We just launched a new social network just for SketchBook Skool called the SkoolYard. Among many other things, it’s another place for me to hold forth and write long pieces —like this essay to welcome new members. You may not be in the community yet but some of my thoughts may still resonate with you.
When I was little, we moved an awful lot. We lived in London, Pakistan, Pittsburgh, Australia, Israel, and Brooklyn — all before I finished seventh grade. I lived in different neighborhoods, spoke different languages, and had to learn about new cultures, new sports, new foods every year. I guess this diverse upbringing had its upsides but the hardest part was always being the new kid. And always feeling like an outsider.
Even after we settled in New York, I continued to feel like a weirdo. I wasn’t interested in talking about sports or heavy metal or the best way to roll a joint. I wore three piece suits like some hippy Alex Keaton. I read compulsively and wrote short stories. I drew and painted alone in my room. I would wander the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens on Sundays afternoon, pretending I was lord of a P.G. Woodehousian manor and that this was my estate. I formed an after school Marx-Engels study circle. I acted in plays, co-edited the school paper, illustrated the year book but, when I went to my high school reunion last summer, even though there were only 35 kids in our class, a third of them had no memory of me at all.
At Princeton, I didn’t fit in very well either. I hadn’t gone to a prep school and wasn’t on any varsity. I loved to write but wasn’t an English Major. I hung out with various cliques: the Pakistani students, the artists, the ruby team, the theatre geeks. And when it came time to apply for a job after college, I had no idea what to do and ended up in advertising. I didn’t fit into the agency life either. I was too intellectual, too skeptical about advertising, too visual to be a proper copywriter, too literary to write in the vernacular, too self-conscious to be a good salesman, too prickly and weird to be a good manager. Nonetheless, I had a successful career, feeling all the way that I didn’t belong.
In my late thirties, two things happened. First, I learned to draw. I found a deep and abiding passion in my sketchbook and art began to change who I was. It felt like home and I became more in tune with my surroundings, more empathetic, calmer, happier.
The other was the Internet.
I started to find people who shared my passion. And a whole lot more. I met Richard Bell who loved to draw the nature in his garden, who made books, who lived a thousand miles away in Yorkshire but we would email each other all the time, about all sorts of silly things. I met D.Price who also loved to draw, to publish zines, to study philosophy, to live simply, and he lived thousands of miles away too, in Eastern Oregon, but we snailmailed each other long letters and got together in out of the way places to sit and draw and talk about sitting and drawing, and eat beans out of a can, and watch the shadows grow long. And I met Roz Stendahl who taught me to bind books and watercolor and draw dogs. We would have long phone calls, Skype calls, emails, and over twenty years of friendship, we’ve only ever been in the same room twice.
Over the years there were many other deep and abiding friendships. People who lived far away, who did very different things, whose paths would never have ordinarily have crossed mine but for that one common thread: loving to put ink on paper. At the turn of the century, I started to blog, primarily to share my thoughts with Richard. Without my intending it, my comment section started to turn into a community. Then we set up a Yahoo! group. Soon it had thousands of members. I taught an evening workshop on drawing at the Open Center and formed connections that have endured over decades.
All of these threads continued to weave a rich new tapestry. I published books and taught workshops. And eventually I left my career in advertising, met Koosje Koene, started Sketchbook Skool, and here we are today.
Last fall, we were in Pasadena. Hundreds of people who loved the things I loved. Some were weird like me. Some looked like people with whom I’d have nothing in common. But all felt like family. Because we all loved drawing and sketchbooks and SketchBook Skool.
What started on the Internet had now become a physical event. We were all together in person at last. But a lot of people who felt the same way weren’t there. It was too arduous a trip, too impossible to get to California. But we all felt their presence and wished they could join us too.
After SketchKon, we talked a lot about how to keep that spirit alive. Sure, we could have another convention and we planned to. But how else could we get everyone together in one place, a place that was just for us, a place where everyone belonged, felt safe to be different, to love pens and Prashant, to be an art geek?
For me, Facebook had lost its lustre. It wasn’t just the stories about its business failings. It was the experience of that endless stream of posts, most from people I don’t know, pet videos, politics, saccharine quotes, advertising, and bullshit. I wanted to sit and commune. I wanted to feel like I did at the bar in the Westin Pasadena late on Saturday night, surrounded by people with waterbrushes, talking about Felix Scheinberger’s palette and Tommy Kane’s compulsions, sharing tips, being with people who I know, because we all belong together.
And I also wanted people who didn’t have a long, storied history with me to feel like they belonged too. I wanted to welcome that person who had just transferred into the neighborhood, who didn’t know a soul, who yearned to play but was wary and unsure, who felt a calling to learn more about their own creativity and needed a welcoming smile. The lurkers, the newbies — they are my tribe too.
The Skool Yard is designed to be a place for whatever we want to make of it. We can share drawings, pen recommendations, questions about homework, art inspiration. But we can also share our ideas about art. About life. About anything we want.
We can find people who live near us and invite them to meet at the local Starbucks and share sketchbooks. We can collaborate on projects. We can talk to each other in groups, or one-on-one. We can gather with the people who’ve taken our favorite kourse. We can find others who share our love for gouache, for crochet, for schnauzers or mixed martial arts. Tribes within the tribe.
When I worked in an office, most of my friendships were formed at work. When I left my job, those friendships faded. But I know drawing and I will have a life-long love affair. And the people who share it with me are here for the long haul too. Who knows, one day I may move back to Pakistan, to Canberra, to Los Angeles or Timbuktu, but as long as I can get online, I can talk to you, draw with you, share with you, laugh and cry with you — my tribe.
I’m so glad I found you.
The Skool Yard is just for SketchBook Skool students and by invitation only. We are rolling out invitations this week, starting with those who have enrolled in our new kourse, People Drawing People. Because some readers complain when I promote too heavily on this blog, I haven’t talked at all about this wonderful kourse, but if you’d like to learn about it and join the new community, please do.
If you have been a part of other SBS kourses in the past, you will receive an invitation in the future. We are rolling out invitations in increments so as not to overwhelm the community and preserve its delicate balance. So far it is a wonderful place full of sharing, caring and inspiration. I love it!
And while the Yard is a lovely place, so is my blog because of the community we have built around it. Thanks so much for reading my nonsense for all these years and for having a conversation with me by sharing your comments here.