Drawing on memories

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Patti had a birthday last month, the 22nd we’ve celebrated together. When you’ve been together as long as we have, you have to think  a little hard at birthdays and anniversaries and Christmas time to keep things fresh, to make sure that you can still express how much you love each other without falling back on the tried and trite.

Anyway, this year, I decided that one of the ways I would commemorate our history together was to take our ancient home movies and transfer them onto DVDs so we could watch them over and over. We have scads of old video tapes but the cameras that recorded and played them are long defunct. In fact, we have never looked at any of them since we initially shot them – films of our first trips together, of our wedding, of Jack’s early days and so on, all moldering in shoe boxes. Now we have a dozen gleaming DVDs, a box set of our lives up to about 1997 or so.  We have all watched them together over and again, particularly the ones when Jack first learned to use the potty and his first big argument with us on a trip  to Nova Scotia.

One of the more profound DVDs is the one I made when Patti had her accident and I was alone each night at home with the baby. For two months, I made videos of our daily life to take up to the hospital to show Patti that we were okay, that life was going on, that she had something to come back to. These are the hardest tapes to watch because I feel so sorry for the me that was, giving Jack a bath, rocking him to sleep, listening to music (Teddy Bear’s Picnic, The Ugly Bug’s Ball, Let’s Go Fly a KIte…) that was once so sweet and important to us but forevermore will signify the hollowness of those days.

Funnily, the more I got into drawing, the less video tape I shot. As the films peter out, my journals expand, so our whole life is recorded but just in very different media — and with very different effect. I read recently that when you look at old photos, they stir up old memories, facilitating recall. But when you look at old home movies, those images tend to actually replace your memories of the periods being recorded. When you think back on those times, your brain tends to pull up scenes from the films rather than organic (but not necessarily as reliable) memories. My mum had an 8 mm. movie camera when I was a baby and the images from those old reels are the only scenes I can remember from when I was two or three or four. Maybe nobody has much memory from that time, and mine are quite vivid, but I know they are all just scenes from one movie or another.

When I watch these old movies, I sort of vaguely remember the times when they were taken. When I look at these old videos, my experience is often of surprise. I think about how young well look, or weird my hair was, or how I seem to speak out of the side of my mouth. The experience is from outside — I am watching myself but not as myself. In fact I would venture that most of my experience is not radically different from what a total stranger or an acquaintance might think of the same footage.

The drawings in my journals, however, summon up a completely personal and intimate feeling. It’s more like a time machine than watching TV. I am in the moment, I am me now and also the me I was then.The act of drawing, painting and writing rather than just pushing a button on a  machine, forms completely different sorts of memories, When I look back at a page, even one that’ s more than a decade old, I remember so much about what I was doing that day, my mood, the weather, even the smells in the air. The experience itself is deeply embedded in my head and just glancing at the drawing takes me back there.

I am so glad to have both sorts of records of my past (not to mention dozens of photo albums and zillions of digital snapshots). I can travel back to any period of my life now and see my life as a continuum. There are so many lessons to be learned by looking back and seeing where one has come from, who one has known, how one made choices, how one felt.

Creating these records, particularly the ones that consists of just some feeble drawings and a few scratchy notes, is probably one of the most important things I’ve done. That sounds odd perhaps, that recording and observing one’s life could be of the most important things one can do with it, but that is the true purpose of art — at least to me. The value of taking a step back, of putting a frame around a moment so that it can stand for a thousand other moments unrecorded, to learn from one’s mistakes and to cherish one’s blessings, to hold up one’s experience so that others can share it and learn from it,  these things seem like the very purpose of art — and of life as well.

Portrait of the artist as a spotty, callow youth

I was fifteen. Had just rid myself of the meager mustache and the cracking voice, acquired a pussful of pimples. I was a curious combination of know-it-all and trembling violet; sure I was smarter and more tuned in than any adult but also terrified of most of my classmates, especially the girls. This was before Facebook and MySpace, and our only TV was a small black and white unit in my parents’ bedroom. So I had plenty of time on my hands, plenty of opportunity to write stories, build models, read “grownup” novels, and make art.

Recently I came across a sleeve of slides in a box in a drawer.  I haven’t seen the images or the originals in decades but they are still so familiar. I worked pretty long and hard on these paintings, balancing stretched canvases on my bedside chair or struggling with the compressor and airbrush that always clogged and spat up on my nascent work.

I think I was very self-conscious about the coolness of these images and how daring they might seem to my peers. I liked to think of myself as an artist, but there were much better artists than me, like my pal, Eric Drooker, or the super cool Ed Weiss. Still, I managed to get drawings in the school paper (this became easier when I became the editor) and the school yearbook. The big painting of the foot hung in our school library for a while. It looked like it was crashing through the ceiling onto the heads of unsuspecting readers.

(Click on one of the thumbnails to open a gallery of images)

A plan

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I’ve just marked five years of keeping this blog. The milestone prompted me to think about how much time blogging, corresponding, promoting, writing,self-justifying and so on have absorbed of my free time. It has been a wonderful experience, but the very thing that started me on this road has suffered the most — namely, time for my own drawing.
So I have decided, for an indeterminate period, to take a break from scanning and posting and uploading and monitoring and responding (and I’ve been pretty lax at even at doing that recently). I will be using that time instead to draw and paint and write and think and learn and be.
I shall keep a bit of a record of how that’s progressing on the right hand side of this site, a mini blog within a slumbering blog where I can ruminate on what I am doing and learning with no intention to make a mark on anything but the pages of my journal.
Eventually, I shall probably return, recharged, refreshed, and newly resolved.
In the meantime, feel free to read the 842 posts that precede this one or any of these books. Or better yet, join me in getting off the computer and doing some drawing instead.
Until we meet again, I remain,
your pal,
Danny Gregory

Childhood memories

map.jpg
(click images to magnify)When I was a boy, I travelled a great deal. My family wasn’t in the Armed or Diplomatic services. I guess they were just adventurers, peripatetic wanderers, refugees, gypsies.

These are pages of random memories, without any real conclusions, just snapshots of stuff. I drew them from old family albums with a dip pen and india ink, painted them with watercolors. If you can bothered, click to enlarge the pages and read the captions.

fascist.jpg
My maternal grandparents (Gran and Ninny) were German refugees and were married in Rome. Mussolini threw them out in the mid 1930s.

1940.jpgThen they escaped to the part of India that became Pakistan (after World War II and Partition). My grandparents were doctors and they remained in Lahore for thirty-five years. My great-grandparents had also fled Germany and joined them in India, but later moved to Palestine. My mother (Pipsi from Püppchen or ‘little doll’ in German) and my uncle grew up in Pakistan, then went to boarding school and university in England.

baba.jpgI was born in London and first went to Pakistan when I was two. Of all the places I’d lived till I came to America, I always thought of Pakistan as home.

landing.jpgThe long voyage to Lahore, via plane or ship, was always an event.

wallah.jpgSnake charmers and bear trainers came to our house to perform for me.

tongas.jpgLahore was always bustling.

girls.jpgWe moved to Pittsburgh when I was five, then Canberra, Australia when I was six.

danny.jpgAt nine, I moved back to Pakistan alone and lived with my granparents for a year and a half.

oranges.jpgThen we moved to a kibbutz in Israel.

abatoir.jpgI went to a public school and became fluent in Hebrew. I also got my first job, at a slaughterhouse. When I was thirteen, a week before the Yom Kipur War, we moved to Broooklyn.

Air Devils and Mad Men

 

When I was a boy and living in Israel, my mum happened upon an ad in the Jerusalem Post looking for children who spoke English and were interested in appearing in an American TV commercial. I was both and so I went to an audition in Tel Aviv. A group of people behind a table asked me to run around a small yard and look like I was having the time of my life. Getting attention like this was sort of fun but also a little nerve wracking.
A few days later, I was invited back to Tel Aviv for the shoot. I walked on the sound-stage in awe. Someone had built a perfect replica of a perfect boy’s room surrounded by bright lights and a camera. In the middle of the room, there sat a circular cardboard runway with a plastic mountain in one corner and a control tower in the center.
I was one of three boys in the cast. One had brought his mother, a plump and bossy woman carrying a makeup case which she used to polish her son’s perfection. The other boy was quiet and shrugged when spoken to. The plump mother told the director that she insisted her boy should get the lead role; he was very handsome, she said, a great actor and extremely sensitive. The director told her son that, indeed, he would get to fly the toy plane while I was to look on with enthusiasm. The shrugging boy was used as hand model and plugged the toy into the wall socket in a close-up shot.
Air Devils proved to be one of those elaborate toys that are interesting for about five minutes and then up in pieces or gathering dust. A wire on the control tower spun the plane around in a circle; it landed and took off and not much else. There was no room for imagination in playing with it but it took up a lot of floor space, even in the gigantic idealized American boy’s room on the sound-stage.
I don’t remember much else about the shoot except it lasted for thirteen hours and that the director said the plastic mountain looked like someone had pissed on it (which, for a twelve year old boy, was the height of subversive humor). I was paid the equivalent of $10 for my day’s work, which went toward buying some candy and a soccer ball which my neighbor kicked onto the roof of an adjoining building a few days later.
Six months after the shoot, we moved to New York. One day after school, I was watching TV and the Air Devils commercial came on. I was shocked by the weirdness of seeing myself on television. I don’t think I ever saw the spot on the air again but the memory of it stuck somewhere in my brain, replaying in weirder and weirder re-edits over the years. I have sat through so many auditions and shoots over the past quarter century and the memory of myself, a twelve year old weird, multi-national kid standing in front of that table of strangers, flickers past me now and then.
I have casually looked for a copy of the spot every so often, screening reels of old commercials, thinking it would be amusing to add it to my own reel of commercials. However, it never turned up.
Then this afternoon, bored in an editing session, I typed the words ‘Air Devils” in the YouTube search field… and there it was. You can see me in a wide shot and then a close-up of my home-cut hair and fake enthusiasm.
It’s funny, as a person who makes and judges ads all day, to be a part of this commercial. The complete absence of an idea, the histrionic voice-over and completely unpersuasive cop[y. I can imagine the poor creative team, working on Hasbro, knowing they have a shoestring budget, knocking together a script and then flying to Israel, of all places, to avoid union costs and produce something, anything to throw on the air for a few weeks before Christmas.
It’s so much a conceit of my business that what we do matters very much, that every commercial must be polished and crafted and made as good as possible, that we must fall on our swords for every creative decision … and yet, after they have served their purpose, our well-cut gems retain as much appeal as last month’s milk. I assume that the zillions of other people’s dollars I have spent on high-end production will end up, if I am lucky, being just someone else’s blogged memory in twenty years from now.
Sic transit.