Why Justine Doesn’t Draw Anymore

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I have this piece of paper on my door, it’s got a few circles on it, and the words on it are drawn rather than written, big and purple, and they say “YOU ARE THE BEST.” I see it every day. I see it every single time I look in the mirror (OK, I know, far far more often than I should), every time I go out or come in… all the time. That simple purple offering roots me in the now.

I have these books on my shelf, books I dedicated myself to for 15 years, published work, stuff I slaved over and sacrificed for, my life, my marriage, myself, my family, money all gone for my personal projects… these books. I never look at them.

I never could look at them, not even when they had just been released. All I could see in those pages and pages of obsessively drawn art was that the elbow was too low here, the eyes didn’t line up there, those feet and toes were ugly, God, I never got that expression right. And now I can’t look at them for all those reasons and several dozen more.

I used to draw, I mean, that was what I was… I WAS drawing. I was drawing. I don’t mean that as an action, I mean who I was was drawing! Drawing was my name. Now, no. Sure, I’ll draw with delicious delight if I’m getting paid, I might draw frequent sketches, but to sit down and work on a project, an engaging project that has profound meaning to me, something that has an uncertain future, something that I will have to finish in a vacuum through which all life and hope has been sucked, sucked into a black hole. No, I won’t do that. Then I’d have to send that project out to publishers publishing tons of books far less accomplished and honest than mine. I’d have to read all these enraging rejection letters. Then someone would finally publish it, and I’d have to see my work ignored while other work is praised and celebrated. I’d have to read snotty comments and criticisms of my work. No, I’m not doing that anymore. See, but this is not hopelessness that should infect my students. OK, yes, I had accomplished a lot as an artist, make no mistake, but I had failed to embrace changing trends and remained instead fixed on a sort of art and storytelling that had become painfully out of fashion. In addition to that I had devoted myself to a highly illogical project that was so personally coded that looking back it reads like the work of a crazy person. My career as a freelancer didn’t fail so much as I set out and made a bee-line for failure… not due to my skills or talents, but because of my choices. All of my students are far too smart and open to make the same mistakes. My failures will not infect them. All of them will have the wisdom to add what I teach to their toolboxes, but they will know to temper it with modernity. Tom will see to that. Fortunately, at SAW, Tom is right up to the moment, so in this case my tastes and tendencies are actually a benefit and not a hindrance… for the first time ever. Every school needs one old lady to pass the flame and remind the “kids” that sometimes it’s good to look back. Just don’t spend as much time doing it as I have. Listen to Tom, too.

No, I don’t draw anymore. The very act is tainted. First it was tainted by my own perfectionism, by my neurotic and abusive eyes, eyes that saw only the ugly things, never the beauty. Then my work became tainted by money, business and marketing. Then the act of drawing became tainted by failure, my failures and the failures of the world at large to recognize the incomprehensible pearls I had cast before them. Then, at last, tainted by the worst of things… tainted by all that run cold, and all that run cold turned into bitterness.

“Cause they told me everybody’s got to pay their dues
And I explained that I had overpaid them.”
Sixto Rodriguez

I don’t have the temperament to keep at this anymore. I don’t have a competitive bone in my body, all my bones are set to disappointment. I can’t bear watching my work undersell projects that I KNOW (even for all the faults I saw in my work) were far (and I mean FAR) inferior to mine. And I don’t have the stomach for being rejected, I don’t have that fire in my belly that forces others on, to keep pushing. Others have those skills, those fires. And I definitely do not have the desire to do the work for myself. Artists should be paid for their work.

Artists should be paid for their work.

Again, ARTISTS SHOULD BE PAID FOR THEIR WORK. Bottom line. I’m not working for free.

But none of that is why I don’t draw like I used to… oh, I draw just as well, and when I do draw I truly LOVE it. But I am not “Drawing” anymore. Of course I felt and sometimes feel lost, because if I defined myself as “Drawing,” what am I when I’m not drawing? Nothing, seemingly.

A little over a year ago I walked in off the street into SAW for the first time, having no idea that my life was about to change. I had expected the pattern of rejection to simply continue. I had no frame of reference to expect otherwise, not lately I haven’t. I was obsolete, and here was another person to make certain I knew that, or at least that was what I carried with me when I met with Tom.

But it didn’t happen that way. Tom Hart was wiser than that. He saw in this “crazy barefoot woman walking in off the street,” to be more to the point, he saw in my portfolio that I was good, had mastered a few things, and had obviously paid my dues and lived a disciplined life as a dedicated artist. He saw also in my art the great value of my pedigree and lineage (which traces back to Wally Wood). Tom Hart saw what everyone else had missed. Tom saw that I could draw, I could really draw… ah… but could I teach? As it turns out, HELL YES I CAN FUCKING TEACH!!

Being who he is, he offered to let me launch an evening class just to help refill my coffers and keep me going for another month or so, and that was when I found salvation and hope. Tom attended my class and asked me (dare I say “begged” me… he may deny it now, but that email was enthusiastic and he did use the word “beg”) to sign on and be a teacher for the year-long.

Finally! Finally someone who saw what an asset I could be. At last someone was wise enough to see what no one else had EVER seen. Tom saw that I had a lot to offer. For so many years I had been turned away because my work was “too Victorian” or because it wasn’t digital. Not Tom, he was too wise by far to see my work in such ludicrous terms. And that was really when things turned around.

What has SAW meant to me? Hope. And let me tell you, there is nothing more powerful to a bitter, burned out, and hopeless person than hope. Nothing turns bitterness to sweetness more than hope. Nothing purifies a smile and spirit like hope. Nothing gives a person a reason to get out of bed and keep going like hope.

But wait… there’s more! There was Gainesville, the people of Gainesville, and our fabulous students. For the first time I was surrounded by people who respected me for all the things the comics industry had dismissed me for. These students wanted to better themselves, they did not want to take the easy way out. Not only was I teaching, I was having an amazing time. I felt like I did when I’d first started working in comics, I was full of energy and dedication. I wanted my classes to be as good as my art. I put all of myself into those classes. I put my efforts into OTHER people rather than into self-absorbed work. That is what I do now, I give rather than stare into my navel.

I don’t draw like I used to, but most people who have seen my work realize why, I was prolific, had created pounds and pounds of illustrations, they all can see why I burned out… I’d done it all. And here is what SAW really did for me, it gave me the chance to stop wasting all the things I’d learned from my years of obsessive drawing. SAW gave me the chance to take all the things I’d learned from my mentors, teachers, and acquaintances (P. Craig Russell, Val Mayerik, Dan Adkins, Jim Steranko, Frank Thorne, John Workman, Jeffery Catherine Jones) and pass them along. For a few years I had felt guilty that I had all this talent and had learned so much from so many legendary figures… and here I was doing nothing with it. SAW has given me the opportunity to keep those lessons alive! SAW has given me the opportunity to teach to my students the lessons Jeffrey Catherine Jones taught to me–and who she will never teach to another soul. SAW has given me the chance to take the very best things that are in me and keep them alive in others. Thanks to SAW my talents, work, lessons, and ideals are not being wasted. Through SAW I am able to say, “I know I don’t draw draw as often as I used to, I know I don’t care about being published, but here, you guys take all I’ve learned and all I am and do something with it. It’s yours now, keep us alive, keep us vibrant and moving forever into the future.” No, I’m not doing anything with it personally, but for me giving it to others who do have the desire and will to use all I know and all I’ve learned is in the end far more rewarding than getting published ever was.

Thanks to SAW the wisdom of not only myself, but of P. Craig Russell, Val Mayerik, Dan Adkins, Jim Steranko, Frank Thorne, John Workman, and Jeffery Catherine Jones is not being wasted, and what more could a small non-profit art school do than that? Not much, not much.

SAW taught me that sometimes we don’t get what we want or expect, but sometimes, just sometimes, if we cross paths with a wise person, things might just work out better than expected or wanted. This, for me, my friends, is far better than getting published… after all, I’m getting paid to share the best things that are in me. I am getting paid to enrich lives and make dreams come true!

Yeah, I’ve got some of my published books on the shelf. I never look at them. Also in my room I have a few pieces, thank you’s from my students from SAW, that I see everyday. I treasure them. And on my door I have a simple drawing I see dozens of times a day, a few circles and carefully drawn purple words that a child I was teaching art to this Summer at the Doris had given me. It says, “YOU ARE THE BEST.”

That is why I don’t draw anymore, not like I used to.

(UPDATE: At this moment, many months later, I am drawing like a demon… but, it is because I finally have good work on my table that will be published, paid for, and seen! It’s good to be back at it again.)

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