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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The TRIP CITY Interviews : Origin Stories

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My origin story as a journalist is tied up in the history of TRIP CITY’s first year of digital life. I had done plenty of writing in my life, but there were two genres of writing I had completely avoided, pretty much on purpose: autobiography and journalism. I had learned to avoid autobiography laced into fiction or poetry mostly from watching friends get slapped across the face by angry partners at readings, or from writhing around thinking “TMI” if there were no altercations to break the tedium at the same readings. My antipathy toward journalism went back further to high school when I was forced into editing the school newspaper for a semester by pleading teachers and admin. It had started badly with a guilt trip because there was no one else willing to do the job, and it only got worse as I was forced to print retraction after retraction for being too candid in what I considered bare bones and dry as dust, yawningly boring accounts of school events. One rather imposing teacher even blocked the hallway and slammed her fist into a locker to make her point. I had gotten into the middle of some kind of teacher-world rivalry without realizing. Journalism was a bad word after that, and I’ll confess my attitude was snobbish. I didn’t see any room for creativity in that prison-like atmosphere.

There was a significant blip on the radar in my 20’s when I picked up a book by Hunter S. Thompson. It was actually a volume of his diaries and I started with that before reading whatever of his work I could get my hands on. I had never even heard of New Journalism. It was as if I had lived in a world without the concept. But I came to the conclusion, misguidedly, that it probably wasn’t possible to write like that anymore, since every piece of journalism I saw was as bland as I expected it to be. Thompson lurked somewhere in the dusty corners of my brain, just a minor doubt, for another decade.

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I heard about this event in Brooklyn in March 2012, a book launch with some readings, and decided to go since it involved my more recent love, comics. As soon as the thing started, I pulled out a notebook and started taking down notes, thinking I might do a book review, because I was becoming more and more astonished by what was playing out in front of me. The launch for LEAPING TALL BUILDINGS by Christopher Irving and Seth Kushner actually began with some live comics performances by TRIP CITY folks and friends, and by the time Seth Kushner started talking about the ground-breaking photo essay book, I was mezmerized and strangely uncomfortable. There was something about presenting all this as a live event that was getting to me. It’s strange when you can point to one moment in your life and identify a turning point that brought about a lot of personal change, even stranger when you can blame someone else for it. Dean Haspiel saw me taking notes and asked if I was a journalist. When I said, “no”, I was probably a little horrified. But he asked if I would write up the event for TRIP CITY. That I said yes to. Journalism was bland to me, but TRIP CITY, I could already see, was not. It was something remarkable I wanted to know more about.

Writing that article was pretty excruciating. I had no idea what I was doing since it didn’t fit any formal conventions I was used to. The challenge of capturing a live event in a way that made sense, and hopefully made people feel that they had been there made me feel like stopping before I even started. I came to the conclusion around 4 in the morning that the only way to do it was to include myself. Then I remembered Hunter Thompson and that old question in my mind. After that, the article wrote itself. That’s certainly not the end of the story, far from it, but that was the beginning of writing journalistically for me.

When TRIP CITY turned one year old, it was an honor to try to pry the literary arts salon’s own origin story out of the four founders and to look ahead toward the site’s future and goals. TRIP CITY breaks paradigms and brings the literary, visual, and aural arts together in new and unique combinations that you’d be very hard pressed to find anywhere else. That confluence brought me in, and changed my artistic direction pretty profoundly. I wanted to know how that happened, and for the most part, I got my answers.

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For my initial essay about what TRIP CITY is and does from my perspective, check out “The Shock of the New“, which I wrote in November 2012 for The Beat.

In my interview with co-curators Jeffrey Burandt and Chris Miskiewicz, you can read about their take on digital multi-media here.

For my interview with co-curator Dean Haspiel, you can hear him talk “Around the Digital Campfire“.

For my interview with co-curator Seth Kushner, you can hear all about his “Male Uterus“, here.

I owe these guys a profound debt of thanks for the ways they altered my trajectory in life, even if they had no idea they were doing so at the time. It’s been a phenomenal year for TRIP CITY and I couldn’t be prouder of this one year old prodigy and all its diverse and dynamic contributors. Congrats!

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.