“Nothing” is always something. It’s just that sometimes you can’t see it.
“Small” says, “nothing is always nothing.”
“Big” says, “Just you wait and see.”
Expanding, going big. Or shrinking — and feeling small.
This is where I’ve got to start, because I’ve struggled between those two states for most of my life. I try to create things even as I catch glimmers of what they might become beyond the blank paper, gessoed canvas, empty wall, computer screen with blinking cursor — through all the smoke, dust, and uncertainty. Artists can be frustrating because they sift through a lot of “the nothing” in search of The Something. That throws up a lot of smoke and dust and more uncertainty — and it isn’t a clean and easy process.
Which takes us back to the “small” and the “big”: fear (“uncertainty”) is small, courage (“sifting”) is large. The former drains you, burns like acid from inside, reducing you a cringing mess; the latter fills you to the top of your being, radiating out and wrapping its arms around the whole wide world.
So, here’s how I stumbled upon the artwork I created over 30 years ago, “The Something” that became known as The Vicious Frieze I–III (1987–1989), or, “A hallucinogenic cartoon of prodigious span.”
By the summer of 1986 I was a year into my first full-time job at a direct mail marketing corporation, and two months in my first apartment.
And I was already feeling trapped.
Which is ironic because during that year I was promoted to lead on our small team of a dozen editors. As lead, I had to make sure jobs stayed on schedule. Every December since 1985 I ordered desktop planning calendars — you know, the blotter pad kind — where I kept all the job deadlines at a glance. Growing bored with the job, I started doodling and scribbling in the calendar margins, sometimes around schedule notes.
As I came into the office each morning I found my coworkers huddled around my desk, laughing and checking out my latest “artwork.”
If you’ve known me for very long you quickly realize I don’t throw anything away. I have closets full of artwork, stories, drawings, and projects that, if they came to light again, I’m sure would find new life in the world. By the end of ’86, I had a stack of used calendar pages stuffed in a bottom desk drawer. When I cleaned out the desk and set up the 1987 calendar, I couldn’t bear to throw those drawings away.
But I didn’t know what to do with them.
That’s because I couldn’t see The Something yet.
For weeks now I’ve languished over writing this post. I started and stopped cold. I confess that, until now, I couldn’t see The Something in it.
Then friends made some observations that prodded things forward.
First, I have to say that a lot of 1986–87 still reverberates now — things that have never changed — actually — but I’d forgotten them after leaving corporate life (again) in 2012: The Noise and Distraction Factor.
The world’s gotten louder. There’s a lack of sweetness and light. All the instant critics on social media. This goddamn White House.
Throw in the haters, the asshats who get a jag from trolling people, and you have to separate out the few people who, consciously or not, just generally succeed at making others feel small. Heeding too much of what people are saying and doing often leads to false comparisons. Fortunately, the observations my friends made helped me cut through the noise and sharpen the signal.
The first came from artist Mark Thompson, who tweeted, “Live without input, more output.”
The second was a lovely article by Brooklyn writer Stefanie Paige Gunning published on Medium as “Eventually, You Write Your Own Story.” In it she relates how she became novelist Jennifer Weiner’s Number One Fangirl, but lost her reverence after reading an essay Weiner wrote that, in part, disparaged careers in advertising — a field where Gunning has found much satisfaction and success. Gunning describes her initial feelings of self-doubt and loathing, which she quickly realized came from voices outside of her — family, friends, the media — and which sent her into a debilitating depression she calls “The Hole.”
What saved me from languishing on this post was recognizing that Gunning’s “The Hole” was the same as my “the nothing” or the “small.” Gunning writes: “I’ve learned that The Hole is a place I can climb out of on my own without damaging myself, that I’ve got boots and ropes and picks. That my legs are strong and my heart is pumping and my lungs are full of air.”
Just because I couldn’t see where I was going yet didn’t mean a one-way ticket to Despairland. I’d forgotten I had my own boots and ropes and picks.
They included not only years of luck (both good and bad), experience, and curiosity, but also tools like journals, diaries, sketch pads, pens, paper, stories, screenplays, photos, drawings … and that beautiful Vicious Frieze.
Oh how I wish I could point to a 1986 journal entry that’s the eureka moment for the first Vicious Frieze. But there isn’t one.
But I do recall what I did.
“I’ve learned that The Hole is a place I can climb out of on my own without damaging myself, that I’ve got boots and ropes and picks. That my legs are strong and my heart is pumping and my lungs are full of air.”
— Stefanie Paige Gunning
Sometime in late 1986, I went back to all those random calendar doodles and held them in my hands. I sifted through them, looked closely, and waited for them to tell me what they wanted to be, not what I thought they should be. And you know what?
Every drawing on every calendar month had something to say (such as, “Penny was the pretty girl next door” from the first Vicious Frieze, above). Collectively they said: “We need to be together! Maybe in a collage! Maybe you could color in around us and let us spread out and be that!”
Well, how could I disagree with that?
You see, all our seconds turn to minutes, then minutes to hours. Maybe all those hours add up to another tedious workday, but then you overhear a coworker’s comment and that becomes a sketch, a drawing, a cartoon, a couple of scratches caught on paper about whatever was playfully passing through your mind. That, my friends, is the sweet spot. Those playful moments. They’re the grit that makes the pearl. The small things. The little nothings.
Those “small” moments needed a push toward a bigger day. They don’t know it and maybe you don’t know it, but they require a quiet space where you are listening and feeling expansive, not small and contracted and shrinking into a hole of nothingness. Trust me on this one.
So, in December 1987 Vicious Frieze Numero Uno was completed. By January 1988, I spied a Vicious Frieze II on the horizon. I mean, why the hell not?
Mr. Feeling Expansive took up his tools — just some small stuff, doodles on a nothing day — and said, “Just you wait and see.”