I decided, in the spirit of the times, that this month’s article will be a stream of consciousness view into lockdown mentality.
Well, this has been an interesting month, hasn’t it? Certainly, there is more time to peruse social media (to say nothing of the news) during the COVID-19 isolation- and I noticed many illustrators writing posts making the point that this is something we have been preparing for our whole lives. Illustrators have traditionally been working in relative isolation and are certainly used to imposing a regimen onto their lives that “civilians”- people with traditional jobs don’t need to do- for most people, the structure of their working lives is imposed upon them. So, this lockdown should be a piece of cake for us, right?
For me it has been unsettling in the sense that I find it harder to concentrate, more difficult to keep myself focused and to avoid the distraction of letting my mind turn inward. I’m usually pretty good at avoiding that but like so many things, the lockdown has changed that.
Through my career as an illustrator I have tried to avoid categorization. I learned early on that art directors tend to categorize different artists by genre or subject, as well as style and technique. I never wanted to limit myself in that way. The first thought I had when I began to contemplate joining the contributors of Muddy Colors was whether my work would be a good fit on a platform designed to be a resource for sci fi and fantasy artists. After all, I am not what I would consider a traditional sci fi fantasy artist- and this got me to thinking a dangerous thought- who am I? and for that matter, what is the differentiation between what you do and who you are?
This is an existential question that I thought for many years was totally irrelevant to the practice of illustration. At the beginning of my career, what I perceived to be the irrelevance of the individual artist beyond their actual work was one of the appeals of illustration to me. I didn’t want “me” to matter, I wanted to make work in service of ideas, I wanted to do work that could be “out in the wild” and I wanted only the work to matter. I always wanted to be an artist of some kind, but illustration seemed to be a meritocracy, a place where one could be an artist but nobody would care about anything but the work. Over time my thinking about illustration has evolved towards the opposite position, that the individual voice of the artist matters more than anything. But if you recognize that the artist matters, then another question comes to the surface: What is the difference between who you are, and what you do? Many people are not in a position where they have to ask themselves this question. This is an important question, but one normally doesn’t have the time to look inward – but that’s a bit different now.
The work I have been doing has evolved over the course of my career, sometimes in response to market forces and economics, and other times Ive tried to steer my output to bring my focus back to something inside me, something that’s trying to get out. That something is always there. But lately- being in “isolation” in a world where everything is being turned upside down- a not-so-subtle message has been flashing in front of my eyes. You might be getting the same message: You Never Know How Much Time You Have Left.
When i hear that message I only have one response: I should be working. Maybe not necessarily making money or getting exposure, but definitely working.
And teaching is working, too.
Working? While I am fond of pointing out that I haven’t “had a real job” since 1979, before that I had quite a few jobs, some part time, some full time, some summer employment. I have been working since I was in 8th grade. Before I was an illustrator, I delivered newspapers, was a gardener,a house cleaner, a sign painting shop apprentice, a bus boy (I lasted one day) a sailboat refinisher, a door-to-door salesperson (fuller brush!), retail employee, matt cutter for an art collector, house painter, Bike mechanic, sign painter, farm laborer (I lasted one day), drafteman, auto auction “hood man”, preschool teacher, and my only long-term (two years) job- middle school math teacher.
I then returned to college to study illustration. The first week I was there I got a job doing an illustration, I never looked back. I’ve never done a real day’s work since then. when I got that first illustration assignment, i made a carved-in-stone decision- I am never going back.
So at the moment I’m in lockdown. I can’t go in to my teaching job (though I am spending far more time preparing for class that normal- I’m sure this is the case for everyone teaching remotely). Can’t go outside to paint, but I can work in the studio. The meter is running. And when i think back to those other jobs I had, when i doubt whether this whole thing is going the wroong way- I remember- being an illustrator saved me from everything that my life might have been.
Take care during the lockdown and don’t lose sight of why you are doing this- whatever crazy, impractical, nonsensical reason there is for you to be an artist, consider the alternative. To paraphrase Robert Henri-you can’t get rid of the part of you that yearns to be an artist, any more than you can get rid of your shadow. Embrace it.
All the images in this article have been painted during the Covid-19 lockdown for or during zoom classes with students.