July 15, 2010

HOW I BECAME A "PROFESSIONAL ARTIST"

(prints are available here, or write gallery1988@aol.com or call 323-937-7088.
They're
$65 11X14, signed edition of 100)

The McFlys (seen above) is my contribution to the fourth Crazy 4 Cult art show which is currently on display at Gallery 1988 in Los Angeles. (You can see all of my film family portraits here.)

This is the third year I've had the honor of participating, and I think it's a good time to share the complete story that explains how a guy living in Nowheresville with limited experience wound up in a notable west coast show selling art to real live Hollywood filmmakers. While I'm not proud of all my work, I'm proud of how it happened. Believe me, nobody called me up and asked. It was more complicated than that...

From childhood to manhood I drew non-stop. Then I stopped. It happened when I got a laptop, I suddenly turned all designer-ish. I designed a web site, self-assigned learning exercises, and a portfolio full of fake greeting cards (which eventually got me a job designing real ones.) After nearly a decade of letting my drawing hand atrophy, I started getting pangs of sorrow each time I came across great illustration online. I came to realize that I was officially a "frustrated illustrator."

In 2005 while I was amid my biggest design project yet, I saw a link to an art show called I Am 8-Bit. This was a group exhibition dedicated entirely to classic video games.

Pop culture themed art shows crop up everywhere these days, but this was probably the one that started the whole trend. I'd never seen artists come together to pay tribute to something that was dear to me. I'd been reinterpreting video games when I was nine years old, so the notion of doing this as an adult was ridiculously appealing. I longed to be a part of it, but I was well aware that there weren't many full time e-card designers among the participating artists.

Two years later I saw this...

There was something else that fueled my pencil as a young artist: movies. A quick look into my archives yielded this handful of examples; from a drawing of the Black Hole's Maximilian that I did when I was seven, to a freshman year rendering of Citizen Kane...


Seeing that first Crazy 4 Cult exhibit was harsh. The art was soooo good but it served as another painful reminder that I wasn't scratching that itch.

The following year I learned that the show was happening a second time. The moment I discovered this I vowed to submit something for consideration for the third installment. I lay awake brainstorming for hours, but awoke with only a couple weak ideas and a pounding headache. As I got ready for work I explained my challenge to my wife and she mentioned how much she liked an intriguing vintage portrait we had just seen. That triggered a vision of The Shining's Torrance family in a Sears studio photograph which caused me to laugh and bound around the house. I had a concept! But could I bring it to life?

I invested numerous hours scouring my Shining DVD for visual reference and piecing together a digital composite of the would-be portrait.
My first instinct was to paint the family (since the consensus seems to be that painted art is the most legitimate art), but eventually I remembered a colored pencil drawing of Disney's former CEO, Jeffery Katzenberg, that I did in college...
I knew the medium would give me a lot more control over the details and I could work smaller. So I dug through the garage until I found the same baggie of pencils I had purchased for class more than a decade prior, and I bought a four pack of 11 x 14 posterboard at Walmart. After a couple misfires, an acceptable image started to take shape.

The learning curve was in full effect and I reworked some parts so many times that I was in danger of eating through the card stock. A week of nearly-sleepless nights and aching fingers went by and the more work I did, the more foolish I felt. I knew I was pouring days of my real life into a far fetched fantasy. I jumped into my impulse so quickly I hadn't even checked to see who curated the show...or if they were even having a third show...or what their selection process entailed...or if they even considered outside submissions! Yet there I was, an amateur by definition, two thousand miles from this gallery I had never set foot in, behaving like I had a chance.

Then I noticed an art contest on AintItCoolNews.com in which the winner got to participate in Crazy 4 Cult. Okay, maybe there was a sliver of a chance. I got excited by the prospect and finished the Torrances. Well, I knew it still needed work, but by then I had decided that the concept would be even stronger as a series, and I hoped that a bit more quantity would offset the lacking quality. So I started on the Lundegaard family from Fargo.

I'd been sacrificing every available hour for over three weeks when fatigue set in. Neither of the pieces was turning out as well as I imagined, so I decided to shelve the project, just for a while. After all, I had a whole year. And hey, if I just stopped nobody other than my very tolerant wife would ever have to know about my goofy plan. Besides, the San Diego Comic Con was fast approaching and I was planning to attend on behalf of another project.

Then it dawned on me— everyone seems to be at Comic Con, what about the guy who puts on Crazy 4 Cult? Turns out his name is Jensen Karp and he kept a blog. I scrolled down until I saw it—

"I'll actually be out in SD representing 1988 all week, but this time as an artist liaison for the Mattel company. ...[yada, yada]... at the Mattel Hot Wheels booth ...[yada, yada]...on Friday, the 25th, at 3 PM" [!!!]

Unbelievable! Not only was he going to be there, I knew exactly where and when! Forget the contest, I could just ask the guy in person. But how would I know how to spot him? A Flickr tag search served up Jensen's face to his newest stalker.

I returned to my work with new found motivation. I "finished" Fargo and attacked Jack Nicholson and crew with a new coat of polish. If I squinted I almost felt good about the Shining one, while Fargo deserved about a C-, but it was San Diego time so it would have to do.

On Friday the 25th, a bit before 3PM I was walking towards the Hot Wheels booth with a backpack containing color copies of my freaky little portraits. I felt my blood pushing through my neck. Almost immediately I saw Jensen handing out prints to a long line of Hot Wheels fans. He was busy; what a great excuse to not approach him yet. So I took a seat against a concrete wall where I could still see him.

He finished with the handouts and started chatting with his then-girlfriend. I didn't dare interrupt their special couple time so I stayed seated in my own sweat. I was terrified that they would notice that I'd been spying on them for a full half hour. When their conversation finally slowed, I stood up. Then a cluster of his friends swarmed and I sat back down. That group was replaced by another one, and another. Jensen knows a lot of people.

When my view of the curator was obscured I moved, and occasionally I circled the booth trying to shake some of my nervous energy. I checked the time; I'd been lurking over an hour. My stomach felt twisted and my mind was shot. When I wasn't scanning them like a sick robot I was cursing myself. My fantasy and reality finally had the unlikely chance to collide, and my weeks of investment were weighing on every moment. Fifteen minutes later I crumbled and walked away from the booth.

I think it was an experiment to see how it would feel. Relief washed over me and I started to think "By walking away now I'm saving myself from rejection. Nobody ever has to know what happened." By then I was convinced that there was no way it could end well. But then I started replaying everything that had happened, and I could almost see a red sign flashing in my head that said "POINT OF NO RETURN." Yup, that's where I was. So I turned around.

When Jensen came into view again there was nobody else with him. I had a straight shot! Suddenly, just like in the movies, a wall of people slid right between us. I started to wait, but my new sense of abandon possessed me and I simply interrupted their exchange. Things started off rough.

I'm going to use the word incomprehensible to describe my introduction and I use it in its truest sense. My body was in a state of panic and I had been sinking so far inward for the past hour that my brain seemed to lose its link to my tongue. My words were often out of order, and inaudible. Jensen played it totally cool.

My plan was to conjure a shred of credibility by giving him the film I worked on for FunKo (which was showing there that weekend) and my S.S. Adams book. So I, the mumbling stranger, told him I had gifts and started piling random stuff in his arms. "I made this." I eloquently stated as I handed him the book. When he mentioned that he liked Chris Ware (who wrote the foreword) I decided to inject some of my unique wit and I heard myself saying "He's my best friend." After a pause Jensen said "Oh, right on, man." to which I smoothly replied "That was my joke. That was just me joking. He's not really my best friend." Sorry if it's hard to read over the sound of me cringing!

Now that he was putty in my hand it was time for my big pitch. "I know that this is uncalled for, but I have some art..." I said as I rummaged through my backpack. Again he was totally cool. "Naw, man let's see what you've got." I handed him the paper without a word. He looked silently and without expression. Then he exploded "Aw man!!" and he burst into laughter and walked into the crowd to show it to some people. When he emerged he said, "You're in dude! You're in."

I literally jumped up and down like I was on The Price is Right. I tried to disguise the tears in my eyes. Then he asked "Do you have any more of these?" and I started flailing again.

Ten minutes later I was back in the oozing flow of Comic Con attendees, smooshed between three other t-shirts as sweaty as mine. But I felt like I was floating. My euphoria must have been obvious. "Hey man," said the guy to my left. "I don't know what the big secret is, but I wish you'd tell the rest of us."

12 comments:

Mel said...

KIRK. That's a great story--I can't believe we've never heard that one out over some work coffee. It's inspirational :)

Kyle Henry said...

Awesome. Thanks for sharing that. I know I've been in that situation a lot, some good, and a lot bad. I was actually nervous as I read it. Great work Kirk!

razet said...

These are really wonderful sketch. It is very difficult to belive that it is hand drawn sketches. you have instilled life in these sketches. I want to be expert like you..

Chris Donato said...

Thanks for taking the time to share this, Kirk. I too was cringing! And I remember when I first laid eyes on Katzenberg in that upstairs hallway (whatever fancy name it had)—totally brilliant! Something I've never forgotten.

blalock said...

Nice post, Kirk! And I love the new McFly family portrait. Back to the Future is pretty high up on my list of classics!

johnbooth said...

This is a fantastic story, Kirk - and having finally met you in person only makes that great, awkward "He's my best friend" moment even funnier. Send my best wishes to the Dogs of the Titanic.

Jody B. said...

What a great story! You're inspiring, man!!

Anonymous said...

Finally THE story. The whole time I thought you might be talking about how you gathered up the courage to ask your wife out for the first time. Maybe you should try your hand at a graphic novel?

James

BTW. I think the "Western Hills" motel in Flagstaff has been razed.

Anonymous said...

http://g1988.blogspot.com/2010/07/thanks-g4.html

"The McFly's" at 10:14

Dano said...

Wow - what an inspirational story! There is no better feeling than having someone whom you respect and admire really dig your work! I got an email from one of my favorite artists; Dave McDowell, just to tell me how much of a fan he was of my blog and art. I really think I squeeled like a little school girl! Great work on the McFly's - I can't wait to see what you do next!

Kirk D. said...

Mel- I guess it was too long for a coffee break. Who am I kidding the DS coffe breaks were as long as we made them.

Kyle- Thanks! I'm really pleased that it made you feel nervous.

Razet- thank you! Keep on sketching!

Haha, thanks you Chris. Yes, the title was somewhat risque (for our school) and it was a pleasure to hear the profs read it aloud during the show. What a jerk I was.

blalock- Thanks! Next time I should do a Creature from the Black Lagoon family since it tops your list.

John- thankfully you were much easier to talk to so I didn't have to pull out my 'best friend' jokes when we met. It's an ace in the hole.

Jody B- Shucks, that makes me feel all good-like. Thanks.

James- ha, ha the only reason asking my wife out was easier is that her roommate already told me she liked me. And I would love to illustrate stories like this someday.

Wow, once again the sign principle is in effect! Glad I captured it.

Anonymous- thanks, that's great coverage!

Dano- You couldn't be more correct. That feeling is all too rare! Boy, you never know who might be visiting your blog.

littlemissart7 said...

Amazingly inspirational. I wish that some day i am given a similar opportunity