Game face courtesy of Glenn Mitchell, summer 2004.
There’s an anedote I keep coming back to.
I had a prof in design school named Larry Simpson. A real hard-ass. Larry, wherever you are, I hope you are as core as you were back in the day. He told me an important story, which I’ll get to eventually.
The sophomore undergrads typically hated Simpson. Too hard. Not nice. Translated: not indulgent of whatever solipsism was current.
First assignment was given out on a warm September Monday morning. A week later, there were a class of spanked poodles. Everyone’s first efforts had been x-rayed and found completely wanting. I was right in the first rank of the Newly Chastened.
We quickly found out that illustration is a serious business. You rendered it right the first time. White-out was cake-frosting, a scorn magnet. As the class worked through the assignments, it began to lose the flab. People’s work started getting more muscular.
He threw different techniques at us: pencil, markers, color, stipple, pen and ink, the works.
Assignment concepts were a mind-benders. His favorite was Erotica. He showed us some of his stuff—think Helmut Newton with a very sharp 2B pencil. Sultry, icy long-legged, high-heeled vixens in garter belts squatting precariously over sharp pyramids while SS guards restrained snarling Dobermans. The paper was immaculately white, shadows were black, and there were no smudges anywhere.
The class was stunned into a deeper silence than normal. He reminded us that the assignment was full color, and coolly suggested that Hallmark Card soft-focus was for losers. But if you had to…whatever. Class dismissed.
I staggered out thinking “Now what?” What did I directly knew about erotica?
“Isolde burst into the stable, her dark hair disheveled from her sprint. The sudden arrival startled Obelisk, the prize stallion cross-tied in the aisle. Rugbert had his back turned to the doors whilst brushing him down. Isolde’s perfumes wafted across the stallion’s nostrils, and he reared up on his massive hind legs, eyes flashing and trumpeting his surprise. His mane caught in a gust, rippling in the afternoon light, echoed the snorting and trumpeting ringing from the rafters”
Ask a hungry man who’s only read cookbooks to describe eating a roast goose. My experience inventory was slight. This called for flat-out comedy.
So I went home and started a woodblock print on a scrap of 1 x 12 x 13″ softwood board. I lived in a continual construction project as my dad and his wife built their dream house and horse barn. And since I lived at home, that was free, in a manner of speaking.
I sketched out a comic scene: a shaggy satyr, mincing on an Arcadian meadow. In the background was a Greek column, with cypress trees. The satyr had a loopy toothy grin, beefy muscular arms, two limp wrists, and a raging phallus. And directly in front of the raging phallus was a panicked chicken, flapping its wings for dear life, tail-feathers fluttering in the air.
Monday morning all of our work was up on the crit rail. Everybody was awkward and oblique. This was a sore and tender nerve being plucked.
Larry walked in, and began to survey the work. He examined all of the pieces, matted to varying degrees of competence. He stops in front of my piece, studies it and then turns and faces me.
I’m stunned. Obscene? Him? Me?
“Uh, Larry…you’re the one who’s got naked chicks squatting on pyramids!”
The class guffaws.
“You got the assignment, but you forgot this was to be in full color! I’m dinging a grade level for that!”
Damn. Guess I could’ve hand-tinted it. I got tunnel-vision on that one—not the first or last time. So I got a “B”. And I loved him for it.
Much later he told me the story I mentioned earlier.
He had a prof at the Art Institute of Chicago. Old-school man in his sixties, VanDyke beard, Mr Punctual. All work was to be on the crit rails by o755. He came in at 0800, locked the door behind him. Woe to you if you were late.
He’d light a cheroot, and silently begin at one end of the class. He’d examine each of the works until he reached the end. Then he’d turn around, and begin to flick the works he didn’t want to look at on the floor. Silently. Then at the end, he’d turn around and begin to critique the ones that were left. And flick cigar ash on the floor.
When Larry finished, I found myself wishing there were about ten more of him in the Department. But I didn’t know why for many years. This bygone prof was cueing his students that art school was also a vocational school. And they were going into a harsh business. He was doing them a favor.
I think about that a lot when I go into various shops. Or have a squalling can of worms blow up in my face. There have been times when it all was going to hell and the only thing that saved me was the harsh experience I’d had earlier where I’d learned that I could get it done. It’s an inescapable part of the business. Most of it cannot be taught, only learned. And Larry’s prof was a lonely exception.