Artistic or Autistic (or all of the above)
September 25, 2008

I have been around acrylic paints, oil paints, pastels, Sakura Pigma Microns, Prismacolor markers, X-Acto knives and the like all my life - and that was just Mom's kit. With Dad it was Testor paints and train kits and loads of balsa wood. He scavenged little chains and wires to make realistic details to a train rig that was laid out for perhaps four years. He worked on it from the time my grandmother gave he and I a starter set for Christmas when I was five until I was about 17 when he finally decided to start selling it off. He'd buy a kit, take it out to his toolbench in the garage and work on assembling it, painting it, and then adding clever little touches to make it more realistic. When he was done, he'd carefully box it up so it didn't break and add it to the stack of like boxes on the shelves in the garage.

Mom bought books on art and when we lived in Austin, it seemed like she painted all the time. She did a lot of tole painting at that time as well as working in pastels and doing some portraits. Because she was overly critical of her own work, she often used others' drawings as her "template" and mimicked them onto the wooden object she was decorating. They were fun, whimsical paintings ... and now that I think about it, they shared a fair amount in common with comic strip or cartoon art. I kept a couple of her pieces for years, but alas, too many moves finally took their toll and I'm not sure that I have any of them now.

Suffice it to say it was not unusual for our home to reek of art supplies which covered even the smell of my parents' chain smoking.

My sister and I were surrounded by music and artistic endeavors during our childhood. Besides their different artistic pursuits, they both played piano. My mother became self-conscious about it eventually, but when we were very small, we would beg her to play us to sleep in the evenings. Dad played by ear, Mom played by the rules. In other words, Mom always played sheet music ... Dad made up his own song and occasionally played other songs by ear - but that song generally became "his" song. I couldn't tell you what genre of song it was ... perhaps honky-tonk comes closest (but not in that country-western way, not really). It was a rocking, rollicking series of licks up and down the keyboard.

My sister picked up the bulk of the musical interest and talent in the family - she was in training to begin international competitions as a pianist when she decided that wasn't what she wanted and pulled back some. I hit my own wall a little sooner.

I was, to be perfectly honest, overly sensitive to any criticism from my mother from a very early age. So when I bragged about how wonderfully I was colouring a page in my colouring book and was met with a critique - I was sure already that I was not artistically inclined. The truth of the matter is that I was colouring like a kid. Mom was colouring with me - like an artistic adult. As I remember the look on her face as she coloured with me, she was quite obviously lost in the art of what she was doing. I was happy to stay in between the lines for once. What she perceived as a helpful comment - sharing with me what she'd learned about making the colour as consistent as possible, I perceived as "you're doing it wrong."

I was also a child who did not foncorm to much of anything at all. If I had an arts & crafts project with a suggested pattern or suggested paint scheme, you could pretty much guarantee that I would be oppositional and refuse to use that guide. Sometimes this meant some pretty chaotic projects - but a lot of times it meant something pretty cool to me.

I can remember getting a cartooning book one summer at my grandmother's house and spending days practicing that book ... and for some reason feeling like it was not a form of art that Mom would approve of, so it didn't last past that summer. Then there was the art enrichment class I took a summer or several later. I had loads of fun with that class until we were assigned a still-life drawing.

I couldn't get it to work right and I was ready to throw that damned apple right through the kitchen window. I wanted to do a black & white chiaroscuro drawing, but I really didn't understand how to do this and had never had anyone try to explain it. Finally, frustrated and pissy, I slammed everything down on the table and pronounced it done.

Mom threw a fit and began the "I know you can do better than that" over-achiever line at me.

I was marched back into the kitchen, forced back into the chair and I eventually did produce something better. Something that I actually kept for years.

What we didn't know back then was that I have some mild learning disabilities. I've not been officially tested for dyscalculia and dyslexia, but there definitely seems to be some similarities. I was diagnosed with ADHD about 7 years ago, but frankly, I distrust the psychologist who did the testing, so I'm unsure of that diagnosis as well.

I can say that I have a series of symptoms or issues which do tend to correspond to learning disabilities. One of those is a kind of frustration and rigidity of thought which occurs during a math or math-pattern based activity which can really escalate into a shutdown for me. An example is this: I play guitar - I'm no great shakes, but I can play several songs well enough to be recognized. My difficulty is in changing them up. A few guitarists at my church got together to play a song - and at the "last minute" (to me that's what it felt like) they wanted to change the rhythms that we strummed. This takes some time to practice, but it's really not that hard to do.

I could not do it. My brain totally shut down and I refused to play. I tried to be reasonable about it - I told them to play the song without me - not as a threat, but because I just couldn't get it in the few days left before the performance and I knew it. I can remember learning Boston's "More Than a Feeling" - and my guitar teacher trying to get me to add a grace note after I'd learned the bulk of the song. I could NOT fit that damn note in there no matter how hard I tried. I had the pattern in my head and that was it.

What does that have to do with art? Well, in many types of art, you layer shadings or colours on top of each other until you get the look you want. That appears to be the equivalent of adding a grace note to a song I already know ... my brain begins a weird shutdown pattern and tries to freeze.

I noticed this a few months ago when I was attempting some sketches of some mesas and canyons. I wanted to get the outline right and then begin the shading. And what would happen time and time and time again was I would get halfway through the outline, the rough sketch, and get seriously pissed and frustrated and go to a clean page. Finally, in the van on the way to New Mexico, I was able to force myself through the entire process and wow ... the drawing actually came out half-decent. The problem is that I can only see what's on the page at the moment - I can't always hold that drawing in my mind, the piece that I'm sketching from and the unfinished bit on my page - and blend them into a finished project. The brain winds up focusing on the unfinished so much that I can't actually complete the sketch.

Luckily for me this only happens in realistic drawings requiring subtle shadings. I suppose this is one of the many reasons I prefer drawing cartoons or comic strips.

It has taken years of my playing in Photoshop, web design and even action figure customizing to realize that I do have an eye for design and an eye for art, but that I have my own style which is very different from that of my mother's or of my father's. Or, for that matter, my sister's.

Today, I suspect the brain melt-downs over attempting to change patterns is either a function of ADHD or, I lean a bit more now to thinking it may be a function of Asperger's. After all, it's quite odd when a normally very logical person suddenly has a meltdown over something essentially stupid and inconsequential.

But the bigger realization for me has been just how artistic my family has always been. And that I'm not so far outside the mold as I may have once thought.

Or maybe I've just sniffed too many art supplies over the years.

Posted by Red Monkey at September 25, 2008 2:27 PM | Sketches | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


Tara R. said:

My boy has a very hard time dealing with change or variating from the way he believes a task is supposed to be done. This makes homework a real battle sometimes. His doctors attribute this to his OCD. It is very frustrating for him.

September 26, 2008 10:31 AM


Dawn said:

Very interesting...I've been reading a great deal about rigidity and inflexibility lately (Elliot has serious shutdown/meltdown when he can't think around something and we can't easily access how he's thinking to help him out of a jam) so reading about how it may apply to the creative process for you makes total sense. Of course I've always had great anxiety when it comes to visual arts--only with words do I feel empowered and capable and able to really create.

If what you're saying is true for you, it makes me wonder how many cartoonists fall on the spectrum...

October 1, 2008 2:25 AM
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