Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1758, Sin Bad, acrylic painting, 2013

Q: I’ve heard that you had a somewhat unique situation as a kid with your younger brothers, in terms of how you played and a possible preparation for making art. Could you explain a bit about that?

ReeL: When I was six, I invented this thing we called “scenes”, where on a long strip of shelf paper a couple yards long cut from rolls my mother always kept around for lining the bottom of our shelves, I’d draw a scene, or schematic background, of say a landscape and then draw on typing paper figurines to cut out and play with on that background. In this way we could create any environment and people it with anyone or thing we wanted. Dinosaurs, spacecraft and super heroes, monsters and fabulous beasts,  soldiers of any war or era, knights, cowboys and indians. Anything we could think of. I’d do most of the drawing and kept the scenes rolled up in a wine bottle box in my closet with manilla folders with each set of cut-outs and my brothers would do most of the playing.

Our toys were simple. My father saved the scrap from a building project and turned it into a set of handmade wood blocks and then threw in a set of alphabet and number blocks for us to play with.  Later we added plasticine clay, the kind that never hardens. We’d make our own armies or whatever from that. So we were working with building from blocks and modeling from clay from about 5 on.

Later when my grandmother gave us each a box of crayons, since I was already making these scenes with pencil, then everything became living color.

Q: yards?

ReeL: Yes, yards, six or nine feet, and draw what we’d call a “scene” on it. This would be a backdrop, and then we took our crayons and drew soldiers, dinosaurs, whatever, but mostly soldiers of different eras: civil war, world war II, the battle of Waterloo–stuff like that.

We’d draw these on paper, cut them out with a scissors and then play with these on the scenes laid out flat on the floor. They worked a bit like the way old Zagreb School animations were made.

Q: what ages?

ReeL: Oh, I drew my first scene when I was six, in pencil, it was all pretty developed in color in crayon by the time I was nine.

We basically made most of our toys. I would do most of the drawing for my brothers. They’d request a certain theme, like, say, the civil war, and then we’d draw a long scene with the appropriate scene for a background and then a couple armies worth of figures to cut out and then we’d play with it as I suppose little boys do elsewhere in the world with their play soldiers.  It was pretty much my brother, Dave, who was a year younger and I.

Q: When you say “scene” what do you mean?

ReeL: oh, you know, an appropriate environment. One of my brothers wanted a cowboy and indian theme, so the scene was a big desert with badlands rock formations, which we’d just seen on a trip back to see relatives in Wyoming, in the middle and a fort at one end and a bunch of tipis at the other.

There were multiple civil war scenes, one with the hills of Gettysburg, another with a bunch of woods and farm houses. We had a very cool cityscape scene for street fighting for World War II and various post-war battle situations. Some would have made a great start for a video game set, but of course, this was decades before anything like video games existed.

We also had a very cool sci-fi scene based originally on the Jetsons, but then it took a design direction all our own to meet our needs. There was a whole set of alien beings, one for each planet in the solar system except Mercury, and a whole universe of super heros and villains, mostly of our own creation, not standard comic book figures, but based on them visually in terms of how we drew the muscles and capes and all that.

For the scenes, we used a lot of what I called our “X-ray” technique. In other words if there was a house, or fort, or castle, we drew internal rooms and stuff, so our soldiers could enter them. We also made things like spaceships as cutouts with the interiors drawn in them so they could fly about with their occupants in them. We had a submarine with a similar interior based on a diagram plan of the Nautilus we had.

Q: And you knew about all those uniforms and eras?

ReeL: My grandmother had also given me a stamp book depicting soldier’s uniforms from the Romans to the Afrika Corps with a big section on the era from the Revolutionary War to the Franco-Prussian War: the era where every regiment seemed to have its own very colorful uniform.  It was essentially an illustrated history of military uniforms. We worked off of that a lot. That was big.  Or TV, movies, or comic books. At one point, when my mother saw what I was doing with comics, she banned comic books for a few years. She thought things were getting a bit out of hand.  That only inspired me to draw more comic-book-like situations and characters.

Q: How big were these scenes? You said something about a couple of yards?

ReeL: The scenes were six to nine feet long, mostly around seven feet, with 15 inch wide shelf paper, not waxed or anything. A figure would be about three to four inches high. Crayons made it hard to draw them too small, and you didn’t want to draw them too big or it’d take forever to draw and cut out an army, or difficult to scale the scenes with other stuff like tanks, aircraft, ships, and spaceships.

We kept the scenes rolled up in an old wine case box in my closet, with each group of figures in its own ten by twelve inch manilla envelope.

Q: How many?

ReeL: At one time my brother counted 47 scenes. And we weren’t finished at that time. Eventually probably around 60.

Q: Sixty? Are you kidding?

ReeL: At least 60. With all the figures for each.  There were about two thousands figures by the time I quit.

Q: What?! When did you quit?

ReeL: I think it was about the end of fifth grade. I started becoming more interested in drawing more complex drawings about then.

Q: But … two thousand figures. Is that possible?

ReeL: Well, the most popular scenes typically had several sets of figures to go with them. Obviously a woods and farm house scene could be used for any number of eras of soldiers. We had a couple of generic rocks and hill scenes that could be used with practically any theme, including other planets.

We had a bunch of esoteric planet scenes. We had scenes for planets with exotic botany for the sci-fi stuff. We could go to a lot of planets. Those planets had to have their own native beings, of course.

A couple of times we invited a babysitter to draw and contribute a planet scene. That’d keep her out of our hair for awhile.  They never did do any scenes that were up to our usual standards, though, so we’d usually discard them afterward.

Q: What did your parents think of all this?

ReeL: Oh, they loved it and encouraged it: it was all very cheap to make–some typing paper and a roll of shelf-lining paper and set of crayons–and we loved it. In the end, as we got older, I was primarily drawing and my brother was doing the cutting and playing. In a way, it was a lot about my gift to him.  It drew us closer together into our own private world of shared history and fantasy. It was part of a very potent bond between us as we grew up, an ongoing dialogue about history, the future, and what human beings are capable of, a bond we maintained and expanded until his premature death at 42.

Q: What did other kids think of all this?

ReeL: They didn’t. For the most part they were banned from seeing any of it. It was our secret. Our special world. Or worlds.  My mother kept all of the scenes and figurines till her death. After that it all disappeared. My maternal grandmother had kept some we made at her house. These also disappeared after her death.

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