Ninth grade included my first academic art class. While I got away with impassioned projects that unfortunately should have had broader ambitions beyond emulating film logos, comic book characters, and discovering the joys of painter’s tape, I did learn from Dan Iverson how to add a drop shadow beneath a raised nipple on an areola. I had two people I envied and pretended I amounted some degree of arch rivalry, though truthfully I never actually did much for either.
Dan could play Hendrix and Van Halen simultaneously on electric guitar, affecting his raging solos during school play half time shows with a couple rows of foot pedals nailed to a plywood board. He could draw and paint as well as Norman Rockwell and his sense of anatomy could correct Michelangelo on a few points. I don’t mean the mutant turtle.
Dan had no sway backed pot belly, rather a track star’s lanky, wiry physique, and he had charisma to spare. Maybe not top five, just a touch behind the Soccer Team goalies, or Buffy the infallibly nice Tates Creek dream girl, or the Ramsey brothers. A smidge lower rung than Alicia Schofield or Becky Davis, one the daughter of a teacher, the other to become one. A hair behind Blaine Ott, the cat that wore shorts 365 days a year, wrote far funnier regular school paper columns than I ever managed like his serial the Road Worrier, and who supposedly poured the bottles of bleach into the giant planter that killed the sizable tree growing in the lobby of the high school. I have considerable doubts about that last legendary accusation, though I respect that Blaine never took a stand to admit or deny such gossip.
One thing to aside here, the cats I’ve mentioned so far were all nice people. That’s the strange difference between my high school, with all its inevitable cliques and fickle hang-ups, the popular kids weren’t insufferable assholes. At least not most of them. They weren’t returning my calls or inviting me out to their parties, either, however I had my head up my own ass enough of the time to make nice with a lot of them, and I had my own circles of friends besides that I wouldn’t have traded for the world. Not that I treated them all that particularly well, either. I did appreciate them though, maybe someday I’ll get a chance to let them all know that I actually did.
Dan probably held a tie position on the high school hierarchy, at least the AP placement, geek and bookish end of it I had purvey into, with a young woman that actually did find me her rival, if not occasionally her gloating better, on one particular battlefield, the tome strewn plains of high school English. Jennifer Chan would go on to become valedictorian for our graduating class. She was captain of the swim team. She was of American-Chinese ancestry and despite her broad, Great Lake crossing shoulders, her distinctive gaze gave many of the boys worries long before Lucy Liu became a Charlie’s Angel. So when a kid with little evidence of ambitions from a family paying rent with student loans starts getting better grades on papers in the one class she isn’t actually getting an A+ in, she noticed. And dragon’s fire danced in her eyes as she heard my grade, a point or two higher than hers, because our teacher liked to hand out lowest to highest marks like eliminating finalists in a beauty contest.
While my envy of Dan’s evidently ample skills had me pretending we were competing while he remained oblivious, it was noticing that I’d become a missing scale in Madame Perfect’s armor through her evident animosity towards me that egged me on towards behaving how she perceived me. Remember how I mentioned once that I aim to please people out of a desire to have them like me? That backfires when I perceive they’ve cast me as something annoying, I’ll just aim to please and become Falstaff, a phase I’m still trying to outgrow.
So the scores would be read aloud and papers handed out by the instructor, a smaller man of slight, athletic build that reminded me a bit of Richard Dreyfus when Mr. Dreyfus sports and beard and mustache. I’d wait to see when Jennifer got hers. Paper after paper would land on desks, starting with scores to low to be uttered, instead clucks of reproach, or a whistled funeral bugle of a tune, or soft coos of insincere condolences, followed by low but passing scores, and after two thirds of the class had been shamed the papers began to land on my friend’s desks, on her friend’s desks, she had more of course, until we two remained.
The teacher caught on to this trend after a bit and would nurse the moment, impregnate it with drama. My friend Jesse would approve of my use of “nurse” and “pregnant” so close together there. The instructor would walk languidly down the aisles between the desks while teens turned and twisted to keep his paper delivering hand in view, straining to see what desk the next paper would land on. Or at least, mine and her friends did, no one else really cared, as teens will find incidents not directly related to themselves or their sense of schadenfreude.
While I didn’t always have the best score in the room, occasionally my friend Lara beat me, or Liesel. The year was almost over before Jennifer did, and I’ll never forget the look she gave me, a mix of victory and gratitude, mocking glee and blunt disbelief. I’d love to say I’d thrown the paper, given her a win, shown my generosity, but I hadn’t. I had turned in a paper without a feeling of contest; I had long since given up worrying about beating anyone, particularly someone I had no other interactions with, no vested interests. I didn’t have yellow fever yet, so not even that. I’d turned in a mediocre paper, and deserved lower marks, something whipped out in the eleventh hour the night before in two different colors of ink after the first pen I’d liberated from my Dad’s stoneware pencil mug ran dry.
Years later when I discovered watching women’s diving during the Summer Olympics as utterly enthralling I wondered if Jennifer Chan ended up going pro. I hope so, way more people applaud and award accolades for athletic accomplishment than they ever due for high school English papers, even ones about the stress of being an Asian-American captain of an otherwise all white swim team like that one hers, the one that finally beat me, had been.
My next art class in tenth grade allowed me to upgrade into an office in the back of the large studio space, one I shared with the multi-talented Jim Shambhu, drank hot tea and drew some of the best and worst pieces of my teenage years.
The best piece I spend many hours creating is a stipple portrait of a father in mourning at the funeral of his two children slain by a crashing helicopter on the set of John Landis’s Twillight Zone film. I’d clipped the reference photo, a black and white image of two men holding the father’s arms as he appeared straining to leap into the open graves after his children, from a Rolling Stone article about Landis’s trial and the accident, the funeral, changes to film set safety practices, etc. A horrifying image, a picture full of rage, loss, of a father’s evident love. I connected with it, and despite my affinity for horror films and all that big hair metal, I tried best I could to keep the spirit of the photo intact, if anything, enunciate it, pull the father out and make him appear to be rising up from the page, from a plain of white emptiness, trying to exist after his world, all he cares about, has been ripped from him. An image I recall now, as a new father, with some trepidation, because if anything were to happen to my boy, anyone tried to harm him, I likely won’t feel restrained by law or reason.
Worst piece I did had a giant Animal Muppet leering over a rooftop full of goofy cartoon characters. Lazy, meandering crap with color pencil that would have sold for $350 easy to hipster kids today up in Ayden Gallery. Teacher gave that independent project an F, and while I felt slighted and infuriated, hindsight she either did me a favor or at least gave me a clear message. Teachers that grade you based on your potential instead of how you fare versus the other kids will do more for challenging your development than teachers comparing you against a common mean. Should have started with the crap art, then done that stipple piece later on when her expectations were lower. Set a high bar out of the gate, only making the going harder. Actually, do set the bar high to start, if only to keep challenging yourself, slacker. Speaking for me to me, I mean.
Between ninth and tenth grade I attend a two week state funded summer camp of sorts called the Kentucky Humanities Institute. Somewhat a precursor to the Governor’s School for the Arts, and something I’ll write about at length on some other day, I returned from those weeks a changed boy. I had left with a head full of Robert Heinlein and returned with a head full of Da Da, Herman Hesse’s Damien, with Peter Shaffer’s play Equus. I’d learned about casting bronze, Mark Twain as a political entity and social commentator. So many things that should have be staples of all public education compressed into a couple weeks and force fed faster than I’d had time to blink. And the imprint of the exposure Kentucky Humanities Institute had imparted became quickly evident in the sorts of illustrations I crafted.
I skipped from comic book characters to strained poses, to attempts at mood and posture, to style over substance while pretending to be steeped full with deep meaning. And this trend would continue until I hit college, until I realized I had no business in Civil Engineering, that wanted to be in Architecture, had landed on academic probation and failed my first round of Calculus with an instructor that knew my Math instructor and recent grad student Mom, and that I would have to pass an entrance exam to beat all entrance exams to gain admittance into UK School of Architecture. I did eventually endure that full day of testing and emerge placing fourth out of three hundred and thirty something test takers. The school accepted forty a year. I got in, I got a small award grant, I got a note to also get my grades up. And I wouldn’t have gotten in had I not taken an art class, illustration specifically, with an instructor that did more to crack my mind open much else had since the Kentucky Humanities Institute in the summer after Ninth Grade.
More on her and my college freshman art evening art class next time.