Saturday, March 5, 2011
The above commercial is one of the classic ads from the 1980s, perhaps up there with "Where's the Beef?" and Apple's 1984 Big Brother ad. "Do you like to draw, or paint. Or maybe just sketch or doodle?"
If you did, you might have had what it took to be in the Art Instruction Schools. The Art Instruction Schools sent out a free test for students to see if they qualified. By the looks of it painters, sketchers and doodlers had to draw things like a house, a dog and a pirate. As a kid I sort of wish I had called the toll free number to get my free test.
It would have been interesting to see if I would have been the first person to ever score a zero on their exam.
Thousands of students have walked through the halls of Janesville High School and Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton. There's a decent chance I'm the worst art student in the school's history, someone whose projects might still be mocked by the poor teachers who were forced to grade them. My incompetence is one reason I so admire anyone with any semblance of art skill, whether it's the troubled geniuses whose works hang in the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the drawings of my cousin Matt or nephew Brock. My friend John always made funky little projects - they combined things like toilet paper and Coke cans - that I thought were art, though a good friend of ours occasionally disagreed. Louise paints really cool abstract work that hangs in our apartment and always catches the eye of visitors. These people have the imagination and skill to pull these things off. I couldn't think of the projects, and even if someone thought of them for me, I never would have been able to execute them.
How could my hands, which effortlessly picked up ground balls on a baseball diamond or masterfully handled a ping-pong paddle or easily dribbled a basketball behind my back, fail me so miserably when asked to draw nothing more complicated than a human face?
I knew from a young age I had no skills with a paint brush or charcoal pencils. As I made my way through school I regressed instead of progressed. Someone, perhaps the state, should have stepped in early in my school days when I struggled to cut out a snowflake. Things only got worse.
My parents' basement holds all the key evidence; the projects, or, "projects," rot away down there, tucked away in boxes, like long-forgotten murder trial files collecting dust in a county courthouse basement. Only a mother could love these works, but if mine ever said she did, it would have been one of the few lies she's ever told in her life. But if she lied, she lied out of love, because only the cruelest of parents would have ever delivered an honest assessment of the work.
A few years ago during a trip home, I stumbled upon a bowl that had my sister Lisa's name on it. Maybe that meant she made it. It didn't look good. That probably meant I made it. I asked mom and she said I crafted it and gave it to Lisa as a gift, which sounds cute but when you look at the damn thing for more than three seconds begins to seem cruel. On the bowl, I scratched a series of letters that appeared to form the name Lisa Fury. The confusion over the bowl's creation is probably why it resides in the bowels of my parents' basement and not on a mantle in my sister's home. At least, that's probably the publicly stated reason. Shame is probably more likely.
One of the sculptures, which I think came in 7th grade, was, in theory, a turtle. It's nothing more than a green blog with black spots. And maybe a head. When the teacher saw this she must have experienced rage at my inability to execute her lessons, pity over my incompetence, or heatrbreak at her choice of profession.
In ninth grade, I drew a large picture of Nolan Ryan in action. For years I had it hanging in my bedroom, though I don't know why. To punish myself? In the picture, the Express appears to weigh 485 pounds and it's all in his gut. He spills out of his Rangers uniform. He possessed tiny arms in the drawing that didn't fit his body, the type of appendages you might have seen on a Tyrannosaurus Rex, but not on a Hall of Fame pitcher. I do have him throwing right-handed, so I got that part right. It's the little details.
It'd be unfair to say I underachieved in art class. I simply didn't have the physical ability to do it, just as surely some people don't have the physical ability to hit a baseball.
I blame my genes. My parents gave me a lot of great things - art skills were not among them. My occasionally indecipherable handwriting looks just like my dad's; I'm assuming his clay sculptures from school probably looked like mine too.
I struggled with the fine arts. The industrial ones were even worse. At Janesville, we had to take Industrial Arts in seventh and eighth grade, two quarters each year, alternating with home economics. The teacher once told my parents that he feared allowing me near the bandsaw. An unnecessarily cruel statement, albeit accurate. While other students in class constructed bookshelves that belonged in the libraries of presidents, I plodded along, attempting to make a little key holder. My final quarter I built a functioning bird feeder - which, like all of my projects never appeared in public but was instead stashed in a closet - but I think the only reason the teacher ever passed me was because I was good at hoops and he was the former girls basketball coach.
The arts remain a mystery to me. I admire anyone who can paint or draw, sculpt or sing. I admire them because I know how difficult it is to do any of those things well. And if I ever doubt how tough it is, all I have to do is visit my parents, head down into the basement, pull out an old box, and wince.