In a little less than a month, we will be celebrating the first anniversary of Artiphany’s worldwide debut, courtesy of Reddit and Bored Panda: June 11th, 2017, the day John’s Pack of Dogs went viral, was the day that changed the life lines of this little, homegrown business forever. And we want to commemorate this by sharing some silly, heartwarming, human stories about how Artiphany came to be.
These formative tales, which we call among ourselves The Tails of Artiphany, will unravel in three installments over the course of the coming weeks and will end in a little surprise on June 11th. So let’s get to it! We are starting at the very beginning, with a chapter in the Artiphany mythology entitled....
Portrait of the Artist as a California Kiddo
This story starts in the fog banks and sloping driveways of Palo Alto, California during the early 1960s in the Littleboy household, a household full of art and music. One of the Littleboys, a young fellow by the name of John, used to amuse himself (and his family) by drawing pictures, kind of like the ones that all kids dabble in—of trees and animals. But the thing about young John’s drawings was that they were funny too. Not “Aw, that’s nice honey” kind of funny, but truly, honestly, humorous. And in those early artworks, harbingers of visual witticisms to come.
John remembers one of his early images in particular (the one at the top of this post): “Mice are hanging ornaments off of a cat’s ears; they’re wrapping him with a long string of Christmas lights. I even drew the plug going into the wall. Then there’s one mouse resting on his back, idly licking a candy cane.” When you see this drawing, completed by a boy who could barely pen his own name, scrawling it in uneven lettering at the bottom of the page, you will understand in a flash (or a laugh) that John's sense of humor has changed very little since he was barely more than a tot. “Yeah, it’s exactly the same,” John admits. “My humor now is that of a sophisticated seven year old.”
A painting from the future: can you see the similarities?
When you hear John talk about his childhood, there are a few things that are immediately apparent. The first is his instant, enviable recall of events, like the memory of drawing that besieged cat at age five, and the second is how clearly he can point to moments in his childhood that helped fuel his aspirations to live a life, first and foremost, as an artist.
Like, for instance, the very first time the world at large applauded him for his talents.
Young John had a habit of flipping through the comic section of The San Francisco Chronicle every day to see which young artist’s drawing had won that day’s prize. The prize, which was awarded to a promising artwork submitted by child artists from around the Bay, had a delicious bounty to offer: a check in the whopping amount of 2 dollars, a set of special paints, a San Francisco zoo key and, of course, the recognition and pride that came with seeing your work in the pages of a paper that was thrown onto nearly every doorstep in the Bay Area.
So young John set to work. “My mother had recently shown me how to draw with the side of a pencil. And depending on which way you tilted the pencil you could draw this expressive flat or thin or thick line.” Using this technique, John drew an oak tree, an asymmetrical sketch that he describes as having bonsai-like attributes, and sent that drawing to the Chronicle. Then, he waited.
Weeks later, at breakfast one morning, the whole family was gathered around the table when young John’s father, as he did every morning, flipped open the paper. He paused in his perusal, stopped short on the comics section. “Hey isn’t that your drawing?” young John's father asked. And there, on the pages of The San Francisco Chronicle, young John saw his art being celebrated for the very first time.
Sometime later, a teacher wrote to young John’s parents to ask if she could use the drawing in a book she was writing, a teacher’s manual of sorts. They consented and when the finished book arrived at the Littleboys’ doorstep, young John saw that his drawing had been placed in a chapter alongside art from young boys and girls from around the world, along with the caption, ‘Done by a very talented seven year old boy.’ “The feeling that that engendered in me was so strong and so positive,” says John, “that of course anybody would say, ‘Well, then that’s what I’m going to do.’”
In middle school, at the age of eleven and still drawing diligently, young John sold his first artwork. The piece was of a vase, filled with a bouquet of dried flowers, sketched in charcoal. It was a teacher who bought it—making the now skeptical, grown-up John wonder if this teacher had just bought it to encourage him, rather than because the drawing was particularly excellent. Not that young John really needed the prodding. “I would draw all the time. It wasn’t like with piano lessons, or when someone has to tell you to practice. I drew because it was enjoyable to me. No one had to tell me to go do it or practice.” Still, this was a big moment...and big money. “20 dollars was not money that kids had,” John says, “that was a currency that only adults could trade in. Kids got coins, maybe a dollar bill, but never a 20.”
Not at ALL similar to 5-year-old John's first masterpiece. (NOT!)
John admits that the idea of making a living as an artist was never a reality until he entered college—around the same time that young adult John picked up paints seriously for the first time. “It was a decision that I made to declare that I was doing this professionally,” he says. “A painting was something you made to be a thing in itself.” So, young adult John started copying the paintings of the great artists that he admired so much. “I knew I needed technical experience to make something that looked like Velázquez, or like Matisse, or like Degas; to learn all the varieties of ways to manipulate paint.”
But even after four years studying a fine arts degree at Stanford (young adult John chose his local university over an arts school to continue pursuing his athletics alongside his art), things were still not straightforward. “If you’re an engineer, you go to Hewlett Packard; if you’re a doctor, you go to med school and then go on to get a position as a doctor. There’s no position waiting for you as an artist, no company waiting to hire you...at least there wasn’t in my day.” Young adult John, in short, realized that he needed to carve out a space for himself, a space where he could both have the freedom to create what he wished, and to earn a living on the work that he felt he was meant to do...
...I hope you enjoyed Chapter 1 in The Tails of Artiphany. It was a fun story to tell, especially as I find human lives so interesting and complicated, compared to the lives of my species (though even for us, it's not always all walks, treats and belly rubs, I tell you). And there's a lot more where that came from. Tune in in two weeks for Chapter 2 of the story.
Now 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,