Life is Shit : A Story About Beauty
* * *
Mike, the pen and ink guy, had started making extra money drawing Chinese characters as tattoos for people, mostly girls at first. He’d caught the beginning of that Asian craze and could hardly keep up doing one design at a time, so he wised up and started making sheets of them. They call it Flash in the tattoo industry. I’d tried my hand at it, sold a few sets here and there, but since I’d never really hit my stride with that right combination of subject and presentation I didn’t pursue it. I was happy for Mike.
At the same time, my interest in Graphic Design was dwindling. It wasn’t the drawing classes or the art lectures, since those were general art requirements. It was the Graphic Design classes themselves. The first year was alright, but then I met Mr. Geler. He was this wretched, thirty-something nihilist who (besides looking fifty-something due to his habits of heavy smoking, drinking and not giving a shit) was way too in touch with the meaninglessness of it all. He taught my second semester Graphic Design night class.
The first big assignment was two weeks into class, and the downward spiral began with Mr. Geler at the front of the room as the slide projector warmed up.
“Okay people, play time is over. In your next project, and for the rest of the semester, I’m going to be the client you hate,” he said as he pulled a cigarette from a package I didn’t recognize. Maybe nihilists had their own brand of cigarettes.
“You can’t smoke in here, Mr. Geler.”
He dropped his head and closed his eyes.
She hesitated, “Yes.”
“You’re the one who won’t work on a Mac computer, is this correct?”
“I already have all the software on my IBM.”
He slammed his fist down.
“We have thirty two brand new machines in the lab across the hall. No excuses.”
“I hate Mac computers.”
“Then you’re going into the wrong business. You have already made my life hell with your constant-”
“I thought you didn’t believe in hell?”
The cigarette stuck to his lip as he turned to face her.
“Get out of my class. You’re time is done here.”
She stood up but couldn’t get a single word out before he slammed his fist down again.
“In this room, I am god. I make the rules. I make your lives hell so you know what to expect in the real world. You do not make the decisions. I do. You talk this way to a client, you get fired. You talk this way to an instructor, you are out of the class. Simple as that.”
As she stumbled out of the room, he went on.
“Perfect segue to the project actually.”
He lit his cigarette,
“I am your god. I choose the subject matter. I choose the color palette, the font face, the design direction. I commission you.”
He took a drag and blew the smoke across the beam of light from the projector.
“And I will choose the worst of everything.”
We all shuffled in our seats.
“Your first years as a designer, most of your clients will be idiots. They have all the ideas and none of the direction or taste or style that a good designer has. Most of you probably won’t, either, but that is beside the point.
“You will have a great layout, and they will want to change the one thing you centered everything around. You will have the perfect logo, and they will ask you to put Comic Sans or Palatino lettering around it for the company name.”
One guy in the back said, “What’s wrong with Palatino?”
“People like you. One more stupid question like that, you’re gone too, Mr. Brautigam.”
There were a couple giggles.
He waited until only the hum of the projector remained.
“As I was saying, this will test your ability to come up with something that isn’t horrid when the person calling the shots is an idiot. I am clearly not an idiot, but I’ve worked with enough to play the part.
“If you want to eat, if you want to survive, you will take these jobs. For most of you, it will be all you ever get before you quit to take a job pushing buttons all day, still taking orders from idiots, selling plasma to pay for liquor. And sex.”
He blew a final smoke ring and snubbed out the cigarette. Under his breath, almost like a deeply held mantra, he whispered, “Life is shit, and then you die.”
* * *
That class quickly took on the character of an endurance race. I didn’t care what things looked like in the end, I just wanted to survive. Every class it was something new, something awful. Every week it was a bigger project with more specific parameters and lengthier requirements.
Mr. Geler would circle us, smoking and saying things like, “This is the life of a designer. Sixty-hour weeks, minimum, no personal life. Just enough time to eat, shit, masturbate and fall asleep in your cramped studio apartment.”
Hoping for a light at the end of my tunnel, I started looking into internships for my junior year. I’d work in questions about working with difficult clients at each design firm I visited and the story was basically the same everywhere. Until you had some recognition, a lot of your jobs will be small time morons who want what they want no matter what.
The hardest part was that Mr. Geler’s class would compose the largest and most recent projects in my portfolio. It was brutal. With each successive project, my body of work got more and more strange and at some point I cracked. He had us designing tampon boxes, anti-smoking ads, religious materials; the most annoying things you could imagine. By midterms, half the class was gone, fired, as Mr. Geler called it, and even I was losing my grip.
I’d also struck out at nearly every design firm within forty minutes of the school. Aside from the scattershot portfolio, most of them said they had waiting lists for interns. Turns out the Graphic Design program had doubled in size over the last several years, and the surge of interest had created a groundswell of new designers hitting streets running just as I was enrolling two summers ago. There were no design internships, and likely no design jobs, to be had. The market was saturated.
The only person I knew having any success was Mike, so I asked if I could partner with him on some tattoo flash, maybe work in some stereotypical Koi fish or dragons around his calligraphy. He said alright, and it was easy to fall into the rhythm of not doing your projects or going to class. The drawing was all fairly steady where college had become sporadic and unpredictable, thanks largely to Mr. Geler.
But working with Mike started paying off within a couple weeks. And since he was overloaded with requests for artwork other than Chinese characters, he referred them to me.
Soon I was sketching a dozen tattoos every weekend. I could hardly keep up. My roommate actually switched rooms with Mike so we could work together, and most afternoons we hung out at one of two tattoo shops downtown. One year earlier, Milwaukee had finally legalized tattooing within the city limits, which meant there was a large demand for artists and long waiting lists to get appointments. Finally I found myself on the right side of the supply/demand equation. We were getting in on the ground floor and making a killing.
Maybe Mr. Geller was right about Graphic Design, but when it came to tattoos I found people listened to you a little more. There were still a lot of bad ideas, but when you told someone this is permanent, and it’s going to hurt, once in a while they listen. Sure, I did some awful tattoos that I wouldn’t dream of putting into my portfolio, but the demand grew so fast, that was short lived. Soon we were both turning people away. I couldn’t wait for the semester to end so I might pursue an apprenticeship at a local shop. I only had to last one more month.
* * *
© Anthony David Jacques MMX
Life is Shit : A Story About Beauty
* * *
When I woke up, I had about two hours before my self portrait was due. I’d slept through American Indian Lit, my earliest class, which started at twelve-forty-five. Part of me was disappointed when I realized I could still make 2D concepts.
Well, I thought, is there anything worth saving?
It was the final project, so I had to turn something in or I would fail the class. I walked out into the lobby and everything was gone. Even the charcoals and my sandwich. I guess housekeeping had cleaned it all up.
I kept looking about and finally there it all was in the trash room, ripped into pieces small enough to fit in the paper recycling bin. All my work had amounted to a pile of garbage. Someday, I imagined, some of those shreds might be recycled into a sympathy card that would be given to a very important person at a funeral for another very important person. Or it might get recycled into toilet paper.
Part of me wondered if Miss Maloney would accept my self portrait in its current state. But I thought better of it.
Instead of digging through the trash for my discarded charcoals, I scrounged through my remaining art supplies (we kept them in tackle boxes, for some reason) and found a couple pieces of vine charcoal. Vine charcoal was my least favorite type.
After about forty-five minutes spent drawing my right eye from a zoomed in reference photo I realized it was much too big for the eighteen by twenty-four paper I had on hand. Not even half my face would fit on the page.
I had to think fast. I found another reference photo of a hand holding a match in a cigarette ad, quickly sketched that below my eye, and on either side of my cheek I drew the edges of an old door.
With the match as illumination in the center, much of the rest of the paper could be shaded toward black. Maybe Mike’s work was a bit of inspiration, but there I was, peeking out from a dark hallway through a mostly closed door, holding a match in front of my face for light.
And what did I see? Who knows? It was vague and mysterious.
It would have to do. It was certainly my eye, but it wasn’t my hand, and I had to cross my fingers that Miss Maloney wouldn’t notice. One thing I’d learned was the less I said, the deeper and more meaningful she thought my work was. When I turned this one in to her, I didn’t say a word. She gave me a B minus.
I didn’t care. It was the final project for 2D concepts which meant it was over at last and I had winter break to knock around Milwaukee until classes started again.
* * *
Well, by some sick twist of fate, Miss Maloney took over the 3D concepts class I’d signed up for that spring. When I found out it was too late to change if I wanted to stay on track and get into the right classes my junior year for which 3D concepts was a prerequisite.
So with each assignment I turned in I continued to say nothing. I did the most absurd things imaginable because she was turning out to be one of those types. Too many hours working in cramped studios with poor ventilation, breathing all those fumes. Her mind was gone, so anything that looked remotely artistic failed. But if it was absurd, she ate it up. One student made a cast of the inside of his mouth, made it into a bronze paperweight. She loved it so much that she even tried to put it into her own mouth and almost choked.
I would soon discover that Miss Maloney and Miss Strop, the Art Survey teacher, were birds of a feather.
Art Survey was a lecture twice a week where Miss Strop talked for almost three hours about important works of art. Out of three hundred students, sometimes I felt like I was the only one who thought she was insane. I’d hear kids talking about how challenging that artist was because he laid the canvas flat on the ground so he could walk around it. But all he did was splash paint around. So? Or they’d talk about how edgy some other guy was to render the Virgin Mary with porno clippings and elephant dung.
Smut and shit. That’s all art had become. Smut and shit.
One week in Art Survey the lecture was on local artists. Up on the sixty foot projector screen was this great abstract painting of a man falling down a stairwell in an apartment building. Miss Strop went on for twenty minutes about how the limited color palette could represent injustice and societal tension, and how the steps being uneven represented the unexpected. And the man was carrying food, but it was spilling all over, so this meant something about starvation in a world where others enjoy excess.
This work, in her mind, was the artist envisioning the world’s deepest struggles onto canvas.
She said, “This is easily one of his best pieces, and probably my favorite right now.”
I honestly think Miss Strop was so good at making this stuff up that even she didn’t know how full of shit she was.
The next week, though, that local artist happened to show up in Maloney’s 3D concepts class. Now his paintings were obviously 2D, but since he was a friend of Miss Maloney and he was doing some shows in the area, she thought it would be good to have him stop by.
He talked about how to get into shows or galleries, gave a few general tips and tricks that we might otherwise only learn the hard way, and then he asked if anyone had any questions. Of course, I asked the question I’m sure everyone was thinking.
“So that painting you did, Falling Down Stairs #42…”
“What does the number mean?”
“No, no… What does the painting represent to you? Why did you paint it?”
“Oh that’s easy.”
He pulled out a print of the painting and set it on the easel, smiling and rubbing his chin.
“Okay, so I was nearly broke and rent was due in a week. I’d ordered take out to keep me going and the guy went up one floor too many. When he called I told him to come back down, and when I opened the door I startled him and down he went. It was funny to me, so I painted it.”
“And that’s how you made your rent?”
“No, I still got evicted, but I eventually found a buyer for that one a few months later.”
The room was somehow more silent than before.
“Look, man, ” he went on, “I can see you’re trying to get way below the surface here. Don’t over think this. Don’t over think art. I just paint whatever I see. I’m not into all that deep, mysterious, highly nuanced B.S. It is what it is. If people don’t like it, okay. Some people do, and they keep me going. The ones who don’t can be happy enjoying other things. Know what I mean?”
“I think I do. And I’ll tell you what, I think that’s my favorite piece of yours.”
“Thanks, man. That’s cool.”
He might have answered more questions, but there was some commotion in the back of the room. I hadn’t realized Miss Strop was back there using the studio space at the time, and I might have been a little less sarcastic had I known. But the whole class was on my side, chuckling, and the guest artist just seemed confused.
Miss Strop left in a huff, Miss Maloney followed and the whole earth seemed to wiggle uncomfortably on its axis. But we laughed easier once they were gone, and most of the art majors didn’t give a shit about Art Survey after that.
* * *
© Anthony David Jacques MMX
Life is Shit : A Story About Beauty
* * *
I had never done anything worth mentioning before college. I was terrible at most sports, not quite as bad at the saxophone, I didn’t have a good voice, and I wasn’t good with kids my age. I also spent a lot of time in trouble for asking too many questions, writing in cursive too early in school, or using words my grade school teachers didn’t understand like asinine or superfluous. So I learned to be quiet and keep to myself.
I always liked drawing and at that I was alright. The more time I spent not interacting with kids my age and steering clear of teachers and school officials, the more time I had to draw. Most of what I did were pencil renderings of sports cars or comic book characters. This lasted many quiet years.
As I got older, the drawings got me some attention from peers, and by high school, once in a while I drew a tattoo for a friend. Near the end of my senior year, my guidance counselor thought she saw a design spark, and with only a few weeks before graduation she said I should enroll in college to study Graphic Design. She was adamant. Not my girlfriend, not even my parents seemed to push me toward college. You got the impression the guidance counselor would receive a bonus for every kid she conned into going to one of the state’s schools.
So eventually, with graduation behind me and little on the horizon, I decided to apply to one school. I didn’t have to write an essay or anything like that, I just sent in the application, my transcript and some of my art. They said I had real talent and they’d be happy to take my money so they can improve upon it. That’s not how they said it, of course, but that’s basically what their acceptance letter amounted to.
So I went to college.
* * *
It was one in the morning and all the academics, as we called them, were going to bed. Graphic Design classes were often in the evening, six or six-thirty, so if you were smart you set up your schedule so that most of your classes began after midday so you didn’t have to get up early. And so the art students hung out late while the academics studied, and when they cleared out we started our art projects, in those prime hours just before dawn when creativity is at its highest. We went to bed when the sun peeked over Lake Michigan. We cleared the chairs to one side of the student lounge on our floor and got down to business.
I’d been working for two weeks on a charcoal self-portrait. I hated charcoal with all my energy, but it was necessary for my 2D concepts class. That’s right, 2D concepts. I’d done this hustle my whole life.
In grade school they taught you how to draw shapes, then how to shade, then how to sculpt in modeling clay. Then in middle school you started over. First you drew flat shapes, then you started in on perspective and shading. By eighth grade you started doing sculpture. High school was the same; one dimension, two dimensions, three dimensions.
And here I was in college doing it all over again. The first year we spent a whole semester reducing three dimensional scenes to flat, one-dimensional shapes with charcoal. Then we spent another semester working in color, but no shading or blending was allowed. Just flat outlines and filled shapes. Then, in my second year, I was allowed to shade, but only with charcoal.
It was like getting in trouble for writing in cursive back in the second grade.
“No, no, no. We’re not there yet.”
“Keep that up and you’ll get an F.”
Who decided that art students needed to learn how to draw over and over again? I’d been doing this my whole life. I could draw a square with my eyes closed. By this time in life, I thought, if you can’t already draw shapes, you shouldn’t have majored in art. But our teacher warned us. She said that one and two point perspective was next semester, so we had better not have anything vanishing toward the horizon line until then.
Anyway, I had been working on this self portrait for two weeks. I was trying to be like Chuck Close and capture every last grotesque detail on a huge piece of canvas. It was coming along alright and I was basically done, but being a perfectionist I kept adding details to make it all the more absurd. I wanted my teacher to know how much I hated her. I had all my pimples and pores, every whisker in my sparse goatee, and in the reflection of my eye was me drawing my self portrait all over again.
Just before two in the morning on most weekdays we’d order subs from Jimmy John’s. It was great that they delivered, because even though they were only a couple blocks away, I was on the 19th floor and half the school year there was ice or snow on the ground. Four or five of us would order and we called it dinner time. Two in the morning. What a life.
When the sandwiches got there we all took a while to eat, stretch and talk. Since we were working on the floor most of the time it was a good idea to walk around and limber up. The guy to my left was a drawing major. I really didn’t know how they charged a guy that much money to give him a piece of paper after two years that said so little.
In honor of outstanding performance and dedication
We proudly present this Diploma to Eric Habernathy
for the successful completion of the requirements for our
Two Year Drawing Program Certificate.
(He’s good with a pencil, colored pencils, and the occasional pen and ink, and it only cost him twenty-eight thousand bucks!)
Eric was drawing Lake Michigan. Again. He loved drawing the lake, but it lost something when rendered in pencil. I couldn’t say it to him, but everyone was thinking it. Drawing waves and shoreline in pencil was simply boring.
On my other side was Mike, a freshman. He was a pot head and a sports fanatic, a strange mix in my mind. He always worked with ink and failed most of his art classes because of this. He said he had artistic standards and that was simply his medium, and sometimes he said that pastels were for fags and other things of that sort. I wondered how he’d do in 3D concepts, if he didn’t flunk out first. I bet that would be a riot.
Mike had covered almost an entire 11 x 14 page with black ink using a 0.25 millimeter rapidograph, which, if you don’t know, is a very fine pen. This had taken him weeks, but his idea was that the end result would be the texture of the page, not just the blackness of it. The assignment was to render the Milwaukee skyline from a source photo and flatten it, representing it with two dimensional shapes. I don’t know what had happened to his source photo, but it didn’t matter.
Mike said he’d written subliminal messages into the void as he went along, whatever that meant. To keep his hands from cramping up while working on such a small and tedious scale, he practiced Chinese calligraphy on parchment paper. This was not for a class, but he was really good at it. Once I asked him what it all said and he admitted he didn’t have any idea, but he said they calmed him down. He copied them out of books, rendering them with such fluidity, it made me think he’d missed his calling. Then again, I couldn’t think of a full time job writing Chinese calligraphy.
My project was massive both in size and scope compared to my fellow art students. I’d gotten the biggest piece of heavy paper I could find for the project. I don’t remember the dimensions, but it was almost as tall as me, and it was almost done.
The thing that finished my project was, when we were about to settle back in and get to work Mike and I collided. He was sliding his calligraphy set to one side at the same moment I was settling in to cross my legs. I caught the board on which his ink wells were resting with the heel of my shoe, which sent everything careening over my self portrait. Everybody watched as the inks splashed across my enormously grotesque face, and really, there was nothing else to do. We all watched it until finally that last ink well had stopped rolling about.
I dropped my half eaten sandwich into the glistening puddle of ink, walked into my dorm room and went to sleep.
* * *
© Anthony David Jacques MMX