My earliest realization that I was an artist was when I was around 11 years old.
My parents were reviewing my report card late one night at the kitchen table. I sat at the top of the stairs, out of sight, and overheard my dad say, "Thank God the boy can draw."
Not because my dad saw me as an artist. Because he was worried that I wasn't smart. Because my siblings were straight A students and I wasn't. So what did I do? I drew in my room and kept it to myself and tried as hard as I could to crack some magical code that would get me better grades.
Years later, I realized that my dad was happy that I could draw. That it was a POSITIVE statement.
I made a career of being creative - not necessarily drawing or making art. I went into advertising and became quite successful. I won an Emmy (not bragging, just trying to prove a point). I worked with A-list actors, directors and crews on the biggest brands, like FedEx, HBO, Snickers and AT&T. And as an art director - eventually a Sr. VP Creative Director - I kept a sketchbook.
A big, heavy, black hard-covered one.
I carried it everywhere. It identified me as a creative person. Like a cape identifies a guy in tights as a superhero.
Inside this book were all my ideas for ads. There were notes from being briefed on assignments. There were appointments and to-do lists. And, in the corners and margins were doodles.
Over time the doodles occupied more and more space but the work stuff still owned the pages.
Let's cut to a party I was invited to at the Society of Illustrators.
I was invited because I was an influential person at an influential ad agency in New York City. I could hire these illustrators. They all did their best to shmooze with me.
There I was, standing in a circle of working artists. People who knew each other from their side of the business. And me, the ad guy, trying to hold back the biggest smile ever for just being in that group. I was with Gary Baseman and Mark Ryden (two of the most prominent, successful and exciting artists exploding in the Pop-Surrealism movement today). They had sketchbooks just like mine. And they passed them around. I watched as each artist slowly flipped page after page after page, oohing and ahhing over the pencil sketches of whimsical characters and forests and magical things. The sketchbooks were passed to me. And I was sincerely blown away.
And then something terrible happened.
They asked to see my sketchbook.
My palm were sweaty and I robotically handed Mr. Baseman my book, even though my numb brain was telling me not to.
The artists quickly realized that it was not an artist's sketchbook, but an ad guy's sketchbook... I was the client. They smiled politely and continued to flip through the pages - quickly. I was embarrassed, but there was nothing to be embarrassed about. They used their sketchbooks for their reasons and I used mine for my own. A sketchbook is a tool. It gives you freedom to explore thoughts and follow them and refine them. Nobody needs to see the work. It's yours and yours alone. Whether it's an idea for a 10 foot oil painting or a concept for Mountain Dew.
But still, as I'm writing this, I can hear the dull sound of that heavy cover closing shut.
That was the moment I decided to buy a second sketchbook. I carried two heavy black books with me everywhere. One for advertising and one solely for art. (Eventually, I began to carry a pocket-sized notepad for the advertising work.)
The drawings I made in that sketchbook were tight. Each page was a finished piece, rather than sketches and ideas for paintings I would never paint. I would never write in them, No meeting notes. No to-do lists. I would draw on my commutes to my midtown office. I would draw on every break I had at work. I would draw on the toilet.
I was invited to show the pieces from my books at a place called Crew Cuts, where they were editing my commercials for HBO.
Sketchbooks are part of my daily ritual. They are my meditation. Therapy. Mirrors. Friends.
I love the blank page. What will be on it never existed before. I am a creator.
And if I could create anything it would be love.
My advertising career has taught me to listen to clients with empathy, to understand their audience, and to find a connection between the two. I have done this with my art for my patrons, my family and my friends.
Thank God the boy can draw?
I thank God every day that I DO draw.
I get goosebumps (the good kind) from talking about this stuff. Feel free to contact me below.