1978: Superman With a Paunch


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.


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



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.



It was one of those moments that teachers live for…

This summer term has been an experiment for me.  I have been teaching for close to thirty years and recently I have noticed a marked decline in “scholarly attitude”.  I’ve read about the phenomenon since the mid-nineties but it wasn’t until 2005 that it became obvious in my classes.   It seems that as a result of the rising demand for advanced degrees in the job market many students have come to see a diploma as simply a ticket to a good job. In the spirit of pure capitalism attending class has become less a matter of learning and more a matter of making a good deal  – so there is a constant push to “economize”; to get the same credit for lesser effort.

I eased off this semester.  I kept an eye on the syllabus making sure to include all the requirements but I didn’t cover all the extra hands-on material I’ve taught students in prior semesters. I gave the class extra time each class period to work on projects.  I wasn’t as hard-nosed about deadlines, gave open book tests and tried to incorporate the “flexibility” into the class that students have been complaining about for quite awhile now.

What did my experiment reveal?

  1. The old soldier’s adage “where the duty is the lightest the morale is lowest” proved to be true in academia as well. While I had a couple of truly great students collectively the class was surly from day one.
  2. Rather than appreciating the flexibility and space on the schedule students immediately wanted more: more changes, more concessions, more time with projects
  3. Standards became “negotiable”. In the last couple of years I’ve found that students will complain about high standards at first but as the semester progressed most of them would catch the spirit and even get competitive. A laid-back semester just gave them time to scheme.

For example, one student approached me privately about an exam coming up on the schedule. He was concerned about a home-bound family member and because of schedule conflicts asked to take the exam early. Since it was an open-book test and the student had given me no cause to distrust him I sent him home with the test early, only to find that after completing the exam he shared it with most of the other class members the morning before it was given in class.

No one likes to be made to look foolish, and I certainly didn’t – but this is where the incident became one “that teachers live for”. The student who requested the exam early barely passed the test, which meant that all the other students he shared it with didn’t do well either. …and when I say “didn’t do well” I don’t mean it in general terms. The entire lot missed the same questions and “barely passed” as well.

It should be no surprise that I am going back to my former, more disciplined classroom manner….

1996: Praying for Parts


Growing up on a frontier meant that you became a mechanic – whether you wanted to or not. It also meant you often used what was on hand rather than what the manual specified. Parts stores were few and far between so we would patronize the junkyard as often as an auto supply store.

That trend continued for me long after I left Alaska. Between service in the Army as a motor officer and “shade tree mechanic duty” to save money as a parent I ended up with grease under my fingernails and scraped knuckles well into middle age. I could brag about my skill and knowledge as a “meck-an-neck” but my success had to do more with the modular system Volkswagen used in designing their cars. Before graduating to my 2001 turbo-charged New Beetle I had performed every type of repair (short of an engine re-build) on the string of VWs that passed through our hands in the decades beforehand.  ,

My system was fairly simple: I would examine a problem part or area from as many angles as possible, looking for any spot that was obviously bent, broken or charred, being careful to confer with friendly mechanics on questionable calls.  90% of the time if a spot looked “bad” it was bad (broken) so most repairs entailed simple replacement – like repairing an old TV by replacing tubes. It was a good system, but every once and awhile it didn’t work .

..as happened in 1996 when I was teaching a basic sculpture class during the short summer term at Roane State Community College in Harriman, Tennessee. The class was going extremely well ;  using the same syllabus as we did during regular terms  created an intensity that pushed students into doing better work than they’d normally put out. The class had started out great and was rolling along nicely, but ten days into the term my Vanagon broke down. Since the break-down happened on the trip home at the end of the week AND I had access to a temporary loaner car I figured I wouldn’t worry too much about the situation.

Brimming with confidence I made a leisurely start to my automotive chores late Saturday morning, secure in the knowledge that my skill would make short work of the problem.

Within ten minutes I was worrying.

Fuel was not being delivered in the proper manner to the cylinders, and I figured out that the Engine Control Unit (ECU) was the source of my troubles. No problem – it was the most modular of all modules in the vehicle and replacing it would be a matter of snapping the old one out and the new one in. I don’t even think a screwdriver was required for the job. Cleaning my hands off I happily picked up the phone and called my favorite parts supplier Ron. I told him what I needed and he went off line for a moment as he looked through a catalog for price and availability.

He got back on the phone. He started to speak, stopped for a moment and said “Are you sitting down?” I chuckled- Ron and I routinely bantered back and forth during these kinds of calls so I replied with some sort of forgettable wise-crack then said “So what are we talking about? $400?”

“Try $1600.”

I sat down.

Bear in mind that I was a freelance artist supplementing my income with money made as an adjunct design instructor. I had my wife, two teen-age boys and an infant daughter to support, I was barely keeping my head above water in the sea of student-loan debt from graduate school and the ancient HVAC system that kept our home marginally habitable during brutally hot East Tennessee summers was in dire need of replacement. A sum like sixteen hundred dollars was not something that was going to just pop out of thin air for me.

I could do nothing more at that point so I asked Ron to check other sources for a better price for the faulty unit. I called the owner of the loaner car I was using and was able to secure use for the next week – but only for the next week. I had seven days to figure out a solution.

Teaching a compressed course takes a lot of concentration so I didn’t think about that dead ECU very much during that following week, but come Friday morning the specter of a dead van loomed menacingly like a Tupperware tub of potato salad pushed to the back of the fridge and forgotten for a month. I dutifully donned coveralls and started checking, prodding and testing electrical components in search of a solution. I finally reached a point where my aching back would no longer let me lay underneath the van to work, so I removed the defective ECU and brought it into the shop where I could examine it under more comfortable conditions.

The cover to the ECU was held in place by bent metal tabs that clipped around the edge of the base. It was a simple move to straighten the tabs back out to allow the cover to be removed and as I carefully worked with pliers and screw-driver I imagined the hardest part of the repair to be repairing whatever “broken, bent & charred” parts that were preventing the computer from functioning correctly. Imagine my surprise and dismay when I opened the unit to find a circuit board that looked as good as the day it was manufactured, with no obvious defect to repair.

My heart sank. I looked skyward and said “Lord, I have done everything within my power to repair this thing. It’s in your hands now!”

At most three seconds passed between those words being spoken and my son Conrad entering the shop carrying the cordless phone. “It’s for you, Dad” he said, “I think it’s some guy named Spigot or Fawcett and I think he’s from Chicago” It was Bill Fawcett, editor and book packaging expert who had used some of our art in a collectible card game a few years prior.  The game had been an attempt to jump on the Magic: The Gathering bandwagon in an economical manner by using second rights art but it hadn’t done too terribly well. We had gotten an initial fee when we first sent the images in but the royalties had been few and far between.

Bill was calling to tell us that they were converting the tangible card game into an on-line version and that they needed to just buy us out instead of worrying about royalties and book-keeping in the future.

Then he apologetically told me that they could pay us “only $1500”. I immediately burst out laughing which flustered Bill quite a bit but when I finally got the chuckles under control enough to explain the situation with the broken ECU he immediately asked for my street address and offered to overnight the check to us. Then it got even better: the minute Bill rang off Ron the part-man called to tell me that he had been able to shop around for a better price for the unit so in addition to having enough money to repair we were able to catch up on some bills that had been netting us collections calls for the previous month.

You know, very few people are comfortable with the idea of spiritual matters or divine communication in these times. We marvel at Biblical miracles but many doubt that sort of thing could happen now. I doubt that I am the only Believer that would be both thrilled and terrified at a Divine visitation of any sort…though I entertain no illusions about the state of my own (lack of) spiritual progression. I imagine my own Final Judgment to be brief; a quick scan of a crumpled index card with a “Do we really need to talk about this David?”

This incident made me stop and think.  While Bill and Ron would both scoff at the idea of being dubbed angels, the timing and interplay of their words and actions were as miraculous and yielded results as precious as that found in an Old Testament story.

… though maybe not quite so dramatic.

1997- Gypsy Prof

Graduate schools make their income by perpetuating the dream held by all their students: that they will walk into a tenure-track teaching job at a major university immediately upon graduation. Sadly, that is not the case for most would-be professors. Very few find immediate full-time work and a large percentage of those who don’t opt for non-academic careers. There are some who accept adjunct positions, teaching college part-time in hopes that the experience will help them find that elusive full-time slot “next year”

That was the case for me when I earned my MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degree in design. I made the short-list of potential interviewees for the University of Cincinnati but lost out to a last minute applicant with unmatchable credentials. Luckily I was able to find part-time teaching work at local schools; unfortunately none of the “local” schools were actually local, the average round-trip distance measuring over 50 miles a class day. I travelled like a gypsy during my work week.

At this point I need to introduce the trusty steed that carried me to those far-off classrooms. It was a 1983 VW Vanagon, purchased with a painting and modest amount of cash from my good friend Rob Furey. There were plenty of miles on it when purchased, but it had been well-loved and I was able to put over 100,000 more miles on it before passing it on. In true VW fan-fashion I did most of the maintenance myself, servicing or replacing every system on it short of an engine rebuild.

Spending so much time tinkering with that van meant that I knew well what it could and couldn’t do .. For example, it was a very stable vehicle, requiring a minimum of input on the steering wheel to keep it headed in the right direction. On a two-class day that was a real blessing because I’d have to eat lunch on the road and I have yet to figure out a way to eat a sandwich without using my hands.

One day I was late finishing up my morning students, which cut short the time I had to get to my afternoon class. As usual I ate my lunch while I was speeding along the interstate, but as I reached for a bottle of apple juice I fumbled, dropping it to the floor between the two front seats. No problem – I reached down to pick it up but in the process the bottle rolled neatly back down behind the front passenger seat.


I like to blame my next step on the muddled thinking that can accompany a case of low blood sugar. After unbuckling my seat belt I moved my right foot back to the floor between the two front seats, then moved my left foot over to the accelerator. Keeping my left hand on the steering wheel I got out of my seat, shifted over between the two front seats and reached down to get the truant juice bottle which was now within reach. I then reversed the procedure, buckled back in and finished both my lunch and commute.

Dumb stunt? Yes. Oh, the road was as straight as an arrow at that point and I had total confidence in both my vehicle and driving skills but it was the kind of stunt more suited to a man in his early twenties than a man in his early forties.

The next adventure had little to do with my ego and everything to do with the weather. I would gain 1000 feet in altitude when driving to my class up on the Cumberland Plateau and there was often a marked difference between the weather at the bottom of that climb and the weather at the top. Such was the case one winter day as I went from rainy weather at the start of my trip to snow as I neared my destination. The weather wasn’t the only change I encountered though – steering the van was getting progressively more difficult. I wondered if my tires were low, but because of the time and weather I didn’t stop to check until I reached the center –but when I arrived and checked the tires looked just fine.

As I stepped back from the van though the front seemed to look a little odd and out of proportion so I stepped forward again and found the surface of the van to be slippery. On impulse I hit the ice with the side of my fist at which point the entire front body fell off…or what looked like the front body. As I was driving through the differing weather conditions ice had built up all over the front of the van making a second layer that looked like a vacuum-formed duplicate of the original ….and also put a couple of hundred extra pounds right over the front wheels and the steering system. I was lucky to have been able to steer the van at all!

The last adventure prompted me to buy a proper maintenance manual and make sure everything was adjusted and in good repair. My Vanagon was a “water-boxer” equipped with a radiator and cooling system instead of relying on simple air-cooling as was the case with 75% of the Vanagons that were manufactured. Because of their more efficient heating/defrosting systems, water-boxers were usually sold in northern states like Pennsylvania where my van had originally been. The extra heating capability was nice in the winter – but it also meant that pertinent manuals and some parts were not available in the South.

I didn’t realize at first how important those items were until I ran out of gas on the way home from school one spring day. I was surprised as I had filled the tank up just that morning and by my calculations that tankful should have lasted me for another week – but sure enough I was coasting to a stop 25 miles short of home, engine sputtering and the gas gauge needle firmly planted on “E”. Through a combination of gravity, grinding the starter motor and some good, hard pushing I got the van off the interstate and up the off-ramp to a secure spot just off the frontage road.

I sat there for a moment to gather my thoughts and plan a strategy…and while I sat there I couldn’t help but notice the smell of gasoline. As my van was equipped with a 4/60 air-conditioner (four windows rolled down while driving 60 miles per hour) there had been no way I could have detected any sort of smell other than that of the truck hauling pigs that I had been stuck behind for ten miles before my vehicle stalled, but I could most definitely detect the very strong smell of gasoline now. I walked through the interior chasing the ever-increasing odor until I got to the engine access panel in the cargo bed, which I unlatched after opening the back hatch…and when I did I was met with a rich cloud of gasoline vapor.

I had been sitting on a FAM bomb.

For the benefit of the non-veterans in the audience, a FAM bomb (more accurately known as a fuel-air mixture bomb) is an air-droppable munition that relies on gasoline vapor and a simple sparking mechanism for detonation. You’ve no doubt heard that a full-gasoline tank won’t explode if you shoot through it, but a half-empty one will? That’s because the atomized gasoline has been able to combine in a mix rich enough with oxygen in the air to provide for maximum explosive effect. I think the idea for a fuel-air mixture bomb was accidentally discovered during the Viet-Nam conflict when a half-full drop-tank exploded when discarded by a F4 Phantom in low flight – but it became a valued weapon against “soft targets” because of the immense fireball it made when exploding. It was one of the easiest weapons to identify by effect on an overhead photo because of the large smoky scorched mark it left instead of a crater.

So – getting back to my story: a week before I had found the fuel distribution system to be slightly leaking and lacking the correct manual for my type of van I was unable to order the correct part for my water-cooled engine. As the semester was ending I was pressed for time I made do with the part designed for the air-cooled version. It must have been engineered to a different set of tolerances because the pressure produced by the fuel pump had blown out the part in several places. The fuel leaking out under pressure combined with the wind rushing into the engine compartment turned the gasoline into a vapor, making it a perfect mixture for maximum explosive effect should the smallest spark occur.

My knees buckled when I realize how close I had come to being killed in massive explosion. When I stopped shaking I was able to walk across an overpass to an RV park where they were kind enough to lend me their phone to arrange for a ride home as well as letting me park the van there for security until I could get it hauled back home as well. As mentioned it was the end of the semester so I was able to take the time to track down a real “waterboxer” shop manual and in turn order the correct parts.

Over the next couple of years my class schedule changed and with it my commute – and my vehicle. My driving time became quite reasonable and it wasn’t until 2008 when I started teaching at Nossi College of Art that my commute became lengthy again. It was a much better situation than the one I had been in when I was based in East Tennessee. For starters I was (hopefully) a little older and wiser. I also wasn’t on the road half as much, the drive between my home in Clarksville and the NCA campus in Goodletsville taking at most 45 minutes. Most importantly I had a much better vehicle to travel in, and while a turbo-charged 2001 New Beetle is as much “Volkswagen” as a 1983 Vanagon, there was no way I would ever be tempted to try and fetch a bottle of apple juice from its back seat.

A Guarded Sigh of Relief

Here’s hoping that I am finally on the mend. For the last two months I have been seriously sick and on two occasions came close to having the gophers start bringing me my mail. I’ve probably babbled about this already but I had three separate asthma attacks wherein my throat closed completely shut. For sheer terror nothing beats lurching around the room, counting the seconds off until black-out while looking for something to use in a self-administered tracheotomy. God Bless doTerra essential oils!

For two weeks afterwards I wondered if I’d see another birthday – and what’s worse, I had others share that opinion after looking at me. In all honesty I should have dropped out of teaching this semester in early February when the coughing first got serious, but as usual I figured I was Batman and could force my way through – with so many of my students on tight budgets and timetables I couldn’t accept the idea of them losing a whole semester (if I were to bail)

The upside – I am finally getting some color back in my face now….and I’m accepting the fact that I am no longer Batman and can force myself to do anything.

Now, if someone were to make me that armored Bat-suit the big guy wore when he fought Supes in the last chapter of “Return of the Dark Night”!

….ok, ok.

Darth David’s Ten Commandments for Working with Cardboard Maquettes


(While I was between salaried teaching positions I ran my own “school” of sorts. “Darth David’s Occasional Floating Creative Workshop” met approximately once every two months and covered high-demand skills that I either didn’t have the time or space to teach in more structured environments. I would charge a modest fee and would draw about a half-dozen attendees, all of whom were issued a certificate of training at the completion of the class that I was subsequently pleased to learn was accepted for continuing educations credits for my K-12 teacher-students.

One of the best sessions concerned making rough cardboard mock-ups. While finished sculpture is very time-consuming and rapidly being overtaken my stereo lithography, there is still a valid use for being able to quickly work up a rough model for use as reference in illustration jobs. What follows are text and materials from the class.)

  1. Working with cardboard is just another form of doing cut-paper sculpture because cardboard is basically  2 sheets of brown Kraft paper assembled around a core of corrugated (folded) paper that provides strength, stiffness and bulk. Principles involved with paper-sculpture apply equally to working with cardboard – especially in safety matters. Glue Guns will cause very painful second degree burns.
  2.  Use heavy blades for cutting – preferably Kraft/carpet knives but a #2 X-Acto will do for close/precision cuts.  Don’t try to save money on blades so change them often! More people have been cut with dull blades than sharp ones.
  3. There are various sources, sizes and qualities of cardboard. You can obtain most of what you need from salvaging old boxes, but avoid stained board or board that has been wet and subsequently dried (the assembly-glue and fibers remain weak to an extent). Due to different types of wood-pulp and paper-making processes most cardboard out of the Orient is weaker than domestically produced board so avoid it if possible. It is usually slightly lighter in color.
  4. When cutting parts use sheets that are slightly larger than the finished part. Avoid piecing smaller pieces together to make a large part; you’ll have to overlap or double-up pieces which will interfere with accurate measuring and assembly…and will still not be very strong.
  5. When cutting sheets that will be wrapped around curving shapes cut against the grain so the corrugations will run at a right angle to the curve. If you still have problems with getting a smooth curve use a rolling pin to slightly crush the board to make it easier to bend.
  6. If you plan on painting your cardboard maquette prime it with spray-paint first. Spray paint is oil-based and will not affect the paper or glue like water-based paints will. After you’ve primed the board you can use water-based paint over the primer.
  7. Use a hot-glue for assembly as much as possible and keep more than one glue-gun hot while working on a project – an average glue-gun won’t quite go all the way through a 4 inch stick in one go-around before needing reheating – and reheating takes about 5 minutes. With multiple guns you can use one to work while the others are re-heating . Have at least one of them is a cordless model.
  8. If you use wet glue to supplement the hot-glue use yellow carpenter’s wood glue instead of white glue. Unlike Elmer’s (white) glue, the yellow glue will retain its bond even if subjected to heat or moisture. Make sure you have plastic Quik-Grip clamps to hold work in place while the glue dries.
  9. If required you can use foam-core board for bracing but there are drawbacks. Mixing the two materials can be kind of confusing as foam-core cuts and handles differently than cardboard . Hot-glue will cause excessive melting of the foam component so you are limited to low-temp glue guns. Likewise the petroleum base in spray paint will chemically melt the core so you have to tape off edges when painting.
  10. Don’t be afraid to use “found objects” – preexisting/manufactured cardboard shapes such as wrapping paper rolls and mailing tubes. Craft stores like Holly Lobby stock wide selections of specialty boxes in a variety of shapes and sizes that can be integrated easily into a cardboard maquette to great effect.

Parts for the light-cycle
lightcycle part
Putting the Pieces together
Model completed
lightcycle done

Creative Curmudgeon Commentary 3: No Golden Tickets.

 I’ve been teaching since 1988 and during that time I have seen an unfortunate trend growing – the idea of the “golden ticket”. Other than being a major plot point in the sadly misunderstood Arnold Schwarzenegger 1993 action flick ‘The Last Action Hero” a “Golden Ticket” is something – a tool or qualification that will inexplicably grant you incredible success by merely being in your possession. Aladdin’s Lamp. Green Lantern’s ring. An airbrush. A Waccum tablet.

 Or a degree.

 It’s sad because students pass through my classes now with absolutely no desire to actually learn anything. They seem to be there solely to pass the class with as little work and as high a grade as possible in order to check off a box on the way to a degree which they assume automatically qualifies and entitles them to an extremely well-paying job. I can understand being pragmatic about school but I still think it’s sad – they miss so much during school and crash so hard when their entry-level job does not come with a corner office and a six figure salary.

 I worked my way through undergraduate work before there were Pell grants and it took me twelve semesters to earn a Bachelors of Arts (BA) degree in April of 1979. Not many people on either side of my family had earned college degrees, but I felt bad because it was getting a BA instead of a BFA – a bachelor of fine arts that was a bit more specialized and a notch up in status. Unfortunately there were a number of my fellow students and faculty members that made sure I knew the difference. I mean really, really really made sure that there was no question in my mind that a simple BA was just barely above “wash-out”  

 There wasn’t much I could have done differently:

  • I was attending schools located 3000 miles away from my home and support system.
  • I attended three different schools,
  • I made a drastic change in my major (pre-law to art) and then changed my area of emphasis within my major.
  • I was extensively involved with ROTC
  • I took a two year break right half-way through and also went to school part time for three other semesters as well.  
  • I was married for the last two years of school
  • My summers were not available for internships – I worked as a roustabout in an oil field.

 My insecurities were eased a year later when I was working at The U.S. Army Aviation Digest. The officer in charge at TSC (Training Support Command) had seen my work, liked it and invited me down for an afternoon to look around his facility.  This was long before computers or PowerPoints so instructors used slides to accompany lectures – and the slides were produced by a stable full of civilian illustrators at TSC.

  Please excuse the horrible pun but the visit was an illuminating experience for me.  I looked through the building I noticed that there was a common decorating motif in all the artists’ cubicles. Hanging on the walls would be:

  • Sketches and reference material for their current projects
  • An outside “signature piece” –something done outside of work that the artist felt represented their talents better than the little pot-boiler lecture slides they were doing for TSC
  • The artist’s framed diploma.

I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing. While close to 100% of the framed diplomas were for BFA degrees, 75% of the artists working in those cubicles were “not-very-good” artists. I won’t say bad – because there were a couple of nicely rendered spots in some of the slide illustrations that people were working on that day, but most of the work there was several levels below what I had been led to expect out of someone holding a BFA degree.

It was my first lesson about golden tickets…

…but you know the door often swings both ways. In our last episode of CCC I talked about not chasing clients and how there are some people who will lead you on for years…and as I inferred this has happened to me. In my case the person in question also suggested that I go back to school and take some figure-drawing lessons. Why the nerve! I was a successful freelance illustrator with an appropriate level of awards and recognition for the stage I was at. I judged the comment to be another one of those Manhattan thumb-to-nose gestures given to”flyover people” and moved on with my career without that client.

…but a decade later the issue came up again, though the second time it was me talking to me.  As I was closing in on 50 I had to admit that my figure drawing needed improving.   I had plenty of tricks to help me get by: I used projectors, I’d ask Lori to “edit” all my faces…I even went so far as to downplay the detail and finish on hardware pieces so those areas wouldn’t overpower my figures – but the fact remained that I wanted to be one of those guys who could sit down and just knock something great out my sketchbook in fifteen minutes

So I sent myself back to school. No, I didn’t take classes, but I set up a figure drawing program to build my skills. For almost ten years I studied, maintained a special reference binder, and drew. Not just lower-case “la-dee-dah” drawing – I DREW!  In addition to any other project I had going on at the time I worked in my sketchbook at least twice a week – sometimes three times – and in the end it paid off as you can see below.

So, again – there are no “golden tickets” in this business. I may joke and tell people that “illustration is all a bunch of cheap tricks – and they all work” but even with the cheap tricks you have to push yourself. On his death bed Michelangelo Buonarroti kept saying “I have so much yet to learn” and he was in his late 80s when he cleaned his brushes for the last time. You have to rid yourself of the idea that there will be a time when you can just “punch a ticket” or coast –

….and if that is too hard to do then I would recommend AFLAC and their great training program.

drawing progress