Did I Choose Art or Did It Choose Me?

Big Little Drawing

First let me apologize for my complete lack of posting over the last few weeks. I became buried with unsolicited work (always a good thing) and there just weren’t enough hours in the day to slice out time for writing (or painting, for that matter). I’m not kidding about the project volume. I’m currently working on 2 mural painting for 2 separate children’s hospitals, 4 branding projects for 2 new clients, I’ve taken on a new private student, have begun my second term as a teaching artist for the Mariposa County Arts Council and School System, designed an elaborate tattoo for a local businessman and I’m putting the finishing touches on a new website for Sierra Art Trails. Whew! Anyway, enough with the apology and on with the post.

I recently came across a filing folder of my childhood artwork.  Unknown to me, my mother was saving much of what I created, as I was growing up and decided last year to pass the collection on to me. My mom and dad both turned 90 this year and my mom’s beginning to distribute these mementos among her five children. I never bothered to look through it, at the time, instead, just shoving it onto a shelf in the closet of my studio.

Looking for something else the other day, I noticed the folder and took a look inside. To my great surprise it contained a drawing pivotal in my life. A very early creation I had no idea my mother had procured and preserved. Right on top, quarter folded, was the drawing shown at the top of this post.

This was an early art assignment (maybe my first art assignment), given to a 5 year old me by my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Macnamara. The class was to draw something big and something small (as our teacher had written across the top of our blank sheets of manila paper, with a thick black crayon). I apparently decided to make animals my focus.

I’m sure I’d been to, what was then known as, the Griffith Park Zoo many times by then and experienced the elephants there, first hand: sizable beasts, when compared to a 5 year old looking up at them. So, when I thought of really big animals, elephants were an obvious choice.

I spent a lot of my 5 year old life playing outdoors with other kids in the neighborhood. In fact, I began kindergarten with my left arm in a cast to hold the broken bones still while they re-knit, an injury sustained through a bad fall, rough-housing with some of the older kids on the block. Anyway, I saw a lot of birds outside. So, under small I drew a bird. Seemed right to me!

When my teacher collected our drawings and reviewed them, she asked me if she could mat my drawing and put it up on the wall for the upcoming Open House. A little light went on in my head. Hmm, why me?

I got an answer to my question a few days later, when during the Open House, Mrs. Macnamara encouraged my parents and I over to the wall where my drawing was being displayed. She explained to my mom and dad why she selected my drawing to display. In addition to her liking the quality of this early effort (all smiles) I was the only student in the class to use comparative analysis in arriving at my solution. While everyone else in the class had drawn big and small version of the same object: a big sun and a small sun, a big house and a small house, etc., I chose to draw an item that was actually big in the real world with one that was truly small.

I felt myself swell with pride at the attention brought to this effort, early in my academic career and at that moment, then and there, decided what I wanted to do with the rest of my life!

Forever Young

Enjoying California Treasures Image
“Enjoying California Treasures,” by Trowzers Akimbo for Children’s Hospital.

I love that Dylan song! It’s Bob at his best, raising an intimate toast to an individual, he identifies all the challenges, pitfalls and fears we face throughout life and, possibly, gives criticism to a youth who dismisses all those older than herself. But that’s not what this post is about.

I’ve been fortunate to have worn a lot of creative hats throughout adult life: tv graphic artist, print illustrator and graphic designer, animation director, game creative director and fine artist. Some of my favorite work has been aimed at children.

Kid's Castle Image
Cover for “Sesame Street Magazine,” by Bill Davis.

I love kids! Everyone says that, but I really mean it. They crack me up in a way adults rarely do. They’ve figured a lot of things out for themselves, often wrongly, but share this misguided information with love and confidence. Maybe I enjoy their company so much, because there is still much about me that is a child. I’m pretty good at being an adult too. I happily accept responsibility and deliver my best, when others are depending on me. I’m happy to share anything I’ve learned, but enjoy many of the same things children do.

I love pure, non-local color. I want to paint things in the colors I choose, not necessarily the colors nature has assigned to things. I’m also most intrigued with that I’ve never encountered before, the first book in a new genre (I remember my ravaging my first Marquez book), a painter or illustrator with a new take on the everyday (VanGogh blew my mind, when I was 7 or 8 years old), new music, I mean really new, something I haven’t heard before. This joy in surprise is probably why I enjoy abstracting so much.

Croak Show Image
Children’s style art for the “Tonight Show, starring Johnny Carson,” by Bill Davis.

So, no surprise, I’ve always been attracted to illustrated children’s books. I love the anything goes approach in the content and the often experimental illustration. I’ve been fortunate to create a lot of artwork for children. I illustrated a lot of text books and workbooks (the most fun), early in my career and was a monthly contributor to all the magazines produced by Sesame Street Workshop in the ’80s.

I was recently commissioned to created a 3′ x 6′ painting for Valley Children’s Hospital, in Madera, CA. That painting led to orders from multiple other children’s hospitals for large gicleé prints of the earlier described work I created for kids.

The work is living a second life. The best kind of life, one offering distraction and lifting the spirits of children and their families, if just for a short time, while they face the greatest challenges of their young lives. May you stay forever young!

Who’s Teaching Who?

(Image: Drawing from upside-down reference. (Left) Reference: Picasso’s Stravinsky, (Right) Student Drawing)

I’ve volunteered as a teaching artist in the Mariposa School System for the Mariposa County Arts Council this year. I’m teaching art to two 5th grade glasses, one hour a week, over twelve weeks. I’m a little more than halfway through the session right now.

I started them off with several right brain drawing exercises: the dual human profiles that create a vase in negative space, drawing a complex image, while viewing it upside down, contour drawing without looking at your paper, etc. (one of my high school art teachers, Betty Edwards, actually wrote the book on right brain drawing techniques). Enough for them to gain a glimpse of what it feels like to draw in the right brain zone, as a seasoned artist does. Few of them could stay in the zone long, so in a short time, during every session, the buzz of talking would rise and I’d have to focus them once again, reminding them that they couldn’t be working in the right brain and talking at the same time. The left brain handles all communication. The right brain is incapable of conversation.

We soon moved on to single point (vanishing point) perspective, discussions of the events and developments that triggered the transition from representational art to abstract art, systems utilized in abstract art, actual painting using these systems and last week, team work on a large collaborative painting (the most fun, so far).

Working with these individuals, about to transition into adolescence, has been a joy and eye opening. In these two classes of 24 to 30 students each, only a small percentage, 2 or 3 students per class, show a focused interest in art. I’m guessing this aligns with the percentage of our society, as a whole, that shares this level of interest. Naturally, these students of focused interest also show the most potential (also a likely reflection of society).

More than this, to some degree, the art exercises reveal the personalities and psychological states of the students. The whole class appears to truly enjoy learning about and participating in art, but a couple students have difficulty following instructions, others ignore the exercise and draw or paint what they want, one or two ask a lot questions, a couple are insecure about whether they are doing things properly, another seeks precision, there are a couple of clowns, one does not participate and another’s actions reveal them to be working out some problems.

I wonder if exercises in other subjects reveal similar things, if the same students exhibit the same behaviors consistently across all subjects or if students respond differently to each subject? Makes me wish I had more time with these kids. Would love to see who each of these individuals becomes in the future.