When I was a kid I used to draw all the time. That and legos. And reading. And G.I. Joe. Okay. I drew a lot of time. And I had fun with it and did it well. My older sister went to college and got a BA in photography and was excellent at it, and made a career out of it for a long time, but was scared to take the plunge and move to NYC or LA where the big creative ad houses were.
Anyways, when it came time for me to go to college it was a little bit of a battle with my Dad. He’d been laid off for the first time in his career, and was conflicted. When he was 18, he was pretty much kicked off the farm to go make something of himself, and did so. So while he’d helped subsidize my older sister’s education, and wanted to be fair, he also wanted me to make it on my own. I’d been working for years and had money, and he was never going to pay 100% of my tuition (and he didn’t for my sister either), but the question was how much and with what strings attached.
One of the strings was course of study. He wanted a hard degree, like mechanical engineering. Art degrees were out of the question. I could become an ME, get a steady paycheck, then go back and pay for art on my own dime. So away I went, taking ME req courses and trying to sneak an art class in on the side, or justifying it with the drawing classes that they wanted engineers to take. I loved those classes, sketching, learning how to see things differently, all the exercises to improve coordination between the eye and the hand. I loved the metal working and sculpting classes as well, not just the painting and drawing.
I am not sure what happened. I started working in a research and development lab of a company that made small engines. Started learning how to machine. Slowly my creativity turned to problem solving. “Hey, how can we make this engine do this?” “Why did this fail?” “Hey, we need a part that connect this to this and look good.” Then I joined the Army where “Adapt and Overcome” is the motto, frequently by hard necessity. Because I’d been to college and none of the other commo guys had, when I showed up I was the instantly turned into the “computer guy”. Didn’t matter that there was no formal training program for me, that we had no budget for books or materials, that we had limited, spotty, dial up internet access things needed to work. Drawing and sculpting happened less and less.
I could, if time permitted and I really baked out my thoughts, sketch out a drawing of what I was thinking to solve a problem and people could usually understand what I was talking about. If they couldn’t, it was usually because of their poor mechanical abilities, not my ability to sketch out a picture. But usually I aggravated the hell out of people. Usually there isn’t a lot of time and I’m making it up on the fly. We go to the Ace Hardware or Lowes and start walking the aisles. “What’re you looking for?” “I don’t know.” “Then why are we here?” “Because I’ll know it when I see it.” “Wait. I thought you knew what you were doing.” “I do, really. I know what I want to do, I just don’t know how I’m doing it yet.” “That makes no sense.” “I know, but trust me, this will work.” Every once in a long, long while, someone will understand my gibberish and that’s a pretty awesome experience to collaborate with them.
Eventually it got to a point where I could sit down with a blank sheet of paper, pencils and time but couldn’t come up with a single thing to draw. I’d have to challenge myself. Draw that pot, that shoe, my hand. Draw that panel from a comic book, draw the person in that photo the way they look in that photo. It was reproduction, not creativity. The ability to conjure up an image in my head and translate it to paper to share with others was gone.
I started the blog on a deployment. I suppose some could say that was creative, but in some ways it wasn’t, still the zerox machine. I was relaying events that happened in a different medium.
A couple of weeks ago a good friend came to visit. She’s very creative and loves art shops and lives in a smaller town so we made sure to hit up the Michaels and local art stores while she was here. At one of them there was a cheap block-printing kit. Came with the roller (brayer) for spreading ink, a sheet of linoleum to carve, some basic tools and a tray for ink. The art store had some cheap linoleum blocks and ink so I bought those as well. To me, the investment might force me to sit down and DO something. And it was part carving, part drawing so if one side failed, maybe the other side could pick up. Options, you know?
Got home and same thing? “What to make?” Found some simple things. A cookie monster for a friend’s friend who had a baby and wanted to make some cards. A teenage mutant ninja turtle head. Simple images with clear lines that would look good printed in one color. Fun, good practice but still not “creativity”. I wasn’t tracing, I was sketching free hand, but I was still looking at a picture when I did it.
Then a good friend’s brother is getting married this weekend. He and I have gotten to know one another better over the last year, to the point where I consider him my friend as well. Probably not “good friend” yet, but apparently we’re at the hugging stage. I hate wedding gifts. When I was a kid, dad would buy everyone a door knocker with their name engraved, regardless of what else they got them. If it was his friend or family, he’d also get them a gift card for Target or Home Depot, knowing the a) most of the registry gifts were usually things the guy couldn’t care about and b) a couple starting off would be faced with some emergency or another and the gift card would come in handy. If it was mom’s friend or family they’d go straight registry. But they always also got the personalized gift of the door knocker.
I liked that. The registry seems so impersonal to me (and in some ways odd. “Hey, I want this. It’s my day, buy it for me!”). I had just gotten the block-printing stuff so I decided I wanted to make them personalized cards. If they liked them, they could use them, if not, trash them, but it was just a little something “more”, that was more from me. So after much trial and error I made it happen. I had bad luck with inks, bad luck with carving material, bad luck with my being an A.D.D. dumbass, etc. But eventually I got 50 cards printed. And I had fun doing it. For six hours the night before I had to give them to my friend I locked myself in my kitchen and carved and printed cards. Had the music going and really zoned out. It’d been a long time since I focused that long and that hard on something.
Not sure where I’m going with this. Maybe it was a just a one-time thing and it’ll fade. Maybe it’s the start of something, maybe not more printing, but at least more carving and sketching. I realize a lot of it is me, I have to force myself to do it often enough that it becomes a habit, then second nature. My school notebooks and folders used to be covered in doodles. Drawings were stuck in the pages. The bottom of my lockers used to be stacked high with drawings. What’s it take to get back to that?