“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.”
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.
I get up
Look out the window
I get up
See the sunshine
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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…
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:
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.
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…
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.”
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.
“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
Oh no… the Sungbo floodgates have opened!
I just remembered this story, which is actually far more about Brian than Sungbo, but for those of you who missed the first installment of the Sungbo story arc, I’ll set the stage. I had returned to South Korea for a second year of Korean food (that’s sarcasm, for those of you who haven’t had to endure the Korean obsession with their food). No, I had returned for a second year of teaching English in a private academy in Seoul, (actually, Incheon, if I remember correctly), but this time it was at a preschool, so the adventure was quite different than the previous year. This series of events must have come during the first or second week, and it centered around a birthday party. Every kid got a birthday party in the birthday party room, and our first victim was Brian, an otherwise happy and adorable child.
We sat Brian, the happy birthday boy, in the seat of honor behind the cake and gifts, a golden crown crafted of the finest cardboard perched atop his head like a coffee mug atop a cockeyed pile of books. Brian, so full of joy he just couldn’t contain his emotions–I guess–began wailing. It didn’t matter how big the pile of presents nor how perfectly crafted the flavorless Korean cake, he wasn’t having any of it. No one, not my co-teacher, not his own mother could stop the flow of tears and the siren song of his wailing.
The other children were all sitting around their paper plates full of party foods, mostly kimbop (a sort of veggie sushi roll), and small piles of orange this and bland that, enjoying the lovely party. I have to admit, I was a tad overwhelmed and spent most of the time in the back of the room wondering just what the hell kind of chaos I had gotten myself into, and seriously doubting my latest career choice. All the while the parents and teachers in the room tried to pretend that Brian’s ear splitting cries were the gentle sounds of a Carpenter’s song playing softly on the Muzak in the background.
For reasons I will never fully understand, Sungbo stood up, and with an obvious sense of purpose, walked to the center of the room, stood in front of the cake and barfed.
And that was the end of the party.
When I was teaching preschool in South Korea, I had this kid named Sungbo. This is the story of how I turned him around, and my serious doubts as to whether or not I had done the right thing.
Yesterday I was watching Molly Rose. Something transpired that, over the past 24 hours, triggered me and brought back a traumatic memory that seems to have cleansed me of some bile. In the ensuing state of reflection, my mind wandered back to South Korea, to one little Korean boy.
Sungbo was big, really big for his age. I was teaching preschool in a private academy in Seoul South Korea, and I had no idea what I was doing. I had a degree in drawing, so in the eyes of the Koreans, that made me qualified to teach. It was an adventure every step of the way, not least of all, in the classroom. The first day (and day after day), big dopey Sungbo would sit and cry (hell… “cry?” he screamed his lungs out), “Mamau…. MAAAAAMAAAAAUUUU!” Fortunately my co-teacher knew how to handle this. Soon enough I realized that the crying was only the beginning, for little Sungbo. With a spiteful face, he colored all over the page, not even trying. It wasn’t that he didn’t have any capacity, he just wanted to be a little turd and scribble. It was obvious that his motive was not innocent. I think I coined the phrase “monkey coloring,” which caught on like wildfire and was soon in use in every classroom. Now, before you judge me too harshly, wait until you see how this little monkey colorer turned out.
I could have put up with all that, but what really got me was that Sungbo not only towered over the other kids, but bullied the hell out of them. He was nasty. This went on week after week after week, and nothing we did seemed to make a dent in it. If it’s one thing I cannot abide, it’s a bully. Sungbo was mean, mean spirited, and he held meanness all over his little face. In honor of his decision to not only color poorly and bully, he was also determinedly dim, so privately I dubbed him “Sungbonehead.”
Finally, saddened, tired of watching the other (sweet and innocent) kids being bullied and terrorized by this little tyrant, I picked him up and started to take him to the next room over, which was full of older kids his size or bigger. Sungbo fought like a demon! He kicked, screamed, flailed, but I kept firm hold, marched him in and set him down in the middle of the classroom, Sungbo wailing away. I then let the big boys know that Sungbo had been picking on all the littler kids and that he needed to learn what it felt like to be little, and I left.
A couple hours later I came back and took him from the room.
My co teacher told me that she didn’t agree with the way I handled that. So be it, I hadn’t agreed with the way no one had handled it at all.
From that day forward, as if that moment were a pivot point, Sungbo turned around, and he never once bullied another child! In fact, he became sweet and helpful, a lovely playmate for the others. And his monkey coloring stopped, and he began doing amazingly creative, expressive and focused coloring, and instead of looking spitefully at me as he colored, he looked at me with pride and smiled as he showed me his hard work. He became a solid student, not too bright, but he really tried and was proud of his accomplishments, and that ugly angry face he always wore became a joyous bright smile.
But I wonder still… had I done the right thing?
Q: How many modern artists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A: One, but all he does is set a jar of urine in the center of the room while a crowd of critics and university art professors stand around in a dark room stinking of urine applauding and convincing everyone that he has challenged our definition of screwing in a lightbulb.
That is an original Barefoot Justine Joke, bub!
I’m going to walk you through the thinking that has gone into one of my recent pieces, thought by thought and step by step I will break it down, both the thought process, and the physical process.
The genesis of this work came when I was approached about doing a Guido Crepax tribute piece (Valentina in particular) that will be in a collection from Fantagraphics. Obviously I was honored and leapt at the opportunity. I’ve always had a funny reaction to Crepax. While I could never help but recognize the profound influence he has had, and while I have really enjoyed the work of his that is in my library, I can’t honestly say that his work has had any direct influence on me, however, his work has had a profound influence on some of my biggest influences.
The reason I never followed Crepax is simple… he draws on the surface of the paper, delineating the shapes without bones. Thought it’s not always the case, I’m not naturally drawn to art in which volume is not clearly expressed or where anatomical form is not studied. His line work, however, has always excited me, as well as his mastery over the gloriously perverse subject matter, ditto the style, and I can’t help but recognize his influence. It’s not about having any criticisms of Crepax’s work, it’s more that it hadn’t pulled me in. Seeing below, it’s obvious what I mean about the facial features and so forth sort of floating on the surface, and also obvious the brilliant line work and his dedication to craft, and less obvious, the influence he’s had on some of my favorites (we’ll be talking about that shortly).
Among the many things I’ve loved about Crepax is the use of white, and how the features and elements of the picture often float in a sea of white. This is something I grew to appreciate more and more through the mentorship of Jeff Jones.
Let’s get going by talking about the influence he has had on many of my favorite exploitation directors, particularly Jess Franco from Spain, and Jean Rollin from France. The influence of comics, particularly European comics, has always run very deep in the films of Franco and Rollin. Jean Rollin, I know from the time we spent talking, had a surprising knowledge and good eye when it came to comics. My initial thought was to find a way to frame Crepax (Valentina in particular) into the framework of Jess Franco, who has had an enormous influence on me, and the influence Crepax has had is abundantly evident in his films. I figured if I could say something about the influence Crepax has had on Franco, then through that door, we would arrive at the influence he has had on me, so my first sketch dealt with that concept. Jess Franco was a well known cinematic voyeur. His films often expose him as such, the main action and the women in his films are often viewed (spied upon) through things, windows, screens, or from behind things, plants, bars, etc. This seemed like a great subject for a single page illustration, so as you can see below, that became my starting point:
The problem was, I wasn’t all that excited about drawing this particular piece, and since the assignment was not a paying one, I decided to keep looking for something I would really enjoy drawing… so, as they say, back to the drawing board…
My next thought was to go through my extensive morgue and find a couple photographs that might inspire me, but as I did very quick sketches from them, they both fell short of not only any narrative quality, but fell short of inspiring me to sit down at the drawing table and work them out.
I’d like to talk about how common a problem this is for me. While I love drawing comics pages, I really struggle with the layouts and pencils. The inks tend to come more easily to me, the anxiety is always at this stage, especially on a piece like this that will be sitting amid other images by artists like: George Pratt, Bill Koeb, David Mack, Dave Mckean, Michael Gaydos, Beto Hernandez, Michael Avon Oeming, Vince Locke, Brian Bolland, Bill Sienkiewicz, Paul pope and Mike Huddleston, so this was not a piece to take lightly. Believe it or not all these years into my career and I am still so easily intimidated, not just by the company I would be keeping in this book, not just by the legendary status of Crepax, but forevermore by the blank page itself. This is why it is so important for me to enter into an image like this wholly at peace with what I am going to see through to the finish. While both of these sketches held a lot of potential for elaboration, neither were ideas that captured me.
Before I get to the next sketch that did not excite me, let’s just say that looking over the image above again, I can see that while it is nothing more than a sketch from an inspiring photo, the kind of line I wanted to play with is already in evidence.
Below is the other sketch that simply didn’t do it for me:
I think as you can well imagine, the photo I referred to in this case contained nothing more than anatomical reference, the rest of the concept, the eels, motion, the specifics of the character etc., all came from my head.
I’d like to talk for a moment about the taboo against using pre-existing photos, well for one, it’s fine if it’s done right, if the photo is nothing more than anatomical reference (or something similar), and if we use it is a staring point from which to launch our own creation. I’d also like to point out that the artists who have influenced me mostly used photos. Take Alphonse Mucha for example, he not only drew and painted from photos, he actually, in some case, gridded them first. Mucha was well paid, had a huge studio full of props and all the money in the world to hire models and take photos, but since illustrators haven’t had a raise in a hundred years, we, at this point, are at a great disadvantage. I, at least, am in no place financially to afford props and models, let alone a big luxurious studio. With this in mind, we have to work with what is available to us as reference, even if it is pre-existing, as in photos from magazines.
My fourth attempt to thrill myself came from a clipping from an old fashion magazine, and while I liked the potential elegance and class of it, it too, did not excite me, though this time around the reference was at least getting lost under my own sense of design, and I liked that the photo did what it was supposed to do, get my creative juices flowing so I could go off in my own direction. Ultimately, my goal is usually to use the photo as a source of inspiration, and to fact-check my anatomy, while I go off and do my own things around it.
While I liked this one, it just wasn’t yet the one, though it would have done in a pinch. What I liked was, once again, the linework I was aspiring to was already in evidence, and the drawing was mine, the design was mine, and I started to realize exactly what it was I wanted.
By this point I knew exactly what I wanted to achieve, and exactly what I wanted to learn. I realized at this point that I simply wanted to draw on the surface like Crepax, no bones, no anatomical under-drawing (beyond the bare minimum of getting the proportions down), and most importantly, I wanted this drawing to be about line. That became my laser-point focus, I wanted the drawing to be flat and on the surface and all about line and white space, nothing else mattered, so I decided to really look for some imagery that would excite me without my working for it, so that I could get to what I wanted to do and stop worrying about everything else. Sometimes that is the best way to go, figure out what you want to learn, experiment with or master, and find ways to cut out all other anxieties and struggles.
At this point, however, four sketches down, I began to worry a little that I might be too intimidated by the company I was keeping to relax and produce my best. But then realized there was a scene in one of my very favorite exploitation films that was begging to be honored, though not a scene by Franco or Rollin, but by Hubert Frank, who is sometimes mistaken for Franco. The film, “Angel and the Beasts” is francoesque, but far too rich in narrative to be a Franco. There was a particular scene of one of the women dancing over a fight that was going on at her feet. The scene is amazing, so wild, such an exploitation apex, but there was something about that scene that really seemed appropriate… and that was that the actress had a haircut, body, and a style that was very Valentinaesque. I assume that like Franco and Rollin, Hubert Frank was also influenced by comics and Crepax in particular. Below is a blurry still of her in mid-dance.
I simply paused on the images that most excited me and sketched them, then wrote down where they were in the film so I could easily find them. The sketches came quick, loose and open, and possessed exactly the potential for excitement I was looking for. I often do my thumbnails in ballpoint pen, in fact I do most of my best sketching in ballpoint pen as the absence of an eraser can be very liberating.
As you can see, even as I drew them I was piecing together the puzzle that would become the final page. I’d also like to say that I rather like these loose, open and easy sketches, and I hoped to capture some of the spontanaity and fluidity of these lines in the final piece.
So here’s where I started to unwind into cross-purpose thinking. On the one hand I really wanted to explore some of what makes Crepax’s linework so lovely, yet I wanted to explore the influence of Jeffrey Jones too (who, like Crepax, used a lot of empty white–or negative–space), and lastly, I didn’t want to lose my own sense of line in all this. My main ambition was to create a final pencil that would lend itself well to loose zig-zaggy linework and motion, the motion of dance within the lines themselves. Problem here is, I didn’t take the time to scan the pencils, but I snapped a few pics on my phone, however I’m a luddite and just can’t manage to get to that damn pic, so in lieu of that pencil sketch, here’s a picture of Spiro Agnew:
Now that the hard work was done (finding a concept that excited me, and getting the pencils finished), the intimidating part was ahead… how could I ink this and keep it loose? Looseness is a thing I can’t manufature, I don’t know that anyone really can; nor is it something that can be forced, which is where focus, meditation, concentration and letting go come into play.
I started inking the 4 panels across the top, and I have to admit, I was feeling very discouraged about the last two panels. They weren’t really loose, they seemed to possess a forced looseness that I didn’t care for, so I decided that after I finished the fourth panel in that tier, that I would stop for the day and hit the last 2 panels another day.
Then something unexpected happened. Just as I was about to walk away from the drawing, it suddenly hit me that I had found the place I needed to find within the maze of my mind, that place that can only be found through focus. My mind works like a maze, and I have realized as I have gotten older that I can access almost any state of mind if I simply focus on going through the maze in my mind… until I find the right room. I don’t know why, but I knew that even as I had been about to give up discouraged for the day, that I had, in the end, found that elusive place I needed to inhabit were I to let my brush dance across the page like Jeffrey Jones. There are a number of Jones pieces that have inspired me, below is one of them:
Yeah, terrifying stuff! One simply can NOT manufacture or fake lines that loose and confident.
My research done, my influences in hand, I went ahead and nailed those last two panels, finishing the page in an inspired moment, attaining my personal best. I’ll talk more about the particulars of line after you get a look at the panels:
As you can see, the linework on the final two panels is open, loose, and right on! By the time I got there, everything I wanted is in evidence in the final piece, the looseness, the white, the surface drawing, and the lines… those zig zags, the openness and confidence. Easily the most ON panel is the final, in my eyes a hybrid between Hubert Frank, Jeff Jones, and mostly Crepax’s Valentina. Enjoy… I did!visit barefootjustine.com for more…