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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)
To read in order:
Part ONE: https://barefootjustine.com/2017/08/14/one-the-art-of-what-the-lions-saw-introduction-1-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

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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