Kirby: Only another failed artist knows my pain

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I attended the prestigious Griffiths Gallery Art Show Saturday evening. Among the featured work was that of the brilliant Alastair Dunn.

Dunn works primarily in pencil but also in chalk, ink, paint, ceramic and even a medium known as "faux batik," a method of staining fabric. He's good. Maybe you've heard of him.

Or maybe not. Alastair is my neighbor. He's only 7 years old but already possessed of genuine talent and an imagination normally associated with opium dens.

Last week, Alastair delivered the invitation to his showing. He handed me a card containing directions, on the back of which was drawn a purple-and-green lion with serial-killer eyes.

Me: "Will there be an open bar at this showing?"

Him: "What?"

I wasn't going to go. It would be too painful. Alastair's success reminded me of my own failure as an artist, specifically an episode so traumatic that I generally only revisit it about every day.

In 1962, I was a finalist in a citywide elementary school art contest. One day in class we were asked to produce whatever moved us. Mrs. Miller submitted my ink sketch of a wintry country road.

The piece was significantly altered. The originally titled "Yeti Spaghetti," was a fantasy work featuring an abominable snowman tearing to shreds a bossy classmate named Ramona.

The genre was too avant garde for the teacher. She kept me after school and forced me to remove the conflict, leaving just an empty road disappearing into the distance.

Ironically, "Boring Road" earned me a finalist spot in the contest. I was dragged to the show in a downtown park, where along with two dozen other kids, I was photographed holding my pathetically conventional work.

I still have the clipping, a yellowed newspaper photograph of a compromised artist holding his commercially approved trash. I vowed to fight for my art.

Mostly I fought to keep from being pantsed. When the other guys in my class saw my picture in the newspaper, they hung me upside-down in a stairwell to rid me of such unmanly aspirations.

Finally, the teacher intervened and announced to the entire class that I really wasn't all that artistic. My drawing had only been selected because it was on top of the pile and it was only there because I had to stay after school and take out "that awful monster part."

I was crushed. I still am. Who knows where I would be today if my art had been encouraged rather than suppressed by a pants-robbing boorish mob?

Ultimately it was my own past that encouraged me to attend Alastair's showing. Why should he have to pay for the long-ago murder of my muse?

The show was great. It's amazing what a kid can produce with raw talent and genuine encouragement. All of his work was good but it was his sojourn into painted tile that spoke to me the most.

"Cosmic Destruction" is a work of genius so mind-bendingly psychedelic that one glance for me was like reliving that entire wasted summer between high school and the army in a single moment.

I asked Alastair if the flashback ambiance was the mood he was striving to capture? He said no, he just liked drawing on tile with toothpicks.

It's amazing where art can take you when you don't know where you're going. It should be encouraged. You don't want talent like that ending up writing a newspaper column.

Robert Kirby can be reached at or