“It’s a feeling of leaving something behind, of accomplishing something every day! I hate it if I go to bed at night and haven’t done something that’s there that I can look at. I take a lot of pride in it sometimes, but the greatest joy is in creating something out of nothing.” Mort Walker, Mort Walker Conversations
Mort is my uncle, a cartoonist and creator of Beetle Bailey, Hi and Lois, and other comic strips. Along with genes for dark hair that started turning white too soon, I inherited a similar restless drive for creativity from my paternal grandparents, his parents. My grandfather was an architect, painter, pianist, and twice poet laureate of Kansas. My grandmother was a painter. In the houses where I grew up, we had their paintings on the walls, their grand piano in the living room, a book of my grandfather’s poetry on the shelves, and we heard stories of how their creativity helped them survive the Great Depression. I wasn’t surprised when I followed creative paths as an adult, just as I wasn’t surprised by the white hair. But I always felt a bit of a misfit, or that I had to justify the creative drive I felt and explain my desire to work across disciplines as a visual artist, writer, and songwriter.
Over the Christmas holidays a few weeks ago, while staying with my parents in their new retirement apartment, I found Mort Walker Conversations on the coffee table and began reading: “Besides, I’ve got my doggone, stupid creative juices flowing all the time. I’ll wake up at night and write a poem. I’ll wake up the next day and write a children’s book. The next day I’ll do a comic strip. I just can’t stop it, but that’s the joy in life to me. My father always did it, and I guess I’ve got his genes in me. My father woke up every morning and did some writing or painting or something. He originally was a farmer, and turned into an architect and artist and writer, and he was always up at farmer’s hours. Before the office opened, he would create something. So I grew up in that atmosphere.”
Mort grew up in that atmosphere. I grew up with evidence of creativity around me, but not with the modeling of creative pursuits by my parents. They always joked that the creative genes had skipped a generation, that they were the conduit for the creativity. (My maternal grandmother was a violinist and pianist, and my mother’s brother a fine painter and illustrator.) I read more:
“My father and mother were both artists. My father was also a musician and architect and a writer. It was a kind of Renaissance family. We were poor, but we sat around drawing and writing, singing and playing the piano. In fact, when I was about fifteen and I found out that everybody wasn’t a cartoonist I was surprised. I just thought it came with the ears and the nose. My father was so proud of me. If I could please him by drawing a silly idea… from then on that’s all I did.”
Hmmm. I also wanted to please my father, but as I grew up, went to art school, and began exhibiting, it wasn’t the painting that pleased him. A business man, he liked seeing me apply my talents in advertising and marketing—areas that promised more financial security, areas that he understood from his experiences. I’ve always straddled the line between applying my talents to other people’s projects (taking on design business clients for contracted fees) and focusing on my own paintings, books, songs, and other projects (for promise of income or not.)
What would it have been like to grow up in a household where we sat around the table painting and writing? Or where we gathered round the piano singing and playing? My sisters and brother were all creative, and there was evidence all around of their expressions. Sometimes we created together, but most often we produced on our own, in classrooms, our own bedrooms, or in a corner of the basement or at Dad’s tool bench. And we overheard one another practicing the piano. But painting at the breakfast table? Reading poems at dinner? It wasn’t until I lived on my own as an adult and established my own routines that I naturally gravitated to painting in the kitchen, turning main living space into a studio, reciting poetry, or writing songs with my husband, a musician.
I’m still absorbing the revelations in my uncle’s book, and I’m grateful to have found them. I’ve always felt that I could do nothing else, follow no other pursuits than the ones I’m following. Yet, at times, I have doubts, particularly when I don’t achieve the success I desire, whether in recognition, money, or sense of accomplishment in the craft itself. But I now understand without a doubt that I could no more diminish this restless creative spirit than I could diminish my “ski jump” nose (also a gift of paternal genes).
My uncle says that during his early days in New York, while shopping his cartoons to the magazines, he kept a sign on his apartment wall, “I will not be denied.” The sign and this attitude served him throughout a long, successful career. Why should I be surprised to discover that though I’ve never posted those words on my wall, I’ve bolstered myself with that same determination, time and again? It’s in the genes, after all.