Thursday, February 17, 2011

Where It All Began

While getting a haircut yesterday, my barber asked me a question I've heard before but never really pondered.  After telling him what I do for a living, he asked me if there was anyone else in my family that was an artist.  Does it run in the family?  Where did it come from?

This is an interesting question that I usually have a stock answer to.  My father was a high-voltage electrician, my mother was a hairdresser.  They saw that I had some talent and a great deal of interest and supported me.  Simple as that. 

But, putting some real thought into it, I begin to see artistic veins throughout my family that I've never really considered.  I do actually remember my father drawing from time to time, but nothing I would call serious (though he might disagree).  My sister, Amy, was a professional, classically trained dancer for quite a while.  Looking beyond my immediate family, my cousin, Fred Belledin, is an architect, and my cousin, Ted Belledin, is professional musician.  Looking even further out, my second-cousin Chuck Wendig is a writer, and his aunt (my father's cousin), Dorothy Wendig McNamara, is a painter.  I'm pretty sure that there are other family members I'm overlooking, for which I'll likely get a bit of grief from my folks, but these are quick examples I'm throwing out there to help make my point.

Clearly there was potential in me as a child.  And clearly there were artistic roots.  But what was the catalyst?  What got me started?

I think it's possible that for me, it all grew out of illness.  In the true Darwinian sense of things, I should not be alive today.  I was born with severe allergies to milk, eggs, and all dairy products.  Severe enough to kill me.  In fact, I nearly died several times due to allergic reactions to milk, and my father was almost arrested for child abuse before they were able to diagnose what was wrong with me (apparently during these severe reactions I looked as though I'd been submerged in boiling water).  Fortunately, the allergies were controlled to the extent that they could be, and I learned to live with them.  Periodically, I'd eat something I shouldn't have and as time went on, my reactions to such things became more and more mild.  The last allergic reaction I had was in college, and I've been fine ever since.

As though allergies weren't enough to deal with, when I was five I was diagnosed with something called cholesteatoma, which is a tumor that grows inside the ear.  If left unchecked, cholesteatoma can destroy the bones in your ear causing deafness and permanent vertigo.  If completely uncared for, the enzymes the tumor produces will destroy the bones separating the ear from the brain.  I can only assume that that's a bad thing, and I also assume that given enough time the tumor would continue to grow and the enzymes would continue to feast, making the whole thing potentially fatal.

Diagnosing me was relatively easy as my eardrum had ruptured and I was in excruciating pain.  Add to that the distinct odor that the tumor produces, and it was a layup diagnosis for my doctor.  The good news was that the disease is treatable.  The bad news is that it was recurring.  I went through half a dozen surgeries between the ages of 5 and 12 before the tumor stopped growing back.  Despite my doctor's best efforts, I suffered severe permanent hearing loss in my left ear.  The downside to this is that stereo and surround sound is meaningless to me.  The upside is that it cemented in my brain the difference between left and right.  I can't really explain it, but suffice it to say that the left side of my head feels significantly different from my right.  I notice how the left side feels, constantly.

Throughout my childhood, all these illnesses meant that I spent a lot of time away from other kids.  I spent an awful lot of time in doctors' offices.  I also spent an awful lot of time in hospitals.  After each surgery, I spent even more time at home recuperating.  Mind you, this was in the dark ages, long before Nintendo.  We did not have cable tv, either.  Children's television programming was limited to the early morning and late afternoon.  Soap operas dominated the waking hours when I was by myself.  Aside from the homework my sisters would dutifully deliver every day, I had little to occupy myself with.  What was a boy to do?

For me, the answer was simple.  I got out a pencil, some computer paper, and I drew.  I drew a lot.


  1. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Steve. I wonder how many of the exceptional artists these days (and heck, even us ho-hum ones) experienced separation from the "norm" for whatever reason, and ended up filling the empty space with art.

    This also reminded me of a thought I heard from a teacher -- that art starts out as a way to communicate with the rest of the world when the rest of the world doesn't listen to anything else.

    Anyway, thanks again for making me think.

  2. Glad you like this, Sean. Your teacher's quote is an interesting one. I couldn't say how others got started, but I think the initial pursuit is always about some degree of fulfillment. I don't think any of us would bother pursuing it, otherwise. It's not like it leads to a luxurious life!

    As an aside, over the years I've come to know a lot of folks in the illustrtation field who suffer from severe hearing loss, as well. Probably just a coincidence, but an interesting coincidence, nonetheless.



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