Today is my 48th birthday. Once it warms up a little I will be going out to sit in my field chair and make a drawing of a huge pile of rocks that fell from a canyon face near Courthouse Wash in Arches a long long time ago. Then I’m going for a hike in Devil’s Garden. I’ll take some pictures and post them later.
My sabbatical is winding down.
The image at right was taken right around December 1st, when I moved out of the Maplewood storefront studio I have rented since 1997. My wife Lori (an independent video producer) and I used it in various configurations during those dozen years. She leased the space on her own, in 1995 or 96, before I moved out of my old the downtown warehouse studio (in the Leather Trades Building on Locust) to join her. About a year ago she accepted a position with a St. Louis production firm, leaving me on my own at 2506 Sutton. (Editorial note, summer 2017: A number of years later, Lori founded StoryTrack, a video content marketing agency where I occasionally help out.)
We packed up my stuff--a lot of books, as it turns out--over the last month, and moved most of it into a temperature controlled storage locker, where it will remain until such time as I reconstitute my studio in another setting. I won’t be needing one for a while.
And that is a notable fact, upon which I intend to reflect for a few paragraphs.
I started out as a printmaker. It shocks me now to think that it seemed like a good idea in the mid 1980s to pursue an MFA in printmaking, which I did at the University of the Nebraska-Lincoln under the distinguished woodcut artist Karen Kunc, and in the company of some excellent artists and wonderful friends. But the intervening years, marked by dramatic cultural and technological change, have made the idea of a graduate printmaking degree seem like the craziest thing possible.
In fairness to myself, my art education was shaped by the traditional culture of art which did not admit or address the companion culture of design, which I use here to include communicative pictures, or illustration. I hadn't the faintest notion of what an illustrator was or did when I began making disciplinary selections, because the choice wasn't available. In my small college art department, the options were painting, sculpture, photography, and printmaking. I chose the last of these, because I liked graphic images and it seemed on the face of it to be the most democratic and popularly-oriented activity available.
Only much later would I realize that the discipline of printmaking consists of previously significant commercial reproduction technologies repurposed for primarily aesthetic ends. That is, printmaking houses a closetful of technologies once used by commercial illustrators and platemakers, but no longer. It is truly bizarre that the academic discipline of printmaking--representing modes of production in use in Europe from the 15th century onward--was born at the dawn of the Atomic Age. Had I known these things, I would have searched out educational opportunities in (primarily) illustration and (as a supplementary exploration) graphic design for graduate study.
My first significant professional work was in the field of fine press books and folios, which I sold to museums and private collections. I love the act and the smell of printing, especially letterpress, but it is insanely slow and cumbersome if you want to make a lot of pictures, as I did and do, and you can’t really make any money at it. (Case in point: I am a few short months from absolutely finishing the last of these projects, which I began in 1995.)
Subsequently I started edging into illustration, because a) I wanted to make things that would be seen by more people than the curators in museums, and b) I had agitated to change departments and work with the designers, who seemed much more interested in things that I recognized as important.
In the course of the next ten years, I produced a newspaper serial for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called "Sam the Dog" from 1997 to 1999; working with writer and old college friend Terry Cawley and Tim McCandless, a colleague from Wash U, launched a internet entertainment company, Sam the Dog, Inc. After the bubble burst, I focused on corporate creative services with McCandless (now co-owner/leader of the design and motion graphics shop Bandolier Group) to make some money; tentatively began to explore experimental animated projects as an art form of sorts, while trying and failing to figure out how to get people to pay for them; led a university research studio that produced design projects for research oriented clients, working most notably on the MySci Project and a permanent exhibition on cardiac health at Missouri Baptist Hospital; and, after a health crisis in the middle of the latter work, began to crawl toward a murkily-imagined future studio practice. I am proud of that work. Much of it was pretty good. But it wasn’t necessarily good for me.
I have spent many years working really hard but not wisely. The sum total of all those new experiences into which I jumped eagerly if not terribly purposefully has given me a range of case studies on which to draw and put me in a position to write knowledgeably and persuasively about them. There’s benefit there. It’s almost like an extended liberal arts tour through commercial image-making, an under-considered field.
Over the past few years I have worked to learn to focus my energies more productively and directly, in my professional, personal and spiritual life. I have labored, especially, to consolidate what I have learned as a person, to lay the tracks for my next decade of work as an artist and a writer.
In general terms, that’s what sabbaticals are designed to achieve—refueling and refocusing. You get one every seven years. I didn’t use my last one to refuel. I went charging off after the next clever idea, the thing that would be really significant.
But that mortality thing. Bumping up against it at my age reduces your tolerance for piling up experiences that build breadth but not depth. I’ve done the former. I’m ready for the latter. That’s what this sabbatical is about for me, professionally speaking.
But it also has a personal dimension. Depth goes with focus.
Recently in answer to a question from my talented friend and onetime student, cartoonist-animator Bob Flynn, I wrote:
I think it's pretty much axiomatic that the illustration of the future will be delivered on screens as much or more than in print or on electronically-delivered print-like experiences. I got caught up in that, and tried to build something on the fact that I could make cool things and wanted to do so for screens. Turns out that's not good enough. The people who sell screens, or access to them, or who sell tickets to see what goes up on screens, will call the shots. You can't invent an innovative business idea and invent innovative content at the same time--no one knows what the hell you are selling. Apple sells ipods and music to play on ipods, but they don't actually make music. Bottom line, from my perspective: I have nothing to sell but my insights, and they take shape in my pictures and my writing. So I'm shutting down my studio and going back to the kitchen table with no overhead but for internet, a cell phone, and a post office box. Whatever profile I generate will grow out of my work, not my "ideas."
This is a basic insight. I am learning, or trying to learn, to shut up. I have gone back to drawing the world. So today I’ll draw some rocks in a blank book. Later maybe I’ll paint the rocks in gouache. Or maybe I won’t. We’ll see. But at this late date, two years shy of a half-century, the act of showing up, of looking and listening, has been revealed to me as a wonderment. I expect to enjoy what comes next. I don’t know what it will be, of course. But I do know what it’ll be built out of. This. Now. Here.
I don’t need a studio. I need a sketchbook, pencils and brushes, and patience. A kitchen table. A sink. No more Sam the Dog, Inc., no more Dowd Creative, no more Ulcer City Studio, no more branding anything. It’s just me. Sitting and drawing. The rest of it will take care of itself.
My footprint has shrunk. And my subject has exploded.
Jesus, am I happy to be here.