Chronicles in Ordinary Time 170: What would you do, if you knew you could not fail?

My wife mentioned to a friend of ours that ‘even after 45 years together, I still can’t read Marty’s mind’. Our friend’s response was, ‘read his blog’. Thanks, Eunice; it’s true.
I write because my digital self is far more sociable than my physical self. I think this means that part of me wants to be a different person than I am. The hope is to mix my ideas about the Universe with my life as a commercial artist.
This particular chapter was ‘inspired’ by a general request for a column; this will no doubt be far too long…

unfinished sketch River PilotIncomplete sketch, Norman Rockwell’s River Pilot

Mine isn’t a story about how to succeed as a commercial artist. At this point in history, I’m not even sure what ‘succeed’ even means. As a country, ‘we’ [the American Republic] have just confirmed to the Supreme Court the least popular jurist in the history of the Court, by the closest margin in history:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2018/10/06/senators-representing-less-than-half-us-are-about-confirm-nominee-opposed-by-most-americans/?utm_term=.d5c4393fa61e&wpisrc=nl_most&wpmm=1

This confirmation process made the Clarence Thomas confirmation seem like a ‘cakewalk’ and displayed one of the most partisan processes ever witnessed; and the possible coverup of criminal actions. Ironically, last Friday morning when the Senate had their first vote of Confirmation of the new Justice, the Nobel Committee issued the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize to two figures who have worked to bring attention to ending sexual violence in armed conflicts: Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege.
I am reminded of the quotation by Thomas Jefferson:

I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.

Our President has managed to twist reality by comments made at campaign rallies that have caused the Victim in these last uncivil weeks to become a punch line; and the Accused to become some kind of hero. Trevor Noah has some very astute comments that probably derive from his living in South Africa during Apartheid:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4LZ3P1sv9jE

The political trials of this week were simply a backdrop and a distraction from my office trials. I have been my own Tech Support for most of this century; mostly because I’m unwilling to pay for services I can learn. Up until last week, I’ve had 5 computers: two desktops and 3 laptops. I recently upgraded one of my desktops; it had become annoyingly slow. It now hibernates in a closet. Last weekend, my oldest laptop, a Sony VAIO, died peacefully of old age. One of the laptops was inherited, and as a backup, it went into service. In various ways unknown to me, I managed to kill the Operating Systems in 3 of my computers. I have spent the entire week doing 18-hour days, wrestling with Operating Systems and reloading computers. I owe a debt of gratitude to a Dell Tech Support person in The Philippines. One week later, I’m back up and running, and am trying to remember what I was doing a week ago. ‘Fortunately’, this has been one of those ‘0 billable hours’ weeks—no client work needed. Due to overlapping backups, I didn’t lose any data beyond a few days’ worth of email. Just lost a lot of sleep; and there is a residue of snarkiness.

I have worked as a full-time commercial artist [a term that only dinosaurs remember] and Building Code consultant since 1998. Something like twenty years.
Disclaimer #1: ‘full-time’, to an independent contractor working in the image-creating world does not mean the same thing it means in the normal business world; and the meaning is centered in the term ‘billable hours’. When I use the term ‘full-time’, it means I don’t have another job. ‘Billable hours’ per week vary from 0 to 30-something, most of the time. Time in my office? Basically, from 2p to 3a, six days a week, with breaks for eating, and for spending time with my wife before she goes to bed. She works permanent part-time for a local School District and lives on ‘day shift’. My circadian rhythm has been off-kilter for decades. I don’t do mornings. Working for the Bureau of Buildings was a pain. I kept moving my arrival time as far back as I could, preferring to work after the office had officially closed.
Disclaimer #2: I am a dinosaur. I began my commercial art career in the 1970s while in college, when computers did not exist, and the only means of communication beyond the telephone [attached by a wire to a wall] were pieces of paper upon which one wrote words, or possibly typed words. These pieces of paper were tucked into something called an envelope; and a small sticky rectangle was applied to the outside, before dropping the envelopes into a blue box. The world was very large and distant, back then.

I nearly died in 1988 at age 36, from a ruptured appendix. It changed my life.
For a number of years prior, I was continually confronted by mentors with a question:
What would you do with your life, if you knew you could not fail?
The reality is that I fail, all the time—I don’t meet my expectations, which, by my nature, tend to be unreasonably high. I’ve learned that apparent failure does not have to be final.

I’ve been a freelance commercial artist and designer for over 40 years; primarily working on commission for individuals as sort of a “professional hobby” while working at college and construction jobs, until 1998, when I took a Medical Layoff from my fourteen-year career with the Bureau of Buildings in Portland. There I worked as a Commercial Building Plans Examiner. During my college years, I exhibited my artwork in non-juried shows but found little time for “serious” illustration until my brush with death caused me to re-evaluate my goals and priorities. I realized that my future wasn’t as predictable as it appeared; and that the Creator has given me a talent intended to be used for the benefit of others. In 1990 I decided it was time to get “serious” about my career as an illustrator. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators [SCBWI] and began learning about the career of Illustration.

River pilot
Norman Rockwell’s River Pilot

My goal was to emulate the illustration style of the Golden Age of Illustration; Norman Rockwell’s paintings became my mentors, as well as the work of Howard Pyle, NC Wyeth, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. I spent about eight years focusing on my illustration skills; when I left my work with the City, I discovered that the world of Illustration had changed. Children’s Book illustrators had become cartoonists and photographers had become illustrators. There’s nothing wrong with cartoonists; I just don’t have the talent to be one. I’d spent something like twenty years studying drafting and Technical Illustration.

I’ve illustrated five children’s books that few have read; illustrated books for adult audiences that few have read, created book jackets, illustrations for cable television; worked as a web designer; created videos; have my own website [mjarts.com], and have portfolios on a bunch of retail sales sites [Society 6, Redbubble, for example]. I’ve designed houses across America and one in England. I’ve designed schools. I am a digital publisher, with books on Amazon US and UK.

From the perspective of fame and income—the primary measurements of ‘success’ in America today—my experiment with self-employment has largely been a ‘failure’. I’ve had one-man art shows that few remember; I have illustrations in a museum in Dallas, Texas I’ve never visited [I don’t even know if they are on display]; I’ve created thousands of images as a commercial artist. I’ve spent so much on advertising over the years—money I borrowed from creditors—that I can’t afford to ‘retire’, now that I am at that age. My dependence on pain medication to enable me to meet my own overly-high expectations may have caused permanent damage to my body. I thought I would become famous, in spite of the fact that I am ‘asocial’ to the point of being antisocial. I have a hard time imagining how I would respond to actually being famous. I’m not comfortable around strangers; unless I am able to put my ‘public’ mask on…the mask I learned to wear while working for the City of Portland. I’ve often said that writers and illustrators are people who are comfortable in, and accustomed to, working alone in a room for days at a time. This isn’t a career for those who thrive on social interaction.

I can’t imagine doing anything else.

My wife and I survive because I worked for the City of Portland. My Medical Layoff was ‘supposed’ to become a partial disability retirement. Six months after I was ‘kicked out’ [I did not fully understand the nature of setting a ‘retirement’ date], during which time I could not work [it’s hard to justify a disability retirement while working], I finally learned that my partial retirement, and its Appeals, were denied. I had, upon my doctor’s orders, given up a very-well-paying job, at age 46, with no other job options at hand. Once again. Never leave a job without knowing where you are going.
In 1999 became a consultant. Architects who called me every day at the City, for [free] Building Code advice, weren’t interested in paying for my advice. Over the years, it worked.

I sold my first book jacket that year. My first b/w children’s book was published in 2000; my first color children’s book was in 2002 for a major publishing house; the book was sold only as part of an elementary school curriculum. I was the third choice for the book, because the first choice had to back out. I don’t know what happened to #2; I learned about the existence of #1 & #2 because an agent tactlessly sent the ‘score sheet’ along with the manuscript. Two names crossed off ahead of mine, and the list wasn’t in alphabetical order. My favorite project was the illustration of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia for a Korean publisher. The book had a Korean manuscript, but the publisher wanted a Western illustrator. The Korean book design was better than I imagined…and the company went out of business. My contract gave me ownership of the original art; I am in the process of remaking the book, now in Public Domain. My plan is to republish the book on Kindle by next summer, using Doyle’s original manuscript.

When I turned 62, I finally started collecting that ‘partial disability retirement’. When I turned 65, I started collecting Social Security, and experimented with not doing Code work. Another failed experiment. I have a collection of failed experiments. Now, at 66, I have more time for illustration.
I have a degenerative neurological condition that is affecting my ability to draw. I can still hold onto a computer mouse. More of my work has become digital. I draw faces; I rely heavily on a collection of hands, eyes and faces created over the decades.

I enjoy creating illustrations with female heroes. I grow tired of old white men running the world. They suck at it. I am an old, white man; an immigrant son. Second Generation on my Mom’s side of the family; Third Generation on my Dad’s side. My family emigrated here from Norway and Sweden.
I recently created a Wonder Woman illustration protecting a woman from Cancer, a tall ugly looking creature. A gift for a very brave woman, I know; one of many in this world and in my family.

My fascination with BBC’s Doctor Who is part of the reason I’ve been so engrossed in creating “The Unwritten Adventures of the 13th Doctor”—illustrations I began creating during the summer of last year. One of my latest illustrations has become a favorite of mine—Jenny Flint of the Paternoster Detective Agency, located in Victorian London:

Jenny Flint

In this unwritten story [you can find illustrations from other Unwritten Stories at my Redbubble store [https://www.redbubble.com/people/mjartscom/collections/971115-the-13th-doctor]. The Doctor returns again to Victorian London, shortly after regenerating; as The Doctor did once before. Having overcome their confusion, The Doctor begins an adventure with The Great Detective and her Paternoster Detective Agency: Madame Vastra, the lizard lady from Earth’s ancient past; her companion Jenny Flint, martial arts expert and swordswoman; and their Sontaran servant, Strax. He looks rather like a baked potato in a suit. Sontarans are cloned; Strax has difficulty understanding genders. Once again, The Doctor has managed to bring prehistoric creatures forward in time.

I’m not often pleased with my work. I managed to get this one right. The original is something like 2ft wide.

The 13th Doctor and the Paternoster Detective Agency

The reality is that I fail, all the time—I don’t meet my expectations, which, by my nature, tend to be unreasonably high. I’ve learned that apparent failure does not have to be final.

Failure is only final when you allow it to be.

More about that next time.

 

 

 

 

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