My Road to Creativity, 11: Back to Reality

I spent the first part of that summer assembling a portfolio, one much more professional than what I had when I decided to apply to grad school. Then I started a job search as a designer. The Iowa economy was slow and jobs were non-existent. I had friends in Los Angeles and went out there looking for work. I received a lot of encouragement but I heard the same story as I heard back in Iowa, I needed experience, maybe I should free lance. I had not a clue how to find free lance clients, nor did I want to. It was discouraging. Secretly, I assumed most people I talked to were wondering what a guy my age was doing just starting out in, what I already knew, was a young person’s field.

It was early fall when I interviewed with an advertising agency in Des Moines. They were interested in me and wanted to hire me as a production coordinator to oversee their free lancers and the production of materials. It was a far cry from what I thought I was capable of and wanted. Pay wasn’t great, but I would at the very least be able to get some experience, learning more about the printing process and meeting other designers. I needed income, no matter what and this was in a design related field. I accepted their offer.

I managed to find the work interesting. I got involved in the Des Moines design scene, met other designers, and made good contacts with printers and other associated sub-contractors. In many ways, it was like the construction business. 

Several of the young free lancers in the agency’s stable were two year graduates of a local junior college. They had good concepts to design problems, but their design wasn’t necessarily very good and I found myself guiding them to be better. They were usually accepting and grateful, respecting my education and age. In some cases I felt like their father, but all the same, envying their youthful creative freedom.

After a while I was given some actual design projects. I was again cowed by actually having to produce actual creative work. I had a huge design vocabulary, but was unsure how to, or afraid, to use it. I was beginning to think that my job as a production coordinator would be the best I would be able to manage.

That summer, I got  a divorce. With my design obsession and being absent for most of the time the last few years, we decided to move on. One of the biggest regrets was being absent from my children and missing so much of their life. It was a big penalty I paid and it sucked.

The first week in September in 1983, I got a call from the new chairman of Art and Design at Iowa State asking me to teach there for a year as a temporary assistant professor of graphic design, filling a position for a faculty member who had to take emergency medical leave. I was offered twice the salary I was presently making. I jumped at the chance to add to a teaching resume which was something I truly loved more and more, finding I could guide the young designers I was mentoring. I started at Iowa State a week later.

My Road to Creativity, 10: Thesis & Graduation


I continued on, but in May of 1981, my mother died. This shook me to the core and I missed the end of the quarter and spent early summer settling my parents affairs and trying to avoid the depression and fear that was lurking all too close in my psyche. 

I did manage to do an independent study that summer. It helped me take my mind off everything else that was going on. My woman graduate student colleague left the program to continue her studies at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Basil, Switzerland, one of the most prestigious design school in the world with one of the leading designers and teachers, Wolfgang Weingart. I was envious.

Fall came and I was back at the University full time with a teaching schedule, now teaching beginning typographic design. I was given the syllabus so that took away some responsibility and work. I liked typographic design as I wasn’t much of an image maker. Structurally, I could integrate type and image on a page, but my work was stiff and very formal, lacking the dynamic elegance I wanted, but really didn’t understand how to achieve it. The great designer’s work I admired for that ‘dynamic elegance’, I could not manage.

I was due to graduate spring the next year and needed to decide on a thesis project. My major professor had a call from the Iowa State Fair Board for help to redesign their fabric exhibit hall and he thought it would be something that I could do as the project. I was familiar with spatial design from my construction background and, not having any better ideas myself, I took it on. 

It was fun. I photographed and measured the space dimensions. I was back in my element of construction drawings. I researched anything and everything I could find about exhibit design: how people wander through space, how they see space, how to create flow to guide people in a subtle way through a given space. My project was my coursework and I spent every available minute other than my teaching load. There was a structure to it and I relished in having that. I was able to apply my new design criteria and vocabulary together.

 I worked with an architecture professor on my graduate committee about model building. I had my plans, built my model, photographed in with a closeup lens with scaled cutouts of people. It turned out more realistic than I could have imagined. 

Then there was the written part which I dreaded but forged on through. I did not type so it was all hand written. I hired a wonderful secretary in the Art and Design office to type out the transcript. The next hurdle was presenting this to the Fair Board and then to my graduate committee.

I did the Fair Board presentation and they loved it. Their only problem was budget which had nothing to do with me. I went to the Iowa State Fair two years later and saw that they had actually incorporated as much as they probably could afford. It was great to see people moving through a space I had designed. I felt proud. 

The Graduate Committee meeting was set. As protocol, I brought treats, what, I cannot remember. There  were five members on my committee, including representives from Graphic Design, Interior Design, Architecture, along with the Chairman of the Department of Art and Design. It was like entering the lions den, the gates of Hades, the ocean of Jaws. I had a slide show, drawings and all my backup research materials as well as my newly gained knowledge. I was unanimously passed. I graduated spring, 1982. I was forty-one years old. 

My Road to Creativity, 7: Back to Construction

Loomis Brothers General Contractors was a large commercial firm with a number of returning clients plus competative bidding on other projects in Cedar Rapids and surrounding towns. My job was as Construction Engineer which required me to do estimating, soliciting sub-contractor bids, managing the budget and logistics of the work as well as scheduling and on site management was a steep learning curve and was stressful. 

Along with my new jobe being stressful, my father passed away the first year after I had started this new job. That didn’t help at all.

That aside, the work was interesting and demanding. I had a good mentor who showed me the ropes and soon I was on my own, estimating and managing a number of cost plus client jobs, Then I bid on and won my first contract. I was on top of the world, accepting all the pats on the back I could get.

I continued on with night school, receiving my associate degree from the community college, then enrolling at Mount Mercy College since they also had a full array of night classes.

I was fooling around with photography in the early 1970s and discovered Edward Weston’s Daybook, a journal of some of his work, which inspired me to begin to journal myself, hoping that it might inspire my creativity. 

My mind continued to expand especially after taking two required philosophy courses. After the second one, I really began to question my life, religion, everything, wondering if this was all there would ever be.

I majored in art, which I was good at. But, while I mastered much of the ability to draw and some of the technical aspects, I struggled to create anything original or, what one might say, creative. I could copy and do good work with the guidance of my teachers, but not create anything original on my own. I was envious of my fellow students and their ability to come up with new and interesting subject matter, while mine was dull and boring. I loved art, but it was killing me inside. I graduated in May of 1977.

That summer, I built a house in the country, some ten miles outside of Cedar Rapids. When I say I built it myself, I am not lying. Albeit, I did hire some of my carpenter crew to help me on Saturdays, especially with some of the heavier work. I hired contractors for specialty work such as dry wall, electrical and plumbing. I had good access to tools I needed from the construction company and  got some rock bottom prices from my subs. We moved in October that year.

I discovered “Be Here Now, Remember” by Ram Dass in the one small book store in Cedar Rapids which I frequented often. The content blew me away and I read it several times. It turned me on to meditation and I signed up for a Transcendental Meditation course that was popular at the time. So I was then meditating twenty minutes morning and evening. That and journaling would change the course of my life, but not for some years down the road.

I was going to the public library and devoured everything they had on Buddhism and Hinduism as well as several other esoteric ‘isms. I started realizing how confining my catholic faith was, relying on fear and guilt to keep the flock in check. I liked that eastern religions, especially Buddhism, were based more on love and compassion and personal responsibility rather than shame and fear. 

Somewhere in all this I found time to read Hunter Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “Hells Angels” and Kerouac’s “On the Road”, “Dharma Bums”, and “The Subterraneans”. I discovered the beautiful poetry of Gary Snyder. 

I felt I was riding a knife edge between the rigidness of being a construction engineer and the freedom of these writers and their stories. I continued journaling which was now being interspersed with my poetic ramblings and my longings for something else.

I had started running back when we lived in the city, mainly going out in the evenings for a short run and more extended runs on Saturdays. After we moved to the country, I started getting up early in the mornings to get in a few miles, but on weekends, I was doing ten plus miles a day. Running made me feel free, like I was in charge of my life for a while, something I didn’t feel otherwise. It helped with the stress and kept me somewhat sane.

There were no close friends or anyone I could really talk with about philosophy and art which is all I ever wanted to talk about I woulod either bore everyone or was over their head. I became pretty much a loner, relishing my meditation time and my runs, especially long ones, when I could be alone with myself and my inner-self. I kept gravitating towards art, reading, frequenting art and crafts shows where I felt a deep envy towards those artists that were really somehow doing it.

I was making good money, but the stress was catching up with me. I was increasingly unhappy with the life I was living, constantly feeling the pressure from work, managing sometimes multi-million dollar construction projects. The required attention to detail was overwhelming sometimes. I wasn’t sleeping. I was dealing with ulcers. The only way I seemingly was able to escape was through self-medicating with alcohol. I wrongly thought that moving to the country would help. It didn’t.

All I wanted to do was paint, to do art, to create, but what little creative energy I had was gone with the long days of juggling money, schedules, job-site personnel, sub-contractors, estimating  . . . numbers, numbers, numbers . . . and maintining sanity.

Sometime, maybe in 1979, I took a three night workshop in graphic design which I thought might be a way to move out of my stressful work environment. While my art degree laid somewhat of a foundation, I found out was that I needed further education in design in order to become a graphic designer, but my appetite was whetted.

In researching design programs, I saw Iowa State had one. I also decided that since I already had a bachelors degree, I would apply for graduate school. I was required to present a portfolio of my work, so I put together a crude poorly presented portfolio of some of my undergraduate work. I had no idea about good portfolio presentation and, in retrospect, my presentation was horrible. I would only be admitted to graduate school after taking some entry-level design classes for two quarters. I would then would have reapply and go in front of the graduate committee to be reviewed for admittance. 

I went on an Outward Bound Course out of Leadville, Colorado in January of 1980. Spending time cross country skiing and camping in 10 feet of snow somewhere 11,000 feet with twelve other souls gave me the where-with-all and strength to pursue this mad adventure at the old age of 39 years old. 

This was a huge gamble for me who liked everything to be predictable and knowing what the future might hold. I resigned from the construction job and left for Ames the end of August

My Road to Creativity, 8: The Basics

I realize I messed up and almost skipped this particular excerpt so I’m squeezing it in.

Not knowing how all this would eventually shake out, and rather than uproot my kids from school and their life, my family did not join me. So a small bedroom in a three bedroom house with two other graduate students would be my new part-time residence. A single bed. A desk. A book shelf. A meditation cushion. This would be my life for the next two years while I worked towards my masters degree in Graphic Design. 

Both scared and excited, I was signed up for three studio classes that fall quarter by my advisor who thought I should just do an undergraduate degree. I demurred and pursued my goal, hoping that I would get admission in the spring.

I walked into that first studio that first morning wondering what the hell I was doing in a group of eighteen and nineteen year old kids. The instructor, who was probably younger than me, came in and gave me a look, like, ‘who the hell is this old guy?’ I felt like a fool. 

Thankfully there was a woman in her early thirties in the studio which helped temper my angst to a degree. We managed to connect and become design buddies as she too was feeling out of place.

My boss at the construction company held the door open for me to return if this adventure did not work, something I considered many times during the first month or so until I got my feet on the ground and found I loved doing design, albeit, very basic stuff. Baby steps.

I went back home every weekend until the rigorous studio work load started to pile up on me. I found that design school was cerebral as well as heavily based on doing a lot of time consuming design work. I was working on projects well into the night as it was and was needing time on the weekends to keep up. 

The younger students were light years ahead of me. I was struggling. Again, my struggle with creativity was hampering me and I seemed to have to work twice as hard, if not more, to keep up with them. While they had any number of good ideas for any given project, I had a hard time finding one. Unlike my art studies at Mount Mercy, my instructors didn’t help me other than giving me the basic knowledge of design. Other than that, it was up to me to create the needed graphic images that were needed, most of which were abstract creations that busted my brain. I constantly was blocking myself by overthinking everything. As soon as I did that, I ran into a wall. I didn’t trust myself or allow myself any freedom of my thinking. My inner critic was having a great time. I looked at what few design publications in the library. I looked at other design disciplines like architecture for inspiration, inspiration the kept eluding me. But I kept working, doing the best I could do.

There was typography, symbology, precision drawing with drafting pens, t-squares, triangles, cutting and pasting, interspersed with understanding how people see and interpret information. Then there was basic composition, how to arrange text and image on a page, information hierarchy. I especially liked the composition part, something I never got or understood from my art classes. And, back in the pre-computer era, there was how to prepare a piece for the printer, needing no small amount of understanding.

The first quarter was over. I managed to pull straight B’s. Not good enough. The next quarter was harder. This was it. I had to present my work to the graduate committee at the end of the quarter. I worked hard on my projects, harder that anything I had ever attempted before. It paid off. My work was better. 

Scared out of my wits and sweating, I went in front of the committee at the end of the quarter to present my work. They accepted me into the graduate program . . . I was accepted . . . I kept repeating that over and over, trying to actually believe it. I did it.

My Road to Creativity, 6: Back to the Real World

Reality of the real world settled in. Cedar Rapids was a fairly large city. Housing was scarce and expensive and we had to settle for a ground floor apartment in an old house with two tiny bedrooms and a shabby kitchen in an industrial part of the city. Many mornings I had to sweep soot off of the car windshield so I could drive to work. I had a wife and two kids. We didn’t know anyone. I was making almost the same money as in the Navy. We had lost many of the benefits such as low the low priced commissary for groceries and other essentials. We were literally living pay check to pay check.

I started work almost immediately and discovered that my job as a land surveyor would necessitate a lot of travel throughout the state. I hated being away from my family. But I liked the survey work. There was considerable research required through old land records in county courthouses to find property markers and other necessary information.  I got to work outside which was great in the summer, but standing still behind a surveying instrument in an Iowa winter, sometimes for hours at a time, I froze my ass off. 

With my two years service, I had G.I. bill money for college if I chose to. I enrolled in the new Kirkwood Community College at the south edge of the city and started night school. The newly establshed campus was a loose knit complex of temporary buildings with a loose knit group of teachers, many from The University of Iowa which was thirty-five miles south. Many were PhD candidates, others, had their terminal degree and were, for whatever reason, teaching a motley mix of part time students, some fresh out of high school, but many, like me, were older with young families.

I opted for putting together a general education program for an Associate of Arts degree. I had done some drawing in my four years after high school before Iowa State. I was impressed by the drawings of hot rods and the crazy monster cartoons by “Big Daddy Ed Roth” who I copied and emulated for my own work to impress my many motor head buddies back then. 

I took my first life drawing class from a long haired bearded hippie. When I was presented with drawing the first nude model, I was completely embarrassed, but as it went on, I found out I could draw and began to understand the human form. I engrossed myself in drawing books, especially da Vinci’s work. 

Then there was my first literature class where I discovered the poet Robert Frost and Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. My head was exploding with new ideas on really how to read something and grasp the subtleties of what the author was saying. I loved Frost and was inspired to write my first poetry. But I struggled with “what was the right way” to write or to draw. All the rigidity of my early education kept getting in the way. This was something I would struggle with for many years.

The government paid me well for attending college. Tuition was cheap. So for my two to three nights or Saturday, per week, I was making nice money like I had a part time job. But, while my neighbors and friends would be hanging out enjoying a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, I was in studying. It was the price I paid.

While I liked my work and the engineering firm I was with, I missed construction work. We became friends with the realtor who helped us find our rental house. One night over dinner out which we could hardly afford, I talked about looking for a job back in construction. His uncle knew a local contractor who was looking for someone, so I applied and was hired. I switched jobs with a nice increase in salary to boot.

In the meantime, our realtor had found a house he thought we could afford, we made an offer and became homeowners. My wife found a job in the school system as an elementary school teacher which she had done before we were married. We could finally afford a few fun things, nothing crazy, but money for an occasional movie or dinner out. And having learned to live on the cheap, I grew a small garden and learned to brew my own beer.