Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Exiled from my comfort zone: Finding creativity where I least expected it.

Here is the talk I delivered at the invitation of the U.A.A. journalism department, with links galore. There is a podcast available courtesy of the fine folks at U.A.A.

Speaking in an academic setting is a little outside my normal turf, but I’ll try to talk in long sentences and use big complicated words so you can understand me.

Last time I remember speaking here, I had the pleasure of introducing Mike Carey at a dinner celebrating the honorary doctorate he was awarded several years ago.

That event was a personal triumph for me as well, as I was able to work the great underground cartoonist R. Crumb into my remarks, which I’ll bet was a first for a U. A. A. academic ceremony.

Not long after I was diagnosed in early 2002 with Parkinson's Disease, an old friend paid me a visit. A person of warmth and intelligence he predicted a fruitful, if difficult time, a prediction based on experience with others who had faced severe illness. I appreciated the comfort offered, but deep down, and for that matter, from right below the surface, I filed this under "Yeah, right."

Seven years down the road my friend is looking clairvoyant. Since that diagnosis, I have been surfing my strongest creative roll, period.

If his prediction were more detailed it would have included these shocking developments...

The end of my indifference to computers as graphics tools and the shameless embrace of Photoshop, iMovie, Audacity, and Flash animation;

Production of numerous animations for the ADN Web site (as well as a series of personal projects) for which I wrote scripts, and music, did the drawing, and where I had to, supplied the voice and did the foley work;

The launch and maintenance one of the first interactive political cartoon caption contests anywhere, Name That'Toon;

The creation of both an ongoing blog on Parkinsons Disease (Off and On, The Alaska Parkinson's Rag,) and Frozen Grin; and...

Extensive Collaboration with Dr. David Heydrick, a neurologist with Parkinson's Disease on materials for his Web site and a DVD designed to help patients deal effectively with their disease.

All this while remembering to take my pills.

Such a description of my future would have seemed way too implausible for the "Yeah, right" file. It would have gone under under “No way” or possibly “Can I have some of what you’ve been smoking?” But it all happened.

I had no road map for the journey. I just booted up the computer and lit out for the country.

But first, I had to slam into a wall. For a creative person that's as good a start as any. As Rollo May observed, creativity is actually driven by limits. If you have no problems, you need no solutions. Luckily for me, I had problems aplenty.

Discomfort in a literal sense began to hedge me in. Repetitive strain problems that I have no doubt were Parkinson's driven arrived at the point where my resourceful and bright ergonomics doctor ran out of ideas that would keep me drawing.

This was a double blow, first because drawing has been a large part of my self identity since I was a second-grader. And second, it has always been my living. I wasn't ready to give it up to Parkinson's Disease.

I knew that there were electronic drawing pads that would enable me to approximate the correct posture of a typist while I was drawing. Using the pad, I can keep my elbows in a natural comfortable angle while holding my head level to look a computer screen, where drawings unfold in a way that is magical.

When I pitched this idea to my doctor, a look of relief crossed his face. He smiled, and replied that it would work. And so far, it does. And it did far more. It was almost like a time machine that transported me from the 19th Century into the 21st. Although it took me a while to realize that I should make the trip.

At the News I was producing cartoons in the same way that Thomas Nast did back in the days of the Civil War. Pen and ink. The lyric vitality of a spontaneously drawn line and its power to describe and suggest was what attracted me to drawing in the first place. I set about recreating that look with the electronic pad and stylus.

Drawing while watching the screen instead of your hands is no big trick. Art students are taught to draw while looking elsewhere. Mastering the program that allows you to draw on the screen (I use Photoshop) was a different story. But that is where I really got lucky. My wife is not only a Photoshop ace, she is also a patient teacher.

Whenever I got stuck, bewildered, frustrated or exhausted, Pam would sort things out.
Eventually I arrived at my goal of being able to produce work on the computer that was
indistinguishable from my pre-computer cartoons.

If you look closely at one of my old cartoons you will see that the gray tones are made up of fine lines. This is a technique that is called “hatching”. It is popular among newspaper cartoonists because the presses we have reproduce it well.
That was the look I worked to recapture on the computer. After much floundering, I finally nailed it.

When I arrived at that lofty peak, that desperately sought grail, that ultimate moment...(By the way, if some of you would start humming the theme from “Chariots of Fire here it will add greatly to the impact.)... that ultimate moment dearly bought with toil and frustration, that apex of mastery when I finally was able to reproduce the old style, I was rewarded with a moment of clarity.

I realized that recreating my old look was a stupid idea.

Take a two thousand dollar machine, equip it with some of the most sophisticated software available, and turn it into a fifty cent pen. Brilliant, wouldn't you agree? That's when I decided it was time I left the 19th Century.

Since then I have been on a full-scale creative bender, exploiting the color, texture and effects at the computer makes possible. I began exploring and picking up steam, incorporating graded tones, trying to work them in with my old style.

Progressing to a full marriage of old and new

Where to go from there? With my cartoons now appearing on the Web, it was on to color.

Meanwhile I was kicking around the idea of animations. The Mac comes loaded with a
movie program (iMovie, old version) that I realized I could turn into a primitive animation application, essentially by speeding up slide shows.

This led to a grandiose plan to webcast a weekly political satire program, only parts of which got off the ground.

Eventually the limitations of iMovie as an animation program pushed me to learning Flash. Flash can be daunting. It's like one of those amazing pipe organs with multiple sets of pipes, keyboards and pedals. The buzz among my fellow Civil War-era cartoonists was about how complex and difficult to master it is. When I sat down with the first tutorial in which the object is to make a simple ball shape roll across the screen the ball just squatted immobile, passive aggressive to the max.

But by now I had a grounding that made the prospect of tangling with flash less daunting. First, my experience with Photoshop convinced me I could learn this stuff. And by the way if I can, you can. Second I was building a critical mass of familiarity with approaches and techniques that seem to recur in these programs, stuff like time lines and layers begins to look familiar, and in the case of flash and Photoshop, both are made by the same company and share many common features. Third, and most important, what those cartoonists who had taken on flash already didn't mention was...( and if you're taking notes, write this down in all caps and highlight it with your boldest color...)

it is a blast.

Flash puts more potential and control over more facets of your creativity than anything I can think of. You can make up your own stories, import your own music, draw your own
images and bundle them all together.

And they come alive! (maniacal, sinister laughter here)

After some practice and some time studying a few books, I learned enough of my little
corner of that massive organ to play tunes I couldn't even have imagined without this

I believe that one of the important jobs of a news organization is fostering a sense of
place. And when appropriate, celebrating it. Especially when that place is as vivid
and unique as Alaska.

This was what led me to this next piece for the paper’s Web site. It’s called “Susitna Story” The script is reincarnated from a We Alaskans project, think Charlie Daniels meets Robert Service in the Mat-Su area.

What liberated this eruption of creativity? I believe it was a combination of things. A feeling of exhilaration as my medications finally restored my old abilities, which the disease had been subtly and significantly stifling over a period of years. Along with that came a sense of urgency driven by my own circumstances and the crisis that was rapidly overtaking the media world. I was also intoxicated with the amazing potential that was now opened by the suite of programs that I had begun to use.

And did I mention fun?

Finally, there was the support of editors and the tradition of experimentation at the Daily News that goes back at least to the early 70’s when Publishers Kay and Larry Fanning set the swashbuckling tone that I found when I arrived at the paper in 1982.

Unfortunately, the reality of my progressing disease and the regressing newspaper
industry forced me to bail out.

But not to stop. On leaving the Daily News, I started my blog “Frozen Grin” where this
next piece appeared.

So what is the moral of this story? I was forced by circumstance out of my comfort zone. But I'll trade a certain of comfort for passion and excitement. Giving up the 19th Century to embrace the potential of the 21st made it possible to redefine myself from cartoonist to cartoonist/writer/musician/animator at a time when Parkinson’s Disease has been trying to define me as "disabled".

Imagine what it can do for you.


  1. Nice job, Peter. Sorry I didn't make it there today, but I'm glad you posted your talk here.

    Tony Hopfinger

  2. Hey Pete, great talk. We put it up on our podcast page with a link to your blog, specifically the post with your talk and links to view your images. Twitter'd and Facebook'd you too. This is a great talk that many pe,ople can appreciate as a booster shot of vitamin C, for creativity. Thanks again!

  3. Whoops, here's the link to the podcast page: http://tiny.cc/cW8xG

  4. You are welcome. Heck, why should I have all the fun? Creativity is the opposite of a zero sum game. Everybody in the pool!