Peter Francis May

The Death of an Artist

As soon as the Sunday paper showed up, I’d grab the comics, some pencils and my big pad of newsprint and lay belly down on the living room carpet. I like to read the funnies but, more than that, I liked to copy them. I loved to draw the characters and I was pretty good at it. I did a Snoopy Charles Schultz would love. I excelled at Beetle Bailey. I could produce a near perfect Wizard of ID and on a good day, a passable Prince Valiant. Stepping back, admiring my efforts, comparing my copies to the originals, it was pretty clear to me that I had a gift. So, whenever anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d say, “An artist!”

In third grade I was made the art editor of our class yearbook. Actually, I shared that honor with a kid named Fred Mosher. I liked Fred. He was funny and creative, but very effeminate so he got picked on a lot. But I was the new kid so I got picked on a lot too. I can’t say we suffered for our art but we suffered nonetheless.

There were a lot of little illustrations to do for the yearbook; butterflies near the 3rd Grade poetry and sports equipment next to the track and field records. Fred and I cooperated on all those jobs, splitting the workload evenly. But, when it came to the big prize, we were competitors. Whoever got the cover would see their artistic endeavor in all its 8 1/2 by 11 glory mimeographed on pale blue paper!

Fred and I both submitted drawings for the cover of the yearbook. His won.

I chose a spooky, full moon Halloween scene with some of the Peanuts characters, in costumes, just as they’d looked in the Sunday Comic spread. I placed the characters on the left walking right and the characters on the right walking left giving the impression that they were marching toward a big leafless tree; the unexplained center of attention.

Trees are an easy early subject for young artists. They’re as easy to draw as the sun. They can be detailed or just a squiggled lollypoppish blob of green atop a brown stick.

Fred Mosher’s drawing also featured a dominant central tree but his hadn’t lost all its leaves. There was a mix of bare branches and leaves still clinging, some were lightly shaded, some darker, giving the impression of fall colors. Beneath the tree was a nicely rendered cartoon bear raking the leaves that had fallen.

It’s true that both our drawings featured trees but his tree was better. Both our drawings had action but his was motivated. And his drawing seemed to have the maturity of a 6th Grader’s work. I realized Fred Mosher was a better artist than me. My father did too.

I suppose that at some age everything your kid does is just amazing. You show relatives and brag to co-workers. But that blind and boundless acclaim fades as reality muscles in. I think he was just protecting me from the cold, cruel world I would ultimately be forced to face, but from that yearbook on, when I said that I wanted to be an artist, my father would say, “You don’t want to be an artist. Artists don’t make any money. It’s too competitive.” The subtext being, in competition so far it’s Fred Mosher: 1, Hometeam: 0.

Dad was too honest to spread the “You can be whatever you want to be!” lie. He’d say, “You ever wonder why you hear the expression ‘starving artist?’ You want to freeze in some garret?” That became a family joke. When we looked at new houses the question was, “Does it have a garret for Peter?”

Dad had a much better idea. “You want to be an engineer, they make good money.” he’d say. “You can draw after work,” he’d add to soften the crushing of my dream, unwittingly setting up a left brain/right brain conflict that has buffeted me all my life.

All through high school and then through college, even though I was on a path toward becoming an engineer, whenever the opportunity came for me to do artwork, I’d grab it. Posters, flyers, newspaper ads, anything. And ultimately, I did sort of figure out a way to synthesize engineering and art. I became an industrial designer. It was mechanical drawing but that was still drawing.

I worked in a design studio in Madison where one of the guys taught me how to do renderings; sketches of product designs colored with markers. I loved sitting at the desk with this monster rainbow of Design Markers; like a massive box of Crayolas for grownups. I took every opportunity to grab some velum and sketch away. Dave, my boss, would look at my renderings and say, “Hmmm. Yeah, I see where you were trying to go here.” Because, the fact remained, though I liked the idea of being an artist and being artistic, I didn’t have that really natural talent. Maybe just a little. I mean, in my brutal, personal assessment of my own talent, I decided I was better than like 75% of the population. I spend my time at art fairs going, “OK, I could do better than that!” and “Whoa, I could never do that!”

But it wasn’t like I tried. I didn’t spend late nights hunched over my easel, refining my strokes. As a matter of fact, over the years, I came to realize that it wasn’t so much that I wanted to be a painter. I wanted to have painted. I wanted people to look at a painting I had done and go wow! But, I wasn’t committed to art. I wasn’t committed to the lengthy, tedious process.

Despite all that, I did sell one pen and ink drawing at a very opportune moment in my life.

When I was down at Clemson, I went out with a woman named Rebecca. One Fourth of July she invited me to go camping with her family in their big RV at Mt. Pisgah up in the Blue Ridge mountains. At that time I wasn’t really clear how mountains worked. Even though it was mid-July in South Carolina, it was remarkably cold in the mountains! I did not pack for the cold and shivered my way through most of the trip.

Being there with her parents, the only time we had alone was when we went hiking. She’d tell them that I wanted to do some sketching and we’d head out on the trails, me with a bag full of pencils, paper and ink.

Anyway, we were out in the woods and I saw this little stand of birch trees, the light was just right, so I decided to sketch them. I did a passable job. I’d give myself a grade of 75.

Rebecca was admiring the sketch and said, you should sign it. I wasn’t in the habit of signing sketches but I did. I whipped out a quick Peter May.

Now, if you don’t know your art history, you might not be aware of the famous, influential creator of 1960’s psychedelic pop art, Peter Max.

Peter May. Peter Max. Pretty close, right? Even closer when one does a sloppy job on my “Y” and it comes out looking like an “X.”

I went back to putting some final touches on my sketch when a couple came up the trail. They stopped next to Rebecca and watched me for a minute, admiring my drawing. Rebecca heard one of them say, “That’s Peter Max!” She did not correct them. As a matter of fact, she gave them a little “just between the three of us” nod.

Anyway, that afternoon, a very happy couple walked away with a signed pen and ink of a lovely stand of birches by one Peter Max. I walked away with $20 which was enough to buy a nice, warm sweatshirt.