I’m typically an excellent student, one of those predominantly “A” grade over-achievers begging teachers for extra homework (not an exaggeration – I’ve actually done that many times) and even gave one teacher a lump of coal before one Christmas break for providing lax instruction (again, not kidding). But in the few art classes I’ve taken, I was a horrible student, and that probably accounts for the gigantic holes in my technique.
The thing is, drawing was always an intensely personal thing for me, and I didn’t really understand that for the longest time. I rarely showed anyone my work, and when I did I made sure to have a ready, enthusiastic, and kind audience, like my mom. Really, I was that insular. So, it’s kind of nuts that I ever pursued it as a career or source of income. I’m terrible at “networking” and have to battle my inner critic near to death to engage in anything smacking of self-promotion. “Braggart,” hisses that tiny, vicious voice in my head. I’m afraid I let minor setbacks and rejections too often cripple my efforts, so you can probably imagine what even nurturing criticism did for me in a classroom setting.
On occasion, I bumped into extraordinary people, often gregarious and excessively kind, who grabbed me by the hair and ordered me to “draw, damn it!” with such gleaming enthusiasm, even my nasty little inner-critic couldn’t say no.
One such person got me in such a vice grip of loving faith and merciless encouragement, I married him. If you knew him as I do, you would, too. But before I met my husband Christian, another such person found me: James Wellborn, who gave me my first official cartooning job (for cash money, y’all!), and who was such a naturally unflappable and positive force, I put myself through college cartooning and became the first woman ever to receive the Charles Schulz Award from Scripps Howard. Mr. Peanuts himself could sadly not be in attendance, but I got to shake Snoopy’s hand!
James was a big guy, in every way – big heart, big sense of humor, big in stature – an over-all huge individual. And me, being the hermit-ing burrower I tend to be, never told him how much he changed my life and how deeply I am indebted to him for believing in me and bolstering my utter lack of confidence. James was my first real, professional editor, my first big promoter, and my unwitting matchmaker, because thanks to his unrelenting, irresistible enthusiasm, my husband got to see my cartoons in the newspaper, and the poor guy fell in love with them and me long before we met in person.
But just as I seem to reserve courage for others instead of myself, when it came to seeing to his own happiness, James fell short. He was the sort of person who gave everything he had to those he cared about and believed in, so when he faced his own battles, sometimes he didn’t have enough left to keep himself going. I wish I’d given him even a fraction of the multitude of thank-you-Jameses I’ve been silently storing in my mind since he first looked at my work and said, “sure.” I can’t remember if I ever truly thanked him, which tells me whatever I did say was no-where near enough.
James ended his life last year.
I’ve thought of James, and will continue to, every time I sit down to draw, and I do my best to listen to the little voice he added to my brain, often imagining his big, broad smile, as he tells me, “Draw anyway, Jody. And show it to someone.”
So, here is something that I’ve been working on, and the path I took to get there. It’s a goblin with a bow. He looks a little worried to me. Maybe he’s lost his friend.