Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Marvelous And Magical

I can't remember when or why I started drawing, but by kindergarten it was something I did a lot and greatly enjoyed.  I also had (and still have) a deep affection for books that began long before I can remember.  My parents had a lot of books I wasn't allowed to peruse at my leisure, mainly because most of them were words-only books and as I was an avid drawer I'm sure they wanted to protect their things from doodles and crayons.  I'm also sure that mild restriction only added to the great mystique books held for me, then and now.  Books were special, treasures.  My mom often took my brother and me to the "big" city library, and it was like walking into magic to be surrounded by all those books!  And an entire wing packed with books just for kids?  Amazing.  We'd select a few, check them out, cherish and re-read and re-read them at home, then carefully bring them back.  

Because they weren't ours to keep.  They were not mine.  Yeah, it's a thing.

It seemed to me then a lot of things were "not mine."  Being little in a world of adults, everything seems made for giants or inherently dangerous or not allowed.  My world happened to be cable-TV-free, so there were no "just for kids" channels, and just-for-kid-ness seemed uniquely limited to things like Saturday morning cartoons, Sunday paper comics, booster seats at restaurants...  There was a vast adult world kids got to visit...and then had to take a nap.

One thing I knew was mine and just for kids was school, and I loved school.  Still do.  When I was in kindergarten, our school library held a bookmark design contest.  First prize was a brand new, hardbound Complete Winnie The Pooh.  I knew and loved Winnie the Pooh, even though I knew Pooh was not just for kids.  A grown up wrote it after all, and my parents enjoyed reading it and laughed at things I didn't quite get -- there's more to that bear than first meets the eye.  I didn't understand why I was sad when Pooh was left to wait on the hill for Christopher Robin to return, but I was, and I hugged my bear "Cousin" especially hard so he wouldn't be sad, too.  So, for the bookmark contest, I drew Pooh bear eating out of a pot of honey with bees flying around.  I drew it with pencil, just like a big kid, and I WON!  My bookmark design was selected over every other kindergartener, first and second grader in my little school and was replicated (probably just xeroxed, but it seemed like a very professional publication to me at the time) so everyone could take my drawing home and mark their places in their own very special books with it.  And as an artist, I got my first commission -- a hardbound book that was entirely, completely mine.

I don't still have that bookmark.  It was lost to the ages.  But I remember feeling shocked and  utterly surprised my drawing was chosen.  After all, I'd been competing against bigger kids--two full years bigger, and in kindergarten-terms, that's like a generational split.  That little bookmark contest felt like a huge endorsement and was what let me think of myself as more than a kindergarten kid visiting the world.  I started to think of myself an artist, and to see my artwork as something special that not everyone could do.

Not that I thought of cartoons, art, or anything creative as something I'd get to do for real.  You get to do art when the real work was done, after school or during free time.  I believed making art and drawing were enjoyments I would have to earn by working at other things, real things, because art is an indulgence reserved for leisure time and play.  I did not think, "when I grow up, I'm going to be an artist."  I was an artist already, just like I already had brown hair and a spider vein on my finger--it was just another inseparable part of me.  And for some reason, I thought that meant it wasn't valuable.  I don't know why or where I got that idea, but I wish I hadn't.  

At least some small part of me doubted that ridiculous conviction, though.  The part of me that was elated to be recognized among bigger, older, better-skilled, more mature competitors.  The part of me that cherished that Winnie the Pooh book and kept it safe all these years.  The part of me that's warmed by a rare sense of pride and a secret sense of shared magic when I read that book to my daughters, who also love that marvelous bear.