The Art school of hard knocks
Becoming a quick sketch artist
It is fun to tell the story of how I first began drawing portraits for a living. I had grand aspirations when I was studying fine art at Bowling Green State University in the mid-80s to be a great Artist. My study focus was on life drawing, primarily using dry medium such as pastel and chalk. I knew that it was just a matter of time before the universe opened up to me and I would magically become a great “A”rtist with a capitol “A”, in the mean time I knew that I needed a degree. At this time the professors at my school were obsessed with abstract expressionism. This caused much dismay for me since I had no ability to work in this way. It’s not that I don’t enjoy gazing at a Jackson Pollack or puzzling over Picasso, but I had no desire whatsoever to work in abstract. Philip Pearlstein, Chuck Close, Edgar Degas and of course the great Georgia O’Keefe were my heroes. I was born a photo realist and had taught myself how to paint by around 12 years old by studying these masters at the library and with the help of two awesome middle school art teachers. Most of my college professors ridiculed me for being able to draw so accurately, and many of them boldly claimed that I had nothing of value to say. I wanted to be the next John Sargent but I was soundly corrected by my teachers that this was a bad idea because the great portrait artist sold himself out for money by doing portrait work. A real artist lives in poverty they said. A real artist gets a day job working in a factory and only paints at night and on weekends, so that they don’t compromise their art. (Adrian Teo, 1987, art professor at BGSU.) My fellow students were also very quick to point out that I was just a robot who could only make very pretty lines. I believed them. It took 30 years for me to get up the courage to start showing my work in galleries and art shows thanks to these guys, but during these 30 years I was able to support myself by drawing portraits, and I was quite good at it once I got the hang of it.
At first I mostly just did profile portraits from life at amusement parks. I got my start at Cedar Point, in 1984 right after my freshman year of art school. They did not teach us how to draw the portraits back then. My first day of work was terrifying. My supervisor, who had no clue how to draw, walked me to an easel and said “Here you go, have a great day!” I said, “Wait, how do I do this?” She said, “Here is your chalk, here is your paper and look over here, you have your first customer. Don’t forget that you may only take 5 minutes to finish it.” My customer was a very elderly lady who had Parkinson’s and could not sit still for me to draw her. The family bought the sketch because I was sobbing by the end of it. To make matters worse it was cold enough to snow and my uniform consisted of a pair of very short shorts and a short sleeved shirt with a windbreaker. I could not even get warm in the shower after work. Our dorms were a former hotel and they did not have heat, air or hot water. If this was what it meant to be a professional artist I wanted out. This was totally outside of what I considered to be my "art box".
A few weeks later I had all I could take. I wasn't making any money because we were not paid an hourly rate at that time. I earned 50 cents a sketch, that’s it! I begged my supervisor, Nina Bonezzi to transfer me to work at a roller coaster but she pulled me back into the break area to give me a little talk instead. I will never forget her and the powerful advice that she gave me. “Emily”, she said, “If you would just pretend like you were enjoying yourself and try to have a positive attitude, you would attract much more business. Not only that, but your sketches will improve. Take off your dark sunglasses. Stop crying at work, and fake a smile. I have a feeling about you. I don’t know how to draw, but I have a feeling that you are going to be the very best at this and you will be doing it for a very long time.” Her advice was just what I needed to hear. It never occurred to me that drawing in the public was exactly like being on stage and performing. I understood stage performance thanks to my years of music study, so I figured I could fake this. I assumed that this was what I was meant to do until the universe prodded me in the right direction for my life work and so I gave it my all.
It is amazing what a positive attitude can do for an artist. Somewhere around July I stopped faking and started flying. I learned mostly by mimicking the other more experienced artists, since they usually were hesitant to share their sketching secrets. By the end of that summer I was in the top three of about 20 artists. By the end of 1986 I was the top profile artist at Cedar Point, averaging a 2.5 minute sketch and kicking out over 100 faces on an average Saturday. My all-time record was 132 faces in 14 hours of nonstop drawing. Now the newbies were mimicking me, but I encouraged it and taught them how to sketch. Eventually teaching would become my primary focus in the parks. I may be a robot, but I became a damn good one. I was fully supporting myself and bought a little trailer home and a cherry red Camaro before I even graduated from collage.
In 1987 I was finishing up my junior year of art school when this new company called Kaman’s Art Shoppes asked me to run my own art operation at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg Virginia. Oh man, I did NOT want to do this. I was petrified! I was so not qualified to run an entire park art operation. I just wanted to have fun and make beer and book money. The owner said that if I did not accept the park manager job that he would fire me. I doubt that he really would have done that but I didn't want to take a chance. Like my first year at Cedar Point, I was told that he knew that I had a very special ability and that I could do this, but I lacked self-confidence. My first year at the park was horrible as you can imagine. I was 21 years old and in charge of somewhere around 40 artists, some of them much older than me. I remembered the lesson however about maintaining a positive attitude and did my best to fake it. I don’t think that I fooled too many people, but it eventually did attract to me the right people and circumstances to be a very good park manager. I decided that I would continue to be an art souvenir park manager until the universe nudged me in the right direction to continue with my work as an “A”rtist.
After graduation I was the park manager at Busch for 8 years. I went on to train some of the other artists who became to a park managers themselves. Kaman’s went from being a small operation run from Rich and Tricia Kaman's garage to the largest art souvenir operation in the United States. (http://www.kamansart.com/) I wrote the company’s national portrait training guide in the mid-90s, and re-wrote it for them again in 2005. I won’t say that I was the best park manager they ever had of course, but my employees told me frequently, and some still tell me today on Facebook, that I was the best manager they ever had. I figured that I didn't do too bad of a job considering that I was working out of my box. I would still wait for many years to discover what the universe had in store for me artistically however. The next several years after this would be very difficult. If I was going to quit working as an artist it would have been during this next overwhelming time of my life but I stuck with it even after I left Busch.
I will continue this story in a future blog. In the mean time here are some silly photos of me sketching.
|Em sketching, November 2014|
|Em sketching at Cedar Point, 1986|