Before I wrote anything other than a homework assignment or personal letter, I worked a breakfast shift at a restaurant down the street from my apartment in Chicago. One of the regular tasks before unlocking the front door was writing out specials on a blackboard in colored chalk. The first few times I did it, it took forever. Half an hour or more to list ingredients for an omelette, French toast, and whatever the third thing was. I agonized over the haphazardly slanting block letters. I ran out of real-estate before completing a phrase and had to moisten a paper towel, wipe all the words away and start over. Some mornings I’d break out in a preemptive cold sweat just thinking about that blackboard on my morning walk to work.
I’ve drawn and painted ever since I can remember. It’s my primary relationship to the world. I also grew up in a home where reading was valued and expected ahead of even rudimentary chores like cleaning one’s room. Books have always been a constant but the idea that I might make my own one day was never even a glimmer. Writing came into my life through the passenger door of a taxicab.
My first job after earning a BFA in painting and printmaking was driving a cab in Boston. It was the way I paid my bills for twelve of my first twenty post-college years. In between bouts of driving, I waited tables and poured drinks. It was during one of these non-taxi interludes that my struggle with the specials board took place. The problem, I realized, after several frustrating failed attempts, was that I was thinking of my task as writing. I was thirty years old and all I knew when I put pen to paper was my lousy penmanship. A confident and distinctive instrument when rendering the room I sat in or my neighbor on the bus, that same pen became an awkward, uncomfortable rudiment while forming the simplest sentence. The trick was to think of the blackboard as a picture. Once the letters to Chilaquiles or Eggs Benedict or Chicken-Fried Steak became marks and shapes rather than parts of written language, the blackboard sang rather than sputtering as it had before.
My first stretch of cab driving—which had ended three years prior—was often on my mind. Scenes from memorable fares replayed in my head all the time, drunken phrases, dangerous and hilarious individuals haunted my mind. They nagged at me to be turned into some kind of creative expression. But what could I do? I was a painter who worked from direct observation and the phantoms that wouldn’t let me be were long in the rearview.
I took a bus to an old neighborhood far from mine and bought a refurbished Smith-Corona manual typewriter. At the time certain city agencies were still using electric machines rather than computers, but my model was decades past current utility. I thought that maybe this primitive device that made a distinctive sound and imprinted physically into paper with every stroke might bridge the gap that separated the verbal from the visual. I drew some scenes from memory, then cut-and-pasted minimal typed descriptions around the images. After a few months of messy trial and error, I had enough pages for a zine. I called it Hack and I printed and assembled it at the Kinko’s down the street. My very first creative writing effort.
Getting back behind the wheel a couple years later unleashed a flood of words. The zine became a blog, then a book. Writing became a regular part of my creative routine. I even began to get paying gigs reviewing books, movies, art shows, and the like for newspapers and websites. But visual art remained my default mode and almost always provided a way into the words. To date I’ve rarely published anything that wasn’t journalism without including at least one picture.
The relationship between text and image is fluid and subject to regular renegotiation and rethinking. As often as not, a drawing next to some blocks of words doesn’t illuminate or illustrate them so much as being counterpoint or polyphony. The longer I’ve worked in these two different languages, the more I’ve sought ways to merge them into one, or at least a whole made up of parts that neither cede authority nor seek to dominate or control one another. It’s not necessarily seamlessness I’m after but some kind of polyglot composition. A thing that works on more than one level.
During lockdown, away from the service industry or the public spaces that make up so much of the subject-matter of my artwork, I shifted my attention to personal archives for inspiration. Combining fragments of old homework assignments, childhood sketches, and other personal ephemera into visual compositions became my new way of working. Without setting out to do so, this new approach has allowed me mash text and image together in ways I’d never before considered. Now letters, words, sometimes whole phrases can read as drawn marks or even brushstrokes and patches of color or penciled line sometimes serve to pause verbal thoughts.
I’m back at the specials board but no longer to sell breakfast. Now the competing typefaced and hand-scrawled words advertise more oblique fare. I don’t need to worry about narrative coherence as I might in an essay or even a book because I know that the meaning, or at least the resonant friction here will come from the intuitive clash of disparate sources. But just as I felt freed to list food with chalk on a blackboard by tricking myself into not thinking it was writing, I must now guard against getting locked in a procedure where I see the steps ahead. Like watching your legs will make you fall on your face.
I paint, I write, and sometimes I do this other thing that’s both at once. I got here by trying to tell people what they could eat and make it look like a picture at the same time.
Saw Shakespeare’s Cymbeline in a South Loop park. Talked with Mallory and Scout about The Blood Spattered Bride, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, and more. Reviewed a doc about Turkish music in Germany and a Spanish painter trying to paint a quince tree.
I have a table at Pitchfork again this year. Come by for bookmarks, books, prints, and the like.