One of the most profound but scary learning experiences I ever had in my art training I had while studying with Barron Storey back in the late nineties. Mr. Storey would challenge my understanding of the picture-making process, push me to my limit and simultaneously catapult me light-years ahead of what had been my current art-making path. Studying with him taught me that there are teachers who better serve the student at different phases of their academic tenure. For me, Barron Storey happened at the perfect time, a time when I had the skills and professional experience to match his challenging assignments and the maturity to value his meaningful lessons. I would not have been prepared for him four years earlier and would have missed the wisdom of his words and may have ended up down a completely different path.
I had already finished my bachelors degree and was safely working in a corporate design/graphic art related job market not two years out of school. Safely behind the paycheck and benefits, and freelancing by moonlight. Life was good. I was snug, happy, in-love and all was well living in the booming Bay Area of the nineties. But creatively I was at a stand-still.
The good-life can be disastrous for an artist if not careful. When life comes too easy, without a challenge mentally or creatively, nothing can send the creative mind spiraling into a static-pit-of-hell faster than sleeping in, late breakfasts, extra cash in the pocket, and too much drinking with friends. The spirit of the artist comes from suffering, angst, emotional roller-coasters and good ole desire, passion and pain. The stuff that great art is made of.
I had been trucking along, secure in what I thought would be my comfortable artistic style I had been noodling for years, secure with the many talents I had strapped down during my undergraduate studies in the illustration program at San Jose State. I had pinned down a solid foundation, craft, and professionalism but was completely lacking in the development of a personal statement, artistic vision and direction. However, to the credit of my undergraduate study, these things do take time!
I have always been the kind of artist who prided himself on skill, craft and above all delivery. These have been THE key ingredients to being a professional, holding down a job as a creative person, and running my own business. But at that phase of my early art career... I was missing the essential rational for even wanting to be an artist... the voice, the vision to lead the talent and skills to a higher plane of understanding, mental aptitude and even greatness. Higher education and family influence had bread in me the survival instincts but not even touched on the "WHY"- I wanted to be an artist, or "WHAT"- I wanted to say with my art.
This was a scary feeling for someone that had pushed himself to be so focused for so long, remaining dedicated to his studies, responsibilities and grades; only to end up lost. But I was missing direction, a voice, and felt like I was going nowhere! This was when my true artistic education would begin, after college, on my own, and every day since.
But this part of my art education, and my attempt to not be lost, began with my return to San Jose State to study with Barron Storey. I decided to return to night-school to try and re-invigorate myself and to get a closer look at the mind behind such great artwork. Barron Sotrey arrived at San Jose State during my bacheloric study and began teaching classes that unfortunately I had already taken. I never had a chance to study with him as an undergraduate. But now, trapped in the throws of corporate working life, I was thirsty and Barron Storey was just the quencher I was looking for. He soon had me thinking about the responsibilities of being an artist and illustrator, the human soul and conscience that is laid upon him or her who dares to bring it out, to show the people their inner thoughts and perversions, and that Illustration as a mass media artform has an even TOUGHER RESPONSIBILITY than that of the self-indulgent fine artist; requiring a greater awareness and read of the cultural climate, history, prevailing attitudes and reflections and that illustration, good illustration, is fine art!
I would begin to dig deeper on a more personal level and investigate my approach and process, beginning with technique and medium. This piece seen here was a testament to the new "ME". It depicts the (then) current-day political scandal of the Clinton administration and the alleged romantic interludes that would penetrate the White House. Mr. Storey challenged us with setting a current day scandal with a back-drop of a fairy-tale or fable. I set President Clinton out to be Icabod Crane in the classic Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Kenneth Star, the prosecuting district attorney, plays the feared Headless Horsemen chasing down Icabod(Clinton) and throwing the alleged names of the women Clinton had had affairs with while in office (initials carved in the pumpkins). The press is lurking behind the headlines waiting for the frenzy to start. While all the while, Monica Lewinsky is seen winking in the moon and benefiting from all the publicity. A complex set of characters and moral judgments with an even more twisted plot.
Ok, maybe a stretch... but it was an exercise and an experience that would shake down the art-making bedrock I thought I knew so well. Not so much in the comparisons, but in the process of making the picture. Anybody that has studied with Barron Storey knows what an incredible experience it can be and you can either be shut-down by it or embrace it. I chose the latter. I will never forget the feeling I had the night before I would return to class to turn-in this fragile piece.
Wanting to make an impression on my hero, and to have is ultimate acceptance of my efforts, I had spent days building up the surface, tearing it down, rebuilding it up, only to tear it down again. Drawing after redrawing, I poured out the sweat on this canvased battle-field and worse, I felt completely lost by it's completion, or even if the piece was finished. I didn't know "what" or "where" I was as an artist. LOST AGAIN! My vision of was all over the place, filled with passion but un-able to see it's fruition in a way that made any sense to me. I had been inspired by my teachers work and demonstrations but felt I had missed the mark completely. I felt I was the world's worst Barron Storey student!
I walked into the classroom that evening holding my piece low and keeping it in my bag and out of sight. When my turn came to show my pathetic efforts, I held it up in complete anticipation of what promised to be a guaranteed rejection in front of a bunch of lesser experienced classmates. Mr. Storey stepped up with hurried anticipation and said to me...
"YOU FUCKING DID IT..." "YOU FINALLY LET GO..."
I was shocked. All along I had felt he didn't understand the pain I was suffering in trying to re-define myself... coming from such a well structured education and formal training... to crawl out from the middle-class life I had been raised in, by parents that would always teach me to play it safe and to not take uncharted risks... But he did, he did understand! All along he had been watching me peer out from behind my safe, likable, romantic, realistically painted images waiting for a chance to challenge my own soul, and to brave the bigger, desperate, uncharted waters that is the creative depth of the artist. I was certain I was to be swallowed up by the jaws of criticism and misalignment, but instead, he was there to champion my courage and the results. This changed my life forever. I would come to realize the results of what I had put down didn't matter in this case, it was that I challenged myself for real. I faced those demons of insecurity and kept trying anyway, and that this was the beginning of something new for me. A door had been opened.
I have spent the better part of everyday since that evening in class, trying to brave the big waters once again. Day after day, painting after painting, drawing after drawing, illustration after illustration, ambitious hope after ambitious hope; always keeping that scary lesson in the forefront of my mind. Mr. Storey said someting to us (his class) that semester that I have never forgotten. It isn't all that unusual, but he made it real for me in that class. He said,
"You are not truly growing unless you are afraid."
And though to him that evening in class may have seemed like any other with just another student, just another class, just another critique, to me it remains the beginning point of my art education and the torch that keeps the path lit in the darkness of the soulful creative depths. For I learned something about what it means to be an artist, to put yourself out there, to be yourself, to take chances and to see your potential. I could have easily fallen on my face that evening, played it safe.... or maybe not, but at some point if I ever do fall, I can rest assured I'll have fallen on my own and with courage.
©Copyright 2007 Trey Gallaher
Image: "Icabod" ©Copyright Trey Gallaher
12x14.5in. mixed medium on illustraton board