[image credit: Freaks and Geeks, Apatow Productions, Dreamworks Television]
Remember when that elderly Spanish woman attempted to refurbish the antique fresco of Jesus and his disciples that adorned her neighborhood church? Remember the comically incompetent job she did and the worldwide media attention she garnered for her folly? That’s pretty much how my paintings looked to me as I gazed on their clumsy shapes many years after I created them as a teenager. However, despite being as sincerely done as the Spanish woman’s work, my attempt at wielding a brush never earned me any recognition, other than the plaudits of a loving mother. On the contrary, I was no more an artist than my aged Castilian counterpart. Yet, once upon a time I earnestly fantasized that my name and creations would be accorded a place in the pantheon of western art history, a heroic figure of light, color and form. Those dreams seem so long ago now.
I grew up thinking, or rather knowing, that I would be an artist. From early childhood I took immediate pleasure in spending my evenings drawing in pencil, filling page after page of the drawing tablets my mom purchased for me at Standard Brands Paint and Supplies. Needless to say, art was always my favorite class from elementary school to my senior year. Moreover, it was a pursuit that came with the praise and admiration of my friends, family and teachers. When I was in fifth and sixth grades, other kids even traded with me to get something I’d done in school. One guy wanted a Corvette hot rod, while one of the girls coveted a panda. In high school, I enjoyed the pride of selling a picture now and again, which I’d made with color pencils or pastels. My dream, though, was to do album covers like Roger Dean or maybe fantasy magazine covers like Boris Vallejo. Somehow I thought I could do this while simultaneously becoming the next Da Vinci-Picasso-Rivera sensation! What took me a longtime to learn, though, was the fact that I wasn’t nearly as talented as I imagined myself to be.
I had always struggled a bit with painting. Nonetheless, I thought that since I was a decent drawer, it meant that all I needed was practice. Paints were expensive, though, drawing pencils were cheap. So, my lack of experience with a palette and brush was largely due to resources, or the lack thereof. And forget about watercolors! I didn’t like those at all. So, then, what did I want? Oils. While I was happy enough with pencils and pastels, what I really wanted was to work in oil. After all, that’s what real painters use, right? At least, that’s how it looked whenever I went to either the Norton Simon Museum or the LA County Museum, not to mention the volumes of art history books I immersed myself in as much as possible. I even took private art lessons from a middle aged man in my neighborhood on Friday evenings, for $5 a session. Mr Wilson, I must admit, was more of an engineer than an artist. He worked for Lockheed, which I thought was pretty cool. However, his art, well, his art really wasn’t all that good. His lessons, though, were affordable and they got me out of the house. So, between these lessons, my high school art classes and my youthful delusions of grandeur, not to mention the encouragement of my friends and parents, my path seemed pretty clear to me.
But then I got the opportunity to take some classes at the local junior college. They were a part of some program for area high schools. Which classes I took were completely up to me. Naturally, I opted for some beginning painting classes. What I learned from my lessons with Mr Wilson, which I carried with me into these studio classes, was that I actually didn’t care for acrylics very much. During my junior college classes, in fact, I learned to absolutely loathe acrylics. They dried too quickly and they were difficult to alter when things went awry on your canvas, which happened frequently. “It’s like trying to paint with glue,” I said to one of my classmates. “Yeah,” he said, “they take some getting used to.”
Occasionally, we spent part of class posting our work across an empty wall of the studio, which was reserved for these mass reviews. Needless to say, there was a pretty wide range of styles and aptitudes. Our teacher, Mr Casey, a tall man with a red crew cut and a plump face, who looked more like a pharmacist to me than a painter, was always cordial and supportive of his students. Sometimes, I think he was at a loss for words when it came to some of the more, shall we say, artistically challenged works on display. Still, I can’t say I ever saw anyone walk away feeling discouraged, let alone humiliated.
So, then, how did I do? Well, grade-wise I did fine. I consistently held onto a B+ from the start to the end of the semester. Not the straight “A”s I was accustomed to from first grade on up, but still okay. Perhaps because I had some competency with drawing, I was able to get a halfway decent charcoal image on canvas, which helped. However, I never felt satisfied with my acrylic work. My colors always looked too flat and my shading and modeling were more comic book looking than I wanted. In fact, one attempt at creating a work that evoked a sense of depth of field was described by Mr Casey as looking “rather Disneyesque.” As far as I was concerned, everything I produced that semester looked rather Disneyesque. Unfortunately, Disney wasn’t what I was going for. Alas, Mr Casey’s comments made me feel more placated than accomplished.
While I took quiet comfort from feeling I had more skill than several of my classmates, I nonetheless felt absolutely amateurish with respect to the more talented members of my class. My aspirations for an artistic life were quickly receding into a perfectly triangulated linear perspective. In retrospect, it’s easy to say that I was too sensitive or that I gave up too easily. After all, I was a teenager and like your average teenager I was loaded with insecurities, inhibitions and a healthy dose of immaturity and inexperience. Still, I felt like Jason Segel in that episode of Freaks and Geeks, when Lindsay (played by Linda Cardellini) encourages Nick (played by Segel) to follow his dream of a career in music, only to totally suck at the audition! In my heart, I knew my painting was as good as Nick’s drumming, meaning not nearly as good as my daydreams led me to believe.
Looking now at those paintings I did in Mr Wilson’s garage, which my mom kept until the day she died, I can shake my head, feeling amused with myself and my lofty ambitions. Fortunately, I knew when to let go and move on to something else. It wasn’t easy, but eventually I found my true calling, which, unsurprisingly, had its own ups and downs. But I guess that’s the way life is, sometimes you think you’re the next Neal Peart, killing it on “Subdivisions” with your mega-360-degree-epic drum kit, then other times you sound like you’re bagging on garbage cans, can’t even keep a beat. Then, again, failures are their own blessings. Telling someone to “follow their dream” is a cliché, after all, a convention. And like most conventions, there’s a point when they begin to stifle growth and creativity. In which case, there are instances when the best part of your dream is when you wake up.