Category Archives: school

Due Diligence

rail crossing

Rail crossing, San Joaquin Valley, Dec 2010

Over the years at various jobs, I had downtime. Sometimes for several minutes, occasionally for days, even a week or two. Reading the papers got old. So I began to practice working on problems.

In the paste-up days, I’d xerox and make assemblages. It kept me nimble. Later when the agency I worked at went digital, I’d set up problems and situations for myself in Quark. Yes Quark, the Error 39 Dark Star of my firmament. While the guys next door were sitting in their office with their fantasy baseball leagues, I was skulling out the business of how this goddamned program worked.

Sooner rather than later, I began to encounter actual old-school typographers who’d washed up into ad agencies. They worked with the invisibles on, frames and all. I was hooked. They willingly taught me about style-sheets. Often times I’d outrun the then-feeble processing capacity of the machines I was working on.

As a freelancer I always had to stay ahead of the full-timers. They had a certain security, while I could be more obviously bounced. That is an unfortunate trade-off, one less and less certain as each new day passes in these grim times.

I too became complacent. Until one day I realized I need to know a whole lot more about Photoshop. So off to night-school I went, and discovered that for over fifteen years I was a mouse gnawing my way around a very large cheese. I’d never cored into the program.

Now I was scared. I went to school for the next 2-1/2 years. Always night, on my own dime. That way I didn’t owe shit to anybody. I’d hear from guys I’d worked with over the years the following statements. You might know them too:

  • I’d go to class if somebody paid for it
  • I’ve been meaning to do this
  • It’s too expensive
  • This shit’s too hard

When I started into Photoshop night school, it was about 18 months before the economy went straight into the shitter. I had several classes, one of which was blighted by a perfect storm of self-centered overtalkers, in over-their-head clueless, and some people who just didn’t take it seriously. One night, I’d had enough, and opened up a can of whoop-ass.

“For those in this class who haven’t noticed, the economy is about to go into the toilet. There are some of us in here who would like to live in a better quality of cardboard box than at present. If you don’t have anything positive to contribute, I’m going to ask you to [shut the fuck up], because your talking disrespects the professor, your classmates, and mainly yourselves…”

Dead silence.

The situation improved slightly. The instructor’s hands are tied, because they can’t tell these idiots to shut the fuck up, because then said idiots would cry that their rights had somehow been violated, and so on. For the record, I’m a stone-cold liberal, but this manner of disrespect I will not abide.

Time took care of them. By 2009 the poseurs and clueless were gone, replaced by a full class sitting stock still, eyes forward, terrified by the economic apocalypse unfolding daily. However the “Special Olympics” mentality is deeply entrenched. Too many expect somehow that just showing up gets them a finisher medal, and a victory lap around the track.

And that’s when getting into a community college was easy. Now that education funding has cratered,  just try getting into those classes. They are probably twice as expensive, and half as long as they were before.

What are your choices? Maybe its what you have to do.

But back to my working life. I make war on bad layouts inside the InDesign Creative Suite, currently 5. I taught myself the mysteries of tables, because where I work, they live and die by them. And I was fed up with working on weird-ass legacy documents where the previous operators had glued all kinds of random shit together with drawn rules, color boxes, tab-delimited text boxes, floating in an ambiguous space, with no definite margins.

Which you’ll never see if you work with the invisibles off.

Here’s the bottom line, ducklings: if you think your skills are the end-all and be-all, you are sorely mistaken. Because they probably aren’t. So if you aren’t going to school, and you go home and drink, watch whatever’s on TV, maybe you ought to slice off an hour and begin to study a problem. Put it on a flash drive, and take it to work, and when shit ain’t happening, study it there too.

All this is out on the webs. Ask the question. And here’s the hook: When you’re sitting at work, surfing, you’re slack. You’re not engaged. Eventually people notice.

But this requires a spark of intellectual curiosity.

So. What are you going to do about it?

Looking for Summer Work, 1975: A Fugue in 2 Parts

Dog Star In Red Dwarves

In 1975 I was a horny, depressed graphic design major. Maybe that’s a given, but I also had vague notions about finding some kind of work for Summer ’75. With a heavy heart I decided to look for ad agency work in Cleveland, Ohio, which at that time had the most agencies in Ohio.

My European summer of ’74 was a fond memory, and no offers were forthcoming. Ginger, the girl I’d hooked up with on that trip had family in Cleveland; but was either in school in Connecticut or at the family escape at Sanibel in Florida. She made herself very scarce.

Hard times had begun to stalk the Rust Belt. The ’73 Energy Crisis was still being played out daily. Coal was four times more expensive than it had been two winters before, and all the power plants burned coal. Legacy steel mills, auto, and other mid-century manufacturing had just been stabbed through the heart, and would never recover their previous glory. Ever. Welcome to the new economy, kid.

The first trip was in early January 1975. I stayed at the YMCA, went to ad agencies and showed my student book. The responses were polite, guarded, tepid. The city was bone-cold. I wore what passed for good clothing; non-jeans, street shoes. I froze my ass off.

At night I’d head back to the Y, and look out the window at the corner liquor store/carryout across the street. It was dead. The steam-heat was alternately comforting and stifling. I’d look at my dress-clothes as they came out of the pack, read whatever paperback I had, and wait for the morning. In the morning I’d go to a diner down the street and eat, hot coffee and something, and head out.

I plodded on for several days. No leads, but I got into more than a few agencies. My theoretical job began to look like an ever-lengthening line that curved over the horizon. Finally, I beat it back to the bus station for Athens, with brave promises that I’d do better over Spring Break.

School started up again, I buried myself in classes. Living at home was not fun, and I had a non-existent social life. It was a self-perpetuating cycle, with no clear escape.

Spring Break loomed, and I made plans to go back up to The Mistake On The Lake. The Sunday afternoon bus trip to Columbus was a reefer-madness comic episode. There were 3 or 4 exuberant young black guys in the back row who had a very large cassette-tape boom box, and a lot of dope. They lit up, and as the bus rolled on to Columbus, the bus slowly filled up with reefer smoke. Meanwhile the tape deck started playing slower, and slower. The mix tape was songs recorded off the radio, with the ends clipped as the DJ would back announce over the end of the song.

B-A-C-K-S-T-A-B-B-E-R…..

On the outskirts of Columbus, the bus passengers had essentially passed out. Finally somebody went to the bus-driver, who opened a wing-vent. A writhing snake of smoke collected itself, and like out of a movie, got sucked out of the bus. Everybody woke up by the time we pulled into the bus station.

The trip to Cleveland was muted. No joy here. I stayed at the Y one night. Then I opened my wallet and realized that I didn’t have enough to stay at the Y. Checking out, I found a SRO cheap-ass hotel—Hotel Bolivar, if memory serves, on 9th St. Walking up the single-width stairs to the buzzer-locked cashier’s window, I rented a room for the next two nights. He handed me a key, a dirty look, told me to read the rules, and buzzed me in.

Walking a maze of jumbled hallways that were painted in cast-off colors, I found my room. It was clean, dry, and barren, opening to an airless airwell. It made the Y look like the Ritz. Here I was. Time stretched on forever.

The first night was punctuated by footfalls in the hallway, faint snorings and phlegmy coughs by men who’d smoked their entire lives.I took a shower in a dim, blighted room that looked like it came from a prison-camp yard sale. Rarely have I showered so fast.

Note to the traveller: Celine’s “Journey to the End of the Night” is not light and frolicsome reading. Save it for when you have lots of money, on a beach somewhere. Also that night I lost any remaining taste for Tom Waits, who was then a boho fave with his “Nighthawks at the Diner“. Here there was no romance; only old, tired, used-up, broken men.

The few days that followed were more futility. I rotated in and out of agencies. One agency studio had middle-aged men sitting at their drafting tables, reading paperbacks. Nobody made a sound, so the bean-counters wouldn’t hear their inactivity, and fire them. It was foreboding.

My slender finances permitted a day-old loaf of bread, bracketed by 2 cups of watery coffee I got somewhere. The Y, with the vending machine, and the corner carryout was a mirage. Ghetto life in its full ’70s glory was on full display. Street-life characters could only afford one aspect of the Look; the apple cap, the chunky shoes, the high-rise flared pants. The rest of their outfits lagged a decade behind.

I threw in the towel on Wednesday. Caught the bus outta there, back down in painful slowness to Columbus, then back to Athens. The closer I got, the slower it became. I lulled myself to sleep with notions that it wasn’t always going to be this cold and bleak, and somehow I’d have a job, and get laid more often than not.

Once I got to Athens, I started walking through the deserted town,  out to Rt 50, and hitched a ride out to Albany. I then walked the last 2 miles from Albany out to the farm. I think I walked up the road to the house that semi-gray, raw March day, and saw Laird schooling a horse in the ring. Arnold was holed up in his office. I changed back into my workwear.

That summer I was a poorly-paid camp counsellor to the children of rich Texans in New Mexico. I nominally taught art, and having never taught art, made shit up. It was terrifying. I’d gotten out of the mud for 6 weeks; got drunk, fell in love, became fast friends for the summer with people I never saw again.

Mike Whitlow’s Bookshop

hammer on anvil
Hammer and anvil at work. Autry Museum, Summer 2004.

Education has been on my mind a lot recently.

Earlier I mentioned that late one night in 1997, I got fed up with being fed up, and that eventually led me to Mike Whitlow’s Bookshop. It took a lot more than a casual “gee, I think I’ll, like, go to night school, and…like, you know, work on my book…?

I had crashed into the side of the professional mountain. Completely. My Dick-n-Jane book was a symphony of tin cans tied to my tail. Every piece screamed AMATEUR BARNEY. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t getting any art direction work. I was getting a lot of horrifed looks.

In desperation I begged an appointment with Adrienne Lowe, one of my Art Center at Night teachers. I showed up early. She took one look at my book and curtly told me to “broom at least half of what’s in there”

As in “throw overboard”.

You cannot imagine my relief. It did suck! What a load off!

I thanked her profusely, left her office, and renewed my professional links with temp agencies. I wanted every shop that had seen that crappy book to completely forget they’d even heard of me. Ever.

Now I had a burning reason to get past that. And a copywriter I knew told me about the Bookshop.

The first Bookshop class I sat in on in late winter 1998 had me hooked within an hour. But I was holding out for additional evidence.

The next week I went to the 1998 International Student Show, hosted by the LA Creative Club. I was floored. The Bookshop took about 40% of the prizes, including Best of Show. Ahead of Art Center, Portfolio Center, VGA, Creative Circus, NYU. All this from a peripatetic night-school operation that met in an agency conference room once a week.

Now I had 2 big hooks in my mouth, and I was swimming for deep water.

From the git-go, writers and art directors were teamed up by assignment. Mike would hand out creative briefs. Typically we’d crunch through three projects in the course of the twelve week term.

The classes were a cross-section of designers, art directors, copywriters, post-college types, character actors, ex-70’s punk musicians, AE’s, some debutantes and poseurs who hadn’t tumbled yet, ex-service post-GI Bill vets, and working production professionals like myself. Everybody in the room was hungry. Everybody wanted to buid a book and get outta whatever dead-end they were in.

It was an intensive flame-off process. Concepts had to stand up to critical scrutiny, and frequently the slings and arrows of your peers. Nothing was sacred. I burned through more crap and dead-wood in my inventory than I imagined. Finally the decent concepts and executions began to emerge.

This also applied to working relationships. Some people didn’t understand that Mike was replicating the agency structure. Have a problem with your partner? The smart choice was to work out any personal beef behind closed doors and get through it. I’m sure people went to Mike over the years with one ache or another. I’m also sure he took notes. Maybe not.

Bottom line: the client doesn’t care about your problems, you are there to solve their problem. Oh.

And so it went for the better part of two years. When I finished in March 2000, I was exhausted. I’d gotten my equivalent of an MFA. More importantly, I had a marketable book. I got that art director job I’d wanted for so long.

That lasted as long as it needed to. I was laid off 10 weeks after 9/11. The ad business was in a tail-spin. I also remember looking out the window and seeing new Escalades on the dealer lot near the office. I thought Detroit had lost its mind. They did, but the blow-back took six years to hit for them.

Its been several years since I was an art director. However the education I got from the Bookshop has proved highly useful in other areas of my work and life. Thanks again. I continue to use it to this day.

You Will Fight The Way You Train

chill

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.

“…This is…obscene!

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.

Coda

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.

Now What?

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.