I’ve mentioned several times over the span of this podcast that I make my living as an artist. Mostly, I etch on black granite gravestones, but I haven’t talked much about the fact that I dabble in several other artistic mediums. My entire life - as far back as I can remember - has revolved around some form of creativity and for the most part, it’s a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, nothing’s all pros and no cons. When people make the comment, I wish I was creative, I want to ask, “Really? Because it ain’t all pretty landscapes, standing ovations, and sipping from your tea glass with one pinkie out.” So while I won’t lie and tell you I’d change a thing, because I love being the creative type, I have to admit that there are plenty of drawbacks to being an artist as well and those are what I want tell you about in this episode.
I’m Michael Blackston and this is what covers the canvas of my Funny Messy Life.
Most artists I know realized they had the skill to create early in life. It was the same way with me and I was one of about four or five kids in my grade who everybody knew could draw. It didn’t take long after the first instances of public artistry that some of the frustrations started to rear their ugly heads. First, a kid who is just learning to find their artistic groove wants to draw or paint what he or she wants to draw or paint. The concept of selling my work hadn’t crossed my mind in fifth grade. All I knew was that I had a deep, intense desire to draw The Incredible Hulk over and over again. And it was alright when Kenny Parker started watching over my should and asked what I was drawing. It was kind of cool to have an audience who admired my work. It was not alright when Kenny Parker started making suggestions.
“You know what you oughta do?”
I didn’t answer him because I did know what I oughta do - exactly what I wanted to do. But Kenny Parker answered his own question.
“You oughta give him machine guns.”
I think that this might have been the first time in my artistic life that I realized people are stupid. The Hulk didn’t use machine guns because he had muscles and he destroyed everything with his fists. I knew it, Kenny Parker knew it, and everybody else in fifth grade knew it. Bruce Banner never warned his enemies by showing them a couple of M-16s. He told them not to overly irk him and that if they did, indeed, spark his ire, the enemy in question would find no fun sport in his resulting aggression. I guessed I’d have to remind Kenny Parker of that.
“Hulk don’t need guns.”
“Yeah, but it’d be cool. Draw him some guns.”
“No, Kenny. Leave me alone.”
“What’s that on his chest?”
“It’s pectoral muscles, Kenny.”
“It looks like he’s got boobs.”
“It’s not boobs. It’s muscles.”
“Hey Mike, you know what you should do? Draw him a Hulkmobile.”
“No. It’s my drawing.”
“Fine. Mrs. Ayers, Michael’s drawing boobs!”
I had to explain to my teacher that I wasn’t drawing naked people. I hadn’t learned how to draw pectoral muscles well yet, so yes - Hulk’s chest looked a bit like the naked chest of an 80 year old woman and I was asked not to draw anybody - Hulks or old women alike - with their shirts off. Incidentally, later on Kenny Parker was caught drawing naked people on the bathroom stall and they looked suspiciously like the Hulk. So that experience was also the first time I encountered censorship and plagiarism.
I’ve never met an artist who hasn’t had to deal with someone telling them what they ought to do, but that’s not the only common thing.
I frequently have to do layouts in pencil for customers to approve before rendering their final piece and since that happens a lot while I’m on the road, I have to find a cozy booth in a restaurant so I can work over a glass of ice tea or a cup of coffee. Without fail, I’ll get the obligatory compliment about the work from a stranger who has built up the courage to ask if they can see what I’m doing, immediately followed by something along the lines of, My granddaughter can draw like that. The need for people to tell me all about their lives without you having asked them is uncanny, which is why I thought, when I asked listeners of this podcast to contact me and tell me their own stories so I could put them in an episode, people would jump at the chance. Crickets. Crickets is what I got. Anyway, the stranger is never done. They’ve opened a door and I’m too polite to ask them to leave me alone. I get to smile and nod and encourage their granddaughter, or nephew, or cousin Bertha who makes macaroni art, to keep up the good work. My granddaughter draws the cutest little naked superheroes. You know at first, the men looked like they had boobs, but now she can draw muscles. I try to giove her advice, but she doesn’t seem to like it very much.
Go figure. At least from my experience, she’s on the right track.
I find it interesting that there is a universal comment non-artists will make to explain just how far the distance is in the gap between you and them when it comes to creating an image on the surface of something. They always watch me for a little bit and before long, they can’t help themselves. Maybe you’ve said it, too.
I can’t even draw a stick man.
It happens every time.
Sometimes they tell me they can’t even draw a stick man, BUT their aunt Hilda’s gardener’s stepson can draw anything he sees.
On occasion, someone will actually seek advice to tell their loved one who aspires to be an artist.
I’ll usually tell them to learn how to draw pectoral muscles because otherwise, people will just think you’re drawing boobs.
You learn a lot about people and realistic expectations if you’re an artist and let others see your work. I used to get excited when random onlookers would ask questions like, Do you do private commissions? or How much do you charge for something like that?
The learning curve was a quick one because I’ve come to realize that when most people ask you stuff like that, they’re usually doing one of three things:
That’s what business cards are for. I simply tell them that every piece ids different and I charge according to what’s needed to be done. I then hand them a card with my number on it and tell them that when the timer comes to call me and we’ll discuss it. But they’ll never call. They’ll lay the card in the junk catcher compartment of their car and won’t see it again until they need to fetch something with a stiff edge to pick out the piece of meat that got stuck in their teeth. Come to think of it, that’s a waste of my good business cards, so from now on, I’ll print out the ones I hand to those people at home on an old roll of paper towels that fell in the dish water, then dried out, but I never had the guts to use.
Of course if you hang around the art community long, you’ll run into a varied array of artist personalities. There’s the insecure artist who could hold gallery shows, but thinks their art is crap. There’s the artist whose art is crap, but thinks it’s great and holds gallery shows, the artist who flits from style to style and medium to medium depending on what’s selling best at the moment at the craft shows, the snooty artist who uses words like passe and kitsch about other people’s art. And there are plenty of artists who create because it’s what drives the beat of their heart. I like to think that’s who I am, although I suspect I’ve been a touch of all the others at some point. I try to respect any style of art that’s rendered as long as it’s done to create something that moves either the artist themselves or the viewer.
I’ve camped out in the area of the visual arts this whole time, but I’m one of those people who uses the artsy side of my brain completely and apparently never developed the other side. I can do basic math and figure out some things based on formulas I memorized, but throw a letter in with numbers and I’ll run screaming from the room and go find a pretty picture to paint. I sing, I act, I write, I paint, I draw, I direct (which is an art all by itself), and I’m a good public speaker. That’s enough to occupy my time with something for the rest of my life and I’ll be happy if it earns me a dollar or a smile. Either way, I’m happy.
And by the way, if you see one of my business cards floating around in a gas station toilet, how about boiling it and handing to the next person who asks if you know a good artist. Maybe they have something stuck in their teeth.
Until next time, I’m Michael Blackston. Thanks for joining me for an artsy fartsy look into my Funny Messy Life.
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