Essays

Telltale Signs of a Young Artist

The indicators that I would become an artist weren’t about drawing talent; they were about knowing I was special.

Does this drawing manifest signs of future greatness? (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

We tend to believe that artists are born brilliant, that their talent is evident from childhood. Vasari was enthralled by the story of Giotto’s gifts being discovered when the young shepherd was seen sketching sheep on the ground with a stick — so much so that he also used it in his biographies of Domenico Beccafumi, Andrea Sansovino, and Andrea del Castagno.

But if you look at the walls of any day care center, it’s obvious that all children draw sheep, and at pretty much the same skill level; it’s only in retrospect that we endow one kid’s doodles with evidence of her incipient talent. Looking back at my own childhood, the signs that I would become an artist weren’t necessarily about how well I drew, which we all know is not a requirement for success. They were about the qualities necessary to sustain a career path with lots of challenges and few rewards.

Sign #1: One of my earliest memories dates back to when I was around four years old. Mom was busy in the kitchen, and I, left on my own, was terribly bored in our tiny Mexico City apartment. I decided to put pen to paper and try to draw.

I’m not sure what I was aiming for, but I do remember the result: a bunch of squiggles. I can still feel my surprise and frustration at not being able to make the pen do what I wanted it to. I tried again and got the same result: more squiggles! I shrugged my little shoulders in resignation and continued to draw squiggles.

Later, I showed the drawing to my mother. “Look, mom! I drew bushes!” I remain surprised by her reaction. Instead of being amused or expressing encouragement — as she would when I got older and still does to this day — she looked at my squiggles and said, “Those don’t look like bushes.” But I wasn’t discouraged; I just figured she didn’t understand what I was doing. The first indicator that I could lead the life of an artist wasn’t my drawing talent, it was my indifference to criticism.

Sign #2: I did gain some mastery over my medium by the time I got to kindergarten, and it caught my teacher’s attention. On Mother’s Day, the teacher — whom I had a crush on — asked me to stay in the classroom during recess. After the other children had left, she closed the door and brought out a large sheet of paper and a box of crayons. “I got special paper for you to draw something nice for your mom,” she said.

Beaming with pride, I decided to draw an elephant, since my mother collected anything pachyderm-themed. Inevitably, some of the kids realized I wasn’t on the playground and came into the classroom to see what was going on.

A fat little asshole named Neto grabbed the black crayon. “What are you doing?” he asked, as he scrawled an ugly scribble across my beautifully rendered elephant. I was furious, which surprised Neto. I can still see his dumb little face wide-eyed in horror at my response.

Again, it wasn’t a question of drawing aptitude here. The important thing was the knowledge that I was special and that others were simply too stupid to see it.

Sign #3: Probably the most significant early childhood art memory I have is of going into the bathroom in kindergarten with a ballpoint pen in hand. As I sat on the toilet, I thought of the teacher. There was something undeniably sexual in my feelings, but of course I didn’t understand what those feelings were or how to process them. Not knowing why, I drew a line around my waist with the pen.

I still have no idea what that indicated, but it would be the closest I got to making real art for another 15 years.

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