And a very happy summer day to you. Isn’t this just the best time of year? Splashing in the lake, sunbathing on the deck, nibbling bits of potato salad and hot dog that have dropped off the plates of oblivious humans...simply dreamy. But the real reason I’m here today is not to soliloquize about the sensations of the season: I have a story to tell.
When I last left off, young adult John was looking forward, towards an uncertain future, and looking inward, to find some answers about where his art would take him next. So here we have it: The Tails of Artiphany, Chapter 2:
Hand to Mouth, Brush to Wall
To continue this tail (I mean TALE, jeez, I just can’t ever get that straight), we have to go back briefly to John’s Stanford years. As you already know, John used his time at that institution of learning to pursue an aspect of art that he had not yet plumbed: namely, the pleasure of painting. But what I didn’t tell you is that John had a little something on the side with his ever-love, drawing.
Though the Stanford Daily newspaper was not in need of a comic strip—indeed, did not, as far as John recalls, even have one at the time—young adult John volunteered and was soon daily sketching out little narratives, visual witticisms and cultural critiques. “That was probably where I started doing storytelling,” John reflects, “It taught me how to produce something consistently, with consistent characters, with a storyline, a narrative and so on. But even still, I didn’t have any grand ambitions to do that. It was just an experiment on my part.”
Yet, it was this “experiment” that ultimately led young adult John, in suit and tie, to Kansas for an interview—his very first, after graduation. Struggling with the daunting task of making his way into the professional world as a young painter, young adult John decided that he would instead send of his comic strips out to all the major newspaper syndicates across America. “I was thrilled to get one positive response,” John says.
That one response was in none other than Kansas City. It was a big deal: to get on a plane, a California boy with no experience in these things, and to get picked up and driven out to the offices of this newspaper; to sit in the chair and get asked question after question about the merit of his comics. “I remember this one panicked moment during the interview, where they asked me a question. The executive editor said, ‘What is it about your comic strip that makes it different from other ones.’” Young adult John, who had prepared, but not for a question like this, was stunned into silence. “I remember feeling this complete paralysis come over me. What I had in my mind was a picture of myself sitting in this chair, in the office, in this suit, and slowly disappearing, shrinking in size down inside of my suit. And the editor walking over to my collar and calling down through the opening of my shirt saying, ‘Mr. Littleboy, are you OK?’”
Young adult John got the job—well, kind of. They offered to run his comics if they liked them. And the salary was good, great even. But when John got back to California, when he sat down to make these comics, he realized: this was not it. The desire to create was not there. He was thinking about other things, he wanted to paint, he wanted to create art. And so he did what many young people do to this day in the same situation. He made do. “Voluntary poverty,” he calls it. So, he lived simply; he got work when it came, whether in the form of illustrations for magazines or for companies; he kept making art. “What I ended up doing was I worked, from that time on, in isolation from everything,” he says. “There was no office I went to, there was no team I worked with, there was no guide or boss or manager. It was a long, extended improvisation.”
We are going to fast forward a bit: It’s ten years later, and John—now in his 30s—is still living the life of the proverbial Starving Artist. Then, a flash of wonderful luck. A French restaurant down in Carmel was looking for a muralist to paint their walls in floor-to-ceiling, life-sized scenes of a French provincial village in the style of Trompe-l'œil, a technique of French realism that labors to create the illusion of three dimensionality. John took the job eagerly, just as eagerly disregarding his own lack of experience in both the style and the scale that this job demanded.
John arrived at the restaurant. He would be staying in the building itself, in a little room up above the kitchen—a delightfully Bohemian premise, he remembers. But that first night, John surveyed the walls he would be working on in the next months and his mind was filled with dread. “What the f@*k am I doing here,” he thought. “I’ve never painted anything this big.” He was filled with the same panic that had drowned out rational thought during his interview ten years earlier.
Luckily, John had a trick, gleaned from his university days. When he had been just starting out at Stanford, John says, he was overcome by “Painter’s Block.” He would sit in front of a canvas and...nothing. There was nothing to paint, nothing to create. Eventually, however, and through much frustration, young adult John had realized that if you just start, just put your brush to canvas and start painting, the rest would follow. It’s the same with drawing, he explains: “The act of drawing is like visual thinking. I learned that drawing, is thinking. And once you start drawing, that’s how the process of new ideas or other ideas or latent ideas begin.”
And it was the same, as it turns out, with muraling. “The moment I realized that I could do this, and I could do it at a level I wouldn’t be embarrassed about, it released such a massive amount of serotonin, or some pleasurable chemical, into my brain. And I said, ‘This is it. This is the feeling I want to keep happening.’ And along the path of my life, the moments when I had some measurable, concrete success in something, and I could see it work, that was my reward. That’s what made me want to keep doing what I do.”
And that, I think, is as good a point as any to end this chapter of The Tails of Artiphany. (For those curious ones among us, the mural John painted back then is no longer there. The building, and the art, is in a landfill, somewhere along the central coast).
In a couple weeks’ time, on the anniversary of Artiphany’s launch into the public eye, on June 11th, I will be telling the third and final installment in this story. Until then, get off your computers and tablets and phones and out to the dog park! All of you! Don't make me bark at you!
Love and dog bones,