I’ve been reading some interesting books lately. The most recent and the one which resonated the most is Ken Robinson’s ‘The Element’. It’s made me think some more about how I was as a kid. Namely: my interests, my passions, what moved me. And also, what I actually enjoyed at school, even in the more difficult subjects which I wasn’t that suited to, such as Physics and Maths.
It also made me think about how, even in school, some avenues for creativity could be found, which ties-in nicely with what Cal Newport says about: Becoming Really Great at What You (already) Do—Rather than Following Your ‘Passion.’ In other words, even in dull jobs, there might be things that you have an aptitude for, that you can concentrate on getting really good at and then you’ll end up enjoying them/the job.
In School: No Art Classes
We didn’t do art or crafts in my primary and secondary schools—in Ireland. Yes, this may surprise you, but unless boys went to a Christian Brothers secondary school or a fee-paying one, creativity was more or less out the window. I say, more or less: because there were sometimes—occasionally—opportunities. Well, for drawing, at least.
In National School (i.e, Irish Primary) in the 1970s, you might have got to illustrate an essay or a piece that you’d learned about during the Religion period. But that was basically it as far as arts and crafts went. The only other opportunities for drawing were in the likes of Geography when you’d reproduce maps by an extremely tedious and painstaking process of tracing 3 times. I think it went like this:
- You traced the map from your text-book onto a piece of your mum’s grease-proof paper with pencil
- You turned the paper over, and drew along the lines again in pencil, on the back of the paper.
- You then placed the paper—and its traced map—right-way up, on a page of your copy book (an Irish ‘jotter’), and drew along the lines again, transferring a sort of carbon-copy of the map onto your copy book.
- You then drew over those faint transferred lines in your copy book—again!—to darken them.
So clearly, if you followed this process as directed you might have a good mental imprint of the shape of Ireland and it’s peninsulas, estuaries and major lakes—from sheer repetition. 4 tracings!
Bored by this, as a 9 year old—and as a creative artist, I soon enough started to just draw the map by observation without tracing. To me this was much more interesting and satisfying. It was still painstaking, but it wasn’t merely a mechanical process. It took observation, judgement and artistic skill. Rather than the recommended method which, I suppose fitted into the ‘rote learning’ approach to education which was still clinging on to the education system in the 70s.
My way was—at the very least—a kind of drawing in which you created, with your own independent mind and hands, something from thin air, without merely acting as a human photocopier.
My maps tended to be quite a bit off; much like those medieval ones that you see with their finely detailed coastlines, but weirdly distorted landmasses! I suppose I could have said, “But sir, you never told me what projection to use, so I went ahead and applied my own patented ‘John Ivan White Cartographic Projection’.” But that’d be more like the kind of brainy thing that my desk-partner and pal Niall F would have said. And words weren’t especially my thing, not as much as pictures–even though I loved to practice storytelling through my own comics. Neither was I all that intellectual. I have to say though, I was pleased with myself when I spotted how the edge of South America seemed to fit uncannily into the edge of Africa, and I had this sudden flash of inspired insight. For my first time, I’d stumbled across the possibility of Continental Drift, which we’d never been told about. That’s not too bad for a 10 or 11 year old, is it?
Secondary School: and Still No Art Classes
In secondary school also, art wasn’t in the curriculum. I was the first kid in that school who ever did a state exam in it. The only opportunities for drawing were in the following subjects: Mechanical Drawing, Metal Work Theory, Science and Maths. The rest of the kids were probably grateful for that fact. I wasn’t.
Science offered me the most creative drawing outlet. I took a very old-fashioned approach to making diagrams. Drawing an image in Science class (a subject I enjoyed) of a distillation set-up, could be achieved with the most basic, functional outlines of the beaker and bunsen burner etc., as if done with a pre-made stencil; but I seized the opportunity to draw it as realistically as possible, with pencil shading, glassy-shine, boiling liquid and even the rubber tube between the burner and the gas tap. And the human digestive system was drawn in an attempt at full realism–such as Leonardo Da Vinci or Vesalius might have done, once again with my effort at realistic shading. and when we drew tools in Metal Work Theory (which was a pretty dull class), my ‘Bastard-Cut’ file and drill bits were in realistic steely-shaded-smudged-pencil.
Mechanical drawing and Maths however, demanded a rigorously accurate and mechanical approach. This usually couldn’t be avoided. But it was still drawing–and somewhat creative at least. However, I didn’t like Maths. I had no ability or interest in it whatsoever, and as we progressed through secondary school, it became increasing abstract and baffling to me—as did Physics, which we started in 4th year. The best part of Mechanical Drawing was when something occasionally had to be drawn freehand, such as eliptical shapes. That was when I got to break-out of purely mechanical drawing and test and show-off my manual drawing skill and my artistic eye. That was when I could probably do the work better than anyone else in the class. And that felt good. God knows, there were precious little other opportunities to be the best in school.
So those were the drawing opportunities. But what other creative opportunities were there? Metal Work (Practice) and Mechanical Drawing enabled us to actually make things. It was mechanical and by the instructions, but we did walk out of a classroom or workshop with something that had never existed before. I desperately wanted to do Woodwork, but my dad insisted that I do the more academic History and Geography instead. History was OK, Geography was mostly a boring chore. When Geography was about the natural world, and more like Geology, it was fascinating. It was more like Johnny O’Sullivan’s Science classes, which I loved (he was my favourite teacher). Exploring the various types of rocks, and how mountains and waterways were formed, and volcanoes and glaciers—even environment and pollution. All good stuff. The mysteries of real world, tangible things that you could see and touch—revealed. But when we had to learn facts and figures by rote, like all of the principal rivers or towns of Ireland, or the average annual rainfall or how many tonnes of CO2 were expelled into the atmosphere by industry… I just drifted off. Even more boring was when we’d learn about and have to remember the principal industries of certain cities and countries.
So I’d sit there in Geography and History classes with a handful of the more clever boys, and a load of girls who seemed to do the subjects by default—and I’d wish that I was in Woodwork class, making things and feeling proud of my accomplishments. The one upside to this situation was that we ended up in mixed classes with the girls, who we never mixed with otherwise. I’d spend most of the classes, when we weren’t hearing about Geology or World War I, and I wasn’t wishing I was doing woodwork, admiring and falling in love with a girl named Susan who had come back to school after the summer holidays with long, shaggy, blonde hair.
I later wrote a rubbish song about her, for our heavy rock band. Unrequited love.
Imaginative School Essays
English class was mostly boring too, especially when we were studying poetry, prose and Shakespeare. Like Maths and Physics, Shakespeare mostly baffled me. And when the teacher went over and over it, line-by-line in class, analysing it for us, it didn’t get any more enjoyable either. What English did offer though, was the opportunity for creativity. I quite enjoyed imaginative essay writing, and did quite well at it. I might never have done well, if I hadn’t been reading science-fiction—and more latterly horror. I learned a lot from the likes of Stephen King especially. Dune by Frank Herbert and King’s Salem’s Lot and The Shining were the ones I returned to the most. I think King really taught me how to write fiction, especially in terms of characters, atmosphere and drama—and even pathos. I’d been a story-teller from a very young age—making comics of course—but King made me appreciate the words even more than some of Marvel’s excellent writers ever could. Marv Wolfman’s great writing on Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula comic was largely obscured by Gene Colan and Tom Palmer’s stunning artwork. It was a magnificent creative synergy in which, to a youngster who loved images, the words lost out to the art. Or at least, blended in so perfectly that I noticed them less.
In the end, I did some art classes outside of school in order to pass my exams and get into art college. The staff had to come into work just for me when I sat my exams—and I got an A each time. Of to college I went, and it’s been a varied and meandering creative journey ever since.
Creatives find Creative Opportunities
So yes, even in school—and maybe even in your dull job, some avenues for creativity can be found. I gravitated towards those opportunities. So much so that one primary school report in Scotland read: “It’s a pity that John doesn’t spend as much time (effort?) on his writing as he does on his art!” I’d dash off my essay as quickly as possible and devote the rest of the session to the accompanying illustration!