is a better drawing of a hand, but at least I was given credit in the listings.

I would be going to the Capitol to receive awards and recognition.
I got an Award of Excellence from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction
I received a Certificate of Recognition from the Wisconsin Art Education Association

In addition, I was sent a letter from the State Superintendent of Schools...

...from State Senator and Assistant Senate Republican Leader Brian D. Rude....
...and from Wisconsin State Assemblyman Virgil Roberts.

To top things off, I was given a hand signed Certificate of Commendation from the Governor of Wisconsin, Tommy G. Thompson. He gave it to me personally at the ceremony, and shook my hand.
Twelve years later, when Bush Jr. was elected President, Tommy became the secretary of Health and Human Services. He ceased to be the governor of Wisconsin. By only one degree of separation, I too have given our President an eskimo kiss.
My last drawing was fitting, as a new member of the Good Ole Boys Club. I had my sights set on grandeur, and no reason to doubt it.

That year, at my 8th Grade graduation ceremony, I was given this plaque, inscribed with my name.

artist of the year

Facing Reality/becoming self-conscious

For Christmas in 1986, I received a new sketchbook. It had a hardbound cover and was decorated with Pollack-style splatter painting. I was at a turning point in my adolescence, having turned 10 that summer, and I was ready to leave my youth behind and begin to define myself as an adult. Somewhere along the line, I had grown bored with drawing cartoons, and was now determined to learn realism. I wanted to make drawings that actually looked like what they were supposed to.

My first drawing was a still-life, chock-full of the corporate products that had quietly become pervasive in our household. My siblings and I would see commercials on TV for namebrand products and plead with our parents at the grocery store not to buy the "generic" black-&-white-box version for half the cost. I'm not sure how often we won, but judging from this still-life it was regularly.
Drawing boxes was alright, but the text was difficult to render without simply writing the words in my own penmanship. I needed a different model. I turned to photographs. I began by selecting a picture of my father. I studied it carefully, concentrating on line contours and shadows. In the end, I was not pleased. I felt I had captured every detail, yet the overall image looked nothing like the photograph. Rather than erase it completely, I had my brother help me to spell "caricature" in the lower corner. I figured this would excuse my inaccuracy.

The next photographic subject I selected was much more safe. We had a dog that was like a walking caricature. I figured any picture I drew of her would be identifiable, this isn't the picture I used, but accurately describes her demeanor, as she greedily devours a Milkbone.

The drawing was okay, but it seems like I lost interest after finishing the face. I remember feeling frustrated about having to stare so long at the photo, and it was always difficult to figure out where to place it for the best view without obscuring the drawing page. The next drawing I made represents a significant occurrence in my development as an artist. I made my first efforts to study and capture myself. This was perhaps the most important day of my life, January 10, 1987, setting the direction for decades to come.
The foreshortening is awkward, but the details seem studied. Two weeks later, at a very boring meeting that I had been dragged to by my mother, I drew the chair in front of me. By this point my patience for making patterns had progressed, and I render the wood grain thoughtfully. My comfort with perspective also seems to have improved.
Springtime brought sports, and though I never played basketball, I was caught up in the preteen brandname phenomenon that will always plague that agegroup. I needed Nikes, and these were the coolest.

Luckily my feet were still small, so I got the kids version, which cost around 40 dollars. The kids with big feet had to shell out 85 bucks to get the Michael Jordan sized version, and few were able to do it. Eighty-five dollars in 1987 is equivalent to $159.77 today. You'd always hear stories about people getting killed in the cities just for their shoes. I felt I needed them to avoid being ridiculed by my classmates, and it was worth the risk. Kids can be vicious at that age, and everything seemed so important back then, especially labels. At age 11, I turned to animals as my major focus. I even made some attempts at painting, this being one of the few surviving examples, acrylic on canvasboard.

Drawing was more comfortable for me, and I pursued it, beginning with the cover of a science book....
...and drawing an actual fish I caught and had taxidermied.
(Later I would turn it into a robot fish)
Around this same time, my creative interest forked, I was both a sculptor and a sketcher. Sometime before this, I had given up Legos for plastic models, and I enjoyed working in 3-d much more than 2-d. While drawing seemed like a chore, building things from parts consumed me. I couldn't get enough. I would spend both days every weekend and every night after school working on a model once I started it.

Building models was alright, but became tedious in time as well. I actually began cutting up the model parts and building creatures out of them instead, which felt more creative to me. At the same time, I devoted much of my energy into making characters from clay, inspired by Pee Wee's Playhouse, which ran on Saturday mornings.
Penny Cartoon from Pee Wee's Playhouse

In the spring of 1988, as George H. W. Bush was preparing to campaign for the presidency, I began making sculptures out of found-objects. The earliest of such was a four legged creature, about the size of a brick, made from a rotary telephone I had taken apart. My mom had recently started teaching art at a new school and wanted an example for a project she was going to introduce involving found-objects. She gave me the telephone and a hot glue gun.
Making a creature from telephone parts was even better than building a model, because there was no wrong or right. I was able to use my imagination in a way that was more fun for me, because I felt less constraint. I made many pieces like this, recycling the parts when they disintegrated. The work culminated when I found a squirrel skull and created this sculpture:
It has deteriorated quite a bit, and is today more like a fossil than a sculpture. The connections that were made using epoxy have held together alright, but anywhere I used hotglue has fallen apart long ago. During the summer of 1988 I made several more creatures. The parts were electrical items taken out of appliances I dissected, and I used skulls as the starting points, often from small animals my cat had killed. I would boil the heads and use a tweezers to remove all the flesh before soaking it in bleach and setting it out in the sun for a week. We were dissecting all sorts of things in Biology class those days, so this was not very disgusting for me.

At times, however, I worried about the animals' spirits. I remember working on these creature sculptures in my room and wondering when I was falling asleep if I should fear for them coming to life. It was a real concern for me then, but I rationalized that since I had created them, they'd have no reason to hurt me, even if they did come to life. They would have a certain allegiance to me. In gratitude, my allegiance to sculpture was returned, and I began to favor it over drawing pictures. The power was simply greater. Never did I lay awake wondering what my sketchbook was doing in the dark. This was exactly 20 years ago. And May begins my 3rd decade of being a sculptor.