Things Like That Just Happen in a College Town

Pen & Ink--Ivy
Pen & Ink sketch 2/11/2010

I was fresh out of the University of Georgia and trying to make a buck or two while the future figured out what it was going to do with me. In a quixotic attempt to survive as a freelance commercial artist, I’d done a drawing for a guy who was trying to talk another guy into building a greenhouse. It was an architectural rendering of sorts for which, if my memory is correct, I was paid in beer. Sort of gives you an idea of how things were going with my career at that point. However, as fate would have it, that drawing was seen by two other guys who ran a stereo shop. They approached me about doing some pen & ink drawings for a new sales flyer. The previous ones had been done by someone with a pretty good pen & ink technique, but he had moved away, disappeared, vanished. Things like that just happen in a college town. So the owners showed me some of his work and asked me if I could draw like that. “Sure, how many you want?” I said, and we struck a deal. I’d make a couple of drawings and they would decide if I got the rest of the job. Either way I got paid for the trial run—and not in beer. It was a good deal for everyone.

But of course I was lying.

It isn’t easy to get ahead when you’re young and short on experience. Sometimes a certain mangling of the truth is necessary because the questions you get asked are usually wrong. They ask if you know how to do something. They should ask if you could figure out how to do it. I like to think I wasn’t lying so much as re-imagining their question. In the years since, through several professional reincarnations, I’ve learned an important truth. Most jobs don’t require much more than a willingness on someone’s part to do them. I suppose I’d want a surgeon to be telling the truth about medical school, and an airline pilot shouldn’t try on-the-job training, but most jobs? Hell, you just fake it for a few days until you get the hang of it and you’re in. Management provides almost limitless opportunities for this approach. In the case at hand, the truth was I didn’t have any pen & ink technique. And the truth wasn’t going to get me the job.

So I started the whole project from scratch.  I went out and bought a pen, some nibs, ink, and a type of paper a friend recommended. I had some of the drawings made by my predecessor that the stereo guys had left with me, so I sat down in my apartment and began to draw various objects a la stereo sales flyer.

As I worked, I noticed some things about the other guy’s drawings. They were fairly large, larger than they would be when reproduced, which would tend to hide small errors when reduced for publication. Though he didn’t get carried away with it, he wasn’t afraid to correct now and then with Wite-Out. Finally, he kept his drawings rather simple and uncluttered by unnecessary detail. His work was compact and to the point—sort of a Sgt. Joe Friday, “Just the facts, ma’am” approach.

After a few days practice, the time came to show the my possible employers what I could do. The stereo guys gave me a desk in an office above their shop, brought in a turntable and a tape deck (that dates the story, doesn’t it?), and I made ink drawings of them. At the end of the day the owners had two drawings and I had a job.

I worked off and on for a couple of weeks doing the drawings and they were happy and I was happy. Recently, going through an old moth eaten portfolio, I found two of those drawings. I make no claims for them other than I got paid, and naturally they aren’t at all like what I do today.

Stereo setBang & Olafson receiver

I tell you this little story because, as always, there were unintended consequences. The stereo guys ended up hiring me to sell equipment for them, which meant a steady paycheck for a while. Much more important, over those few weeks I fell in love with pen & ink. I’ve been working in that technique, usually on my own time, ever since. I never tire of its dramatic tonalities and the discipline the pen requires. It’s what I imagine acting would be like with a minimalist set design, or singing a cappella. And of course, when you show your drawings in a gallery there’s no using Wite-Out.

The shop owners later told me that they had approached another artist to do the drawings before they came to me. This artist said she would send around some work for them to review. A week or so later they got a drawing of a nude woman lying next to a stereo speaker, her legs spread, with musical notes coming from her vagina. When they told me that, I didn’t know quite what to say. I suppose if you’ve re-imagined the truth to get a job, it helps that the competition has traumatized the buyers.

But things like that just happen in a college town.

Copyright 2013  James Tucker

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