The world is flat

November 15, 2009


(Prologue: I thought this entry was going to be about artistic prowess or lack thereof, but it isn’t. I absolutely never intended for it to be even a third the length it is, but it is. But if you stick with it, you’ll learn a lot about how I got to where I am today.)


I made and printed this woodcut at a real-world get-together with people I no longer stay in touch with. I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, for a few years completing my eternal college experience, and for 11 years after I moved away I looked forward to my annual pilgrimage back to Madison in June (usually on the weekend before my birthday) to go make art.

Chapter 1

I went to the University of Wisconsin to obtain on my Masters degree in meteorology, because I’ve always loved the weather. In making that decision, I didn’t take into account all the math and science I had not had as an English major for my Bachelor’s degree, not having taken more than algebra theretofore. (In a completely anomalous experience, I had the highest grade of the class in that course, with a 98.6% for the term. To this day, I’m not sure how that happened. All I can think of is that the instructor was the second best teacher I’ve ever had. We’ll get to the first by the end of this story, I promise.) 

Before I could even start taking the meteorology courses, I first had to make up three semesters of calculus, two of physics, and one of chemistry. I  managed to squeak by in trigonometry so that I could begin the calculus. I eked out a passing grade in chemistry by the hair of my chinny chin chin. But when it came to the calculus, I failed the class. 

By now I was beginning my third semester in graduate school and I had changed my major to cartography, because I’ve always loved maps and I could see the writing on the wall. The math and science requirements were less stringent in cartography, though I did still havbe to get through the first calculus.

I had managed to be hired for an internship in the university’s map lab. They knew I didn’t have any computer experience. They plopped me down in front of what must have been a Mac, because I was to use Adobe Illustrator, probably version 0.5 or something. I hadn’t begun my transformation into geek yet. Bezier what? It was very frustrating, as I was provided with very little guidance. I became convinced that the department was an old boys network.

Meanwhile, I had joined the bowling club, because one of my regrets at the University of Minnesota during the acquisition of my Bachelor’s was that I hadn’t participated in any extracurricular, social activities. My parents had always trotted me off to Saturday morning kiddie leagues, and when I was in highschool, I was in some league or other, so for college I thought, what the heck. I learned that the squad for the college meets was drawn from bowling club participants, and as one of only six women members vying for five spots, I got to compete sometimes.

(Okay, I couldn’t stand it, I looked it up. That would have been around 1992 that I was attempting to use Illustrator. It looks like that would have been about version 4. I’ll stick with my contention that it was on a Mac—well, shoot, I guess I better check that, too—because even with my zero experience, I don’t remember that the computer itself got in my way, so it surely couldn’t have been a Windows machine. What Mac model? I can’t tell anything from these charts.)

Well, I flunked that second try a calculus, too. I attempted to negotiate with my cartography advisor but he was unwilling to work with me and my fate was sealed. I was booted out of graduate school in shame. That of course meant I couldn’t continue to participate in university bowling. That bummed me out. This was the crew that I rocked out to Faith No More’s “Epic” with.

The bowling advisor—I call him that because he was not himself a bowler, he wasn’t a coach, he was simply the guy in charge—suggested that I go to the local two-year school, Madison Area Technical College, to take their calculus course and then transfer the credits back to the UW. He had no idea what a life-changing suggestion that was.

Chapter 2

It was a glorious day when I walked into Madison Area Technical College resolute in my intent to sign up for calculus.

I must have been in some admissions-type area waiting to talk to someone, but I soon discovered a spinner rack of brochures for each of the school’s programs. I idly picked up the one detailing Commercial Art degree. I thought, hmm. I was a graphic design major for a semester during the eight years it took me to get my Bachelor’s degree. I did pretty well and thought it was interesting. Hmm. Maybe I’ll wander upstairs and have a chat with someone. That was the second life-changing action in this story.

(I didn’t stick with graphic design at the University of Minnesota because there is an acclaimed, dedicated four-year art school in Minneapolis and I didn’t feel like I’d be competitive with those graduates. For goodness sake, at the time, the U of M’s graphic design program was in the College of Home Economics.)

I got a quick summary from the department administrative assistant. She had me wait while she went to find one of the instructors who could talk to me more. She came back with Chris Gargan, the man to whom I owe the last 18 (and counting) years. (Wow about the years, when I put it like that. I always put it like that regarding Chris.)

We went down to the cafeteria and got some lunch. He told me about the program, the classes, other instructors, and generally seemed interested in me. That was a complete 180 from how I had been last treated at the University of Wisconsin. I was convinced. And because I already had the Bachelor’s degree, I didn’t have to take the basics, like economics, psychology, and college algebra. I could whiz through the two-year Associate of Applied Arts degree in a year and a half.

What a year and a half it was. The classes were taught by people who had actual practical experience in the areas they were teaching. Classes were small and there was plenty of opportunity for one-on-one interaction. Computers were just beginning to take over in the nascent field of desktop publishing. I learned Adobe Illustrator the right way!

Back to the original premise of this entry, sort of

After I graduated, I worked in Madison for a year, then moved back to Minneapolis. But I stayed in touch with the Madison people, and made that pilgrimage every June.

See, it wasn’t just any art-making get-together, it was Chris Gargan’s Paint ‘n’ Party. It was in his illustration class that I learned woodcutting, along with many other methods, including an architectural illustration of an old Victorian house in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and an isometric, exploded illustration of a fuzzball shaver. Woodcutting is the one that stuck. It was a crude enough medium to forgive my inadequacies, but the end result usually had a wow factor.

So every summer, Chris hosted this art-making party at his farm 20 miles southwest of Madison. For the entire day, you’d sit in the yard, or find the right angle on the barn, or make a nest in the field and paint the landscape. In the evening, we all came back in to eat, drink, and hang our pieces in the barn for a show of the day’s efforts. Chris was the “judge” and came up with goofy prizes in what became standard categories.

I still can’t draw or paint by hand (unless I’m using my opposite hand, then the drawings have a certain charm, I think; see yesterday’s post), but thanks to Chris getting me to stick around for a degree, I rock Adobe Illustrator at work every day.

My croquet set won the Best Balance award that year, even thought the mallet stand is missing its side supports. I got a little trophy of a gymnast on a pommel horse.

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