School for Evil – exploratory

Toward the end of Fall semester of my sophomore year, I found a small reading room deep within the bowels of my college library. It was called “The Somebody or Other Memorial Hunting and Fishing Library” and was almost always unoccupied. Its walls were lined with glass cases of leather bound editions of Izak Walton on angling and assorted dusty memoirs of African safaris and was furnished with a few oak table and soft-bottomed leather wing chairs It was a hidden treasure, my very own study, and the perfect place to while away the winter evenings. Like much of the school, the Hunting and Fishing library was criminally overheated and, after a day of lectures and an evening of French irregular verbs, I would often nod out against the comfortable soap-oiled embrace of the armchair.

One afternoon I awoke from a sweaty dream to discover that my sanctum sanctorum had been invaded; several other students had crept in while I was dozing. Embarrassed at being discovered in oblivion with my head thrown back and my mouth open and drooling, I pretended to have been lost in thought not the arms of Morpheus, grabbed my notebook and began to write the first thing that came to my pen.

This proved to be a story called “Under the Awning,” a funnyish and appropriately surreal tale of a man and a girl sheltering from the rain. Ten or so pages tumbled out of me in a flash and was published, unedited in the school literary magazine. Rereading it now, I am surprised by the unfamiliar voice of my deep unconscious and the carefree turns of phrase and plot it took.

Early this June, while walking up Ninth Avenue in Chelsea, an idea whacked my brain with the same sort of thunder bolt immediacy. It was a title of a novel, The School for Evil” and the essential elements of its plot. The whole thing struck me as from the clear blue — I haven’t written much fiction since I was in my twenties and the the idea was so developed already that I decided to pursue it. Over the next nine weeks or so, I wrote a couple of drafts of this 200 page novel, polishing it off by Labor Day.

Part of the idea was to write short chapters — fifty of them in all — and to illustrate each one with an ink painting. I drew the first ten or so and showed them to some friends. At the time, I thought the book was for children, probably ones a little younger than Jack, and wanted it to be a little shocking, a little brutal (think Edward Gorey, Lemony Snickety, Roald Dahl), and as funny and absurd as I could make it. I showed the drawings around to friends and the first ones were judged to be a bit scary — some people thought that was a fine thing, others felt they were too edgy for pre-teens. I took a second pass at the drawings and this time made them cartoony and a bit silly. I went on to make a couple dozen in this style.

While I rather doubt the book will ever be published, the process was very interesting and informative. Working from my imagination rather than just my experience was a refreshing change; writing fiction and then drawing made-up scenes was so far from the documentary journaling and non-fiction work I usually do and it opened new hidden doors in my head.

I am posting a gallery of alternating drawings from each series. I called the scarier ones “Rated (R)” and the more cartoony series I labeled “PG”. See what you think.

Brush Twice a Day

Maybe I’m my own worst enemy. Or maybe I just love being a novice. Or maybe I’m bored too easily. But if I gaze back on the course of my passage across the infinite drawing landscape, I look like a veering drunkard, swerving between POVs, pens, paper, subjects, experimenting like Dr. Hyde. When I talk to people I know who are successful professional illustrators, they seemed to have done all this experimentation back in art school and then settled on a style, a technique and a set of tools long ago, so their work is predictable and knowable — that’s what make it commercially viable. When it comes to tools and techniques, I tend to be a serial monogamist. For a while I was madly in love with drawing with grey markers and white pencils on butcher paper. Then I was passionate about using the teeniest possible Rapidograph point on watercolor paper in the smallest size Moleskine, colored with water colors. I went through a period of just doing comic strips in pencil and shades of grey ink. I have always liked the effect of rough, indifferent or spidery marks, splattered with ink, grubby, and wild. In part, that’s a necessity because I am impatient and incapable of neatness. But I like it in others too, from Ronald Searle to Francis Bacon.

My newest journal is big, about 8″ x 12″. Normally I would never use such a large journal because it’s too big for my scanner. Now I’ve decided not to care. Its paper is pretty crummy, too, just ordinary stuff you’d cram into a Xerox machine– the ink easily bleeds through it. And I am not using a pen — just a plastic brush which I dip in a bottle of sumi-ink. It’s a waterbrush but it’s too clogged for the reservoir handle to work properly so I dip it in a puddle of drinking water which I pour on the pavement in front of me. And instead of writing careful, ornate captions with my dip pen I just write some sort of crappy looking note with the brush on the opposite page.

As I describe all this, I wonder is it a matter of some sort of artistic self hatred that’s making me work in this slovenly way? Or am I bored? But no, I really like the feeling of freedom I get from slashing at the page in this way. The drawings have yet to reach any sort of aesthetic that I am completely pleased with but I feel nice and loose and unfettered. I don’t care if the pages are perfect ( I had been becoming so anal in my last book that I was drawing less and less, rarely having the time or mood to be so deliberate) and I like how they are warped and winkled. This may be a summer fling but it’s already forming sweet memories.