Friday, September 26, 2014

Benched Week 57: a signature thing

Meet Fred.  He is, by his own description, the foremost expert about the town of Chagrin Falls, Ohio.  It was my luck to have found him on a bench along Main Street, not far from the falls themselves.

I had chosen the town by its evocative name on a map.  And when a little research revealed it to be the hometown of Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbes, I knew it would be the perfect bench-stop on my drive home from Cleveland.

Sitting down with Fred, I asked him how long he’d lived in the town.  “It’ll be forty years any minute now,” he answered.  He said he’d never contemplated moving somewhere else. I could see why.  It had distinctive old houses in quiet neighborhoods and a quaint downtown with reminders of its past.


Really, how many towns can boast of a popcorn store?

When I told a friend recently that I’d be stopping by Watterson’s boyhood town, he suggested I look for a toboggan run.  It struck me how memorable his creation was that we could both instantly picture C&H flying off some snowy hill.  Watterson himself credits this partially to the fact that he stopped at the height of its popularity.  It was his signature work.  He felt it was finished.  So he walked away.

What is your signature thing – that defining work, that effort you can put your name proudly to without a hint of chagrin?

For Fred, it was being his town’s memory-keeper, the conversational touchstone to Chagrin Falls’ communal past.  He knew the town.  The town folk all knew him.

What is my signature thing?

In a literal sense, signatures are not usually my thing at all.  I very rarely sign the corporate art I do.  Except for yesterday, when in a flight of fancy, I created this whimsical drawing, inspired by the shape of the magnetic whiteboard eraser.  I’m not sure why that called me to sign it.

But maybe that is a clue to my signature work – capturing a moment by creating something quick then looking for the next moment of inspiration.  Make it and move on.

Just like these bench sittings.  I told Fred about how I’m traveling the country, sitting down to connect to a place and its people.  He said, “You’re like a portable Fred!”

Well said, Fred.  That’s an idea I can put my name to.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Benched Week 56: swimming alone

Of all the plethora of Robin Williams quotes I’ve read in recent days, the one that’s stuck with me is this: “I used to think the worst thing in life was to be alone.  It’s not.  The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.”

That thought hit me while eating a buffet dinner in a huge ballroom in Disney’s Dolphin Hotel, surrounded by thirteen hundred corporate strangers.  It came back to me later when I found my bench along the Boardwalk and watched people strolling by.

Some time after that, I stood on the edge of a crowd laughing at the antics of a street performer. I felt an affinity for him.  We’re both solo entertainers.  He balances spinning balls on top of one another; I spin art and words out of markers.  Both of us are hired to do our specialty alone in front of an audience.

Earlier in the day, this being a Disney resort, I took a brief dip in one of the pools.  It felt necessary. It was brief because as soon as I submerged, I couldn’t shake the feeling that my family ought to be here. A pool seems superfluous without my daughter to enjoy it with me (and agree with me about how tepid it was).  It made me appreciate those who find a way to manage traveling alone for fun.

My thoughts turned, as they often do on these sittings, toward art.  Why does art need to isolate the artist?  Henry Miller, writer, said, “An artist is always alone – if he is an artist…the artist needs loneliness.”    And another author, Charles Browder, wrote, “The good ideas are all hammered out in agony by individuals, not spewed out by groups.” 

I get it.  There are times, like when one is actually creating, when an artist is likely to be alone. But after a lifetime of an isolating imagination, I’m feeling powerfully drawn to what Brian Henson said of his Muppet-maker father, Jim: “If you asked him how a movie would turn out, he’d say, ‘It’ll be what this group can make, and if you changed any one of them, it would be a different movie.’ Every day for him was joyously filled with the surprises of other people’s ideas.”

Wouldn’t you love to be a part of a collaborative environment like that?  It pulls like a magnetic force on my spirit.

An artist friend, who I recently bumped into on a street corner in Lewisburg, asked me if I’d join him on an upcoming Saturday in drawing dueling portraits of each other.  At first, I wasn’t sure that was my kind of thing.  But now that I’ve spent more time alone in the spotlight, I’m thinking it’s just the thing I need.

It might be fun to swim creatively with someone else for a change.