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.


Dana Leigh said...

I love to hear these stories because have never heard your background. Look what Grandma was responsible for! She told you that they were hiring and look at all the things that fell into place for you after that over the course of 24 years, including Pat. I wouldn't change anything if I were you, either. Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda...not worth it. We're all doing what we are supposed to be doing, regardless of who or what you believe brought you there.

Tonia said...

Thanks for this reflection. I think I needed to read this today because I am having one of those "what am I doing here? I should be out being a ski bum in CO like everyone else my age" moments, and finding the idea of going back to work on Monday pretty depressing.

Midlife crisis at 23?? No, I'm just impatient is all. Persistence and patience are difficult lessons to learn. Hearing about your journey lit the light at the end of the tunnel again for me.