By Victor Pross
As a kid I was a compulsive drawer. I would declare war on every blank area left on notebooks, desks and school walls. My teachers never appreciated this, but I did win recognition among my peers, including girls. However, I was independent and pretty much a loner. Rarely did I communicate verbally, but I never failed to communicate by using my favorite language: images.
My childhood, from outside appearances, was practically a model example of the establishment family with its Norman Rockwell semblance. But it was merely an appearance. My mother was an alcoholic and my father was a “fuck off dad” as I described him years ago. Without the words to describe it, the feelings that my parents had failed me were troubling. My parents were not cut from the mold it takes to properly perform the duties given to parenthood.
Luckily for me, it was my grandparents who raised me.
Even though my grandparent’s were offered material and emotional support, I felt abandoned. I distrusted the adult world. It was a pain that was muted and sometimes battered into submission. But there was more to it than just that: I sensed that there was something else—a much more disturbing truth—that lay at the core of the adult world. Being much too young, it remained a frustrated inarticulate feeling. It was something that was given full expression in drawing.
By the age of eight or so, whatever I had lodged in the back of his mind came forward in a blurry approximation in art. It was art—drawing—that rescued me. Many of the drawings had an underlying dark tone. The drawings gave my incoherent inner world some form of expression and substance, however crude the renderings were. Grown-ups had a profound effect on my artistic development, but not in a way they would have approved. I began to observe and to judge people, making evaluations about their natures and characters. This, too, found its way in my drawings. One could see in the progression of drawings a groping and developing maturity. It was a discovery and odyssey of self.
My drawings were always funny but they also communicated rather disturbing scenarios. Many of the drawings portrayed crazed adults expressing myopic personalities in morally compromised positions. On the outside, however, I had become an enthusiastic and happy boy who, one would think, had never been hurt. It was as if my art provided a therapeutic outlet to troubling emotions.
By now, my artistic talent had made quite an impression at school. My drawings never followed convention, and I did not respond to the art teacher’s instructions about what I should draw and in what style I should draw the subjects. I was wont to disrupt the class by passing from desk to desk a sketchpad in which I drew bizarre caricatures of the teachers. The acidity of my rendered drollness, and the devastating captions I attached to these drawings, were uproarious. Boys stifled their laughter during class as it was passed around, clandestinely, under desks.
My talent for drawing, my attention to detail, and above all, my grotesque sense of humor were obvious in the drawings. The targets, being the teachers, were sitting ducks for my scorching satire. Seeing them as deeply flawed, I had little respect for any of them. And as subjects for my drawings, they were fittingly portrayed as I saw them. A fascination with deformities was rife throughout my drawings, and each deformity was intended to convey….a spiritual malady.
At the age of thirteen, I became a make-out artist. I was well aware of the favorable responses my art curried from the opposite sex. I decided to take advantage. In turn, girls took advantage of me. Stephanie was a year older than me and she was a dark haired beauty. She had all the makings of the town’s soon-to-be slut. She exploited her good-looks, bending all the local boys to her will. She loathed the other boys, but she liked me and my rebellious ways. In exchange for a drawing, Stephanie promised to show me her…um…private parts.
“You can look but you can’t touch,” she admonished this fervent young artist. Being a highly curious young man, I agreed.
The clandestine exchange took place in a clearing in the woods where this excited youth caught an eye-full of “private parts.” My expression flushed red and I swallowed hard. Stephanie smiled coyly, alternately looking down at her own hairy glory and at me, enjoying the spectacle of frustrated sexual energy. And it was both a pleasurable and painful experience for me. Having feasted my eyes upon the coveted goods, and my youthful hanker peaked, I wanted to take the plunge. But the Garden of Eden was for viewing only and no tasting of the fruit was permitted.
The joys of being an artist achieved only minimal satisfaction.
When I turned sixteen, a conscious awareness of the adult world came into sharper focus: my overall impressions of adults was that they were bogus liars and hypocrites, saying not what they thought, but rather what they believed would serve some particular purpose. Everyone was armed with an agenda and two-faces. It seemed to me that the world thrived on bullshit, self-denial, hypocrisy, deception and lies.
Observing people closely, I noted the desperate whoring after status, an irrational and pathetic desire to “beat the Jones” followed up by saccharine sentimentality by mealy-mouthed charlatans--and all of it showcased to the people they themselves loathed.
Lies, backstabbing, deception, two-faces, malice and hypocrisy: this was the currency of exchange in the adult world.
I took a profound disliking to most people I came across. I could sense the spiritual emptiness and viciousness within them. I retreated even more into my drawings. I wanted to like and admire people but I rarely came across anyone who was worthy of it. The only noted exceptions were my grandparents.
Christmas brought distant relatives and immediate family together at the Pross household. For me, people were bad enough on their own but it became worse when they assembled together under one roof. It was on such occasions that fully demonstrated the insanity and phoniness these people. My critical antenna was fully engaged in observing. I would scan the large living room absorbing the adults sitting on the couches and chairs, each one looking anxious and distant. They were tipsy on day-long benders of Bloody Caesars making efforts to appear jovial. To lighten the mood, somebody put a dance song on. I watched with keen interest as glasses were overturned by dancing feet and the coffee table was removed for a wider space. A frenzy of stimulation bubbled in the room and everyone’s voice rose imperceptibly in pitch. The chatter and the laughter fused into an indolent buzz.
There was a constant display of smiley backslapping by people who maligned one another the moment backs where turned. There was an unvarying pageant of petty bickering over trivia and the sudden surfacing of years-long resentments best forgotten. All the forms of human flaws and ugliness to be found in the world—a world which insists on being imperfect---were on display before the juvenile artist.
Each relative represented an unsavory social stereotype or archetype of one kind or another—a caricature. From the town’s busy body gossip-mongering to the blabbering spinster to the town’s fast-talking used car salesman to every other stereotype imaginable, it was all here. This artist to-be was exposed to these caricatures constantly.
Sitting near the Christmas three, I was observing my Uncle, better known by his nickname “Bernie.” Bernie was the jet-set wannabe playboy with the dyed perm that looked as if it had come straight off a Styrofoam head from 1973. Assuming himself a lady-killer, he actually had all the charm and authenticity of a toupee made of straw dipped in black ink. And with each attempt at a pick-up he was invariably shot-down. He always dismissed the lady as a lesbian. He was a caricature.
I turned my attention to my mother, who was immersed in conversation, laughing with a forced hilarity, her drink spilling over. There was something that troubled me about my mother, Terry. She was a woman who was so utterly self-absorbed, preoccupied with what others thought. My mother’s sense of personal value was crucially dependent on the image of herself as a glamorous beauty. At the age of 38, she was wont to ask for reassurances of her looks:
“Do you think I have nice legs? I was a Go-Go dancer, you know.”
But with each passing year she began to perceive every wrinkle on her face as a metaphysical menace. With what she took as a threat to her identity, she plunged into a series of sexual relationships with men fifteen years her junior and demanded fresh admiration to assuage her hollowness. She, too, was a caricature.
My mother’s constant need for validation and self-absorption annoyed me. Nevertheless I was fascinated with human behavior and what I perceived in my mother was a definite narcissism, only I didn’t know the word for it at my age.
Spurred by my mother’s conceit, I decided to try an experiment: I played upon my mother’s vanity by offering her a lavish compliment, just to see her reaction. My motive wasn’t flattery; it was a psychological experiment.
I tapped my mother on the shoulder.
“Victor dear, can’t you see I’m talking to this nice gentlemen.”
“But mom, I need to tell you something.”
“Yes, yes, what is it?”
“I just wanted to say that…you look just like Marilyn Monroe.”
The response was pretty much what I expected. She clapped her hands in appreciation and snuggled her darling son into her arms. “Did you hear that?” she demanded of her guests. The room fell to a hushed silence. “What is it, Terry?” asked a guest. “My boy said I look like Marilyn Monroe. That’s my boy! Oh, he knows a good-looking broad when he sees one!” And then my mom let out an exuberant laugh. After a few more brandy-laced eggnogs, my mother became more of an embarrassment. She made damn well made sure to tell new arrivals at the party what her son had said about her looking like Marilyn Monroe. It was a compliment warmly recalled by her for years to come. I had always regretted this casual flattery.
My mother was bad enough, but I loathed my mother’s younger sister, Joan, with a greater intensity. There she was off in a darken corner of the room with drink in hand, her cigarette clutched between two fingers, ash dropping on the carpeted floor, struggling to meet her end of the conversation with the other guests, communicating nothing of interest, her captive audience tried to find a polite excuse to escape. Joan irritated people with her authoritarian commentary about religion and astronomy. She was never short of offering up an insipid platitude or bromide on either subject. With her pink lipstick and pine needled mascara, she was a middle-aged hippie in the Post-Acquires Age offering “love” and “God” as the panacea for all human woes. Her make-up and clothing gave the impression that she was from Height Asbury circa 1968. Like the other adults, she was a caricature.
Joan, being a first class flake, had a penchant for summing people up by their astrological signs: “What sign are you, sweet? What? A Virgo? Oh, that won’t do, we’ll never get along!” Or: “What’s that? Oh, you’re a Sagittarius? You’re one of those, huh? My ex-husband was a Sagittarius.” All of this was followed up by a lecture in metaphysics and cosmology. Being an astute young man, I had identified the glaring omissions, the non-sequiturs and contradictions in Joan’s abstract dissertations. I took the task to challenge her lunar assertions by simply asking: “How do you know that?”
“How?” and “How do you know that?” were the two foremost questions on the tip of my lips whenever I heard a statement I suspected as bogus. My questions were usually ignored, resented, laughed at, but I was undaunted when it came to Joan’s unfounded assertions. “How do you know that, Aunt Joan?” this tenacious young man persisted. She laughed and patted me on the head and turned on her heels to flee into a pocket of people.
In a manner as persistent as a drill cutting through stone, I didn’t give up my demand for reasons. Joan finally lost her temper, pushed too far by my challenges. “Oh, don’t be so childish!” she yelled, waving her hand in dismissal. “Why can’t you just accept some things without asking a lot of stupid questions?” Joan turned to her indifferent sister with a pleading mask. “Terry, seriously, why does he do that? He should learn some respect. Too many questions ruin things. Why does he do that?”
It was my grandfather, Vic, who turned to Joan, and answered. “For Christ’s sakes, he knows a fake when he sees one. It’s obvious that you don’t know what you’re talking about.” I beamed at my grandfather. The old man became my hero that very moment.
I have always respected my grandfather. Vic was an autonomous man who wasn’t caught up in the obsession with conventionality and the hybrid hub about tradition, religion, appearances and status. He was a benevolent and rational man—a sharp contrast to the community standard. These traits appealed to his independent and strong-willed grandson.
Vic was highly support of me. It was my grandfather who always encouraged me in my raw drawing abilities and who supplied me with drawing materials. “You have a real talent there, my boy. It would be a shame if that went to waste.” Inspired, I practiced everyday.
Joan’s hatred for me, her nephew, reached a peak point when my drawing abilities improved. I was now seventeen and my talent had improved dramatically over the years.
To her shock, Joan now discovered that “the brat” had rendered her in caricature.
The drawing made her look supremely ridiculous: her head was lodged in outer space with stars surrounding her dopey looking head. Watching Joan’s reaction was priceless. I felt that the sheer ridiculousness of the drawing was enough to modify the flakey behavior so clearly evident but nothing had changed. Joan continued to postulate about the supernatural at subsequent family gatherings, almost as if to defy my caricature.
Her husband, Kevin Weber, felt obliged to pipe in his own two-cents. He demanded to bring the issues “down to earth” and attempted to purge his wife’s discussions of all that “philosophical mumbo-jumbo.” He typically assumed to pose as the authority on all the current issues and he frequently quoted canned bromides from newspapers as if they were his original thoughts. He was just as much of a pontificating windbag as his space cadet wife.
Kevin Weber was the town’s slickly-dressed, fast-talking used car salesman. He was usually decked out in a shiny gray suit. He was a small town used car salesman caricature—replete with all the clues: from the tip of his shiny black cowboy boots to the tip of his glorious mullet haircut.
Of course, Kevin Weber was my next target.
At the next family gathering, I presented a drawing to him. “Here,” I said casually, “take a gander, man.” The drawing in hand, Weber’s eyes looked as though they were about to fracture. I depicted him in caricature, his inflated head that of a hot air balloon, his body a weaved-basket. It seemed as if time became suspended and all motioned had stopped. “Well?” I said, impatient for a response.
Looking up from the drawing with heavy hooded eyes, Kevin’s face reflected a thinly veiled anger that looked like a prelude to a man about to commit murder. He leaned into me and in a hushed voice snarled, “You know, you come across like a smart kid…but you ain’t any better than anybody else. So don’t you forget that, kiddo. Okay?” I moved forward, looking Kevin Weber straight in the eye. “You don’t expect me to take you seriously while you sport that fucking mullet, do you?”
Around this time, I fell into a little band of local misfits: The McConnell brothers—respectfully Blake, Blaire, and Barry. They were an extended family of all brothers that also included Bill, Brian, Bruce, and Brent. The grand total in the McConnell family was seven boys. I was astonished to behold such a large family. Amused, I took note of the fact that each brother’s name began with the letter B. “The next letter in the alphabet is C,” I quipped to Barry’s parents. They looked at me as if he had a third eye.
Mr. and Mrs. McConnell didn’t know what to make of me. They feared me because of my weird-ass art, and because I had taken to riding a motorcycle. But I responded with a further joke: “Have you heard of birth control?” Of course my tongue was firmly planted in my cheek, but Mr. and Mrs. McConnell were deeply offended as they were stringent Catholics. Barry thought the whole thing was utterly hilarious.
Of all the McConnell brothers, I was stirred by Barry’s insanely inspired comedy. It was Barry who left me awestruck. One time, I had a seltzer bottle at hand and was stricken with a wicked whim and squirted Barry in the face. As if on cue, Barry immediately dropped to the floor clapping his hands together yelping like a seal! It was uproarious. I was astonished at Barry’s spontaneous zaniness and his impressive take of a seal to boot. Barry McConnell was hilarious and I took to him immediately.
The new gang proved to be certifiable lunatics looking for trouble and fun, but it was Barry and me who were not to be outmatched. “You guys are crazy,” said Blake, the youngest of the McConnell clan. During the summer holidays the McConnell brothers and I hung around store fronts like the Bowery gang sipping cokes and snacking on Cracker Jacks. There we were, young louts hanging around on the streets arrogantly popping gum, our running shoe laces carelessly tied and jeans tattered. As a group of restless teens, we all agreed that life is all far too dull, far too uptight a world for unruly punks inclined to have fun and disrupt the social order.
A test of true friendship was measured by letting a guy take a swig from your bottle without wiping it off afterwards.
“Hey, don’t hog it all, Pross!” Barry complained after entrusting me with his Coke. I gulped the drink and Barry snatched it from my hand downing the rest.
“Hey, I’ll let you have a sip from mine one day, McConnell,” I complained, wiping my mouth off. “Don’t flip out.”
Addressing a guy by his last name meant you respect him; it was a form of male bonding to call him as was by his sir name—as it was to insult him. Slighting a friend was merely a way of masking the esteem you felt.
“Hey, Pross, you nigger lipped my Coke, shit head.”
“Eat my shorts, McConnell.”
“Eat my mother, tool.”
“I will. I had to take a number.”
We attended the same church. I was enormously inspired by the solemn atmosphere of the services, insofar as it served as a foil for his devilishness. But it wasn’t just that: I was also truly perplexed by the referential attitude that this primitive superstition elicited. It was this fascination with an irrational phenomenon that kept me enthralled during the actual services. The McConnell brothers, especially Barry, simply hated the whole process. A religion that supposedly exalted love and joy was, in practice, a set of dreary duties and a source of agonized idiocy. A religion that was supposed to be a mighty hymn to salvation was actually a dirge.
Seeking relief from boredom, Barry and I would laugh ourselves silly during the actual services. What he found hilarious was the rigid solemnity of the rituals and the vacant expressions from people who looked as if they had just been chloroformed. Other congregation members looked as if they wished they were somewhere else and were called upon only by duty.
Finally, Barry’s restless nature came to full force. Born with an uncanny ability for mimicry, Barry gave way to imitating the minister’s speaking manner with an eerie accuracy that was both amazing and hilarious. He could make me laugh with a simple comical remark, a subtle infliction in the voice or facial expression. My laugher would inspire Barry to indulge further in his antics. Shortly, I would try to match Barry’s comic skills with my own brand of humor: funny pictorials of the congregation and the minister. In one of my drawings, the congregation resembled a flock of sheep and the minister was decked out in cherry lingerie. This, in turn, would get both of us laughing. Of course, the rest of the gang collapsed in repressed hysterics causing the blackest of gazes from the congregation.
Barry was not to be bested by me in the contest of being a holy disruption. On one occasion, when the preacher was delivering a particularly impassioned brim-stone-and-fire sermon, Barry suddenly rose from his seat and addressed the pew, his facial expression a deadly sober plate: “Please, everybody—don’t drink the Kool-aid!”
We were never allowed admittance to that church again.
My friendship with Barry came to resemble that of the Siamese twins. We would skip school to see movies, slipping in the backdoor. Sometimes we were guilty of more serious offenses against the social order. This included trespassing to vandalism and shoplifting. There was one occasion when we were brought home in a police car to the gapping stares of the neighbors. But our penchant for trouble remained undaunted.
Barry now exhibited a definite gift for humor as he seemed to have an endless supply of one-liners. The sick joke was a plague of the town, and Barry was a major carrier. Sick jokes were everywhere, a non-fatal disease you picked up from drugs stores and pool halls. Barry had honed an uncanny ability to delivering a joke. He executed, with perfect timing, along with an astute ability for characterization, side-splitting jokes and impressions.
You never knew what to expect from Barry. He would stroll up to his friends and, with a malicious grin on his face, lay on an impression, a one-liner, or some sick little gem: “These kids go to Billy’s home,” Barry chirped, “and they ask Billy’s mom, ‘Can Billy come out and play baseball?’ And the mom looks at the kids in a weird way. ‘Why, you know he has no arms and legs.’ And the kid says, ‘That’s okay, we just wanna use him as home plate.’ And with the delivery of this sick little punch line, it convulsed us with laughter.
Drawing, as always, helped me during a traumatic period known as adolescence. My art served as both an escape and rebuke. My teenage years were a period of the “angry rebel” and my attempt to be an authentic person in a bogus culture of trivial pursuits. I lived hermetically sealed within my mind, incased in my own unique and alternate universe of arcane interests from that of the community. I would be known to roar up and down a neighborhood street late at night on my motorcycle disrupting the peace and quiet.
I became an exceptionally cocky young man who demonstrated precious little respect for my elders and invariably said what I thought. I shocked others with a bold braggadocio and a devastating sarcasm. I had a tendency to voice my true thoughts about religion and politics with relatives and visitors. I enjoyed engaging anyone in inflammatory subjects and I felt justified in going for the jugular in the heat of debate.
Joan became a more constant presence at the Pross home. She continued to get under my skin, and my outspoken manner remained a thorn in Joan’s side.
“Why can’t you just be like everyone else?” Joan admonished me.
“Why can’t you just be anyone else other than who you are now?” I retorted.
At school, my incurable levity and insolence earned me a few fist fights. And by now my raw talent for drawing was employed to wreck havoc. My caricatures took a sharper turn in depicting various teachers, who attempted to put me in his place, in humiliating sexual positions. With each rendering, my drawing ability improved. The drawings served, as always, as an emotional release. It taught me to laugh at the ridiculous and not to be overwhelmed by a feeling of incomprehension in the face of idiocy. Art was a form of therapy. It was also a spiritual odyssey.
I had learned to appreciate the art of caricature. I appreciated it more so now than ever before. I enjoyed the spectacle of observing the reaction of anyone I nailed in a drawing. When people observed a grotesque drawing I had rendered of them in spot-on accuracy, they would dissolve in self-consciousness. This had a clammy, clinical kid of fascination to me. Though one can be disconcerted at witnessing an open incision, I got some amazing glimpses of my subject’s insides. What came out of it was a deeply ingrained self-doubt.
I knew at that moment that my art had the power to reach people.
Happily, not everyone responded with agitation to the drawings of this teen age caricaturist. Sam Ferguson, the owner of the dinner I frequented at the time, was blessed with a robust since of humor. Observing one of my renderings, he laughed with his whole body. His heavy-set frame would shake like a bowl of Jell-O resting on the clothes dryer in final spin. “You’re a crazy son of bitch!” Gus howled. “How do you think of this stuff?” In one drawing, I had Gus lurched over a hot stove stirring the day’s soup special as beads of sweat drip into the pot. In the background, one can see an unsuspecting customer slurping the broth of the day, bellowing, ‘Gus, I love the extra flavor you added!’ The drawing was framed and hung up in Gus’s office.
I realized that I could temper my art with light-hearted humor, the gentle good wit that my grandfather imparted to me—along side the acerbic wit characteristic of Barry McConnell. It was a dire wit that the outside world inspired in me, too.
It was here that this caricaturing punk learned that caricature has both a dark and light face to it. I also learned that the caricatures I drew, and the people who inspired them, were not confined to the community were I was raised. It circled the globe. It was the wider culture that my focus turned. My next targets were the Icons and Idols that the world enshrined.
Edited by Victor Pross, 25 February 2007 - 03:57 AM.