My Art Story by Frank Ettenberg
Like many artists, ones who started young, I drew very intently in grade school. They might have given us a special time to draw, especially when I was in 5th or 6th grade and I do remember getting totally absorbed in some of the pieces. My mom saved some of these drawings, one of which pictured a fire engine in a skyscrapered city, each bulding behind the hook-and-ladder having lots and lots of windows ( meticulously drawn squares ), the ladder attached to the firetruck seen from the side and had the rungs meticulously drawn in, freehand. And the thing was imagined in motion, driving to the fire, which had flames shooting up to the sky on the right of the picture. There were also some science fiction air battle scenes, with formations of 10-20 space ships, complete with bullet tracks, especially recreating tracer fire, from aerial war movies, and lots of detail included in a number of the craft. I drew the ships first and then, as I imagined the battle, I would make the firing noises and would graphically ‘damage’ or ‘destroy’ some of the ships while I re-created the battle. Other ships were intact. I made sure the explosions in the sky were red, as well as most of the tracer fire, and the bomb bursts- a mix of black and red pencil. By the time I was 11, I got hooked on the 48 -color boxes of Binney and Smith wax crayons and I let mom know that I NEEDED to have that size exclusively ( I was in 6th grade then )despite her complaints that they cost too much. By the time I got to high school, I started to draw with ink pens, or crowquill pens, using india ink and somehow got the idea of putting the wax crayons on the back of the pages, to add color to the drawing, while I held the drawing up over a light bulb. The heat of the bulb would melt the colored wax straight through the paper and mix with the drawn figures and I got a watercolor effect or re-created the look the color in comic book drawings. I selected white typing paper to use for these kinds of mixed media pieces. A favorite but exciting part of this process was seeing and smelling the melted wax get on the light bulb and most often I would run to get some water to sprinkle on the bulb to stop it from smoking and stinking up the whole house. The bulbs would start going dark and sometimes exploded a moment after. I was very lucky not to be blinded since I lived through at least 10 of the lightbulbs exploding. As I write about this, I realize that I still resort to destructive means to ‘juice up’ or excite me during my current work on paintings, especially when they start displeasing me. I find a way out of creative impasses by bursting out of them and that means –at times- ritually destroying what’s on there already and making warlike cannon or rifle noises -just like the 10-year old I was - while I do so.
I decided I wanted to be an artist ‘for good’ after I met an art teacher and artist who directed the studio art program at Shaker Village Work Group in Pittsfield, Mass. This was a progressive variant on summer camp, that was designed to give teen agers something more than they’d gotten at the usual 8-week summer vacation. Earl Jacobs, Jr or ‘Bud’ Jacobs and I got along famously and I heard later that he was a renowned high-school classical studies teacher out in Long Island. He painted on impressively large abstract oil paintings in the studio, that had dynamic, kinetic forms and appealing, limited color choices. He instructed us 12 to 14-year-olds to either set ourselves up drawing or sketching from nature or to try out doing what he was doing, non-objective work on paper or in three-dimensions. He included interesting art books in an improvised library showing color plates of modern art. I was totally turned on when I looked at Klee, Kandinsky, Turner, and Matisse for the first time. I did try out sketching nature scenes with oil pastels but nearly always turned them into abstractions. I was intimidated by having to imitate all the incredible detail and order that I saw ‘out there’. Consequently, Bud encouraged me to go for doing inventive and fantastic pictures. He always had pithy and funny things to saw about what I came up with. He took my work seriously and identified what kinds of process I was up to and into. Under his influence, I quickly got to experience how all this ‘made-up stuff’ could mean something. I was soon overjoyed by what I was doing too and Bud would excitedly point out that my ideas had lots to do with the modern art I’d been looking at. He was considerate to reassure me that I wasn’t plagiarizing. He admiringly said I almost instantaneously absorbed the visual concepts I noticed in the pictures I liked. This kind of critique made me quickly feel a kinship with the artists & language of modern art.
My joyous exposure to making art with Bud Jacobs led to my making the decision that I wanted to be an artist. I was 14 when that happened. Up to that moment, I’d never done anything or experienced anything that gave me so much pleasure and such psychic stimulation. I was completely engulfed by the profound joy of doing it. it completely won me over and I knew I was convinced above and beyond any of the (negative) practical considerations. Try as they might, my doubting parents could never talk me out of it or steer me back to that career in medicine I initially decided upon at age 10 (!)