I hate not being able to draw. I came to this realization when I was about 4 years old sitting around my grandmothers table with my cousin Jason. He was a couple of years older than me and was the kind of kid that is all smiles and “yes mams” when the parents are around, but when they weren’t it was frog punches and destruction. Of course, being the youngest and mostly terrified I of course got blamed for the lions share of the damage- “Mike did it” became a phrase I heard echoed throughout hallways and closed doors most of my life, even up until high school- where I might add, I got banned AFTER I dropped out, because it seems that the phrase “Mike did it” seemed to gain power as I grew older. But with Jason, it wasn’t his attitude or brazen misuse of my arm for a heavy bag that bothered me, it was that Jason, the walking turd could draw anything without even looking at it.
This particular day in the summer we were just hanging out at the table filled with two generations of pencils, crayons, markers that had died before the start of the Vietnam war, and various grades of paper. I don’t even remember what I was drawing, I can see it in my head but the only description I can conjure is a bunch of squiggly lines resembling some generic four legged creature. Up until this point I figured I was doing fine, what ever it was I was drawing was supposed to look like that, the hatchy lines, the oddly shaped oval body, that’s what Mr. Kitty was supposed to look like. Proudly I slid my paper over to Jason, he paused momentarily, without turning his head, looked down with one eye, exhaled derisively and went back to work.
What the fuck I thought, and yes, I thought that, already by the age of four I had the vocabulary not only of a soldier, but of a pissed off Italian baker, an angry television repair man and an failed X boxer- for my grandfather who I spent my days with was all of the above.
“Well, what are you doing that’s so great?” I asked him. He leaned back and looked at me, his left arm still shielding the paper. “Fine,” he said ” Have a look.”
And there before me was a perfect drawing of a transformer robot. Not one that I had seen before either. Something that he totally made up on the spot. And next to it was the proverbial nail in my artistic coffin, the drawing that would forever haunt my creative endeavors even to this day. It looked like a little sack with a long neck, no head and two little legs. “What’s that?” I asked him. “Oh, a little something I’m working on, it’s a comic I am doing called The Living Stomach.” I felt like shit.I had been wrong all along, drawing wasn’t about squiggly lines and whatever the fuck else I was doing. Art was the first step in creation.
From then on I tried in earnest to draw things as I saw them, paying close attention to perspective, trying to understand contours and shapes. But there was a disconnect in my brain, balance and proportion were not even remotely possible. My cousin was a lefty, as others of that ilk, drawing seemed to come natural. I tried for months to re-create the living stomach, spending valuable class time that was supposed to be dedicated to copying useless shit from an overhead projector. My teacher , whose name I don’t remember because we literally spent the entire year in the dark copying crap 6 hours a day, didn’t ever collect homework, or give tests that I recall. Or it might be that I just did the bare minimum to get by without being noticed. But no matter how much I practiced I never got any better.
I knew a lefty at school who was just like my cousin. He could draw anything in a matter of minutes. One time in 7th grade we had this new gym teacher who was in his early 30’s, the kind of guy that still tries to appear hip to a bunch of 7th grade kids. One day we got into the “pre-gym” room before he did, in less than two minutes Mark drew a picture of him, on all fours, in S&M chains, being led to bed by this Maryln Monroe meets Jessica rabbit type. Mr. H. came in talking about why ever it was he was late, but when he talked it was as if someone slowly turned down the volume. His lips were still moving as he looked at the board but he wasn’t saying anything anymore. He was obviously pissed but he took at least three or four minutes to admire it’s form before erasing it forever. Once he started erasing the spell was broken and he belted out “Dammit Mike, did you draw this?” from across the room. I just looked at him, ashamed… “I couldn’t draw that if I wanted to” I said more to myself than anyone else while looking down at my feet.
At some point I just gave the fuck up. In my attempt to create life from pencil lead I inadvertently started writing stories. After all, if I was going to draw something I needed to know what I was going to draw and the stories were a good starting point. They were mostly dialogue as they were intended to be part of a comic at some point.
Years passed and the attempts at drawing slowly went away, I turned more towards literature as it seemed that was something I could do fairly well. There were some moments in high school when on seriously hard acid trips I would break out the ink to draw some optical illusions that would be animated by the drugs. Amusing but I wanted more. So I just stuck to writing. Eventually writing pulled me out of the fucking kitchens I had been working in since the age of 14.
There was a brief period in my life, between the age of 21 and 23 when I was living in the heart of the 5 points area in Birmingham, Alabama. I was a chef at one of the oldest restaurants in town, and I loved my job. Being a chef in the 90’s was much more subdued than it is now. It was just me and the Executive Chef, together we worked 5 days a week, year round. The two days I had off were spent walking around the area scribbling little stories until one day I went into the art supply store. It was time again to remind myself that I could not draw. Forsaking pencils for a much more abstract medium, I grabbed some pastels and charcoals. Perfect form be damned, “maybe” I thought, “I could kind of sketch stuff now.” The answer was still no, although I could make a building look like a fucking building and I had finally learned perspective- proportions were just as bad as they were as when I was 4.
I did the majority of my drawings either on the steps of my building or at this little cafe called Anabelle and Lulu’s. A and L’s had a back room where local artists could hang work and sell it for some cash. One day while looking around I had a realization “My god, none of these fucking people can draw, all this shit is absolutely terrible.” I sat down and sketched out some semi human looking figure, went outside to grab some cardboard, then next door to the Western for some glue. I mounted the sketch and just like that I created my first piece of “modern art”- I stuck a 300 dollar price tag on it and went home.
I continued sketching for a couple of weeks. It was during this period that I first created X and O as I found I could draw them without actually having to draw very much. Enjoyable as it was, I was heavily prone to print and I went back to writing exclusively. I got to the point where I was writing a short story a night, then a long story every night, then a chapter a night. I forgot all about my masterpiece until I went to Anabelle’s one day to find them closed for good. Later on I ran into a friend of mine that worked there. Jokingly I asked him about my art, not jokingly he told me it sold and they had the money for me at the register until they closed. I took this as the final sign that I should not be allowed to hold a pencil in public.
When I was 23 I quit my job, started writing full time and moved to Colorado, where I happened upon success when I gave half a play-script to the right person at the right time. The next three years were spent writing, writing, writing and working with the LTO Theatre company. I got heavily involved in activism, wrote for Indymedia, took over the college newspaper, renamed it THOUGHTCRIME- and launched an attack on all art that had no social context. It was a very productive time filled with youthful rage pointed squarely at a society that had failed us and artists who were to self absorbed to see the larger picture, if I had stayed in Colorado, who knows. But as things go, a woman from my past came back into my life, she didn’t stay but was around long enough to lure me back to the south. In retrospect, it was a good thing because over the next several years I solidified my academic achievements. Becoming the first undergrad to hold a teaching position in a program I founded.. I won several awards, scholarships and blah blah blah… All that crap that I’m supposed to be proud of, that honestly doesn’t mean anything because I JUST WANT TO BE ABLE TO DRAW A FUCKING FACE WITHOUT IT LOOKING LIKE A RETARDED POTATO!!