And NOTE… yes, I know “God and Satan” in this context are not especially “Hindu,” but having been around a lot of Vedantists, an openness exists.
If you haven’t heard, The Matheson (Gainesville’s History Museum) and SAW (The Sequential Artists Worskhop, Gainesville’s comics art school) have teamed up to produce and create “What the Lions Saw,” a book illustrated by local artist and SAW teacher Justine Mara Andersen, hereby known as “me,” your friendly neighborhood narrator, and written by Mae Clark.
I chose to share the cover first just to set the stage, ’cause I don’t have much to say about the process of drawing it… why? Because I ditched most of my process, sat in front of a blank sheet of paper and a folder full of lion photos, and drew it. Usually I sketch and sketch and work out every detail in advance, and I’ll walk you through some of that shortly, but on this occasion, for some reason I took a deep breath and trusted that it was all going to manifest itself on the paper… and it did. Sometimes I think that like songs that are plucked out of the air by songwriters, drawings often exist in the fibers of the paper before anyone puts pencil to the paper. What is meant to manifest will manifest.
It started, of course, as a pencil drawing that I then inked. It’s important also share that I don’t really think in color when it comes to art, I think in line. To me, this image works in black and white all on its own, so even though when you see the book it will be in color, here is the only place you will be able to see the cover in all its original black and white glory! Sometimes I wish people did not have the idea that black and white equals cheap. How I would have loved to have simply gone with a black and white cover! But alas… what is is what is.
Ah… but there is still plenty of glorious black and white magic between the covers… and that sounds vaguely like a dirty joke between inkers.
What was so exciting about this illustration job was how rich with opportunity Gainesville’s history is. There were no shortage of picturesque possibilities, and while I aimed to get the historical elements visually right through research, I chose a timeless yet hundred year-old illustrative style that I combined with a romantic and universal viewpoint, as sadly, it seems history has become less and less romantic as more of the truth has surfaced. Well, dreadful as the truth of history may sometimes be, I am a firm believer that there is still room for romance, at least stylistically, and in the manner in which I chose to render the scenes. I chose to approach this more as a fairy tale than as cold hard history in that the style is evocative rather than literal, and the approach fanciful and free. I have to admit, I was worried at first about taking on this project, as it was rather huge from an illustration perspective, so I decided to go into the first meeting bold and declare, “Nothing kills creativity faster than a committee, I want creative control. Give me that and you’ll get me at my best,” and was surprised to see that the Matheson gang eagerly nodded. So, thanks to the wisdom of the Matheson crew, I was able to do exactly that, give you all my very best! It’s a rare client that has the insight to trust us creative professionals to do our jobs and actually be creative. So often the life is manipulated out of my work by overzealous micromanagement. It seems a lot of people want to see their ideas on paper without taking the time to learn how to draw.
I’d like to now walk you through a show-and tell of the process for one of the drawings, probably one of my very favorites, the first illustration.
This entire book was based on the illustrations of Russian artist Ivan Bilibin, his work I found very appealing, and I had hoped that by binding myself within the limitation of paying homage to Bilibin, that I would maintain a singularity of style, limit the variables, and keep my work wistful, romantic, and that I would have a template to work from wherein simplicity and details worked in a sweet harmony. In other words, I chose this style to not only limit the variables, but to learn something.
This concept came quite quickly, in fact, a lot of these images I had ideas for from the very first time I read the script, many of them came to me and I had to sketch them in the hour after I first looked the manuscript over. Rarely have I had ideas come so freely.
Looking back at the first sketch (seen above), I am surprised how close this one is to the final version, with some notable differences. For one, I hadn’t seen the actual lions that used to sit atop City Hall, so I just dropped a pair of lions in, and as I loved this concept and design for the scenes of “washing the lions,” I hoped like crazy the actual lions would fit into this composition.
They didn’t… we’ll get to that.
Also, I have to laugh at remembering why the image above is cropped so closely. On the original sheet of paper I drew that on, the sketch only took up about half the page. At some point I had called Tom Hart (SAW founder) to get his credit card number to pay off a bill the school has been taking care of, so, naturally, I wrote it in the margin of this handy piece of scrap paper.
Yeah… but I forgot that and handed the sketch over to Peggy McDonald so she could send out teasers for the upcoming book. It was my understanding that these sketches would be shared… which means… as you have just figured out no doubt, that I had potentially just sent Tom’s (my “boss”) credit card number out on the internet!
No… seriously… OOPS!!! Fortunately, we caught the problem and cropped the image before anyone else ever saw it… oye!
Soon after I did a second sketch to try and work out the specifics, having still not seen the lions themselves.
The problem was, once I saw the real lion, I realized they were seated. OK, so here’s the rub, I chose throughout the book to play a little loose with such things, with reality, as the lions are drawn out of this position later (as though they come to life), and I had also made the decision to sometimes render them as the copper lions, while sometimes as magical live lions depending on what suited the illustration. The cover, which you have seen, I thought demanded to be rendered more like a literal lion than a copper lion. However, for this image, the specifics of the washing of these lions demanded I draw the lions as they are. Plus, this piece set the tone, and I wanted to introduce our lions as they are. The other problem I had was that the composition I had worked out for this drawing I really liked, but the seated lions no longer fit, so it occurred to me to simply place them on low tables, which gave me an opportunity to draw a Bilibinesque fabric detail to skirt the table. Other changes came later, but above is the second sketch I did before ever seeing the lions.
Note also the red border. Sometimes I draw a scene out, and then work out the precise cropping later. In this case I needed the cropping of the composition to evoke the delightful compositions of Ivan Bilibin.
Below you will see the final sketch, which is pretty close, actually, minus one major element, which you might spot as we roll down. By this point I had worked out the rhythm of Bilibin’s compositional style, a sort of designed and balanced perfection. I chose to enhance that sense of balance by placing the elements in waltz timing… count the arrangement of figures on each lion… 1 – – 2 – 3! I did the same with the buckets as well as other elements of the composition.
I think you will see in the completed pencils below, that only minimal changes had to be made.
Among the changes were elements of symbolism. Sometimes symbolism occurs to me as a natural part of the creative process, and the symbols I used here also added to not only the waltz timing (see the old man with his back turned), but created a sense of time itself. I teach my students that really great narrative illustration can act like a time machine, capturing not only a present moment in time, but can also evoke the past and the future. In this case the act of washing something is in itself a statement of time. The lions got dirty in the past, are being cleaned in the present, and will be clean for a new purpose in the future. To me, that is the mark really great illustrations hit, they are not mere polaroids snapping a frozen moment, but evoke narratives that span from the past into the present and propel the viewer into the future.
Add to this that we not only see the people cleaning the lions in the here and now, but the old man with his back turned represents the past, Gainesville’s past, and the children (one with a good old-fashioned balloon, the other with a dreaded cell phone) represent the future. As for me… I hope we learn to become less obsessed with our phones and more obsessed with balloons.
One regret I have about the piece is that I did not include an image of the person who actually did the hard work of cleaning and instead slid myself into the image… I’m the skirted barefoot girl right up front!
I also wanted to establish right from the very beginning of this book that my illustrations were not going to be literal. Yes, here I chose to show the “copper” lions as they actually are, though I break that later, what I wanted to establish was an abstracted and stylized background so the viewer would not be shocked when the images broke free from literalism. The older I get the less interest I have in being bound or limited… dear God… set me free!
And of course, as anyone who knows comics knows, the pencils have to be inked. I do all my inking with a brush and ink, I’m old fashioned that way. I’d like to add that the inking is my favorite part of the process, it’s where I’m most confident, and it seems to be where the actual magic happens, for some reason the pencilling is often more like work than magic.
Just to offer you guys all another couple of lovely teasers, below you will see one half of the two-page spread I had illustrated celebrating that “The Yearling” was written in this area (the yearling itself will be in the upcoming book). I’d like to point out that what you see in the below image is essentially the view out my studio window, where I often see wild turkeys and deer… all of whom make far better neighbors than humans. Also note the subtle reference to the Hindu Deity Shiva on the tree… like many illustrators of the past (Alphonse Mucha, even Bilibin), I chose to include some personal mysticism. That tree out my window I often stare into when I am meditating (it has an actual third-eye), so I have been going out and marking it with three horizontal lines in ash. So, there you go, a little personal insight you may have never noticed had I not pointed it out! As an life long illustrator I believe that illustration is the highest form of Art (with a capital “A”) as all our university intellectuals and snobs have it all wrong. Rembrandt was an illustrator, Sargent was an illustrator, the Cistine Chapel ceiling is an illustration. All this bluster about “high Art” and “low art” is, frankly, built on absurd and faulty logic. If you want to dismiss illustration as lowly, then you dismiss Rembrandt, da Vinci and Michelangelo.
The final image I’d like to share I have little to say about it except that it is an exceptionally cool rendering of smoke and fire! And yes, you’ll learn more about this image when you read the upcoming book!
So, come on out December 14th and celebrate the launch of the locally written, illustrated and printed book,
“What the Lions Saw.”
I’ll be there… as will be the Lions!
For more, visit: barefootjustine.com
FOUR: The Art Of “What The Lions Saw” (Justine’s Gainesville Period)
To read in order:
Part ONE: https://barefootjustine.com/2017/08/14/one-the-art-of-what-the-lions-saw-introduction-1-of-2/
Part TWO: https://barefootjustine.com/2017/08/14/two-the-art-of-what-the-lions-saw-introduction-part-2-of-2/
Part THREE: https://barefootjustine.com/2017/08/24/the-art-of-what-the-lions-saw-part-3/
Look at this as Justine’s show and tell!
But along the way I will share some insights and stories about each project. Oh… and I don’t think I’ll be talking about any of this in any kind of order. I guess the order will be “whatever Justine feels is groovy enough to talk about now.” I think this will set the stage for how the work of my “Gainesville period” led to the lovely project with the Matheson illustrating “What The Lions Saw.”
OK, so who would have thought that barefoot batshit crazy hippie Hindu Justine would one day work for the Department Of Defense (actually DARPA)? Well, not me, but never one to turn down a chance to pay rent and buy groceries I went at it. Actually, that’s a tad flippant. The project was great, a comics version of the Odyssey. And my ambition was not to pay my rent and eat, but to learn how to render more like Al Williamson. Yeah, I like to set the bar frustratingly high.
The image below was a favorite page, and the detail image of the head to the left was inked with toothpicks while the rest of the page was inked with a brush. Yeah, you heard right, I inked that with toothpicks!
But, one of my favorite jobs was the animation we did for the library at UF. This was one of those amazing jobs where the topic was dry as stale melba toast, but the “committee” in charge trusted me to do my job. OK… RANT WARNING… I hate hobs where my status as a “creative professional” is reduced to that of “plebeian renderer.” They were open to whatever I had in mind, and essentially left me alone, free to write, storyboard, illustrate, animate, direct and color this thing, with a ton of creative and technological help from Tom Hart at SAW. If you have 6 minutes, it’s worth watching. The challenge was… how do I make this dry information so entertaining that people will WANT to watch it rather than watch it because they need to understand the concept. One of the things I try and do with every job, be it an annual report or infographic, is I try and create something that is NOT disposable. I try and make everything I do something the people who encounter it will keep and enjoy. Most graphics, as I’m sure you know by having ignored them, are hot and trendy, but wholly disposable and forgettable no matter how “daring” and “hip” they were with their fonts.
It was really fun to be able to work in that cartoony style, so different from my work on the DARPA project.As amazing as those projects were to work on, the job I never could have seen coming was when I got a call to design backgrounds for a ballet that would be at the Thomas Center. I had to design elements that would be sculpted, as well as the props and set dressing elements that decorated the pre-existing backdrop of the castle interior (which I did NOT do), the stairway and so forth. Add to this that I had to paint a 10 foot skull, as well as paint the stairway facade, based on how the backdrop was painted. Keep in mind, I am NOT a painter anymore than a set designer. In other words, it was a lot of work recklessly outside my comfort zone.
Here’s a secret, if you, as an artist, are offered a job outside of your comfort zone, take it, do it, and NEVER let on that you are nervous, you know, like the old deodorant commercial… never let them see you sweat. If they see one drop of sweat they will cast you aside and look for someone less sweaty. Clients are like deer… very easy to spook, and they will run for cover.
In the end I painted the giant backdrop with local artist Margaret Tolbert. It’s funny, I always scold my students for how they hold their brushes while inking comics, and that day Margaret scolded me for how I held my brush. I needed to learn to hold the brush like a painter, not a comic artists. I needed to learn to “say something” as she urged as I meekly went about trying to find volume and proportion on a 10 foot canvas. To be honest, when we began painting I had a panic attack, was in tears. I knew I was in over my head, and figuring out how to draw on a 10 foot canvas was very intimidating, but eventually I got it figured out. In fact, after a half hour of panic, all at once I saw the skull on the canvas, and practically shoved Margaret out of the way saying… “Wait! I see it… I can see it now!” and I saw it and painted in the basic form that we then brought to life, mostly thanks to her confident skills as a painter.
To the upper left are the stairs I designed as painted the day a former student and I had done it, and directly below, that same stairway on stage.
Below, the final stage in my design for the stage set itself. I hand intended for this to be a rough only, but the client looked at it and said, “What’s wrong with this?” Nothing… so it became the final sketch. Below all that… well, that was what I saw when the curtain opened… awesome! I mean seeing it on stage, then the music and the ballet, I felt like a part of something grand. I was… “The Ballet.”
Yeah, it gets interesting, doesn’t it? Mythology, Cartoon Modern animation, and ballet set designs. And this ain’t the half of it. I’ve done tons of stuff in Gainesville, not all of it for local clients, but it’s more fun when it is. A few years back we did a great project in Gainesville for the CRA, it even won 2 awards, but I think of all the things I’ve done in Gainesville, the animation below is my favorite.
Nothing I have done has come as much from the heart, and there is nothing I’m more proud of than this animation. There are jobs I’m equally proud of, but none I am more proud of. This project pushed all my buttons, as a seeker (see “Hindu”) the thought of doing animation to preserve wild India, it’s elephants and indigenous people from being raped and destroyed by corporate crimelords… appealed to me. Jai Sri Ganesh!
Note that many of the images (as Ganesh at the beginning) were not drawn by me, but were taken from books and processed the same way as my drawings through Adobe Illustrator. It’s obvious which ones I drew… they share a similar line quality. The landscapes and stuff I inked with a brush, the elephants I inked with toothpicks. Why a brush and toothpicks? Because I despise most Flash animation, so cold, those horrid paper doll-like “bone” people that move like lousy shadow puppets. I want my animation to look hand drawn even though it’s all processed through “live trace” in Illustrator, and Flash. The limitations of a tool should never inhibit an artists vision, but should challenge them to shine through the limitations.
I hope you enjoy this as much as I did!
I guess with all this work (award winning work, at that) under my belt here in town, I’ve become rather cocky. Ever since I’ve moved to Gainesville I’ve been the bold brash woman I’ve always wanted to be. I’ve come to realize something at this stage in my life, and that is that people really do not respect or understand artists. They expect us to go into the studio and be innovative, brilliant, unconventional and sensational in our work, but expect us to act like middle-management bankers at meetings.
NOPE! Not me. I go to all my meetings (whether they be with university librarians, city officials or museum administrators) barefoot and in cut-off denim shorts. I travel at one speed without regard to the circle in which I’m flying. The raw passion, rhythmic heart, and vivid imagination it takes to produce great work is the same imagination that makes us envision other ways of being, of living, of acting. I didn’t become an artist to play by the rules everyone else has to play by. I am the same passionate imaginative person in meetings as I am in the studio. I speak in the same way, and the emotion and passion it takes to make cool art is the same high emotion I bring into the boardroom. A lot of clients can’t handle it, but I’m not playing their game, I can’t, I never knew how to, and I do not want to. Oh… and I will not! You want me and my unique take on the possibilities of your project, that comes with me and my unique take on how to travel through life. Deal with it or hire someone mediocre.
Well, that makes keeping clients a challenge sometimes. But, as I said, if I wanted to be a banker I would have been a banker. I’m not worried about winning any popularity contests (which is good… ’cause I ne’er e’er won one in my life), I’m interested in making work that engages me, and often what engages me frightens committees. Well, sod the committee. And what has all this rant brought us to? It has brought us to the brass tacks statement I made during the very first meeting with the Matheson crew. I said very directly, “Nothing kills creativity like a committee. I want creative control. Give me creative control and you will get my best work.” As soon as a committee starts to micromanage or get too involved, I lose interest and hack through the project to cash the check and pay my rent, but if a client has come to me and hired me to be a creative professional, and is willing to trust their own judgment, then the work I do will not disappoint them. And that’s just it, my ONE message to anyone hiring an artist, and it goes simply like this, if you do not trust the artist you chose to do creative work with the creative work, what that reveals is that you do not trust your own judgment. I can’t stand working with micromanagers, for I can see that they simply do not trust their own judgment.
Well, I am pleased to say that the folks at the Matheson Museum (Peggy MacDonald in particular) have had the courage to trust their judgment. They have given me creative control, and they have gotten me at my very best… and you will see all that very soon.
Next time, at long last, I’m going to get down to really talking about the new project, “What The Lion’s Saw,” and give you all a nice behind the scenes look into the process. Stay tuned… same batshit time, same batshit channel…
NEXT: FIVE, in walk the lions! Behind the scenes preproduction art!
THREE: The Art Of “What The Lions Saw”: Justine lands in Gainesville
To read in order:
Part ONE: https://barefootjustine.com/2017/08/14/one-the-art-of-what-the-lions-saw-introduction-1-of-2/
Part TWO: https://barefootjustine.com/2017/08/14/two-the-art-of-what-the-lions-saw-introduction-part-2-of-2/
Mike Lenz, a Blues musician and formidable guitarist from Akron dumped some truth on a mother who wanted advice for her son. She asked him, “What advice do you have for a young guitar player and musician?” Mike said, “Work hard, learn all he can, sacrifice, and spend all your time playing and practicing… and if he does all this and he’s good, really good… there’s hundreds of dollars to be made every year… hundreds!”
Yep, that’s about the size of it, whether you are a guitar player or an artist. You know what my gross income was last year? Less than $7,000, and you know what’s of no help at all?
Words.I don’t know how many times I’ve stood and listened to people tell me how amazing my art is, how good I am, how stunned they are by my art… but they can’t even afford to spend $2 on a crummy postcard at my table! They have no idea I’m starving. I even had a woman say to me “Well, artists are supposed to starve.” To say the least, I was furious, I mean that’s the very rubbish that keeps us down. Worse by far than that, once I even had a woman come to my booth and take a photo of the image she liked when she could have bought a big postcard print of it for $3! She snapped the photo, shot me a shit-eating grin and scurried off quite proud of herself. I chased her down! Yeah, damn straight, that’s pure Justine, chased her down, and right in front of her friends I said, “Do you know what you just did? You just took food out of my mouth. Instead of paying $3 for the postcard, you took a photo and ran off feeling all proud of yourself… and now I don’t get to eat lunch today!” and I walked away.
She came back a few minutes later in tears, apologizing.
And you know what… she still wasn’t willing to cough up three lousy bucks for the postcard! I mean, thanks for crying and apologizing and all, but tears don’t pay the rent, not unless your landlord’s a sucker.
Yeah, all that, all the years of rejection slips, of cheap words, of shallow praise, all of that played out in my mind as I showed Tom Hart my portfolio, my creative life and life of dreams was flashing before my eyes. I needed work, I needed a job, hell, what I needed was salvation! As he poured over my portfolio I could feel my guts clench as I waited on the inevitable cheap words, the enthusiastic praise and the pat on the back as he politely, but determinedly, guided me out the door. I knew all the steps to that dance. I was halfway out the door in my mind before I’d even walked all the way in through the door.
But that didn’t happen. Tom is a different sorta person, and thank God for it, too. He listened to my story about how before leaving Ohio I had sold off guitars, art, whatever I could, then laid out twelve envelopes and placed what I figured was a week’s worth of money in each envelope so that once I got to Florida I would have three months of survival money before I was in trouble. You see, I had no safety net, no home in Akron to return to, no one in Florida to catch me if I fell, and now, here I was in Gainesville, down to my last 4 envelopes, and that was it! What then. What if all I got was more lousy praise? Like I said, Tom isn’t like that. He saw in my portfolio that I was not only good, but real good, that I was obviously self-disciplined, that I knew how to work for things that were out of reach of most people, and though I had no way of knowing this, Tom Hart knew what it was like to be a starving artist, having just fled New York City for that very reason himself. I was on tenterhooks as I waited for him to finish looking at my work.
Inside… I was crying.Tom listened to my story, looked up from my portfolio and said, “We need to get some more money in your envelopes.” Wait… what? It was like in a cartoon when the character’s head starts rotating side to side, tongue out, that “ie e-ee ie e-ee ie e-ee” noise coming out. He didn’t show me to the door with a golden shower of cheap words? Almost immediately we got down to throwing together an evening class for me to teach. Tom knew I could draw, but that was about it. Lots of people can draw, lots of people can teach, but few can do both. Tom Hart became my personal savior! He attended my first class, wondering if I could teach, but what he had no way of knowing was just how much teaching I had done. As I was still commuting from Ocala to Gainesville when I taught that class for Tom, by the time I got home there was a lengthy email from him. I doubt he remembers it this way, but I have the email to prove it. In the email he effused over how good a class I ran, how good my teaching was, and he literally said, “I am begging you, begging you, to become my year-long drawing teacher.”
Wow! What I hadn’t known was that Tom needed me, too. It was no less a miracle to him that his drawing teacher had simply walked in off the streets unannounced than it was for me to have walked in off the streets into the warm arms of Tom, SAW and Gainesville. Through Tom I was able to find an affordable apartment as Joe Courter, who was a neighbor to SAW, needed a housemate, and whether he knows it or not, Joe Courter is a major patron of the Arts. Without him and this absurdly cheap rent in this spectacular house on this stunning piece of property, I don’t know where I’d be now. More than friends, Tom and Joe were instrumental in helping me make my life work, and I was teetering on the edge of a major disaster. I’ve been at SAW and in the Lakehouse with Joe ever since July 4th five years ago, and I’m family in both places. I even take care of Tom and Leela’s magical daughter Molly Rose. I think I was the first person Tom gave a key to his school to, and the first person to babysit his daughter. Yeah, sometimes there are people out there who will give an artist more than a pat on the back, they’ll give us work, trust, and something far more important… a sense of family.
Tom’s my brother.
Most people don’t trust artists at all, primarily because they don’t understand them. I used to joke that I’d go into a meeting with a potential client with a portfolio full of drawings of pumpkins, squash and eggplants, and the client would smile, then shake their heads as they slid my portfolio to me, saying, “You draw pumpkins, squash and eggplant really well… but we need someone who draws watermelons.” Then I met an agent who I told this joke to, he shook his head and said, “That’s not really funny. I represented this artist who had a lot of drawings of horses in his portfolio, I showed it to a client who refused to work with him because they needed an artist who drew cats.”
You know what being an artist really teaches you? It teaches you that people really are that stupid.I wasn’t fully prepared for where the SAW journey was going to take me. Soon after Tom took me under his wing I began working for DARPA on a comics project meant to help veterans with their PTSD, and soon job after job came through SAW, mostly jobs local to Gainesville, the very jobs that paved the way for me getting the job of illustrating “What The Lions Saw” for the Matheson. And, man, I’ve done it all, from designing murals to animation for UF, from comics and T-shirt designs to set design for the ballet! Soon I am going to share some of the images I’ve done since I’ve lived in Gainesville, and what I am sharing is by no means complete. I still don’t make enough money to live, not by most people’s standards, but I’ve done a ton of work here.
I’m gonna share some of that work with you next time, and then we’re gonna dig in and see how the process of making this new book for the Matheson is like.
NEXT: What I just said above…
For more about Justine: barefootjustine.com
TWO: The Art Of “What The Lions Saw” (Introduction 2 of 2)
To read in order:
Part ONE: https://barefootjustine.com/2017/08/14/one-the-art-of-what-the-lions-saw-introduction-1-of-2/)
Cause they told me everybody’s got to pay their dues,
And I explained that I had overpaid them,
So overdued I went to the company store,
and the clerk there said that they had just been invaded,
So I set sail in a teardrop and escaped beneath the doorsill.
Cause the smell of her perfume echoes in my head still,
Cause I see my people trying to drown the sun,
In weekends of whiskey sours,
Cause how many times can you wake up in this comic book and plant flowers?
Sixto “Sugarman” Rodriguez
I shoved more books into a box, books in print, with my name and art in them, closed the box and ripped another strip of flesh and spirit off the roll to seal up another cardboard coffin. Yep, I had really made it, internationally published, but by the time I was packing up, that was long over, even the crying was long over. I had worked on Green Lantern for DC Comics, and had inked most of the famous characters, including the Flash, Superman, Swamp Thing, and others. I had managed to work for WOTC on core Dungeons and Dragons product, and had even been “Lucasfilm approved,” which means I was one of the artists approved to work on Star Wars projects! I hadn’t seen that coming, hadn’t even dared to dream I’d be hired by Lucasfilm to draw creatures from Star Wars, and I had never dared dream I would one day be as good as I got, and that ain’t ego, I paid my dues. But that seemed like a lifetime ago, and at that moment, that life was packed away in boxes that would soon be shoved into the dark of someone’s closet in Akron.
Boxes of dreams dry with dust in the dark of an Akron closet.Nothing lasts, not even fully fulfilled dreams, not even identity. First the economy, then one thing after another, and slowly I watched precious water drip away as all my clients evaporated. The springs of my dreams having run dry, I found myself back at the bottom of the food chain in the world of comics, gaming illustration and art. Within a few years I went from turning clients down because I could not complete all the work coming in, to sitting around in my studio broke, exhausted and bitter. I mean, I didn’t have any idea what to do or where to turn from that bottom… what does a person do who defined themselves by their dream… what do they do once the dream collapses? Who are they?
What are they?
All I knew was I didn’t have any desire to work my way back up from the bottom again. Once around that bush was enough. A lot happened in the years after my dream ran dry, a whole lot, 2 years in Korea dealing with cancer, time in Chile working as an illegal immigrant, performances for Buddhist monks in the mountains of Korea, a near fatal SCUBA diving incident in Thailand, performing for prostitutes and Johns in the Philippines, scrubbing toilets in an Akron grocery store, even performing in nightclubs in Seoul South Korea drenched in the numbness of 7 shots of whiskey, bankruptcy, foreclosure and divorce.
Let the good times roll!
What does one do indeed? Me, initially, as you can see, I did everything, but ultimately what one does is pack up and move on.
I got into the car with the two Akron Ogres, a portfolio full of blessed art, and a sacred statue of Ganesh, and headed off, southbound from Meat City to Slowcala with no plan, no job, no shoes, no friends, and only enough money to survive for 3 months before I was, well, to put it bluntly… screwed, but I was screwed no matter what I did. The groovy part of being that totally screwed is… it’s a total liberation! But you have to let go and surrender to the free fall.
But in order to surrender to the fall, you first have to find the courage to jump!Yeah, well, things weren’t much better in Ocala. I was still screwed, but at least I was warm and screwed. I had fled a foreclosing house in the ghettos of Akron to find myself in a barren room in Ocala, sleeping on a lumpy half-deflated rubber bed under the lordship that pair of Ogres. So without rooting through the dirty laundry of my Ogres with too much zest, let’s just tell one story. The She-Ogre had cooked dinner and asked me to join them. The next day around the pool she asked me when I was going to pay for the portion of food she had served. Family-friendly blog entry or not… I don’t think anyone could blame me for inserting a quick “what the fuck?” here. Besides all that, I was running out of the 3 months worth of basic survival money I had brought. I got down to about four weeks worth of money, had no job, and soon nowhere to live, and worse, no home to return to in Akron, not even with family. I still had Ganesh… but my faith was being tested.
In continued desperation, fleeing Ocala on a daytrip, in search of more liberal pastures and possibilities, I wound up visiting Gainesville Florida, just to see if perhaps Gainesville might be a better fit for me than Akron or Ocala. I distinctly remember the first time I set foot in Gainesville, walking barefoot down Main Street, then on past Bo Diddley Plaza where I wandered around the Sun Center and Hippodrome. I sat in Mochi eating yogurt (a place I was later kicked out of as an employee erroneously believed my being barefoot was a health code violation… it’s not, look it up), and it was there where I nodded to myself and thought, “I could live here.”
I had looked up every arts oriented place in Gainesville before driving in from Ocala, stunned to find that there was a comics school in Gainesville! SAW, The Sequential Artists Workshop, founded by Tom Hart and Leela Corman, who knew? I mean, really… how many towns have comics art schools? I’ll tell ya’ how many, there are three freestanding comics art schools in the country, Gainesville’s got one of ’em! SAW’s a big deal for Gainesville, a hanging-on-by-the-skin-of-its-teeth big deal, but a big deal. Quite unannounced, I walked off the streets into what we now call “Old SAW” which shared a building with the CMC and what was then the Co-op. Oh God, I knew the stink of desperation was seeping from my every pore, but sticky-thick with it or not, I had to keep keep trying and hoping lest I ended up homeless.
And there, sitting at drawing tables right up against the wall were Tom and Leela. The school had barely even opened, hadn’t even had a year of students yet, I mean, talk about getting in on the ground floor. I announced my arrival, and told Tom Hart the (looking back on it) rather pathetic story of how I ended up there, and as I told him I needed work, I plopped my portfolio on the table, full of the art that had been blessed by Ganesh, the remover of obstacles. Tom stood up, approached me cautiously, thinking (as he tells it), “This crazy barefoot woman walks into my school and starts asking for a job, and immediately I want to tell her that we’re just a small school, we don’t need anybody…”
But then he saw my portfolio…
NEXT: July 4th, Independence Day… and I begin crafting a life for myself in Gainesville Florida as a teacher and artist, and all while the Lions slumbered in the dark.
NEXT: FOUR: The Art Of “What The Lions Saw.”
For more about Justine: barefootjustine.com
ONE: The Art Of “What The Lions Saw” (Introduction 1 of 2)When I moved to Gainesville July 4th five years ago, I was very desperately seeking independence.
But Gainesville hadn’t been in my plans… plans… what plans? I had moved down from Ohio to Ocala Florida on a mad impulse and had found myself in a shockingly Cinderella-like situation that was worse than the situation I had fled in Ohio. I mean, I literally ended up living in an unfurnished room in Ocala (no comment on having done time in Ocala), sleeping for months on an ever-deflating inflatable mattress, and serving a pair of Ogres… though when I had met them they seemed to be a fairy godmother and godfather… but, we all know how fairy tales turn out. Spoiler alert… this tale, at least, ended in me escaping the home of the Ogres to an ideal job as an artist and teacher at SAW (sequentialartistsworkshop.org), and a pastoral life in Gainesville on a lakefront property with a serene view of the forest. I went, it seems, from Cinderella’s misery in Ocala to the bliss of Briar Rose’s idyllic cottage life in Gainesville, but instead of living with the three good fairies I am now living with Grizzly Adams (my dear friend Joe Courter).
“Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.”
For all the idyllic qualities of my life as it is today, it could have turned out far differently, for, as I’d said, not a bit of it was planned, or even the least bit thought through, neither from Akron nor Ocala. Oh, but wouldn’t you know it, there was a long journey through the dark forest before I got anywhere near SAW or the Lakehouse in Gainesville, let alone to the Matheson where I would start work illustrating “What The Lions Saw.” And, so far as I’m concerned, that journey is all part of this story, I mean, how can an artist separate her life from her art?
There wasn’t exactly a beginning to the story, other than that it started in the same place as a lot of stories… desperation, if desperation be called a place. I was desperately seeking an escape from the tyranny of life in the ghetto of “The Rubber City,” Akron Ohio. So let’s just put Akron and life therein into perspective. I had hit bottom, I won’t go into details, but trust me, it was the bottom, as in hospitalized. I had to wait overnight to see a psychologist, but come morning, once the psychologist listened to my story, she told me there was nothing wrong with me, I was fine, just different, and if I got out of Akron I’d be fine. Hand to Vishnu, that was what she said. It wasn’t what I had expected to hear, but that was her verdict on my mental health… it’s not you, it’s this lousy city, get the hell out of Akron Ohio. To make matters worse, I was not only in Akron, but right smack dab in the middle of a divorce, a bankruptcy and a foreclosure… oh, and I was still recovering from cancer and the trauma of escaping South America as an illegal immigrant… but those are other stories. So as you can imagine, those last days in Akron were pretty grim, and from the steel grey skies and rusty air of depression that is the spirit of Akron, my future wasn’t looking much better.
By the time I was packing to escape from Akron Ohio, I was wondering how my life had become so grim, how was it I had fallen from such a height? I mean, I knew I was a talented and accomplished illustrators… why was I scrubbing toilets at a local grocery store by day and downing doubles of Black Velvet by night?
Such desperate questions lead to desperate actions, but in those last days of suffering in Akron before my blind faith trip to Florida I had just become a “practicing Hindu,” and so I was beginning to learn to reframe my point of view… in other words, what was called for wasn’t a “desperate action,” but a leap of faith. On my last visit to the Shiva Vishnu Temple before leaving Akron (God… how I hate even typing in that word, “Akron”) I had my artwork blessed by Ganesh via the Temple Priest. As I was about to go home and shove more stuff in hastily labeled boxes, I spoke to one of the most dedicated Devotees about my situation, a lovely Indian woman, and she said, “So long as you have your faith, you’ll be alright.” So, there wasn’t much left to do but take that leap of faith. I was in the hands of Ganesh now.
I’ve never been in better hands.There’s nothing like ripping packing tape off the roll to skin the soul raw. With each cranky rip and tear I reflected on how I had gotten myself into this mess. There’s a lot of time to reflect when you’re boxing up your memories and deciding which ones will be hidden in a dark closet somewhere, and which precious few will make the cut for the move. Nothing in my life to that point had worked out as I had envisioned it, and each box full of dusty books drove the point home. At one time I had been a motivated dreamer, then an ascending doer. I had not only scaled many heights, but had surpassed my every expectation for myself, at least in regards to my life dream, well apart from the part of that dream where I earned a pile of dough. Not a sausage! Man I was broke, and I had worked long and hard for that bit o’nothing. I had announced early as 4th grade “I’m going to grow up to become a dolphin trainer or a comic book artist.” Well, once my mother pointed out that dolphin trainers had to learn science, which meant being good at math (“math,” a word that fills me the same dreary chill as “Akron”). Needless to say, I thought, “To heck with math, comic book artist it is.” I mean, hell, when you’re a comic book artists you don’t even have to grapple with simple addition, as there’s hardly a dollar to count.
Yeah, by the time I was living in a ghetto house in Akron, by the time I was embroiled in bankruptcy foreclosure and divorce, by the time I was packing to make a hasty, some might have said, foolhardy, retreat, by the time I had a closet full of “fallen soldiers” (emptied whiskey bottles) I had really fallen. It seemed like I had fallen hard and fast. But before all that I had succeeded in a big way. I had clawed my way into the major leagues. It had taken years of groundwork and heartache, but I was not only one of the few people from my school to have actually grown up to do what she had dreamed of doing, I was one of the few artists who dream of making it into the big leagues to have actually done it. Most quit when the going gets tough. But that dream was all I had back then, it was the only thing I knew about myself to be true.
I know a lot more about myself now, and what I know is I am more than any dream.
NEXT: Introduction part 2, Justine Lands in Gainesville…
For more about Justine: barefootjustine.com
Therese swallowed the last sugary sip of tea,
Turning towards the light outside, squinting,
She set her teacup into the saucer with a clink,
And looked across her table at the empty chair.
“Well, old girl, might as well go on out,”
Reaching across the table, she took her hat,
off the back of the chair where it always hung,
And shook yesterday’s leaves from its brim.
She never wasted any sunshine, our Therese,
And soon charged playfully from her well-kept holt,
Into the easy waters of the lake with a splash,
And rustled ashore through the reeds and grass.
“Quite a commotion up there,” she noted,
Dodging cypress knees as she followed the buzz,
Trotting across the old fallen log to the hive,
From a safe distance, she stood for a moment.
“Pardon me, how big and deep can loneliness be?”
Asked Therese of the cloud of busy buzzing bees,
In her experience, bees had precious little to say,
“Fine weather we’re having,” at best.
So it went, indeed, the bees had precious little to say,
Nothing of interest to anyone apart from other bees,
She never fit in with the bees, then, who does?
Why, not even the most cordial of crickets.
It’s no use talking to bees, as everyone knows,
Besides, how could they know loneliness, the bees,
Swarming all together in their hives as one,
With God, queen, and all that dripping honey?
Across the meadow a cardinal pecked the grass,
Picking for ticks and singing all the while,
“Dear cardinal, how big and deep can loneliness be?”
The cardinal glanced suspiciously at her smile.
He hopped two paces away, then glanced back,
Where Therese sat perched on her hind legs,
the cardinal sang a wall of song between them,
Before he flew to his love in the bowers above.
“Not much use talking to cardinals either, I suppose,”
Therese trotted towards the water’s edge,
“They all tweet the same tired little songs,
And what could cardinals know of loneliness?”
Across the meadow came the proud turkeys,
Three adults and nine nervous young in tow,
“Not much use talking loneliness to turkeys,”
So, “Good day,” she said to them with a nod.
“Good day, old girl,” clucked the father,
“Splendid!” agreed Therese, “What a sky today!”
“Splendid sky, indeed… carry on…” the turkey bowed,
And on they went, plucking and clucking along.
Leaving Therese there under her silent open sky,
She sniffed a waft of honeysuckle on the wind,
Smiled, and started towards the winding dirt road,
Where often sat the old tired alligator.
He would know about loneliness, she thought,
After all, alligators eat all their friends,
Or so say the turtles, but Therese wasn’t certain,
So much that isn’t so has been said and said again.
“Hmmmm…” grumbled the ‘gator, belly to the ground,
As much of an invitation as alligators ever mutter,
Therese stood back a safe distance and cocked her head,
“How big and deep can loneliness be?” she asked humbly.
“Why do you ask me such things?” The ‘gator growled,
“I’m sorry, my Lord,” she said, slinking back,
“Get away from me, what’s an otter, after all?”
“Far less than an alligator,” Therese humbly bowed.
“Indeed,” the ‘gator hrumphed as he settled on his belly,
All in the swamp know, alligators need forever appeased,
Lest they snap and make quarrels, as is their way,
And everyone fears the alligators, don’t you know.
Busy on her way, she trotted alongside the iron fence,
And thought ‘I suppose when one is so toothy and angry,
One doesn’t have much time to feel loneliness.’
“Sun is sharp today,” she said from the muggy shade.
Nestling between the broad roots of an old live oak,
She closed her eyes and thought on nothing but silence,
And there she soon found her forgetting place,
A quiet place with no loneliness at all.
A place with no buzzing bees, nor a drop of honey,
A place with no cardinals to snub her honest smile,
A place with no politely gobbling rafter of turkeys,
And where no alligator anger shamed her questions.
“How big and deep can loneliness be?” It lingered,
But dissolved into her silence, then clear as a bell,
“Not as deep as the silence,” whispered the sky,
“Not as deep as the silence,” smiled Therese.
She opened her eyes to find the perfect stone,
‘Just right for cracking snails,’ she thought,
But she wasn’t terribly hungry, so she set it aside,
And looked above, and heard the cardinals singing.
They sang, “How big and deep can loneliness be?
How long can the darkest storm rain?
How hollow the hole in the holy ground,
Where no love, nor rain, can ever be found?”
Funny thing about cardinals when they’re singing,
To you and I it would sound like tweets and nonsense,
But Therese more deeply understood each word they sang,
Than would even the most golden throated of birds.
“How big and deep can loneliness be,” sang Therese,
And on her way she went, back to her wide open lake,
Towards her cozy burrowed holt, to wait for the answer,
Or perhaps, to wait for a friend, who knew.
“How big and deep can loneliness be?”
‘Surely out there some other otter must know,’
Thought Therese as she floated in the water.
“Surely some friend must come,” she cried.
Yet for all her questions, she knew: ‘Loneliness,
Is deeper than the waters of this or any lake,
Ah, but most certainly not deeper than the silence,’
“And never so big as the wise sky above,” she smiled.