The next big shove into exploring abstract space happened in first semester of Architecture school at University of Kentucky. Had a dynamic, aggressive instructor named Mike Cranfill that work yellow workman boots when he did reviews so that he had the right shoes on for jumping up and down on projects he didn’t like after he threw them to the floor. There were a lot of reviews, a Hell’s Kitchen atmosphere intent on weaning out the weak ones and ensuring as the class sizes shrank per year only the best and brightest made through, or at least, the most bulletproof. Each teacher in first year foundational architecture had a different way of pushing and challenging, and all of the instructors I encountered made me better as an aesthetic and spatial thinker, regardless how much I might have resented their methods or when they dropped the hammer. Remember those trends for getting in trouble a lot as an elementary school student, that didn’t change in college. I just stayed up further past any sane bedtime and drank more dangerous things than the Kool-Aide.
One of the first assignments for studio involved finding a motivational image. I settled on Nude Descending a Staircase although I also used an image of one of the mossy trees with roots arching up out of the ground from Empire Strikes Back.To this day two of my favorite images of aesthetic merit. We were instructed to construct 6 foot by 6 foot canvasses, gesso the hell out of them, and draw an image on the canvass with graphite that spoke to the spatial spirit of the image, rather than a literal representation of it. This theme echoed throughout the first year courses, especially in Keith Plymale’s drawing classes, where were were challenged to draw through the live nude models, to break me graphical comic book training and follow through the shapes and forms to see where they went, because a volumetric form is affected from all parts, not just what you see in front of you. Subsequent projects would see me straining for solutions that drew out and explosed organic structures, trying to turn them into habitable spaces, abstractions similar to the notions Antoni Gaudi, Renzo Piano, and Le Corbusier were playing with, as well as artists I would later study at U of Oregon, like artist and later Bau Haus dean Alphonse Mucha and engineer enthusiast Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller. Bridgeman’s art lessons were on a similar theme, except his stopped at the body while our classes and the big thinkers I just name dropped continued to consider organic influences with industrial and aesthetic applications, the structures we dwell in, the machines we use.
We labored for some time on those giant canvases, and once we had drawings we liked, we were compelled to gesso over them with a diluted, non-opaque mix and redraw our creations, perhaps taking on new images for influence, or just pulling out the more interesting parts of the old, and adding things that were new. I began to sculpt into the spaces, adding the Dagobah image to deliberately break a lot of the nearly gridded rigidity of the former image, one I should have photographed to document the progress. I should have kept the end result canvas too, speaking of. All I have are a couple snapshots from near the end of the project, just before final jury.
The Dagobah image of the big tree root, something that reminded me of home, of the weeping willows next to the creek where I used to hunt for crawdads and nearly drowned once when the creek had swelled to flood ready from excessive rain, and where I’d set the opposite bank ablaze once accidently while melting plastic army men to resemble what I’d seen in the Philadelphia Experiment on TV a few nights earlier. Turned out the wax on the inside of the paper ice cream cup didn’t insulate against the heat of the flame like I’d thought, and dry leaves stirred by a breeze can spread a fire faster than a boy can look around to see if anyone is watching. Fortunately someone was, working his garden up the slope from the creek bank, walked inside and called the volunteer fire department as soon as he saw me sparking up the first army man, then came down to help me try to stamp out the edges of the fire like I’d learned with my dad when he burned off the garden at the end of the season to help the soil for the next year. Mostly I think he wanted me to hang around and learn real well why playing with fire is bad without the right safety precautions taken.
The volunteer fireman showed up with a short tank truck, and second later he’d put the fire out like water cannon versus a protest, nothing left but soggy smoldering muck on the ground and tree trunks with bark singed black up to five feet. Fortunately none of the trees actually caught. Years later I’d revisited that patch of river bank and while I was delighted to see the bank had flourished, green as ever, when I looked closely at the bark on the trees around where I’d started the fires as a kid, I could still see black in the creases of the thick bark, dig a fingernail into the creases and pull out soot. Evidence of my passing, my reckless afternoon misadventure.
The man that called the fire department didn’t turn me in, instead he made me describe who did it to the fireman. He gave me a chance to lie, to point fingers elsewhere. Or to confess. I did something in between. I described myself, my red jacket, that it was a kid, what sort of lighter was used, and where it had come from. I never explicitly said it was me, yet I didn’t hide my guilt either. Especially evident since the only places on my face not soot stained were where my tears had run down.
Drawing the tree roots, or rather, using their majestic form to literally diagonally bisect my rigid composition inadvertently introduced me to a technique I would later learn in a 400 level Art History course at University of Oregon about Japanese Wood Block Prints and Ukiyo-e, the ideal of the dynamic diagonal composition, something the professor thought likely inspired by Chinese brush paintings, often of long slopes up mountain sides overlooking hazy lakes or distant foggy horizons, silhouettes of men carrying burdens or stopped for the night sipping tea as the sun slips into oblivion, everything creased by that invisible yet readily apparent diagonal line that pulls the image together like the keel of a ship.
After that phase of the project we spent a large portion of the remaining 18 weeks constructing sculptures that were derived from the drawings, piece by piece, part by part, and that’s when the angry man jumping around like Springheel Jack began to appear, stomping and stamping, grimacing and grinning alternately. The class lost several people over the term, most of them during the first week of building sculptures from the huge canvasses.
My canvass by that point accounted for the most time I’d ever spent on one illustration in my life. Remains true today. Hundreds of hours, and I’m not exaggerating. My enthusiasm for the challenge, for all Mike Cranfill’s seemingly non-stationary challenges, and fear of his wrath and ridicule had me practically living in the studio. A few months later during second semester of year one when I ran into an old girlfriend from high school at a Jesus & Mary Chain show in the student center, did I take her to my room to make out? Nope, I took her to the architecture studio, to the smelly couch where possibly generations of architecture students had also lip locked with lovers.
My room had been a place to catch a shower and sleep after too much wine at a jury review, or to hide out to finish a drawing on a tight deadline for the Kernel newspaper, my guilty pleasure. I’d left restaurant work behind for lower paying, more reasonable / flexible hours working at Knight Library, which is just behind Pence Hall where the architecture studios resided in the dank, concrete floored basement.
In Pence, you could almost tell what year a student was by what floor their classes were on. The center of the building, where I here there is an elevator now due to a student’s lawsuit, the double wide stairwell connected the floors and left the center space open for involved student installations and late night musical jam sessions. I sang the one verse I knew of “Louie Louie” with some third year students over and over with some creative variations for about an hour one night, they were stoned so didn’t care I only really knew a small part of the silly song.
The sculptures were tough, since my drawings were laden with things that worked due to line weighting and what lines cut in front of which. Nothing in my massive drawing remained individually naturalistic, instead the piece was a mosaic, a collage of rigid and organic forms, a collection like all the insane little whirling bits that end up constituting a character in one of Bay’s popcorn, pussy, and pyrotechnics Transformers parades. Step back and could see a sort of hand diagonally draped down the canvass, though the hand emerged of its own accord, nothing I planned or stepped back and said, yes, that’s it. Generally I didn’t step back enough, hence constantly having to revise, adjust. No two adjacent should have the same tone, or shape, or line density, or angle… exponentially more fickle and confusing rules that the ones Ms. S. game me with that first coloring assignment.
I made cardboard stuff, foam core, ply-board, Hydrocal, glue, gesso, paint, spray paint. Learned that Hydrocal gets hot enough to cook an egg as it sets, which nearly set my heavy gauge cardboard model on fire, and definitely ensured the mold wouldn’t get employed a second time. Leaned to open windows when spray painting shit, tough I swore I saw floating ponies and some goats for a moment there…
Wrapped the project, survived the jury, and gained entry into second semester of year one Architecture, a semester that would be thick as thieves with solder burns, three tetanus shots in two months after slicing myself open with sheets of tin and copper, trying to make scale models of load bearing structures based on the hollow bones of birds, Gaudi’s arches, and rib cages and pelvic basins like the one’s I’d drawn in the warm air formaldehyde conditioned cadaver lab over at Happy Chandler Medical Center. Somewhere during that second semester my colleague from the library, Karngar from Nigeria, would accompany my gal pal and I to see on of the installments of Lethal Weapon and recognize as soon as he heard the 1st bad guy that the guy was from South Africa, a sort of foreshadowing that my eventual nemesis, the man that would turn out to be one of the strongest influences on my design perspectives, and eventually my mentor and BFA advisor, would be South African. Karngar would approve of Leon Johnson, I’m sure. After all, both men like Little Mermaid. I wonder if Karngar still has my cassette soundtrack, the one that came with the storybook. And Leon has some awesome kids, at least one a girl, and those kids made damn sure Leon was down with the Disney. Man who taught me the expression, “conceptually up his own ass,” forced to like Disney. And now I’m also a parent, will I soon turn warm to Wiggles? I already love Sesame Street and Yo Gabba Gabba. Time will tell.
Over the years when I haven’t known what to draw or wasn’t trying to be the next big thing in a medium I have no business trying to immolate as an illustrator, and failing for the inadequate effort or patience or suitable style, or lacking talent, suitably charismatic personality.
When I haven’t been lamely club foot trudging after one fickle whim and subsequently another, I’ve let myself relax and flow into the page, or when digitally meandering, the images, snippets, filters, etc. Like visual jazz, riffing and when something works, a note feels solid, I repeat it, create patterns, cadences, octets of detail and oscillating density. Short, fat lines, blocks of negative space, thin lines as faint and misleading as old webs, thick to thin brush pen strokes like sloppy kisses underscoring some details while obliterating others. See a hint of form, pull it out or obscure it. Establish foreground then contradict it halfway to the other end of the frame, or if digital, append another couple thousand pixels to the canvass height or width.
As I pursue this writing challenge to myself, I’m beginning to see that there are some great lessons to pull out for myself. For one, while clearly I will never buckle down and outright draw a comic book narrative, I do love to tell stories, and have done so through various mediums. As a kid I adored the young mens adventures format, stuff like Tom Swift and Encyclopedia Brown, and Beverly Cleary stuff like Henry Huggins, Fudge, and Ramona the Pest. The books were a lot like collected short stories, and often stacked together like serials, like the ones I listened to on the radio or watched rerun on PBS Saturday afternoons. I liked the books as well for their illustrations, and until I hit 7th grade, I looked to those books, my Dad’s hand me down Mad Magazine novels, and newspaper editorial cartoons for artistic inspiration. And books on drawing nudes from the library, thus forming the opinion that a substantial amount of what I know and love in life emerged from searching for images of boobs.
I liked Judy Blume, too, but don’t recall those have pictures inside. They did have a lot of confusing vernacular for a 6th grader, like Forever for example, which really should have had pictures, would have made much more sense, been very educational actually, what with the loss of virginity and the friend’s suicide and all. All the popular kids were reading it, one and then another and then another, giggling like some insider secret being passed around just the way they won’t laugh about secretly passing on STDs during the spring breaks I’m sure most of them had guaranteed in their futures. Catholics gone wild; like some Frank Zappa song. Passing it on hand to hand so fast the cover had to be duct taped back on. And not being popular and guaranteed to a future of working full time during every spring break, I asked my Mom about this book since she let me read her Stephen King books when she finished them, so certainly she’d know this Judy Blume character. She didn’t, instead the next day she stopped by the bookstore at her university and picked up a copy for me. I think she might have read it first, but since she could read a novel cover to cover in a couple hours, four or five in a single day, I guess she probably did.
I read it and discovered I really didn’t understand what all the popular kid fuss was about. OK, I got that there were a couple in the book that eventually had sex. I just duidn’t have the foundational vernacular to catch on to all the other stuff, and when I did, it wasn’t catching onto getting something naughty or cheeky and giggling, it was encountering a turn of phrase that must have made me look like, “Hello, God, it’s me, Ian, learning English for a second language.” One I recall that really had me confused, the book said She Came, then He Came, and I’m standing on my bed shaking a fist at the book, saying, “But! But! They’re both already there!”
A couple years later when I learned what the expression “came” past tense of “come” meant, I had this “Could’ve had a V8” eureka moment and actually slapped my forhead, feeling stunned by the suddenly clarity of a couple year old mystery I hadn’t had balls to ask my Mom about. Thank goodness for that. We’re talking about parents that felt a birds and the bees talk could best be handled by leaving a Biology 101 college textbook, a used one at that, on my bed when I turned 9. True, it covered reproduction and the bits on a pair of Joy of Sex hippy extras. It also followed up with a chapter about mutations accompanied by pictures of frogs and lambs with multiple heads. Frogs would’ve been popular back at Mamaw’s place, no silence with those lambs though. And the book had more nudity, on acetate sheets, each page peeling away another layer of the naked hippies until you were looking at organs and bones. Note to editor, don’t use the same models in your sex section again in your autopsy section. That book definitely made an impression. No, not an “I want to hump corpses” sort of impression; I mean a sex = death impression, beyond Catholic guilt, beyond no hanky-panky before marriage, even beyond concern of repeating mistakes of elders. A pure, irrational, primal sort of fear, that sex would mean death or mutant babies. Until puberty, those perceptions and anxieties were pretty well held firm. Then something else firm got held. A lot.
Back to Beverly Cleary, which I just misspelled “Beaverly” – hello Freud. Don’t worry if you don’t find that funny, it isn’t. A little sad, maybe. I loved the young adventure serial novels for their blend of illustrations and text. The Jack Tales collection my Dad had also followed this format and I’m thrilled my Mom tracked an out of print copy down for me a couple birthdays back.
Looking forward, to learn from all this reflection, I believe I will compose the stories with writing, augment them with illustrations as I can, and alongside that, I should build up some new 6 foot by 6 foot projects that have to be fun, have to be challenging, and after that, they don’t have to be anything at all.
Over the next few weeks, some of the posts will look closer at the stories I’ve wanted to tell, what I’ve abandoned and what I’ve hung on to. The Boistrous Mongrel project with Jed that seems poised for greatness if we ever actually start working on it. The Tijuana Monkey Spy epic. The Bowling Ball Retread. Rickets, now copyright Celia Calle. Supercute, named after a BIgod20 album.
Until then, cheers!
PS - the digital photo-montage uses source photos by my friend Scott Page of his girlfriend at the time after he'd drawn all over her with charcoal. Scott is an extremely talented artist I knew ages ago in Eugene, hopefully he's all rich and famous now.