Category Archives: blog – 2: SAW

SAW (Sequential Artists Workshop) in Gainesville Florida specializes in teaching sequential art (“comics”), and it’s where I work, draw, and teach. Check us out: www.sequentialartistsworkshop.org

TWO: The Art Of “What The Lions Saw” (Introduction Part 2 of 2)

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TWO: The Art Of “What The Lions Saw” (Introduction 2 of 2)

(Barefoot) Justine Mara Andersen: Star Wars illustration

(Barefoot) Justine Mara Andersen: Star Wars illustration


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.

DC Comics, Justice League, Pencils: unknown - Inks: Justine Mara Andersen

DC Comics, Justice League, Pencils: unknown – Inks: Justine Mara Andersen

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!

Barefoot Justine WOTC Illustration/Lucasfilm

Barefoot Justine WOTC Illustration/Lucasfilm

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.”

But how?

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…

Mara Medievalist (by Justine)

Mara Medievalist (by Justine)

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)

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ONE: The Art Of “What The Lions Saw” (Introduction 1 of 2)

Barefoot Justine in her studio at SAW

Barefoot Justine in her studio at SAW

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.”

Goethe

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.

(Barefoot) Justine Mara Andersen - unfinished, Hinduism comic

(Barefoot) Justine Mara Andersen – unfinished, Hinduism comic

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

Psychedelics, Rebirth, Love & the Destructive Art Of Teaching

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Barefoot Justine with Shiva

Barefoot Justine with Shiva


“Look to this day,
for it is life, the very breath of life.
In its brief course lie
all the realities of your existence;
the bliss of growth,
the glory of action,
the splendor of beauty.
For yesterday is only a dream,
and tomorrow is but a vision.
But today, well lived,
makes every yesterday a dream of happiness,
and every tomorrow
a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day.”
(Ancient Sanskrit)

I went to Bolen’s Bluff park today. I haven’t been out in nature much lately. For the last month I’ve had an excuse… I had an animation job that I was passionate about and had an impossible deadline… but what’s been my excuse for the past couple of years?

I guess I keep forgettin’ stuff, and I don’t mean stuff like, “I can’t find my keys,” no, I mean stuff like, “Oh, that’s right, being outside helps me maintain my center.” I mean stuff like that, BIG stuff. But there’s more to this than all that, it’s not just about forgettin’ stuff, it’s more about known’ stuff as words that make sense to you as opposed to knowin’ stuff through personal experience. For example, one of my favorite stories George Harrison tells of becoming a devotee of Hinduism was how he’d always understood, as an Irish Catholic, that he just had to have faith in God, as God isn’t going to reveal himself to you, nor is he going to perform any miracles these days. When he told the Indians this, they bobbled their heads and said, “No, you must have direct experience of God,” as, obviously, how can you truly know something until you have had direct experience of it? In other words, when it comes to God, if you haven’t sought to see God, God hasn’t revealed himself to you. Well, as of late, I’ve been having far more direct experience with mystical truth than ever before. So, here’s the silly part, nothing I say here is going to sound like a revelation to anyone, it has all, most certainly, been said before and better, the revelation is not in the words, it is in the experience. Revelations are not in the eye of the beholder, rather they are in the heart of an experience. Revelations do not come in words, knowledge comes in words, all words do with revelations is make it possible to dimly explain the surface of our deepest experiences… our revelations; or as commonly is the case, words give us the chance to announce just how grandly we have misunderstood our revelations.

Last night, “With a Little Help From My Friends,” I enjoyed a Shamanic experience. To tell the truth, it was a bit stop-n-go, not so brilliant or immersive as my other experiences, but it taught me a lot. I went to bed feeling amazing, as my friends and I had just had a spectacular night (so far as I’m concerned) of visions, music, and chocolate mint hookah shisha, but when I woke this morning, I felt anxious and depressed. Anxiety and depression are familiar states to me, like Rakshasa demons they have possessed me, clawed so deep into me that for most of my adult life I never experienced any real joy. No matter how lovely a time I should have been having, no matter how splendid the occasion, I was stuck in the belly of the whale, battling Rakshasa Demons somewhere deep in the top of my chattering tyrannical skull. These recent plant-based Shamanic experiences have not defeated my demons, oh no, that’s my work to do (“Fight the battle Arjuna”), but they have revealed to me the many weaknesses of my deomons. Yes, Krishna, I am fighting the battles, but now I have weapons, courage, knowledge and faith enough to put up a fair fight.

“Every morning
I get up
Look out the window
I get up
See the sunshine
Beating down
Every morning comes around”
(Sun Is Shining, Paul McCartney)

So what does one do when one wakes up anxious, depressed, and deeply let down? There are two paths, one is to stay in bed and nurse that bastard demon to your breast with protective dedication, or one can fight the battle. The McCartney lyrics above are a literal reality in my little cottage room in the forest. Every morning I look out over my altars into the forest and drink up the sunlight as it lights up swatches of the lush green swampy forest. In getting up, I chose to fight the battle. On this particularly rotten morning I turned my clock around so that time no longer existed, I decided to opt out of studying Hindi this morning to instead play some meditation music and pay frequent visits to my altars. Then it dawned on me what I was to do, spend the day turned on, tuned in and dropped out. No email (sure I’m doing this blog, but I don’t wanna forget all the stuff I learned today), no stressing over regrets, conflicts, or unresolved issues, and no answering potentially unpleasant phone calls. I had decided that instead of giving in to anxiety and depression, I was going to spend the day meditating towards my center rather than spending the day spinning further from it, further into the abyss. The abyss of my inner life is rather like the tarpits into which all of my most sacred knowledge has often sunk, left suffocated and unexperienced.

I went for Thai food, fish curry, prepared specially for me by the owner’s wife, and then on to Bolen’s Bluff park. I was struck within minutes by the sign at the edge of the path: “This area off limits.” Wow… I mean, talk about living in a tree museum. “WARNING!!! Do not interact with the natural world. Stay on the path. This park brought to you by Starbucks.” Hell… I had to pay to get in! I know all the pragmatic logic behind that sign, and I know why it’s there, but none of that makes it any less perverse. To think we’ve created a world where we separate ourselves from nature by never straying from the path, only going to specially designated prisons we build to house our unruly forests. Yes, mankind, we have arrived! We have finally evolved into our utopia… just don’t step on the grass… and, for that matter, don’t smoke any, either. That notion of separation, that “Stay on the path” bit is the problem, the path is the perversion, it is not the limit of our experience with nature, at least, it shouldn’t be. This realization did not make me angry, it just amused and befuddled me to wonder how we could have allowed ourselves to become so damn perverse. I mean, exactly when did man choose to plummet so headlong into such a fall from grace?

But that didn’t last for long. No sign, or power, in the ‘verse can stop me!

I wasn’t but ten minutes into the walk when I felt seven-dozen black bats leap from my chest and skull, and one by one I watched them turn to vapor as the dappled rays of sunlight hit them. And with that… I was open. All of a sudden a lot of the stuff I had forgotten was revealed to me in surround-sound and full color. I know, I know, a lot of people like to grumble about how awful Florida is, how they can’t wait to get out of here, how shitty little Gainesville is, but to hell with them. My ambition was to move to Florida! One of my life dreams was to live where there were palm trees (I have a pair of them right out my window!) and as for me, I love Gainesville, it’s the second town I chose as the place I could spend the rest of my life, and the first town that welcomed me. But what brought me to Florida was the weather, the heat (don’t give me any of that “don’t you just love this weather!” crap when it’s cold and wet… ’cause, no, sister, I definitely do not like cold and wet, I do not like cold and wet in a car I do not like cold and wet in a bar, I do not like cold and wet Sam I Am!), but mostly it was the flora and fauna. I LOVE the Spanish moss, the cypress trees, the swamps, the alligators, the armadillos… I love all of it! Then why the hell haven’t I been taking hikes in the plentiful parks? I guess I forgot.

At some point on the walk I realized this day, this grand letting go, was one more rebirth. I don’t have them all that often, it’s not like I have some sort of new-agey daily gratitude and rebirthing fetish, no, when I have a rebirth, it means something is solidly going to change. Rebirth should be a seismic shift in perception and then in approach and practice. It often means I have to work to maintain that change, it often means I backslide, but that don’t ever mean I’ve lost. I have been heavily rebirthing for about 10 years now, just one change, revelation, devastation, lesson and grand experience after another. After cancer my body was reborn, I was reborn when I was divorced, even reborn in the hell of my foreclosure. But each devastation was a birth, a rebirth. Each tragedy or shock led to another birth. I became a Hindu, I moved to Florida without any plan, landed at SAW (which brought about my rebirth as a working artist), took up residence in the Lakehouse, and the liberation of all liberations, the one that has released me from the need to keep nursing my demon’s to my breast… wait for it… these latest, grand, herbal Shamanic experiences. They have pitched me so far out of the world of ordinary experience and reality that I have had no choice but to question not only reality and my place in it, but I am rethinking how to be if not who to become. All my demons have been derailed, the slobbering pissy mass of them has begun to retreat.

Out in the woods today as I faced the sun, arms stretched out, bare feet sunk into the lovely warm sand, I realized what birth was.

If you accept the reality of this world as illusion, and manifestations of the soul through reincarnation as the reality, then our literal maternal birth is nothing more than a metaphor. I mean, how can a birth into an illusion be anything but a metaphor? We must be reborn throughout the entirety our lives. I mean, if we are lucky, we go along happily enough, until the world and our own ways and karma weigh us down, then Shiva leaps in to destroy us. He dances us into the ground, and then it is up to us whether or not we get up or stay down. It’s Shiva’s job to destroy us, it’s our job to get back up and be reborn… but he will help you if you choose to get back up… but you have to get back up. In my life Shiva has danced me to destruction and helped reestablish me in this illusion time and again, and each time, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, I have risen stronger than before. Finally, with the latest destructions I am slowly learning exactly what it means to see this “reality” as an illusion, and my attachment to it as a source of pain. I think I might just be beginning to become aware of the ultimate truth of “self.”

Listen, group, getting knocked down is easy, it’s getting back up, it’s birth and rebirth that is the ordeal. Birth is a trial, we come out all gooey, screaming, cold and naked with some weird thing hanging off our bellies… then all hell breaks loose and we have to figure our way through the maze of this grand illusion for eighty some-odd years. Yeah, birth is just that, a metaphor, not the grand arriving. Physical birth is what gives us the chance to continue our rebirths until we figure it all out and don’t have to be physically born again. So, why are we born? As a metaphor. We are born into this illusion as a metaphorical lesson. If you can survive that transition, you can survive any destruction and any rebirth.

“BILL MOYERS: What’s my ego?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: What I want, what I believe, what I can do, what I think I love, and all that. What I regard as the aim of my life and so forth. It might be too small. It might be that which pins you down. And if it’s simply that of doing what the environment tells you to do, it certainly is pinning you down. And so the environment is your dragon, as it reflects within yourself.”

Birth is an ordeal. Rebirth is no less an ordeal. At times at SAW, over the years, I have had students who said their SAW experience was life changing. Other students never fully engage in the full potential of the experience, others outright resist and refuse what the SAW experience can be at its best. It’s silly to set about “changing lives” as a mission, but when year after year students tell us how their year with us has changed their lives, it’s hard to not at the very least be aware of the potential responsibility. I tend to assume that people need to be reborn time and again, and that part of my job as a teacher is to dance them into oblivion once in a while, then extend my hand to see who wants to get up. In the getting up, one becomes bigger. It’s up to each person how they want to react to being danced upon. It’s not my karmic cross to bear to worry about how they will choose to respond, it’s both my job and karmic duty to dance. It’s not even my job to consider whether or not a student wants their life changed (sometimes, as Campbell said, what they want is not big enough), nor is it mine to consider whether or not they trust me enough to allow me to dance upon them, then help them up. It is my job to care, but it’s not my job to get them up, only to help them if they want reborn. One must, sometimes, be destroyed by their teachers if they are to be reborn, at least metaphorically.

I have been dancing, but I am growing tired.

Let’s take the dancing metaphor and tone it down a notch… every single year I have students who are not willing to empty their cups… so sometimes, I have to spill it for them. Year after year, a student or two might get really pissy when they get wet, but every year at the beginning of the year, I warn them that the students in the first few rows will get wet.

Getting back to having personal experience of a thing rather than taking anything on faith, well, that’s crucial to a student. Year after year I ask myself… do some of them actually believe I love bitching them out, or think that I love being frustrated, or that I’m so emotionally unhinged that I just can’t help myself? No, the point I make in class is… I can show you something, tell you something, but unless you go home and do it and do it and do it, you will have no personal experience of the thing. If you are not invested enough to dig in and do the thing in all earnestness, we are all wasting our time. Each year I have to push some of them to fulfill their end of this deal, it’s not fun, it’s painful, and it’s so damn messy! I make mistakes, some can’t take it, some rise to it, some are thankful, some wake up to it later… but boy, what a trial by fire as it’s all happening. How exhausting is all that? Though the question is rhetorical, I’ll answer it for my slower readers… It’s damn freaking exhausting… that’s how exhausting that is!

I’ve now sat out on my patio in my green lawn chairs, and am overlooking the lake, and feeling very one with it all. This ego babbling into the computer is, at least for now, only doing this, and doing so without distraction. I’ve already written my way through “Rubber Soul,” and am now working my way through “Venus and Mars,” and the birds are singing along in perfect harmony, and the eagles above the buzzing bumblebees are punctuating the rhythms like a 1976 horn section.

I haven’t really been noticing my tinnitus lately, nor barely noticing my floaters, nor my rattling inner dialog, which usually runs like a badly leaking fountain. I’m just here, like all the other eagles and birds, and the quieter the better, thank you very much.

And now I can see that the sun is getting lower, the air cooler, and I really want to get back out and think about nothing again. My center, it’s nowhere near this damn machine, is it?

“Beautiful!” Observed Molly Rose…

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Best Friends… Molly Rose and Justine

Best Friends… Molly Rose and Justine

Some of you may know, my best friend is 2 years and 6 months old. I just left her room, as tonight I got to put her to bed, as mommy and daddy are (still) out with their friends. As happened last time I put Molly Rose to bed, I laid down under a blanket beside her crib, her in her crib, the two of us side by side, talking, and she fell asleep holding my hand.

This is a friendship I could never have seen coming, but it may well be the deepest friendship I’ve ever had, if nothing else, it is certainly the most joyous and loving. A month or so ago I turned her on to the classic Disney Winnie the Pooh cartoons, childhood favorites of mine. We sat together on the couch, her nestling in close against me, cuddly, and saying, “We’re friends!” Of course we are, my dear, the best of friends. She’s not always cuddly, she is, after all, a toddler, and is at times fiercely independent… which I encourage. Of course, I love it when she’s cuddly, but I love her no less when she isn’t. I let her lead. Tonight, she was unusually relaxed, cuddly, and easy to entertain.

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I had brought along McCartney’s splendid animated version of the great children’s book, “Tuesday,” promising her a cartoon with flying frogs in it. McCartney has done, I believe, 4 cartoons with this particular animation company, and “Tuesday” is by far the best, especially towards the end when he and Dustin Hoffman are doing the voices together. “Tuesday” is not only majestically and beautifully scored by McCartney, but it is one of his masterpieces as a producer of animation (the other being the far darker and far more experimental “Daumier’s Law”). Well, I’ve watched a lot of cartoons with Molly Rose, and I’ve known her since she was a baby, but this night she took me wholly by surprise. Firstly, she was positively enchanted by this charming cartoon, but she made an aesthetic observation that took my breath away. About mid-way through the cartoon, a lovely shot of a small town at sunset spread it’s sky blue-pink glory across the screen, and Molly simply said, “Beautiful!”

It was beautiful, but even more beautiful was not only hearing her say that, but realizing just how far she has come. It seems like just yesterday I felt so helpless, never knowing what she really wanted or needed as a helpless infant, and now here she was knowing that something, a work of art, was beautiful, and saying as much. This, to me, was the most magical moment I have observed in her development, other than the sarcastic and knowing smile she shot me last week.

Ah, last week, I had come over and she just wasn’t interested, had been sucked into a loop of YouTube videos that teach color and such. She was barely looking at me! Finally I announced to her dad, “Well, I guess if Molly Rose is going to watch “A C la” (that’s Molly Rose for watching YouTube), I’m going home.” I got up kissed her head, then sat down with her dad (Tom), and talked about how I was going to go now. Molly looked up from the computer, turned her head slowly towards me, and looked at me with the most sarcastic and knowing smile, then turned back to A C la. I said to Tom, “Did a toddler just call my bluff?”

Later that night, we could not get her to bed. The powers of Mom, Dad, and Justine combined could not get her to go to bed. Lately she has been sleeping with a golden murti of Ganesh in her crib, at least when I’m around, and she stares at Lord Ganesh and says, “I have Ganesh.” When I’m around, she’ll usually have a pair of my wrist bangles in her crib with her. That night I heard the rattle of them hitting the floor, as she often tosses things out, When I was called back in to try and get her to sleep, I figured I’d get my bangles up off the floor, but could only find one of them. I asked, “Where’d the other one go?” not at all thinking she knew, but she stood up in her crib and looked around, asking, “Where other go?” Neither of us could find it, I eventually decided this might be keeping her wound up, so I said, “It’s not important,” and went to her side, then I looked down at her wrist, she looked down at her wrist… there it was… my huge purple bangle on her wrist. At the same time we both looked up, our eyes connected, and we laughed together. For me, it has been beautiful to watch her develop so much that she is making aesthetic observations, giving me knowingly sarcastic looks, and getting jokes and funny situations.

Best Friends… Molly Rose and Justine 2

Best Friends… Molly Rose and Justine 2

And so it went tonight, I knew she just wasn’t going to be able to go to bed knowing her best friend was in the other room, so I set up my sleepover bedding beside her crib, settled in, and worked the electronic toy from her hand by giving her her Ganesh and telling her the story of how Ganesh banished the moon from the sky after the moon laughed at him for having eaten so much laddoo. I was surprised how engaged she was in a story that had no picture book to go with it, but I knew Molly loved the moon and Ganesh, and often asks “Where the moon go?” And that, of course, is part of the story of Ganesh and the moon… where’d the moon go, indeed!

She wound down after that, laid down close to the edge of her crib, I worked my hand into her crib, she took hold of my finger, her tiny fingers wrapped around my finger, and we talked, like any girls at a sleepover. She asked where daddy and mommy were, I told her they always come back. She said, “I always come back,” I told her yes, she does, she goes to daycare and comes back with mommy and daddy, she corrected me, saying, “daddy,” who usually is the one to bring her back. I told her I always come back and that everyone always comes back because they love her. I’ve been teaching her late sixties slang, so I said, “groovy,” to which she replied, “Groovy… right ON!” Then she reminded me we were best friends as I sang the same song my grandfather used to sing to my mother, “You are my sunshine.” Slowly, after a little more chat about Ganesh, best friends, and mommy and daddy, she changed position, took hold of my thumb, and drifted off to sleep. I looked in through the crib at her beautiful little face, and realized that I’ve rarely ever felt as good as I did in that moment.

It’s impossible to relate just how magical this friendship is. It’s impossible to express my joy at being loved and loving someone else with such purity of heart. And it’s far more impossible to describe the peace and contentment… and yet more impossible to express to anyone just how dear and beautiful she is to me.

And that, my friends, is what it’s like to have a best friend who is 2 years and 6 months old. Splendid… huh?

Ganesh, please take care of and bless my saawariya, my sone yaar… our Molly Rose.

From Comics To Swan Lake

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The hall and empty stage where the ballet would be performed.

The hall and empty stage where the ballet would be performed.

Question: So what happens when a flat-broke comic book artist/illustrator and teacher is asked to create set designs for the ballet?

Answer: She does it.

Sounds easy, but the truth is when I got the call from Kim Tuttle at Pofahl Studios to create set designs for their upcoming production of the ballet “A Haunted Swan Lake,” (to be performed at the The Philips Center here in Gainesville), I felt my heart leap… and for 2 reasons. Firstly, I needed the work: secondly, I had NO idea what I was doing! And I don’t mean at the initial stage, I mean all through the project, at each step, I had to overcome over and over again, the reality that I had no idea what I was doing. I had never designed or painted sets. However, as a veteran creative professional, if I’ve learned anything it is that when I’m thrown into water over my head its better to learn to swim than to get out and shiver. I’d say I’ve learned to fake it, but the truth is, I’ve been at this a long time, and I’ve come to realize that all of these situations are just challenges, and challenges I’ve proven to be up to enough times that I never let on to the client that I feel in over my head. This chin-up confidence has yet to fail me.

For this special Halloween performance they needed to jazz up their set, make it different. My job was going to be turning their pre-existing castle backdrop into a haunted castle, and, of course, all this would have to be done on a budget and within the limits of ballet staging. This budget bit seems to be the challenge of the modern era, how to create something dramatic while getting the most bang for your buck. Actually, it’s not easy, but having been a long time fan of pioneering exploitation filmmakers like Jean Rollin and Jess Franco, I have come to realize that financial limitations can often provide a framework within which real creative work can get done. It seems it’s easy to get lost in a big budget.

First thing that happened was a meeting in which I got a look at the pre-existing backdrop that they had been using in “Robin Hood.” It was a nice castle backdrop, and it provided a spiffy framework from which to create my designs. The next step was that Kim Tuttle took me to her warehouse and showed me where all her props, costumes, and so forth were stored… WOW… what a place! It was jam packed full of objects that had been created for past performances, rather like a dusty, dark and abandoned Wonderland. I took tons of pics of things that I thought I might be able to recycle. Plus, seeing her warehouse clued me in on what her expectations and potential limitations might be. When beginning a job like this any and all information is good. I learned in that warehouse what the limitations and possibilities might be.

She also showed me this tapestry she had bought to hang in the center of the castle backdrop, it was a cool skull, but the problem with it was that it was out of place, too modern, and I really didn’t want to have to work around it, but initially I tried.

The first thing I did was scribble a quick sketch into my diary over lunch, just to get me past the intimidation and to get my juices flowing. At this stage I wasn’t expecting any magic, nor for anything truly useful to happen other than my getting over the fear of the blank page. When starting on a journey like this I can get pretty overwhelmed, even intimidated to the point where the simple act of taking a first baby step is enough to get me past my fear and on to the act of creating.

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It didn’t amount to much, nor was it meant to.

As usual, before the real work began, I did plenty of research, assembling a pile of images of ruins and haunted castle stage props, old horror movies and so on. I could not possibly stress enough how crucial the research stage is. I had even gone so far as to research stage design.

After that I sat down in my studio at SAW to come up with 3 initial sketches in an attempt to work out what my concept for the stage design would be, trying to work in sometimes conflicting influences from old Universal Horror films, German Expresssionist films, and so forth, as well as influence from the research I had done. I have to admit one of my biggest sources of inspiration were the original “Imagineers” who designed all those marvelous rides at Disney, from the Haunted Mansion to the Pirates Of the Caribbean. The first of the sketches played off the idea that she wanted the setting to be decadent, so I went with a table covered opulently in food and candles, all set along the back. Oh… and they had a pre-exsting staircaise they wanted to use, so I used it with the idea that we would create a facade to cover it and make it look like the stone stairs of a castle, that was perhaps the only idea that survived my original sketches.

Oh… this sketch was probably most influenced by “Son Of Frankenstein.”

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My next attempt was essentially an effort to include that tapestry she had bought on-line, not so much that I wanted to use it, as that I wanted her to see that I respected her request that I try. Also notice that I was already thinking about using gargoyles of some kind… which was the seed of one of the more important ideas to come.

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You will notice, that as is customary for me, I was using ballpoint pens and markers at this stage.

The third attempt seemed also to fall rather flat for me, but a key element, in many ways the focal point, had finally come to me, the ruined web-like fabric that would surround what I then thought would be the tapestry she had bought. Though the stairs were the first element to survive, that fabric framing the tapestry (which would soon change) was the pivotal element. But what she really got excited about was that I pitched that besides the show-stopping centerpiece (the skull and fabric), it would be flanked by a pair of gargoyle swans to symbolize both the white and black swans of Swan Lake, which you can see here in embryonic form.

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Neither of us were thrilled with any of the above work, but the truth was, I hadn’t intended her or I to be thrilled, I just wanted to get some concepts before her and get some feedback. Sometimes when I’m working with a client who has laid an extremely open-ended opportunity before me, or when I’m working on something I don’t really know much about, I tend to start simple just to figure out where the client’s head is at, and to figure out what I’m capable of. Often open-ended assignments aren’t all that open-ended, they are often riddled with traps, and not knowing what the client is really looking for can be a problem. After this meeting I had figured out what was what and I came up with another sketch based upon the wisdom through our discussions over the prior 3 sketches.

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The following sketch (directly above) is literally a tracing from the sketch above it. Now that I had the idea, I had needed to tighten the earlier sketch up into something clearly readable, hence the tracing. By the time I got to this sketch all the elements that were to be part of the final stage design are evident: a resolved focal point in the skull and fabric, the swan gargoyles, a cool fully realized design for the stairs (utilizing a coffin shape), and a couple elements we ultimately excluded. I had no intention of letting this be the final drawing, but when I told Kim, after her enthusiastic approval, that I was going to do a tighter drawing, she looked puzzled and asked what was wrong with this drawing?

Well… nothing, I guess.

As you may not be able to tell at this point, I had decided to opt out of using the storebought tapestry and pitched instead the concept that I would paint the skull backdrop myself (what was I thinking? I didn’t know how to paint!) Add to this that I incorporated skeletal swans as the horns on the skull to tie it all together. I realized that concept (the swans) would carry the set design thematically around the focal point of the fabric-framed painting.

One other element I really liked in the above sketch were the chains. The painting and drapery would have to be hung with chain, and so I decided to work in hanging and drooping chains that would play off the drapery.

The next stage was creating a mock-up of the final centerpiece, the skull and fabric elements. This sketch was originally rather loose, as I had intended to redo a much tighter version of it, but since she had approved of the looseness of the set design sketch, I instead sat down with a red pen and marker and black felt tip pens and simply tightened up the sketch enough that it would suffice, and what happened was a sketch I rather like. This sketch was to become the guiding light for not only the painting, but the drapery.

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You may notice that the sketch above looks rather abused, torn, stained and so forth. That is because it was there when I painted the final painting, and it was there when the drapery was being created. The sketch is like an old soldier who has seen a lot of action.

At this point I had also begun designing the newel post statuary as well as the swan gargoyles. I researched Rodin sculptures for the newel post, and went directly to the source for the swan gargoyles… Notre Dame cathedral. What I noticed there were that the gargoyles had very clean spacial sculptural lines that made them highly distinctive. The forms of the gargoyles at Notre Dame were deliciously stylized into a graphic abstraction that now seems almost ahead of its time.

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Kim called in a sculptor, and he agreed to take on the swans, but decided he didn’t have time for the newel post, so that element got canned, but our sculptor entusiastically got down to work on the swans. He loved the designs. The first I saw of the swans were the works in progress below, all sculpted by Paul Costanza.

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Below are the nearly finished swans on their pedastals, the only thing missing is one of them had to be black, so below you will see the black one in all its finished glory. Needless to say I was thrilled with the outcome. He really captured the sketches I had turned in, and without misinterpreting a single thing. I’ve rarely ever turned my work over into the hands of another artist without being disappointed, Paul Costanza did not disappoint me at any turn.

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The next step was to work out the exact size and dimensions of the painting and drapery elements. Kim had me over to the studio where we laid the HUGE backdrop out in one of the rehearsal studios, and we began measuring and plotting. It seemed every time we took a measurement, Kim would shake her head and insist the painting and fabric be bigger… and biGGer… and BIGGER, which frankly scared me as I had no idea how to paint, let alone how to paint a huge expressive and powerful skull! Below are the series of sketches and notes I took regarding the measurements.

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You’ll also note in the sketch above that we had this problem of the backdrop showing in an awkward way over the top of the painting and drapery, so in the margins I began creating possible solutions to that problem, but in the end that problems seemed to have resolved itself.

At this point I had to call in some people. Firstly I needed a real painter to help me get going on the skull, and secondly I needed someone to create the tattered fabric element that was going to frame the painting. The first person I thought of was the very person who secured this job for me, fabulous local painter and person… Margaret Tolbert. Her work and the things she concerns herself with in her work could not possibly be further from the art world in which I inhabit, but I knew that what she did would mesh perfectly with what I could do in this situation. The fabric was another problem entirely, and in the end I turned to Tomis Aycock, a local artist and eccentric. I’d seen Tomis work on the most peculiar projects, and having seen the way he works (in a state of wholly immersed childlike wonder), I knew he would get the drapery right.

But before I turned all this over to Tomis, Margaret and I had to hang this monster 14 foot canvas (with a 10 foot image area) in the industrial building SAW is connected to. To tell the truth, as we stood poised to paint that thing, staring at the *B*L*A*N*K* canvas I began to have a bit of a panic attack. I think the first thing I said, standing there brush in hand, was “I have no idea what I’m doing…”

Margaret was a rock. She was not at all concerned about it, and never got impatient with me no matter how freaked out I got. Just trying to draw the basic form of that skull on something so damn huge was an ordeal. No matter what I did, every time I stood back and looked at it, the form was eluding me, it looked wonky as hell on all fronts. I was practically in tears as I tried to torture the form out of that blank canvas, and if it weren’t for Margaret, to tell the truth, I may have had a breakdown. She was more than a pro, more like my painting guru. She just maintained her confidence in not only herself but me. She gave me pointers, and finally, I’m almost ashamed to admit it, I almost pushed her out of the way once I had it. All at once, like a miracle, I could see the form, I could see the skull, I went at it frantically, saying, “I can see it… I can see it!” and soon it was all there. Funnily, I had hurt my foot in all this wild enthusiasm, having jumped a little too hard off the ladder, being barefoot, I had also managed a splinter or two, and by the time I got home my big toe was all bruised. Proud battle scars… well, no scars, but still.

But form was only the half of it, I now had to learn to paint expressively, wildly, had to use long brushes and go at it. Margaret did get frustrated with the way I was using the brush, and finally said to me, “Say something!” Meaning… the marks I was making were timid and terrified, and she wanted me to let loose and move some serious paint around. Soon, what had become terrifying became brilliant fun, and we nailed that painting in several hours, from blank canvas to finish in one early evening. Thank you Margaret!

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While it’s a bit of a spoiler, the above pic doesn’t really do justice to the 10 foot painting, so below is an image of how it looked on stage in Ocala. Magic…

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Quite an impact. Now, with that underway, I got Tomis going on the fabric, showing him what I was after in my research. I showed him ruins and old drapes, and set him to work figuring it out. I tend to be a control freak about my work, but in this case I knew that I was in over my head with this fabric and that it would be best to let Tomis figure out how to torture and tatter the fabric. To my surprise, in the end, he used a torch to burn the fabric… it looked amazing… so decadent and ruinous.

Meanwhile Kim had a carpenter working away on the facade for the stairs (which I would have to paint to look like stone). At this point I began to realize what an undertaking this was, and just how much I was overseeing. It blew my mind to be in such a position where so many HUGE things were coming to life based upon my rather humble sketches. To tell the truth, it was about as close to being a “grown up” as I have ever felt. I’ve never had a team of people working on my seeing my vision through to reality, a carpenter, a painter, a sculptor, and Tomis on the fabric.

Time was wasting and the performance dates were drawing close. We had 2 shows, one in Ocala, and one here in Gainesville at the beatuiful Philips Center. I still had one last element that I had to tackle, the painting of the facade on the stairs. I decided to call in a SAW student to help me, Javed, and yes… I paid him. As we stood in front of those steps with our sponges and paint I must have said a half dozen times, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” It was difficult to instruct Javed until I knew what I was doing. Fortunately I had seen the backdrop, so I knew a pointilistic sponge texture would do. About a half hour into it, it started to take shape and Javed said “I thought you didn’t know what you were doing?” As I said at the beginning, I’ve been at this a while, and most things are within my reach, which is why I have been so readily taking on jobs I’ve never done before.

Ah… that day I did make the one big mistake all artists dread. We had beverages in cups, and had filled a mop bucket full of water for the paint brushes. So feverish into the process was I that I lost track of my water cup and took a big drink out of our dirty mop-bucket paint-water! I knew what I had done right away and did a spit-take worthy of Lucille Ball, Javed laughing away in the background. In the end I not only showed Javed how to paint stairs to look like stone for a set, but how to change a tire… my car had a flat when we went to leave, and being an old-fashioned girl, like hell if I was going to change that tire with a man around.

As a final note on this, one element about the stairs that upset me was that the wooden dungeon door we’d had crafted did not show from the audience. That was brilliant. I had Javed paint the slats of the door black, then I went over them with a paint-gobbed brush and drew lines in the wet paint to pull out the wood grain, revealing the black underneath.

Javed took a couple pics of the stairs, one before, and one after:

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And one image of the stairs on stage (see what I mean about the wooden door being hidden?) Notice also the scar on the stair where some stagehand had scraped the hell out of it.

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Finally the big night was upon us, and Javed and I cleaned ourselves up and went to the Ballet. I have to admit, as I entered the hall I was pretty impressed with myself for being part of it. We sat in the third row with nothing between me and my work… all of our work, but a curtain, and I could not wait for it to part so I could finally see it all together.

Oh… I opened the program to see how I was credited… they had misspelled my name. Shrug.

When the curtains parted, there it was, my stage design, bathed in light and color and music, and my jaw dropped. It was beautiful, impressive, dark, everything I had hoped it would be, and I leaned into Javed and said: “I did this!” The lighting really brought it all to life, and the few alterations Kim had to make to satisfy the staging situations were perfect (for example, more drapery was added, and the painting was raised higher than expected… note how hard the super cool chains are to see). Mostly what impressed me was what a great tone and atmosphere the design and lighting had created, and how well it sunk into the music.

TO SEE THEM IN THEIR FULL-SIZE GLORY… CLICK TO ENLARGE…

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As stunned as I was by the site of it all on stage, it wasn’t until the ballet started that I really got it. I was a cog in a magnificent wheel, classical music, classically trained dancers, a gorgeous hall full of people, and my humble sketches brought to life to house it all. A lot of work for a few brief moments in the spotlight.

I leaned into Javed and said, “You know… it only took me 5 hours to do the design work.”

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When the curtains closed on the first act I was rather stunned how transient it all seemed. Here I was, a career illustrator, used to seeing my work in print for years to come, and now… it was gone, just a memory.

But it was all worth it, and I realized that just like the dancers, I had to walk away and start the next project.

And so I have.

Mediocrity

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“But why diminish your soul being run-of-the-mill at something? Mediocrity: now there is ugliness for you. Mediocrity’s a hairball coughed up on the Persian carpet of Creation.”
― Tom Robbins,

“Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself; but talent instantly recognizes genius.”
― Arthur Conan Doyle