Thursday, May 1, 2008

Big Apple Bound/shattered dreams

Baboon and Young, Pablo Picasso, 1951

When still a very young boy, I was taken to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I wasn't particular excited about very much modern or medieval artwork at the time, and the only piece that really stuck in my head was a bronzecasting by Picasso in which a Volkswagen beetle had been used to form a monkey's face. As I grew up, my notion of what constituted art was measured in relation to this benchmark.

In the summer of 1990, when I was nearly 14 years old, and about to begin High School, I set out to establish myself as an artist. I was a good drawer, but my passion lay in sculpture. My drawings were controlled, clinical, and tedious. I had become too good too quickly and the creativity had been replaced by technical procedure. Once I had achieved realism in 2-dimensions, I found it difficult to just draw for fun anymore. I had to find a photograph and copy it. A precedent had been set.

Sculpture, on the other hand, offered more freedom. I was still able to create things that were imagination based, plus, I preferred building things to staring at a sheet of paper. This troll sculpture was one such project.
My challenge was to build a sculpture so unique and amazing that it would put me on the artworld map. I wanted to utilize my young age as a catapult to qualify for the kinds of opportunities that could lead to a solid future career as an artist, and the biggest competition available to me back then was the Scholastic Art Awards. Every year students across the nation from every small town and giant city in the public school system submitted their best projects in hopes of being honored at the national level in New York City.

Having tasted a bit of success the year before, being accepted at the State level, but falling short of National, I was determined to blow their minds in 1990, go to NYC, and put myself on solid standing to begin my lifetime as an artist. I had been working with found-objects, taking apart contraptions and epoxying the pieces together to make all sorts of creatures. For Scholastic 1991, I created the largest and most complex yet.
It was a creature with attributes of many different animals, and stood about 2 feet tall. He had bird feet, rhinoceros horns, human ears and eyes, and an alligator back. I tried as much as possible to make him look like a robot, and the most frequently asked question when people saw it was, "does it work?"
I spent the summer, and fall, winter and spring slowly piecing this creature together. It was like my child, and I would have given my life for it. Other kids at the time had imaginary friends, I had built my own. We were family. I named him MATSUSHITA after the text printed on the electrical switches I used to make his arms. My grandparents helped me deliver it to Milwaukee by hand, where it would be considered for the state level of the competition. This was a tense time of waiting. When the results were finally announced, the news was good.

I had been awarded a Blue Ribbon and a Gold Key. This meant my work would be exhibited in Milwaukee, and afterwards would go to NYC for the final round of judging. My dreams would soon be coming true. Scholastic awards recipients went on to earn scholarships and prestige. I was close.
The show in Milwaukee went off well. My work stood out amongst everything else. It was unlike anything anyone had ever seen.
I received my award with a smile, knowing that the hard part was over. I was certain that one look at this in NYC would surely open the kinds of doors for me that other 14 year olds only dreamed of. I was finally going to be a famous artist!

I built a special box, lined with foam and custom fitted for my sculpture. This is the top, with pockets cut out for the horns on Matsushita's head. I wrote "Fragile: Artwork" all over the box. I was sure the deliverymen would take good care of it, after all, everyone respects art. I taped the lid shut and we delivered it from my High School. Again, I waited for news.Recently, having forgotten the name of this sculpture long ago, I researched the meaning of "Matsushita," and discovered it is still a thriving Japanese company, with a stock market index and everything. The company's founder passed away in 1989, right about the time I was assembling the initial parts together that would eventually become this piece. I wonder if his spirit didn't help to form the creature that eventually developed.

When the news came, it was in the form of an apology and the following photograph:

My baby had been killed! It looked as if the box had been rolled over many times. Pieces were stuck up in the lid even. So much for respecting artwork. My chances were gone, and I was devastated. Fortunately, the piece had been insured, and I was issued a check from the UPS for 500 dollars. That's $816.86 in today's money. It didn't replace the hopes that I had put in this piece, nor the sculpture itself, but it helped me to feel reimbursed. I bought a mountain bike and a snowboard, began spending more time outside and less time obsessively making art. I worked towards trying to fit in at Highschool, which was difficult. My interest in making sculptures from found-objects dwindled, as I didn't see the point in putting effort into something that would inevitably crumble. I continued to draw, but looked towards my future in terms of what made sense careerwise, and it definitely wasn't art.

Here's a project from High School that was my final entry into Scholastic, during my Junior year. It was a pen and ink drawing of a grasshopper made into a layered collage using blades of grass drawn with colored pencil. It was well done, but sterile, and didn't advance past State. I was very disappointed.

a detail of the same project
By 1993, I had basically given up my aspirations of pursuing a career in art. I needed to find something I was interested to go to college for, and my inclination was architecture or biology. I applied for some schools, and ended up deciding to stay near home, at the University of LaCrosse, Wisconsin. It was a city of 50,000 people, and after growing up in a town of less than 4,000, with a graduating class of less than 60, I might as well have been moving to Manhattan.

class of '94: Goodbye art, Hello world

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