Welcome to my series of “The Artist’s Journey” where I am applying Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth formula to my individual journey as an artist as explained in my previous post The Artist’s Journey.
For me, Gandalf never knocked on the door and invited a horde of dwarves around to talk me into going on the art journey. I was already on the art journey. My first word as a baby was “picture” – no kidding! Since I could first hold a pencil as a toddler, I was off down the main road of Hobbiton with art streaming out behind me. I could never understand why other people couldn’t decide what to do – for me it was easy, I was an artist and was always going to be an artist. And besides, I was really crap at sport! By the time I was about 12 I could paint photo-realistically using my student acrylics and I took out all the art awards at school. I drew caricatures of all my teachers and got into trouble for doing them on the blackboard more than once.
When it came to tertiary education I really wanted to train to be an illustrator so I went along to the art school to check out the 3rd year Illustration exhibition. I was truly shocked. This was 1987, and I had yet to understand how things were in the art world. What I saw was not what I expected. In my sheltered existence, I had thought that illustration was a commercial exchange where an artist provides artwork for things like books, advertising, packaging etc for payment. What I saw there changed my carefully laid plans forever! A raw steak nailed to the wall and dripping blood onto the floor, pieces of broken glass hanging from a coat-hanger, naked Barbie dolls covered in red paint glued to a plinth, a giant clumsily slapped-together Papier Mache head. I had no idea how they would fit any of it into a book let alone who would commission it. I was utterly bewildered and obviously grossly misled about what illustration actually was. I never got to see what the fine art people were doing – I couldn’t imagine! I quickly changed my major to Graphic Design and as simple as that, I became a Graphic Designer.
Thinking I had side-stepped a disaster, I began 1st year Graphic Design with a fresh new vision of what I would be doing. Graphic design wasn’t so bad, it was still a form of art. Perhaps it would be more practical from an employment perspective. My first subject was “Materials and Composition”. I thought, yes! this is just what I need to learn. I arrived at the class and there was a long table with a huge pile of rubbish on it – chip packets, cardboard packaging, straws etc. I thought, that’s embarrassing, the last class must have been pigs! But it was actually our first practical assignment. To create a piece of art with rubbish. I quickly learned that I was not in Kansas anymore. Looking back, we had some cracker assignments – “Create a Rose and a Piece of Shit on the Same Canvas”, “Painting with Mud”, “Life Drawing with Tissue Paper and Glue”. I was like the straight man in a comedy show. The image below left is my first-year response to an assignment about the qualities of glass. I had never airbrushed before and I taught myself for this piece – I was 17 and I thought I was being pretty experimental… Ultimately, I was way off and I actually failed for the first time ever in an art project. What was expected was something along the lines of this… How could I have got it all so wrong!
I was handed the joint and I had to smoke it to get my degree. So, I did… figuratively. My first ever fail was the catalyst for me to either sink or swim. I did spend a good bit of time planning a quick exit, but in the end, I donned the batik caftan accessorised with beads and sandals (well it was the 80’s!) and said “you know” and “like” a lot in a nasal voice. It resulted in a degree in Graphic Design.
Although I never really learnt any practical skills in my degree, I did learn quite a lot about conceptualising. I was forced to rely entirely on ideas and concepts. In a way it was good for me to be stripped of my handy crutch of refined art skills and think more outside of the box. I had many wild ideas and still have them to this day. I also learnt Art Speak. Art Speak is a language that you use to justify anything visual by using highly emotive words and terms thrown together in a way that sounds convincingly philosophical and high-brow. We used to spend our lunch hours practicing by taking turns at “critiquing” the leftover trash on the table.
“The empty beverage receptacles represent a pervading sense of Nihilism in the way they open out onto the fragile underlying glad wrap. There is an otherness about the muesli bar wrapper left of centre creating a deliberate tension in the composition. The straws point inward toward a single isolated bottle cap, indicating a solipsistic narrative, while the bold juxtaposition of coke cans and banana skins suggests an unresolved sense of place.”
Incidentally, I never really used my dazzling Art Speak skills until many years later. Come to think of it, I was never called upon to produce my degree either in my 25-year career except for when I worked at a university (go figure!).
Fast forwarding through my graphic design career, I worked in television doing news graphics and weather, I worked as a book illustrator, I worked at universities producing multi-media content for their computer-based education programs which then led me to move into video games where I remained for more than 10 years, designing and building characters and game worlds for some great AAA titles at some really cool games companies.
Fast forward again to 2008 GFC when the video games industry in Brisbane collapsed and I was suddenly out of a job and a career.
So here it is Ladies and Gentlemen. If there ever was a Call to Adventure it was this. It wasn’t very romantic like the hand of God coming down to inspire me, it was more like the giant foot from Monty Python. The career I’d built up over a decade was flattened overnight and with it the very nice income to which I was accustomed. It was more like a shove over the cliff! Video games was such a cutting-edge, demanding, exciting, well-paid, all-consuming career, I could no longer go back to designing boring corporate logos – it just didn’t compare. So, I started painting until I could come up with a better idea.