Thursday, January 16, 2014

In the beginning

Pick a play, pick an art movement. Marry the two in the design of a theater poster.

That was Jan Conroy's assignment. He might as well have given me the keys to heaven. I suddenly felt I was doing what I was meant to do.

It was a roundabout way of getting there, but no matter. I had gone to school to become a news reporter, became one, and didn't want to be one, long story short.

I wanted to get into graphic design and illustration instead. Though I had gone to a school renowned for graphic design, I was told I couldn't major in that and journalism (my mistake for not challenging that ridiculous assertion).

My mercenary co-worker having sufficiently convinced me of his threat to kick my ass if I didn't pursue other career options beyond our newspaper job, I signed up for the graphic design certificate program at the extension program at the University of California, Davis.

At the same time, I had joined the Art Directors and Artists Club in Sacramento, where I soon found artists and designers and writers full of contagious energy and idealism. My world was shifting.

Yep, the extension program was glorified night school, for something far less than a degree. I didn't care. I had found my playground.

And Jan Conroy, an art director at UC Davis and a gleeful graphic design historian, had the courses with all the cool toys.

This is one of the assignments from his graphic communications class. I chose German Expressionism to illuminate Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, a play based on a short story I knew well as a junior high thespian.

(I was old man Warner, with baby powder in my hair and a wheezy voice, and Brad Nemchick played him every other day, and we tried to get each other to say "chewed stickweed" instead of "stewed chickweed" and cause the play to implode in gales of laughter. Don't tell me we junior high thespians didn't know a good time.)

The rough, shouting, impulsive Expressionism seemed to fit the American Gothic play, about a small remote farming village that ensured a good harvest by stoning one of its inhabitants to death. The sacrifice was chosen by lottery ("Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon," as a character says), by a slip of paper with a black spot on it.

The paper became the heavy sun in my design. The ancient ritual of killings that ushered the harvest became the root ball and nutrients for the next crop.

It was done in scratchboard, a new medium for me, a fine and pleasant medium that made me feel part of the work, the creamy and satisfying scratches, lifting the thin layer of black ink off the fine white clay surface.

I wanted the finished work to scream and vibrate, to alert playgoers to the macabre hayride as villagers bargained and argued and ultimately succumbed to executing one of their own for the sake of their reaping.

PCPA Theaterfest is a real thing, by the way, excellent live theater in Santa Maria and Solvang near the Central Coast.

I'd go to see that play.

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