“Define yourself with all your heart.”
“Define yourself with all your heart.”
“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.
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.
So, how is it done? How does one balance the heat of art-making, the heady personality of the artist, the neurosis inherent in the heart of the artist… and yet behave like a cool calm professional?
OK… here’s the rub… I have no fucking idea. I’ve been at this for the majority of my adult life, and I still have no idea how to be the dedicated true believer I am as an artist, and yet how to balance that with being a pro at meetings, coping with senseless intrusions from clients, and then ultimately dealing with disappointment when the final results are damaged by incompetency at the printers, or whoever.
Being an artist can be soul crushing every step of the way, from the struggle to learn and ultimately master your craft, to the uncertainties involved in “making it,” to dealing with the bullshit of having “made it.” Worse yet, however much I have “made it” in the eyes of others… the sad truth is (psst… don’t tell my students) most of us never make it, certainly nearly all of us feel like that whole “I’ve finally made it” stage is still eluding us. Shit happens, your favorite art director gets laid off, entire industries can go under, books and magazines can be cancelled mid-project. It’s a bitch.
No, really, it’s a bitch!
And what is “making it” anyway? I mean, lots of shitty artists make it. It didn’t matter how many BIG companies I worked for, for me “making it” often depended even more on more personal criteria. How in the hell could I ever consider myself as having “made it” with artists like Hal Foster, Jeff Jones and Wally Wood having set the bar so high? There is “making it” in the business and publishing sense, then there’s “making it” in your own eyes, which also includes the whole concept of “making it” in comparison to the Masters. This whole “making it” bit is elusive to say the least.
So, take all that, all that uncertainty, all that self doubt, and add the simple truth that more often than not, the sorts of minds that make art and make good artists also make neurotics. For me, the real catch is that the very forces, emotional and psychological, that pushed me on and kept me striving to greater heights are the very emotions and passions that often seem to undo me as a professional. I could never have learned to draw the way I do if I wasn’t so obsessive, so in need of approbation. I often think I create work to boost my self-esteem, to prove to a world that has bullied me and banged the hell out of my self worth, that I am worthwhile, that I can contribute something, that I am exceptional. Sometimes I think I make work to ease the loneliness, I create work to be loved. Pathetic? Perhaps, but I don’t think it’s all that unusual. Honestly, I think I’m still in the “look what I can do” phase as an artist.
This is all far more complicated by a number of factors, for one, we live in a culture that demands that people who give more, do more, and excel, also learn to smile good naturedly and accept that incompetent boobs and morons will screw up their work at some point, either through heavy handed editing and art directing of incompetent printing. As Jeffrey Catherine Jones once told me, when she and Wrightson and Kaluta and the rest of them got together they would joke that their work always came back from the printer smeared with bananas. If you don’t get that, let me explain… basically artists learn quickly that once our work is out of our hands it goes into the hands of the baboons at the printers. This, group, is why it is so important to leave borders around your work so the artwork (image area) is not manhandled. This is why I get so exasperated when my students draw all the way to the edge of their papers. Here’s what I’m telling you, that art teacher in school you loved so much, you know, the one that told you to draw all the way to the edge of the paper… didn’t know his (or her) ass from a hole in the ground. That border around your work is where the coffee spills, fingerprints and abuse goes.
Let’s just lay out my latest mistake… or perfectly justifiable frustration… depending on whose side your on here. It’s just about April now, and before Christmas I started working on a major project, taking about 80% of the project on myself (regarding the illustration chores only). This project was 4 full pages of comic strips, each one drawn in the style of a classic Master of the form. I had to learn to draw like Bill Watterson in one strip, then Hal Foster in another; Charles Schulz in one strip and Windsor McKay in another. This work was created with dedication, delight, and the utmost precision. When copying the style of a master the difference between success and failure can be measured in millimeters. You know what I’m talking about, we all know when a drawing of Charlie Brown was done by Schulz, and when it was done by a lesser artist. And let me tell you, sometimes the differences are so subtle as to be maddening… millimeters. Bend a shape by a couple millimeters… and suddenly it looks like the same boob who drew those pissing Calvins we all see on the back of Ford and Chevy trucks drew that Charlie Brown as well. Copying the style of a master requires not only an understanding of their style, but undoubtedly years of mastering drawing yourself, years of observation, years of noticing the minutia, years of discerning patterns and proportions that are invisible to the eye of the average viewer, or indeed most artists. What I really was not ready for was realizing that in order to finish this latest project I had to entirely relearn whole languages of line with each artist. The lines that Chester Gould used might look a little like the lines that Walt Kelly used… but they arent’ not at all. In other words, being a good inker isn’t good enough, you have to be a discerning inker that deals with lines that are perfect down to millimeters. I likened it to code breaking. Each artist had a code of line rather than language. This project I have worked on has been a delight, a torture, rewarding, maddening, embarrassing and worthy of great pride. In other words, a world of conflict.
I am a conflicted person, a complicated person, a person with high emotions and higher standards. The problem is, I hold the world to my standards, and while once upon a time we expected people to master things, to reach higher and set higher standards, we now, instead, expect the person with high standards to just relax and let the baboons drag their work down… and we’re supposed to smile about it, too.
So, I did my job, I did all I could and gave all I had… and in the end, what did I get… my work came back with bananas (and I swear I smelled a little fesces) smeared all over it. Someone at the printer decided that the margins were too wide (or something), so naturally, the solution someone at the printer came up with was to set down the banana, stop scratching himself, and stretch my work out to better fill out the page.
Remember what I said about millimeters? Blown, blown to hell. The worst part was having to listen to everyone tell me “it’s alright… no one will notice… it was only stretched a little.”
“Only stretched a little.” There’s no such thing as “only stretched a little,” it’s either stretched or it ain’t. This is one of those black and white right or wrong things. Not only did I have to witness the distortion of my work (to the tune of 34,000 printed copies), but I had to listen to person after person tell me that the work looked fine distorted… in other words, that I was wrong and my emotions invalid. It seems that everyone is an expert, everyone but me knew how my art should look. I, evidently, am the one person who is not qualified to decide whether or not my work looks good stretched and distorted. I guess everyone else knows a lot more about how my work should be presented than I do. In other words, not only did I have to look at my work horribly disfigured, I had to listen to everyone tell me there was nothing wrong with it that way, and that I was just being silly for being upset about it.
Here’s where we really get pushed and pulled. Clients expect us to be passionate and innovative, meticulous and wholly engaged in the work, in other words they expect us to be artists through and through… until we have to sit down in the board room. Admittedly, I challenge this, I go to all my meeting barefoot, and usually in short shorts, not to make a point, but because I am not playing their game. If I had wanted to play their game and wear business casual clothes, I would have played their game. I chose to be an artist because I have no interest in wearing a ladies pants suit. Now, here’s where we really get put to the test, the client will change this, change that, demand perfection, then drop illos, make senseless changes, and be OK with it when the printer fucks it all up. Then, they expect us, the artists, to be OK with that, to be cool, calm and professional. In other words, that passionate engaged and innovative person that drew the work and conceived of the project, the very artist they relied on to be creative and “artistic,” they now expect to behave like a banker. It’s an impossible situation to be in. And why is it that everything has to be “professional” anyway? Why are we so afraid of emotions? Why can’t honesty and emotions play a part in these business transactions? They certainly liked it when honesty and emotions played a part in the art making! We, as artists, are expected to balance ourselves on a scale that is impossibly tipped out of our favor.
So here’s where it all comes together, remember what I said about artits being passionate, neurotic, emotional, obsessive… well, when I knew my work had come back from the printers stretched, that didn’t sit well with me. When I heard about it I began to vibrate, to fucking vibrate with emotion. It was uncontrollable. Imagine shaking a bottle of Pepsi (or Coke… I don’t care which you prefer, but no Shasta), then expecting that emotional soda wouldn’t blow out and spray everywhere. The point is, I’m full of fizziness, that’s what makes me go… that’s what makes me so much fun to drink… but shake me up and what do you think is going to happen? All that fizziness and emotion we all admire and enjoy is suddenly spraying out all over someone’s face.
Unfortunately, sometimes it sprays all over the client’s face.
That’s the unprofessional part, so I’m told. Personally, I think it’s unprofessional that clients don’t treat artists like artists and don’t let artist be artists.
If I’ve learned anything from my life as an illustrator, right up to this particular project, the take home lesson would be: expect more from yourself and less from the culture. In other words, an artist needs to strive to master the difficult stuff, they need to do their homework even though the culture doesn’t know the difference between Hal Foster and Lynda Barry. And even if you can draw like Foster (and no one does), the printers and publishers will screw it up anyway. No, there isn’t much reward for expecting more from yourself… but you should do it anyway, at least that’s what I tell my students.
Sometimes I hope most of my students ignore me, it will certainly make their lives a lot easier, ’cause no one out there can see the difference. After all, everything’s beautiful no matter how half-assed or poorly conceived or poorly printed it is… right?
So we got this work inquiry, it’s gonna pay $2,500! Our proposal was accepted, and I was sooooo excited! I mean, I could really use $2,500. There were details as to the nature of the project, lots of technicalities are underway (like stuff in writing, sending art samples and resumes, etc.), then I reread the initial inquiry, this is all for a project that is 3 or 4 years down the road.
Yeah, I said 3 or 4 years down the road!
When I realized this I sent the email below to Tom Hart who had scored the job for me/us:
“That’s as disappointing as not getting the job… not that I won’t need the work 3 or 4 years from now, too…
Hope I can get by until then.
Thanks for landing this, in three of four years I’ll buy you lunch!”
I decided that since I had a lot of repetitive computer work to do today that I would take the 20 minute drive to Micanopy Florida (where “The Yearling,” “Doc Hollywood,” and “Cross Creek” were filmed) to sit on the great wrap around porch of one of its ice cream parlors, sip a chocolate malt, and do my work.
These pics were taken from my viewpoint… kinda shows not only why I moved to Florida, but why I came here to work. It’s like Mayberry here in Micanopy and Gainesville… but with hippies and punks mixed in. Micanopy is the oldest inland town in Florida, is full of antique shops and lovely old buildings with gardened lawns. Very charming. Oh… and the chocolate malt was made with real malt and not that lousy syrup!
I have to say, if I can spend the rest of my life sitting on scenic porches barefoot and sipping at chocolate malts while I work… then I’m doing better than most.
I am grateful!
If you are wondering, I am working on an animated info-graphic for the University of Florida’s library. The job was bid on by Tom Hart (our founder at SAW–“Sequential Artists Workshop,” where I teach), and the project has essentially been handed over to me to write, direct, illustrate and animate, so I think I’ll include one of the background images just so you all can see what it is I’m working on.
Well… it’s time to set this HUGE malt aside before I drink it all and get fat. Back to work!
There we are, (my new Gainesville gal pal) Molly Rose and me! Molly’s the lovely bundle of much needed joy for SAW founders Tom Hart and Leela Corman. After being told that I was no longer welcome around my own nephews, it’s beautiful to have Molly in my lap. Molly is a blessing for so many of us in town. As for me, it’s been a long time since I’ve felt such pure contentment as I enjoy when I get to play with my little bud!
Tom had brought her by a couple weeks back after I had invited them over for a fresh homemade Punjabi fest. In the below photos you can see Molly playing with my Ganesh pendant–which seems to enchant her endlessly. Whatever path she chooses… I believe Ganesh will bless her every step.
And below… she is focused on my bangles… God help us, I fear the girl is going to grow up and share my obsession with junk jewelry!
I got these photos from Tom after stopping by their home and getting a little Molly-time in! I looked at these pics before going to sleep last night, and I drifted off smiling.
SAW, it’s a family affair! Gooble gobble… gooble gobble… come be one of us!