“You have to do like this,” my brother holds up John Gnagy’s book, Learn to Draw that we’d gotten for Christmas. It was part of a kit with pencils, charcoal, a blender (a paper pencil like thing pointed at the end), a eraser, a sandpaper pencil sharpener, a plastic pencil sharpener and some paper.
Gnagy was on TV, too, but we didn’t watch much TV. Parental controls were parents saying, “No, God dammit.”
I looked at the cone my brother was copying from the book, the early pages where Gnagy was teaching about shading.
“You have to see where the light comes from. That’s how you get three dimensions.”
My brother was always able to talk about art in this kind of way, theoretically, abstractly. I couldn’t, can’t, don’t and am seriously frightened by it. I don’t know what kind of artist I am, but not the theory to reality type.
The kit ended up my brother’s. At that point I saw myself as a future designer of women’s clothing and that’s what I was drawing. I also got a Barbie doll that year (1964) and had discovered sewing clothes for her was a lot of fun. I was also painting in oils, landscapes from my mind.
The interesting thing is that my brother was a cartoonist from the very beginning, but he understood how “real” art was important to cartooning. Somewhere inside he wanted to be a “real” artist and he did some amazing “real” paintings, but there was always something missing from them. At heart he was a story teller but needed a page of squares to tell the story. His painting hero was Howard Pyle whose paintings definitely tell stories.
Years later, when we were both in our late twenties, walking on a snowy Denver street near my mom’s house, I got some useful advice from my brother. I had just taken down my one-woman show at Cafe Nepenthes in Denver. My brother didn’t seem to think much of the show — it wasn’t his “thing,” or, maybe, he was jealous. I don’t know. Artists in a family that doesn’t support art? Well, friction is inevitable. He said I was an “abstract expressionist” (which I had to look up, later, in my book, The Shock of the New) and he said my paintings were flat, lacking depth (that damned shadow thing again). I’d sold $1000+ which I don’t think my brother ever did.
Here’s one of the paintings from that show — not really a Modigliani knock-off.
At that point, I was taking a break from painting and was doing linoleum cuts having seen Picasso’s in the National Gallery earlier that month. I was talking to my brother about them and what I was trying to do. I explained how I felt making art was responding to a divine impulse. I told him how I was having a little trouble with the knives I used to carve my linoleum. “It’s easier if the linoleum is warm,” I said.
His response, “Well, Martha Ann, if you want to talk to God you have to play Black Sabbath backwards at 78 and you need some emery paper, honey.”
Fast-forward 20 some years to San Diego. My brother and his then wife came to visit from Northern California. On my wall was a “thing” I’d spent the whole summer making. It was the dark summer of my mental breakdown, but the products were pretty nice.
“Did you do that?” my brother asked.
“How I spent my summer vacation, Kirk.”
“Dammit, Martha Ann. You ARE an artist.”
He wasn’t entirely happy about that, either.
One of my favorite cartoons done by my brother depicts me, Aunt Martha and him in the backseat of our car. It’s supposed to be an afternoon we all — and my mom — went up on the Gold Camp Road near Colorado Springs to look at the golden aspen. In real life, my Aunt Martha was driving. She kept looking in the rearview mirror and saw my brother reading a comic book instead of looking out the window. She would then yell at him to “Look at the aspen!!!” My brother might not have put my Aunt Martha in the driver’s seat, but he accurately depicted the sense of the day and each of our personalities.