Sunday, February 15, 2009

Mouse Guard

A very special treat Friday with a guest artist visiting our humble community: David Petersen, the creator of “Mouse Guard” is here for a couple of weeks, mainly as the keynote author for the Guys Read program. We also managed to score a free and open to the public lecture by him at the Schiable Auditorium on UAF campus Friday night, plus I rallied enough local talent to fund a small workshop next weekend too. In-between these gigs Petersen participated in the Guys Read closing parties hosted by the borough public library, where all of the boys from each school that volunteers have been reading this year get to come and eat ribs from Big Daddy’s BBQ, play games with paper airplanes & spit-balls, win donated prizes and pick up a free copy of their favorite book that was featured in the program. We got excellent media coverage with interviews in newspaper, radio and TV, promoting both Petersen and the Literacy Council’s efforts as well. There were probably in excess several hundred kids and accompanying parents, with another bash scheduled for next weekend. I set up a table off to the side with sample posters and demoed little original drawings to personalize and give to the kids – a happy beaver who had taken a bite out of a book, knocked out with a Sharpie and a quick wash. I lost count over fifty sketches.

The talk on campus was one of the better presentations I’ve seen over the years. A pretty decent-sized crowd of over fifty folks came by, and David’s show & tell was personal, intimate and very informative on many topics. He talked about his personal history and how growing up in Michigan influenced his outlook and work, his educational experiences, plus commercial art and related side-projects with other artists and authors, and shared a lot about his particular techniques. A lot of people in the audience were really interested in the craft-oriented aspects: character development, writing process, sketching, drawing and some business pointers. Petersen’s strong sense of design was apparent not only on each individual panel, but overall page compositions and flow throughout the books, and his attention to details plus use of color was also very impressive. He was really open and honest, candid and relaxed, and got a lot of laughs. After 45 minutes there was a question & answer period, and then probably another 45 minutes spent fielding one-on-one stuff, signing autographs, looking over a couple portfolios and just talking with a small group.
It’s always a rare pleasure to have someone of Petersen’s caliber spend time up here, as we’re a little remote and isolated from the comics scene in particular, even though there is a very healthy and active base here of both fans and aspiring talent. This was an opportunity to get some insights on the industry from the firsthand perspective of someone who is a rising star, along with genuine and intimate commentary on the whole scene. While I try and stay current and informed as possible by devouring interviews in trade magazines and websites, nothing beats the real deal in person.

On a personal level, this talk was both inspiring and simultaneously depressing for me, as strong, conflicting feelings tend to get aroused after exposure to other artists who work in the same field. It isn’t jealously, but a sinking feeling that I still haven’t done shit with either my life or my work, haven’t done anywhere near as much as I need to be doing, and oscillate between the extremes of “hey I’m as good as that person, why ain’t it happening for me” to “man, do I suck”. I suppose this endless cycle never stops for most artists, and in some perverted sense is basically “inspiration”, since it’s a temporary speed bump and eventually serves as a good kick in the creative ass. I’ve heard artists being described as “egomaniacs with inferiority complexes” which sometimes describes the mood swings and irrational behavior I put on display. But despite the whole self-comparison thing not being healthy as a constant obsession, or if it leads to overwhelming despair and beating yourself up as a failure (or getting a big head), measuring oneself against others to some degree is instinctual and natural. So while I might not aspire to draw in the same exact style as someone else, or desire the trappings of success (though a wee bit more money would always be nice), the lesson for me to learn is how they went about it, and what habits they have, what opportunities did they take, what choices do they make, and so on. These sorts of things interest me more than anything nowadays, along with some fundamentals like what someone’s disciplined schedule of production is like, what kind of nib and ink do they use along with more specific and technical concerns of the craft (“how the heck did you do that?). Petersen was very approachable, likable, and definitely not suffering from any diva syndrome even if in many eyes he is quite the “rock-star”, and made a real positive impression with many people. And it helps take the edge of any lingering insecurities when I come full circle and get centered and re-orient my own work with the new influx of knowledge and experience.

Especially encouraging for me and a few other faculty members present was Petersen’s affirmation of the importance of acquiring basic skills regardless of one’s ultimate goals. Our university is somewhat limited in it’s scope, so that someone looking to get into any given field will have slim pickings as far as specific classes, as at the most there are only one or two faculty members devoted to any particular medium. So for example, while a student wanting to get into comics or illustration might be better off at an institution that is geared towards such skills and offers majors in those fields of study, that is not to say the more traditional disciplines here won’t have something to offer, i.e. the skills picked up in basic drawing classes will at some level be applicable and transfer to more specialized areas later on. And seeing as how a few of my own beginning drawing students from this semester’s class happened to be in attendance at the talk, it’ll take the edge off the damned egg assignment. In theory at any rate, or at least I’ll be somewhat vindicated

A slight resurgence of detached annoyance at the relatively crappy turnout by some other artists, wondering just why the hell more people don’t take better advantage of opportunities like this. Don’t know whether it was that this was billed as a “comic book thing” and dismissed with the usual tiresome, outdated prejudice, or due to a combination of some other factors (Richard Simmons was Sweating to the Oldies that night), but I was a little disappointed there weren’t more representatives from the Fairbanks art community at the talk. Overlooking your biases and stepping outside of one’s comfort zone is key to staying motivated and more often than not leads to places you’d never believe, and success stories are comparatively far and few between in art as it is - we all have a lot to learn from each other, and a lot to offer.
Same for perseverance in the face of doubt or lack of response or interest - I used to get bent out of shape at the pathetic level of interest and engagement in this town when trying to organize events or even keep a sketch group going. It gets really frustrating to keep plugging away in the face of such apathy, but I suppose if that were really an issue I wouldn’t enjoy teaching. So I’m not really bitter. Much. Eventually you just have to learn to let it go, or say “fuck'm” and be happy that there is at least enough of a group of like-minded people sharing your passion and interests to stay in the loop. Besides, Alaska is also a case study for the isolated artist working alone without much if any interaction with the public or peers, and I guess if I wasn’t forced to leave the cabin for a few days a week I’d eventually mutate into that stereotype myself. But there’s always something of value to be gained from exposing yourself to different venues and artists outside your chosen medium, sometimes ideas and encouragement come from the most unexpected sources or situations. In the end, it’s always enough to see a real connection made at events like this, and folks getting inspired and excited to be a part of something special.

Before Friday’s presentation, I had met David and his wife Julia (and Greg Hill from the Noel Wien Library) for breakfast at Sourdough Sam’s for the traditional greasy-spoon indoctrination with reindeer sausage and sourdough pancakes, and then played tour-guide up to the Museum of the North, poking our heads in the art department and Rasmusen library, then sitting for a couple hours at Gulliver’s Books until it was time to setup at the auditorium. Spending some casual down-time with them was in many ways just as insightful as listening to the talks, not to mention how many people it turns out around here are from Michigan. One of the more impressive things I learned was that they have weekly art get-togethers with a dozen or so other artists where they share news, advice and works-in-progress with one another, which in turn gave me an idea for the monthly cartoon jams we have here to ease up on the exercises and just sit around talking for a while.

Then the next day (Saturday) after the big Guys Read party, we walked through the Fairbanks Art Association’s Bear Gallery – a perfect exhibit was up to see our community’s breadth & depth of talent in a annual local juried show “Patterns of Influence” - and dropped in the Comic Shop to visit with the owner Kevin, and show off one of the geekier cultural Mecca’s for Fairbanks. Plus it’s always fun to eavesdrop on the “shop talk” between veterans and people currently in the trenches. Seriously though, when Scott McCloud (“Understanding Comics”) came through a couple years back on his 50-state tour, he appraised our humble shop as one of the better ones in the nation. And it is one of the coolest places in town; equal part manga/anime, role-playing/gamer stuff, traditional Marvel & DC type comic books, and an impressive display of graphic novels and independents. Kind of like an oasis; well lit and staffed by knowledgeable enthusiasts, very helpful to the clueless old farts like me who wander in every month or so, and often takes the novice pleasantly by surprise.
All that just about exhausted my limits of cultural highlights in this city, other than all the Thai restaurants and incredible diversity of bars (that leg of the tour will probably be next week). I’ll leave it up to more qualified folks to take up the mountain climbing/cross-country skiing/dog mushing/majestic scenery/amazing wildlife etc. aspects of Alaska for a much more well rounded Alaskan Experience. But really, it is a fairly accurate insight on life up here to reach the point where there’s not really much else left to do but go back to the cabin and draw. 'Nuff said...

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