Drawing Along The Way

30 Oct

Picasso said that it took him his whole life to learn how to draw like a child. It has taken me 20 years just to learn how to draw like myself.

dogfightoriginal.detailI drew from a young age. Whether it was battle scenes or characters from films, I loved to conjure up things in drawing. I clearly remember having a vivid picture in my head and biding my time until I could go up to my room and get it down on paper. From a brain filled with MAD Magazine and daytime talk shows I was drawing up a cast of original characters from spies to drunks (yes they make an early appearance). I was also taking private lessons with the illustrator Stephen Douglas and getting a supplementary education in drawing and watercolor painting. He was a tremendously positive teacher who treated me like an artist and told my parents that I had a special skill. To this day, I credit him with convincing them to send me to art school (a decision that must have been hard for an IBM analyst). Teachers matter.

Another early influence on my art and character was going to church. Ours is a staunch Catholic and we went to church every Sunday. I initially resisted, mostly upset at the prospect of putting on a tight fitting blue blazer or itchy sweater. Church was usually worth it, though. The theater of a Catholic mass is something to behold and when you are lucky enough to have great priests who can deliver thoughtful homilies, it can be an education in a moral philosophy. Artists are uniquely equipped to separate ideas and visuals they find interesting. At least from my own perspective, I rarely swallow anything whole.  Instead I pick at the parts that appeal to me or bits that I can store for later. I even became an altar boy mostly to be a part of the action, an actor on the stage so to speak. I really enjoyed it. I even told my father one Sunday after mass that I wanted to be a priest. He beamed with joy.

Sitting in the back of class drawing through middle and high school, I realized that my art was much more than a pastime. It was a way of thinking, a more perfect way of thinking for me. I saw it clearly as the road to success. My collections of MAD magazine, superhero comics and my brother’s large format French comics were a great inspiration to my artwork and gave me an idea of how artists can make a living. Fortunately for me, my brother’s comics were mostly by the French artist,Jacques Tardi. Adele et la bete was the one I liked most. Tardi is a master of the bizarre. His exceptional drawings of turn-of-the-century Paris and his cast of goofy police officers, crackpot scientists and, of course the feisty Adele, made for a surrealistic fantasy that was a more inventive departure from reality than normal comics. That appealed to me. I could see early on that American comics fell too easily into the trite mold of the super hero and that the “Marvel way” felt like a style dictate more than a genre. The result was a limited scope for the possibility of original narratives that don’t revolve around super-muscled people who wore leotards. Though I could appreciate the art in these comics, I was more engaged with the unique world that Tardi created. That was a world that felt more like my creative home.

conscience.detailAnother important influence on my artwork was my time spent in Donegal, Ireland. My mother came to New York from Donegal when she was seventeen and lived up state in a convent with her Uncle, the Monsignor of Olean, New York. She was a good student in Ireland and, as was typical in the day, was sent to America to get an education. It is hard to imagine how she must have felt being sent away at that age, taken away from her sister and three brothers to a place she had never been, with an Uncle she hardly knew. It is not a positive immigration story but nevertheless she has lived in US ever since.

Ireland immediately felt like home to me. As anyone with family there knows, the first words out of your relatives is “how long has it been since you were home?” I spent every summer from the age of 7 till about 17 in Ireland. I played all day in the hills chasing animals, playing football and hurling till the sun went down. It was an amazing time to connect with a place and my large extended family. It had a profound effect on my image of myself and it was a place that I grew to love and cherish.

My trips as an adult were sometimes taken with caution. A fear that the place I loved as a kid no longer existed. Fortunately, my beloved Ireland is still a source of inspiration for me. It’s place that is part of my DNA, a place where values family and friendship come first. Expressed that way it sounds ordinary, but it is radical in practice.  A love of life and a love words are truly great cultural exports of that small and diverse island. Though not quantifiable, I like to think that the blend of brashness, mischievousness and lyricism that exists in my best work is a product of my Irish roots.

thirdpoliceman.detailGoing to art school was something I didn’t consider essential to a career in the arts, though I realize now that I was wrong. In 1993 I went to Hartford Art School, mainly for its beautiful the campus and what seemed to be its conventional students and faculty. Even with my interest in all things subversive, I was not interested in a “wacky” art- school experience. I thought of myself as serious, at least when it came to making art. The idea of rubbing elbows with the hair-dyed dopes of suburban America bored me. And pretending to be interested in a humorless nihilistic worldview, was to me the academic equivalent of being water boarded..

Unfortunately, that was largely what I was getting into. Subjected to Barbie dolls in jars of urine, tortured drawings done in the medium of mascara, and tired old professors touting the heyday of the minimalists, I was sleep walking in a visually pointless world. One professor, Pete McLean, an artist for whom I have great respect, talked to us about his experience at Loughborough College of Art in the UK. He mentioned that there was an exchange program available and that I should at least check it out. With his help, I was able to get off the tradittional American art school rails and into something more serious.

Loughborough’s focus on developing a drawing language and a personal vision was just what I needed. They gave me the space and encouragement to put together a way of working that excited me like nothing before. Once, in the early stages of my sketchbook drawing, we were in Amsterdam in a café by a canal. I had a small bound sketchbook with fine cream paper and I was barreling through quick sketches of people outside enjoying their coffee, or bartenders looking out the windows. The drawings were quick and crude but something was emerging. I was learning that the line, especially the gestural line, is intrinsically interesting. I was learning that if we can pay attention to what we naturally do in our drawing, we can capitalize on those strengths and sharpen our vocabulary, not unlike good writers.

In a bar late at night a group of friends and I we were drawing the characters around us which included prostitutes making what looked like house calls. Two middle aged guys said they would buy us beers if we drew their portraits. It seemed innocent at the time. So, they posed and we drew them in profile. I sketched in private and when I was done, carefully ripped the drawing out of the sketchbook. The “client” took one look at my drawing and his face contorted into that of a wounded child. He got his friend who was less riled and they stormed out. I think he felt I was making fun of him. It seems the drawing hit a little too close to home.

cover.nuanceThat was another learning experience. Drawing does matter; it does have power. Years later, in a friend’s drawing, a female model told my friend that she was glad when I left because my drawings made her uncomfotable. Now that is praise! She was right of course. Looking at those drawings, I had clearly brought out some imaginary Weimar-era prostitute in my drawing and given the model a tired, and lipstick smeared face. I was clearly having too much fun!

Though I made many pages of sketches on that Amsterdam trip, none of them were great drawings. In fact many were frankly bad. But I learned that there was magic in the process and I had to explore it further. Contrary to my American art-school teaching, speed in drawing can be as important as slow, deliberate work.

Part 2 coming soon!

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