I Was a Teenage Art Prodigy (and I Didn’t Care)
Yesterday, while wandering through the Modern wing of a prominent art museum, my friend brought up “How to Draw a Bunny,” the documentary about the late pop artist Ray Johnson.
“Oh yeah,” I replied. “He sent me some of his art when I was 13.”
“Do you still have it?” she asked, her eyes bugging out.
“It might be floating around in my boxes in storage,” I admitted, somewhat embarrassed. If I kept it at all. To be honest, I had no idea who Ray Johnson was in 1993. I didn’t even realize he was semi-important until his suicide made the news a few years later.
At the age of 12, I had somehow gotten sucked into a web of artists and freaks trading zines and art through the mail. I published my digest-sized zine Conspiracy Comix every few months, and mailed it to strangers all over the world, whom I encountered through underground magazines like Factsheet Five and Ben Is Dead. Back then, the postal service functioned sort of like a super slow, anarchic, three dimensional version of the internet. The fact that I got weird stuff in the mail every day made up for the fact that I didn’t have many friends in real life.
Much to my mother’s dismay, several older, usually male artists and writers stumbled across my zine and decided I was a “Child Prodigy.” They asked me to write for their magazines and to speak on panels about the underground press; they offered to set up exhibits of my artwork and to introduce me to influential people. I never entirely understood what inspired this (borderline creepy) adulation, even if I liked the attention. While I was definitely a talented and creatively prolific teen, I suspect that most of the appeal to my would-be “mentors” was that I was a nubile, underage punk girl.
One of these “mentors” sent some of my drawings to Ray Johnson, and who in turn sent me a package with a letter and a print. I taped the print to my bedroom wall (I taped everything to my bedroom walls in those days), where it accumulated considerable wear and tear. I wish I had taken better care of this gift in hindsight, but at that point, the art he sent me seemed no better or worse than anything else I’d gotten in the mail. Maybe Ray Johnson was a famous artist, but he wasn’t anyone I’d heard of or cared about; I was too busy worshipping Morrissey and pining for Sassy magazine to pick Conspiracy Comix for their “Zine of the Month” feature.
Now that I’m 30 years old I still make art and write, but no one seems to be impressed with me in the same way. I regret that I didn’t take advantage of more of the opportunities that were offered to me at that time, but I didn’t feel like I was “old enough” to have an art show or see my work in print when I was 13. And that’s probably for the best — most people who peak too young tend to burn out quickly. That’s the problem with being a “prodigy” — by the time you’re ready for that kind of attention, you’re no longer a youthful novelty.