What Matters: Inside the Brilliant Mind of Artist Kenneth FitzGerald

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Debbie Millman has started a new project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an ongoing effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer 10 identical questions, and submit a nonprofessional photograph.

First up: Kenneth FitzGerald, an educator, designer, artist, writer and curator living in Chesapeake, VA. He occupies the virtual space Ephemeral States.

What is the thing you like doing most in the world?

Anything if it’s with my wife, Ellen. To be more specific for these days, it’s us travelling to new places.

What is the first memory you have of being creative?

When I was in third grade, I resolved to win an award in my school’s next Art Fair.

I attended St. Joseph’s, a small Catholic grammar school in a small Massachusetts town. The Art Fair competition, in terms of numbers, wasn’t much, only tens of my peers. It also wasn’t fierce. Most of the other kids were far less interested in or attentive to creative pursuits. But there was a measure of accomplishment involved. The nuns—using their own particular measure—were making decisions based on merit, not equally sharing out the gratification.

The resolution was made in the wake of my younger (one year and seven days) sister receiving an award in that year’s fair. It wasn’t that I disparaged Karen or her winning entry—a portrait of flamingos composed in tempera paint, cotton balls and macaroni. However, my older (one year, eight months) brother Kevin had claimed a blue ribbon in the previous year’s exhibition. With two siblings being honored for their art, a reputation and expectation seemed to be in play. I drew, painted and crafted as much as they did. It was important that I establish my own talent.

I experienced typical sibling rivalry, likely exacerbated by the proximity in our ages and names. Two years behind my sister was another brother—Keith. I needed affirmation before he came along. This rivalry would extend into high school. Following right behind my older brother through the grades, I continually suffered the identification as “Kevin’s brother.” In it, I interpreted a diminution of my own identity, especially when it came to art, writing and musical tastes. It doubly burned because I was following his lead. We all were. And it certainly wasn’t coincidental that all four of us ‘K’ children (I had two more brothers whose names began with different letters) went on to (different) art schools.

But in this instance, I didn’t really consider myself in competition with my siblings, or my schoolmates. I was proving something to myself—that I could win an award if I wanted to.

Only by having the prize be a concern could I demonstrate that it didn’t matter to me. I was content doing my own thing. It was almost an inconvenience to be aware of the Art Fair and that recognition from others was possible—or desirable. (My mixed feelings about achievement and acknowledgment didn’t dissipate with time. In my senior year of high school, my artwork was selected for a statewide scholastic art fair to be held in Boston. When that event was cancelled due to the Great Blizzard of ’78, I was mostly relieved.)

As I walked through the St. Joseph’s classrooms where the art was displayed, I took special note of the prize-winning works. I examined them dispassionately, looking for commonalities. My own art wasn’t distinctly different in medium of choice—crayons—or in childhood subject matter. A drawing of mine I can still remember today featured a quarterback with arm cocked back to throw a pass during a football game. Though I was a pro football fan, the artwork wasn’t meant as strict documentary. I was loyal to my local team (the then Boston Patriots) but portrayed the Green Bay Packers in action. Their vivid yellow and forest green uniforms were more satisfying to represent. And the team’s stylized ‘G,’ within an oval, enchanted my graphic imagination.

In retrospect, my interest in these aspects seems a precursor to a future in graphic design. That I eventually entered the discipline’s orbit suggests a proof. However, I regard it more as simply reflecting my media environment. It wasn’t until early in college that I’d travel to Boston and, for the first time, visit an art museum. Abandoning the crayons, I’d soon take to a new graphic obsession: replicating in colored pencils the map of Massachusetts found in the World Book encyclopedia. It was the particular, peculiar graphic elements of maps that attracted me—I wasn’t engaged or interested in cartography per se. Eventually, this activity was subsumed in my consciousness to re-emerge in my 20s when I initiated a portrait series that employed the flat colors, patterns and structure of atlases.

My scrutiny of the Art Fair prizewinners yielded actionable information. Subject matter appeared to be the key. The majority of awardees featured either: 1) crowds of people, or 2) religious themes. The popularity of the latter characteristic was obvious, while the former was a matter of brief speculation on my part. All I could presume was that—as I could testify—drawing people was hard. Drawing lots of them demanded special effort. Uncomfortable with the subjectivity required in judging art, perhaps the nuns were seizing on this as an objective determinant of superiority.

For the next year, I set myself to the task of fashioning artworks to this calculated brief. And when the next Art Fair was held, I claimed a first-prize ribbon.

Today, I have no memory of my winning work. That I might have at least created a Sermon on the Mount scene as an entrant—to cover my bases—strikes me as an adult confabulation. Too good a story. But it sounds a truer note that I fail to recall my first art honor because the piece didn’t mean anything to me. It was a means to an end.

What I swear is an accurate recollection is what I first thought to myself as I stood before my be-ribboned artwork. It stuck because it was the earliest expression of my ambivalent attitude toward public affirmation. I’m always surprised that I declared it so young: Now I can get on with my own work.

What is your biggest regret?

Not getting Ellen an engagement ring. I wasn’t as dedicated to details as I should have been. The circumstances of our engagement weren’t the usual proposal but didn’t preclude me following up with tradition.

How have you gotten over heartbreak?

In the broad sense, I just kept busy. Being creative—writing, making art—has been my primary voluntary activity since high school. In my times of heartache, it wasn’t so much an intentional thing to address the grief as nothing else could compete with what I was feeling. Like it or not, this was going to be the subject. The lesson of art school was that I was facile and capable of making convincing art objects. The revelation was that
what motivated me and best connected with people were the things I made without thought of “making art”; they were gifts for family, friends and loves, made to please them. They were expressions of love. Dealing with the other side of emotion was something else. But the resulting works fit readily into my oeuvre. You had to be aware of what was going on with me personally to know what prompted them. Maybe the process of converting my feelings into something meaningful for someone else helped me to cope. It could have just been coincidental. Another aspect of making this work was an enhanced desire to exhibit it—and have the heartbreaker see it. Each did gain prominent public showings but it’s likely only one (the documentation of my coming out the loser in a tawdry art school love triangle) was witnessed by the instigator. I can’t say what I wanted them to think, if anything. They definitely weren’t pleas to go back. They were reliquaries and documentations of where I was now. Making my heartbreak public, even if unknown to the viewer, was daunting. But I’ve always felt the things I was most doubtful of showing were what I had to put out there. It meant that I had made something real and true to me.

What makes you cry?

Playing any of these songs has done it, and often just thinking of them:

  • “Walk Away Renee,” The Left Banke
  • “Angel of the Morning,” Merrilee Rush and the Turnabouts
  • “Beer and Kisses,” Amy Rigby
  • “Misguided Angel,” Cowboy Junkies
  • “If I Needed You,” performed by Lyle Lovett (a much-covered Townes Van Zandt song)
  • “No Telling,” Linda Thompson
  • “Bogie’s Bonnie Belle,” and “Saving the Good Stuff for You,” Richard Thompson
  • “A Heart Needs a Home,” Richard & Linda Thompson
  • “(Talk to Me of) Mendocino,” and “Leave Me Be,” Kate & Anna McGarrigle
  • “Miracle,” Heidi Berry
  • “At the Beginning of Time,” Jane Siberry

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

It depends on what the accomplishment is. In terms of creating something, it depends on how much time and effort went into something. The more involved, the longer an aura will last. However, we’re still talking in terms of days. I quickly fixate on what comes next. I’m very much a “What have you done for anyone (and yourself) lately?” kind of person.

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?

See Iris DeMent, “Let the Mystery Be.”

What do you hate most about yourself?

Obsessive, catastrophizing thinking.

What do you love most about yourself?

I will go the physical, vanity route here and say my blue eyes.

What is your absolute favorite meal?

A Thai dinner, with (at least) fresh spring rolls, satay, and tofu pad Thai.