Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Be yourself.

I start my first class today after an all-too-brief summer. Most of June was consumed by the ICON7 conference we hosted at RISD, the alumni show we'd pulled together, and the ensuing post-event business. Before I knew it I was gearing up for another busy year. For about 20 years, I've tried to free myself up just before the start of school as a way to recharge and tap inspiration before giving it all I've got in class for 13 weeks.

In an effort to claim that vital sense of authority and calm, I spent last weekend in Manhattan. In addition to some great museums, theater, food and music—we did our customary run in the park on Sunday morning. This is always such a delight, because, unlike any other city I know, New York is so teeming with runners that the critical mass really energizes me. We entered the park in the southwest corner and trotted clockwise along the outer paths and roads, passing thousands of ambulatory souls—runners, cyclists, walkers, strollers—all traveling in the opposite direction.

Clearly, we were doing it wrong. While our unspoken recognition of this amused me, John later told me that we'd garnered plenty of dirty looks. I didn't notice that (and anyone who knows me will know that I am always on the lookout for disapproval) but I did feel alternately rebellious and sheepish that we were disrupting the flow of so many people's highly prized enjoyment of the outdoors in such a busy town. We were never physically in the way, no one seemed alarmed or inconvenienced by our mistake, but there must have been a sort of psychic frustration that we brought to such a galvanized, consensual group act that it was bound to be annoying. One enormous wave of collective energy was traveling counter clockwise, its bits and pieces all silently agreeing to move in one direction, at about the same speed, breathing rhythmically like a big locomotive, its energy concentrated several yards in the distance. And here we were, screwing it up, their accordance denied by a pair of guys who didn't know the rules. We didn't do this on purpose. It's just that by the time we'd concluded that we were definitely going the wrong direction, it was too late. I'm a full-circle kind of guy and doing an out and back run on a looping course seemed more wrong than traveling in the opposite direction of the throng.

At the end of the run we passed a family of tourists who may as well have stepped out of a cartoon. It was easy to see that they were visitors, but the most noticeable among them was a girl of about eleven. She was blond, with braids and thick-lensed glasses. She seemed too big to be carrying a doll, whose head and arms drooped limply over her left elbow while the legs hung loose at her waist. While her family squinted in the morning sun, their tired faces pivoting from sidewalk to rooftops, to horse drawn carriage to hot dog stand, the little girl seemed completely oblivious to her surroundings, in another place entirely. More than anything, I noticed her shirt. Her shirt was the juice. The words, "Be Yourself" consumed just about every inch of its surface, spelled out in rhinestones and glitter. She was smiling beatifically, her head tilting a bit, side-to-side. She appeared to be enjoying a little song or a snatch of imaginary dialogue.

I'm a terrible cynic. My immediate reaction was to scoff internally. "Silly, naive little girl with braids and a stupid t-shirt." But within seconds that cynicism softened. I was more taken by her apparent contentment, the weird bliss that seemed to carry her along, trailing behind her family. I felt pretty good about her confidence in wearing that pithy shirt. I wanted to tell her that I liked her message—all of it.

*   *   * 

I know what you're thinking. This sounds like it's going to wind up with an inevitable correlation between my own counter-clockwisedness and the mandate to "be myself," issued forth in glittery grandeur on an 11-year-old's T-shirt in Central Park. While that comparison may be convenient and even a little touching, I'm more interested in expressing my hope for my sophomore students, whom I'll meet today in class. This will be their foray into illustration. The product of loving homes, they will most certainly have been told to "be themselves" at some point in life. In their first year at RISD they'll have been coached to "find their voices." Illustration, both the field of study and the profession, will challenge them to do just that: to be original—to be themselves—but to do so by way of a common visual language. They'll need to be true to personal instinct while cognizant of shared knowledge and experience, to utter new truths which are founded in age-old vocabulary of complex cultural signs.  They'll have to enjoy the process or risk intense unhappiness, and the only way to do this is to attain a sense of self-fulfillment and authorship, not only in the acting of making, but in service to messages which are sometimes the product of others' imagination and cognition. The field will ask them to say things in a new way, but with a ring of familiarity that allows a reader to wholly own the content they are absorbing, to feel a sense of marvelous discovery shared with the illustrator. My message to them today: the best illustration exposes truths we didn't know we knew, and when we can manage that much we'll have attained some semblance of originality. The illustrator must be himself, but that self is a messenger with singular voice which reaches the consciousness of others. No mean feat.

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