“Define yourself with all your heart.”
by Barefoot Justine
I remember having no talent.
I remember how, as a young college freshman, I couldn’t even understand composition. To my ignorant ears, it sounded a lot like pretentious abstract nonsense. What a fool I was, but what did I know.
I remember how as a young student I worried incessantly about whether or not I had my own “style.” Of course, I should have been working harder on fundamentals. Not only do I remember it, but I regret it. Style forms itself around the fundamentals, but never fundamentals around style.
I remember all the long nights I wasted in the basement of my best friend’s house–what a mess that person was, dead now–watching the dumbest stuff on TV. God, if I could get all those hours back. Once time is wasted, it’s never coming back. Opportunities are like that too, once wasted, gone forever.
I remember meeting P. Craig Russell and Val Mayerik and how they took me under their wings. I remember for the first time how it felt to trust mentors enough to do what they said without question, but even that was something I had to grow into. If I remember correctly, I was a trying student. But I do remember that once I caught on I worked like a devil to catch up. I remember that I knew I had not only a lot of catching up, but a lot of growing up to do.
I remember how my parents put every obstacle between me and my becoming a professional artist. I remember that I bulldozed through every obstacle they put in my place. I remember what it felt like to have such a fire burning in my belly, a fire so bright it blinded me to everything else. I shone like a demon but flew like an angel.
I remember all the work I did, all the lonely nights tracing and drawing, and working on my own comics. I remember the dark lonely hours.
I remember when it all finally started to show on the paper. I remember how I began to bleed all I had internalized in my studies through each line.
I remember how grand it was to get published, and to be a working artist.
I remember how it felt to have realized a dream out loud.
I remember how when I met Frank Thorne and he tried to convince me of Hal Foster’s mastery and genius… how I simply couldn’t see it. The work was old-fashioned, had no style, and was boring. What a fool I was. Frank had cast his pearls before swine, and the swine had been me. I have repented Frank! I have see the light! Hal Foster was, as you knew with such certainty, a God among men. I remember the fool I was, but will never forget what I have gained in wisdom.
I remember how much it hurt that the better I got and the more my work matured, the more my audience lost interest. I remember being heartbroken. I remember aching and crying.
I remember when I broke, gave up, sold my art supplies.
I remember every moment of those two years I spent in exile in South Korea, drinking my life away and illegally gigging in Itaewan bars with my guitar in my lap, a pick in my right hand and empty shots at my elbow.
I remember how I suddenly felt compelled to draw. Two years it had been, and now I could draw like I had always wanted to draw, free, loose, wild, expressive, and I filled a whole book with ballpoint pen sketches of wild-eyed characters and tumorous creatures.
I remember being diagnosed with cancer. I remember how I suddenly knew that the tumor inside me had created a sense of urgency, and how the accursed thing, like a demon, had possessed me and came out in my drawings.
I remember how when the tumor was gone I had no more desire to draw.
I remember Jeffrey Jones. I will never forget how honored I was to have been your friend.
I remember hearing that Jeff Catherine Jones had died, right as I had been trying to reconnect with her. I remember how my heartache called me back to the drawing table with a vengeance.
I remember landing at SAW and becoming revitalized as an artist and as a woman with a purpose.
I remember Dan Adkins, and how I had failed to call you in the weeks before you died. My stomach hurts as I think about it, and I shake away the urge to cry. I remember how Jim Steranko had urged me to call Dan. I did not listen, Jim, and I will never forget that.
And when my students struggle, when they fail, when they make bad decisions, when they are blind, I can see in them weaknesses I would rather not remember about myself. And when I see the ones who struggle and rise above temptations, when I see them trusting and taking the hard road, I see the best of myself, and I am proud that they help me to remember that I am that strength and wisdom as well.
It is because I remember that I ache to make them see.
One day, I hope, they will remember, and will remember me.
“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
T. S. Eliot
Breking News: Justine Scares New Students!
Justine Mara Andersen (putting on her very best “badass” teacher face and outfit) tonight at the SAW meet and greet terrified students before they’d even taken a class from her. School administration refused to comment. Actually, they hadn’t refused, but had already gone to bed.
“She threw this BIG intense hardcover anatomy book on the table, and about scared the crap out of us!” said one former student. It has been alleged that the sound of the book hitting the table startled the students, causing hearing damage in at least one student, who had just come in from rehearsals with his band “Pissing Agony.” He stated that “The ringing in my ears just wouldn’t stop.” Though it has since been verified that the student was found to have had a small bit of cotton in his ear from an earache he’d had almost two years ago. Apparently the ringing was caused when the vibration of the book hitting the table had dislodged the waxy obstruction. He now considers the event a minor miracle. As it turns out, he wasn’t a SAW student at all, but a passerby who had wanted to see where all the noise was coming from.
Witnesses said her introductory lecture to her coming classes invovled not only cussing (though far less than Kurt Wolfgang’s), but dramatic shows of ego and bravado unparalleled in the annals of SAW.
Justine, who spoke with us from “The Angry Room” in her home in the swamps had this to say: “Trust me.”
It is rumored that a few students who had already taken Justine’s classes are seriously considering repeating and taking the class a second time–possibly unprecedented in the history of SAW. It has also come to our attention that former night students are also signing up for Justine’s year-long class–also allegedly unprecedented. Again, when interviewed, Justine grinned a cockeyed grin and said: “Trust me.” While it had not been reported to administration, another of the new students stopped Justine after her controversial class introduction. When contacted, she said she told Justine: “I’m really looking forward to being in your class, I really need someone to kick my ass into gear.” When asked to comment on this, Justine rolled her eyes, put her head in her hands and sighed: “Trust me.” A student from India (also witness to this performance) said that he really enjoyed Justine’s performance, and laughed: “who throws a book on a table like that!” He added that he understood the comic duality of her performance. We’re not sure what that meant, but Justine claims to have understood the comment quite clearly, and sighed, “Jai Sri Krishna.”
Justine said, “Look, there’s a Vaudeville to this, I was performing in the field of opposites, and besides, who wants a timid teacher? I’m there not only to teach, but to engage. I teach through engaging, through entertaining. So I go a little over the top… it’s the arts! It’s the artist in me making my intro to my classes a work of performance art in and of itself. Art isn’t just what I put on paper, it’s how I live each moment. Why not be over the top? Hell, it’s comics, aren’t we supposed to be over the top, edgy, maybe even dangerous?” She shook her head, “Eh… look, I have students returning, students stating how much I taught them in a very short time, and one student telling me she needs her ass kicked into gear. Some people need to experience my approach. Trust me, just trust me, my methods work. Besides, once they come into my class and everything gets going, they’ll not only learn, but have fun. Look, I’m not going to tone it down for anyone, not because I refuse to, but because I don’t have to, I have to engage them, and I will. I’ve never had a student walk out of a class afraid of me, never. Trust me, I came on a bit strong, but it was just to reorient them. I’ve had students come in with the wrong idea about what I expect, I really need to break it down a little so they know what to expect in my classes. My class is a little more about sacrificing self expression and ego to tradition and discipline, and that’s tough for some people to do, especially if they hadn’t seen it coming. Now they see it coming and they can not only embrace it, but rise to it. I am challenging my students, and watching so many of them rise to the challenge has been so gratifying.”
When asked for comment Kurt Wolfgang, spilling his drink, had this to say: “Right on Justine!” When asked to comment a former student of Justine’s just laughed as she recalled the extremes of Justine’s controversial introduction.
“Just come to my class. Ultimately I take care of my students, that’s the point. I’m there to challenge them, push them out of their comfort zones… that’s where the growth is, but I only do this because I want the best for them, and most of the time I don’t think the culture demands the best of us, we’re all too afraid to anymore. We’re getting short-shifted by our own culture. I guess I’m a little old fashioned.” When asked if she had any regrets, she had only this to say: “Yeah, I regret that the anatomy book I threw wasn’t bigger and heavier and that a cloud of dust didn’t erupt from it when I threw it on the table, I think then everyone would have seen how cartoonishly funny it was. Can I say ‘cartoonishly?’ is that offensive? Edit that out.”
“Listen, this should be a vibrant and surprising experience, it shouldn’t be safe, it should even be a little dangerous.” She then winked and added, “Trust me, just trust me, it’s not only going to be a great year, but a fucking great ride! We don’t just teach at SAW, we give you an experience. Be up to it, be mindful of it, and enjoy the ride, I will, I always do.” We asked her one final question: “What am I doing tonight?” she said as she began to walk away, “Not much, go home, have a popsicle and watch Super Chicken cartoons I guess. Oh… and then stay awake all night worrying about stuff that’ll never happen.”
More power to ya Justine!
Someone I knew killed himself today. I didn’t know him all that well, but he was part of our circle at SAW. Mostly I’m worried about friends of mine who were very close to him. Just the same, it triggered something in me. See… I’ve witnessed a suicide first hand. It was shocking and caused me to have a breakdown, and not even 6 months later my best friend from childhood (who I had been unfortunately estranged from) threw himself off the Y bridge in Akron. The self same bridge I drove over on 3 separate occasions when I was at my lowest, wondering if I could find it in me to follow my old friend over the edge. Fortunately, the third time across that bridge I realized once and for all that I didn’t have that in me. In fact I pretty much knew then that I didn’t have a truly crazy act of any kind in me, just a lot of questions. Unfortunately I realized this after 24 hours in an institution. Oh, I had the depression, the fear, the self doubt, but not the courage or depth of madness to take that final leap.
On this day I was mostly worried about a friend of mine who was a lot closer (I mean an awful lot closer, profoundly closer) to the man who killed himself than I was… I barely knew him, but he had been part of my life since my first days in Gainesville. All the same, I wasn’t hurting for myself, but for my friends who were closer.
I never know what to say when it comes to this sort of thing, so I sent a string of emails to the person I was most worried about as I thought all this through. I opened up too much, again, I think this incident triggered a response in me from prior, far greater, traumas. Here is what I wrote:
“There’s a funny thing that happens after this… people always say “He should have reached out to the people who loved him,” and things like that. Problem is, one learns pretty quickly when one is in such a state that the last thing people want is to be around that, or to hear about that. And even if they are available, they don’t get it at all, and always say the wrong things. And the person in that state soon learns that they don’t want to burden others with it. So they withdraw and suffer alone. It can so easily spiral out of control. The fight can be fatiguing, but a person can’t let up, never for a minute.
The bottom line is, we all need to realize that mental and emotional illnesses are as valid as physical ailments, they aren’t just petty annoyances, but very real sicknesses that can be utterly debilitating. People will stay at a person’s side if they have cancer, but if they have emotional or mental issues… well, they tend to keep a healthy distance.
It’s a complicated mess, no one is to blame, and I think people have a lot of mixed feelings about dealing with another person’s depression or issues.
Sorry… I always ponder this after something like this happens, I’ve just never put it into words. Not even sure if these are the right words or thoughts… but they’re out now.”
And the follow up:
“Hope that wasn’t too much. But I’ve really do end up wondering about this after the fact… every time. Truth is, it’s all really too much for us to make sense of no matter how much we think about this stuff.”
“Having witnessed a suicide… this stuff perplexes me pretty deeply.
I was worried about you. Didn’t think you needed one more blow.”
And the final:
“On the other hand… I had once taken it upon myself to help my friend Meghan out when she hit rock bottom with depression. I lined up a therapist, took care of her… but soon learned she wasn’t willing to take care of herself, make appointments or take meds. So… what did I do? I kept a distance. Why did I keep a distance? Because I had witnessed the same patterns with my friend Phil… then years after Meghan, again with my friend Ryan (in Korea) who also had to be cut loose.
It’s a bitch.
None of the last few emails were meant to be negative… just sorting through unresolved thoughts.
I do hope you are taking this with as much a stoic spirit as your emails suggest. If not, call me, I’ve been around this bend from all sides.”
I was floundering in those emails, only hitting upon parts of the truth. There are people you or I or anyone could reach out to… the problem is… one often doesn’t know who they are. One often reaches out to the wrong people, which can simply make things worse. And having done that, one might learn not to reach out… thereby missing the right people to reach out to.
But, see, none of that really got to the heart of the matter, not at least so far as how this had hit me on a personal level–which is what this blog is all about.
The guy who killed himself always seemed so happy, so sociable, so kind, likable, calm and together. Every time I met him I felt humbled by his gentle spirit and easy humor. I always felt rather like here was a guy who really had it together, who had made the transition to adulthood with so much more grace than I had. To be perfectly honest, I felt childish, immature and emotional… like I just didn’t measure up. I sometimes shame myself for how poorly I seem to have adapted to adult life, to this culture, and to my place in it. I often feel totally lost. But not this cat, no man, he had it together… and people really really liked him.
Then I found out that he was an alcoholic.
WHAT! He was an alcoholic! No way! After being saddened by it, I thought: “Not that guy, he had it so together.”
Then I found out that after he moved away things were going badly, and if I’m remembering correctly there was even a really sad DUI incident.
And now I learn he has killed himself.
As the evening played out, I realized a number of things… one of which is that we just don’t know. We just don’t know the realities of the lives of the people we might compare ourselves to, or diminish ourselves before. Sometimes the people and the lives that we measure ourselves against, quite frankly, don’t measure up to our measurements. Things can be going on that we just can’t see, and we can’t imagine the pain other people might be in. And sometimes we have to accept that maybe we aren’t doing all that badly in life after all.
Be careful out there. Perhaps we do measure up, perhaps we are simply measuring other people (and ourselves) very inaccurately, or more urgently, we (or I) need to stop taking such measurements at all! We just don’t know, we just don’t know, but I know this… as it turns out, I’m not all that lost after all. And I’m determined to remember this lesson for as long as I live.
And I hate that I had to learn this lesson under these circumstances, but that’s the thing with lessons, they come when they need to come, and that, my friends, is that.
Go see “Tomorrowland,” everyone should, this culture needs this movie and more movies like it very very badly. It is in every possible way the exact opposite of Mad Max… and we really do need to rethink how we consider our future.
I think many of us spend our lives seeking one very important and elusive experience. Sadly, I expect many never quite find it. That experience we all seek, one which I think is sadly missing in our scattered BIG world culture, is that of feeling and knowing that we are needed. Certainly in tribal and village culture the experience of being needed was quite common, but in the capitalist rat race I think Americans have accepted that not only are they not needed, but they are easily and readily replaceable. Layoffs, firings, downsizing, outsourcing, being “over qualified” and made obsolete, and the all around feeling of being a dime-a-dozen is perhaps the biggest psychological and emotional scar our culture drives into us.
I thought I was going to find myself needed in my career. I thought if I just got good enough, or found something that had never been said the same way, that the world would realize they needed my art, my talents. Hell, even DC Comics realized after a while that they didn’t need me, as did WOTC and every other client I ever had, and if my clients found me replaceable, well, I certainly knew the world didn’t really need me either. I thought my spouse needed me, but as it turned out… a divorce later, that just wasn’t so. Time and again I have had to come to grips with just how unessential I really was. Knowing you are imminently replaceable is essentially the same as feeling useless. I mean, think about it, if a company is willing to replace a person with an intern or is willing to outsource one’s job to India, just how important or needed can one feel? To be even more specific, in a world where anyone and everyone can get some attention on the internet for their cartoons, or for their work on Deviant Art… it seems to me that artists are every bit as replaceable as someone who lost their job to outsourcing. Artists are a dime a dozen.
Oh, sure, companies will pat us on the back and tell us we are essential, but they will lay us off as soon as we become unprofitable or inconvenient, or God forbid… the moment we have ideas of our own. It takes a while, sometimes decades, but people can be beaten down to a pulp and made to feel utterly useless in today’s economy. Me, for the entirety of my life I have sought situations where I felt needed or essential, where I felt truly irreplaceable and perhaps even appreciated… dare I say… loved! I travelled the world and tried many things, often feeling essential and needed, only to discover that I was indeed anything but essential. One minute people are singing your praises, the next moment they’re fixated on the shiny new thing, and completely bored with you.
Certainly computers contributed to many of us feeling as though we were not only not needed, but obsolete. Yes, there are many ways to feel unnecessary. I traveled from one experience to another, and I can tell you the precise moment I would become bored or disenchanted with a job or situation, and that moment was when I realized not only that I could be replaced, but that I could be quickly and easily replaced, the moment I realized I was not really needed.
But that has all changed.
I have been suffering a lot of intense anxiety lately, and admittedly, a lot of depression, and the only thing that has pulled me through was knowing that I am finally, for the first time in a very long life, in a situation where I am not only needed, but irreplaceable. I am in a situation where I have proven that I am not only necessary for the basic functioning of SAW (The Sequential Artists Workshop, where I work), but every single one of my skills, be they hard or soft, have been essential to the forward motion of our school. Beyond all that, I have become essential not only in the work-life of my “boss,” but in his home life as well, as I have become something of an on-call nanny, and that is only because I have a one of a kind bond with Tom and Leela’s daughter. They need me, but more importantly, little Molly Rose needs me. So long as she needs me, life has purpose, and I have a responsibility to take care of myself and keep living.
Today, while working to renovate the new school, I realized that Tom has walked away from the renovation and has simply trusted me with every aspect of it to date. Beyond the core expectations of my job, to teach comics and illustration to our students, the skills I have are essential to SAW’s functioning and moving forward. I realized after putting in another day of renovation, that I am the one most qualified to do that work, I am the one they need. This, of course, was the very day after I was at Tom and Leela’s babysitting and putting their lovely daughter Molly Rose to bed.
This feeling of being needed, of being appreciated has far outgrown our professional lives, here at SAW, and I can say without fear of presumption, that we have become family, we have become essential to one another. I hope in my heart that when Tom speaks about SAW, he says, “I couldn’t do it without Justine,” and I’m pretty darn sure he feels that way, or at the very least, that he can’t imagine SAW without me. I can’t imagine SAW without me, and I dread imagining me without SAW.
I realize that at a specialty school like SAW, that no one else is more qualified to teach what I teach, and that if they were, we all have accepted that no one else would do it with as much passion and personality as I do. In other words, not only am I the perfect fit for the needs of the school, but the school is a perfect fit for my needs. I can be my genuine self there, without fear of censure. I can experiment, be daring, and even adventurous in my approach. I can be honest and bold, and never fear being “let go” because I made someone nervous. In order for teaching to be vigorous and engaging, the teacher must be allowed, encouraged, free, and capable of walking a tightrope… and without a net. The only net is that Tom understands that if I’m up on a tightrope doing flips and acrobatics… sometimes I’m going to fall, and fall hard. This would, of course, never be allowed at a university. I wouldn’t last ten minutes in any other academic situation, hell, most universities wouldn’t even allow me to work barefoot, let alone say and do the things I say and do.
I have tried not only to teach my students how to draw, but how to see, and how to survive in the brutal world of comics and art. I have tried to teach my students about life and living, about letting go and finding themselves beyond the strange taboos and limitations of our culture. I have taken my students kayaking, have taught them to be hedonistic, have taught them to balance indulgence and discipline, daring and good sense. I have shown them the reality of my life, and hoped that through that they might find their own reality, a reality beyond the one we are all trained to accept. I have shared my mistakes with my students, they have seen me warts and all. This is dangerous, anarchic, and not only did I need an environment that would allow me to tread such treacherous paths, I have found a school that needs someone who will do that.
I have found a home, acceptance, and a place where I am needed, a place where I am appreciated.
Keep seeking, keep seeking, it may take a terribly long time, but somewhere out there… theres is a place and there are people that need you, and you’ll know that place and those people when you find them. Don’t despair, but do keep moving, and don’t accept anything less than truly being needed, because nothing else is good enough, trust me.
Today, May 5th 2015, Molly Rose Corman Hart said my name for the first time!
I was putting her to bed, which I have been doing once a week, and it’s the most delightful night of the week for me. Today, when Tom brought her home on his bike, I was told that Molly had been being a little cranky, or was simply having on off day, but when she saw me she gave me the big smile. I took off her helmet and got her out of her seat, and she let me know that she wanted to play outside. I loved watching her develop to where she could communicate her wants. Before going out we did our usual thing, I changed her diaper (and having never changed one before Molly came along, I can’t believe that I love doing it), dressed her, and took her out to play in the water. We like to set up on a towel under the orange tree (I love Florida living), a bucket of water, some water toys, three new “beeh-tuh” (that’s “big truck” for those of you who don’t speak Molly as fluently as I do) that I had just bought her, and she played, transferring water from bucket to toys, and sometimes dumping it on me or herself. And she was a little off, not quite so happy as normal, occasionally mildly cranky, but content and fully engaged. She’s great that way, even at her worst she is capable of engaging in whatever it is she’s doing without having fit after fit, and with precious little fussiness. She soon let me know that she wanted an orange off the tree, so Tom and I got one down. I peeled it half way for her so she could suck out the juice and chew on the pulp. It’s adorable watching her smash that delicious fresh orange into her chubby little face, juice rolling down her arms.
I had made the mistake of thinking it would be OK for me to take a break while she was eating, but it wasn’t. Just because she was taking a lunch break didn’t mean there wasn’t work to be done. She pointed to the trucks and water, guiding the play and insisting that that water be moved even though she was eating. Every time I tried to stop and talk to Tom, Molly, in full manager mode, would point to the trucks and water and demand that the work was still getting done.
She was fussy about coming in, so I did what I usually do, I make the moment of going in or going home all part of the fun and adventure by picking her up, running around a little, laughing and getting her to forget that she didn’t want to go in. One thing I’ve learned is that if she’s at the park and I need to get her home, saying, “I’m sorry sweetheart, it’s time to go home” doesn’t work, she knows what is about to happen is an end to the fun. The simplest solution is to make sure that getting there and going home is all part of the fun and adventure.
Leela and I bathed her, and Molly flashed me several of her good old smiles, the big one, and I could see that her mild crankiness was melting away. She doesn’t like being held or hugged a lot (at least not by me), she tends to want to be on the go, and when I hold her, she likes to be facing out so she can engage with the world and people around her, but sometimes after I change her she will let me hold her tight to me. She’s warm and as grounding and full of peace as the Buddha, and she feels delightful on those occasions when she lets you hold her against your breast. By dinner the old Molly smile and brightness was back, and she entertained me with her funny eating routine. I loved her just as much when she was frowny, but I was really happy to see that I was able to get her back to her bubbly self.
Getting her to bed was not easy, once she had perked up and gotten happy, she wanted to play. I gently coaxed her into sitting on my lap so I could give her her bottle and read to her. One of her favorite books is “Madeline,” and she has learned to say it, “Malalie.” I thought if she could say that, she could say my name, so I coaxed her, “Can you say Justine?”
“Gah-keen” she said. My heart soared, it was the first time she had ever said my name. Just to make sure I heard right, I got her to say it again, and she said it just the same.
It was a moment and a feeling I will never forget, the first time Molly Rose said my name… after all, I had been anticipating it since the first time I held her, as a baby, in my arms.
Love you, Molly Rose, my very best friend in Gainesville (apart, perhaps, from your dad).