10 years a LEFTY

After my stroke at the end of 2012, my focus for most of 2013 was on learning how to walk & talk again, and navigating the bureaucracy of disability benefits. By September, I was still very much a mess, but finally wrestled with an issue that had weighed heavily on me the entire time – whether I’d ever draw again. 

Janine Dawson had sent me a sketchbook while I was still in hospital, complete with pre-dated pages. I could not keep to her schedule though. Partly because I had so much physical therapy and became exhausted easily. Also, I was deeply afraid. My clumsy attempts to draw with either hand caused despair. So I focussed instead on the many other things I needed to do. There’d been hope that sensation & motor coordination might return to my right drawing hand eventually, but 9 months later it was still asleep (and in most respects, still is). I finally accepted that my trusty right hand was kaput, and wouldn’t draw again. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but only after that acceptance could I train the understudy to go on stage – My LEFT HAND. 

Self Caricature 2013
A self-caricature in my wheelchair, 2013.

I drew for its own sake, with absolutely no expectation of ever drawing professionally again. That filled me with sadness, but the idea that I might not draw at all was worse. Drawing was always part of my self-identity. So, Julia & I often drew together. I was painfully slow, but started to enjoy the random quality of my drawings done with my non-dominant hand. Never exactly sure what my LEFT hand would do, I drew in a spirit of exploration, like when I was a child. (I now believe that this open lack of expectations actually set me free). My mobility was even worse than it is now and we often drew paused images from TV, but went location sketching too, starting at the college campus near our apartment.

Julia had bought me two beautiful leather bound sketchbooks for Christmas 2012 (and I had a stroke the very next day). 2014 was when my drawing had progressed enough to start filling one of them with sketches. I went out sketching with her, or sketchmaster Matt Jones. Unsure of how to earn a living, I often considered what other job I might do.. Be a writer? A teacher? Kevin Richardson helped me explore script writing. Steve Purcell & Derek Thompson called me for a few weeks of story brainstorming. It is hard to overstate how much those first short gigs meant to me. I began to feel useful again. In the first year of my stroke many friends (from many studios) had arranged fundraisers to help with my medical bills, but I was too frail to attend. In 2014, Ben Walker arranged “Bizarro Sketch Night”, where artist friends bid on each other’s art, drawn with their non-dominant hands. A fun event that I was able to participate in myself. I’ll never forget all these encouragements from my community.

John Hoffman gave me a sketchbook, and in 2015 it was where I began to sketch out a graphic novel. The plan is to incorporate old pages done with my RIGHT hand and new pages done with my LEFT, and for them to be compatible (this art-therapy project continues to this day). Julia encouraged me to start colouring my blog stories digitally (and for Christmas that year, she bought me a new cintiq!) Using Photoshop with one hand was tricky, but the workarounds I learned came in handy when I got my first ever LEFT-handed paid drawing assignment, a cover for Carol Hughes’ book!

2016 had so many work opportunities that I was taken off disability. My financial safety net was gone, but it was exciting to take the plunge into freelancing as a LEFT handed artist. Again, friends gave me encouragement & chances. Steve Lee got me a brief teaching assignment (at the Academy Of Art). Then Jim Capobianco asked me to storyboard on “MARY POPPINS RETURNS”. This was very exciting development for me. It was a long gig, subletting a room in one of the satellite buildings of PIXAR’s Emeryville campus, where old colleagues were watching my progress..

In 2017, I did LEFTY storyboards for Brad Rau at GHOSTBOT. Soon after, Jonas Rivera suggested I try out storyboarding on a PIXAR project, which became Pete Docter’s “SOUL”, and after a few months, that became a staff position. It was wonderful to be working again with my old roomie Rej Bourdages, who’d always supported me in my darkest hours. Keeping up with all the other inspiring drawing geniuses in Emeryville is intimidating for a one-armed old duffer, but is a great way to improve. In 2018 & 2019 my drawing dexterity & speed increased (and with this steady job, I finally paid off my mountain of medical debt). The 20202022 pandemic years were ironically a boon. Working from home gave me extra hours (previously sucked-up by my commute) to do more spare time personal projects, where I pushed my LEFTY drawing skills even further.

It’s been a decade since I began drawing with my non-dominant hand. Every day is still a struggle, but I’m so grateful to be where I am now. On this day in 2013, I had absolutely no hope that I’d ever become a full-time professional cartoonist again. That I actually got here is due to many colleagues, friends & loved ones not only encouraging me to draw, but giving me real professional opportunities to do so.

All throughout this topsy turvy journey, at every low & highpoint, Julia has never lost faith in me. Even though I became a feeble old man overnight, she stayed with me. She understands how important drawing is to me (as it is to her too) and she has always offered encouragement. She has gone out drawing with me. Challenged me, and pushed me to new levels. Her artistry is a constant inspiration. I’m extremely lucky to have her by my side.

I’m profoundly grateful to all of you, who’ve supported me in so many ways over the past 10 years. You’ve given me great joy.

Thank you!

26 thoughts on “10 years a LEFTY”

  1. Ahhh ya tenacious bastard. I teared up at this one.
    A truly gritty effort across the years. What a wonderful community of creative and artistic fellows share yours and Julia’s world.
    Congrats and best wishes to all.

    Reply
    • Yes, we are very lucky indeed to be part of a supportive community over here. They have really gone above & beyond to help me in my darkest hours. I feel that I’ve always been extraordinarily lucky in my friends, starting with my childhood cronies, such as your lovely self, Pete!

  2. Through your own commitment, the creative ammunition supplied by your fellow troopers and the unwavering talents and devotion of field medic- in- command, Julia you have dragged yourself out of the sodden mud of the trenches to continue the good fight. Know that there is a south paw on a distant shore who will have your back as best he can! Congratulations on your 10th anniversary soldier…

    Reply
  3. Hard to believe it’s been 10 years James. Congratulations for all you have achieved in that time. The support you have received over those years has been wonderful but wouldn’t have been enough on its own, it could only have worked coupled with your patience, sheer determination and your belief in yourself. Good on you for persisting with becoming an effective Lefty!
    Marg

    Reply
    • Hey Pat, it is so great to hear from you! There’s absolutely nothing heroic going on over here. I’m just slooowly trying to stand up, after being knocked on my arse!
      ha ha!
      Happy 2024 to you and your crew!

  4. I can’t even imagine the journey that you’ve had to go on. I know you couldn’t have imagined it either. You’ve walked it with such courage though and it’s a joy watching you continue to walk it and triumph over it.

    Reply
  5. Hurrah for the lefties, voluntary or not. What an unexpected journey, but a rewarding one as well. Great minds will prevail!
    Happy 2024 and beyond for you and Julia.

    Reply
    • Thanks Bill! Since becoming one myself, I’ve been interested in how many leftys there are in animation. Seems to be 30-40%, whereas the percentage in the general population is around 10%. I wonder why..
      Anyway, Happy 2024 to you & your crew!

  6. Jamie! I had no idea you drew with your non dominant hand! I just thought your drawing style was because you’re a genius. Your boards were always packed with so much wit and charm. Now I know you’re like Ginger Rogers, doing what Fred Astaire was doing but backwards and in heels.

    Reply
  7. The honey-badger of sketching, the pit-bull of drawing- he doesn’t let go, like a croc with a pommie tourist in its teeth! Good on ya for a Herculean effort and kicking life’s hurdles in the proverbials, Jamie! I hope to keep looking at your drawings and reading your blog posts for many more years.

    Reply
  8. Jamie, yours is a MOST beautiful story. Yes, your hand is important, but YOUR EYE . . . now that has always been so sharp and perceptive, and that doesn’t go away. You were amazing when we crossed paths years ago, but you are beyond that now!

    Reply
    • Hey Michael, great hearing from you!
      You’re right that the hand is less important than the EYE. And I’ve learned that even the eye is less important than the BRAIN. When I was at my lowest ebb, I saw a documentary on STEPHEN HAWKING. He is the ultimate example of a creative mind that still flexed despite his many disadvantages. His example made me realise that there was no excuse for wasting time on self pity. Just ADAPT.

      At first, when I lost my drawing arm, I thought it was ‘game over’ but instead learned to use what was left (which was literally my LEFT). Although I’d lost my dexterity, the KNOWLEDGE & MOTIVATION were still there, and I found ways to use them. I hope that I’d adapt somehow, even if I lost my other hand too.

      Thanks for commenting!

  9. I love that when it was rough, you and Julia drew together. You are two of my favorite artists…for different reasons. Your storytelling is tops…and I say that as someone who’s lived and breathed comics (which I will always argue are among the greatest works of any art). I know I mention it frequently, but the kid falling out of the bunk in the cruise entry you did makes me laugh out loud any time I look at it, but I also always pause and appreciate the piece as an illustration. Soooooo much of your work does that for me, where I first feel something and then pause to appreciate all that’s there and — I assume — all that went into it that I didn’t see.

    Obviously, I hate that you ever had to deal with any of this, but even with your “off” hand, you’re one of the best!

    Reply
    • Yes! I love comics too. It is an unusual medium that is both literary and visual. Requiring intricate knowledge of the grammars of both language and graphic design. And I’m glad that you liked that pic of Jo falling out of his bunk. I was pleased with that one too (actually, both the writing and illustrating of that article were fun to do!) Thanks for all of your support, Chris!

  10. Bravo to the team of J and J!! Your change of dominant side is an awesome achievement, James! Dad was always so very proud of the gifts of all of his kids and their life partners! He would love this magnificent record of the last decade! Thanks so much for posting it! It is so uplifting!!

    Reply
    • Thanks for your support Wendy. Both of my struggles over the last decade, but also for being there for Dad in his last years. When we humans get through such ordeals it is largely due to the loving support of people around us. And that support itself can be taxing at times too. So thank you!

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