Johnny Knack’s very first masterpiece was rendered in jumbo crayons on newsprint paper, appropriately named ‘Octopus Man’ and remained on display at the Frigidaire Gallery until it was replaced by a rotating exhibit consisting of abstracted depictions of his mother and dog.
Johnny knew that he was a talented artist, just as he knew that the sky was pink and that trees were blue. Johnny had a very advanced understanding of color theory, mind you. Anyone blessed enough to meet the master artist at such a young age was sure to shower him with due praise. “Very good, Johnny.” raved Mrs. Clancy. “You are a good artist.” gushed Mr. Patterson.
Sometimes his works of art were awarded with nothing more than the knowing smile of a smiley face, stamped upon his drawing like a badge of honor. On one occasion, Mrs. Clancy couldn’t help but grant “Tiger in Hippo Plane” not one, not two, but THREE beaming smiley faces, and an exclamation mark. It was the highest honor a boy could possibly receive.
Of course Johnny was proud, and rightly so. Whenever he received a failing grade, or couldn't find a seat in the lunchroom, Johnny gripped his crayons tightly and found strength within their unpeeling wrappers.
“I am a talented artist!” Johnny would proclaim, much to the confusion of the lunch lady doling out his mashed potatoes.
Whenever Johnny’s school held an art competition, he received an award. It may have been the same participation award that each of the other students received, but it didn’t bother Johnny in the least. He knew that the teachers had to encourage the other, less talented students.
It wasn’t enough to be good at art. Johnny loved to draw as surely as he loved the refreshment of summer rains, the sweet relief of pizza parties after a long day of school, and the convenience of clumsy analogies to sum up his feelings. Maybe it was the subtle scratching sensation of pencil lead on homework as he doodled and daydreamed, or maybe it was the satisfaction of understanding the world’s every contour and color more clearly through the explorations of his crayon marks, blanketing the page with a patchwork quilt of intermingling hues. John
In middle school, Johnny’s talent always managed to save him from certain doom. You see, the summer before seventh grade, all of the girls somehow morphed into blindingly bright flashes of light, and Johnny knew that looking them directly in the eye would send his particles into complete disarray. It was a hunch, anyways. To win the favor of these medusas and sirens, he would draw all of those things that girls liked; pop singers, puppies and the souls of mortal boys.
His bullies were given portraits that presented their rather crude features in a favorable light, much like the paintings that earlier masters would present to the aristocracy in exchange for their lunch money. “Draw me a picture of my pet hamster, please.” said the meanest bully of all, in a deep and guttural groan, like the growling of hellhounds pent up in a locker. Looking back, Johnny was sure that this bully ended up as the frontman of his favorite death metal band, ‘Hamsterstomp’. “Good for him.” Johnny thought to himself.
(Hampsterstomp - A commissioned piece by Johnny Knack, age 13.)
There were kids who were good at sports, popular kids, good-looking kids, smarter kids and even dramatic kids. Johnny, on the other hand, was known as the talented artist, and suddenly he was getting rave reviews in his yearbook like “you’re the man” and “you drew in my math class a lot.”
In high school. Johnny used his art to gain confidence, and found the courage to talk to girls and make friends. This meant that he didn’t have to draw as often, which was a good thing since everyone had gotten tired of listening to him talk about colored pencil blending techniques. Besides, art wasn’t fun anymore since he started drawing for everyone else.
Instead, he discovered drama club. He discovered pops chorus. He discovered love.
His paints, pencils and pastels were no longer necessary, but Johnny knew right where they’d be when he needed them; in the drawer of his desk right under… Well, he might have thrown them away, but he could always buy new ones later.
After nearly four years of drawing very little, the talented artist did what any prodigy would, and enrolled in art school since he knew that it was obviously his calling in life. From the moment he picked up his paintbrush, Johnny felt the power of God-given talent surging through his body and… no, wait. He was just passing gas. Johnny felt nothing.
But after getting the right art materials, inspiration and amount of coffee to shake the dust off his somewhat atrophied skills, he was ready to create his first masterpiece in years: ‘Octopus Man II’.
Johnny had a little bit of difficulty drawing the hands, and the proportions were wildly inaccurate, but he decided that ‘Octopus Man II’ was definitely much better than the first because it offered a primitive take on the human form and its components, with each appendage stemming from a swirling, angry face. It was the human condition in a nutshell, he thought to himself.
“I am a genius!” Johnny proclaimed, much to the confusion of the entire class. Ignoring the misplaced criticisms of his art professor, Johnny continued developing his signature style. He meticulously detailed each misshapen arm and unhinged jaw with pride, even working in some influences from his ‘middle school period’, such as videogame characters, a dragon and an odd approximation of ‘street art.’
Johnny signed his name on each piece with a carefully practiced flourish, but by the time he got around to finishing ‘Octopus Man XXXVII,’ something felt… ‘off’.
“Art is boring”, said Johnny aloud, dismayed to find little pleasure from drawing anymore. He stood back and admired his handiwork: A skateboarder making loop-d-loops over an unflattering portrait of his art instructor. “I have hit my plateau.”
With time to kill, he decided to pass the time by walking around the room to offer up his wise advice to other students, each intensely focused on a bowl of fruit in the middle of the room.
But then he saw one of the other students’ paintings. Each grape in the drawing seemed to glow, refracting the light as brilliantly as the ones in the middle of the room. How did he not see that mesmerizing trick of light before? The outlines were carefully plotted as if designed by an architect, and the forms of each fruit were so accurately modeled with layers of pencil marks that they appeared as if they’d leap off the page.
Johnny looked around the room and started to recognize familiar faces from high school; decidedly untalented students that couldn’t master the stick figure if it poked them in the eye. Three students to his left stood out in particular.
One girl was clearly a beginner, but seemed downright giddy about as she defined the distinctive curve of an apple and noticed the reflected light bouncing from the white linens. An older gentleman with shaky hands smiled warmly as he worked out the details on some jittery plums. A wild-eyed student cycled back and forth between his notebook and the unfinished drawing on the easel with furrowed brows, as if trying to figure out a puzzle.
To Johnny’s right was a young man who had somehow managed to create a photorealistic likeness of the same still life, and had clearly spent years working hard to master his craft. But he seemed bored, uninterested, and judging by his textbooks was clearly leaving art for a career in law.
That’s when Johnny realized what it was about those three students to his left. They had the gift. That elusive talent that had slowly been neglected over the years had nothing to do with skill. Or even hard work.
Talent, as it turned out, was nothing more than a driving sense of wonder that compelled these three students to explore the world through art and create something meaningful, even if only to themselves. It was a compulsion that, if fostered, would propel them to create for the rest of their lives.
The next day, Johnny arrived without his assigned art supplies, and instead opened up a box of crayons in 64 glorious colors. Totally oblivious to the stares of his classmates, he read the names of each crayon out loud like the lyrics to a poem: Raw umber. Goldenrod. Cerulean. Indigo. He inhaled the aroma of this waxy rainbow of infinite possibilities, talent kept sealed away since the fall from sixth grade.
From that point on, whenever a well-meaning friend, colleague or critic ever uttered the word ‘talent, Johnny would pause. Knowing that the word ‘talent’ had become too muddled and complex for him to possibly explain, he proudly proclaimed ‘I am not a talented artist.’, much to the confusion of the art world, and got back to painting.
Read more about Steve Asbell here or visit his portfolio page at www.steveasbell.com .