By Mike V. Derderian
“Follow me,” Raghda Butros, the creator and organizer of Hamzet Wasel, said no sooner we met at one of Al Qala’a alleys. After handing me a roll of white paper sheets and around 12 crayon cases I found myself going down a rock staircase leading to a stone terrace facing the Roman Amphitheatre.
I was there to teach children from Al Qala’a area how to create a comic strip. I thought I would have the time to shoot some videos for Ikbis but I soon found myself in over my head and surrounded by anxious kids, who were waiting to hear what this stranger has to say to them.
“Hi! My name is Mike. So who knows what a comic strip is?” I asked after they all introduced themselves to me.
“Ok, who reads comics? Anyone here ever read a comic magazine?” I asked again, and again no one answered.
“Who watches cartoons on television?” I asked; they all raised their hands.
Taking out the clipboard that I always use for drawing I started showing them how they can bring a cartoon character to life. Nothing fascinates children more than ink lines that intersect to create a character on a blank piece of paper—or so I like to think.
With a few simple lines I drew a character that has been living in my head for the past three years: An amphibian shark with crooked blunt teeth called Mako.
“Does anyone know what I am drawing?”
After a few hmms and mmms someone finally said “Fish” followed by a quick “Shark.”
“Now I will show you how to draw different eyes for different emotions like happiness, puzzlement, anger, boredom and sadness,” I told them.
However, I didn’t want to just spoon feed them what I learned over the years; I wanted them to use their own imagination. “I want you now to start drawing something from inside your head. By the way you can draw anything that you want!”
I was dismayed to find out that they all had imagination but failed to properly incorporate it on paper. One started copying the image on the crayon case while another sat with a crayon in his mouth contemplating the page. Another boy scribbled away while another tried to squeeze out something meaningful out of his young mind and pour it over the blank sheet of paper.
Every few minutes I gave them tips on improving their character lines, adjust a nose here and an arm there. Trying to bring out their unbound creativity wasn’t as easy as I have imagined it would be but it brought to my attention how careless their art teachers are.
“Let us see what you have drawn?” A pencil with a mouth; a fat looking cat; a square; a cubic-looking car that would have made Pablo Picasso proud; and a lot of colored doodles were my A4 findings.
A young and bearded man with a pony tail and gentle mannerisms by the name of Joseph, who kept popping out every now and then to check on the children’s work, made me look at what I was doing in a different way.
“You have to make sure that your lines are clean. Your coloring should be dark in certain areas and light in other,” Joseph told the children.
Now the technical aspect is important but what was more important for me was how to free their imagination from the rusted fetters that their unimaginative teachers have restrained them with.
Before teaching them how to scribble and draw an art teacher should teach children how to appreciate their own imagination and art. I am positive that none of these kids had a proper art education. Mind you the situation at private schools isn’t any better!
At that very moment I remembered how my art teacher never took the effort to actually help our imagination grow. My memory took me to a classroom filled with boys and girls, who wanted to do anything but draw or create an art piece.
Sitting in that sunny class room where very few of my colleagues actually cared about drawing I saw how my teacher patted the back of a friend, whose sister helped in creating his project. “He told us that his sister helped him you idiot! He didn’t do it!” I begrudgingly thought, “Wasn’t he supposed to do it! Look at the pieces that I have created. I’ve made them on my own.”
In the years that followed nothing changed: Favoritism and ignorance prevailed. There were no exciting trips to art museums, no slide shows about world art, famous paintings, art theories and techniques, no interest in my drawings or Rembrandt for that matter.
Luckily, I got to know the Dutch Master through a picture of a painting entitled The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp in one of my mother’s dictionaries.
I remember going through a French dictionary, Le Petit Larousse, without understanding a single word of French. I went through the miniature paintings that existed in it and that caught my imagination like a child eating his way through cotton candy or fresh clouds using his imagination. I learned more about art from these small paintings than I learned from 12 years of inane art classes.
What you will read in the following paragraphs will reveal to you that you don’t actually have to study art and attain a degree to appreciate it or draw or paint for that matter. Still it helps if art teachers bothered to get a projector to bring the world of art into the classroom.
After surviving Tawjihi back in 1997 I found myself in a car heading to Damascus with my sketchbook and drawings in my backpack. I was going to become a Fine Arts student in Syria, and at the same time fulfill a lifelong dream, and which is to live with my Grandmother Georgette and amazing Aunt Sona, or so I thought.
Well at least I fulfilled the former!
Again what was I doing in an old American Dodge travel car heading to Syria? Well, I earlier found out that in order to study animation in Jordan you had to be a Scientific Branch graduate—some clever person at the Ministry of Education believed that in order for me to draw cartoons and animate them I had to know that 1 + 1 equals 11.
A few days later after settling in at my grandparent’s house I was shocked to learn that I won’t be able to apply for arts school even if I passed the admission art test: Wasta I was told.
Not that here is any different or is it! Nepotism and favoritism happen to be forms of Wasta so stop kidding yourselves! How else would you explain an artist/writer reviewing his own work in a newspaper or a magazine article with no one to actually criticize him/her for doing some personal PR!
So I folded my sketchbook and decided to study my second passion in life: English Literature.
Life went on. On the third year at the University of Damascus I stumbled upon a poster asking students to submit artwork inspired from our literary studies. I got excited for this was an opportunity to combine two of my favorite things: Drawing and English Literature, and yeah, impress some girls.
A week passed and a good deal of time was spent on Anthony and Cleopatra, Heart of Darkness, Faust and The Ancient Mariner. The sketches that I produced weren’t masterpieces but I felt proud for being able to capture the themes of these amazing works; I also enjoyed drawing them.
Here now is the punch-line? The exhibition never materialized and I was told that the faculty decided to cancel it. My artistic dreams once again eluded me.
Upon returning to Jordan I worked as a journalist and a writer for The Star Weekly. After a few months, and just as the United States of America decided to spread democracy in Iraq, and capture Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, my artistic dreams revisited me. I found myself drawing one panel black and white caricatures, one of which was about Iraq.
It got published in The Star but I wasn’t asked to draw another one; guess they wanted my words more than my lines to which I am grateful as there, and in that office, I honed my writing; or in simple they just hated my style and didn’t want to tell me.
After the passing of six years another opportunity presented itself when an online company heard of an Arabian themed cartoon that I have been working on. I took everything related to my project and went for an interview. I had everything ready: The synopsis and character description, a number of episodes (including the pilot episode) and the initial character pencils.
I pitched the idea and the company executive loved it. He told me that they were thinking of bringing a renowned Jordanian artist and animator to work on the project. It was very exciting. I was later told that the artist and animator liked the story but had another vision for the character design. A few days later I found myself staring at my own characters through the eyes of another artist. It was an amazing experience. I decided to go ahead but unfortunately the company reneged.
Back to square one! More writing ensued and my dream of becoming a full time cartoonist waned.
In 2007 I decided to stop drawing indefinitely. I placed everything I drew in my life in a plastic bag that I hid in my desk drawer, however, the yearning for graphite lines on paper did not go away.
I resisted until 2008 when I joined a start-up company, where I worked as a writer and voice over artist for a cartoon series. I was very excited and loved working on the series and everything else but wasn’t comfortable with the attitudes of the company owners—Too many cooks spoil the broth.
A few months later I resigned. After hearing the patronizing remarks of a cartoonist, who said that my way of thinking and writing are Yankee Western, I decided to finish my comic strip and never look back in anger.
I still insist though, and adamantly, that Godzilla is Japanese! Some just can’t handle the fact that they are not always right!
In the meantime things at the newspaper were going fine for me: A front page story, a movie column, an art review piece in addition to another piece that were all written and submitted on a weekly basis.
I decided to leave not just because I was offered the job of managing editor for a mini cultural magazine but because after six years you just begin to doubt everything.
A few months later and after a successful launch and four issues I resigned. In simple: Major creative differences. Resigning jobs was becoming a hideous pattern and I was beginning to feel like a nomad heading to nowhere.
All the while, before my resignation, and during many sleepless nights I kept on drawing and drawing and drawing. I knew they were out there.
Eventually a gluttonous shark with crooked and uneven teeth and surgically attached arms and feet that lives in Down Town Amman’s sewers with a one eyed cat with complex psychological issues talked back to me.
Mako and Me-ouch came to life and I am more and more becoming accustomed not only to their ugly faces but to their bizarre mannerisms.
After writing a few of their stories and a number of preliminary sketches that I did to learn more about their anatomy and motion on paper I asked a friend and a fellow artist with whom I worked and liked very much, Waleed Qutteineh, to help me color them.
We created four paneled three episodes that I started showing around to my friends and potential publishers. After a three months waiting period I received a phone call from Shireen Al Rifai, who loved them but wanted more panels. I told her that I will add two more panels and that was that.
The Dark Sid of the Spoon is now being published in U Men and 7iber.com. Well the journey continues until further notice!
Now and more than ever I realize that understanding art is more than going through textbook classes, sketching nude or fully dressed models and inanimate objects, or obtaining a B.A or an M.A, it is done by observing and absorbing.
Still 11 years is too much observing and absorbing, which is why if you feel that you have the talent to do it just go for it. The reason why I talked about my attempts at breaking into cartooning and comics is because I am hoping that someone who is 10 – 15 years younger than me will read this piece and decide to go with his or her talent not matter what.
In addition to actually doing it—cartooning and drawing comics—start experimenting with your imagination, writing, and drawing techniques as it will allow you to know what you are good at and what you are not. This will allow you to focus your work effort and know where you are heading. Why waste time trying to mimic the artworks of others when you can create your own.
If you want to be good at something you have to know about everything related to it. The same way I am spending time with Mako and Me-ouch Jordanian children should spend time with their own imagination.
Art teachers should offer those young artists-in-the-making inspiring tools and imaginative methods instead of boring classes in which they are asked to draw anything.
Schools should not only focus on upgrading their art courses and have art and comic book sections at their libraries but also help guide students according to their talents.
Guide them through during art classes, inspire them to dig deeper into their minds, show them how to see it on paper, and talk to them while they ink or color it, and most importantly if you see a spark in their lines nurture it and help them connect with artists, who can actually motivate them more.
I know! One day is not enough to instill the love of art, or the love of anything for that matter, but it is a start! I tried to make this short experience as enjoyable as possible for the children of Al Qala’a, which is why I just used the character of a cat that one of the children created. I simply asked them to give this cat a story.
“What is the cat doing? What do you usually do to a cat when you see it? Do you chase after it, feed it or ignore it? Where does a cat live? What would a cat want in life?” I asked hoping that one of these questions would prod them into drawing and making a story.
“He lives in a trash bin!” answered one of the boys. Others joined in, “He eats garbage!”, “He is afraid of people, especially children like us”, and “We throw stones at them.”
They all got excited and tried to build on that. We ended up creating a six paneled comic about a cat, who orders food from a restaurant via mobile but is denied because the trash can has no building number on it.
We all, the children and I, found ourselves sitting on a straw mat leaning over a giant piece of paper drawing and coloring. Their hands excitedly went over the uncolored areas of the characters and landscapes within the oversized panels.
It all came to an end when the comic was complete and the children joined their friends, who just learned how to draw on t-shirts with another volunteer. They all were running free, shouting, playing and sliding down a grassy hill under the sunny sky.
Some of the children, who worked with me on the comic, asked me to draw them an airplane with Jordan’s flag on it before they left; I gladly did. Moments later I went down a staircase that led to Down Town Amman, where I bought an old painting of a ballerina before I headed home. It was an amazing experience and I am looking forward to doing it again.
On a realistic basis the kids at Jabal Al Qala’a or at any other part of Jordan need proper guidance and sincere attention through artistic and creativity building interactive scholastic programs like Hamzet Wasel, http://www.hamzetwasel.com, and START, http://www.startworld.org, which I learned about through Laila Demashqieh, an artist and START’s creator, who I met on Facebook.
School administrators and art teachers should organize meaningful school trips to art galleries and foreign cultural centers, where students and teachers alike can learn more about the art of other nations through observing and absorbing.
Internet made it easier for us to access everything from music to art, to comics and graphic novels. Researching is easier than ever, which is why now is the time for Jordan’s art teachers to start thinking beyond the white pages of their student’s Fabriano or Canson sketchbooks and gaze into their tireless souls and imaginative minds for a change.
– Poster by BRICK IN THE HEAD 2010 / Still photograph from Roman Polanski’s 2005 Oliver Twist –