Mark Flowers was SCAD’s star professor in the mid-eighties. His style both as an artist and teacher was big and playful. Mark’s oversized canvases dominated the school’s gallery, and no professor’s style was more emulated by the student body. When SCAD: the Movie is made, Mark will be played by Robin Williams, and not the Patch Adams flavor.
All of which is merely a setup for the story of how Mark’s Drawing III class broke my artist’s heart.
Mark was the big dog, but there were others. Illustration students revered Traci Haymans, for example, and the fashion kids followed Ben Morris. But Mark’s big shapes and offset shadows were the defining style at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Our first assignment was to grab a random toy from a box and turn it into an illustration: not a drawing, an illustration. There probably wasn’t a student in that class who couldn’t competently reproduce their toy, but an illustration connotes more than just repetition of an object. An illustration tells a story.
My toy was a wind-up dinosaur skeleton that was missing a leg. No problem. I spent hours with my Rapidograph pens creating a barren landscape heavy on cast shadows and other visual cues typical of the SCAD style. I scattered dinosaur parts across the page and stuck the hulking rib cage just right of page center, the wind-up key tipped toward the viewer. It looked like an excavated barbecue site, so I titled the drawing “Lunch With the Flintstones.”
Mark rubbed his beard and his close-cropped hair. “I don’t know, it just needs more unhhh, you know? More hmph. I don’t know, maybe more bones laying around or forks and plates or something. Where’s Fred and Barney? If it’s a picnic with the Flintstones why aren’t they there?”
“It isn’t really,” I said. “I was thinking more like an archeological dig that uncovered a Jurassic barbecue.”
He rubbed his head some more. “Then where are the shovels and the brushes? Maybe half bury some of the bones, I don’t know. It just needs some more bwah.“
The next project was to fracture an image and make something new out of it. “Play with the space and the perspective,” Mark said. “I don’t know, maybe break it into a bunch of different planes or something. Just really give the final image some hrrrp.”
Over at my hip hop record store we received a promotional kit for Madonna’s new album, True Blue: posters, album cover reproductions called “flats”, that sort of thing. We didn’t have any use for a Madonna display, so I took the box home to my mildewy apartment and hacked away at Madonna’s face. I photocopied elements — her lips, her eyes — and shrunk or enlarged them, and when I was done I glued each element to a piece of foam core board. Assembled, the final piece was a 3-D collage of Franken-Madonna.
Mark looked at it and sighed and rubbed his head and said, “Okay, I see where you were going.”
The final project for that class was the big one, literally. “I don’t care what you draw,” Mark said. “I don’t even care if you draw. You can use whatever medium you want, whatever subject you want. Your final is thirty square feet of art, formatted however you want.”
I decided to make one single piece of art measuring three feet tall and ten feet long. A piece of paper that large would’ve cost a month’s rent, so I went to Sears and begged a couple of refrigerator boxes. I built a frame from 2×2’s, wrapped it in cardboard, and then covered the whole thing with newspaper. This was my canvas. I nailed it to the wall of Jody’s and my bedroom and spent the next few weeks marking it up with oil pastels.
A couple of weeks in, Mark asked us to bring our projects to class so that he could see how we were doing. I caught him after class and told him that I couldn’t bring mine in.
“Why not?” he said.
“It’s ten feet long and mounted on a rigid frame.”
“I was hoping somebody would do that! Actually, I keep hoping somebody will bring me a 1′ x 30′ drawing.”
“I thought about that.”
“Okay, just bring me pictures next week.”
The light in the mildewy apartment was horrible. My ten Polaroids looked like blobs of color with a bright flash in the center.
Mark rubbed his head and paced in an anxious circle. “What is this? I can’t see anything.”
“It’s the best I could get. My room is really dark.”
“Do you have a lamp? What about an outside? Is there an outside to your apartment?”
“I didn’t think of that.”
He rubbed his head some more. “This is due next week,” he said.
Next week arrived, and I slid my thirty square feet of art into the back of the Quincymobile like a corpse on a gurney. It dangled through the station wagon’s back window, the wooden frame threatening to snap with every bump. Because I had to drag this mother through the halls and up the stairs, I got to school early. I stuck the beast at the front of Mark’s classroom, then took a seat at one of the drawing tables and busied myself with my black book.
Ten or so minutes passed and Ben Morris ran into the room, looking for something. He stood near the front, head darting around while he looked for the important thing or tried to remember what it was. He spotted my project, took a couple of steps back, and stared over the tops of his glasses. He scampered toward me like we were long time friends and hissed, “Oh my God, what is that?”
“That’s my Drawing III final,” I said.
“Oh.” He glanced at the drawing. “Very interesting,” he said, and he dashed out of the room.
Class critique wasn’t much better. My embarrassment of a project was the backdrop for every student presenting his or her Japanese screen, etc., and over and over Mark shook his head and said, “That’s a keeper.”
When my time came, I stood next to the mess and said, “What I’ve done is abstracted three important locations from my childhood. That vertical section represents the pine trees in the woods, and those geometric shapes are the skeleton of the trestle bridge I used to climb on. This mass of green is kudzu.”
Mark rubbed his head. “I don’t care about any of that. All I care about is the drawing.” For a full minute the only sound was creaking chairs. “I like the offset shadows. They make these abstract things into something real,” he said.
After class I took my thirty square feet of doodle outside, crushed it, and threw it in the dumpster. The whole time I reran the fashion professor’s catty tone as he mocked my work. The whole thing was like a two-way mirror, like eavesdropping on a conversation about myself or reading about me in someone else’s black book. Mark had to find something positive to say, and even then he had to dig deep. But Ben spoke with the confidence of no consequence. We were co-conspirators mocking the anonymous piece of junk masquerading as art. The truth stung like a motherfucker, but it usually does.
At some point during that same school year the great and sadly departed Traci Haymans took me and the rest of her Advanced Illustration class out to one of Savannah’s many squares for some drawing time. I sat down with a clean sheet of paper and a hunk of graphite and started drawing the Catholic church across the street. The Hum kicked in, stopped time, kicked the words out of my brain, dissolved the world except for the church. Shadows, light, meditative bliss, orgasm. Inevitably the Hum is impossible to describe: it has to be felt.
Something jarred me, I don’t remember what. Maybe it was a cough or a dropped key. Maybe Traci spoke or that feeling crept upon me that I was being watched. Regardless, the Hum switched off and I was surrounded by my classmates.
“I wanted you all to see this,” Traci said. “This is as good as any drawing you’ll ever see in a museum.”
I couldn’t believe that she would lie to them like that.