The Bearded Life - What we talk about when we talk about art


Kevin Krein

The other day I was thinking about my junior high art teacher.

I can’t remember her first name; Ms. Nemec was what we called her. She was from Chicago—a curvy twenty-something hippie with stringy black hair, probably fresh out of college with wet ink still on her teaching certificate. The first day of class, she told us she had gone to Woodstock ’94 was one of the ‘mud people.’

She got choked up when she talked about going to final Grateful Dead shows in the summer of ’95 before Jerry Garcia died.

She played They Might Be Giants’ Flood for us in class and told me that art shouldn’t have to match the couch in your living room.

She lasted about three years before she was replaced with another art teacher—someone who was unconfident and spacey and was probably better off working with grade school children rather than shitty high school sophomores. She lasted a year, and was then replaced with another art teacher, who was flamboyant and condescending, who was then replaced by another art teacher who was incredibly rigid and discerning.

And by then, I was graduating from high school, moving on to other things. Save for the doodles I put in the margin of legal pads during boring staff meetings at a former place of employment, I haven’t seriously drawn or painted or sculpted since.

But as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be an artist.

I don’t recall a specific moment when the desire began; it just seems to always be there when I think back through my early childhood. Eventually my interest in drawing converged with my love of reading comic books, and for a number of years, I was convinced that I wanted to be a comic book artist. I spent my free time drawing muscle-bound super heroes; then, later, in seventh grade, creating a stick figure character with an enormous head.

I named him “Buggy.” Sometimes I put him in clothing—a band t-shirt, baggy jeans, and a chain wallet. Sometimes he rode a skateboard; sometimes he played guitar in a punk rock band; sometimes he brandished a giant weapon.

Why? You’d have to ask the twelve-year-old version of me to make sense of that.

Ron Rugland was the art teacher during my junior year in high school, and in his raspy, near Harvey Firestein-esq voice, his words still haunt me. I can hear him criticizing the heavy, multiple lines I used when sketching. He asked me why I drew that way, and I told him it was “my style.”

“You’re too young to have a style,” he responded.

I was under the impression teachers were supposed to encourage students in their formative years, but that comment was enough to make me second-guess, and abandon, my interests.

Not everybody would agree with that, though—that teachers, or at least art teachers, are there to encourage students.

My friend Andi Gaffke is an artist. She has been her entire life; through childhood (one of her earliest memories is of being four years old, painting with her mother, and being aware of wanting to be as good as, if not better, than her), high school, college, and now as an adult. She recently wrapped up a gallery exhibit in Owatonna of recently created mixed media pieces.

“In high school my art was supported and encouraged by English and journalism teachers,” she told me. She said it wasn’t until college where she found art instructors that provided any kind of inspiration.

I was friends with a lot of art majors in college. And even as I would sit around and watch them work on their pieces in the upperclassman studio, I never once considered enrolling in some kind of rudimentary drawing or painting class as an elective. The desire for that kind of creative expression had just left me completely.

When I see my wife’s old art supplies in our basement (she actually did take art classes in college as part of her Interdisciplinary Fine Arts emphasis) or when I peruse the work hanging in an art gallery, my mind does wander to that place where I think about what might have happened had I stuck with it. What if I hadn’t given up? What if my interests hadn’t changed? What if, instead of a laptop filled with Microsoft Word documents, I had sketchbooks and canvases?

“A couple of years ago I took a seminar on learning styles,” my friend Andi told me. Her results were 95% visual, 5% kinesthetic, and 0% auditory.

“My conclusion from these results,” she continued, “was that if anyone criticized me along the way, odds are I didn’t listen, because I was too busy in my own visual existence. Art has always been an aspect of my life that I own with confidence.”

What if I hadn’t, at such an impressionable age, listened to Mr. Rugland’s remark on my “drawing style?”

Writing for the ‘Visual Arts’ issue of this magazine has always been a challenge for me and perhaps it has something to do with my past relationship to the subject. Last year, I opted not to write on the subject at all, instead, dedicating this space to recalling the horrors of being an extra on the set of a made-for-television holiday romantic comedy. Truthfully I think I peaked on the subject the first time around I tackled it in 2014 when I wrote about what I have lovingly dubbed “The Butt Painting”—an enormous canvas that hangs on my dining room wall.

In 2015, I used my column to defend art—not visual art per se, but writing as an art form, from criticism I had received from a reader that had missed the mark on a previous piece.

What if, as an overweight sixteen year old that listened to Limp Bizkit, had I boasted the same confidence in my artwork that my friend has always had, or that I have now for these words that you have just read?


Kevin Krein has been writing “The Bearded Life” since 2013. He operates the award winning music blog Anhedonic Headphones and occasionally contributes to the websites Bearded Gentlemen Music and Spectrum Culture. He is a cool rabbit dad and his presence on Twitter is both confident, and an art form of its own: @KevEFly.