The First Time I Arted

I did the mandatory creative things as a child: finger painting, the Kindergarten low-fire clay coil-pot for mothers day, coloring. I never thought I had any aptitude for art, even after took an aptitude test in middle school that said I should be an artist. In fact, the day I got the highly anticipated aptitude results was the day I began losing faith in the system*. I had been looking forward to finding out what direction I should take and I was devastated upon reading ‘Artist’. I don’t know what in my innocuous answers led them towards artist, but I suspect an underlying current of weirdness in my answers. Looking back, I suppose I might have scored in the upper decile for weirdness. Maybe that was the key visible in the aptitude test: the kid is weird, maybe his only function will be to annoy the establishment.

The beginnings lie with my dad having a drawer in his dresser I used to peek into when nobody was noticing. It had nicely organized envelopes of foreign money, mostly coins that just fascinated me. I especially loved the New Zealand kiwi’s on the dull grey and bronze metal bits, and the word Lire on the Italian money. There were also old broken watches and other discarded, but not cast off, bits of life’s accumulations. I have drawers and boxes (and boxes) of that, too. Most likely everybody does.

At some point I began to get some instruction from my dad on fixing things, which began with taking things apart. I remember him opening up the TV with stern instruction to never touch the capacitors. He’d pull out tubes and we’d head to Sears where we could plug the tubes into a big testing machine and discover what was broken and get a replacement. I began my own experiments with disassembly, usually not involving repair in any form, although there was the one success with a stuffed animal music box, but that’s another rambling story.

I think when I was about 10 I asked my dad for one of the watches that was mechanical in nature from the drawer. I figured out (or was shown) how to take off the back and get at the itty-bitty screws and took the watch apart into the smallest pieces and laid them out on the table. I found all the individual pieces interesting, but the chassis was the crown jewel. I hadn’t ever seen anything like it. There were so many facets, holes, and mount points that I couldn’t imagine holding such a design in my head to make it come out as a functioning timepiece.

I started wearing watches when I was in middle school, because that was part of becoming an adult. Keeping track of time was important. I had a very hard time accepting that, and it’s still something that rankles me to this day. When I was about 14 or 15 I’d gone through several cheap swatches. I still played like a kid and they weren’t particularly shock resistant. I had one that I particularly liked that had a big rotatable diver-type bezel that had orange and black sections. I’m a particularly fidgety person and I’d twist the dial all through classes. When that watch broke I was heartbroken. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that I could replace something with an identical item until I started wearing only white Converse Skid Grips a few years later.

I couldn’t quite toss that watch, and I hated that my whole life had become slave to knowing when something needed to happen, so I had a moment of quiet rebellion. I carefully disassembled the watch to its smallest pieces, set aside the chassis and face, then dumped all the loose gears, screws, and hands into the body and closed it back up. I casually wore it around for weeks trying to not draw any real attention to anything unusual about my timepiece, although when anyone asked me what time it was I’d shrug and say I didn’t know. When someone pointed out I could look at my watch I’d then hold out my arm and rattle the pieces at them. I believe this cemented my reputation as a weird kid and I’m fortunate enough to have eventually found some other weird kids so I didn’t have to spend the rest of my life writing manifestos.

I had not considered it art at the time, and it’s only been in the last few years when I started looking for the germ that set me on my path that I realized it was that expression of frustration with the loss of childhood’s idyllic freedom. Unconsciously I’d created a crude piece of art. I’m still surprised that my 7th grade aptitude test** recommended I become an artist or a forest ranger. I suppose it’s a little late to look into forestry jobs.

* The most anxiety producing question in my whole childhood was “What are you going to be when you grow up?”

** Somehow I still have the test results in my files.