Common Ground

 

No one could be more different from me than Marco Pierre White. I’m an American – he’s English. I’m a visual artist – he’s a chef. I’m chill – he’s volatile. Despite these differences, reading his autobiography, The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness, and the Making of a Great Chef, has both inspired me and spoken to me both viscerally and intellectually.

This is not the first time that I have found commonality with people that seem very different from me; despite our differences, and sometimes because of them, these people have often served as guiding lights and I have seen them as kindred spirits. As a teenager I discovered the work of Pre-Raphaelite painter, Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Despite the cultural differences between us, I found much in common with Burne-Jones: he was also an only child from humble beginnings who used art to better himself. I also connected with people such as French comics artist Jean Giraud: again, he was an only child, his biological father was absent in his life, his grandparents helped raise him, and he used his art to navigate through childhood. These are just two individuals among many others that I’ve felt an affinity with. I feel a strong kinship with these people because the fight for excellence knows no boundaries: cultural, geographical, or other differences do not matter whatsoever.

As a draftsman, storyteller, and picture maker, I’ve drawn most of my inspiration from visual artists: painters, illustrators, comic book artists, and the like. In addition, I’ve also drawn inspiration from musicians, writers, directors, etc both foreign and domestic. No matter the discipline, the one common denominator that’s always inspired me is excellence. My reverence for excellence is what led me to discover Marco, a British chef and culinary hero who’s famous for being the first and youngest English chef to win three Michelin stars.

Marco’s book showed me that the struggle to succeed as an artist is also the same struggle that one faces on the road to becoming a great chef: it’s all or nothing. You either do it right or you don’t do it all — there is no in between. I found the same relentless, hell-bent attitude that exists in my life on the pages of Marco’s book. It’s always comforting when you find another person whose bloody mindedness is the same as your own. Perhaps the one thing that struck me the most while reading The Devil In The Kitchen was that beyond all the kitchen staff bollockings, service meltdowns, cheese-flinging episodes and notoriety there was a deeply profound belief in himself and his abilities. Things like that always speak to me. It’s the common thread that binds me with every single person that has inspired me along the way. Again, the fight for excellence unites me with this brotherhood of people who are driven by a singular and profound belief in themselves. Despite our differences, we are the same.

Craft and Substance

After my last blog post, I realized that there are two things that it boils down to when making art for me: craft and substance. I’m at an age where certain things need to be inherent in whatever I create: It must be well designed and it must be well crafted. I’m not a fan of bad art. I loathe it; I loathe it even more if I’m the one producing it. In my eyes, there’s no excuse for mediocrity. None. You either do it right or you don’t do it at all. Facility and great technique can certainly be impressive, but they alone are not enough. The piece of work being created has to say something about me as a person — it has to have substance to it. It doesn’t matter if it’s going to hang on a gallery wall or if it’s going to be in my sketchbook — the work has to reflect some aspect of me as an individual and my POV on the world at large, or whatever. Otherwise, what’s the point? The drawing that adorns this week’s post is a fine example of what I’m talking about.

When I read the story of Helene Lebel, it struck a chord deep within me. In my life, I’ve encountered and witnessed up close what the effects of mental illness do to people. On a personal level, I watched as my uncle, Raul, struggled valiantly with schizophrenia for over 30 years. It’s a horrible thing to watch – physically, my uncle appeared to be well but his appearance belied the internal chaos and the forces that were mentally ravaging him. I also witnessed the scourge of mental illness as part of a job I held. Years ago, I worked as a Spanish mental health interpreter for San Joaquin County; on a daily basis I, once again, got to see the insidious effects of mental illness at work. Along with the doctor or therapist and the client, I was present during appointments. This meant that I heard everything that was said during the appointment. Sometimes, I wish that I’d never heard some of the things that were discussed during those appointments. Interpreting at the clinic for adults was bad enough, but interpreting for the children’s clinic was heartbreaking.

Sadly, in 2018, mental health still carries a stigma. People who suffer with mental health issues are still described as being: crazy, nuts, cuckoo, whacked, touched, bat-shit crazy, etc. It’s so unfair to label people like that — they can’t help it. I often wonder if the people who make such remarks about complete strangers would do the same for someone they love? I’ve learned that everything changes when an issue becomes personal. Funny that. After my experience with mental illness, and based on what I’ve seen and heard, I wouldn’t wish mental illness on my worst enemy.

Helene Lebel’s story is tragic. At age 19, when she was a law student, she began to show symptoms of schizophrenia, and was forced to abandon her studies. In 1936 she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and placed in Vienna’s Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital. Two years later, the Germans annexed Austria. Helene’s parents were made to believe that she was going to be released, but that was never going to happen. In August 1940, Helene’s mother was notified that Helene had been transferred to a hospital in Bavaria, when in reality she had been transferred to a converted prison in Brandenburg, Germany. There, she was subjected to a physical examination and then lead into a shower room. Helene was one of 9,772 persons who were gassed at the Brandenburg Euthanasia Center. She was listed in official paperwork as having died in her room from “acute schizophrenic excitement.”

I would like to thank the US Holocaust Memorial Museum for providing information and details on Helene’s life.

Ten Years On Paper


I started my first blog, Cubist Comix, in September 2008, which means my work has been online for a little more than a decade. Back then, blogging was fairly new, and sketch blogs were rare. I remember how confused I was by HTML — it was all Greek to me! Thankfully, my wife understood the basics of this foreign language and was able to help me set up many parts of my blog. Since then, keeping a sketchbook has become incredibly popular and many people are sharing their work on websites, blogs, and social media. Some of the work out there is good, but a majority of it is pedestrian, banal, and poorly executed. I continue to be proud of the quality of work that I insist upon for myself. I’m very hard on myself; I loath mediocrity and the lack of wanting to improve. I am also proud that while I maintain a social media presence, I have not abandoned my blog as many others seem to have done.

The past ten years have been full of changes for me and for my work. It should come as no surprise that my point of view regarding visual journaling and blogging has changed as well. For many years, most of my blog posts consisted of a drawing created during the previous week and the story behind its creation. Believe me, I’ve drawn my share of coffee swilling cafe dwellers over the past decade; it seems there’s a never-ending supply! I loved these drawings and associated posts, but recently I have come to realize that they are just not enough any more. I have come to realize that I need to approach both my work and my posts in a way that is more filled with meaning.

When Twitter first started, people were literally tweeting about the most pedestrian things you can imagine. The novelty of doing that wore out lickety-split. Why? Because no one really cares that you’re going to your kitchen to get a bagel – that’s why. Sketchbooks are wonderful things, but ultimately they need to say something more profound about you beyond what you’re going to eat or what the person sitting next to you looks like. I’ve always been of the opinion that after someone thumbs through the pages of your sketchbook, they should have a good idea about who you are and what you believe in, and the longer I keep a sketchbook, the more I see that this is the truth.

Maybe this approach to keeping a sketchbook and blogging about it isn’t for everyone. After all, opening up and spewing your opinions takes cojones. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s something that’s necessary if you’re going to grow as an artist and as an individual. Whether you’re a professional or hobbyist doesn’t matter, what matters is the bravery to embrace change and put yourself, the raw unadulterated you, out there. This is why Barron Storey and Robert Crumb’s sketchbooks will remain as examples for me to follow. Visual journaling has exploded over the past ten years and that’s great, but it’s full potential has yet to be realized. Much like with Twitter, soon folks will realize that fluff wears out its novelty right quick, and only that which has depth will survive.

Fighting The Good Fight

Vivir es lo más peligroso que tiene la vida,” — The most dangerous thing in life is living. These words from famed Spanish singer-songwriter, Alejandro Sanz, are something we can all relate to. There are things that can happen in a moment that can change things forever. Sometimes for good, but, unfortunately, far too often for the worse, and, sadly, too often for the much worse. There is no rhyme or reason to why such things happen — one day something happens and, bam, things are never the same.

One of these things happened to my friend, Serena Miller, when she was eight. She was involved in an auto accident caused by a drunk driver and suffered a traumatic brain injury. The results of that accident have affected her life, often dramatically, every day for the past thirty years. Sadly, Serena isn’t the first person whom I’ve known that has suffered a traumatic brain injury because of a drunk driver. My sister-in-law was similarly injured when she was a little older than Serena, but not yet an adult. It’s a horrible thing — a thing that robs you of your own future potential and brings forth demons that you’ll struggle with again and again whether you want to or not. It’s a fucked up thing for someone to have to deal with.

Mental health is no joke and yet it’s still something that the general public stigmatizes and makes heartless cracks about. Too often people with mental health issues are told: “You need to work more,” or, “Do something to get your mind focused on something else,” or, “You just need to get more exercise and to eat right.” Would these same people dole out such bleak wisdom to someone suffering from cancer? To someone suffering from alzheimer’s disease? To someone suffering from kidney failure? This level of ignorance is infuriating to say the least. To add insult to injury, they refer to people with mental health issues as “cuckoo” or “nuts” or whatever. I always wonder if they would say the same things about someone they loved.

Last week, Serena reached out and asked if I wouldn’t mind sharing a GoFundMe fundraising account that she’s established to help her get through the rough period that she’s currently going through. Serena continues to deal with her mental health issues as well as trying to raise her ten year old son. As an artist, I feel that it’s my duty to speak up about things that matter to me and help as much as I can, so I told Serena that I would draw her and spotlight both her story and her GoFundMe link as part of this week’s post. It’s the least that I can do. Please help if you can. If you can’t help monetarily, then please share Serena’s link. Finally, please remember to be kind as you go through life; you never know what somebody else is going through.

Louts, Laundry, and Humility

Another week of sketching in the hateful and wretched Central Valley of California, and another blog post. Before you decide to send me hate mail for calling The Central Valley hateful and wretched, please know that I didn’t come up with that gem of a title; that credit goes to the and only Robert Crumb, so address your letters to: R Crumb, Medieval Village, France.

Crumb lived in The Valley for nearly 20 years between the early 70s and early 90s so he knows a thing or two about life here and his assessment isn’t too far off the mark. After 25 years, I can relate to his blunt and disdain filled observations of life here. If you’ve lived in The Central Valley long enough, you know that you need endurance and loads of patience to be here. This week was a good example of that. Between the continuous and oppressive heat that’s enveloped the area and the denizens that live here its been a true test. Thankfully for me, I can express my angst on paper so that helps to keep me productive and sane, so it’s not all bad.

This week’s page started late last week at my local Starbucks as I observed an old guy going on and on about god knows what for almost an hour or so. Cafés remain the best places to find unsuspecting victims who hardly ever move. That’s great for guys like me — it makes it easy to fill sketchbook pages on a regular basis and it keeps me from sitting around and doing nothing. Art is always waiting to happen. The remainder of this week’s page is made up of a quick sketch of a loutish bloke that was sitting at the laundromat on Monday. He was entranced with something on his phone, so it wasn’t hard to preserve his thick-headed likeness in my sketch-journal. Finally, a quote about Internet humility, a strange and deceptive phenomenon that I see a lot of these days. Click the link, it’s a good read.