Early Drawings

Erik ReeL drawing
Drawing of Shostakovich by Erik ReeL age 14, pencil on paper, 1966.
Erik ReeL early drawing
Drawing of Miles Davis by Erik ReeL age 15, pencil drawing on paper, 1967.
Erik ReeL early drawing
Drawing of  John Coltrane by Erik ReeL age 15, pencil on paper, 1967.

These drawings represent the drawing of the young Erik ReeL as he worked out his artistic identity as an early teenager. From fifth through eighth grade [ages 12-15] ReeL began drawing as a conscientious intention to create art, though he had been drawing for his own sake since six years of age. These were drawings made independently of any school or teacher or classroom experience.

ReeL worked in three very different styles during this period: a Matisse-like linear style, usually in pen and ink,  that he continued well into college; a finely shaded rendering technique, as in these examples, that culminated in the type of drawings when he was 14 and 15 we see here–though later used to challenge classes at art school and as a foundation for drawing his art school course work, but eventually not pursued in any serious way for work that ReeL considered “his art”; and a very highly developed, professional-level, cartoon style which he drew in single panels, but already had abandoned by the time he finished high school.

As for cartooning, ReeL claims that in his earliest drawing, when he was very young, starting when he was six, he frequently used multiple-panel cartoon-like formats to draw stories with pencil.  His main audience for these stories was evidently completely limited to his mother and himself.

The later cartoons of his teenage years frequently featured a pot-bellied janitor whose ascerbic observations were frequently used to parody or ravage the foibles of the teachers and administrators at ReeL’s schools.  When caught and punished by his Junior High art teacher for drawing an unflattering cartoon featuring this janitor’s comments regarding the art teacher, ReeL reportedly replied to her that he planned on being a janitor when he grew up, which evidently infuriated her.

ReeL did not ink his cartoons, even though he did an extensive body of work during this time in pen and ink and was thus comfortable with the medium and in producing a variable line with ink, he left his cartoons in a finished, or “clean” pencil state in such a way that they could be inked later if required.

The rendered or shading technique of the type of drawings pictured here were usually of famous artists, or other famous people, but mostly artists, in the case of musicians,taken from photographs on LP album covers found in his local public library which evidently had a considerable jazz and symphonic music offering, from book jackets for authors, or other reference materials he found in the library for other artists.  The earliest known example of this type of work is from the end of ReeL’s third grade year and was kept by his mother and was part of her estate.  It is a drawing of Hans Christian Anderson in profile based on a picture from an encyclopedia that was in the house. The drawing’s current whereabouts is unknown. Most of these drawings have not survived, including most of the cartoons.

The first drawing pictured is of a relatively young Shostakovich.  ReeL had been moved by the context and  the new awareness in the West of a recent recording of Shostakovich’s 13th symphony, “Babi Yar”, which drew attention to a mas murder in the Ukraine conducted during Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union.  Both the symphony and certain dissident actions of the time clearly intended to point by implication to activities of the current Soviet State.  ReeL has had a lifelong fascination with history and he evidently followed these activities closely, or as closely as he could in terms of his situation and limited access to materials.  ReeL was already an avid listener of symphonic music as well, including 20th century composers.

ReeL remembers the excitement of discovering the local library’s large collection of jazz LP records, including the most recent issues from certain artists, such as Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman–many of which were not available in his neighborhood music stores, even if he had had the funds to pay for them, which he didn’t.  The second and third images reproduced here feature two of his favorite and most-listened-to musicians of this time: Miles Davis and John Coltrane.  The picture of Miles Davis is of a particularly young Miles Davis.  These two drawings show a subtle softening of ReeL’s pencil in comparison to the Shostokovich drawing done the previous year when he was 14.  They also feature the more reduced indication of features via a simple line and brief shaded passages that his drawing only achieved in his 15th year.  At 14 ReeL still seemed compelled to render every feature in a rather straightforward “heavy” style, while at 15 he concentrates more on the face and softens everything else in a “lighter” style.

All three drawings are done with an “Ebony” brand pencil, which features a soft, extremely dark graphite of relatively cheap grade on ordinary school-grade, but relatively heavyweight sketchbook paper.  All the drawings are only a couple of inches across.  The sketchbooks they have been torn from could not have been larger than 6 x 9 inches. The Coltrane sketch is less than 3 inches across.  In other words, they are pictured here close to full size.

[source: interviews with the artist]