Crumb (1994)

I. 3/12/23

Black ink drawing of a handheld cassette tape recorder
Crumb (1994)
8 x 10 black ink on paper

II. 3/15/23

Even though I sometimes think of my Objects from Films series as kind of like a moviewatching journal, I’ve never really figured my reflections or critical opinion about the movies to be relevant to the drawings. But I wanted to actually write out some of what I was thinking about this movie this time, and I decided I might as well post it here along with the drawing.

A blog post about drawing and not drawing and writing and not writing and drawing

I didn’t draw at all for 20 years. And then I started drawing again, as you see. I don’t know if there’s a story there, but I feel like maybe there’s a story there. Or at least I’d like know what I have to say about it. This blog post is a crack at that story.

I used to draw all the time when I was a kid, at least as far as I can remember. I don’t have a lot of memories of drawing, especially, but an important early memory is of drawing complex systems of interchanges (layers and layers of roads, basically) after my family traveled to Nashville when I was in first grade. We drove through a few cities to get there, actual cities with freeways and skylines—like nothing we had in the rural South Dakota landscape I grew up in. I guess the stacked ramps and bridges around the interchanges made an impression on me. And I must have drawn often enough and well enough that some of the first few instances of encouragement I remember receiving from teachers or other adults were for my drawing talents.

It was in middle school, when I realized I could impress my friends by copying drawings from comic books, that I remember self-consciously starting to think of drawing as something I was good at. I plastered my room with drawings of monsters and X-Men and demons (and also DC Talk), and in one of the few real splurges I ever talked my family into I had a nice big drawing desk in my bedroom. The only real looking into any colleges I did at all other than just to go to my hometown college was to some art schools, though I didn’t follow through. I think I had some idea that I’d never be good enough to make an actual career in an artistic field, but deep down my most basic belief about myself was that I was a kid who, if he was good at anything, was good at drawing. I guess it was something I really liked about myself.

The years after high school were a struggle for me, and when I was 21 I threw away all my art. I chucked it all in the dumpster of the apartment building I was moving out of. I told myself I wouldn’t miss it, but there was a not insignificant amount of self-hatred that went into that act, which I didn’t tell myself about. And then I basically stopped drawing. I was a lot more focused on writing, anyway, and trying to teach myself to do that. When I would try to follow the inspiration or impulse to draw, I would mostly get frustrated. What I was doing wasn’t good enough to be worth doing. I wasn’t good enough or cool enough to make anything worthwhile that way. And anything meaningful I wanted to say couldn’t be said through drawing anyway, the only kind of art I had ever been any good at.

I eventually settled into a story about myself that I used to be promisingly talented at drawing, but that somewhere along the way my talent had withered and I couldn’t really draw anymore. I’d grown out of it. I once even tried to make a series of poem/cartoon/index card things, text and image, where I intentionally (if not consciously) drew everything poorly—not, like, charmingly crude or something, just bad drawings, drawn by someone who didn’t have any talent at drawing.

Some beliefs about myself from my early twenties hardened even as I worked my way through and out of a lot of the systems that had gone into those beliefs, and then they just sort of turned into assumptions about myself that I didn’t think held any particular charge for me. I used to like to draw. Yeah I was pretty good at it. Just kind of lost interest, can’t really do it anymore. It might be fun to try it again someday, maybe to make some real drawings to pair with poems, but I didn’t really care.

There were a few moments of drawing in there. Times when I would randomly start to sketch something in one of my notebooks and follow the old impulse. But it was almost never. Visiting the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, a decade and a half after I’d stopped drawing, stirred something loose. That was the first time I’d ever been to a museum with that much of a single artist’s work in the same place, and there was so much of it. I found myself thinking about the amount of time he spent just in the practice of painting, day in and day out, over the years of his life. Seeing that much of his work together you can see him solving problems in what he’s doing, trying things out, really exploring and changing with his understanding of how to translate the world he saw around him into a painting. At least that’s how it felt to me. Wandering through such an extensive record of someone’s artistic exploration I recognized aspects of an artistic practice that made sense to me as a desirable part of life. I wanted something like that of my own. A couple of times after that I broke out some old sketchbooks and tried to work on drawing a little bit more regularly, but I’d feel my own capability to be exhausted almost immediately. I’d kind of like something I drew, but then when I tried another drawing I would hardly be able to hold the pen steadily on the page. It was anxiety, but it took the form of a total lack of faith in every pen stroke. Everything was tentative and the drawings looked like it. So I’d give up. I didn’t need it anyway.

In August 2017 I moved out of my downtown Detroit apartment to a house in Hamtramck. The move came with some feelings of new possibilities of the sort I had felt really shut out of for the prior couple of years. I was in the early stages of a new relationship after my marriage had ended. And even though the people running the department where I was working on my PhD had made it clear they’d really rather I just quit, I felt pretty good about the classes I’d put together teaching Creative Writing elsewhere—it had reaffirmed for me a sense that I knew my way around the stuff I’d been studying intensely for the past decade. With no funding and a recent divorce, a lot of what I’d thought was pretty fundamental to who I was had left my life, but on the other side of it all, I’d come to a deeper understanding that there were parts of myself I could cultivate (and had been cultivating) just for myself, that were valuable to me whatever else might come and go in my life. Moving felt partly like an opportunity to really let some neglected parts of myself grow. Drawing felt like one of those things, potentially.

During the move, I found an old sketchbook I’d shoplifted from the college bookstore I worked at in undergrad. It was a nice comfy 7×9 with good weight, totally unused. It was perfect to leave sitting somewhere by my couch in case I decided on a whim to pick it up and try out drawing every now and then, if I wanted. This time, in a new place, with that new feeling, I managed to sometimes reconnect a bit with the old sense of immersion in the page you get when you’re lost in a drawing. I told myself it would be cool to have a whole notebook filled up with drawings by the time I moved out of my new place. This turned out to be a valuable cognitive trick, one that helped me pay more attention to what I got out of the practice of drawing occasionally over time rather than putting too much weight in any individual drawing. I was interested in what the notebook would look like after I’d filled it all up, so I could let the drawings accumulate without worrying first if they’d already arrived anywhere.

I didn’t draw often—making poetry was how I pursued my usual creative impulses—but I started to feel like I was finding ways to sometimes make drawing work. I’d try to make still life drawings of the clutter around my apartment or occasionally something I’d photographed out on a walk for myself. I experimented with some abstract drawings that I liked to make mostly for the feeling of lots of swift parallel strokes of the pen. Occasionally I’d try something that felt more like a comic panel or an illustration. A few drawings from that period stuck for me, though, as pieces I felt really happy about. They were drawings that I wanted to keep looking at. They felt completed as drawings in themselves. I was glad they existed and it had felt good to have made them and it made me want to keep drawing. I also sort of started to wonder: had my talent for drawing not actually disappeared?

Black ink line drawing of a row of open beer cans surrounded by piles of books
Black ink line drawing of a crossed leg wearing jeans and tennis shoes from the POV the person whose leg it is
Black ink drawing, silhouette of a utility pole and power lines

In the first months of 2020, something led me to start a twitter thread of drawings. Actually, it was the disappointment and worry I felt in the wake of Bernie’s big losses in the primary, the feeling of hope dwindling. Out of that frustration, one night I spontaneously made a drawing, a quick sketch of a figure holding a bathrobe under a lamp [not included on this website] drawn after a couple of moments in the 1950s The Blob movie I was watching, along with some random dialogue from the movie. It wasn’t a great drawing, but I liked some things about it. There was a thing with the mouth and eyes that was cool. I don’t know, something about it, I decided to post it to twitter with a caption like, “tonight’s stress-relief drawing.” And I realized that I felt like there was something repeatable in having made the drawing and posted it. It probably got one like at the most, but it felt right to have done it. And sometime not long after, I tried again, a drawing made spontaneously to relieve stress, and added it to the thread.

Who knows how long I would have kept that up, but I was a few drawings in when the pandemic hit. Drawing felt like something new and active in my life, and I was happy about it, but it wasn’t threatening a major creative re-orientation just yet. The first days of the pandemic were hard. And then, in a lot of ways, it got harder and then harder. I was too anxious and stressed out to write, or even to read. I’d try to work on poems I’d been working on, or I tried to fall back on my usual grounding of a daily writing project, and it felt wrong. Something for another moment, another era. I’d try to read and I’d just restart the same paragraph over and over again, not retaining anything.

Out of that fog of stress and anxiety, though, I realized drawing allowed me to focus. Working on the drawings, I could lose myself in just solving the problem of how to make the drawing work. It’s a closed system with its own rules, and you just have to find out what they are as you bring the drawing into existence. So much around me felt rotten and wrong, and I felt entirely inadequate to it, but for the time when I was working on a drawing I was able to feel engaged in something real that was apart from all of that. I still focused mainly on still life drawings, thinking I could build a practice of drawings of the chairs or cats or clutter around me. This fit with the new reality of just spending a lot more time at home.

Black ink line drawing of a ca. mid-2010s smart phone (a black rectangle with a shiny face, the face reflecting light and dark, lots of wavy lines and pools of white or black)
Black ink drawing, tabby cat curled up with her closed-eyed 
 face scrunched up against a blanket, drawn in a somewhat stylized manner
black ink drawing of a utility pole and power lines
Black ink drawing of a black cat resting under some wooden stairs with a plastic gas can sitting in the foreground
Black ink drawing of a man in a white t-shirt walking a dog, both casting dark shadows

I kept tweeting the drawings with the caption “today’s stress-relief drawing” and/or what music I was listening to. I’d get a like or two now and then, but the drawing grew into something a little more like a project, and it was really just the act itself of giving myself a thread of drawings that I updated regularly that made that happen.

For a while, for the first time in a couple of decades, I really tried to push myself to see just how good of a traditional drawing I could make. Once even in pencil, just to see how well I could make the fabric on my chair look like a real texture. Some drawings I was just giving myself the challenge of seeing if I could pull it off.

Pencil drawing of a comfy chair
Black ink drawing looking out through a screen door at tree branches with little wisps of leaves and there's a bird on one of them
black ink drawing of a water tower with turkey vultures perched everywhere on it holding their wings up in the sun

As life didn’t get any less stressful, I found myself leaning into drawing more and more and it grew into a regular part of how I got through my days. I mixed my domestic still life drawings in with drawings of things I took pictures of when I was out on walks or runs around Hamtramck or with drawings of photographs I’d made earlier or that I’d nab from the Internet or movies I was watching. I started to think more about ways I could be a little more systematic in coming up with images for drawing. Maybe I could make a series of drawings of ice cream trucks around Hamtramck. Or maybe I could make a series of drawings after significant news images over time.

Black ink drawing of an ice cream truck
Black ink drawing of a police van smashed and on fire

I’d post each drawing to my growing twitter thread. The thread worked both as a way to spur me on by giving me something to be accountable to and as something I could look to and see how a project was starting to develop. Posting worked as sort of a marker in the ritual of making the drawings. Drawings I’d done before could start to fall into groups for me. After I had a couple of power lines drawings worked out, I started coming back to them regularly, and I’d try to space each power lines drawing out with drawings of other kinds. I started to lose interest in drawing what was around me in my house. It was just the same clutter always, and anyways it was hard enough finding safe ways to get out of the house or ways to focus my attention elsewhere. I didn’t want to obsessively represent the experience of feeling homebound, even if the art practice I was working out was partially as a way to cope with that feeling. I liked the idea of drawing by interacting with movies I watched in some way and I gradually came up with the idea that I could keep my still life drawings going by nabbing objects from movies.

Black ink drawing of two men embracing, one man's face is visible and is grimacing or crying, the other man is wearing a dark coat drawing with lots and lots of crosshatching
Black ink drawing of light reflecting off water
black ink drawing of utility poles and power lines
Black ink drawing of an old television with turny knobs and rabbit ears antennae sticking up out the bock and an old timey wall telephone casting two shadows

My regular drawing practice is really what carried me through summer 2020, until it came time to start figuring out the Fall 2020 fully remote semester. At that point, I stopped pretty much everything except working on my classes for a few months. I burned myself out on that semester. I mean, burning yourself out on the semester every year is just a normal part of academic life, but this was different. I’d never burnt out that hard before, trying to shepherd my classes through the neglect and hostility the institution was showing to students and workers. When my fuse ran out that fall, I started back up with the drawings because I needed the meditative activity. Somewhere in the back of my mind I’d spent the months continuing to think about what I could see in the drawings I’d done so far, and I took back up with them with an idea that I had two drawing projects I could go with: power lines drawings and objects from films. And I told myself I had to make the drawing practice a priority or else I wouldn’t have the energy to keep up with anything else.

At that point, the drawings were more a lifeline for me than anything else. I kept posting the drawings to my thread and occasionally would get multiple likes, but I felt like I was really making these drawings for the practice of doing it and for an audience of myself. Thinking about the power lines drawings gave me a new way to pay attention to the town around me. When I’d make a power lines drawing, it was like I’d set up a finite set of lines I had to execute on the page. Making the lines was a meditative activity like tracing out the steps of a labyrinth. My nerves would be shot and I’d work on a drawing for a whole evening, let my mind and body think that way, and feel better. Something more than better, really. The objects from films drawings gave me another active way to pay attention when I was watching movies. And working on each drawing was like setting myself a finite set of problems to solve—what to translate from the screen into the drawing and what rules to come up with for how to represent it. Some of the roughest, most anxious and frayed times of that winter, I would set up some of my drawings around myself and feel like something was better inside of myself, even if I couldn’t do anything about the rest of the world. It was no longer at all about finding out if I was still capable of drawing. It finally felt again like making drawings was just something I did, a regular part of my life.

At some point along the way I dropped the thread and started making the posts as individual drawings, which to me was a switch toward thinking of the drawing projects as longer term than just the first fall/winter of COVID. Occasionally a tweet would make it out of the small circle of followers I had on twitter for a few extra likes, which was gratifying, but the ‘sharing’ was still largely potential. In July 2021 that changed, as a set of power lines drawings went viral, and the sheer number of requests for prints of the drawings left me feeling like it would irresponsible not to try to figure out how to do that. My follower count on both twitter and instagram grew by the hundreds, and suddenly I could expect a small but steady trickle of engagement on my posts. I like to think I would still be working on both of the drawing projects if that viral moment hadn’t happened. I was producing a body of work I felt proud of and somewhat surprised at. I didn’t need any external validation to know that. But the reality of an overwhelming reception—even subject as it still largely is to the whims and vicissitudes of twitter algorithms—has certainly affected the realization of the projects. I don’t know if I would have made this website, for example. I may have been talked into the idea of having a place for the drawings to exist online that was something other than a social media post, but I would have more likely thought making the site would be too much work and cost too much without any sense of there being an audience to cultivate.

I haven’t really picked writing back up yet, but the drawing projects don’t feel to me like a break with what I’d been doing with my writing. When I look back across the work I did writing the poetry for my MFA, the two manuscripts I put together over the years, the miscellaneous groups of poems that I was forming my next project out of—and all the work I did studying poetry and art and writing my dissertation—the drawings and photography feel to me like where that larger project has taken me for now. The artistic and theoretical concerns are continuous. In many ways it’s the same practice, or built on the same.

I had an idea for a long time I’d make 100 power lines drawings and then be done and I’d find something else to draw, and I figured around then I’d move on to drawing something else from movies, or maybe I’d do something else. I’m getting close to 100 now, though, and I think I won’t feel like I’m done. For now the project feels more open-ended, and valuable to be so. I imagine at some point something in one or the other project will transform and something new will start, or maybe I’ll pick back up with a thread I thought I saw in some of these drawings. I still have my photography to fold into this website, too. Whatever else, these two drawing projects feel stable to me, and it makes all the difference in the world to have a stable creative project under your feet. I don’t know if I missed drawing all those years. It’s not as if I was unengaged. But at the moment, I can’t imagine not having a drawing to be working on.

A blog post about how I’m thinking about maybe sometimes writing a blog post

Lately I’ve seen a few calls of various sorts for people to bring back personal blogging. I don’t know that I care one way or another about if people bring back personal blogging, but somehow the suggestion created a tiny itch I couldn’t scratch. Should I start a blog? For some reason, the answer I kept coming up with wasn’t a clear and unambiguous “no.”

It’s not quite that this non-existent blogging renaissance has made me want to start a blog. It certainly isn’t that the desire to blog is exploding within me and I’ve finally thought of an outlet. It’s more that, this time, when I’d think, Man it’d be too much work to start a new blog of any kind and just not worth it at all, I’d realize that, well, I actually kind of already have a blog. That’s what this website is. I haven’t been using it as a blog, and that’s certainly not the main reason I made it, but this WordPress framework… It thinks it’s a blog even if I don’t. All it takes is just starting to type an entry into a new post, and, bam, blog post.

So look, I don’t know why I would start writing blog entries. But I seem to be talking myself into it for these reasons:

First, I miss writing (sort of) and want to have the regular writing practice. I’m a poet. Or, I have been a poet, since I started writing poetry in my mid-twenties. And before that, I’ve been a writer, as long as I can remember wanting to be something.

Or, I was a poet? I was a writer? I don’t know.

I stopped writing poetry in March of 2020. I guess, if I think about it, I tried to drag my writing practice into the pandemic. The absolute disruption of life of the early stages of the pandemic, combined with the stress of seeing how much worse everything was getting than it had to be, made writing impossible for me. I couldn’t concentrate. The textures of life and thinking I used to like to mine for writing poetry weren’t there anymore. I couldn’t read. I tried, for a while, writing every single day, but I didn’t want to just write about the pandemic and that was all that was happening. And somehow, some part of the faith in a world I had apparently needed to make the process of writing meaningful for me had disappeared. I’d write a bit and it felt empty to me. Just words on a page. There wasn’t anything there for me in thinking about phrases, ideas, juxtapositions the ways I always used to do.

Fortunately, I found my way to drawing, and I took up photography as a more serious pursuit. I’m happy with where I am creatively. I miss writing because it feels weird to me to have gone this long without really doing it. I don’t miss it out of any yearning for creative fulfillment that I can’t fill. I don’t miss it out of a feeling that I need to get back to what I was doing before. But there’s ways writing helps you organize your thinking. There’s ways writing allows you to articulate things that’d never have just unrolled in your head. In that way, I miss writing.

Second, it could potentially open up some space for me to feel like I can talk a little bit more about what I’m doing with my drawing and photography. I think I might like to start a newsletter people could subscribe to that goes out a few times a year and sort of recaps my drawings and photography from that part of the year. But if I did that, I’d want to feel like I know what I’m doing when I write about my work. I haven’t done that much, and it’d be natural to do that a little bit here, occasionally.

Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t have a whole lot that really want to say about what I’m doing artistically, so it might not come up all that much as a blog post topic. But then, I don’t really know what topics would be anyway, and for now the only real idea I have is to write a blog post that’s sort of the story of drawing in my life.

Even if my drawings and photography are not really the main subject I’m writing about, though, if I have this space where I occasionally write out things as blog posts, it would naturally lend itself to becoming a space where I occasionally comment on my art. I could also talk about the movies I watch sometimes, a bit. I don’t know. I’ll have to see what I feel like.

Third, it could be a way for me to bring my poetry and other writing into this website. This website was initially and always will be primarily a home for my drawings and photography (once I figure out how I’m bringing the photography into here LOL). But, I also think of what I’m doing here as continuous with my poetic practice in ways that are deeply important to me (even if I’m fudging a little bit). I haven’t really ever cared much about publication and I care even less now—it’s sort of hard for me to imagine drumming up the energy to work at trying seriously to publish the poetry I’ve written. But I think I might get something out of collating some of it and posting it here, maybe with some blog thoughts. Ultimately, this is my website. It’s about what I do. I never would have made this website if it hadn’t been for the reception my drawings have got, which then left me feeling that I’d like my drawings to exist on the internet in a form that isn’t fundamentally a social media post, and, yes, I don’t think I’d ever have thought there’s much point in making a website for my poetry. But I can bring it onto here. My poetry can be here because it’s a part of what I’ve done. It won’t get in the way of anything.

Fourth, occasionally I may want to post something a little bit more thought-through and written-out and seemingly whole than a tweet or a mastodon post or a thread, and having an already-established place for public blog entries to appear would work for that. Needing something like that isn’t something that’s happened to me very often. But there are some examples, and they’re important. For example, when my best friend Elliot passed, I made a post on facebook as a sort of unofficial eulogy. I think that’s the only place that piece of writing exists publicly. And I practically never use facebook. I sort of don’t like that that’s where it exists. I think I haven’t logged into facebook for over a year. People read it there, but I’d like that post to exist somewhere other than just as a facebook post, and if I’d had this site going then, I’d have made it a post and a page here, so it’d at least have a permanent home that I control. Maybe, if I keep up with the blog entries, I’ll eventually import it here. (And I can hear Elliot, the guy who had his own domain and website as far back as when I first met him in the fall of 2001, agreeing about the importance of owning your own website for publicly posting what you make).

I used to use twitter as an outlet for thinking much more than I have used it that way since August 2021. As my follower count grew for my art and photography I felt less certain about posting my thoughts there. I hadn’t really ever tweeted in a way that was inviting followers much at all anyway, so posting the way I used to felt at cross-purposes to this world where I’m actually trying to get people to follow me. Sometimes, though, I might want to try to work out a real articulation of something, and maybe if I think it’s worth saying, I can just post it as a blog post nobody reads instead of a twitter thread nobody sees. I could certainly imagine it feeling satisfying to be able to do that now and then.

I’ve blogged before. I tried briefly to create a cool humanities grad student blog, to show off my versatility with theory, to try to craft an edgy but academic take on the general topics of the day. That didn’t last long and I’m not interested in doing that. A couple of other blog attempts didn’t really get off the ground. There have been a couple of movie blogs. I might do that (movie posts) occasionally, but I don’t want to write a pop culture blog.

And back before twitter there was livejournal, which in its heyday was probably the ideal version of the social web. I really enjoyed livejournal even though I was a depressed little boy who was working through a lot the whole time. There was a kind of interest in self-exploration, though, or, I don’t know, presentation, that I just don’t have anymore. I don’t think I’m interesting the way I thought I was interesting then. Or, put better, I’m not interested in myself (or semi-public explorations of myself) in the ways I used to be that drove my interest in livejournal blogging. That desire transferred to facebook, and then to twitter, and then, honestly, it just kind of fizzled. The impulse of this is just not that. I’ve just never really had an impulse to make blog posts that didn’t ultimately come from that desire for self-presentation. I sort of don’t know what the urge to blog is when it’s not that. Maybe I’ll found out.

I’m going to try to write at least one blog post a week. On the off chance that I start to have the urge to do it more often, I’ll still probably try to keep it to once a week. I want the point to be the regularity of doing it. I guess I’ll try to outline the rules I set for myself a little bit more as they come to me.

For now, this is just to say, I’m going to try something, not sure what it will be.

Categorized as Blog Post