Yesterday was a bittersweet day, driving up to Providence to help Jack move into his dorm and begin his sophomore year at RISD. Bitter because I am losing my boy again after we had a great summer together, spending a lot of time hanging out, making things, watching lousy movies, and drawing. Sweet because he was so excited about starting the new year, his first as a painting major, raring to get to work. He read several influential books this summer: the recent biography of David Hockney by Christopher Simon Sykes, Lives of the Artists by Calvin Tomkins and Patrick O’Brian’s plump biography of Picasso. They combined to give him a sense that he better get on with it, that Picasso was already an acknowledged genius by nineteen.
One of the many nice things about having a kid who’s also an artist is the impromptu discussions we have about all sorts of art-nerd stuff — meaning in the arts, the roles of galleries, the pros and cons of acrylic over oil, the best way to crosshatch, whether or not Jeff Koons is an idiot, and so on. I feed off his enthusiasm and will sorely miss him, though he’s only a text message away.
On the drive up I-95, we were talking about line quality. I was pointing out to him that when I want to do a ‘good’ drawing, I slow down as much as possible, striving for accuracy in my line lengths and angles, but that when I step back from a drawing done super slowly like this, it can sometimes seem cramped and without expression. When I look at a master of the drawn line like Egon Schiele, there is so much confidence and sweep in his line and I know it was turn in a broad, swift stroke, not a cautious micromillimeter at a time. For me, the real essence of a great drawing is the quality of the line. An imprecise drawing that is full of life and personality is infinitely better than a stale xerox.
Jack’s response was that you need to put in the time making cramped and crabbed drawings in order to develop the confidence to draw like Schiele. That you shouldn’t sit down to make a ‘good drawing’ but just be in the moment. It may turn out well or not but it’s all about doing the ground work and then letting yourself go.
He’s right. If you want to play Bach, you need to do endless fingering exercises. You need to slow down your golf stroke and study each inch of it before you can connect with a masterful drive. You need to train your neurons and your muscle fibers and to train them to be accurate. Doing lots of hasty drawings will just frustrate you in the long run. It’s like driving, you have to start slowly in the supermarket parking lot, inching around orange cones, before you can take the curves at LeMans.
Unfortunately, this can be frustrating if you are counting on amazing results right away. It can take years to have a completely sweeping line. And even if you do get that confidence after loads of practice, a few weeks of not drawing can cause serious backslide. You have to come back, warm up, start again.
However, there is pleasure even in these slow, inch-worm drawings. They are precise, they are accurate depictions of what’s in front of you and there’s a certain satisfaction in that. Next, to raise it up to the level of high art, to draw it with feeling and a sense of abandon.
It takes years to raise a boy to be six foot three and so smart. It takes confidence to drive away and leave him in Providence, RI and know he’s going to do his best.
Three weeks ago, I dropped my boy off at art school in Providence, Rhode Island. It’s a trip we’ve been planning for years, maybe even decades. From the days when Jack was first able to pick up a crayon and started making marks on paper, his mom and I celebrated his creativity and put those pieces of paper into a special binder, a collection which grew to two books, then three, then a shelf-full. We didn’t have any particular plan to create an artist or designer or an illustrator; we just celebrated what seemed special about him, and let him know that if this (or drumming or soccer or World of Warcraft…) is what he really loved most, it was fine with us.
When it came time to apply to college, I told Jack that committing to an art school had risks but so did any career path. As far as I was concerned, a bigger risk would be to seek a profession that didn’t ignite his passion, to simply try to make money at something in which he had no real interest. I know too many people who have gone down this path and found little at its end. That shelf full of drawings proved that Jack had a calling, a rare thing indeed.
I borrowed a truck from a friend, loaded it with Jack’s belongings and we drove up 1-95 to RISD. After lunch in the cafeteria, I sensed that Jack was ready to take off, that he wanted to set up his room, meet his new friends and start his life. My job was done.
I had been dreading what was to follow. I have only ever lived alone for about six months — after graduating from Princeton and moving into a studio apartment on the Lower East Side. Then I got some roommates, then a girlfriend who became a wife, then a son …. and the last three decades were filled. Overnight, I was on my own again.
For a year, I had been worried about being alone in my empty apartment — empty evenings, lonely mornings, no one to talk to but my dogs and the wind. My girlfriend Jenny has been in Dallas all summer and I have been missing her sorely too.
But here’s the funny thing: I love it.
Despite all my worries and fears of dying alone in my sleep and being eaten by my dachshunds, I love being able to decide when I get up, when I got to bed and what I do in between. What I eat, what I do, whether I watch TV or read or draw or stare out the window. It’s fantastic. Time expands. I have a huge sense of accomplishment and also of being relaxed and at my own pace. And I love having a neat apartment, not having soccer equipment on the living room floor or boxer shorts in the kitchen. I don’t have to share the bathroom or the remote control or the sofa. It’s just me and two miniature hounds.
I do miss Jack. I email him, he texts me, we chat on the phone a couple of times a week. He sends me phone photos of the art he is making and tells me about his new friends, about his teachers (for the first time ever he loves them all), about how great the food is.
And he is flourishing. He works his ass off, staying up till the wee hours doing enormous assignments. His first week, he posted the following on Facebook:
a haiku about getting out of bed;
no no no no no
no no no no no no no
no no no fuck that
Then one of his new classmates uploaded this picture:
He’s going to be okay, it would seem, and so am I.
P.S. I try to avoid getting emotional about commercials but this one has been getting to me: