Over the past few days Terry McKenna and I have had an interesting exchange in the comment string of his recent post Is Graffiti Art? In today's exchange he issued a challenge and wrote this, "Maybe you look at too much. You may have seen Cezanne et al.. but if you were in my class, i would throw you out and tell you to find someone else. Do you like any real art?"
That kind of inspired this post to establish my creds: As I remember I drew my first human figure at age seven. It a study of a downhill skier drawn from a photograph in Life Magazine. I managed to get the composition lines right and for the most part I captured the proportions properly. It wasn't perfect but it was a good start and remarkably better than the stick figures that came from the rest of my second grade classmates. A year later I drew my first nude by tracing the outline of a buxom girl in a one piece swimsuit and then filling in the details. I was just finishing up when my Dad caught me in the act... Mac was surprised and impressed.
At age ten I quit my elective band class so that I could finish a clay sculpture of a stallion's head. Who wants to play your mother's hand me down clarinet when you could shape the flaring nostrils and flowing mane of an equine beast in clay? In middle school, I drew jets, race cars and Ratfink hot rods on the brown paper book covers of my texts. My classmates asked me to illustrate their book covers as well. After taking a mechanical drafting class, I became adept at isometric projections and learned architectural rendering in pen and ink.
Throughout high school I studied anatomy, composition and life drawing from the sketches of DaVinci and Michelangelo. I won contests, blue ribbons and to my mother's delight got my picture in the hometown newspapers, but it wasn't until I went to the University of Texas at Austin that I met a instructor who could teach me anything that I couldn't find in a book:
1968- I carried seven units or what was then referred to as 21 hours: English composition and all the standard freshman courses, including a mandatory PE course for which I chose wrestling, as well as an art/design course and that was where I got called out as...
a Wannabe Che…: My freshman sartorial fashion statement was an eclectic amalgam of Future Farmers of America and an homage to Che Guevara. I don’t remember where I got the beret, I think it may have been a gift from one of the smart girls who hung out at the Andrews house, but when I moved to Austin it became part of my uniform. I wore an old pair of faded Levi’s 501 jeans, whatever “cleanest dirty shirt” I could find, my faded Levi’s jean jacket, roughout cowboy boots and I topped it off with the black beret. With my shaggy hair and scruffy beard, I did look a bit like Che, something that completely freaked out my instructor for the art/design class.
… Dr. Smaggula Accuses Me of Being a Narc …: On day one of the design class there were 37 students enrolled and not enough seats in the studio. Our course instructor was the newly minted PhD, Dr. Anthony Smaggula, a young man not long for the world of academia. In fact he lasted only one year before he was fired at UT but I’m glad I was there for part of his short tenure. He arrived ten minutes late and before calling the role, without even looking at the students in the room, in what I’m sure was a crystal meth induced speed rap he announced, “Most of you who signed up for this course either think you love art or are looking for an easy passing grade. Well, guess what? You’re in the wrong class. All art professions are fickle political games and very, very few people manage to make money by selling their art. Most end up teaching, which is my personal tragedy; but aside from that , others end up designing advertising or working in some other facet of media production design. Almost no one can make a living as a pure artist and those few who do have wealthy patrons, which is whole other demeaning political game. As for those of you who are looking for that easy grade, at the end of this term I will award one A, one B, one C, one D and the rest of you will fail this course.”
Smaggula took a moment to draw in a deep weary breath and rattled on, “Why you might ask? And my answer is: Because in the cold cruel world of professional art only one of you might have the talent and luck to find a patron and succeed as an artist. Another might succeed in advertising or media design. One or more of you may get by supplementing your pathetic careers with teaching positions and the rest of you will never sell anything. Now I have to take roll so speak when I call you name and then you can leave to apply for transfers or drop the class.”
Smaggula took the time to make eye contact with each student as they answered and par for the course; he butchered the pronunciation of my last name. When I corrected him, he freaked. Jumping up on a table, Smaggula snarled and hissed like a cat, “McHattery is it? Well Mr. McHattery, or should I say Officer McHattery, you can come here with your new beret and beard trying to come off as some kind of Che Guevara wannabe; but we can see through that. You’re obviously too old to be a freshman in college and you’ve got that mad dog stare that just screams cop so that makes you for a narc! Let’s see your badge and ID.”
I have to say I was honestly taken aback and though I protested my innocence, Smaggula was having none of that, “Come on show me your badge. I know my rights. Show me the badge or the bust gets kicked out by the DA and never goes to court!”
I reached into my hip pocket and pulled out my wallet to show him my Texas drivers’ license, and UT student registration. “Where’s your draft card,” he demanded. “Well,” I said, “I burned it at the Stop the Draft Week demonstrations back in Oakland.”
Squatting on his haunches on the table, Smaggula seemed to relax a bit. He hopped down and handed the license and registration back to me, “Good cover but that doesn’t mean I believe it. Who was Botticelli?”
“Painter, sculptor and contemporary to Michelangelo and Raphael,” I replied. “What was his best sculpture,” Smaggula snapped. I thought for a second and answered, “I think it is the small bronze David... not the life size but the small one. Supposedly the model was one of the Medici children. Apparently Botticelli had a thing for teenaged boys.”
Smaggula grinned, “Okay, so maybe you’re not a cop, but I’ve got my eye on you.”
Smaggula Calls on Me…: Of the original thirty-seven students who registered for Smaggula’s design class, only seventeen returned on the second day. I don’t recall our first few assignments but quickly a pattern of performance emerged: “Deke” the tall, skinny voluntary mute was awarded the A’s, while my efforts consistently resulted in B’s, an experience to which I was unaccustomed. The designs that earned the C’s and D’s varied, but “Deke” and I emerged at the top of the class.
A week or two into the term, Dr. Smaggula was definitely dissatisfied with the over all product of his instruction so we were off on a field trip across campus to a museum exhibition of contemporary art. As Smaggula lectured our tiny group he asked questions of individual students and was clearly frustrated with their answers. “Deke,” who had a profound stutter, and I were the only students who seemed to “get it.” Whether to spare “Deke” the embarrassment of finding his words, or because my comments made more sense, I became Smaggula’s fall back in the class commentary.
When we came upon a large triptych of canvases that for all purposes appeared to be identical, Smaggula interrogated each of my classmates; then in an exasperated voice he barked, “Mr. McHattery.”
I looked at the three paintings on the wall, stepped up and closely inspected them and then began to point out the variations in color and brush strokes. Smaggula interrupted me, “Finally one of you has the eyes to see the difference! Dammit people, open your eyes! How the hell can you expect to become artists if you can’t see what you’re doing?”
… “Circles & Squares” and Withdrawal: Smaggula’s assignment for the final was “circles and squares” in any media in any way we chose to execute our designs. He gave us the assignment two weeks prior to the last scheduled class and so we had plenty of time to mull over the particulars. I took my inspiration from the Chinese ideograms my roommate's Chinese language textbooks and on the cheap flimsy paper from fifty Big Chief tablets, I closed my eyes and with one continuous brush stroke of black India ink made 1250 circles in squares followed by 1250 squares in circles on 2500 different sheets. It took a day of careful comparison to select and trim the final 125 sheets that most resembled one another and with that done, I assembled them into a square tablet with 50 circles in squares, 25 alternating circles in squares and squares in circles and finishing with 50 squares in circles.
With the Big Chief’s patient face prominently displayed on the cover, I brought my work to the final class. A few minutes late I walked into a wonderland of designs. They ranged from intricate assemblages of multicolored glass cubes and spheres, to a simple piece of hammered silver, to a stop motion eight mm film presentation. Fortunately for me Smaggula showed up late as well, but “Deek,” the voluntary mute design genius, had yet to arrive. Smaggula went through each design with a sense of actual interest, inviting commentary from everyone and when he came to me, he said, “So, show me what you’ve got.”
I lifted all of the sheets from the back of the tablet and let them trip down over my fingertips in a flip card animation that revealed the subtle differences of each ideogram. When the face of the Big Chief closed the curtain on my little show, Smaggula laughed out loud and said, “You know something? This time you might just take the A.”
No sooner than the words had come out of his mouth than the doors to the studio swung open and “Deek” arrived to present his design. It was a finely crafted 4x4 foot square plywood box finished with a dark oak stain and satin polyurethane, mounted on spherical brass casters, with brass corners and a large brass ring as a handle. Slightly off center was a spiral of wood grain that terminated in a nearly perfect circular knot about an inch in diameter. Without saying a word, “Deek” flipped the brass latches on the top of the box and allowed the hinged lid to drop to the floor with a resounding crash. Inside was a white plaster cast of a manhole cover.
I immediately accepted that my Big Chief flip card ideogram animation had been relegated to the second class status of the B. The next day I walked over to the office of the registrar and filed my papers to withdraw from UT. Smaggula was true to his word a gave out the one A to "Deek", my B, only one C and D and he failed the rest of the class. Needless to say his contract was not renewed for the next year at UT. For what it’s worth, “Deek” had to withdraw as well; because a week later when his girl friend dumped him for a jock, he crashed and burned and ended up spending his summer vacation in the State Mental Hospital.
Over the five decades that have gone by since, I've been paid for my "art" in one form or another but I would never presume to refer to myself as an "artist."