There were two real bookstores in Williamsburg when I was a kid. There was Scriveners and The College Bookstore. They were different than the book racks at the grocery stores or at Grant’s Department store. Scriveners and The College Bookstore had prestige, hardcover books, and in the case of the college bookstore awesome sections for swag and drawing. It was the swag that got me hooked me into college bookstores. I rarely visit a college without stopping in the bookstore. There is something about the way the textbooks are organized and the ridiculous gear that they sell to college kids, the over priced sweatshirts, the junk food, and the novelty stuff. It was the William and Mary bookstore where a subtle and long simmering thought was bestowed upon me.
I was hanging out at the bookstore thinking about buying a stuffed basketball for my room when my eye caught a drafting set. Drawing was something that I enjoyed doing, but I had never had the tools that would make me a great artist. The kit had a compass, protractor, and ruler. Naively, I thought that this was all I would need to create great drawings. Little did I know, right? I didn’t by the kit. Instead, I wandered into the books and started looking through history books about different wars. Back then, military history was a big part of my life. My father was interested in military themes, my school was teaching about all of the American wars, and Tidewater was full of military history. The Civil War was at the top of my list back then. The first book I picked up was full of photography of the Civil War. I could not believe the photography of Mathew Brady. I did not see a glamorous portrayal of war. For the first time, I saw real death resulting from the barbarism of war. The pain on the dead soldiers’ faces stole the romanticized images of war Hollywood had propagandized before me. In a real way, my values about wars were changing and I was a long way from the “Tribe swag” that I initially thought of buying.
My time until I would need to hustle to my father’s office was winding down and I knew I better hurry if I was going to buy something. I was torn between the different parts of me, sports, creative, and learner. I bounced around the store picking up the ball, dreaming about drawing, or thumbing through pages of books way above my grade level. I had no idea why I was interested in each of them, but each item pulled on my wanting nerves equally. Finally the time came to make a decision, so I went with a pack of tracing paper.
Really? Tracing paper. Where did that come from?
It’s been about forty years since that day. I am writing this while sitting in a YMCA and listening to a group of middle schoolers use their east coast valley girl accents to talk about playing solitaire while I try to block them out and watch Chase Jarvis Live on YouTube. There’s a lot going on here and I’m searching for reasons why I bought tracing paper… What did I do with that tracing paper? I traced comic books. I guess I tapped into my drawing side by buying the paper. I still can’t draw a great picture, but I get ridiculous with concept maps. Maybe I really want to be a visual artist and the tracing paper allowed that to go on for awhile.
I’m also trying to figure out how the tracing paper beat out the Civil War book. Feel free to offer analysis (for free of course…). Another thing I like to do is take photographs. Mathew Brady is someone who still intrigues me, but it’s Sally Mann who captures the intensity I felt the first time I saw the photos in the book. When I take photos, my first instinct is to find a mood or tone that has the same feel as glass plates. They are imperfect, haunting, and full of mysticism. The tracing paper was none of that, but it was safe and allowed me to replicate something that was there. It was “within the lines” which is something that I’ve learned to live with, but I really wish I never let become a part of me. I wish that I could go into creating something with no fear and make art that represented the honesty that I think Brady and Mann are able to muster. I’m getting closer to that ideal, finding the bite, the true emotion, the abstraction that captures the reality around me. It’s coming…
My best guess is that I bought the paper because the sports gear cost too much and I didn’t want to read the book, just look at the photos. I settled for the paper, because it was something I could use quickly and afford. I also knew my grandfather probably had the drawing gear, so I would not need to waste my money there. Sports would be an important part of my life and still is, but I find myself drawn to the creatives of the world who tend to see the world a bit differently. I do love the artistry of athletic achievement, however, the over saturated, fantasy dominated, and seemingly never ending seasons have worn me out. Music, art, writing each allow me time to think without the television time out, the talking heads explaining the nuances of some obscure rule, or the endless analysis of what team best suits what free agent.
Art also affords me the opportunity to think differently. So much art, no matter the medium is built on being outside the box or close to some edge. I like divergent thinking and my years have taught me that tracing is not the best way to go. I want to create “stuff,” art if you will, and being hamstrung by the idea that I need to be like others, worry about critics, or create for the purpose of sales are ideas that are as thin as the paper that I bought all those years ago. It’s also good that those ideas are just as easily torn like the onion skin thin paper I traced the Incredible Hulk onto. Thank goodness for the College Bookstore. Who knew that someday I would be reflecting on the purpose of tracing paper in my development as a creative? It seems that the day of indecision and settling was more important than I ever knew. Perhaps this is the time that I am finally ready to realize what that day meant to me.
Learning takes time…