Self Portrait with Nail

self portrait w nail

Self Portrait with Nail – 1986

I was Fourteen, going into high school. It seemed like a big step and a fresh start. Five or six elementary and junior high classes coming together in one school. There would be a lot of new people I didn’t know, and they wouldn’t know about me.

I was already starting to stretch out a little artistically. I was mostly playing around with music.  But I was getting an inkling about what I wanted to create, the type of artist I wanted to be. It was only theoretical for the most part.

I had spent very little time actually writing or drawing anything. I stabbed out some rudimentary songs, but there was very little technically there, beyond the notion of a few verses, a chorus and possibly a bridge.

I had been drawing since I could grip a crayon, but I knew I wanted to learn and get better, at this point I hadn’t spent any time at all learning what I was doing in any discipline.

But I recognized some of the more outrageous things I had encountered, and I recognized that even if I wasn’t technically proficient by any means, I could still stand out and make sure I got noticed if I did something wild, audacious and completely different from what anyone else might do.

Up until High School, art was a class everyone took, like music and gym. I think more than anything these classes gave our primary teacher a chance for a smoke break. They were more about involvement and participation than they were about actually learning the technical side of creating any art, unless you count Papier Mache.

But High School art class was going to be different. It was no longer requirement, and I naively thought it would be filled then with people who wanted to be artists. A good number of them did, but I had yet to really account for folks who took ‘easy‘ classes just to avoid harder ones.

So, the first day of art class came. The teacher comes out, Mr. Wood, he greets the class and introduces himself. Rusty beard and plaid, he fit the image of 1960s-survivor gone PBS painting hour. He said our first assignment would be our chance to introduce ourselves, we were to draw a self portrait.

That was all.

I think we had forty minutes. I decided I was going to make an introduction, one not easily forgotten.

I looked around the class and saw most people sketching away with pencil on paper, some were measuring their features in mirrors, mapping out the head with an oval and sketching dividing lines where the features would lay, trying to show some real technique; others were glad it wasn’t a math class and drew an indistinct blob with a few eyes and a nose-like protrusion.

I noticed I was really the only one using color. I think one or two other pictures had little hints of tint for the hair or eyes, but mine was sure to stand out.

Near the end of the class Mr. Wood came around collecting the completed  attempts, commenting on most of them in a polite, friendly manner. He stood over my shoulder and said ‘WOW!’ and his eyeballs almost hit the back of the head. He chuckled a bit, eyes dancing over the drawing I handed him.

He seemed at a loss. I can’t remember exactly the reaction but he seemed impressed by the creativity, the technique decent but could be improved, and it was unlike anything he had ever seen in a classroom.

The next day I learned about the display case outside the art room where students projects were shown to everyone passing by. My picture stood out on its own, considerably larger and the only one in full color, and definitely the only one with a nail in the forehead and some sort of ectoplasmic ooze dripping from a melted neck, or any melting body parts at all.

I had succeeded, I got noticed. I saw the different way some kids in the class regarded me, and the art teacher had taken note. He said he was expecting good things from me. I saw kids walking past the display case in the hall stop, stare, laugh, gasp or shriek; a reaction, I didn’t care how it manifested.

I did learn as well  that getting noticed can be costly. A spotlight shines the same no matter who’s watching and what they’re watching for.

I was made to visit with the school counselor. Something about drawing myself with a nail pounded into my flesh and the melting neck and all, gave some of the teachers and staff the idea I might be dangerous, or at the very least not completely well.

I tried to explain it, although I’m not sure if I could properly express it; and I felt I shouldn’t have to say, telling my intention was giving away the secret of the magic trick. I tried to tell them I drew a ridiculous, obnoxious, absurd picture of myself simply to stand out, simply to get noticed. But they couldn’t believe it.

I was noticed. I would have to visit with the school counselor once every few weeks just to ‘check in’ with him and babble about the difficulties of being a teenager. I knew I wasn’t crazy, or at least I thought I knew, but I couldn’t convince the school, not that it would have mattered to them. I had made the radar, I would remain on the radar.

It was a lasting and recurring lesson. I can be outrageous and absurd and different and it will make people notice, but not necessarily for the right reasons, and it could make real life uncomfortable.

I learned about the very literal, or lateral, way a lot of people think. I was shocked at what seemed, from my end, to be a lack of imagination. A nail drawn into my forehead, to me, did not mean I wanted or planned to put a nail in my forehead, and it seemed like that part especially didn’t make sense to people. How could I just imagine it and draw it because I thought it was different. It had to, in their thinking, stand for a real desire to poke holes in my head and make my neck ooze.

That completely perplexed me, and it still does at times when I butt up against that sort of mentality.

So I still claim it a successful experiment, I had done as intended and made myself known. It was the start of a long, enjoyable run of art classes, but it was a long while before I attempted such a splash.

I wanted to be noticed for my technique and incremental improvement, although the accolades would be quieter and come from fewer places, it would at least be notice for a positive, artistic reason.

I learned all publicity is not necessarily good publicity. I learned about being noticed for the wrong reasons and misinterpreted.

I could have easily kept turning out shocking work after shocking work, but the attention it would bring would not all be welcome. Surely people would think I was crazy, and I saw how it could actually push me over an edge.

For one piece of weird art, I was already on the roster of recurring characters in the schools mental health department. And it was already getting on my nerves, under my skin, the number of adults who couldn’t see a drawing as call to attention, and not a cry for help. They all wanted to ask me, repeatedly ‘Are you sure? Are you really okay? Are you sure that’s all it is?’

I felt the repetitive and rote questions, the constant interrogation  about my mental well-being could very easily drive me ever so slightly out of my mind.

© Robert Emmett McWhorter

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