Off-Again, On-Again Artistic Endeavors

I recently wrote an essay for the digital literary arts salon TRIP CITY about my recent attempts to return to creating artwork. I had to delve pretty deep to try to explain why it was such a struggle for me, but given some time, I started to remember more interesting anecdotes and more reassuring stories to tell about art in my life.

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Any discussion of art for me starts with my grandmother Cleo, a beautiful, elegant, and very fashionable lady who, at the age of 14, bobbed and bleached her hair in a drug-store bathroom to keep her parents from stopping her. She wanted to be like the movie stars. At the age of 16, she went away to commercial art school in Washington D.C. with her father, a master cabinet-maker’s, support. The increasing pressures of the Great Depression brought her home again after only a year. She was devastated by the setback in pursuing her passion, but tried to move on with her life, even doing freelance work for local businesses at home. She married young, and traveled the world in the wake of World War II, collecting beautiful objects from Paris, London, and Rome, and even from the capitols of Asia. But her husband didn’t approve of her artwork and over time she set her easel aside. Maybe it was the nude sketching- it was a conservative world she moved in.

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Visiting her house as a kid was totally mesmerizing. In her later years, she had become a consummate gardener and her gardens were like enchanted kingdoms full of every kind of flowering tree and shrub. Inside the house was just as intriguing- you could get lost even in smaller rooms in the mazes of antique and exotic furniture. Crystal and china jangled everywhere and it was a gauntlet not to break anything (but if you did, she glued it back together perfectly without a single harsh word).

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It took quite a few years of observation to realize that her ritual of showing me her stacks of paintings and sketches (modest but sizable) had a deeper meaning for her. Each piece was infused with memories of a time she wished she could recapture before she gave up art. As a kid, I’d hand her my pencils and try to get her to draw with me, but arthritis had made it too difficult for her and she shied away from trying. All of this influenced me at a time when I still treated art and writing as a connected thing. All my books were illustrated and if I found a book that wasn’t, I thought it was some indicator of laziness on the part of the author (“There aren’t even any pictures!”, I’d say disapprovingly). When I looked through Cleo’s old, fine turn of the century books, they were illustrated, too, in whatever language they appeared, further confirming my suspicion that those were “proper” books.

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So when I wrote stories, mainly heavily influenced by the fairy-tales and mythology I was reading at the time, for each page of words there’d be a full-page illustration. It was slow work, but when it was done you had an actual book. I’d punch holes, tie or sew them together and there you had it. Sometimes if I was feeling particularly generous, I’d give them to other people for Christmas. But mostly I kept them for myself.

As I mention in the TRIP CITY essay “To Draw or Not to Draw”, I had a big falling out with art as a teenager. It was knock-down drag-out and we went our separate ways. Ironically, it was at a time when I was actually getting fairly proficient by art-class standards, but I felt it was a definitive break and took off in favor of writing instead. One of the many factors that led to this break was the idea growing in my mind that art had to be perfect, and singular, whereas writing was more malleable and reproduceable (in an age of photo-copiers and PCs) and I didn’t like that constraint. Well, to learn more about my thoughts on the matter, you can read the essay.

In short, I returned to artwork through comics, first dabbling with producing thumbnails, then cautiously taking a comics anatomy class that pretty much confirmed my terrible conviction that I still wanted to draw, and maybe had always wanted to. Cleo regretted not using her more able years to draw, draw, draw, (and paint), and while I’m not 100 percent certain I’ll ever achieve her degree of charm and virtuosity on the page, I’m trying to keep her lesson in mind. On that note, and since writing “To Draw or Not to Draw”, I’ve taken another step and signed up for another art class, this time Basic Drawing, at the Kubert School. It seems like a shockingly big step to take in the context of my many years away from drawing, but I know for sure that Cleo would be delighted. You have to do what you can in the time that you have.

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Reasoning and Rationing Post-Sandy

Once the initial “I survived” phase of Hurricane Sandy is past, the real work sets in. Watching the posts of friends and family as they announce power restoration is like watching the bulbs on a string of Christmas lights finally wink on one at a time when you’re outside in the cold with dusk setting in. But then there are the bulbs that don’t come on and you tweak and you fiddle, but things aren’t going to be quite right until enough of them come on to make a satisfying glow. Otherwise you feel like you ought to go back to the drawing board.

If you’ve been following New Jersey’s progress in the news or on the radio, you’ve heard some disturbing things that aren’t going away very quickly. Hand guns wielded at gas stations, hours of car stop and go waiting for gas that terminates in the announcement “we’re out”. I heard a CNN report yesterday from a vehicle that waited two hours in the falling dark to fill up, and spoke to others waiting in line who had spent hours in various gas stations trying to get even half a tank to no avail. While we feel a surge of relief to hear about friends getting their power back on, there’s the danger that people assume life has returned to normal.

For 1.5 million people in New Jersey alone, this is not the case. Driving around the area where I’m staying since my coastal evacuation on Sunday night, there’s the illusory sense that things are back to normal. Shops are open, restaurants are packed, and some gas stations, at least, seem to have supplies. But it is an illusion for many. There are plenty of people who have returned to life as normal, and even to work as usual, but scratch the surface, and you find the immense difficulty of keeping up this facade. Clerks and waiting staff in shops and restaurants are more than willing to confess that they don’t have power or clean clothes, but are expected to turn up, bright and cheerful, to serve the consumers filing in. I can understand the need for this, but I also think it’s an immense stress to put on people who may be sleeping on cots and barely getting phone signal to check on their loved ones.

Why is there this dichotomy that we can’t admit that things aren’t better yet? It’s an American thing to put on a brave face and celebrate our victories, but if it’s at the cost of honesty, I can’t jump on board. Walking through a deserted mall yesterday, just trying to stay away from where I’ve been living to combat intense cabin fever, the high end shops were selling their wares to no one. Meanwhile, the more general public were scrambling at Walmart and Target to get sheets, towels, and groceries. And all of them, without fail, were expected to be back at work very soon as if nothing had happened, or was still happening. I’m aware that for some people, this helps keeps spirits up. It gives them something to do, maybe even a place to go that has heat and power versus where they’re spending their nights, but I’m not seeing a lot of outreach where I am to help them deal with this transition.

Then there’s the recent announcement in New Jersey that gas will be rationed, starting today. This will cut back on the disheartening lines, the let downs of waiting and then being denied, but it also raises huge logistical problems for people trying to meet their responsibilities to be at work on time. If you haven’t heard, the rationing involves even and odd number plates being allowed to fill up their vehicles on alternate days. What if your tank is nearly empty, you’re over an hour from your home due to evacuation, and you’re expected to be at work at 8 AM on the day you’re not allowed to fill up? Perhaps employers will be understanding,  but I’m not getting that sense from the people I talk to. After a week off work, employers are expecting a prompt return to life as usual, and the slack has to be taken up by people already pressured to look after their families and their properties. I may be beating a dead horse here, but to clarify, there’s a vast difference between areas that had power a couple of days ago and those that still don’t.

I passed out of the illusion zone last night, having to take some country roads to smaller towns to get to my erstwhile home where generators and chainsaws are a constant litany. I went from the well-lit strips where stores and restaurants were open into a sudden deadzone where for 12 miles, not a light could be seen. It was eerie and dangerous, especially at large intersections where the occasional ghostly car paused hesitantly. In those areas, where giant tree carcasses are still littering the roads or hauled partially off of them, people are having to drive miles for food and maybe water (many of the homes here have wells that need electricity to function). I wonder how they’ll do during gas rationing? This post’s a bummer, but I’ll lay one more straw on the camel’s back: the expense to individuals of the hurricane’s impact. Daily costs are high and way out of the budget of the normal middle class family. Eating out and getting take out because you can’t cook at home is racking up the dough. Two people eating out at Panera, for instance, if it’s open, is at least 25 bucks. Spread that over two meals (to be conservative) a day and times that by six or more, and things are going to be a real burden on couples or families in the days to come.

I could talk about all the team work and positive energy I’ve seen, the ways that people are helping each other, and maybe I should. Seeing and hearing about those things helped me get through the initial shock and fear of the mega-storm and blunted the edge of the terrifying photographs I saw of devastation. You know those stories are out there, and heartwarming, but what we’re going to need in the days ahead is ongoing compassion and understanding. People want to move on quickly because it’s all been very upsetting. That’s human nature. But if the community is asking people to cover up the ongoing burden these events have caused, that’s dishonest and unhelpful. Keep looking out for your neighbors, please. Keep asking how they are doing. Speak up when unrealistic goals are being set and grant people the time to deal with things they may never have expected to deal with. There are going to be insurance deductibles people don’t know how to finance, homes that get power but no cable, internet, or phone, and plenty of people with bed-head (no hairdryers) and rumpled clothes (no laundry). A few days ago, that wouldn’t have mattered since food and heat were the main priority, but as we move onward, expecting those people to shift from refugee status into the mainstream is going to be all too easy and all too unfair.

Rant over. I hope you aren’t dealing with these issues from the refugee side of things, but even if you aren’t, your understanding is going to go a long, long way for those who are.

Hell and High Water

I didn’t have the worst experience I could have had by any means- that’s reserved for lots of truly suffering people in the wake of hurricane Sandy, but such as it is, it’s been a week that exceeded my expectations in nutsiness. I tend to underestimate weather because I generally criticize overblown media hype. I didn’t think my coastal town in New Jersey would be evacuated and I truly did not expect the horrendous images of devastation that I’ve seen from New York, Hoboken, and points south in New Jersey. It’s still dawning on me that I’ll never see the Seaside Heights boardwalk, where I tend to go when there’s nothing else to do to play some skeeball and eat pizza, again. Or the Atlantic City boardwalk which I’m now glad I explored and went on the rickety and fairly dangerous rides there, coming pretty close to being hurled into the sea. Things are changing. When they are all rebuilt, there will be fewer traces of the roaring twenties in Jersey’s coastal scene and many people will remember Sandy with very real shudders and grief.

I made my way out from the coast by car the night before things got bad, and was surprised by the lull, but glad for a quick trip. I optimistically blogged about the books and comics I had brought with me for The Beat, which you can find here: “Frankenstorm Reading: Weathering the Evacuation Blues”. 

Before too long, the lights went out. When I stepped outside to look at the woods where I was staying on the night of the hurricane, a herd of deer fled by me, startling me and them. They had a look of fear. A flock of birds almost collided with me in the dark, too, getting out of the way for what was coming.  Despite this momentary awe, I slept fairly soundly, having had a rough couple of days, but when I woke, I was in the middle of a battle ground.

Hundred year old trees were thrown around everywhere, roots dangling. The narrow lanes of the near-countryside neighborhood were totally blocked by the giants, many of them teetering against flimsy power and phone lines. But the rain had stopped and the world seemed to be breathing again.

The general mundane annoyance of aftermath set in. No power. Stumbling around in the dark. No internet. No cell-phone signal. I don’t think I’ve ever been totally without phone access. That probably panicked me more than the devastation. It was hard to focus on anything to pass the time. Everything felt unhinged. That was Day 2.

Day 3 the sun peeked out, but not for long. A cold front had moved in. Took the car out under the leaning trees and past men working with chainsaws. A couple of restaurants were open. No word about the house I left by the shore except the power was out. We managed to rig up internet and the cell phone reception improved. My panic subsided a little.  Here we are in limbo, but it won’t be for that long. People are hauling New Jersey and New York back onto their feet.


I think what I’m going to remember the most are the images that have been trickling in of unbelievable scenes, havoc in human habitations, but also the stories I’m hearing of how people are helping each other, putting up multiple guests and looking after one another. I’ve never been close enough to an event like this to see the microcosm of what people do in times of stress and how it brings out the good deep down in an often jaded and distrustful world. I won’t forget these things easily and I doubt anyone close to these events will either.

-photos by Russ Shannon

Heroes and Indies on TRIP CITY

It’s been a really busy autumn already in terms of cons, shows, expos, launches and the like. Since I haven’t been as acutely aware of it in previous years, I don’t know how this compares with other stats, but hearing things like “record sales”, “record numbers” etc suggests to me that 2012 has been a very big year for comics. I bit the bullet and tried to hit all the major events within driving range. It was a gaunlet that shuttled me between superhero cosplay and indie night-before stapling fests. I didn’t really have too much time to process what I was seeing, but I was trying to write about it on the fly. I just tried to stick to the facts and hold on for the ride.

But when my journalistic articles started coming out, I was making gaffs. Pretty embarassing ones. Sometimes I’d manage to get through one article without some mistake that showed how new I was to comics, and particularly to comics culture. Sometimes reading several collected volumes of your favorite author doesn’t exactly make you well rounded when it comes to mainstream issues and indie angst. I got a little despondent about it, even though these days you can fix mistakes with the stroke of a key and problem solved. I wondered if I just wasn’t ready to be writing about comics on a scale that really demands a degree of expertise. Maybe enthusiasm wasn’t enough.

I ended up talking to friends about it, of course, and pretty much assuming they’d agree with me, that I ought to back off for awhile. They knew a hell of a lot more than me and more often than not were providing the corrections when I needed them. But their answers were more or less even worse than telling me to call it a day. They suggested I tell everyone that I was new to comics and didn’t always know what I was looking at. In especially ungracious fashion, I got angry with them and told them off. Didn’t they know that would ruin my chances of ever being taken seriously by readers, much less by sites that might let me write for them? Suicide. A couple of days went by. It was one of those awful, good ideas that sticks in the back of your mind. It was like a dare, or maybe looking over a cliff and feeling that vertigo. I told myself I’d do it, but not publish these confessional articles. Well, you get how it turned out. I did it. I thanked them. They were right.

So, here for your perusal, check out the first article I did in this autobio vein pondering the superhero and cosplay aspects of Baltimore Comic Con that I took for granted until I looked more closely at a world I thought I knew:

“Looking for Heroes at Baltimore Comic Con”

[title image by Seth Kushner]

That one was scary enough to write, but honestly, the indie article was harder. That was the real plunge, because I hadn’t even seen an indie comic before spring of 2012 and here I was trying to write about MoCCA Fest and SPX as if I could process the wild world I was being introduced to. But it was maybe the most satisfying writing experience I’ve had yet because it was such an honest wrangling with my impressions. Here you can find:

“The Many Worlds of Indie Comics”

[title image by Seth Kushner]

A big thanks to Dean Haspiel and Seth Kushner at TRIP CITY who allowed me to air my laundry on these issues, proofread and gave suggestions about them, and particularly to Seth who arranged the images beautifully, as always. I also learned something about TRIP CITY doing this, by the way: they value earnestness. Add to that a serious respect for the hard work that goes into comics and all the arts. Just a few more reasons why I’m glad to be a part of a fantastic collective like this.