could do better..

I was an indifferent student. All the way through primary & high school, my typical report card was “talks too much” or “could do better” which frustrated Mum & Dad, who’d both been stellar students. I countered with “if I’ve never done better, how do these teachers know that this isn’t ALREADY my better?!” Teen sass aside, at 15 I knew was already on the runway to adulthood and would need to get a career airborne within a few years. There was only one thing I was halfway good at.. and started to wonder if I actually could DRAW for a living. 

Parent Teacher Night program - 1978
Year 9 Parent/Teacher Night program.

Ever since I was small, I’d had adults leaning down to my child’s-eye-level asking; “what do you want to be when you grow up?” When I answered “I wanna be an animator” at age 8 it was oh-so cute, but it seemed screwy at 15, when nobody thought that job even existed in Australia. Unlike the USA, countries with small populations don’t have all industries (which is why Fiji doesn’t have astronauts). So, in my mid teens I started to think seriously about what job I possibly could do.. My best-guess career by the time I was 15 was a signwriter/illustrator. 

My earliest illustrations printed anywhere were done for school. From year 7 onwards, I eagerly drew art for pamphlets, program guides for school plays, banners for athletics & swimming carnivals, and cartoons for the school magazine. I also submitted art to fan mags, and even got a few cartoons into the local newspaper too. It is nutty how much pleasure it gave me simply to see something I’d drawn printed in a ‘proper’ publication

Railway Hotel
Window decorations for a pub.

So people had already been using my drawings for years, but for FREE. Getting paid to draw was the tricky part. Perhaps the first time I got money for my drawings was at 15, when my friend Stephen’s uncle paid me to design t-shirt graphics for him. He had a screen printing business & t-shirt shop, and I did logos and illustrations for local sports teams and so on.. Around that same time, I was paid to paint Christmas window displays at a pub where I worked after school (as a cleaner). Those early PAID illustration opportunities gave me hope that it might be viable career one day.

Sign-writing was a job I seriously considered. Freehanded calligraphic hand-painted signs were much more common in those days. Even today, pubs & cafes often have beautifully illustrated & hand drawn menus in chalk on huge blackboards, and I’ve always admired them. In year 10, as part of the work experience program, I spent two weeks as general dog’s-body for the graphic designer at the local university, preparing myself to be a sign-writer/illustrator. He was a one-man department doing graphics & illustration for the university’s printed publications, campus signage, and theatre department. Which sounds cool, but for two weeks I did all the stuff he didn’t want to do. Fiddly paste-up bollox (& calligraphy practice). Not much fun at all..

Our high school had a lounge for year 11 & 12 students known as “The Common Room” and I got to decorate its walls with cartoons. I can’t exactly remember whether this was someone else’s idea who approached me, or a case of me badgering the powers that be, but either way, the the school principal had to approve the project. Which he did.

I’ve written about cranky teachers at Catholic school but this brother was definitely one of the good ones. He was not of the fire & brimstone old guard, but of the groovy younger set of nuns & brothers (the cool cats with folk guitar). He was a warm & wonderful man with a great sense of humour, and tolerated much shenanigans from me & my mates. Even when he (justifiably) scolded us for being boneheads, there was always a twinkle in his eye.

Common Room illustration
Decorations for student Common Room.

Anyway, he let me draw what ever silly nonsense I wanted on the Common Room walls, with no editorialising whatsoever. Which is pretty amazing now that I come to think of it. When that brother moved on, to be principal at another school, the next principal painted over everything I’d drawn. I was out of school by that time so no harm done, but I’m sorry now not to have more photos.

My pal Peter had a community radio show (called “Sunday Soft Rock”) and I often sat in when he was on air, as the FM-station was mere blocks from the Baker Family home. Through this contact, I did a few illustrations for the station’s program guide, and promotional posters for the station (and another in Newcastle). I definitely enjoyed illustrating, and hoped I would get more of that to do, rather than simple calligraphic sign writing.

During the break between years 10 & 11 Dad saw an ad in the newspaper for an “animation workshop” being held at the university, which is how I learned that there actually was an animation studio in Sydney. This was an electrifying discovery! Getting into animation became my focus in the last two years of high school (perhaps to the detriment of my already shoddy grades). I sent my drawings to the studio multiple times, until they finally called me down to Sydney for an interview, where I was offered a job.

However, even after I’d entered the animation biz, illustration continued to be a sideline for many years, in Sydney and even when I worked in Asia. Not just to supplement my often sporadic animation work, but also because I genuinely enjoyed doing it.

8 thoughts on “could do better..”

    • Yeah! I found these in a very old photo album. There were more than just these images here. Lots of little decorations all over the room that I have no record of now.

      I went looking for these photos inspired by a lovely rememb-rant by good old Ian Tonkin, who railed against the injustice of them ever being erased. To hear him tell it, they were precious murals by Michelangelo or Leonardo, defaced by utter philistines! ha ha!

      But they were merely the silly doodles of a kid. I consider myself very lucky that Brother John ever gave me the chance to do them at all.

  1. Oh, James! Thank you for sharing these! Loved seeing the photos from the old common room. Had been hoping someone would have them! A real blast from the past. And I totally agree with Ian Tonkin! :)
    Would you mind if we shared them on FB for our class group?
    Hope you are doing well!


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