Doors and Windows

When I wrote about shuffling studio space the other day I failed to mention one important point – why I made the change. Yes, I wrote earlier that the move was meant to get me moving, but what I didn’t mention is that it wasn’t just exercise-type moving that needed to happen.

I needed to move out of a window.

A couple of weeks ago I was informed that my contract was not being renewed at the junior college I have been teaching at since the doors opened in the fall of 2012. I’ll skip editorial comment other than to say that the dismissal was handled in a most callous manner because the first reaction I had when I found out was a feeling of serenity.

  • Never mind the abrupt last-minute email message.
  • Never mind the loss of income.
  • Never mind the fact that at 65 it’s doubtful that I will ever be hired to teach again.

When I read of my dismissal I sat back and the thought came me: “When a door opens God will open a window.

OK – I admit it. In the past I’ve dismissed that phrase as trite and over-used, but it’s the first thought that came to mind and it has prompted me to jump-start other parts of my life and career – and I am convinced the new studio is an important part of that new beginning.

What’s more: when we finished the move and surveyed both the new studio and the sitting room in the space the old studio used to take up both my Beautiful Saxon Princess and I felt an overwhelming sense of “right” in the new arrangement.

Works for me.

Sketchbook Drawing 01 AUG 2018

SadSketch

Even at 65 I am drawing all the time. I have two sketchbooks, one of them a little 3″X5″ field journal and the other a section in the back of my planner. As a good part of my early training was in industrial design I usually work with designer’s markers over black line work, but sometimes I forego the color. This young lady ended up looking too melancholy for color.

I rotate subject matter between drawing from life, drawing from photos, drawing after another artist’s work and drawing ideas from my imagination. I am a firm believer that emulating another artist’s work is a good idea as long as doing so is a tool instead of a crutch. I feel the same way about tracing (tool vs. crutch) but it took comics legend Neal Adams to convince me that there was no better way to learn anatomical details that were particularly vexing.

That little circle-y symbol to near the young lady’s right elbow is my logo/sigil/symbol – I use it to “sign” sketchbook works and three-dimensional work.

Also – Facebook has changed the parameters for the way outside material can get automatically posted and I think I’ve lost some readers in the confusion. I am in the process of figuring out a way around the problem but in the meantime please encourage people to “follow” via WordPress or other means.

1999: Red State / Blue State / White State

The call came the spring of 1999, shortly before the second of our three trips from Knoxville back to the Kenai Peninsula.   The ravages of Parkinson’s disease made difficult for Dad to make himself understood on the phone, but there was no mistaking the message of his call:

 “Son, I miss you and I don’t have much time left. What would it take to move you home?”

I was stunned speechless. My father was thrifty to a fault and had turned me down once before when I had asked for help getting home right after I finished grad school, but that wasn’t the sole reason for my discomfort. I wasn’t sure if we could make the move back – and It was the first time that Alaska hadn’t immediately trumped every other card in my hand. The truth was we’d invested a lot time and energy to “bloom where we were planted” in East Tennessee.1 Plans were in place to get the boys through their missions, we were finally winding up Meghan’s adoption process and my part-time teaching gig showed signs of becoming a fulltime job. A 4000-mile move was not the simple decision it was when our family was much younger. It would need substantial planning, but fortunately the vacation back home that we’d already planned for the summer would allow us to gather information we’d need for such a move.

We came back from the trip feeling positive about moving but during our first church meeting back I was abruptly pulled aside by a friend whose family was undergoing some rough times. She hissed: “You’re leaving, aren’t you? You’re going home? YOU CAN’T DO THIS TO ME! You can’t leave now. I need you! My whole family needs you! Our whole world is falling apart and you’re the only people I can depend on!”

 …which put the needle on my awkward-o-meter well into the red caution zone.  I knew from personal knowledge that she wasn’t exaggerating – if anything she was down-playing her domestic situation and unfortunately, I was still at a point in life where I thought I was Batman and could save anyone. She was so distraught that I mumbled something vague about postponing the move and for the time being we went back to the exquisite hell that is life for a Yankee in the Southern Appalachians.

…but then the real problem was that we weren’t Yankees – or Southerners. Living on the northern arc of the Pacific Rim took us neatly out of north vs. south // urban vs. rural // mountain vs. flatland // red state vs. blue state rivalries. However, to be brutally honest I couldn’t care (bleeping) less whether I was in a red, a blue or a purple state.  The only state color I ever cared about was the white state – Alaska.

Alaskans are different – and when I refer to Alaskans I’m not talking about snowbirds who try the Great North on as an experiment then run back to Oregon or Ohio when they find out life is hard on a frontier. I am referring to a person whose feelings for the last Frontier cannot be indexed against the size of this year’s PFD pay-out.  Someone whose emotional bond with the state is more a matter of citizenship rather than residency.2

It’s said that you can take the boy out of Alaska, but you can’t take Alaska out of the boy. If you talk to anyone that knows me well you’ll find that I have never completely left – and for the first twenty years of our marriage that was literally the case as education, military and ecclesiastical service prompted moves back and forth between the Last Frontier and the Lower 48. Every plan and/or decision in my life included the end goal of returning to Alaska – we’d never have left Alaska in 1989 if my job situation with Kenai Peninsula College hadn’t been changed by university politics.

By the same token an extended stay in Knoxville after graduate school was never part of my plan – it would be more accurate to say that we were marooned in East Tennessee by a combination of unforeseen setbacks. In the last forty-five years I’ve moved 22 times and lived in 16 different states but at heart I am still an Alaskan boy with an Alaskan license plate on the front of my car.

The funny thing is that I didn’t really think of myself as an Alaskan until I left for college in 1971. Since moving north in 1962 I’d thought of myself as a transplanted Californian – I kept up regular correspondence with my cousins and seemed to make friends easier with other transplanted kids who had been hauled north by parents either serving out at Wildwood Air Force Station or working as petrochemical managers and engineers getting the new North Road refineries running smoothly.

Sometime during the winter of 1970-71 that mind-set began to change – and like most major changes in my life it was brought about by a very minor incident, in this case a story I heard while serving as a teacher’s aide in gym class. While sorting and folding towels Marie (my counterpart from the girl’s class) told me a story she’d heard in her Alaskan history class about a native witch that lived in the area many years ago.  This witch never seemed to age until the day she accidentally left her tribal lands –  her hair immediately began to streak with grey, wrinkles creased the skin of her face and the joints in her arms and legs became stiff and painful. It was all very terrifying until she stumbled back over onto home turf and the effects reversed just as quickly. The story became a predictable series of mishaps involving the witch (or her victims) inadvertently crossing the line.

Of course, I had to turn it into another of my very predictable running jokes, so from then on, I would always call for a shoe check whenever Marie would come into the room, the idea being that she was somehow a descendant of the witch and was able to retain her youth by hiding a small bit of dirt in her shoe that would allow her to still be technically “walking on tribal land”. At the same time though the witch story did more than just supply material for my sense of humor – it also generated in me an awareness that there could be something intangible linking me with the Great Land that surpassed all other relationships.

Maybe that’s why I was so careful unpacking my carryon bag when we got back to Knoxville after that trip in the summer of 1999. I didn’t bring back dirt for my shoes, but I did have a couple of small, smooth pebbles from the north pasture on the homestead where I had always wanted to build a home after moving back. As time goes by the chances of getting home keep getting slimmer and slimmer but I refuse to give up hope and until then those two pebbles will serve as a link.

I’d like to say karma rewarded our sacrifice for staying put to help our friends but unfortunately that was not the case:

  • Martin Landau never made it to the moon by September 13th and in the process tipped the entire Space:1999 continuity over into the ashbin of cancelled TV series.
  • The move back home kept getting postponed  and the next time I saw my Dad he was in his casket at his funeral four years later.
  • Shortly after this story the friend that so desperately needed us to stay in Knoxville informed us that since her “family was doing fine she didn’t need us as friends anymore.”

It was tough dealing with that statement /snub because I had yet to learn to stop crossing oceans to help those couldn’t be bothered to step over a puddle in return. Fortunately, there was something else that helped me move on, an aspect of my life and identity remains the same: Even though our subsequent move to Clarksville kept us in the Volunteer state I cannot refer to myself as a Tennessean, I cannot sing the entire Alaskan Flag song without breaking into tears and the sun always appears too bright and too high in the sky

Regardless of my physical location I am and will always be an Alaskan boy.3

__________________________________________________________________________

 

  1. In his epic poem “Cremation of Sam McGee”, Robert Service states that Sam’s home town was Plum Tree, Tennessee. When planting trees in our yard in Knoxville I made sure the first one put in was a plum tree.

 

  1. I’ve spent my life performing residency calculus – totaling up years, months, days – even hours and minutes that I’ve spent physically existing within the state’s borders. For years I was obsessed with keeping my “Alaskan citizenship”: From 1971 to 1989 I bounced back and forth like a tennis ball between the Last Frontier and various locations in the Lower 48, and for most of that time I was able to keep my Alaskan driver’s license with its wonderfully low number.

 

  1. See blogpost, “The Alaskan Diaspora”.

1993: “I Meant to Do That”

Christmas Break 1997

I had started to doze off while rereading Larry Niven’s Protector when the phone rang.

The caller started speaking rapidly: ““Hey Mr. Deitrick – this is Denny” Before I could respond he continued: “Yeah, since it was Christmas and all that I thought I’d give you a call and see how you were doing. You were always my favorite teacher and PLEASE HELP ME FIND A JOB! IF I DON’T START BRINGING SOME MONEY INTO THE HOUSE MY MOM IS GOING TO KICK ME OUT!

It was at that point that I remembered my caller as a former student from Lincoln Memorial University.

Fall 1993

I doubt I’d have gone to graduate school if I hadn’t been pushed into it.  When the state of Alaska placed all the community colleges under the university system in 1989 it meant that in order to continue teaching I needed a terminal degree , which in my case would be an MFA. However, returning to teach at KPC wasn’t the sole factor inducing me to borrow obscene amounts of money; according to the media,  colleges all over the nation were anticipating a record level of retirement in their liberal arts faculties. If KPC didn’t work out I should have the pick of any number of schools where I could dispense my aesthetic wisdom.

It wasn’t the first time in my life that a beautiful theory was shot down by a cold hard fact.  The recession of 1992 hit universities as hard as anyone else which meant A) there were fewer retirements than anticipated and B) many schools elected not to refill vacancies created by those who did retire. Each advertised position would now attract more than 100 applications and I managed to strike out with every application I made.

I lost no time in launching an ambitious program of promotions and portfolio showings to build the freelance work that had dwindled during graduate school, but I found that the market had changed, and my highly identifiable style was not as popular as it had been just a few years earlier. I had also unfortunately taken an extended leave of absence from my reserve unit so even that modest income was no longer coming in…all of which meant my family and I were stuck 4000 miles away from home with a mortgage, a sizeable school debt and very few prospects.

As I was contemplating this dire set of circumstances one day, I received  an unexpected phone call concerning an instructor’s position at Lincoln Memorial University located near historic Cumberland Gap northeast of Knoxville.  Their nascent design program was foundering, and they needed a good teacher to keep them going – and I was thought to be the ideal candidate.

I gave the matter deep consideration – and after fifteen seconds I agreed to take the job and made plans to visit the school two days later. I would need those two days just to find the school –  the location of the school and background information  were  not easy to find in those pre-Internet days but I was able to dig up just enough to get me to the school and talk in a fairly informed manner about the situation.

The trip to the school took longer than planned as I adjusted to the up-and-down nature of the route –  terrain in East Tennessee strongly resembles corduroy fabric and I had to cross ridge after ridge on my way to the school. I was met on arrival by the head of the art department, which was very impressive until I found out that the entire department consisted of just two teachers. It was then that I learned I would basically be the entire graphic design program which had been languishing since the original founder/teacher left the previous summer.

Hard work had never bothered me but within a few weeks it became clear that the program needed more than just industry. The department lacked proper computer support, and it soon became clear that the school was hoping that I would somehow be able to obtain (without cost to them) the necessary software –  the kind of situation that brought to mind the character of Wimpy in the old Popeye cartoons when he’d tell Olive Oyl: “Come on over for a duck dinner. Please bring the duck”.

Once I made it clear that I wasn’t buying any programs, I found that the situation was a good introduction to teaching college and that I was learning as much as the students. Old habits die hard; as a former intelligence officer I was prone to look for patterns in groups of people and I soon discovered trends in the way classes would organize themselves, trends that would repeat themselves in every class I would teach over the next twenty-five years.

  • Every semester the same type of student sat in same place in each classroom – for example the smartest student (but not always with the highest GPA) always sat two seats from the rear of the row along the left wall while the student with the highest GPA always sat two seats from the front row of seats along the right wall.
  • Students used the same excuses no matter the subject, composition or geographic location of the class.
  • Class composition in terms of talent was consistently the same as well – 10% of the classes were extremely talented go-getters, 10% were totally hopeless and completely devoid of talent while the remaining students seemed to be just milling about marking time.
  • Each class had one poseur who been very successful in high school and was now coasting on a few selected techniques and types of subject matter, never progressing beyond those sure hits.

Denny was the poseur in this class; he had a half-dozen programmed images and no matter what assignment I gave he would turn in a hillbilly portrait, a totally bitching burning skull or one of his other canned compositions. Critiques had little effect as every comment I made was met with “I meant to do that”.  At any other time or place I would have flunked him but third world tuberculosis babies were healthier than the LMU design program and I had already been informed that students were avoiding my classes because I had the audacity to expect good work for good grades. The best I could do was try to keep  all the students moving in the same general direction…

…so it was no surprise that I jumped ship two years later when a position opened up at another college where I was free to terrorize my students into doing their best. Four years later I’d assumed I’d made a clean break with my Cumberland Gap students but now I had a very panicked Denny on the phone and as much as I wanted to just say “TOLD YA SO!” and hang up, the teacher side of me kicked in and I started brainstorming with him for solutions.

It turned out that he had taken the same “pose” in all his classes and managed to graduate without the skills necessary to enter either the work force or graduate school. Fortunately he was able to enroll in remedial design classes at another university and learn enough to start doing basic layout for a local shopper’s guide. At that point I withdrew, feeling very smug about the way I had wisely handled a common problem in design classes and education in general – the student who is sure they already know it all.

Then three nights later I woke from a sound sleep, sat straight up out of bed and realized that I really wasn’t so different from my former student. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the business – it’s stressful showing your portfolio to prospective clients. Most of the time you get nods and very general but nice comments but now and then you’ll get someone who digs in and critiques – like the New York City editor  that had recently looked at my work and suggested I take some additional figure drawing classes. I smiled, said “Thank You” and walked out muttering under my breath about “15 years freelancing, five years teaching and a Master of Fine Arts degree!”

I’d been just as bad as Denny had been.

It took me a while to set things up, but eventually I went into what Lori called my “self-administered MFA in figure drawing”. I started drawing figures from life, reference photos and occasionally from another artists’ work. No matter how hard I was working or how busy I was I would always draw five figures a week.

Then one day after several years of all this extra work I looked down at my drawing board and realized that I had become a much better draftsman when it came to anatomy – but at the same time I realized that all that extra work wasn’t just about improving the figures I drew. It made me a better teacher as well and gave me a better grasp of what’s going on in the mind of each new Denny that I encounter.

…and I can also tell them with conviction that the extra effort will definitely pay off in the end.

1967: How Do I Shoot a Basketball?

Boy/girl romantic mushy stuff kind of ambushed me; it seemed like overnight everyone went from playing army to “playing the field”, which was tough when there were eight boys to two girls in my eighth-grade class. Without an older brother to pattern on I was clueless when it came to managing the romantic side of life – but while there were several situations dealing with love & hate during eighth grade, none of which (unfortunately) involved girls. Living in Sterling was a love/hate relationship; while I hated moving to the Peninsula from Anchorage I was finally making some good friends. Participating in sports was a love/hate relationship; I loved doing things with my friends, but I hated the fact that I had absolutely no skill in sports at the time. Having Head Teacher in both a classroom setting and as a coach was not so much a love/hate relationship as an endure/hate situation.

On one hand Head Teacher was impressive – he fought across Europe with the glider infantry in World War 2, he was personally very intelligent, and he worked hard to improve Sterling School, establishing both a sports program and a controlled reading program that raised reading speed and comprehension in every student that participated. Most importantly he elbowed the school district into completing a badly needed but often delayed multipurpose room that served as combination cafeteria/gymnasium and counterbalance to student cabin fever.

On the other hand, he could be meaner than hell, especially if you embarrassed him.  I made the mistake of making the ethnic distinction that “Scotch is what a Scotsman drinks” and paid for it for the rest of my life. Head Teacher was one of those people unable to handle conflict with a kid without descending to a kid-level of thought and action himself; he took offense easily and never tired of carrying a grudge, an unfortunate tendency aggravated by the lunch he often took in liquid form.  I do have to say that he gave credit where credit was due; during class discussions he’d ask for my input when searching for a title, definition or some other bit of information from any of my areas of interest, and when I placed first in the school district science fair he showed just as much support for me as he did for his designated favorites.

Unfortunately, his model of character assessments placed a bit too much emphasis on athletics for an elementary school environment and as I consistently lagged two or three years behind my peers in developing strength speed and athletic skills it was a sure bet that I would miss getting on board with the Head Teacher sports machine.

The first sport of the year was softball, which for me was a qualified success: I got to suit up, but I sat on the bench for the entire season. As the year progressed and we changed sports I decided on a more attainable goal and applied to be the manager of the basketball team. Head Teacher somehow convinced me to try out for the team instead of that manager’s position and while I didn’t miss a single practice I never was tapped to suit up for even a single game. Given my relative lack of athletic talent at the time I wasn’t too troubled by the perpetual benching, but it soon became obvious that talent was not the deciding factor. No matter how well I did in practice I’d be passed over at game time, and it became quite a bitter pill to swallow when he started to fill the second team with fifth graders who routinely failed to get a ball even close to the net, much less through it.

It didn’t matter. I still showed up every Wednesday night and Saturday morning to participate in the all the exercises and drills to include the dreaded final four-lap run around the gym at the end of practice. It was a definite challenge to stick with the program especially since I was so bad at the sport that the only feedback I was given consisted of variations of the same message: “You’re a loser”.

I still showed for every practice – and I also went to every game without fail where I’d sit in the stands and cheer for my friends with the same dogged determination as when I’d try (and fail) to make a lay-up shot. Despite the vindictive and petty needling, it never occurred to me to quit.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my Mom worried about me the whole season – that I would somehow end up emotionally damaged because of the experience. Unfortunately, some of her fears were well-founded; any effort at bettering myself seemed pointless after being so thoroughly schooled in my own total lack of value that I ended up just drifting through high school until college and a change of venue altered my outlook.

…. but it actually wasn’t a juncture almost forty years later that Head Teacher’s tutelage showed its true value. In a deep discussion about permanent solutions to temporary problems Mom paused and said, “You know, Fritz can take the credit for this” – a comment which totally bewildered me at first. When I mumbled something about his actions causing the current situation she stopped me cold:

“No – he made it possible for you to survive!  I saw what Fritz was doing, and it broke my heart to see how he constantly (expletive deleted) with your head…but as hard as it was – never missing a practice but never playing – dealing with the constant belittlement in class– you never quit…

 “It made you stronger.”

 She was right, and that’s why when I heard of his passing I smiled instead of making my usual snarky comment. I haven’t won every battle in life, but I’ve always stood up one time more than I’ve been knocked down. It had never occurred to me that each time I got knocked down Head Teacher’s antics would come to mind – and  would jolt me into getting up again, and for that I must give him credit where credit is due.

The experience also gives a clue to the question in this post’s title.

I have no affinity for basketball in any form or level of competition. My sort-of twin sister Heather loves the game and maintains that Head Teacher is responsible for that attitude, but to be totally honest it is a chicken vs. egg type of situation. I wasn’t a fan before I tried out for the Sterling team in the winter of 1967 and afterwards…well the only time I even thought about the game was when I had to deal with the irritating and pointless distraction it presented to every pack, troop, team and post that I worked with in my 30+ years as an adult leader in the Boy Scouts.

How do I shoot a basketball?

With a shotgun.

Non-artist Art

It’s usually the hardest teachers that do you the most good. My first illustration class was one continual exercise in ego-deflation but when the term was up I’d made more progress than I had in any other class up to that point.  Noted Southwest painter Bill Whitaker was the teacher, and while he was far from being the only faculty member to hand out withering critique comments,  he had a talent for dissecting those little compensations our egos hatch to help deflects the negative messages.

For example his most common comment to me was “Dave, I’m impressed by you – but not by your talent. I’m pressed by your brain!”  He’d also the stress that as art majors we weren’t special : “ You stand out now because you’ve declared a major – but there are store clerks, mechanics and doctors out there in the real world that aren’t just as good as you are – they’re better. They just didn’t want to do art for a living”.

 Years of teaching and freelancing have reinforced the truth of his words. More than once I wish I’d continued as a soldier or stayed in the oil field while pursuing art as a hobby instead of a vocation. At the same time I have encountered plenty of “non-artists” that  routinely out-create the avowed artists around them.

The same paradox manifests itself regularly in the art appreciation class I teach at a local junior college. My students are all non-art majors who are taking the class for general education/humanities credit…and who are a little surprised to find out that I have them actually make a little bit of art as part of the syllabus. They paint a little, sculpt a little, make animation flip-books and relief-cut print editions – all of which helps them understand the creator’s thinking process  and the impact  art has on both artist and audience. It’s an great way to engage students, especially those with a kinesthetic inclination like mechanics and physical therapists  It also ends up producing some really nice art as well.

The pieces I’ve posted below were all made by my Art Appreciation class students, none of which are dedicated art majors. Looking at these images never fails to bring Bill’s comments to mind.

brucecrandallprintmaking-spring-2013  Bruce Cantrell/Fall 2013

 

ashely-chillicut-fall-2016-seahorse-sculpt Ashley Chilcutt/Fall 2016

 

stephen-royall-fall-2013-cathedral  Steven Royall/Fall 2013

 

krystal-hazeltine-summer2016-print  Krystal Haseltine/Summer 2016

 

Copyright stuff:  People tend to declare “open season” on student work – in fact there is more than one college catalog that flatly states that claims the rights for work done in class. I’ve never liked that rule  – so the only thing these folks have agreed to rights-wise is letting their quirky former  teacher feature it in his blog.

1978: Superman With a Paunch

OldSuperman

I don’t fit neatly into the baby-boomer demographic, at least not the main wave. Watergate had more impact on my life than Woodstock and I was never involved in any campus unrest. I was part of the first draft lottery but would have been called up only if  Russian tanks were rumbling down Madison Avenue. That fit into my plans; as an avid ROTC cadet I did not want to avoid service ; it’s just that I had to take frequent breaks to work and earn money for school and those breaks would have made it tough to maintain a student deferment.  My parents paid for my first year but from then I paid for everything myself  – and it took me eight long years to do it.

That set me apart from most of my classmates, especially when I got into upper division design courses. At that point most of the people I was competing with came  from “money”  – maybe not extravagant wealth, but comfortable enough that they could spend their summers travelling or serving as unpaid design interns in while my summers were spent slinging a 36″ pipe wrench as a roustabout for Chevron USA at Swanson River Oil Field.

My status as a ROTC cadet also contributed to that sense of separation, though more so with faculty members than fellow students. Surprisingly enough a subdued atmosphere of hostility toward the military persisted all the way through the decade until I graduated with my degree and commission in April of 1979. Granted, manifestations of that negative attitude weren’t as severe as they had been ten years before, consisting of intentional puddle-splashing while in uniform or barbed military-related comments during critiques. Given the conservative nature of the school it was disappointing to have instructors so relentlessly negative and I finally resigned myself to a sort of “half-life” in the department; I would continue working towards my degree but I held out no hope for any grade higher than a B; I also would not apply for any sort of program or competition a particularly Sarcastic Instructor was involved with, as I knew full well that I would be rejected “with extreme prejudice” no matter how good my work was.

That plan worked for about six months , but then March of 1978 rolled around and I was trapped by the calendar. The school had a system of commemorative weeks each semester, each week consisting of five days worth of activities, seminars and presentations connected with a particular academic program or area of interest. We had Latin America Week, Agriculture week – I think there was even an Esperanto week.  There were so many interest areas that some weeks were doubled up, which was the case when Military Week was scheduled during the same five days as “Graphic Design for Lunch” .

1978’s visiting professional designer was Don Weller, a notable illustrator/designer working out of Los Angeles who would give a couple of speeches, conduct a couple of workshop and be the sole judge of a student art competition that would hang in the secured gallery for the week. The subject was “Aging” and we were to create some sort of visual communications tool that conveyed the plight of aging Americans living in the current economic recession. It was an interesting project but unfortunately for my “half-life” plan the assignment was also made a major part of my regular illustration class taught by Sarcastic Instructor for that semester.

For a month I sat in class and listened to countless reasons  why I was going to be hammered during Weller’s critique. I came up with concept after concept, only to have Sarcastic Instructor roll his eyes, give out a theatrical sigh, and tell me to start all over again. After three restarts I realized I was never going to get any meaningful advice so I began to work on my own, keeping a low profile until the week of the conference.

Unfortunately on the night of the critique I was late in arriving, having just left a staff meeting at the ROTC building where we had been planning the most important field exercise of the year. That also meant I was in full uniform and a perfect target for harassment so I tried to ease into the back of the room unnoticed. Sarcastic Instructor must have had his nerd-radar running because he instantly turned around in his seat and skewered me with one of his patented eye-rolls before I got three steps into the room.

(Groan…)

Thankfully my concerns were soon gone as Don Weller continued with his critique of the student assignments. As both illustration and graphic design students were involved there was quite a range of media and concepts in the projects thumb tacked to the wall but the one that stood out was a Time magazine mock-up featuring a geriatric Superman rendered in a pop-art style using black ink and colored Zip-a-tone film.  For some reason it was positioned in the exact center of the wall above all the other projects. Why did it stand out to me? It  was my project, the one that I had worked on in secret during the preceding weeks.

The critique was going well; Weller was both knowledgeable and engaging and managed to provide constructive input without damaging egos. As he was discussing a project I hissed to the person next to me asking why Superman was “front and center” without disclosing my identity as the designer (at Don’s request none of the projects were signed and had arrived separately from the attendees) She whispered back that she didn’t know why – but that Sarcastic Instructor had been looking it over closely before the critique began.

I groaned inwardly a second time. It wasn’t going to be a good night; I was going to be mercilessly pummeled verbally in front of more than a hundred other students and from the looks of things the pummeling was going to happen very soon. Weller had worked his way down to the end of the posted projects and was about done. He started into his closing remarks but  was interrupted by student’s cry: “What about Superman?”

” Yeah, what about Superman” echoed Sarcastic Instructor, flashing a wolfish grin my direction.

“Superman. Hmmmm”  Weller scratched at his beard for a moment  ” It’s very eye-catching and drawn well.  It’s very punchy and very much the kind of thing Time uses. Yes. I think it’s the best project here”

Certain that I was going to be  verbally flayed alive I had been standing in a slight crouch with my stomach knotted up as I held my breath s. When the  blast of relief/astonishment /disbelief /happiness  brought on my Don Weller’s comments washed over me …well, the closest analogy I can make here is a belly-flop. You know, when you dive off into the pool but don’t quite complete that pike at the top of your dive?  You enter the water spread-eagled and flat like a paper plate rather than making a clean entry with pointed hands leading and it knocks both the wind and the wits out of  you. That’s how I felt at that moment.

I stood there stunned for a couple of minutes while teachers patted me on the back and class-mates punched me on the shoulder, then realized with a start that it was late and I had a arduous bike-ride home would be that much more taxing with Superman tucked under my arm. It was only as I was making my way towards the door that I remembered Sarcastic Instructor.

I looked back; he was caught up in a conversation with Don Weller, the gallery manager and the chair of the art department. For just a moment he glanced over at me then resumed his conversation – and in the forty years since that moment I have yet to figure out what was going through his mind.

He had smiled – not one of his sarcastic flesh-rippers nor was it a big beaming buddy grin. It was a half-smile that almost conveyed a feeling of…respect?

Board of Directors Part One: Richard Bird

RichardBird1980

Mentor.

As a teenager the only Mentor I knew of was a member of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents – a Tower Comics character of minor interest, being one of the second string of heroes ignored in favor of everyone’s favorite Dynamo.  I learned the meaning of the word when I reached college but the definition was confusing – the idea of someone actually taking time with me was utterly foreign.  As you can surmise I had little guidance  in planning my life and making decisions; as a result I’ve spent most of it  getting old fast and smart slow  to the point that I  spend many nights lying awake trying to figure out how I managed to survive this far.

What saved me? A group of men I refer to as my board of directors. While I didn’t have a specific single mentor coaching me over a long period of time I did come into contact with a half dozen older guys who were kind enough to help me through the rough spots and important junctures in my young adulthood.

They are/were ( in no particular order of importance) :

  • T.H. Auldridge
  • Richard Bird
  • Wayne Carlson
  • LTC Gerald F. King
  • John Prowse
  • James Albert Smith
  • William Whitaker

There isn’t enough money in the world to equal the value of the insights and knowledge I gained  from these men ; they deserve recognition so  over the next couple of months I am going to write about each one of them , starting with Richard Bird; not the navy officer Richard Bird who made pioneering flights over Antarctica but rather the art teacher  Richard Bird who developed  pioneering new graphic design programs at Ricks College (now known as BYU-Idaho).

Not every member of the art department at Ricks College was pleased when I enrolled in the fall of 1972, in fact my figure drawing teacher made several broad  hints about changing academic majors. To be fair I was a little rough around the edges,  having spent the previous summer working in an oil field . My attitude was also pretty grim.  I was unhappy to be in Rexburg, having transferred  from the University of Alaska only because my Best Friend wanted to go to Ricks College.  Money issues were also part of the problem; the year before I had been offered a scholarship but declined because I didn’t want to cut my hair…and at nineteen it’s hard to understand why the school hadn’t saved it for me.

I had also never taken an art class and despite the fact that I’d spent my entire life drawing  on every available surface that lack of formal training bothered some of the instructors…except for  Richard Bird. I’ll never know if it was sheer luck , an effort to  cross-level class numbers or someone settling a bet that had me making a  last minute entry  his basic drawing  class – but after the third meeting I didn’t care. This Bird guy was good ! More importantly he saw through my lack of training and could appreciate the small talent and tremendous drive that I had.

…and when I say good I mean it in three ways.

  • Good in regards to artistic talent. He would pick up a pencil, marker or brush and the imagery would seemingly flow out of the tip in an effortless manner.
  • Good as in a good teacher. His demonstrations were informative , his classroom management was superb and in my entire life I have never had a more effective critique. He had this wonderful way of giving a totally honest appraisal without the ego-crushing that so often accompanies the activity. The critiques were always one-on-one and as he would finish he would say ” I want you to reach for an A” (penciling an “A” at the top of the paper) “but I’m giving you a B” ( penciling a “B” at the bottom of the paper).
  • Good as in he took care of “his kids”. Two weeks before I finished at Ricks I went through a devastating break-up that left me with very dark thoughts. The morning after the break-up I managed to get to his class but with no desire to explain the red, puffy eyes and hair that would scare a comb to death I sat apart from the others – but any hope of avoiding interaction was in vain. Richard came over and spoke quietly with me, then when class was over he took me upstairs to his office and had me set up in the corner to work , returning periodically to check on me.

These frequent displays of brilliance wisdom-beyond-his-years made hard to figure out his age and I was surprised to find out that A) he had come to Ricks just a  year before I did  and B) he was maybe a dozen years older than I was. That  youth  made his subsequent achievements all that more amazing; among other things he started a  graphics program that eventually morphed into a real-world design studio with students art-directing and creating posters, brochures and other communications tools that would have normally been handled by full-time school employees.

I also gained a wife because of Richard. In the fall of 1976 I was enrolled in a Presentation class at BYU and while showing my portfolio to the instructor the sole female member of the class perked up when I mentioned my time at Ricks. She asked me if I’d studied with Richard and somehow the discussion about this great teacher turned into a date and eventually an engagement.

( I think he always liked the fact that two of his kids from different eras had gotten together.)

We kept in touch over the years and every time I went to Richard for advice on teaching, technique, or just coping with life as a creative type I always went away  much smarter than I had been before. It has always been a point of particular pride that he invited me back to Ricks years later to conduct workshops and share skills I had learned from freelancing.  It hit me hard when I heard of his passing, more so because I had been out of contact with him for a while.  When my own health issues started multiplying it became all too easy to postpone calls, letters and eventually email messages and  I didn’t know of his passing until a year after the fact .

I had had no idea he was struggling with multiple serious ailments, but then I don’t think anyone did outside of his family. I don’t think I ever saw him without that same enigmatic half-smile he’d wear when marking my work with two different grades and I am sure he had that look to the very end.

The Price Of A Stamp

What is the cash value of a human body? As a college freshman I was told the price was about a dollar. Depending on which website you consult now the 2016 price ranges between $4.50 and $160 – but apparently I am worth a lot less than that. I’m worth less than the price of a stamp.

Let me explain.

Two weeks back I got an email asking for an autograph. Don’t laugh – even though my Elvis days as an illustrator are two decades past I still get letters asking for autographs, inquiries about purchasing original art and expressions of general thanks for the illustration work I have done over the years. This message was different though – it was very vague and made up of general comments that could have been composed by a robot. Intrigued, I wrote back, asking specific questions about where the correspondent had first encountered my work and what works of mine were his favorites.

I wasn’t really surprised to learn in the next email that the correspondent was not one of my old fans but a fifteen year old autograph collector. He told me he’d found my name on a website listing contact information  for various artists, then asked again that I send him an autograph, stressing that it was for his collection and not for resale.

As he was so young I wrote back with a couple of tips, one of them being that you always send a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) as a courtesy when asking for things to be sent through the mail. I was surprised with his next email in which he withdrew his request, telling me that he was saving his postage money for artists that he really liked.

I’ve lived long enough to see several iterations of “why kids today are no good”. In my life I have witnessed  Baby-boomers, Gen-Xers and now Millennials all  taken to task for falling short of their elders’ expectations. That  type of commentary has been going on for a lot longer than sixty-two years too; I’m sure you’ve encountered the following diatribe: “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.” attributed at various times to Plato, Socrates or Aristotle. It would be easy to dismiss our frustration with Millennials like this young teen-aged collector as just another evolution of that philosopher’s complaint…

…but I don’t think so. Granted there are good and bad members of every but the casual but nonetheless callous lack of respect displayed by this high school autograph hound is not an isolated thing. I have seen a steady increase in self-absorption as demonstrated by each incoming class of college freshman as I have taught over the last 28 years, this me-first/last/always mindset manifesting itself in something like  “I can carry on a conversation at normal volume during your entire lecture but if you call  me on it – well, that is just SO rude!”

The most tragic-to-the-point-of-scary aspect of the situation? They don ‘t realize how dysfunctional their behavior is. Why does it scare me so much? This sort of mind set can lead to so many different bad endings at both individual and collective levels. At any age such uncertainty is never pleasant and at my age and disabled state it is even more distasteful.

The world is getting crazier all the time, and after incidents like this latest one the only thing I know for sure now… is why some animals eat their own young.

Westland Wyvern sketch

Westland WyvernWestland Wyvern – Fleet Air Arm attack fighter from the early 1950s. Turbo-prop with contra-rotating propellers and one of the most wonderful clunky examples of technodork ever. It’s interesting to take this aircraft and compare it to the Fairey Swordfish, a biplane torpedo bomber that the British were using just ten years before this time of this plane.

This is out of my sketchbook,  rarity of sorts as I don’t work in my sketchbook nearly as much as I did ten years ago. Age continues to creep up on me and sometimes it is all I can do just to hold a pencil. It is interesting though – over the course of my career as an illustrator I have had to resort to light tables, projectors and photographs more than once, but now that I am older I find that tracing a photograph never yields a product anywhere close to the quality that comes from me sitting down with just drawing tools and paper.

This is more of a caricature of a Wyvern than an exact depiction, but I think it conveys the feeling of the aircraft better than something more realistic. That’s why I have students draw a caricature of themselves for information cards rather than falling back on photos. The drawings always convey more information than the lens.