I know it's cliché, but I've been drawing and making art for as long as I can remember.
Super-heroes, monsters, and dinosaurs were my earliest subjects. I can't begin to count the number of Batmans, Supermans, Draculas, Frankenstein Monsters, and T-Rexes I drew before I was 10.
Thankfully I have a mother who is my biggest fan. Not only did she save many of my elementary school masterpieces, but when a third grade teacher suggested I should pursue art outside of school, she enrolled me in painting lessons.
Ain't no party like a Bob Ross party cuz a Bob Ross party don't stop...
Some of my favorite memories as a child are the hours I spent in my painting lessons. The painting studio was in an old downtown storefront in East Moline, IL. I loved to climb the creeky stairs to the second floor studio, tacklebox in hand, full of paints, brushes and stained rags. I couldn't wait to open the door and inhale the jumbled scents of oil paint, linseed oil, turpentine, Fels Naptha soap and a good measure of unfiltered Pall Mall cigarette smoke. My instructor was a kind older woman and so were all the students. In retrospect, I stuck out in class both for my age and gender, but at the time it didn't phase me. We were all just painters, and it didn't matter that I was a 9 year old boy and they were all old enough to be my grandmother (in fact, one of the other students WAS my grandmother) because we all loved making art and we were doing what we loved. I started painting at the age of 8 and continued the lessons for the better part of 5 or 6 years. These early lessons taught me the basics of color theory, spatial relationships, composition, contrast, and most importantly, how to see.
You suffer a -5 to your charisma.
My older brother was an avid D&D player, and while I only dabbled in role-playing, throughout our childhood he amassed a virtual hoard of posters, computer games, miniatures, books, and even a sword at one one point. But out of all the Tolkien-inspired kitsch in our house, my favorite treasures, by far, were my brother's D&D manuals. These books were magical; the penultimate reference for a kid that loved to draw. I would sneak them away from his room and just obsess over the artwork and stats. I stared at the cover art and illustrations for hours, trying to decipher how in the world anyone could make such kick-ass art. And while the late 70s and 80s held plenty of incredible pop culture inspiration for an impressionable artist, it was always the fantasy world that held sway with me, all the way through high school...
...and even into the portfolio that [mercifully] got me into art school at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, IL. As cringe-worthy as we all know high school work can be, just wait until you see what college has in store.
It is OK to wince and giggle, I do.
Fight the power
That was the totality of my first year in college. Like many novice art students with no exposure to avant garde art, I was dumbfounded by the bizarro world I had stumbled into. No longer was I praised for my my ability to faithfully render an object. On the contrary, this skill was derided as banal, uninspired, and amateurish. Fantasy art became a guilty pleasure that I had to hide. Instead, we were expected to take on the serious aires of the abstract expressionists and post modern greats like Rothko, Pollack, Gorky, and Diebenkorn or take up the edgy street banner against social injustice from the likes of Haring and Basquiat, or maybe even decompose our post modern world by being deep and self-referential like Koons, Warhol, Rauschenberg, and Lichtenstein. Whatever style we developed, it was clear, realism and illustrative work was not the domain of serious artists.
I couldn't just cave. How could I abandon everything I had learned, everything I had been praised for up to this point?
I wasn't! If art school had taught me anything it was that rebellion for the sake of rebellion was cool. Screw the instructors and their opinions, I was going to make great art in spite of them. It was 1989 after all and Fight The Power was creating a culture war and I was going to stick it to the art school man. So I began making art the way I wanted to, realism and all.
There was only one problem.
It was bad. Really bad.
It was so bad that twice my painting professor turned my canvas around to face the wall so he could bring tours through the studio. These same two pieces were threatened with failing grades if I completed them. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out which two pieces earned this honor.
I include these pieces, not just for laughs (but I'll admit I giggle and cringe every time I see them) but to underscore that, as artists, our growth doesn't come from divine inspiration. It comes from a critical eye and re-visiting past work to decide what you'd do differently next time. Good art comes from bad art.
At some point, whether I was worn down by a barrage of brutal critiques, simply started to drink the Kool-Aid, or a bit of both, it dawned on me that what engendered goodwill from the professors was not a finished product, but continued experimentation and exploration. They wanted us to develop a relationship with different styles and different media and push beyond what was comfortable. They were teaching us to recognize when we were outside our comfort zone and wanted us to to always strive to have an element of the uncomfortable in our work. When you're a little uncomfortable it means you're learning and experimenting and most importantly developing as an artist. When I began to internalize this is when I began to enjoy the process of making and, in turn, could understand and appreciate art beyond the surface.
Don't get me wrong, I still made a lot of embarrassingly shitty art in college but my art began to be intentional and grow in ways I hadn't imagined it would. I started by looking to my past and experiences to inform my art. My mother is a lifelong seamstress and her sewing was a constant presence growing up so I began to experiment with fabric scraps sewn to the canvas as well as the familiar iconography from Christianity to try and develop narratives that read somewhat like church banners and the forms found in stained glass. It was at this point that politics and world affairs began to enter my awareness sphere and combined with my interest in hispanic culture and the colonial period in Central and South America. It wasn't long before those influences began to creep into my work.
By my senior year, I felt I had a direction to explore artistically. Within the visual lexicon I was developing, current events vis-à-vis Iraq and the neo-colonialism of the first Gulf War made their way into my work. I started adding collage elements from supermarket tabloids, intentionally conflating the truth with the sensational.
This line of work culminated in my senior show titled Welcome To Club Gringo. You can view several of the pieces in the show below. It was well received by the professors as well as my peers and in retrospect, not only do I understand why my professor turned my paintings around, I'm glad he did. I'm glad because it forced me to break my mold and taught me how to bring the pieces back together to forge something new.
Something else happened during my senior year that I never expected as I worked on my senior show. I actually felt the draw (pun intended) toward children's illustration. It was happenstance mostly, I was in the library late one evening, making photocopies for my paintings and searching for photographs of Central and South American dictators hamming it up for the camera when I walked by a display the staff had setup featuring children's literature, and specifically Caldecott Medal winners. One book caught my eye and I don't think it is hyperbolic to say that the art inside completely changed my life. The book was St. George and The Dragon, written by Margaret Hodges and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman (click the link and buy it if you don't already own it, it should be in any children's lit collection). That first look through the book was pure magic for me. Trina Schart Hyman was a MASTER of line and color and composition. Everything I loved about fantasy art was in this children's book AND it had won a Caldecott medal. It was then that I realized that while I was indebted to my professors for teaching me how to explore the world of art, they had also done me a great disservice by coloring my view of illustration and specifically children's illustration as a second rate art form. That night I knew I wanted to be a part of this world of children's literature.
So in the spring of my senior year I set out to try my hand at a few illustrations, geared towards children, of nothing in particular other than some wispy narratives I have long since forgotten. The artwork remains though in an old portfolio. I keep it around to remind me of what set me on this journey. These were my first deliberate attempts at illustration. There is plenty I can (and do) critique in these works but they also represent my first attempts to push into that uncomfortable area within illustration as a medium so they will always be a treasured memento.
Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life.
Sometimes life is a giant crummy bag of what-ifs. That bag seems especially large when you spend four years grinding away on a studio art degree and are faced with the reality of trying to convert that into a livable wage. The summer between my junior and senior year I had interned at an educational publisher in the art department. I parlayed this into a trial production designer position after I graduated. Officially I was a temp for three months, filling in for a staff designer on maternity leave but the department head dangled a carrot of a possible full-time slot opening if I "worked out". It isn't like I gave up on any great offers after school to take this one but in hindsight I also think the department head had no intention of hiring me but instead saw me as an easy fix to his short term problem.
Spoiler Alert: I didn't get the full time job (and neither did anyone else).
At this point, I realize I forgot to mention that at the beginning of my sophomore year in college I met Kim, the wonderful woman who would someday be my wife. Fast forward to the end of my temp gig and I had an art degree and no job and the prospect of a wedding in a year. Did I mention that I am incredibly conflicted about the value of degrees in the humanities and studio arts? I love art, the visual arts in particular. I am who I am today because of art. I met the love of my life because I was studying art at the same university she attended. Art has given me joys I can't even quantify.
It is really, really, hard to put food on the table with art. All but a tiny fraction of art jobs are notoriously low paying and have little room for advancement. There is a reason that many of the world's greatest artists had wealthy patrons. Let's face it, as great and life changing that I know art can be, art can also suck a giant colossal rotten egg.
Did I mention the pay ain't much better than a kick in the teeth?
My point in all of this woe-is-me sob-fest is to setup a giant fast forward to this story because when your day job is a grind, you don't feel all that inspired to grind it out at your drawing table afterwards. Over the next 5 years I worked as a PC salesman at 2 big box electronics stores, a staff artist at 2 screen-print shops, and a nonprofit agency, before the art gods finally decided to smile on me and I landed a job as a staff artist at a very small independent video game company. I really loved my job at this company. It was basically 4 artists and 2 programmers (including the owner). There was a lot of creativity, satisfying work, camaraderie, and lively political discussion but in the end the pay was still barely livable. So when the video game company had to close, I decided to cut my losses with art and at 29 years old enrolled in the Computer Science program at the University of Iowa.
For the next decade (my 30s) I basically ignored art. In that time I had three kids (1999, 2002, & 2008) and established a career as a software engineer, so I had some irons in the fire. Some of you might be asking though "How could you ignore art? A real artist wouldn't ignore art. A real artist wouldn't be ABLE to ignore art." Eh, maybe, but when it comes down to it, I don't make art for the approval or to compete for a ranking, I make it because I need to, I'm drawn to it, and in my 30s I had bigger fish to fry. But I'll be honest, for most of that time I just didn't miss it.
But in the beginning of 2012, February to be exact, just 5 months into my 40th year, the itch started again. I needed to draw but I was afraid to try. I was afraid of disappointing myself; afraid of being depressed at the prospect of an atrophied drawing muscle. I couldn't ignore it though, so on Feb 12, 2012 I picked up my trusty Prismacolor Col-Erase non-photo blue pencil and begin to draw, more or less stream of consciousness. This is what emerged (no, I don't think the image itself "means" anything). It was followed the next day by my interpretation of the ubiquitous and obnoxious "Calvin peeing" rear window stickers; a visual pun of sort and probably not worth the effort but it wasn't the drawing I interested in, it was the act of drawing and the cobwebs it blew it out and the excitement I felt that was important to me. That very same week, I investigated a life drawing class open to the public at the local university attended for the next 6 months to get my sea legs again.
My mojo was back and it felt good.
I have several personal projects going simultaneously. I also enjoy doing some pro bono work and every spring and summer I enlist my daughter (who seems to possibly have a bit of the art bug) to work as a team at various chalk art festivals. You can see examples of our work here. Ultimately though, my dream is still to become a published children's illustrator and come hell or high water, I'm going to make that dream a reality.
My raison d'être
My family is the reason I get up in the morning and they are fire that drives me to be creative. These are some photos of us hamming it up on the Oregon coast in June 2017.
If you're ever on the beautiful Oregon coast and looking for a vacation photographer, you can't go wrong with Julie Adams Photography.