Back in 1984/85, I went everywhere with a cheap felt pen and $1.99 sketchbook that I'd bought from Shopper's Drug Mart on Davie. My high-school art teacher, Mr. Prinsen, had impressed on me the importance of keeping a sketchbook, and I tried to be that guy.
1000 sketches of people's faces and the backs of heads on the bus on the way out to Coquitlam to visit my Mother in Riverview. Once, when she wasn't awake, I got a very nice sketch of her sleeping. Slowly, my hand became able to do what my eyes saw. It was a goal that started to give me a sense of control and accomplishment.
Once I decided to apply to Emily Carr College of Art, it became a major obsession. For weeks, I worked on drawings and sketches that might help my portfolio. An older guy named Les Gallus was a practiced illustrator and gave me some advice on prepping my portfolio, plus a little practical tutelage on how to improve a few pieces. He also showed me his portfolio: a collection of slides of 2D and 3D pieces from some art program on the prairies, I think. Les never seemed to have that much interest in actually working for a living, but I never held that against him. He was a super friendly, helpful person, who helped me get a couple of sketches published in the Community Arts Council magazine, and whose advice and support bolstered my confidence. I was scared as hell of going to art school. All I knew was that it had to lead to better experiences than those I'd already had.
When the interview day came, I remember literally walking across Granville Island from my summer job, over into the school's entrance, entranced. My interviewers had been a black haired man named John (whom I was convinced was humouring me - my insecurity at work), and an older, gentler bald man named Dennis, with whom I immediately felt comfortable. I also saw an energetic and slightly authoritarian bearded man in the hallway whom I would later learn was the school's Dean, a gentleman named Tom Hudson.
Weeks (or months?) later, I received my acceptance letter in the mail. I couldn't believe it. At that moment, it was the biggest positive thing that had ever happened to me. I was living with my Dad in an apartment on Hornby Street, although I can't remember if during this time he was home, or if he was in hospital.
I felt like I'd just squeaked through the portfolio interview process, but who knows how. If it's possible, I think I felt simultaneously proud and ashamed of my portfolio pieces - a series of pen and ink drawings and sketches - mostly scribbly portraits of my face and my friends and family, plus a couple of felt pen "pointillist" attempts done in Grade 12. "This art school must have some kind of quota system for taking in new students" I thought later. My East Van neighbourhood felt a long way away. I was 19 and still very, very green in my views.
Being accepted made me want to sketch the people and things around me even more - I felt I needed to prepare myself for a massive new challenge, so I tried to bolster my meager skills however I could. I took a life drawing session down on Granville Island, and blushed a little at the young woman who posed naked while we all scratched away on large sheets of paper. She saw me blushing and smiled at me, so I smirked and blushed some more. Dad would never approve of this, so I never told him. Years later, when I recounted a similar experience in Life Drawing class, he practically lost his temper. "What the hell do you need to draw a naked woman for?!" he almost yelled. "Why not draw fruit!" I almost doubled over laughing at him for that one. My dear old Dad didn't get it at all - not back then. (He got it later, and eventually was 100% on board.)
In what could only have been some subconscious act of self-defeat, I actually slept in on Registration Day! I showed up hours late, in a panicky state, mentally berating myself with every put-down I knew, feeling sure that I had just fucked up the first good thing I'd ever done before even getting a chance to do it.
I wandered around the school for a few moments, not knowing where to go or who to speak with, but soon enough, I saw a familiar face, Dennis Rickett, the older bald English gent who had been one of my interviewers. I explained my predicament to him, and within a moment, I was sitting with two Foundation Instructors, John Wertschek (my other portfolio interviewer) and Sam Carter. Soon enough, they had me slotted into my Foundation classes, and I felt immensely relieved to have my situation sorted out.
Like every new school I've ever entered, my art school smelled unique - vaguely like acrylic paint and freshly cut cardboard. This was the Emily Carr College of Art and Design in September of 1985.
The white walls, blue doors and window frames and lego-like IKEA flooring hinted at a modernism that I wouldn't be familiar with for a year or two. Boys and girls with punk hairdos and black leather jackets strutted together looking like and talking about lifestyles that I was sure were foreign to me.
My first class, on the morning of my first day at Emily Carr was Creative Process, with John Wertschek. It felt like some alternate universe version of homeroom in high school: a bunch of young people blinking at each other across wide work tables, not knowing what to say. This was the first time I saw my classmates, and I could tell I wasn't the only young 'un in the room. John had set his room up with black walls, low lighting, and some nice Chinese paper lampshade hanging low over the massive table in the middle of the room. We did an exercise he called "The Rock Game". Everyone took a turn placing or moving a rock on the table. I didn't "know" what the hell I was supposed to do, but I felt something out of it, or at least I thought I did... I tended to worry about things in my life a lot, but that didn't help you in the rock game. You pretty much just had to do the game. I decided the rock game was very cool.