Thursday, August 29, 2013

Books: Being True to Oneself as an Artist

I was going to write about my plans for sabbatical this week, but then I was bouncing around the internet and happened to discover this lovely cartoon homage (the artist's website is Zen Pencils but I found the cartoon on Slate) based on a Bill Watterson graduation speech at Kenyon College (I totally visited Kenyon in high school because Bill Watterson went there--but then we crashed the car and I ended up at a small college in Iowa instead of Ohio.)

Finding the Zen Pencils cartoon is serendipitous; I've actually been thinking about Bill Watterson lately. Earlier this summer I read two books that, in my mind, at least, are natural partners with Watterson's book, The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book. Steve Martin's Born Standing Up and Art Speigelman's MetaMaus both reminded me of Watterson's book.

All three books offer fascinating views of artists doing their thing, their way, against the protests, concerns or confusion of critics and friends. And all three artists succeeded in doing their thing brilliantly because they ignored the outside voices and followed the direction of their own inner artist's voice.

I am only artificially familiar with Steve Martin's stand-up comedy, since my experience of his work has always been via Saturday Night Live reruns and movies. I'm also less familiar with the performing arts medium of comedy than I am with the visual arts medium of comics.  I chose to download Born Standing Up more or less at random. However, I found much more direct connection to the world of a working artist in this book than in Martin's An Object of Beauty, which is actually a novel set in and about the art world.

I was expecting a silly, funny book of jokes, I guess, but Born Standing Up surprised me by focusing seriously (and not-so-seriously) on the development of the author's own artistic voice as a comedian. In the autobiographical book, which begins before Martin commences his professional comedy work and continues until he steps away from stand-up, Martin illustrates the process of conceiving of, developing and sustaining an artist vision. He shows and discusses the fear, hard work, confusion, mistakes, successes and frustrations that are part of the process. I was continually making connections between my own experience as an artist and that of the author, though our media and content choices are vastly divergent. It's a funny book and I recommend it in general, but I highly recommend it for my artist friends and students who might see a connection to their own lives and expression.

I make the connection between Born Standing Up and the Zen Pencils / Watterson quote cartoon because I see both as addressing the fundamental question of how and why we might choose to live a life of art, or expression, or whatever, rather than follow the easier route of a more proscribed life and work that is acceptable and expected beforehand.

MetaMaus is subtitled A Look Inside A Modern Classic, Maus, so obviously one would expect some familiarity with the original. I'm not sure how old I was when I first read Maus, but I was old enough to have a general familiarity with the holocaust. Either because of my age or the age of the book when I read it (the first volume was published in 1986, the second in 1991) I wasn't particularly tuned in to the fact that a comic book featuring mice might have been a controversial medium in which to tell "A Survivor's Story." I do, however, remember being amazed at how the story was told. I remember being impressed with both the use of the comic's text and imagery as a medium, but also with the multi-layered storytelling.

Reading MetaMaus all these years later I was interested to learn how controversial some of his choices were. In MetaMaus, Spiegelman explains his visual and conceptual choices he made in building Maus clearly as artistic decisions that were central to the format, flow and content of the work. I'm not sure if these choices were entirely conscious at the time, but its clear that the Speigelman of MetaMaus has taken time to consider and reflect on his art and his intent.

MetaMaus, like Born Standing Up, is a book about being an artist, making hard choices, sticking to your idea even when its hard, even when years have gone by, even when the world has changed and even when other people don't "get it." Spiegelman's is a more subdued (though still beautiful and visually intriguing) book than Martin's, but the message for an artist reader is the same, the struggle and the necessity of doing things differently than the expectation is what makes art worthwhile.

All the time I was reading these two books, I kept thinking about the first book I remember reading that really talked to me about what it meant to be a professional artist. The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book is full of reprints of wonderful Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, but what I really enjoyed reading and rereading was the commentary by the author. Watterson, in the book, discusses his visual choices, inspiration and intent in creating the comic strips. He also discusses some of the changing specifications of cartoons in newspapers and syndication (back before we had any conceptions of cartoons on the internet) and goes into his decision to cease writing the Calvin and Hobbes weekly comic strip.

I must have read this book (and reread it) when I was 15 or 16, roughly the same time I was realizing that I could conceivably "do art" for a living. I remember the discovery that I could be an artist, roughly around sophomore year, as revelatory--since I was surrounded by teachers and had started to assume that I had to be a teacher (yeah, yeah, I know I still ended up as a teacher, but I split time as an artist, too). Watterson's commentary helped me get an early insider's view of what it might mean to be an artist and what it might mean to stick to one's own vision when being pushed, very hard, to change or compromise the way in which that art was made.

I don't mean to get too sentimental here, but The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book is a beautiful book and it was meaningful to me. The others are simply well done, interesting books about being true to one's self and expressing something new and different. I recommend all you artists (and everyone else) go read one or more of these books. Also, if you haven't read Maus yet, get on that.

1 comment:

  1. I read Object of Beauty. It read right along, but the characters were over-drawn. Like gossip. Which is not really to pan it, after all. Not sure I'm all that interested in the Born Standing Up one.

    I have a signed, numbered copy of Spiegelman's Ace Hole, Midget Detective!


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