Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Things learned along the way

As long as I can remember, I wanted to be an artist. There was a time when I thought it would be cool to be a scientist with my own observatory, or lab, or whatever a scientist would have. I went through a stage when owning a junkyard seemed interesting. I also remember short periods that I thought about trying carpentry, electronics or being a doctor. None of these career ideas stuck very long but art was a constant. I was always drawing pictures, doodling in class and copying comics out of the funny paper.

I graduated high school with a desire to study art at the University of Minnesota. I really didn’t know anything about art careers or what it would take to break into the art world. I was 17, and my only training had been from art classes in school and an art correspondence course that my parents had signed me up for. Admittedly, I was quite active in the high school art world. My drawings were often found in the school newspaper, I would occasionally add a small painting to an assignment (and get a slightly higher grade for it), and many fellow students would hire me for a few bucks to illustrate their projects or paint pictures of their cars. I even won a couple of scholarships to continue my schooling so I could pursue art as a career. However, the summer after graduation gave me time to think and, basically, get lazy. I didn’t want to go back to school. I felt I was already an artist and I could make it on my own. So, I started applying for jobs. Several interviews and several rejections later, I landed a job in downtown St. Paul.

Dimensional Display had been around for many years, designing and building graphics displays for local retailers. My position was silk screener, the process of which I had become quite familiar with in my graphics classes in high school. What I wasn’t prepared for was the fact that I had to first pay my dues for awhile. There wasn’t going to be any creative work, and even printing was reserved for more experienced workers. My job was to clean up after everyone else: washing screens, sweeping floors, and holding an end of whatever needed to be steadied. Those were my duties and, at the time, I hated each one. I didn't stay there very long and it was only years later that I was able to look back and understand that those tasks were important in my overall experience.

On a September Saturday in 1969, I stopped in at Torseth, Inc. in Maplewood to see if I could get an interview. My mom told me that her boss appraised their building and had noticed a “help wanted” sign. The interview went well and I started the following Monday, again as a silk screener, only this time I was actually able to do the printing myself. My long-term goal was still to be an artist, but at least I was working in the graphics field and over the course of several months in the pressroom I gained many production skills. During my lunch break each day, I continued drawing cartoons and sketching pictures of cars, people and anything that caught my interest. There was a custodian named Frank who cleaned up after lunch every day; my drawings were always left behind for him. He would often tack them up on the bulletin board for all to see. So, for close to a year, I pulled a squeegee every day, doodled during lunch, and tried to keep my nose clean. One day I was asked if I would like to interview for an opening in the art department.

In my interview, Bill, the department supervisor, first asked me if I played golf. He was a scratch golfer and it was number one on his list of activities. I said no, hoping that it wouldn’t eliminate me from consideration. The interview consisted of only a few questions and a stencil cutting test. I got the job in the art department, and I guess you could say the rest is history. In 3 years I was the department lead; two years later I was made supervisor over 5 artists, and I progressed through several other design and technical positions over the course of the next 24 years.

This chapter in my blog was not meant to start looking like an autobiography of my working life. I think I just wanted to tell a story about my early years pursuing art, and not giving up. I think I would say in that first summer after high school, I just about gave up. When the interviewer at Brown and Bigelow told me to go back to school, I was pretty discouraged. In retrospect, maybe I should have gone to the university that fall. But then I wouldn’t have gotten the job at Torseth, spent time with those coworkers, hung out at the Maplewood Bowl with them, and met my wife (who was a good friend of one of them).

No, I wouldn’t do anything different at all.

Friday, December 5, 2008

"Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!"

After 22 years of sharing the loft in our house with my wife, Pat, she kicked herself out a couple of weeks ago so I could spread out and gain some needed studio space. Her sewing area had been at one end, while the other 2/3 or so was art workspace. She had been telling me I needed more room for a long time but my standard answer was, “I like it this way. I know where everything is.” And, I enjoyed her company while I worked. But she moved, along with what seemed like millions of fabric bolts, to the downstairs room vacated by our son John, who recently moved into his own house. (That’s another story for another day: the Empty Nest Syndrome!)

I didn’t realize how crowded my area had been until I began to reorganize. For years, I hadn’t been able to walk a straight line through the room. The maze required me to turn sideways and make two lefts and a right to get to my drawing board, and I often had to duck to avoid bumping my head on picture frames hung from the ceiling. Memories flooded in as I, literally, picked up and looked at every piece of paper, art magazine, and canvas as I worked. Past projects were revisited and some resurfaced. I was surprised to find 12 unfinished paintings; only 3 of them had been within view, the rest were buried under clutter. I think I have close to 35 picture frames, just waiting for art to fill them. Unfortunately, not one of the frames is the same size as an unfinished painting. My lack of planning is alarming!

There was an entire drawer, full of crayons, collected as the kids grew up and “worked” alongside me. I didn’t have the heart to throw them out. You can imagine that familiar, Crayola smell as the drawer is opened and 500 colorful sticks of wax nearly scream for a child’s attention. Someday, our grandchildren’s little fingers will wrap around the same crayons that their parents colored with.

I found a couple of magazines in which I had been published, some old job applications for positions that would have taken me out of state many years ago if I had accepted their offers, books that have not yet been read, and tubes of paint that have been around for 35 years.

After days of cleaning, sorting, and filing, the loft is finally starting to look like an honest-to-goodness, serious art studio. I’m not totally done with the project yet, but I know I will be more productive. Its organization is giving me new energy to create, and I am excited about the ability to get close to a north window for better lighting. I am expecting this year to be my most creative in decades.

I hate to admit it, but Pat was right.

She always is.