My first engineering project was a design for a cart made of wood that I planned to build and then pedal fast and proud up and down my neighborhood street. I’d sit close to the ground at the height of the wheels, legs jutted out in front of me, pedaling at high speeds while sitting in the attached chair I’d designed for my scale, zooming past the neighbors’ mailboxes that I had memorized in sequence. This was 1989. The summer between third and fourth grade. The project was born when we were on our way to a vacation destination that I remember nothing of. That part of my memory has burned permanently away and I’m left only with the space juxtapositioned to the vacation space–the hotel room in which I labored over drawing after drawing of this rolling contraption. Lasting memories from the trip include feeling vulnerable because my mom bragged about taking a picture of me as I slept in the double bed next to my older sister. The hotel “room” was actually a condo–new to me–and not a traditional hotel room this time. It had a fridge and a small kitchen. My parents slept upstairs in an unenclosed bedroom that looked down on the main living room that held the double bed Erin and I slept on and the pull-out couch Leah stayed on. The idea that my parents were upstairs connoted something rich to me. Stairs were something I had been made to think were a thing of luxury, since houses that had a second story in Florida could be financially prohibitive to cool ten months out of the year.
On this vacation, I reserved my attention only for this project, sitting at the bar in my nightgown, ignoring a freshly peeled orange in front of me and the unfamiliar TV stations my sisters were flipping through. My dad periodically took the initiative to critique my drawings, suggesting what would and wouldn’t work, and graciously gave me enough distance to let my mind expand amorphously and naturally onto the paper.
This thing was not my first obsession, for sure. There was the “circus” that I corralled in fourth grade for my third and fourth grade classmates. We spent our recess breaks playing together, climbing the dome on the playground and changing formations, choreographed by me, at the blow of a pink whistle that I’d found in the sand weeks previously. Then there was roller skating every recess and break and after school. I’d race through puddles after rain storms spraying water onto the hem of my dress and creating a wake ten feet in diameter. I’d practice “tricks” where I’d squat with one leg out or attempt to jump like I’d seen in the pictures from the books on championship roller skaters I’d checked out of the Satellite Beach Library. There were the clothes I sewed for my plastic baby-doll Sarah, and the even smaller clothes that I sewed for my Barbies. I was an industrious child, probably not much unlike other children. Projects seamlessly intertwined with play. That’s that way of things when you’re young. Your play is your work. Fantastically, that’s the only time in your life when you not only initiate it, but you accept it outside of the aspect of it being a chore.
This… rolling contraption marked a difference in focus from other childhood obsessions, however. It was the first project I undertook that was far larger than myself. Something I was unsure of. But I kept drawing and re-drafting until it became more and more real with each rendition. I chased it with my pencil, thinking the reality of a zooming contraption on wheels might be just one drawing away. This imagination was surprisingly adult in its focus and vision. I was driven to realize my dream. I made a project of it and didn’t let up just because I didn’t understand how the wheel connected to the axel. In fact, those questions drove me. I figured that I could create in a drawing the answers to my questions.
In that activity, I began to realize what a lot of people in creative professions do– you operate in a world of theory for a while, using prototype and blueprint to come to an answer. It’s not play. It feels like play, but it’s not coloring in a coloring book. Your pen or pencil or crayon is literally moving ideas.
The contraption was never built. I don’t remember the end of the trip. I have no memories of the drawings outside of the trip, either. I suppose the stack of complicated drawings came home and got crammed into a desk drawer once I got busy with school and were purged in an early-summer cleaning session prompted by my mother.
I wouldn’t have remembered it if it weren’t for the unquenchable drive that came out of nowhere to cause me to force an object of my imagination to be seen and function, if only on paper. Since then, I’ve been similarly consumed by the feeling that if I don’t force something into existence, then my own existence might not be complete. I’m not sure if this is simply human, or if this is specific to a human that is born to be an artist and creative person.
These days, I am driven to draw and paint portraits of people and pets and to imagine, again, on paper, a business model that supports a steady stream of these projects and the eventual income that will support me. I am similarly driven as I was at age nine. I have no father to instruct me and to stand at a distance to patiently offer suggestions. I need these commissioned images to exist as badly as the persons that request them. It’s not my dog that is in his last years with the family. I don’t need an image of… what was his name? But with a stack of photographs of someone else’s family pet, I, with my chalk bridge the gap between the emotional history of this animal, and his gesture, his stance, his expression… I force him into an existence on paper–I engineer an image that will last long after the animal will. Someone pays me to do this because they need me to do what they cannot. I begin something far greater than myself–like the cart I would’ve raced down my neighborhood street. This time I finish the portraits–the physical proof of someone’s love for a pet now the object of art that I matt, mount, and deliver. The bridge between what is unable to be quantified and what can be recorded has happened at my own hand. I’ve solved an emotional mystery of sorts for someone. I’ve made the imagined real. It won’t roll or race, but it fits safely into someone’s family–proof that we can force something without boundaries or defined shape into something that has a physical place in someone’s home.
I wish nothing more and nothing less of the projects. 1989 was my first experience at being this kind of shaman, and I’ll gladly chase as many more projects as I can get because it always feels like I’m practicing magic–the phenomenon never lost on me, its maker.