He Needs Help, not Art School

zdepski's high school drawing of an imp and mushroom

I was rummaging through my flat file a few weeks ago and found some of my pencil drawings from my high school years. I was reading a lot of Tolkien, listening to Frank Zappa and looking at Stoner Comics like "ZAP!" and "The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers". My work was rough... but I loved detail. I would spend hours in my room drawing - It was one place I could go to forget about the uncontrollable aspects of my life. My family was very church oriented, and the majority of social activities my family participated in had to do with their faith... Fat Freddy's Cat wasn't on my parent's bookshelf.

My pencil put it right.

zdepski's high school drawing of a creepy puppet

One day in the late 1970s or early 80s, my parents invited to dinner Dr. W. Karl Steele and his wife from Wheaton College (bio link mid-way down this webpage), a church "chalk artist".

But Paul, you ask... What is a Chalk Artist?

A Chalk Artist is a traveling preacher that puts on a Gospel presentation at the front of the hosting church's sanctuary, talking and drawing to illustrate their message.

From a website on the subject, eternityarts.com: "The chalk artist draws a picture to bring a truth to life. People will often watch a chalk drawing and hear a presentation of the Gospel that they might not have otherwise heard. Drawing breaks down barriers of language, culture, and religion. It enables the message to be communicated and remembered. These are objective that every speaker wants in a presentation."

zdepski's high school drawing of a ship

"While chalk talks may have been performed before the twentieth century, they were not the type characterized by a full drawings done before an audience. The following people are pioneers in chalk artistry. They were led to perform public chalk talks for the purpose of giving a message. Early chalk art was done without black light. Florescent chalk was first used. followed by black-light chalk, which was invented by Dr. Karl Steele.

zdepski's high school drawing of a trippy dragon

So... back to our story...

After dinner, they all sat in the living room, when my dad told the chalk artist that I was an aspiring artist. My father insisted that I get my portfolio to show Dr. and Mrs. Steele.

"Dr. Steele went to school with Walt Disney! He'd like to see what you do."

"ummmm.... I really don't have anything to show them...", I said.

A cold glare fixed on me from my father...

"Go get some of your drawings." Dad ordered.

zdepski's high school drawing of an talking bottle of booze

My brother James remembers it this way:

"I remember Dad insisting you get your portfolio and you being very reluctant to get it...you knew what the reaction would be I'm sure... I think I saw the blood drain from his (Dr. Steele) pasty face like mercury and a sudden drop in temperature...... long uncomfortable silence!!!

He was expecting chalk or pastels on felt with the crosses high on Calvary! Instead he got "Nazareth - Hair of the Dog" album cover. Correct region of the world by name only.

Very funny thinking back on it now. They were still gasping for breath on the way out the front door. Dad embarrassed... be careful what you ask for! But that's all you had to show at the time. I laughed out loud as I typed this."

I, however remember him taking my father to the side out of ear-shot and telling him that I needed "help", not art school. My work was disturbing and twisted. From viewing my drawings, he didn't think I was "all there".

zdepski's high school drawing of a warrior with severed head

In the autumn of 1981, I went into the Philadelphia College of Art to study illustration. I was exposed to a world of art that was much more disturbing than anything I was able to cook up in my little mind; Matthias Grünewald, Hieronymus Bosch, George Grosz, Otto Dix.

After 35 years as an artist and illustrator, I believe the critique of my work reflected more upon Dr. Steele's inability to bend from what his beliefs were, more than my work being strange. I was drawing what was in my mind, which was better OUT than IN, as a wise man once said. I was working through issues on paper, not by destroying property or harming others. I'm thankful I was surround by other weird kids in college. I didn't feel as much of a outsider, but very much normal. We were all "getting it out on paper".

That crit has stuck, though... I really must have shook him to his holy-roller foundation.

zdepski's high school drawing of a crab

All of the above drawings were done between 1978 and 1980.


Unknown said…
If it's any consolation, I always thought you were phenomenal even though you always stole the white horse in Sunday School.
BJ said…
For my money, Dr. Steele is but one of many people who believe that Art has been in the employ of Religion, and that it’s meant to be that way. If you look back at the greats, your Hieronymus Bosch, Michelangelo, Grünewald, Dürer, even, I believe you will see that the artists were using religion for their own purposes. After all, Micky the Angel was doing his own thing up there on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And so it has always been. Good artists are always a bit subversive, and they are precisely because they let out what others think should be kept under wraps. A little thing called the Truth, very often.
Keep tellin’ it like it is, brother.
To the Traveling Preacher ...
"All those who wander are not lost."
Great post, Zill.

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