Calvin & Hobbes & Self-Taught Artists

Unconfirmed info states that the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip below, by the great Bill Watterson, was produced more than 15 years ago. It still resonates today, a little bit, don’t you think? (Click on the strip to see it larger.)

As a child, I learned to draw by copying the comic strips. I’d fill pages with my own renditions of Andy Capp, Beetle Bailey, and Charlie Brown. It was relaxing, soothing, almost meditative, that physical/mental activity of drawing. Somehow as we get older, we stop. We learn that there’s “good art” and “bad art,” and decide that it’s best to leave it to the professionals. We get the message and the message is: Don’t. Just don’t.

Our loss.

When it comes to art — and we could easily be talking about writing here — the most dangerous questions revolve around quality. Is it “good?” Is it “bad?” Because the unspoken question is: Can I continue, or would it be best for everybody if I just stop? Because if I’m making bad art, then I’m probably a bad person, and this is absolutely a bad idea. So I better quit now.

I’ve always been uncomfortable when it comes to teaching creative writing. It’s such a fragile thing, the courage it takes to dare make something. The artist is exposed, vulnerable. The last thing I ever want to do — as the so-called expert, the professional — is to kill it. And it’s so easy to do. With just a few ill-advised comments, we can suck the joy out of just about anything. At the same time, it’s why I have such respect for people like Ralph Fletcher, and the insights of Lynda Barry, or the impressive bloggers, Stacey and Ruth, at Two Writing Teachers who work with such dedication to keep kids motivated and involved in the act of writing. All I know to do is say, “Great job, keep going, you’re fantastic.” And maybe — maybe — there’s a point where artists of any age need a little more help than that, though I have my doubts.

I remember being asked to interview Mark Teague very early in his career, late 1980s. In my preparation, I kept coming across information that stressed he was a “self-taught” artist. And I puzzled over that. Because, like, who cares? Why was that significant? What did it matter?

The conclusion I reached was that for most of us, we need permission to draw (or paint, or sculpt, or write). Sort of like going down to City Hall to pick up a fishing permit. You can’t be an artist unless you go to art school. Everybody else: Put the crayons down and please step away from the table.

The thing with self-taught artists is that somehow they manage to persevere without a license. They keep on making pictures, hand and mind in unison, and it seems to me like such a healthy, wholesome activity (in which we are made, figuratively, whole and at one, ommmmmm). Today my daughter Maggie still loves to draw pictures. We’ll sit down at the kitchen table, divide up the Sunday comics, markers and paper strewn everywhere, and recreate our favorite characters, music playing in the background. I hope she never stops. Because somehow the act of stopping is like a little death in all of us. An end of innocence, of participation, of creative joy, of play. We lose something very dear when we surrender our art (and our artistic selves) to the professionals.

FINAL COMMENT: Looking at the comic strip above, and how it reflects today’s financial climate, you are either struck by Bill Watterson’s amazing prescience . . . or by how little things have changed over the years. Given what we’re learning daily about the big corporations: The surprise in it is that anyone could find it the least bit surprising.

One comment

  1. Joel says:

    I totally agree, and, having seen this, I must pass it on to my friends and family! Of course, everyone wants to blame the current or former administrations for the current problems. But as we can see from Good ole’ Calvin & Hobbes, this problem has been around for much longer than either party is willing to admit! As long as it’s not noted with outrage, they can keep doing things the way it’s always been done. let’s hope some of that changes this time around.

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