Yesterday I went to the Museum of Modern Art with my friend Jeannie. Thanks to her membership, I got in for $5.00. Thanks to her company, I had a wonderful time. It was a good thing we went at the relatively unfashionable time of one-ish on a Thursday. It was pretty full, from school trips to tourists, to fans from everywhere. I can't even imagine how packed it is on a Saturday.
I learned I am only two years older than Mr. Burton. Made it fun to walk through and check off the influences. In his early years: Disney, Dr. Seuss, Grimm's fairy tales, Mad Magazine, horror movies and Houdini! Then Don Marquis' Archy and Mehitabel, George Herriman's Krazy Kat, Gahan Wilson, Charles Addams, Van Gogh, Al Hirschfeld, Ralph Steadman, and on and on. But really, anything I was devouring visually, he was too. The show had several walls and cases showing his development as a kid with some (not remarkable) talent into someone who would --with drive and obsession-- develop his themes and vision into a fully realized creative institution.
When I was a girl and teenager I could not keep my hands quiet. Along with a strong pull to my own daydreams in the classroom, I doodled. I drew on any piece of paper in front of me, on the desk, in my school books, on my skin. And if I couldn't draw, my hands couldn't stay still. I tapped my pencil, chewed my nails, rubbed the student inflicted initial scars on the desktop. At home I filled notebook after notebook with drawings in pencil, magic marker, watercolor, and gloppy poster paints. But here my path begins to diverge from Burton's. He never stopped. And in that time after high school he kept drawing. The themes are all there in the early work but they become distinctive, creepier, deeper, more wild as he goes through his 20s. His show made me wish that I had not let myself be diverted, that I had kept pursuing the drawing... but it is never that simple. I had good reasons to quiet down my hands and start paying attention in the classroom. The real story is not why people stop, but what makes them keep going. I don't think talent is the engine really. Artists like Burton have a compulsive need to keep doing the things they do and the will to make it viable to themselves and others. And then there is that mysterious extra ingredient that an artist can't control, call it talent or communication, that makes the effort compelling and marketable. I had art teachers tell me I had great gifts and would end up a successful or famous artist. I also had college professors who informed me my work was listless with precision and no vision. Who was right? Doesn't matter, if I had kept going I might have gotten somewhere as an artist, you can't get there by stopping. And Burton didn't stop.
The best thing was watching his themes devour the influences and grow into his unique vision. He is smart, funny, and able to tap the creepiest fears that rise up from nightmares and shame. I love his approach, a sky is not a color but a radiating energy of lines. Fears become fantastical recognizable monsters. I was laughing out loud through much of the show. Then in the final room, the movie props, wonderful proof that he has been able to make teams of other artists see what he sees.
I am now getting out a sketchpad. I remember how much FUN it was to doodle! Don't worry, I won't give up my poetry and graphic design, but the best thing about seeing a show like this is how it inspires. Like a virus, I've caught the Burton bug.