After a brief hiatus, dealing with other things (making drawings for an upcoming video project, trying to learn to play electric blues guitar and all around bobbing to and fro aboard the USS Ship of Life), I'm returning to my Death at the Circus series.
Sincerely, Captain E. Herbert Smith
Dang, I realized I hadn't added the watercolor to this drawing. I wondered why it seemed a tad anemic. Here's the final version.
I grew up in a small town in Michigan in the 1940s. My brother, Dave, and I spent most every Saturday afternoon watching B-Movies at the Lyric Theater in town. The B-Westerns, in particular, were my favorite and to this day, a part of me imagines that I'm a handsome, brave, gunslinging cowpoke. That explains the appearance of cowboys now and then in my Death at the Circus series. I've always had pussycats in my life, too, so cats and cat-like creatures show up at the circus, often wearing colorful saddles with riders astride them.
The holiday season brought us some unwelcome events. They have altered my commitment to create a drawing most every day but, happily, things seem to be settling down. I've continued making pictures, although not as many as I made before the mischievous clowns jumped into our life. The slowing of the flow is, perhaps, a blessed relief for those who follow my Death at the Circus series of drawings. In any case, here's one of my recent drawing. More to come, the Gods of Graphite willing.
Perhaps it's overkill, all this Death at the Circus imagery, but here's my 50th post in that series. (I have a small batch of other good ones, but perhaps because of timing or tone, they failed to show up here on Drawger.) The act of creating these drawings about the circus-like craziness of life and the ever present spectre of death anchors me in some way. I also believe that publishing them here creates a similar balm that soothes my soul. Making drawings is, of course the main thing, but putting them out into the world seems to be a fitting coda to the process. If the series of drawings seem redundant, as I'm sure they do to some, I can only offer a sincere apology.
A new drawing from my Death at the Circus series. I'm not sure why I've adopted this arched-back cat image into my latest drawings, except to say it give me pleasure to do so. I guess that statement is true for every drawing I've done in this series; the great satisfaction in drawing imagery that enthralls me. The recurring images in Death at the Circus may be repetitive for those following this endeavor, but not for me. I don't think I've ever felt as spiritually connected to anything I've done in all my years as an artist as I am to these pictures. A bonus: this one features a small homage to my favorite beverage, beer. Cheers!
Full drawing #43 from my Death at the Circus series.
Luigi helping me decide if the piece is finished.
Luigi guarding my Franziskaner Weissbier, a substance I use to lubricate my drawing hand.
Last night, as I was working on a new drawing for my Death at the Circus series, I decided to document my drawing process. As you can see, I began (as I most often do) with a few simple shapes on the drawing pad. Those shapes inform me on how to proceed. If they lead me astray, I rip out the page and begin a new drawing. These three circles felt like a good beginning, so I began searching for the story. The final iPhone pic shows the final art but without added color pencil, usually the last stage of my drawings.
I was caught up in the drawing and forgot to snap a few pics along the way with my trusty iPhone. No matter, you get the idea with less boredom.
The final art before I added some color pencil to it. The final work is at the top of this article.
Luigi is not impressed with my drawings. Not a bit.
I've kept my Death at the Circus themes very general thus far. Art can become dated quickly when it references current events, so I tend to avoid entering political discussions with my work. Plus, I cringe at producing corny and predictable drawings (although I’m sure I’ve done and will do my fair share), and a surefire way to do that is to rail against things that piss us off. Political cartoonists, like Steve Brodner & Barry Blitt transcend trite imagery and most often, their aim is true, their message powerful. But I lack that kind of brilliant political mind.
That said, the recent Oregon high school massacre has so moved me that I feel I must show my disgust with the small but rabid citizens in our nation who honor gun ownership and continue to block any changes to the gun laws, aided and abetted by the NRA & gun manufacturers. Of course, this issue is not just about a gun-crazy nation, it’s also about the increasing group of mentally ill people who, fed by the new digital media who can easily purchase large clip, semi-automatic weaponry that can wipe out large groups of people. Maybe citizens who think the wild & violent frontier mentality is the way to go, that arming everyone with guns as a solution to this craziness, will thwart reasonable changes regarding gun control. Perhaps America is too sick to mend, to become a more civilized nation in regard to these monthly mass killings. But I believe healing is still possible. It is hard to maintain that hope, though, with the increasing thickets of Americans supporting frightening, aggressive and simplistic bullies like Donald Trump for president.
The Circus has become infiltrated with far too many clowns.
Well, I'm back to my Death at the Circus series of drawings. As I said in my last post on Bill Traylor, I ventured into new territory, but wandered right back to the Circus. Looks like I'm not done thrashing about with oddly shaped elephants, rhinos, tents and clowns. I began using hotpress (smooth) watercolor paper for the Traylor-inspired drawings and decided to do my new Circus drawings on it. Things feel vastly different, the way the watercolor & pencils adhere to the surface of the paper. Not sure if I'll stick with it for a while or return to the more textural sketchbook paper. Will let you know.
Looks like I'll be revisiting my Death at the Circus series sooner than I thought. I became enamored with the work of Bill Traylor, a former slave who, at age 54 began drawing and painting. I began a series of works based on Traylor's beautfiul stuff, but after a few good drawings and many failures, I decided to let his art speak for itself. I felt like an inteloper. I'll be posting my new Death at the Circus drawings soon. I discovered I wasn't done with the investigation.
About Bill Traylor:
William "Bill" Traylor (1853–1949) was an African-American self-taught artist from Lowndes County, Alabama. Born into slavery, Traylor spent the majority of his life after emancipation as a sharecropper. It was only after 1939, following his move to Montgomery, Alabama that Traylor began to draw. At the age of 85, he took up a pencil and a scrap of cardboard to document his recollections and observations. From 1939 to 1942, while working on the sidewalks of Montgomery, Traylor produced nearly 1,500 pieces of art.
Click HERE to access the Bill Traylor Wikipedia page.
This was one of the few Bill Traylor influenced drawings that I deemed a success.
This was my first Bill Traylor influenced drawing.
I used more colored pencil in this Death at the Circus drawing than my previous ones. I like the piece, but the texture feels a bit too upfront. This drawing also feels like it might be the last one in this series. Even if I'm right about that, I'll probably return to the theme later on. Making art without the parameters of an assignment is new territory for me & my inner compass lacks a true north.
By the way, thanks to all my friends here on Drawger and to my Facebook friends who have taken time to check out my new drawings. I truly appreciate your patience as I indulge myself, trying to learn now to create outside the illustration arena that I've so long inhabited. It's sometimes unerving, but mostly I'm wallowing in the freedom.
I'm posting two new drawings today. Number 29 was created last night with some tweaking done this morning. Then, instead of heading to the kitchen for breakfast, I dove into a new drawing, Number 30. By the way, should anyone be interested, the numbered drawings here on my blog are most, but not all of those I've been producing. If I created a couple of drawings on the same day, I sometimes pick my favorite to post.
I feel a need to put these drawings out into the world, sort of like a parent showing off pictures of their little kid who participated in a local theater piece. But I am aware each time that my audience is small and the whole thing can have the same effect that too many slides of a family event can leave friends rolling their eyes or dozing off in their seats. I sometimes wish I were one of those humble hermit artists who work privately in their studio, shunning the outer world until, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, hundreds of the their paintings appear in a big, surprising and delightful gallery show. Obviously, for better or worse, I'm not that person.
It is my intention to create a new drawing for my Death to the Circus series every day, although the truth is, life's various activities and responsibilities snatch a work day or two away from me each week. Add to those lost days, there's the filtering process that thwarts my attempt at producing a good drawing each day. Over the past two days, I made 5 drawings and rejected two. Of the three remaining, I believe one drawing to be excellent, a second drawing to be very good and the third to be quite good. Three keepers, two failures. I most often tear up and toss out the failures, but for some reason, I kept the two recent drawings that didn't measure up. I tore them from my spiral bound sketchbook, but laid them off to the side. Maybe if I begin making collage pieces, I can cut out and reuse the good stuff from those pages.
Today's drawing is the one I deem excellent. I wonder how the art feels about my rating system. "Who are you to play God?" they probably ask. I do feel a twinge of guilt when I toss pictures in the trash.
I'm not sure how long I'll maintain my interest in this Death & Circus theme, but so far it continues to facinate me. When I was deluged with assignments in years past, I decided I'd draw only things I like drawing when, one day down the pike, I had the opportunity. Many of my illustrator friends love the act of drawing and anything out there is fair game. I dreaded drawing so many things that I often wondered why the hell I became an illustrator. To make a living is the most honest answer, although I did like the recognition, particularly among my illustrator cohorts. Now that I am much less busy with assignments, I am fully relishing the opportunity to draw only things I love to draw. As you can see in this series, I favor tall, wobbly tents, clowns, monkeys and large round beasts, like the rhino and the elephant. I wonder what will catch my interest once I weary of the circus. I hope I'm not boring others with these Death at the Circus drawings, but so far, I'm not boring myself.
Those familiar with the work of Bill Traylor, will see that I've confiscated his dog image. He was a truly amazing artist. He was born into slavery and, after spending the greater part of his life after emancipation as a sharecropper, he began drawing at age 85. From 1939 to 1939, created almost 1,500 works of art. I love his work and I am a piker in comparison. I have just over a decade to match his output with my new work.
THIS DRAWING, unlike most of the others in my Death at the Circus series, depicts a real event. Recently, a friend hired a guy to set a Havahart trap to capture a groundhog. My friend was out of town and the trap setter neglected to check on it daily. The poor creature died of heat exposure and thirst. I still can't get it out of my mind; imagining the several days of suffering for no reason whatsoever. I think it's a lack of compassion for what we call pests. The groundhog only wanted to eat from the garden and now it's dead. Better to shoot it than to set a trap and let it die slowly. I doubt that anyone set out to murder the little guy, but no one associated with this local tragedy is guilt-free.
I’ve had several friends ask about my “Death at the Circus” series drawings. "What do they mean?” they ask. Although that question is rarely posed by my colleagues (artists and writer friends), it’s an honest question, usually asked with genuine sincerity and only occasionally with skepticism. I figured the question deserves a response, even if I’m not sure I can offer a satisfying answer.
I find myself asking a similar question when I read poetry that wanders outside my understanding. I enjoy poets like Sharon Olds and Stanley Kunitz who write heartfelt, personal poems, but mostly keep their intentions simple and clear. Once a poet begins playing with words as visual designs (which I should like, but don’t) or alluding to Greek mythology or other literary connections, I become confused and lose interest. I don’t have the time or inclination to learn to like those poems. I’m not fond of free jazz for the same reason. I don’t have enough time in my life to delve deep enough into the forms to uncover the mysteries. I have learned a lot over the years about many kinds of music and I have learned to love later the Miles Davis recordings and composers like Charles Ives, but I’d rather revisit those artists with my days left to me than spend my valuable time trying to understand stuff that grates on my ear bones. It’s only a question of hours in a day, not a lack of curiosity.
So back to my new drawings and the question, "What do your drawings mean?" The simple answer is: Don’t look for specific meaning in my new stuff, just enjoy the quirky pencil lines, the smudgy colors and the crazed characters and structures scrawled over the pages. There is a somewhat more complex answer. Truth is, I am telling stories; it’s just that they are not anchored in what we refer to as “reality”. They are more like free-flowing dreamscapes, visual tales not meant to be understood as you might understand my commercial illustration drawings. When I approach a job for, say, a Dennis Overbye science column in the New York Times, I read the manuscript and try to digest it as best I can. Then I put on my thinking cap and begin the sometimes thorny task of creating a visual image that not only has an association with the story, but also has enough humor and energy to entice the reader into the story. Once done, my sketch has to be approved by the art director and Dennis and, of course, the NY Times editors. Once the sketch is approved, I go to final art, scan it, and send it off electronically. Almost anyone can quite easily grasp my intention in the illustration—if not by looking at the art by itself, by reading the article. Not much mystery residing there.
My new drawings are freed up from the confines of a commercial assignment, for better or worse. I assume it’s how most “fine artists” approach their work. The beauty for me of making these drawings without a specific goal in mind, is the chance to fully experience the joy of exploration. Commercial work has some of that, but the very idea that someone else besides me has final approval of an assignment has placed a restriction on my creative muse. I am speaking for myself, of course. Some commercial artists may feel that those restrictions offer them freedom, but I’m not one of them. I love simply standing at my board, with a #2 Ticonderoga pencil in hand and entering the blank page with as little preconception as possible. I’m enthralled by the spontaneity. I see it as a parallel to the way Miles Davis made music, particularly in his later years. He had a rough musical idea in mind and then urged his band of top-notch creative musicians to join him on an unscripted journey. I rely on my first pencil mark on the page to lead me to the next mark until a image emerges. There is obviously control, but I try to keep as open as possible to unexpected imagery as possible. My only setup is that--for this series at least--some iconography should relate to a circus. And somewhere in each piece, a skeletal figure will loom. That’s it. I am only trying to explore and grow within parameters that I have set for myself. Of course, I’m always wrestling with my limitations, those of imagination and drawing skills. I try to remain true to my heart and my intentions as I draw. And then erase and then draw again. I rip up all pages that have beginnings that I deem failures, but the ones that work for me are satisfying beyond description. I love ‘em. None are perfect, but they are the best I can do at this point in my life. I hope they get better. We’ll see. I am trusting myself to head in the right direction.
So, my friends, if you like finding stories of your own invention in my work, please know that I’m delighted that you are looking at my drawings closely enough to do that. But I have no answer for the question: What do they mean? I don’t want the responsibility of anchoring them down in that way. I'm satisfied with helping the drawings appear and then choosing which will remain and which ones get tossed out.
Detail from a new Death at the Circus drawing. (Top half of page.)
Closeup of Umbrella Clown & Monkey. Graphite pencils were tools I used throughout my entire career to create preliminary sketches. They paved the path to the final art, always rendered in India ink. Now, I am using those simple, smeary tools to create the final art. When I began these pieces, I had no idea that my trusty sidekick, a simple No.2 Dixon Ticonderoga pencil, would become a treasure.