When I Worked at Hallmark, the Corporate Greeting Card Giant

If you have a job you hate, you will not believe what I’m about to tell you. In fact, you might not want to read this because it might make you cry.

If you are a rabble-rouser, or an anti-capitalist, anti-corporate socialist ideologue, or a controversy-seeking dirt-digger, you may be disappointed that I have nothing negative to say about anyone or anything regarding my experience at Hallmark. It will actually read more like a fairy tale.

It is true that I felt like a fish out of water in the corporate environment. As though at any moment the security people might come down to inform me that it had been discovered that I was not cut out, after all, to be in a trendy corporate environment brimming with wealth and beautiful people. But I figured, until that day came, I would make the most of my Hallmark experience. I believe that I did.

For a decade after I graduated art college (KCAI,) I struggled with trying to find the balance between making art and making a living. This balance generally seemed to include persistent inner-city poverty. I told myself that this was a self-imposed poverty; the price I had to pay to be an artist. I knew I was intelligent and responsible enough to get a job and start climbing the ladder in pursuit of the American Dream, but that was not what I wanted. I would drive by Hallmark and sneeringly think, “You couldn’t pay me enough to work there.” But I did wonder what was going on inside of those walls. I had desperate moments when I thought about getting a job as a janitor there, kind of like Matt Damon’s character in “Good Will Hunting.” Because hey… I was a fine artist, man! I wasn’t willing to prostitute my talent to churn out pictures of bunnies and leprechauns for a paycheck! Ha! No way!

But then, newly married and a couple of babies later I was pounding on Hallmark’s door, pleading for them to let me in. “I’LL PAINT LEPRECHAUNS! I’LL EVEN PAINT LEPRECHAUNS!” I cried.

Originally I thought I would work there for a couple of years until I paid off my (and my wife’s) considerable art school debt. But all of my preconceptions about Hallmark were wrong. Insiders didn’t call it “the Golden Handcuffs” for nothing. At the time I was there, Hallmark turned out to be the most generous, inspiring, and ridiculously creative environment that I could imagine an artist working in. I remember getting “the tour” after I got hired. Unbelievable. I had a carpet burn on my chin when it was all over because my mouth kept falling open. Eventually I stopped asking, “Wait…you mean they’re going to pay me to do this?”

In order to maintain their position as the industry leader, Hallmark aimed at recruiting the best “creatives” in the world – artists, writers, designers, photographers, and calligraphers. To keep this creative staff energized, outside speakers from various fields were regularly brought in. As long as we stayed on top of our work, we were free to attend these presentations. I leapt at this opportunity. This was like getting paid to go to school. I heard photographers (like Keith Carter and Robert ParkeHarrison,) poets (like Pattiann Rogers,) designers (like Barry Moser,) and a multitude of other artists and creative thinkers. This alone would’ve been enough to keep me there.

HM angel

Created in the RIC when Hallmark developed a line of cards featuring angels. This pieces features “drapery glass” on the angel’s garment – a dimensional, folded glass invented by Tiffany studios, which I was excited to use for the first time.

But then there was the Rice Innovation Center. The RIC was a cavernous, skylit wing at one end of the building. It contained an artist playground area, including studios for ceramics, woodcarving, printmaking, stained glass, glass blowing, batik and fiber, an old–fashioned letterpress printer, and a workspace for mosaic projects. Artists could submit ideas for cards that required the use of any of these processes. When such ideas were approved, artists could work in the RIC and create what they needed for the card. Furthermore, productive artists would often be rewarded with 2 or 3 day workshops in the RIC in a medium of their choice. Instructors were there to train us if the medium was unfamiliar. These workshops were for “creative renewal,” as they called it, meaning no actual greeting card application was expected. In other words, you could make cool stuff and take it home. They paid us to do this.

I found all of this to be brilliant and extraordinary. I heard that there were bean counters on the business end who had difficulty justifying these expenses compared to the artists’ output. I don’t know about all of that, but I can tell you that these perks certainly built a gratitude and company loyalty in me. Needless to say, I stayed longer than two years.

I haven’t even told you about the Kearney farm.  The farm was a beautiful, sprawling property in Kearney, Missouri, about 45 minutes away from the downtown headquarters. This farm was once owned by renowned illustrator, Mark English. Hallmark bought it and fitted it out to be a place for off-site meetings; a place to get away from the city and the corporate environment. Another brilliant idea. The sensitively modernized farm house was very cool, in itself.

But then, there was the barn.

HM fishclock

This was actually created at a found-object workshop, but the tail pieces were left over from a blacksmithing workshop. The eye is a doorknob from our first house. The green lips came from an old toilet seat I found in the crawl space. The words are a poem written by my preschool son: Hours are big. Minutes are small. Seconds are hardly anything at all.

For me, as an artist, the Kearney farm was like a freaking piece of utopia. The barn was fitted out with creative workshop media that were not suited for the Rice Center at headquarters; workshop media like welding and blacksmithing. Yes, I said blacksmithing. When I went to work at Hallmark as a greeting card artist, I learned freaking blacksmithing. There were 3 forges, and an instructor who could give a crash course on safety and process so that a small group of artists could finish a project in 3 or 4 days. I couldn’t believe it. I lived for these workshops. There was something very satisfying about the art and physicality of pounding glowing, red hot metal over an anvil into something lovely. In the barn there were also 3 wood lathes for bowl-turning workshops, which I also took, and loved.

I must relate one ridiculously pleasurable story about the farm. I don’t know how my name got on this list, but I was somehow recommended to take a workshop with visiting artist, Diego Romero. Diego is a Cochiti Pueblo Native-American, who arrived at Hallmark wearing a T-shirt that said, “My heroes have always been Indians.” A contemporary ceramic artist from New Mexico, (you can google him,) he has a wonderful knowledge of traditional native ceramic techniques, combined with a modern sensitivity and a university ceramics training. Our lucky workshop group started out in the Rice Center where Diego shared some slip glaze that he had extracted from a secret creek bed location in New Mexico. He showed us how to burnish the slip with a smooth rock. Then the next day we went to the Kearney farm to fire our pieces. Early in the morning we dug a pit, and split wood, and Diego created a completely low-tech pit kiln, by stacking the cut wood according to the knowledge that was passed down to him. Then we torched the entire thing with our pots inside, and had a little pot party. (Clay pots!) The whole experience was pure enjoyment; everything from getting to know Diego, to later digging through the ash to see the results of the firing. I will always remember this event fondly. Hallmark paid me to do this.

HM armadillo pot

Armadillo Pot
Created with Diego Romero. 3″ high.

It’s been some 13 years since I left Hallmark, and as I write this I’m still amazed at the creative experiences I had. I haven’t even told you about the trips…

Twice I was sent on week long, “blue sky” painting trips for the purpose of “creative renewal,” apparently just because my manager knew I was interested in painting. (God bless her.) The first was a weeklong trip with a bunch of guys, to a cabin in the Conejos National Forest, in Colorado near the New Mexico border. Amazing. It was on this trip that painted the Colorado landscape in the open air for the first time. The experience marked me for life. It was glorious. Years later when I left Hallmark, I moved to Colorado to become a painter and plein air artist full time.

The second trip was a weeklong painting trip to the Snake River in Idaho, to take a workshop with Russian expressionist, Ovanes Berberian. The trip included a visit to the Grand Tetons and the town of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. This trip left a big mark on my art as well, and is a story in itself. It was also a great community-building experience. Hallmark paid for everything including airfare and the considerable list of artist materials that Ovanes required.

MM parable

Parable of the Wheat and Tares
Created at a raku workshop at the Kearney farm. Based on the parable of Jesus from Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.
19″ high.

I’m pretty sure that Hallmark put these remarkable practices into place when the greeting card industry was thriving, and the economy was healthier. The company prided itself in having never laid anyone off during its entire history. It had as a goal each year to be listed in Forbe’s best 100 companies to work for. But changing demographics, shopping patterns, and technologies changed the ink and paper greeting card industry. While I was there the entire company underwent a restructuring. I honestly don’t know what it’s like to work as an artist at Hallmark now. At the time of the restructuring, when I didn’t get the new position I hoped for, I chose to leave rather than take a less creative position. My wife and I viewed this as an opportunity to pursue our postponed dream of making a living as fine artists. This is the reason we made the move to Colorado. I don’t think I would have had the courage to leave a great job, and move my family down an uncertain course if I hadn’t been downsized, so I am even thankful for getting downsized.

There is a lot that I don’t know about this first downsizing in Hallmark’s history, but I do think Hallmark lost its human face in the estimation of many. I was probably the only one fist-pumping the air when given the word that I was being let go. Mostly there was a lot of hurt, crying, and anger from a lot of people who had planned on retiring from Hallmark. I’ve heard many people say, “When one door closes, another door opens.” I don’t think that is necessarily true. My experience has been, “When one door closes, you might try feeling around in the dark for a hammer or pick-ax, and use it to bust out a hole in the wall.”

Our options aren’t always as easy as walking through an open door.

HM cedar bowl

Cedar Bowl
Turned on the lathe at the Kearney farm. 7″ high.


Fundamentalist Tales of Working with Nude Models

Before I went to art school, on a typical day I did not see any naked people. Or even in a typical year, for that matter. That all changed when I went to art college. Naked people were just part of the deal, and everyone was supposed to be all cool and mature about it, so I’m kind of breaking protocol here.

But honestly, it was probably inevitable that awkward moments would arise whenever you have rooms full of young students spending 3 to 6 hours a day studying adult nude models. To add to the fun, all the rules around nude-model-social-etiquette were pretty much unspoken. We were just supposed to sort of pick it up. I contend that there were unspoken rules for the models, and there were unspoken rules for the students and professors as well, all in an Art Institute environment that didn’t readily acknowledge rules or authority, which is probably why they remained unspoken.

This worked pretty well almost all of the time. No one cared or made a big deal about it. Except from time to time someone would violate the unspoken code, and awkwardness would ensue. As if Loki had snuck into the room with your grandmother and loudly pointed out that everybody was wearing clothes except for one person.

Here’s my attempt to write down the unwritten code:

RULES FOR MODELSthe idea is for the model to become like an inanimate still life object for study, so it’s bad form to break character and unnecessarily reveal any blatantly human qualities. Therefore:

1)     Do not talk to the students while you are naked.
2)     Do not suddenly smile or giggle for no apparent reason while you are naked. Do not turn red.
3)     Do not break down and weep while you are naked.
4)     Do not fart while you are naked.
5)     Do not suppress a fart while you are naked, (because everyone can see what you’re doing.)
6)     Do not become sexually aroused while you are naked, especially if you are male.
7)     Do not date the students or professors.

As you can see, this business of nude modeling is not as easy as it might seem at first glance.

RULES FOR STUDENTS & PROFESSORS – for classroom purposes, the idea is to approach the model as an inanimate still life object, yet without minimizing the model’s dignity or comfort. Therefore:

1)     Do not touch or hug the model while he/she is naked.
2)     Do not smile or giggle for no apparent reason while studying the naked model.
3)     Do not remove your clothing when the model removes his/hers.
4)     Do not be chatty with the model while he/she is naked. Never raise your voice at a naked model.
5)     Do not stare at the model while he/she is naked. (There is studying, and there is staring.)
6)     Do not walk up to the model for a closer look while he/she is naked. Do not take photographs. Do not hang your mouth open.
7)     Do not ask the model on a date while he/she is naked. Do not date the model.

For those readers who attended Art School, I ask you, am I making these up? Have I missed anything?

Following are a few of my small adventures from hanging out with naked people:

The outspoken model: My first remembrance of nude-model-code-violation was during a painting elective class during my sophomore year. This was the day it dawned on me that if a person was very clever, and was willing to sit naked for hours in front of people, she could actually get paid to get a very expensive art education. That is apparently exactly what this particular model was doing. I remember during her breaks she would walk around the room and talk with the students about their paintings. (She did this while in her robe, so as not to violate code – RFM#1.)

One morning, while in character as the inanimate naked focal point, she did the unthinkable. I should mention that this particular cavernous studio had high brick walls, and a concrete floor, making the room an echo chamber. In the hushed environment of a painting class you could hear dredlocks growing. The instructor, Michael Walling, was quietly directing a student when a high, feminine voice echoed through the studio, contradicting him. At first no one was sure from where the voice had come. But then it became apparent that not only had the model spoken while naked, she had actually taken issue with the art professor, starkly exhibiting the full-blown human qualities of intelligence, free will, and independent thought. No one moved. Would the professor actually engage in verbal intercourse with the model while she was naked? Would the earth stop and begin rotating backwards? But this was Michael Walling. After a moment of dreadful silence, he diffused the situation with his famous tongue-in-cheek grin, saying, “Carol, (pausing for effect)…models should be seen and not heard.”


Carol – blatant violator of the unspoken code.
(from an old student sketchbook, by the author.)

The no-show model: One day I showed up at class, late as usual, and was surprised to see a female upperclassman naked on the modeling stand. She nervously made eye contact with me when I came in. The situation seemed a bit strange since she always wore clothes around campus. After a few minutes another female upperclassman passed by the doorway, froze mid-stride, and slowly backed up, looking in at the model, who apparently was a friend of hers. She poked her head in and said, in a concerned, hushed voice, (as if none of us could hear,) “What are you doing?” The model whispered back, “Heather didn’t show up, so I thought I should sit in for her.” Even more quietly the friend said, “You don’t have to do that!” I gathered that the woman modeling was the newbie student work-study model coordinator. When the model didn’t show, she felt obliged to “cover” for her. Kind of like when a waitress doesn’t show and the manager waits a few tables, only naked. This episode suggested the possibility that even cool, artsy, upperclassmen were way cooler with studying nude models than with actually being one.

The no-show instructor: If the above episode blew the cover on enlightened nonchalance, this next episode pretty much obliterated any pretense of enlightenment. This situation gave rise to possibly the most awkward and conflicted 3 hours of my art school experience. On this particular day there was some confusion about the calendar – it must’ve been right before the holidays, or something. Nobody seemed sure whether or not class was “on”, so I went, just in case.

Only 3 of us showed up, along with the model. No instructor. The female student then left, leaving me and one other guy, plus the model, (whom I hadn’t seen before.) Just to connect the dots for you here, we were 2 young male students, and one young female model. She offered to proceed with class and we agreed. She self-consciously gets naked and the other guy takes over, posing her in an incredibly stupid pose – he has her face the wall with her back directly to us, with one leg up on a chair. So she can’t see us at all while we’re drawing her naked. Later, at break time, she leaves the room and he turns to me and says, (in a tacit admission that it was a stupid pose,) “I just wanted to pose her so I could get a really good look at her ass.” (Guys sometimes say things like this to each other under the assumption that we’re all one big fraternity of assholes.) I said nothing.

When the model returned, the situation was so awkward that I couldn’t figure out how to act. There was no longer any pretense of art-making going on. But she didn’t know that. I didn’t want to blow his cover in front of her because I thought it might embarrass her. At the same time I felt like he was making me a party to his assholiness. But I didn’t feel like I could leave because that would leave her alone with him, which would possibly be even more awkward for her. So I stayed and finished the class. In the comment section below, I would like to hear what you would have done in my situation.

The male model who shaved: Everything. Leaving not so much as a happy trail. We can only guess why. Perhaps he didn’t want anyone to miss anything.

The small world: One day at church, the wife of…let’s say…”a prominent leader” in the church started asking me about art school. Eventually she asked me if I ever worked with a model named Cassandra. I answered that, yes, she was probably my favorite model. The woman then revealed that Cassandra was her husband’s sister, but that he was kind of embarrassed about the whole thing. (She asked me not to tell anyone, which is why I’m speaking in generalities.) Thereafter, it was always pretty distracting for me in church because every time he’d get up front I couldn’t stop thinking, “Wow, I can really see the resemblance!” This just goes to show that if you’re ever speaking in front of a group of people, and they’re smiling at you and nodding their heads, you don’t necessarily know what they’re thinking.

The formerly unembarrassed model: Most of the models were female. There were so few male models that we could conveniently refer to them as the old guy, the black guy, and the scrawny guy.  As in, “I hope it’s not the old guy today.” (For a time the old guy was also known as the orange guy, but that’s not part of this story.) This story is about the scrawny guy. I’m probably not supposed to say this, but I have to admit that I was generally suspicious of the male models. This is because I’m a guy, and thus I’m well aware of the natural male tendency toward narcissism and exhibitionism even when no money is involved. The scrawny guy was my age, and his scrawny body was not fun or interesting to draw. Eventually, I stopped seeing him around. Models came and went, after all.

Here I must stop and explain one of my weird hobbies. During High School I had become interested in comparative cult theology. It helped me in working out my own beliefs. I actually used to drive to the St. Louis airport and hang out there, hoping to engage the donation-seeking Hare Krishna devotees in conversation. In an ironic twist they eventually started avoiding me, even as the airport commuters were avoiding them. When I got to Kansas City, I found the uptown neighborhood of the Art Institute to be cult heaven! Just across the street there was a Unitarian Church and an RLDS headquarters. Two blocks away on Main was a Scientology Church, and Unity on the Plaza was just down the street (where I once picketed.) Back toward downtown on Main there was a big New Age bookstore, and a Christian Science Church. Also, in the early 80s there were still “Moonies” out and about, with whom I had some interesting interaction. But my favorite cult was the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They actually came close to sucking me in when I was in High School, and I had done a fair amount of study around their theology.

As an art student I lived in a big old 3 story house on Warwick blvd with 6 other art students. One day the doorbell rang. I answered and was delighted to see 2 Jehovah’s Witnesses, so of course I invited them in to talk. One of them looked familiar. Suddenly it dawned on me that it was the scrawny guy! (I was unaccustomed to seeing him in a suit and tie.) When he saw that I recognized him there was that brief micro-expression of embarrassment. The lead guy began to introduce us, but I shook the scrawny guy’s hand (touching him for the first time – RFS&P #1,) and said, “Yes, we’ve met…Richard, right?” The lead guy seemed surprised that we’d met.

Apparently Richard hadn’t told his mentor that he’d previously spent hours sitting around as a buck-naked focal point in front of clothed, co-ed pagans. Only a supernatural feat of willpower and compassion prevented me from grabbing one of my sketchbooks and saying, “Here’s what Richard looks like naked, in case you were wondering!” But I didn’t blow his cover, as the JWs can be a pretty legalistic bunch. It’s interesting that the ensuing conversation was the only time I’ve ever had two JWs openly disagree with each other. For my theologically bent readers, my question was, “Does the Bible teach that good works are a condition in order to be saved, or a response to having been saved? It was the scrawny guy who insisted on the former.


From left to right: 1) The Old Guy/Orange Guy
2) Cassandra (not her real name)
3) The Scrawny Guy (not his real name)

It’s funny how perspectives can change. Despite my fundamentalist Christian upbringing, growing up I had my suspicions that naked people existed. When I reached puberty, this suspicion became a hope. Then, my Art Institute experience confirmed beyond all doubt the existence of naked people, and yet I have since come to believe that clothing is generally a good idea, making life less complicated for the most part. In fact, there are many people out there who probably ought to wear even more clothes, as a small kindness to the rest of us. I notice that many of these people shop at Walmart.  But regardless of your opinion, or where you shop, this peculiar, uniquely human convention of wearing (or not wearing) clothing helps to keep life fascinating for us all.

(For more Art Institute adventures, click HERE.)

My Art Institute Days – A Fundamentalist Dropped Off Behind Enemy Lines

My parents, God bless ’em, had no idea what they were exposing me to when they dropped me off at art college. They were unaware that pretty much every “normal” value that they believed in would be ridiculed daily at my school. Neither of my parents had attended college. My dad was a blue-collar guy and my mom never went to high school, or even learned to drive. I was a white bread, ultra middle-class, Southern Baptist boy from a suburban St. Louis neighborhood where every house basically looked the same and every driveway had a basketball hoop over the garage door. Other than the Catholic church peeking up over the single story houses of our subdivision, there wasn’t an interesting piece of architecture within miles of where I grew up.

Of course, they could’ve dropped me off at any secular college and my parents’ “white middle-class values” would’ve been attacked. But if other secular colleges were pit bulls, the Kansas City Art Institute was a rabid, mutant 3-headed beast with laser eyes. From a Southern Baptist perspective, the Art Institute was the gates of Hell. Maybe my parents’ first clue could’ve been the perky, bra-less, spiky-haired lesbian who gave us a tour of the campus when we arrived. But they couldn’t have known, and I’m so glad they didn’t. At the Art Institute I learned as much about God and life as I learned about art.

Regarding the title of this post, I should say that I’m still not sure what a fundamentalist is, or if I am one, and I certainly never viewed my professors or fellow students as enemies, but I’m going with the stereotype that inevitably gets put on the church subculture from which I came.

You may think I’m exaggerating about the Art Institute. I’ll give you my freshman impressions. The Art Institute was very experimental – creatively, philosophically, spiritually, sexually, and chemically. My first night there, my RA explained that every Sunday night they show pornographic movies in the campus amphitheater. There were no extra-curricular activities or student groups on campus – you know, like organized sports, or Campus Crusade for Christ. But my RA explained that every spring there would be a big event called the Beaux Arts Festival, when trucks of beer kegs would roll up and “everyone” would party and get drunk for several days. (It wasn’t clear to me if this was optional.) When the festival did roll around, the packed schedule of events included Priest Burning and Nude Mud-Wrestling. But by then I had been there long enough to be pretty sure they were only kidding about the priest burning part.


Student self-portraits – We were encouraged to draw every day, so I have a ton of these, which amounts to a sort of visual journal. OK…I admit I made the last one up. Apparently the forces of natural selection in an art institute environment do not always produce such results.

My best friend attended college in a neighboring town, which provided an interesting contrast to the Art Institute. Several of my Southern Baptist peers from home attended this Christian college – William Jewell College, in Liberty, Missouri. I used to go there on weekends to escape the Art Institute. The contrast was stark. The spacious William Jewell campus was architecturally coordinated with neo-classical buildings on green, manicured lawns. It was peopled with clean, shiny students; some readily identifiable as “jocks.” The girls openly engaged in middle-class behaviors such as curling their hair, shaving their legs and armpits, wearing make-up and bras, and smiling. It seemed like the sun was always shining on campus. When I would go there, I felt like something that had crawled out from under a rock.

When I would return to my small, eclectic, inner-city campus, I swear that my memory tells me that the sky was always dark and there was rolling thunder overhead. However, in time I grew to prefer my little campus at the gates of hell, for the same reasons that I prefer a glass of wine over a coke. I do remember the one time my William Jewell church friends came to visit me at my campus. I think they may have done this to cheer me up. We met in the lobby and I started hugging them. Some lone guy at the lobby pool table immediately saw an opportunity and came over and started hugging all the girls, some of them more than once. When we got up to my room one of them asked, “Was that guy down there your roommate?” I had no idea who he was. Within minutes, a different guy came into my room holding a can of beer, and parked himself. It took both of us a few minutes to assess the situation. I knew this guy’s name was Gary, and I had been told he was a Satanist (I’m pretty sure he told people this to yank their chains, but he did kind of look the part.) He assumed this was a party. I was unfamiliar enough with partying to not realize this was his assumption. I just wanted to talk to my friends. I think somebody mentioned Jesus at some point, at which point he got up and left, also mentioning God and Jesus, but using them as expletives.


One of my greatest life lessons learned at the Art Institute was about loving people, and not judging by outward appearances. The Art Institute students specialized in outward appearances. I soon learned that the scariest looking people were usually quite gentle and good-hearted, (for human beings.) They just liked to express themselves creepily. As a freshman I remember going to a “dance” one weekend at the Irving Amphitheatre. This was during the late 70s, when Punk was part of the vibe at the Art Institute, (way before it never actually became a part of mainstream America.) Amidst the pogo-ing and slam dancing, one mop-haired student was “dancing” with a big hunk of raw meat. Mostly he was kicking it around the floor, (to the music.) Another guy was dancing with an actual mop. I’d love to tell you a ridiculously funny story about a Halloween dance one year, but I can’t because the protagonist (who is also the antagonist) is a Facebook friend. But you can imagine; art college…Halloween…drugs and alcohol…costumes. So I’ll just tell you that the prizes for the best costumes that year were sex toys.

You could often tell what a person’s major was by how they dressed. The antitheses were the Sculpture and Design departments. The “designers” would have mostly gone unnoticed on the William Jewell campus, except that they were trendier and gayer. These were the people who would have real jobs after graduating art school. Apparently this was viewed as a sellout by the sculpture guys. My freshman impression was that the sculpture guys hated the designers. In fact they seemed to hate everyone. There was actually a sign hanging in the sculpture department depicting a red circle and a slash. Inside the circle was a (poorly drawn) black silhouette of a limp wrist and hand. (I’m pretty sure this sign is gone now.) These guys (both men and women) wore lots of black leather and ripped jeans, and they never slept. Perhaps this is why they always seemed angry. Several of these guys were pretty ripped themselves, (both men and women.) Keep in mind these guys were not sculptors of Precious Moments figurines. I’m talking sculpture as in big red steel I-beams. It was always like the fires of Mordor over there, with welding sparks flying up into the night sky, hissings, the clanging of metal, and deep, bellowing voices. (My freshman dorm room window directly faced the sculpture yard.)

One of my favorite Art-Institute-character stories has to do with a well-loved student named Bob. This story, which involved no actual interaction between Bob and me, tells you something about both of us. Bob was a very cool-looking dwarf. He had long black hair and a full beard. He struck me as a very self-assured guy who always smelled like pot. Bob and I both were majoring in printmaking at the time. One day he came bopping in to the studio wearing a T-shirt that said “PBPGINFWMY!” For those too young to know, this stands for, “Please Be Patient, God Is Not Finished With Me Yet!” It was a Christian sub-culture thing in the 70s. Kind of like “WWJD”, but stupider. There was even a song. So when Bob came in I thought, “What? Did Bob get saved?!” (Finding a Christian at the Art Institute was like finding live rabbit on a shooting range.) I was so excited! I was going to ask him about it, but then I noticed he still swore a lot and smelled like weed. It took me probably a week to figure out that he was wearing the shirt as a joke. Get it? Think about it.

Then, speaking of shooting ranges, there were the professors. I came to genuinely love several of my professors, eventually, but they were freaking intimidating to a little Baptist boy from suburbia. I actually had a couple of freshman classes where professors asked the Christians to identify themselves on the first day of class. One of them grinned and promised, “We’re going to take care of that for you.” This turned out to be the best thing he could’ve done for me. I definitely got the feeling I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. The great thing about these guys was that they were brilliant and unrelenting, but they graded us on how well we supported our thinking, not on how much we agreed with their depressing, existential, nihilistic outlook. I was told by one professor that I could be rational, or I could be a Christian, but not both. So I set out to find out if he was right. It seemed that in the sea of anarchy in which I found myself, the most rebellious thing I could’ve attempted was to be a serious follower of Jesus. Freshman year I had a hard time keeping my mind on my philosophy reading assignments because I was thinking of quitting school and becoming a missionary. This is funny to me now, considering that I was already in a foreign land with a language I barely understood.


The Country Club Plaza (pronounced pul-LAAAW-zuh) – a twinkling beacon of capitalism, wealth, punctuality, & clean-shaveness existing in uneasy proximity to the KC Art Institute.

Finally, I must mention the art, since it was art school. We were daily surrounded, inside and out, by art on campus, of course, and the whole place was a beehive of art-making and performing. The environment was stimulating and always changing. But even in the studio I found myself out of step with my peers. I was just a kid from the suburbs who happened to have an insane amount of natural artistic ability. That got me a scholarship, but once I was in art school it seemed pretty irrelevant. It came in handy sometimes, kind of like lettuce on a sandwich, but what really mattered was the meat – the statement. No one actually told me this with words, but the statement was supposed to be about death, sex, drugs, death, angst, despair, esotericism, protest, death, left wing politics, anger, nihilism, absurdity and/or death.  Did I mention death? Did I mention that I once had an art student living above me who drove a refitted hearse and kept a coffin in his apartment?

Examples of such art abounded. One day in the “dining hall”, I looked up to see a low-relief, fabric and string reconstruction of a vagina, staring down at me. It was titled, “Vaginas are not all they’re cracked up to be.” I believe this was a piece of student work. One faculty member exhibit in the on-campus galley also stands out in my mind. I’m pretty sure this show was mounted by Jim Leedy, a sculpture instructor at that time. The show consisted of actual road kill, mounted on wooden panels, with nails, studs, and other decorative elements hammered in or affixed to each panel. Each panel and carcass was completely sealed in thick white latex paint, so that each panel was reasonably clean and odorless. A focal point of this monochromatic show, at least in my mind, was a panel that featured a dead fetus with some spikes radiating out from its head to form a halo. I have no way of knowing if it was an actual fetus or a replica, but given the pursuit of authenticity at the Art Institute, I assume it was real. Of course, for me this crossed a line and pissed me off, and of course that was probably part of Leedy’s intent. After all, I was in an environment that questioned everything. In fact, I also eventually became a proponent of questioning everything. Questioning is a wonderfully enlightening exercise. I just think it’s important to realize that questioning is not the same thing as rejecting – usually there are good answers to the questions. I’ve come to suspect that the avant garde is not as open-minded as they think they are. For many, “questioning everything” may just be a pretext for doing whatever the hell one wants to do.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that dark or nihilistic art is illegitimate. Art should be honest expression. If an artist lives in a universe where a knowable, relational Creator doesn’t exist, then human beings also cease to exist in any objectively meaningful way, and his/her art will reflect that. At art school, it’s true that I sometimes felt that I was staring down into a downward spiral. But, for these people, given the absence of any transcendent reason coming from a transcendent God to think and create otherwise, all of this hopeless art made sense to me. It still does. In a purposeless universe populated by accidental beings, how could it be otherwise? Such artists may even believe they are doing society the service of exposing pretensions.

Looking back, I consider my art school experience one of my life’s great blessings. It was humbling and spiritually cleansing as it forced me to confront prejudices and arrogance that I might not otherwise have noticed. It built in me a love for understanding viewpoints different from my own. Plus it was extremely entertaining. I like to think I made friends with “the enemy.” People were patient with me and mostly seemed to regard me with curiosity. I made some mistakes. I also got some lifelong friends out of the deal, and even met my wife there. (Eventually she did have to shave her legs and ‘pits to avoid embarrassing our daughters.) My wife did inform me that her circle of friends used to refer to my small circle of Jesus-people friends as “the Den Mothers.” Cute. My wife and I have come to believe that above all else, life is about relationships and communion. The crazy atmosphere of the Art Institute is where I began to understand that.


…From Lester Goldman’s drawing class.


Drawing based on a Rembrandt etching, “Christ Before Pilate.”

                                                                                All drawings copyright 2013, Scott Freeman