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.

Meeting art

http://www.db798.com/pictobrowser.swfI have just arrived at the last page of my office sketchbook, the one I carry to meetings and use to write down my ‘ideas’. Flipping through this most recent volume, I came across lots of little drawings. They are generally utilitarian things, designed to record a thought or to communicate it to someone else. It’s funny, looking back through the scrawled pages, how mysterious these drawings seem now, out of context and stripped of their original purpose. Roll over the “notes” to see my annotaions of each important piece of artwork. Or should it be “Work Art”?

The Mouse Race


In most normal parts of the world, when children graduate from their local middle school (also known as intermediate school or junior high school), they go onto their local high school. Their school choice is pretty much set by their address. New York City, however, given its position as most extraordinary city in the solar system, has to have a far more complex and stressful solution.
Jack, who is now 13, has to submit almost two dozen choices for school next year.
First of all, we had to decide if he should continue to go to private school or return to the public school system. If we had chosen the former, he’d have to take a very long multiple choice math and reading exam, then write essays and be interviewed at however many schools we had visited and thought good candidates. Then, if we he was accepted at one, we would spend over $100,000 to make sure he got a high school diploma.
Because we’ve opted to send him to public school. his choices are multiplied. First we had to go through a directory of NYC High schools that is over 600 pages long, listing choices from the FDNY High School for Fire and Life Safety to the Urban Assembly School for Careers in Sports, from the EL Puente Academy for Peace and Justice to the School for the Future.
Patti, Jack and I, collectively and separately, have gone on scores of school tours, grilled acquaintances for inside info, read books, articles and websites, and finally narrowed down on our list to the mandatory top 12 schools. That’s right — everyone who applies to NYC public high school must rank their top dozen choices to get into even one.
Some of the schools are really amazingand we are so lucky to have them as options (we visited one that just got 12 million bucks from Bill and Melinda Gates, another which takes the kids on trips to Europe) while others are scary and ringed with metal detectors and classrooms full of hooligans and pre-cons.
There’s more. New York also has a group of “Specialized” High schools that includes schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science that are among the very best schools in the country. To even be considered for admission to these schools, Jack had to study for several months and then, last weekend, along with 25,000 other students, took a three hour test with a few insanely hard questions (in helping him prepare for this test I have had to take a nightmarish stroll down memory lanes to my dusty repository of algebra and geometry, knowledge I haven’t accessed once since Carter was in the White House). He also took yet another test for entrance to Bard, which covers all of high school and the first two years of college before the students turn eighteen.
If all all of this sounds like I am a neurotic, over achieving yuppie parent, I promise you, we are merely average in this city. As soon as you enter the maelstrom of high school selection, you inevitably are faced with all these choices and feel you must at least do what you can to give your kid the best options. And, because you have to rank those twelve schools without knowing whether your kid will get his first choice or his twelfth, you must get somewhat involved and get the lay of the land. Every one does it, from bus drivers in Staten Island to investment bankers in Brooklyn to short order cooks in the Bronx. If you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere. Otherwise, move to New Jersey (shudder).
Alright, I hear you wondering, so what does all this have to do with drawing?
Well, about a dozen of the schools in town are art schools of one kind of another. Most seem to be training people who will end up in making mechanicals or painting signs, anything to divert talented kids who would otherwise be spraying graffiti everywhere. We checked out a couple of these schools and they seemed quite grim, with lousy facilities, unimaginative teachers and slack-jawed students. One school, however, LaGuardia High School of Music and Performing Arts has been top Jack’s list for a while. The guitar player from his band was admitted last year and he raves about it. LaGuardia was the basis for the movie and TV show “Fame” (“I’m gonna live forever…) and it full of amazing singers, dancers, musicians, actors and artists. Each year thousands of the most talented kids in the most talented town audition for entry. Less than 10% get in.
Jack has been working hard on his portfolio for the art program. He has to submit fewer than twenty mounted pieces and then take a test: drawing a figure from life, a still from memory and a pastel painting form his imagination.
Jack loves to draw and had filled many sketchbooks with masterpieces. However, he has never really taken much in the way of academic art and usually resists formal teaching. For his application, however, he has had to sit down and really concentrate on the sort of art neither of us particularly love to make. He has drawn long careful portraits of Patti and me, has drawn a range of still-lifes in various media, had drawn urnban landscapes, done some watercolors and has even attended four hour life drawing studio classes with me, sticking it out for the whole session (no nudes, alas).
I am amazed at his commitment and at the strength of his drawings, I had neither the ability ntr the commitment at his age.
The question of course is, will he get in? And the next question is, if he does, should he spend this much time on art? That’ss an interesting question coming form me — I have always bemoaned my own lack of formal training and would personally love to go to art school. But Jack is also a very good student, getting As and B+s in every other subject and we are concerned with whether the academics at LaGuardia will be enough. The fact is, other schools offer better social studies and writing and math programs, no question. But he loves to draw… Well, we’ll see what’s what this spring when the decisions are made by the Board of Ed and we learn the options
Meanwhile, I am posting the pieces he has made for his portfolio. Would you accept him?

Jack Tea’s Portfolio gallery

Advertising and Its Discontents – Part II: Charity

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I like nice. I like sweet. But even more I like raw. I like real. And Ilove Charity Larrison. She and I have been corresponding for a couple of years ago and she always cracks me up and take my breath away with her honesty. Charity’s story is pretty different from Trevor’s and it is far from resolved. I won’t say much more in the way of introduction but to say, Charity is the real thing. We can all learn a lot from her bravery, creativity and independence.

The Fundamental Distraction by Charity Larrison


At 18, the idea of going to art school, being a real artist, whatever, you know – seemed basically useless. My family was poor – college was not even an option really. And college for something as abstract as “being an artist” – ha ha. I might as well not even think about it.
I remember spending my whole senior year of high school in a corner of the art room working on paintings - buying extra time here and there doing the whole fluttery-eyelashes thing, “Oh come on, *please* Mister Whatever Stupid Teacher - I finished the assignment in five minutes! Can't I *please* go down to Miss McKannicks' for the rest of the period?? - i'm working on A GREAT PAINTING!”
So like any good comic book loving skateboard punk rocker with no way out of small town America hell – I joined the army.

I remember when I was in basic training my drill sergeant secretly pulling me over to the side and saying: “ONUSKA, take these markers and these flags up to the latrine and draw E-328 Predator faces on them so I can give them as prizes at the end to the other drill's. If you get caught you're in trouble, so don't get caught!”
And then there was the Sunday afternoon when I was in advanced training, learning my 68G10 - Aircraft Structure Repair crap; I was walking through the platoon area on my way to the smoking table when I was accosted by my Drill Sergeant to report for detail to the enlisted club, where I ended up spending the rest of the summer assisting his wife painting a mural of a bunch of Blackhawk helicopters landing on the wall in front of the dance floor.
She yelled at me one day: “YOU DON’T BELONG HERE!” Then it was a few really a lot louder sentences in Korean that I am still glad that I couldn't understand & I remember shrugging my shoulders at her and saying: Don't worry, Sun, I have it all worked out.

I got married. We had fun for a while. I got pregnant. He got kicked out of the service. I decided to opt out and follow him home. Our marriage didn’t survive the strain. I packed my baby and what belongings I could fit into his gold Fiero (dear god) and never looked back. I was twenty. Worked and worked and worked. Lots of crap jobs. Night shifts at the convenience store. Short order cook. Bank teller.
I remember it is two am and I am standing under fluorescent lights in an all night convenience store slicing endless little piles of lunch meat, passing the time wondering who it was that got to have the job where you made all the dumb signs. I would be good at that job.
I remember hanging out at my teller station when I worked at the bank, copying pictures out of comic books every moment of time where there were not incredibly crabby people in front of my face blaming me for all their money problems.
I remember lucking into a seasonal civil service gig with Pennsylvania state parks. Where I got to take care of the computers. Burning another boring afternoon clerking it in the office, doodling on post-its when Kevin, the Assistant Boss Park Ranger dropped a stack of instructions in front of me and said: “Larrison: if you can figure out how to network all our computers and make it work, you can have the internet. (THE INTERNET!!!! FINALLY!!!)

I decided I needed to cave in and try to go to college. To get out and get something better. Thinking to maybe get some kind of IT certificate, as I was so swell at computers and all. Looked it up on the Internet. Looked halfheartedly at stuff, then saw it. The graphic design program. You know: the “oh, that’s what i’m supposed to be doing” moment. (omg – like art school! But like – you could actually GET A JOB) (try not to cry laughing at me :D) anyway – once i saw it, it was too late. I had to do it. So i did. It was insanity. I worked five million jobs and went to school and somehow held everything together with just, pure will. (because seriously, this was the stupidest gamble of all time WHAT ARE YOU THINKING etc.)
See – I loved graphic design. I loved it more than anything in the whole universe. There was nothing like it to me. I knew how to make the pages talk. Then i learned how to make the pages sing. I made pretend magazines and taught myself how to make web pages, and I demanded that i get a REAL internship at a REAL place. Because even though i was just some jackass with an Associates’ degree from a tech school – that didn’t make me not THE BEST. (quit laughing :D)

Anyway, i got my internship. They hired me right out of school. Their art director moved to Atlanta, and I got his job. I was never, ever, ever, so miserable in my entire life than how miserable i was for those six months. I remember my favorite part of the day was whenever I could go down and sit in the restroom just so that I could spend five or ten minutes not having to be in the same room with those people. I mean, holy shit – these guys were some serious assholes. I was so depressed. I mean this? This is what graphic design is for? Lying? And lying and lying forever? GAH. And I’d spent so much of myself learning and it felt like, all for nothing.
I lasted about six months till they fired my ass. I remember dancing up the street Fred Astaire style the afternoon they fired me. Sure it sucked and I was doomed, but lunchmeat at two am was better than that crap.
Not to be thwarted, once i finished celebrating being fired from the ninth circle of hell, I threw my resume up on monster.com and got a call. Some company needed someone who could use Photoshop. Okay. I can do that. Went. Interviewed. They ended up hiring me on the spot. Was a small engineering company. Tired of getting raked over the coals from the ad agency that was doing all their stuff previously, they wanted just someone who could use Photoshop to fix some images for them.
I was all like, well, you know, i can do everything those bastards were doing for you, except better, and cheaper. So they hired me and gave me a million raises and built me a giant office and bought me every toy I asked for. It was fantastic for about a year. I made everything for them from out of nothing. I was like a great hero, rescuing my company from the tyranny of the great evil of advertising agencies.
I suppose you see what’s coming by now. I mean, there’s only so much you can do. After a while my job started to consist of just updating and tweaking and pressing buttons. I joke that it is my George Jetson job. I just rush in push a button then put my feet up on the desk. Which everyone says is so great. Which I suppose it is, but what happens if you are crazy and actually LIKE to work, but have no work to do? It sucks. But you can’t leave your great job when you are the sole support of your tiny family. You gotta just suck it up and go to work.
So, I sit in my giant office in the middle of nowhere America and spend my days floating around the great now of the Internet. I don’t know that I had a plan really when I started out. I mean, I just did the things I already liked to do. I followed comics websites and comics artists and followed their advice about how to learn how to draw, and i just kept trying to learn how to draw. Because that’s what I wanted more than anything. To learn how to draw for real. So i could draw comic books. For real. So i just kept drawing. I made myself websites to put my drawings on, cause that kind of made it feel like an activity. I made horrible comic books. I made friends and enemies.
I have some friends who are writers, they asked me to draw their stories, so I did. Because I love them, and I love that they write stories, and I love making words into pictures, and the challenge of making the pages read and flow. Figuring out just the right thing to draw to make the story move the best way. It’s the funnest game ever. It makes me work hard. I could do it till the end of the universe.
And slowly I started to learn how to learn.
It’s funny about learning. It’s never what you expect. I am starting for the first time ever, to actually get the hang of it, and make some things that are kind of cool and that i really love. I am starting to learn how to see the world, and my heart is constantly in like this odd vice of joy. I want to draw everything all of the time. But time is precious – which things to spend the time on? I want to draw that tree – but really shouldn’t I be working on something serious? I mean, that is the kind of thing I have been thinking to myself lately.
See – honestly, I hate my job. It’s awful. I am all by myself all the time. There is no one to talk to ever, except the dumb internet, and I want out. Having basically one client only for the past four years, my portfolio is utter crap. And, Jesus, I don’t want to be a graphic designer anymore anyway. I want to draw. But how do you make a living from drawing? How do you make a living from drawing without starting to hate drawing, is the main thing i think. I have been trying to figure it out. Trying to figure out what way to push so that I can still love it, and still get out of here.
So I have been trying to remember why I started this. Why I am here. What did I want when I began? To maybe find some kind of clue that will help me figure out what to do. What is important? Why do i do all these things that I don’t actually care about anymore when I would really rather be out drawing trees?

These days I just wake up every day and do what I have to do to buy the extra time down miss mckannicks' to work on the paintings. And think it is pretty awesome that I get to stay here this time and don't have to go to the Army again, because that sucked.

Advertising and Its Discontents – Part I

adnotes.gif Above: Notes taken during a really important meeting I no longer remember.


One of the chief obstacles many creative people face is how to cope with the intersection between our creative and our professional lives. Is drawing, painting, photography, music, whittling, just a hobby? Or are we serious about it and wiling to throw ourselves over the cliff’s edge and base our livelihood up on it? Anxiety over this issue is what derails a lot of us when we are young. Do we go to art school or a “real” college? Do we spend the rest of our lives in a split-level ranch or a garret? Do we break our parents’ hearts or become accountants?
Like most things in life, it’s not that black and white. People who make money doing creative things usually reap a varied harvest. It’s never 9 to 5 and the paychecks are rarely steady but there are more and more ways to sell your creative products. It’s not about getting your slides accepted at a New York gallery. And your patrons may be people just like you, not just investment bankers looking for investable art. For example, the internet means you can show and sell posters of your work and never leave the farm. You can sell drawings and jewelry and t-shirts and greeting cards and zillions of things.
And most importantly, you can call yourself an artist, regardless of how much money you make or how many pieces you sell.
I make a smallish percentage of my living from my personal work. I write books, I write articles, I do illustrations, but the lions’ share of my income is from my job in a company, working for the Man. I am pretty comfortable with this arrangement. It means I don’t feel desperate, I do the projects I want to do, and the extra money keeps me in 24 karat fountain pens and hand-bound unborn-calf-velllum sketchbooks.
Recently, I asked two successful illustrator to share some of the details of their lives, particularly to explain this issue of commitment and financial survival. First, Penelope Dullaghan, whom you may know as the originator of Illustration Friday. She took the leap from advertising into full-time illustration a Notes from a really important meeting I no longer remember.
A few years ago, I temporarily detached from the ad teat. It had been a good run. Ad agencies had provided a good steady income, kept my family health-insured, taken me on some all expense-paid junkets to interesting places. But the experience has often been depleting, humiliating, demoralizing, and I had to see what it was like it cut loose. Eventually I got sucked back in but I still question the wisdom of succumbing.

I’m not alone in wondering. Most advertising creatives would like to break free. A few brave ones do. A couple of weeks ago, I asked some pals who had jumped ship to tell me what drove them to do it, how they did it, and how they feel in retrospect. I was going to gang them together in a single post but when the first one arrived, from Trevor Romain, it was so good, I had to get it to you right away.

Have you had a similar or completely different experience? Please let me know, either by posting a comment below or by writing me a longer description. And stay tuned for more in this series.

The Very Moment by Trevor Romain

I’ll never forget that day.

It was the morning after I had pulled an all-nighter creating an advertising campaign for a client. The campaign was a good one. I felt great about it. With a number of Clio awards and dozens of Addy and One Show awards under my belt I felt confident that the client would love the ideas we were presenting.

The cigar-chomping, excessively-sweating client – who I created the campaign for – was reviewing the work. He was looking over the ad campaign with disdain.

He said. “This is bad. I hate it. Why don’t you just take the logo and fill the page with the entire thing? Now that would be branding.”

My heart sank. Then I felt anger. Extreme anger. Not at the client, but at myself. I remembered a promise I had made to myself twenty years before. A promise I had not kept.

It happened when I was in the army in South Africa. I was walking through a field hospital filled with kids from small rural villages who had been brought to a clinic for treatment from the army medical corps. The conditions were abysmal. There were almost six kids per bed, it was nauseatingly hot and there were flies everywhere, especially around the corners of the children’s eyes and mouths.

As I was walked down the center aisle I caught sight of a little boy who was about five years old sitting on the edge of one of the hospital beds. I looked into his huge brown eyes as I walked by and then noticed with shock that he had no legs. Instead I saw dirty bandages wrapped around two stumps. The boy had lost his legs in a landmine accident on the Angolan border.

As I walked by, the little boy put up his hands and said “Sir, can you please hold me.”

I will never forget the haunting look of sadness in his eyes. Huge tears rolled slowly down his cheeks and dropped to the floor, their significance lost in the dust and grime of war.

The Sergeant Major, who was walking alongside me, grabbed my arm and pulled me away from the child.

“Romain,” he grunted. “Leave him alone. Don’t get emotionally involved. We’re here for security, not child-care.”

As the Sergeant Major pulled me away the little boy, in a broken chocked-up whisper, spoke again. His voice tugged at me from behind.

“Sir, please, please can you just hold me?”

Something happened to me that moment that I will never forget. My life changed instantly. It felt like a hand came out of the sky, reached inside me, and flipped a switch that turned on my soul.

I pushed the Sergeant Major’s hand away, turned, walked back and picked up the little boy. I have never been held so tightly in my life. His trembling little body clung to me for all it was worth.

He put his head against my chest and he began to cry. His tears ran down my neck and inside my shirt. I held that little boy with my arms, my heart and my soul and every ounce of compassion in my being. I never wanted to let him go, ever.

At that second I promised myself that I would never waste a second of my valuable life. That I would use my creative talents to change the world for children.

But I didn’t.

I went into advertising because it was safe and the money was good and everyone told me that it was almost impossible to make a living writing and illustrating children’s books.

I believed them.

I got sucked into the advertising vortex. I allowed client after client put my work down, destroy my exciting ideas and turn me into a cynic, who spent every day, using my talents to convince consumers to buy things they didn’t need.

The inner explosion had been building for months. The cigar-chomping client wasn’t the reason I quit that day. He just lit the fuse.

My wife and I discussed the situation and both decided that I HAD to follow my dream.

I woke up the next day, sat in front of my yellow pad and started my new job as an un-published children’s author and illustrator.

Although getting started was difficult and sometimes frustrating, the sheer passion and joy of doing what I love was there. And it still is. I have been hungry, rejected, under-appreciated and often ignored but I LOVE what I do. I have been writing full time for ten years now and I am one of the happiest people I have ever met.

During my journey, after every book rejection I received, I heard the little boys voice in my head saying, “Sir, please can you just hold me.

And in my heart and soul I did.

And I still do.

I now have 30 books in print with over one million copies in circulation in twelve different languages.

And I’m not done yet. I still hear the little boy’s voice.couple of years ago and I remember how suspenseful but ultimately very satisfying the whole process was for her.
Second is Torontian Alana Machnicki. I like her drawings a lot and am inspired by the broad range of ways she applies them. I have learned a lot from both their stories. I hope you find them useful too.

Penelope Dullaghan

I think that leading a creative life is both rewarding and really really hard. It’s not just creative painting and being messy all the time. It is a real business, like any other. (Well, maybe not like any other. I think this is way more fun.)

To manage a creative life, I think first and foremost you need to be a good planner. You are not guaranteed a paycheck or steady income, so sometimes it gets really thin and you have to adjust accordingly. If you have a bad month, you better have some money left over from a good month to float through it. The people who work at the phone company and the power company have steady jobs and will not understand if you tell them you’ve had a bad month. :) So you need to budget!

But planning goes beyond financial. Time is also yours to plan. A good balance of work and gathering inspiration and personal time is important (I struggle with this a lot). Being an entrepreneur is hard. No one makes the rules for you and no one is there to tell you to work (or to stop working). If you decide to take time off and accidentally miss a deadline, you’re in trouble. At the same time, if you work around the clock and burn out, that’s no good either. Balance is in planning.

Secondly, I think it takes faith. Faith that the next job will eventually come, even if it sometimes feels like no one will ever call again. If no client has called with a new job or assignment, it can be really scary. Self doubt creeps in and you start to wonder if you’re really cut out for this. Working at the mall starts looking really appealing. But this is something to be waited out…and not sitting down. If you are bored, you’re doing it wrong. If no paid work is coming in, do something for your business. Start working on a new image for self-promotion. Update your website. Write some thoughts down about avenues to get your name out there. Work on personal work for yourself, while at the same time, bettering your skills. Give yourself an assignment…challenge yourself to think conceptually. Read a business book to hone that side of things. There’s always something you can work on. Always room for improvement.

Or, if you are a workaholic like me, try to relax and take some downtime. Go to a movie (a matinee to save money) or go for a walk in the park. Fill your well. By the time a client calls again (and they will!), you’ll be ready and inspired to do the project at hand.

And thirdly, it takes a lot of plain, hard work. I have a lot of things going on all the time (maybe too much) to help me pay my bills as well as keep the creative fire burning (for both me and others). But it’s work I enjoy doing. I get a lot out of having fun little contests (just finished up a “Draw a Witch” contest for Halloween) and doing free things like Paper Doll Mix n Match to help promote my new tshirts. I have an online store to sell prints and stuff to help financially and just for fun (I like thinking up new tees and postcards to print).

I also started Illustration Friday as a way to challenge myself…to grow my portfolio and force myself to think conceptually. Then I opened it up to others because I figured they would like the challenge too. And now it’s a huge, fun thing that many people participate in each week. I love seeing all the new names pop up in the column and checking their illustrations to see how their minds work. It’s also become a great form of self-promotion… even though that’s not why I created it (I think of it as a perk for running it!). The site was recently named a HOW Top Ten Website, which I thought was cool not only because it’s good promotion for the site, but because it kind of speaks to the creative community at large… maybe we’re not all isolated artists, but we seek to be a part of something bigger by supporting each other and talking to each other. Illustration Friday helps with that.

I’m also a part of a local illustrators group. I look forward to getting together with them once a month to chat about the industry, ask questions, give answers and just be with like-minded people. Part of a community, again…

I’m going to be honest and say that it is sometimes really hard to have so much going on. I get stressed out and unbalanced. Keeping up with my normal workload, Illustration Friday, doing self-promo, creative-community things, running an online store, gallery shows and trying to maintain a personal life… can be a bit much. I sometimes miss having a regular job with regular hours and regular paychecks. But I really can’t imagine giving it up. I feel like it’s kind of built itself…each thing I do is a part of me. It’s good for my creative spirit and hopefully feeds my business, too.

More on Penelope here, here and here.

Alana Machnicki

As a creative I’ve always found it important not to put all my eggs in one basket, so to speak. I like to have a little going on in different aspects. I have a tendency to get bored really easily and having a cornucopia of outlets to choose from keeps me happy.
I also find it much easier to live as a creative when I’m not under financial pressure. Because of this I’ve come to accept that having a part time job in the background is essential for me. Also, having the foresight to keep the job, even when I’m having a particularly profitable month, is even more important. I never know when a dry spell is going to come along and leave me scrambling to pay the bills.
I try to promote myself as best as I can. I hand out business cards at every opportunity, even if it is to someone who will never need my services. There’s always that chance they’ll pass the card or my website on to someone who does. I also travel to Comic Conventions with my fiancé where I sell prints of my work. This has lead to jobs, commissions and sometimes the print sales add up to more than what I would have made selling the original. It’s also a great way to expose my work to the masses and hand out more business cards.
I also sell my prints online, but I’ve found people are quite wary of the whole system. The orders I have processed have been through email and the “I’ll mail you a cheque” method, rather than Paypal. I guess people prefer to deal with a real person.
I rarely turn down any job that comes my way, unless I’m totally swamped. Even those with a lower budget could be seen by another art director who wants to offer me my dream job. I’ve also done a couple “sample” jobs where I’ll work on a piece just to show them what I can do for them. Sometimes I get the job (this is how I got my Absolut Vodka ad) other times I’m left with another piece in my files. A few of these filed samples have lead into other jobs.
I do a little graphic design here and there. I design websites occasionally. I used to even have a part time job where I altered travel photos to make grey skies blue and erase trash from the street. I think it’s just a matter of being open minded and knowing what you’re capable of. I’m also a very quick learner, so I usually know if people just give me a chance I’ll pick up on the skills needed.
A lot of artists have issues with being labeled a “sellout,” especially when working commercially. Personally, I think I’m very lucky to be able to do what I love and get paid for it.
Currently I’m trying my hand a sculpting my wedding cake topper (maybe this could parlay into some kind of wedding topper business), and have plans for a line of t-shirts. I’ve also been thinking of different things to sell at the comic conventions, such as smaller pre-framed prints. I’m also working on a children’s book for Scholastic that features intricate paintings of carousel horses, as well as 400 spot illustrations for a Kitchen Dictionary.

Feeling a little La-la

santa-monica-cacti

I have been holding on to my jet lag quite well while here in LA; getting up early and going to sleep most nights before ten. Still my internal clock has slowly drifted west a little more each day; I’m probably somewhere over Oklahoma today, rising at 6:30 and feeling rested (last week it was 4:30). It’s been great to get up at dawn and have a couple of hours to myself. I usually walk along the beach for forty five minutes; to the Santa Monica Pier and back before breakfast, passing the homeless people still in their sleeping bags under the palm trees.
After breakfast, I work on my book. I am able to dart on to my computer several times a day to make adjustments to the work in progress, rewriting, redesigning, lettering and drawing elements to insert into the layout. Last night, while waiting for a final meeting on casting, I finished my final read through and am pretty much satisfied. The book is 208 pages long; each with a unique design, rimming with drawing and colors and thoughts and weird lettering. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done and I feel deeply satisfied by it. I could go on tweaking forever and yet it also feels quite complete, organically whole. I will look at it on the plane again tonight and then send it off to my editor.
I’ve spent most of my days over the past week and a half working on the campaign we are set to start shooting next week. We’ve figured out every shot and transition, pulling the spots apart and reassembling them, challenging them to their basic premises and seeing how we can plus them. We have dozens of roles to cast across the campaign and each day look at DVDs full of actors in LA and New York. Last night was our last round of callbacks and we are in pretty good shape. This afternoon we will take our clients through all of the decisions we make and on Tuesday the cameras will start to roll. We have tested so-called ‘animatics’ (basically cartoon versions of the spots that let us see how people respond to the basic plots of the spots) with consumers and they have all done exceptionally well, hitting historic highs for communication, persuasion and likeability, so we are hoping that our clients will be filly on board with all of the subsequent decisions we’ve been making. But, of course, one never knows. Our director has just finished shooting a movie and every day must meet with the studio and discuss the edit; he says it is a horrible experience and one he won’t repeat any time soon.
This evening, I’ll be on the red-eye back to New York. I’ll get to spend a few days with my family (who I miss terribly) and to duck into my office and straighten out some things on the other parts of my account. We are in the midst of launching a huge print campaign too and have photographers to hire and many, many details to work out.
It has been a very stressful experience because so much is riding on our efforts both at the clients and at the agency. Hopefully things will all go smoothly and the tension will subside.
My book is keeping me sane, quite honestly. It is like a quiet lagoon I can dive in to when all around me is chaos. It’s not just the fact that it’s a real project that has been met with so much good energy so far. It’s also that it’s mine; a little world of my own making that reflects nothing but my own experience of reality. It’s also something I hope will be very positive for those who share it and will help them to embrace their own creativity and make lagoons of their own. Drawing has always brought me such peace and happiness and the further I wander into the Valley of Darkness, the more important a beacon it becomes.
Sure, my book is going to be published — but that’s not it; all of the books that precede it, the 38 volumes of drawings I have filled in the past few years, have all brought me this satisfaction, helping me see the world as it truly is, not a tangle of subjectivity and judgment and tensions and ego, but a place of peace and great beauty, even in the smallest things.
That said, I’ve finished my breakfast now. I’m going to go and do a little drawing in the sunshine before my day takes off.

They pull me back in

workdesk

It’s a year and a half since I left my last job, left meetings, left acount executives, left downsizing, left that tight feeling between my shoulderblades. For the next year, I managed to do a lot of drawing and travelling. I created this blog, worked on the staff of the Morning News and the New York Times, and finally achieved my dream of being paid to be an illustrator. I finished one book and then conceived and wrote another, the book I have always wanted to read. I spent a lot more time with the people I had abandoned during my four years of senior management: I picked Jack up from school, I sat in the kitchen and talked to Patti every morning, unencumbered by bosses and office gossip. I met hundreds of great creative people around the world. A happy time.
Somewhere in the back of my head, probably on a nerve that connects right to that tightness in my shoulders, a little voice continued to murmur. “You’ll never make enough money. You’ll never be able to afford the standard of living you had during all those years in advertising. You are still a rank amateur. What will you do when you’re sixty? Seventy? What if you live as long as your grandfather? You can’t survive to 95 on scraps. Wipe that smile off your face.”
On and off, I freelanced in ad agencies. I had steady clients who brought me back in time and again. In one day of advertising freelancing, I could make what took me a couple of weeks of illustration and so I did both.
And I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it like I hadn’t in years. I was being hired just to sit around and come up with ideas, to make things. Not to hold clients’ hands or draw up lists of people to fire or listen to my boss quote from his most recently read book on management techniques. All they wanted was ideas and I have become a fire hose of those. At the end of each assignment, I would throw on my suit and present the work to the client and most everything was well received.
Then last summer, just before I went on my cross-country trip, I came up with a campaign that won a small agency an account worth about a quarter of a billion dollars. When I finished my trip, visiting Andrea in San Francisco, I got a call on my cellphone while walking down Market Street. They wanted me to come back and run the account.
It was exciting to have been part of this sort of victory. We had beaten the biggest, most famous agencies in the country, based on a line I’d thought of at the urinal one afternoon. The agency has done a lot of good work and it is on a phenomenal wave of success. Right after the big win, we reeled in one of the leading sneaker companies, then an international beer, and now we are on the verge of three other huge new accounts.Our success is like nothing in the recent history of advertising and there are just a meager overworked handful of us doing it.
Like the tsunami that hit Asia, this agency’s momentum has threatened to devestate all of the changes I made to my life over the past couple of years. It is easy to succumb and work sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. I can give up this blog, see my family only in their pyjamas, stop drawing altogether.
I can also succumb to the tension and fever pitch and not even enjoy the incredible creative opportunities on my plate. I just got the go-ahead to shoot a dozen commercials, each with a budget over a million dollars. I’ll be traveling around the country to do it and yet I can still make myself feel miserable about it. Miserable because I worry about what I am losing, breaking my commitment to myself. Miserable because I can worry about not living up to expectations. Miserable because I’m an ad guy again.
It has been a struggle not to succumb. I know that sounds dreadful and there are so many people who would do anything to be in my place. What I am wrestling with, truely, is the danger that I could slide back under the waves, go back to how I felt a half dozen years ago, when I didn’t draw, didn’t share my feelings, couldn’t conceive of myself as an artist.
But guess what. I can and am and will continue to win that battle. I am not the person I was. And even though I am in the world I left, I am a new man. My year off was transformative. My imagination works better than it ever did. My confidence and self-knowledge are magnified.
If you are considering chucking a job or career or a direction that stifles you, I hope my experience is helpful. You can decide to walk away and then to walk back without feeling like your experiment was a failure. You will return, if you do, changed and smarter and knowing where the exits are in case you feel like you need fresh air ever again in the future. Or perhaps you will stay on the new path and never look back. All that really matters is that you take each day as it comes, look for the beauty in it, abandon preconceptions and focus on what you want to be. A healthy, creative, complete person.
I wish it for you. And for me.