My “Museum of Forgotten Art Supplies” Interview

February 3, 2012

“My Most Unforgettable Art Supply Moment” is a series of blog interviews by illustrator Lou Brooks with artists who have survived careers in the graphic arts. (That’s me in the above photo, circa 1964, labeled by Lou.) Each participant was asked the same five questions.

1. Can you recall your worst most unforgettable art supply experience?

Actually, it was a series of “worst” art supply experiences. It was way back in the days before anyone had ever thought of such a thing as a PowerPoint presentation. I was a Visual Information Specialist for the Social Security Administration. The job included a lot of late night overtime — even the occasional all-nighter — preparing large statistical charts that the SSA Commissioner used in his presentations to Congress. I was a very fast layout man, so it was usually my job to plot the points on the “fever” charts, rough in the percentage slices of pie charts, etc., and hand off my pencil layouts to the Speedball pen and brush letterers. Then it was back to me to add Chartpak tape to the plot lines, Pantone color paper cutouts of the pie chart slices and to erase the penciled lettering and stat guides. I LOVED the fast and dynamic layout stage, but I HATED that Chartpak tape and color paper … not to mention all that erasing!

2. Other than your first answer, is there an art supply that you’ve hated having to use more than any other?

The electric eraser – you can see it there on the windowsill behind me in the photo. I kept it out of sight there, so I’d “forget” I had it. Using the damn thing required a light touch, and I was more the slap-dash-speedy sort. I’d usually press too hard and destroy some part of a cartoon I’d just inked, or a type galley, or an expensive 30″ x 40″ sheet of illustration board.

3. On the other hand, can you think of an especially favorite art supply that you miss the most that has unfortunately left us for that big art supply heaven in the sky?

My trusty-dusty Roto Tray (note its place of honor in the picture) probably doesn’t completely qualify as being “forgotten,” at least not by me, but Roto Trays have been around as long as I can remember. I use it just about every day. It’s a dandy desktop storage setup for all kinds of pens, pencils, X-acto knives, erasers, and rulers. Besides its clever lazy susan design, it’s a beautiful object. Plus… it’s fun to spin!

4. Are there any other art supplies that you’ve just plain thrown away that you wish you still had?

Just the other day, I put a capped Sharpie Fine Point in the breast pocket of my favorite shirt, only to discover later that it had somehow managed to leak. Of course, now the shirt can only be worn under a sweater. So I’ve been reminded once again how much I love and miss my nerdy clear plastic pocket protector. Look closely at the picture and you can make it out, complete with a pen or two inserted. Also likely in that same pocket — at least until 1973, when I quit cold turkey — was a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes.

5. At one time or another, a lot of us have purchased something that we thought was soooo cool when we saw it at the art supply store, then we ended up never ever using it. Has this ever happened to you?

That would be my Koh-I-Noor Pen Cleaning Kit. It cost me $19.38 — I still have it and the price sticker is on the box.

To read how several other ink-and-paint-stained wage-slaves responded to these five questions, tap one of the many Museum of Forgotten Art Supplies links in the side bar.


Photo Quote

December 19, 2009

“A good photograph raises questions

that are not answered.”

Dorothea Lange, 1895-1965

National Archives, Records of the Social Security Administration

Photo Quote

November 7, 2009

Arbus1:blog

“I really believe there are things nobody would

see if I didn’t photograph them.”

Diane Arbus, 1923-1971

National Archives, Records of the Social Security Administration

The Falconer Building

October 17, 2009

Bats, Bugs and Drunks

Miss Rita, the middle-aged woman at the desk next to mine, is asking personal questions. That’s something she does every night. I’m 22 years old and this is my first serious job since being FalconerBldgdischarged from the U. S. Army, two years ago. The inquiring Miss Rita and I are clerks in the Social Security Administration — I’m a new hire and she’s my trainer. We are working the 4:00 P. M. to 12:30 A. M. shift on the seventh floor of the Falconer Building at 414 Water Street in downtown Baltimore, two blocks from the harbor. The year is 1959, deep summer, and I’ve made a new friend.

The windows are open, three huge floor fans blowing at full power. If the temperature in the Falconer Building rises above 90 degrees, we’ll be sent home. This happens often during the day shift, less so after the sun goes down. Miss Rita and I sit in the cross-ventilation and flip SS-5 cards and scribble name and date-of-birth changes into huge metal-covered ledgers, delighted with each other’s company. Form SS-5(This photo of an actual Form SS-5 shows a Miss Apgar requesting that her name be changed to Mrs. Lake. Click images for larger views.)

The evening passes to the rhythm of turning pages: flip, flip, scribble, flip, flip, scribble, scribble, flip. Against the background of dirty brick walls scores of other clerks’ bend to the identical task. The oily aroma of Baltimore harbor wafts in the windows and, when the wind shifts, more pungent odors come from the nearby wholesale fish market. The whirring fans cool our necks and blow the occasional card from desk to floor — or out a window. The strange sound of bat wings flutter in one window and out another. There is a gentle rustling noise as rat’s forage for sandwich crumbs in waste baskets, and the buzzing of blood-sucking insects foraging for us.

At the moment, Miss Rita’s job is to introduce me to the mysteries of entry-level clerking in the Numerical Register Section of SSA — and, it seems, to trade work information for personal tidbits. With anyone else her intimate prying might be offensive, but, somehow — I guess because of her odd sense of humor — it’s just harmless fun. Miss Rita’s constant stream of chatter, spiced with sexy double meanings, makes the long evenings of repetitive work bearable. In fact, they are downright entertaining. Anyway, there is not much of a private life to expose — I ‘m still in the process of trying to develop one. Somehow I manage to keep Miss Rita interested by making up outrageous but plausible tales about my exploits. She seems to especially enjoy the lies (these days we might call them “creative non-fictions”) that I tell about the erotic adventures of my mother, a born-again Christian, who would have been shocked if she knew that her son used her straight-arrow life for creative inspiration. Perhaps Miss Rita identifies with my fictions because she and my mother are about the same age.

On my first night in the Falconer Building — one of several rental properties which comprise the original 1936posterSSA headquarters — Miss Rita gives me the grand tour. She points out the freight elevator which, she says, I can use at peak load times during shift changes, when the passenger elevator is often overwhelmed. She shows me the stairs and mentions in passing that they are handy because the freight elevator only goes to the 5th floor. She doesn’t comment on the empty booze bottles in the stairwell, nor does she explain the sleeping drunk. Our “cafeteria” is located by the elevator door on the 4th floor, Miss Rita says. That is, at 9 o’clock each evening an old man gets off the elevator and stands there selling cold sandwiches out of a large cardboard box. Finally, Miss Rita gives me a booklet explaining what is expected in terms of production and conduct. The publication also has a small map showing the location of the men’s room and fire exits. I can use the restroom anytime, Miss Rita says, provided it isn’t too often. “Two often” and it will reflect in my “rating,” whatever that is.

The Falconer Building is clean, at least compared to the steel mill in which I had worked prior to this job, and there is even a bit of external entertainment. As we young male clerks arrive early for the evening shift, we often gather to watch strippers sunbathing on the low roof of the nearby Gayety Show Bar, the keystone of Baltimore’s infamous “Block” of sleazy nightclubs clustered nearby. When the women are up there relaxing between shows we all go a little crazy. The younger clerks in the Numerical Register Section — male and female — are friendly, and I am quickly drawn into a sort of loose-knit social club. After our shift finishes at 12:30 A. M., few of us want to go home to bed — we’re still too primed with youthful energy — so most nights a meeting is called for a party or card game at someone’s home or apartment. Or we go out on a sort of group date, which usually involves bar-hopping, the only form of entertainment available at that hour. Some nights we simply cruise the city and talk until dawn at an all night diner. Often, I drop into bed at first light or later, sleep until two in the afternoon, then get up to start the work/play cycle again. Some of my new friends have been living this way for several years, but the fun will last only a few months for me. I have “EOD’d” (Entered On Duty) at the end of an era. The whole of SSA’s scattered downtown headquarters is scheduled to consolidate in a modern complex in the western suburbs of Baltimore in January of 1960, only a few months hence.

Well before we leave the city, though, it comes to pass that my social life is greatly enriched as a direct result of information provided by Miss Rita. She tells me that a particular young lady, another Numerical Register clerk, is interested in me beyond mere friendship, and before long I am involved in my first “adult” relationship. I reward Miss Rita by continuing my stories, now more fact than fiction, and much more titillating than ever. I even expand the scope of the tales to include many of my young and ever-horny (at least in my telling) coworkers. And I notice that Miss Rita’s interest in our escapades become more intense the closer I stick to real life, which I take as a literary lesson. So as I become a better clerk, I also sharpen my narratives. Miss Rita especially likes to hear my juiced-up versions of our nocturnal forays to various “hillbilly” bars and other hotspots around town, and the house parties that follow into the wee hours, many of them ending in sleep overs. These stories require scant embellishment.

All of this happened a half century ago, late summer until the end of 1959. I spent 29 years with the Social Security Administration, taking an early retirement in 1988. Not long after the SSA headquarters moved to the suburbs, I realized that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life flipping pages and scribbling in ledgers, so I took advantage of the Korean G. I. Bill and enrolled in evening art classes. That led to a temporary job in SSA’s drafting department, which in turn got me through what I called “the back door” of their large art department —where my first assignment was to help produce the original Medicare Handbook. Living and working in the suburbs was O. K., but I never again had an experience quite so rich in character or characters, or that made such an intense impression on me, as those early nights in downtown Baltimore, flipping SS-5 cards and trading punch lines with Miss Rita.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

A much longer version of this personal essay was published in the October, 1978 issue of OASIS, a magazine distributed monthly to Social Security Administration employees nationwide.


The E-Tower

September 24, 2008

What I Did On My Summer Vacation—In 1973

One thing I packed for my first (and so far only) international trip was my new camera, a Minolta 35 mm SLR (single lens reflex). The whole business of doing photography with such a sophisticated instrument, rather than my old Kodak Instamatic, was so strange to me at the time I had to refer to the manual whenever I attempted to use it. So I was careful to bring along the little white instructional booklet, too.

It was August, 1973, and I was on my way to Paris to meet my new girlfriend, having been introduced to her at a party the previous May. She was a schoolteacher out of class for the summer and living with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend (an Italian waiter the sibling had met in Rome), in a one-room apartment on the Left Bank. It was all very romantic, and the sisters’ were old hands at international travel, having made the European scene for several summers running. My girlfriend, with her knowledge of the country and her high school French would be my guide, or so I assumed. The tip-off that perhaps she wasn’t “in the know” so much herself was the fact that August was the month when well-off Paris residents abandoned the hot city, leaving it to hordes of low-end tourists. Actually, August was the only time most schoolteachers could afford to vacation in Paris. That was my situation, too, being a low-grade (in every sense) Visual Information Specialist at the Social Security Administration, one with child support payments to make.

As I boarded the Paris flight I promised myself that at no time during the eighteen days in France would I make a single “touristy” photograph of a famous monument, such as, for instance, the Eiffel Tower. If I did choose to photograph a popular site, I would figure out how to do it in a fresh way—as an abstraction, perhaps, or from a great distance framed by trees, or with something completely unexpected in the foreground, something ugly, like a wall plastered with handbills. The goal was to produce what on the surface appeared to be “bad” snapshots, but which in fact had required a lot of thought and would provoke an unexpected response in the viewer, a response at once intellectual and emotional. It wasn’t that (in “postmodern” lingo) I wanted so much to “deconstruct” the tourist snapshot—I doubt I knew the term back then—but I was determined to avoid committing that photographic sin of sins, the visual cliché. Of course all this was a tall order for an amateur photographer. Looking back, I now realize that rather than being a photographic trail-blazer I was simply a visual snob.

I was very young, though, and in love with love and at the same time passionately trying to master a new craft while in a new country where I didn’t speak the language and was completely dependent on my new girlfriend for even the basics, like food and lodging and where to find a bathroom. And after little more than two weeks of walking the streets of Paris, motoring through town after small town in Southern France and “making images” not “taking pictures” of cathedrals, castles rooftops and markets, I was homesick and more than ready to board the flight back to the U. S. I was also mildly depressed, having convinced myself even before I saw the processed slides that I had failed in my quest for a series of perfect “anti-travel” images.

It’s appropriate that this tale of misguided youth (but not misspent, since in retrospect I loved the experience) ends in irony. When my girlfriend asked me to pose for one last snapshot, I agreed, and of course she wanted the Eiffel Tower in the background. I’m too ashamed to show the resulting image, but at least that’s one creative sin which will be forever on her head, not mine.

“The E-Tower” is the first in a series of short travel-photo essays which will post on this site from time-to-time. (Click images for larger views.) Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.