A Lesson For Aspiring Artists

Riverside, California circa 1960s. Photo unattributed.

As an Air Force brat, I grew up all over the world but I would say that my formative years were spent in Southern California, Riverside to be specific. It’s where I went to high school and where, in the 60s, that cars and the beach were the centers of my universe. Before I was old enough to drive, I began to harass my parents about getting a car. That I wasn’t even close to legal driving age never entered into the conversation…at least not from my end. The constant whining finally paid off because, on my 14th birthday, I was led out to the garage where sat a Morris Minor 1000 painted a particularly obnoxious shade of, what can only be called, robin’s egg blue. The engine was out of the car and sitting on the back seat but it didn’t matter a lick to me. I had a car! And that’s when the other shoe dropped.

Not quite the same blue…

Also sitting in the garage were a box of tools and a shop manual for the Morris…also part of my birthday gift. I was ecstatic! I had a set of wheels! Brimming with joy and enthusiasm, I asked my father when we could start working on it and, without missing a beat, he let me know that this was my project and he wouldn’t be participating. I didn’t know exactly how I felt about this unexpected turn of events. Maybe I was hurt but, frankly, I don’t remember because I was too busy thinking about where to start.

Over the next year and a half, I tackled various projects on the Morris—brakes, rebuilding and reinstalling the engine and rebuilding the gearbox after dropping one of the detent balls into the case. Along the way there were many, many challenges together with moments of incredible joy as well as the deepest despair as I reached, then expanded, the limits of my learning. Whatever the hurdle, I pushed on. And there were some truly magical moments. The day I hoisted the rebuilt engine and gearbox into the engine bay, and the first start are particularly memorable but the one I most cherish was one of near tragedy.

I had just finished rebuilding the brakes. My sister helped me bleed them by pressing the pedal and I opened and closed the bleed valve. It was an incredibly satisfying moment when we finished and I tested them by starting up and backing it out of the garage. Eureka! They worked. Well, sort of. When I pulled back into the garage and pressed the pedal it went all the way to the floor and I ended up impaling my tool box and work bench as the Morris continued on, a victim of me failing to properly tighten one of the bleed screws (it may have been more than one). The damage to the Morris and my bench was minimal. The damage to my pride was significantly greater. Undeterred, I re-bled the brakes, tightened the bleed screws within an inch of their lives and am happy to say, all was successful. By the time I reached 15 1/2 years, the age for a learner’s permit at the time, the Morris was fully functional and, oddly, I didn’t feel particularly accomplished. Getting it on the road was just something that needed to be done. And so it was.

So, what has all of this to do with art? A lot as it turns out.

In the main, making art is about exploring your limits and being unafraid to try things you may not have ever done before. And my Morris experience was exactly that…an exercise in learning about my potential and on being unafraid of things I’d never done before. The interesting thing about limits is, if you don’t know you have them, the possibilities are endless. When you simply don’t know what it is you’re supposed to do or how you’re supposed to act, you are unrestrained and that’s exactly the way I approach illustration. Each day I’m in the studio is an exercise in forgetting what I’ve learned in favor of what I might discover.

My second point is that, like my episode with the Minor’s brakes, there aren’t any failures, just paths you didn’t know were there. Paths you might not have taken and discoveries not made if I had given up in defeat. Learning is completely objective, There is no “good” learning or “bad” learning. There’s just learning and when we stop deciding some knowledge is right and other knowledge is wrong, possibilities unfold before us like the yellow brick road in the “Wizard of Oz”.

Lastly, art, to me, is about seeing the potential to express myself in each piece I do, regardless the subject. Again. the Morris. It’s tough to get a car more homely than a Robin’s Egg blue British economy car. I never saw it that way. It’s not that I thought the Morris some kind of sporty ride, more that that idea of how to characterize my car never entered into my thinking. The Morris was a problem to be solved, an experience to be had and I owned all of that…just like the art I create.

At the drawing board

About the ArtistDavid Townsend is an automotive fine artist who lives and works in Vermont. His work has been published in numerous leading automotive journals, David has contributed to Karl Ludvigsen’s most recent update to his definitive Porsche books, a full-sized version of his Group 44 Triumph TR4A print currently graces the National Air and Space Museum’s Nation of Speed exhibit, and he enjoys a worldwide following for his cutaway artwork.