Tales from the Theme Park #5

December 26th, 2013 | Posted in Tales from the Theme Park

Technically this isn’t from a theme park experience but it’s close enough‚ and it’s got a Christmas connection.

Back when I was going to art school in St. Paul, MN, circa 1986-1989, I did caricatures at bars and nightclubs on evenings and weekends to make some extra money. For a few years during the Christmas season I set up a booth at an event called “A Victorian Christmas”. This took place on evenings, weekends, and full time between Christmas and New Years, at an upscale shopping center called Riverplace. Riverplace was located on the Mississippi overlooking downtown Minneapolis and its existence as a retail center is long since gone‚ it’s now a bunch of offices and empty spaces. The “Victorian Christmas” concept was like a “Renaissance Festival” sort of event… they had actors walking about as late 1800’s era Londoners, doing various skits, caroling, etc. They had a few recognizable characters from Dicken’s novels… I remember Scrooge, Fagin, Oliver and the Artful Dodger, among others. I don’t remember if they had other literary figures like Sherlock Holmes, or real historical figures like Queen Victoria… they should have had Jack the Ripper about, but I guess that’s not very Christmas-y, is it? It was a really odd event, but I did a lot of caricatures there.

Like I said at the time I was going to school for art at a place then called the School of Associated Arts, which was located entirely in an old mansion on Summit Ave. in St. Paul. My classes were split between illustration and design courses, where I learned actual, useful information and techniques I could use to make a living later in the art world, and pretentious “fine art” classes, where the goal was to be more pretentious than your classmates and suck up to the teacher. One of those latter classes required me to keep a sketchbook, and to draw in it every day. We got periodically critiqued on our sketchbooks, where we were instructed to “experiment and be bold and fearless”. I would diligently work in my sketchbook, doing studies of this and that and actually spending some time on some of these sketches. This earned me bad grades in the class, as I was apparently being “too predictable” drawing stuff like real life. The students getting praise were the ones who smeared oatmeal or some other crap on the pages and sprinkled it with sand, or some other equally useless practice. This frustrated me, so I abandoned the sketchbook entirely and spent my time on things better served, like my illustration class assignments. The problem was that I had to turn in a full sketchbook at the end of the semester, which was right before Christmas.

Time was beginning to run out on this sketchbook project, so I brought the sketchbook with me to Riverplace when I worked my caricature booth hoping to come up with something to fill it with. I knew I didn’t dare draw caricatures or anything cartoony in there… that would have gotten me an “F” for sure. I needed to come up with something that would be suitably weird and avant garde, but by then I had only one weekend left to do it.

My solution? I was doing these live caricatures in soft graphite line and airbrush color, just like I did at the theme parks. Instead of using a scrap piece of paper off to the side of my board to shape the graphite point and clear the colors from my airbrush each time I changed them, I put my sketchbook there and did those thing on the pages within. I’d do some scribbles to sharpen my pencil and then clear a couple of drawings worth of paint on a page, then flip it to the next page. After the weekend, it was full of colorful, spidery splashes of color and heavy, bold swishes of line throughout. I turned that sketchbook in to my fine arts class the next Monday.

I got an “A” on that sketchbook, which was filled with nothing but the waste paint and lead that were by-products of doing live caricature work in airbrush. I seem to remember my professor congratulating me on “expanding my horizons” and “abandoning convention”.

That art school, by the way, just closed up last spring. Can’t imagine why.


  1. Yup. I had similar experiences when I attended Ringling as well as my local community college when I had to take a fine art class. I lasted one week before I dropped the class entirely.

  2. Chris Grant says:

    Great story! I’ve had two people comment on my graphite/extra paint scrap paper. One was an older lady who mentioned how beautiful my “artwork” looked and asked if I realized how talented I was. Another was a cute little girl who liked the colors and asked if she could buy it. Her parents laughed. I thought it was cute so I signed it and gave it to her as a gift! She wanted to be an artist when she grew up so I thought it would be a nice memory for her. Or she just threw it away… I like the first thought better!

  3. Emily says:

    Great story!!! Same th?√Üng has happened to me re: airbrush overfill/color change scrap paper, with folks complimenting me on how pretty! or how interesting! it looks. (Whaaaaaaaat? Surely you can’t be serious. 😉

  4. Mike Wade says:

    That’s hilarious! I took a night school drawing class, and we were assigned to draw a pumpkin. I added bananas, apples, oranges and some nuts for a “real life” drawing. The teacher said, “You need to make it abstract. Anyone can make a realistic drawing.” I said, “You have a room full of people who can’t do that!” I didn’t take her next class.

  5. In another class in another country, “You need to make it more realistic – anyone can make an abstract drawing…”

  6. My first summer at VF I saved up all those scraps for the following semester. I had a very similar class and just knew the professor would eat that bs right up.

  7. Leo Kelly says:

    Tom–same experience here, I did caricatures on a riverboat…and was doing some technical illustration to get thru school…once one of my profs knew this…they always critiqued it as “too cartoony” or to “mechanical”…and yes, the kids who did weird abstract stuff got all the praise.

  8. Tom… This is an excellent story. It is so telling of the world of art in school. I feel like some of these classes like the one described, where created for people with no talent or lack of desire to develop any skill. That way the student can just throw a bunch of stuff together and everyone can go oooo.
    I’m always amazed when people accept so much glop as wonderful art.

  9. qq says:

    Great story. Do u think the internet led to the art school closing down? The internet makes lies look stupid.

    • Tom says:

      No. All art schools have that sort of thing to greater and lesser degrees. It closed because of bad management.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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