Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Working Conventions and Trade Shows

The Spring and Fall in Vegas seem to be convention season. And that's a season I love more than football, baseball, or zombie-hunting season. Because I loves me some conventions. So this will be an ode to the multitude of reasons why I enjoy working trade shows.
Badges? We don't need no stinkin' badges!
(Okay, yes we do).

First off, not every caricature artist likes working trade shows. And not every caricature artist should try. Some folks get into this business because they don't want to deal with suits and ties. At conventions, it's wall-to-wall suits and ties (usually; every con has its own unique demographic). You are expected to look corporate, be on your game, play by the company rules, and sometimes even sell their product or services while you draw. And just because someone can draw, it doesn't automatically mean they're good at all that other stuff--as evidenced by the complaints I have heard from clients about bad experiences they've had hiring artists all over the country. One client was reluctant to hire a caricature artist in Vegas because the previous year, in another city, their artist had shown up late, wearing shorts and flip-flops! Even when I've been booked through an agency, sometimes trade show clients insist on talking to me directly before they sign the agent's contract . . . and it's clear they are sizing me up on the phone, making sure I sound like a professional person who can represent their booth for a few days. A mini-job-interview, if you will. I don't mind. After all, some of these folks are trying to be careful because they have been burned in the past. I want to un-burn them so that hiring a caricature artist is a pleasant (and more frequent) experience for them, in all the cities they have trade shows.

Money, Honey!

Well, obviously there's a paycheck involved. Though I usually offer a discounted rate (as most entertainers do) if a company hires me for a period of days, it still works out to a nice bit of scratch by the end of the show. And it's way less tiresome than cobbling together seven or eight two-hour birthday parties for toddlers. One high-profile client, one location, one check, done. Feels good. Some folks seem to view trade shows as the pinnacle of live caricature work. Trade show reps are representing multi-million dollar companies, and they are writing company checks. Those don't bounce, and the folks paying you never try to haggle or otherwise get free work out of you. 

Sharpening My Covert Spy Skills!

My first conventions, years ago, were intimidating. There are certainly things to consider that go beyond having enough paper and plastic bags. Plus Vegas is home to some of the largest trade shows in the world . . . leading to snarled traffic, nonexistent parking, and lines for badges that stretch for hours at the really big 200,000+ conventions. So, you learn to plan ahead and, if that fails, you learn to bypass security, park in little-known secret areas a few blocks from the convention center, and find the quickest possible way across a crowded trade-show floor.

These days, I have honed the set of precautions I take. First, I make sure that agents are giving me the RIGHT convention center. National agents (or their new hires) sometimes don't realize there are several really huge convention centers in town, most attached to really huge hotels. I have had agents look up "Convention Center, Las Vegas" on google and give me the address to the main LVCC even though the event was at, say, Mandalay Bay Convention Center or the Sands Expo Convention Center. I usually plan to arrive HOURS ahead of the start time if it's the first day of a really huge convention, I bring cash money to pay huge parking fees, and I always touch base with the client beforehand and warn them that cell phones are sometimes useless at these events. Coverage is getting better year by year, but often the huge number of cell-phone-toting conventioneers means that 3G or 4G signals are overloaded. There goes your hope of getting a text message or successfully calling your contact. So you'd better already have the booth number and any information you'll need to pick up a badge.

Papers? You don't need to see my
papers. I have an easel.
And badges. Ahhhhh, badges. Most of the time they are a cinch to pick up at the registration desk. But sometimes clients forget to put you on the list, sometimes they assume they'll just meet you outside and let you borrow a communal badge, sometimes they have no idea that security will be tight and badges are necessary for workers like me. I've luckily always made it in, on time, even at a gig recently where I ended up having to talk my way in badgeless and race across a huge field of construction equipment to the other side of the multi-building convention hall. Thank goodness for powerful deodorant!

When one of my early mentors gave me my first French easel, he bestowed it with the words "This will help you get into any venue, anywhere. You can get backstage to a Rolling Stones concert with one of these, I hope you realize." And he was right. Not that I've ever tried to get anywhere I wasn't hired to be . . . but I've still seen the benefits of toting an easel and looking like an artist. At one convention years back, I had ducked past security and was heading to my job site when a cop on a golf cart called after me. I winced as I turned around, worried that I'd be denied entry, but he kindly said "That looks heavy, why don't I drive you to where you have to go. Are you an artist?"

I heard somewhere that the weakest point in any security system is always the human element. And boy is that true. I've had so many kind security guards bend the rules for me that it's not even a challenge anymore. It probably helps that I'm female and have a trustworthy-looking face, whatever that is.

Getting to Play Dress-up

Professional attire usually just means my standard black-and-white gig outfit, but many trade show clients want you to wear khaki pants and ask for your shirt size so they can bring a company shirt for you. It feels so . . . foreign . . . walking around with all these professionals, wearing a "disguise" to fit in with all the non-artist businessfolk at a trade show. Kind of fun. I'd imagine Superman feels this way when he dons the reporter outfit, ha.

But every once in a while a company has a "theme" or wants something that will really stand out. While I have never advertised myself as a "booth babe" or costumed character, this job has required me to dress up in funny outfits from time to time. An insurance company that erected a big faux castle at one of the regular Vegas trade shows asked me if I had any medieval wench-type garb that I could wear. I hoped they couldn't pick up on the excitement in my voice when I said "Um, yeah, I could probably put something together."

Rubbing Elbows with Experts!

Knowledge can be powerful. And it's really fun to collect. One of the huge perks of my job is that I get to have 5 to 10 minutes of face-time with experts on just about every field you can imagine. It's like being Barbara Walters on a much, much smaller scale (and I usually don't make people cry during the interview process). Once I had a corporate client give me a very observant compliment: he didn't say "gosh you draw great, I can't even draw stick figures!" . . . no, he told me I was really good at "engaging the sitter" and explained how he noticed I asked them questions, paid attention, and had a good conversation with most everyone. I took that as a HUGE compliment--as those skills were essentially the most valuable things in his tool belt, as a trade show rep. It's a scientific fact that trade show floors contain the highest percentage of feigned interest in the known universe.

One of my favorite Bill Nye quotes.
I'm actually really lucky--I don't have to fake it. People are friggin' interesting! And anyone who has worked in a field long enough to be attending a trade show is usually a pretty deep reservoir of knowledge. Knowledge that you don't have. I'm also really lucky in that I can talk while I draw (in fact, it feels like it helps me draw). Some artists prefer to be quiet, and some have real trouble conversing while they're trying to caricature someone. If your hand automatically stops moving whenever you talk, that's a sign that you have trouble in this department--but it's an ability you can improve over time. Just like eventually new drivers get comfortable enough with the workings of the car to be able to fiddle with the radio or windows and still keep the vehicle under control.

Eye love opthalmology conferences! features these neat little segments called AMAs (short for Ask-Me-Anything). Someone who, say, works in Antarctica, or spent time in the mafia, or is a circus trapeze artist, or has a rare disease, offers themselves up for an online interview, and redditors submit questions and hope they get lucky enough to have their question rise to the top of the list. It's fascinating. Well, working a trade show is like having a really long AMA with tons of experts where you get to be the one to ask all the questions. I have had an older veteran describe how he was shot out of a navy helicopter and fished out of the ocean hours later. I got to ask a healthcare lawyer questions about the Affordable Care Act (which she wisely prefaced with "this is NOT legal advice, but . . . "). I've gotten expert opinions from dentists and eye doctors about how to keep healthy teeth and eyes. I've talked with veterinarians about my dog's allergies. I've discussed bigfoot rumors with lumberjacks and got to hear about how dangerous trees can really be (from a guy who was put into a coma by a splintering trunk and lived to tell the tale). I've heard prison guards complain about what it's like to have human feces thrown at you as a regular part of your job. I got to draw one of the guys who sells beef to McDonald's, and we had a good laugh about the online memes that suggest fast-food meat is somehow not meat (he assured me he didn't have plastic or styrofoam cows, they were, in fact, made of meat). I met an older guy who used to work with G. Gordon Liddy and got to hear about Watergate from an insider's perspective. And I got a welding lesson once from a company that develops arc-welding technology (they assured me their insurance wouldn't mind, they were having everyone mess with the machinery).

Just like your mom told you when you were six, if you want to know something, ask someone. And at trade shows, you're dealing with experts who know what they're talking about. It's like a really great search-engine filter, except it's in real life. 


GIMMIE!!! I mean, uh, are you giving those away?
Do you mind if I take one, thanks!
I've saved the best for last. Aaaaaaah, swag and candy. These adults in casual business attire are all carrying around convention bags for a reason. Those bags are getting filled with goodies. Most of the goodies I could care less about: logo-emblazoned pencils, yo-yos, keychains, drink coozies, stress balls . . . yawn. But I've come across some really amazing little trinkets that are offered as giveaways at these events (none as awesome as caricatures, but still, not too shabby). Some booths give away handfuls of candy, there's always one brewing espresso for the passersby that need some caffeine, and I've picked up tri-colored highlighter pens, flashlights, swiss army knives, glasses-repair kits, sample bags of doggie treats, playing cards, you name it. 

Some shows have a bit of down-time while people are in meetings, and the vendors on the trade show floor mill around and check everyone else out. I've drawn plenty of folks who ended up being vendors--and then they surprise me by popping back later and saying "hey, thanks for the drawing, here, take one of these!" as they hand me a cool little bauble from their booth a few rows over. 

Now, you can't just run around willy-nilly grabbing treats. I restrain myself from that kind of behavior. At least on the first day! I'm there to work, after all, and I cannot let my baser hunter-gatherer instincts override my professionalism. But the thing about a lot of trade shows is they are temporary communities. At the end of the show, all that stuff has to be packed up and shipped back to company headquarters. And if the trade show reps had fifty boxes of swag items to give out and they only managed to hand out forty-five boxes worth, they are trying REALLY hard by the end of the day to unload the rest of it so they don't have to toss it into the trash. I was once handed two five-pound cases of shortbread cookies with logos iced onto them. The kids got pretty tired of getting those in their lunch boxes, let me tell you. On the last day of a snack food expo, I was urged by the client to go trick-or-treating after my time was up, and I walked away with three loaded bags of granola bars, cracker sandwiches, snack chips, cookies, jerky, popcorn, dried fruits, nuts, and full-sized containers of brown sugar and vanilla syrup. And it's a win-win: I was getting free groceries, and they were happily giving it all away because they didn't want to ship anything back that was nonessential.  

So, enjoy your trade shows, people. There are so many reasons to!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Working A 100th Birthday Party for an Amazing Lady

I don't normally blog about individual events I've worked. But this one was a first-ever for me. I've drawn at countless sweet 16 parties, quite a handful of parties for people turning 40, 50, or 60 . . . but this past week I worked my very first birthday event for a newly minted centenarian. And I wasn't sure what to expect. By the time a person gets that up in years, odds are that they aren't as spry as they used to be. I even assumed I probably wouldn't get a chance at drawing the guest of honor. For many seniors, the eyesight fails, energy is in short supply, and the enthusiasm for getting a silly picture drawn fades away. At the parties I have attended for very elderly people, the birthday boy or girl has stayed put, let the youngsters mingle at what ends up more a family reunion than a birthday celebration, and contained their "partying" to a scoop of ice cream, eaten very slowly.

But Lilyan did not fit that mold, not by a long shot. She soaked up the sun and nice weather for a while outside and then came indoors, where I had been busily drawing her extended family. Many had flown in from New York or Los Angeles, and one couple had come from Washington D.C. for just the one day! Finally Lilyan herself sat for me and was a very pleasant, expert model. I was a little intimidated as I looked at someone who'd been born in 1914, who had seen so many things and meant so much to so many people--now I had to represent her with a few lines on paper? Erk! She smiled graciously and giggled when she saw it, remarking that I even got her leopard-print shirt. I asked if I could take a picture of her with her caricature, and, turning around, I saw nearly a dozen cameras raised, doing just that. This lady is loved.

After I'd drawn a few more of the cousins and aunts, the professional photographer there had a neat idea and herded everyone outside for a "family caricature photo." Someone kindly texted me their phone version of that scene--what a lot of great faces!

This party was unusual in more ways than one, though. People in the party caricature business (just like the average caterer or photo-booth operator) often have to sit through a lot of "typical" parties with dance lighting, speakers blaring the latest hits by Miley Cyrus or the Black-Eyed Peas, a party food buffet, and semi-drunk guests doing the Cha-Cha-Slide. Some crowds at these events don't seem like they're having a good time so much as they are conforming to a predetermined mold of what they think having a good time looks like. Dancing to the same pop music, wearing the same party clothes, telling the caricature artist "Hey, SHE doesn't have a moustache!" Parties like that are not my favorite type of working environment.

Lilyan's 100th was, thankfully, a really refreshing change from that kind of thing.

There was a piano in the front room where most of the party guests gathered (and where I was set up). Instead of booking a party DJ, the family had hired a pianist, who entertained us with his repertoire of elegant songs (including half my favorites from Phantom and Les Mis) while people chatted and ate crepes made by a private chef. Someone told me that the piano was, in fact, owned by Lilyan herself. She had played all her life. Sure enough, before too long, Lilyan's children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren nudged her into taking a seat in front of the ivories. And she was stunning! She expertly ran through a classical piece (I regret, my knowledge of composers and song titles is lacking, I do not know which tune she played, but it was complicated and she played it beautifully). Her family applauded and several shouted "Encore! Encore!" . . . to which she quickly hammered out a whimsical bit of the William Tell Overture and then took her leave of the bench.

This job sometimes lets me into the very important, very touching moments in people's lives. I am not a sappy person by nature, but I'd have to be made of rock to not be moved by some of the things I've witnessed at really special events. Sure, I don't know the folks there personally, I'm not in the family, but if you draw a bunch of people for a couple hours, you get a feel for them. I have felt way more invested in the emotional goings-on at some events than I have been with the 2-dimensional personalities on reality shows. I was able to work one graduation party because I'd had my flu shot; the graduate's immune system had been compromised by cancer treatments, but he was finally feeling well enough for a party! At a 50th wedding anniversary once, the 80-year-old bride snuck off and came back wearing her original wedding dress. Now, at this party, I was getting choked up watching a well-loved matriarch dance her fingers across the piano keys, a skill she probably first learned when Hoover was in office.

After she played, one of Lilyan's grandsons gave a short speech about the odds of reaching 100 years old (in the U.S., the centenarians number around 1.73 in 10,000) and told everyone to be ready for Lilyan's 110th birthday, since once a person reaches 100, the odds of them reaching "super-centenarian" status are only 1 in 1,000--and she's already overcome odds larger than that! He asked the birthday girl to reveal what the secret to living to 100 was, and she replied "No!  If I tell you then EVERYONE will live to 100."

I looked up some of that data. According to a 2011 report by the UK's department of work and pensions, for women born in 1914, the odds of reaching 100 were just 1.2% (far better than men, who were calculated to have a .3% chance). But with rising life expectancies and better medical technology, those numbers went up and up as the years went on.  for an "average" woman my age (I was born in 1973), the chances or reaching 100 were predicted as a remarkable 20%! That surprised me. I sure hope that, if I make it that far, I end up like Lilyan. Rather than taking over for a song or two at the piano, maybe I could take over from the party artist and draw a caricature or two!  (NOTE TO MY GRANDKIDS WHO ARE READING THIS IN 2073: BE SURE TO HIRE A CARICATURE ARTIST FOR MY PARTY . . . BUT NOT ONE THAT'S WAY BETTER THAN ME, BECAUSE I DON'T WANT THEM SHOWING ME UP.)

They say you can keep any skill that you do on a very regular basis. And I have always assumed I would draw caricatures or the rest of my life, in some way or another. (Colleagues of mine have joked that the retirement plan for caricature artists is "dying in the chair.") But seeing a very capable 100-year-old piano player really made me wonder how such skills take root, how they can stay in the brain for so long . . . then I realized I was approaching the question from the wrong angle. Playing the piano, or any instrument, wasn't just a benefit of a fit mind, it was a means to achieving a fit mind.

The Obligatory Little Bit of Science Googling

A quick search at PubMed yields plenty of papers (or at least abstracts--I am blocked by paywalls and don't have the time to read 50 pages of data anyway) that argue the merits of musical training for the brain. From one such paper, published in peer-reviewed journal Neuroscientist by Catherine Wan and Gottfried Schlaug: "Playing an instrument, for example, requires a host of skills, including reading a complex symbolic system (musical notation) and translating it into sequential, bimanual motor activity dependent on multi-sensory feedback; developing fine motor skills coupled with metric precision; memorizing long musical passages; and improvising within given musical parameters. Indeed, research over the past 2 decades has demonstrated that intense musical training can result in plastic changes in the developing brain as well as the adult brain."

In other words, playing the piano might help you keep your brain working. But read that description again: fine motor skills, improvising within given parameters, reading a complex symbolic system and translating it into activity . . . doesn't that sound like what a caricature artist (or any artist) does? This of course made me wonder how my job, as a quick-sketch artist, might benefit my brain's plasticity. My initial searches have not yet turned up any real data on that particular question, but that doesn't mean some team of researchers hasn't tackled it. That only means I need to spend more time wading through the links about art therapies for brain disorders and how artists' insights have led to neurological discoveries. Those things are interesting too, mind you, but there are only so many hours in a day. Let's hope my job really does improve my brain fitness, so that I can eventually write about every topic I'd like to investigate. 

Until next week, my friends!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Some War Stories

"I once drew a nose THIS BIG!"
Doing live caricature is one of those jobs that has many, many war stories attached to it. Not actual war, with bullets and tanks and such, but the never-ending war of wits that goes on between artist and public. I have endured a few things over the years that have turned into stories, as has Robert, and we have heard many tales shared with us. Some of the anecdotes below are first-hand experiences, and some are things that happened to coworkers, but here they are, recounted to be best of my ability, for your amusement (and schadenfreude). Except for a few cases, I'm keeping identities hidden. If you are the originator of any of these stories and I have details wrong, feel free to correct me!

. . . 

Two artists were approached by a nervous mother and her 9-year-old son, who happened to have quite a substantial pair of ears. She instructed the artist to NOT DRAW HIS EARS SO BIG in the picture, PLEASE, as he was very sensitive about them and she didn't want him to be upset by the drawing. The artist nodded and said of course, that would be no problem. He then whispered something to his coworker and began the drawing. The boy sat nervously as the artist sketched out his face, and, cleverly, the artist chose to make his head so large on the paper that there simply was no room for ears. The paper was filled, temple to temple, with the boy's face, so there wasn't even a hint of ears. The mom stood by, watching. Then the reveal . . . he turned the paper around and said "TA-DAAAAAH,"showing the boy his enlarged face. The kid smiled meekly. Then his coworker, who had been busily scribbling away on something under the table, swooped in behind the first artist and held up TWO sheets of paper, on either side of the boy's caricature. Each one contained a large ear, almost filling up the page. He said "TA-DAAAAH!" and, in front of the surprised mother, the boy erupted into laughter and absolutely loved the gag. She happily bought all three pictures and three frames to put them in. 

. . .
My old Quickdraw shirt, with Irv Finifter
as drawn by fellow coworker Gary Smith.

The legendary Irv "Quickdraw" Finifter, who drew caricatures in the Mid-Atlantic region for decades and operated the Face Place in Ocean City Maryland, was my first boss. He gave many artists their start and was the source of many fun stories. It was said that he worked Moses's Bar Mitzvah. Back in the late 1970s he was drawing at yet another Bar Mitzvah, and it just so happened one of his cartooning protégés was among the kids who were attending. This youngster was a very talented kid of 14 or 15 who had been working with Irv and trying to get a summer job doing caricature. As Irv drew guest after guest, he got those same questions every party artist hears a dozen times a gig: "Wow, how did you learn this?" or "Do you have to be born talented to draw so well?" Not one to ever miss an opportunity for a good gag, Irv said, "Why no, you just have to know the secret! This is a very simple technique that I could teach anyone in this room. You there, son, come here a moment!" The young undercover artist approached, and Irv appeared to whisper instructions to him, then handed him the marker and stepped back. The young man then proceeded to very successfully caricature the next few people in line as the crowd looked on in utter amazement.

 . . .

We all have had lousy days, but one fellow I know had the worst day imaginable. He suffered through FOUR rejects in one day at a Vegas resort location. The last one was extra memorable because it was a drawing he'd done of a tough-guy cop and the cop's girlfriend. The guy had paid at first, then ripped up the drawing and threw it in a trash can, then came back and wanted his money refunded. Some tense back-and-forth ensued and the artist just gave the guy his money back even though the product was not exactly in refundable condition. Then the angry customer hung around, and floated back now and then to glare angrily at the artist and even level some threats, saying "You ruined my special day" and implying some ass would be getting kicked. This poor artist ended up calling security and was pretty stressed out, needless to say. He finally figured he'd better call it a day and headed outside, where he decided to just lay down on a nice patch of grass by the resort. The moment he closed his eyes on the soft grass, sprinklers came on.

. . . 

For a while, Quickdraw Caricatures had a "downstairs" location at a Baltimore mall, which was a lonely little easel with a small sign at the bottom of a stairwell. At the top of the stairwell there was a new vendor who was charging to let people take photos with his parrots. So if you were the one stuck in that easel, you just heard squawking all day from above and usually had a lousy total. One evening I was startled out of my boredom by an explosion of feathers hitting my easel. One of the parrots had gone rogue, or lost its balance, and ended up flopping right onto the back of my easel (maybe it had been trying to glide to freedom, but, alas, those show birds all had their wings clipped). It seemed stunned but uninjured, and I just had an instinct to pick the poor thing up off my easel. As the parrot handler raced down the stairs, his bird was already perching on my arm and seemed no worse for wear. But it quickly scooted up my arm and ended up hell-bent on getting up to my head. I just kind of stood there, not sure what to do, as the handler tried to retrieve it. The parrot decided it wanted nothing to do with its handler and stood firm, squawking and flapping and gripping my hair with its talons, as the guy tried to pry it off me. He finally got it under control and apologized profusely, then took his disobedient bird back upstairs. I sat there with parrot-hair the rest of the night, feeling stupid for extending a helping hand to that feathered menace.

. . . 

In Vegas, one of the resort booths I used to work at was located near the buffet. A mother sat her green-gilled kid down in front of me and asked for a color picture. The kid was maybe 9 or 10, and was doing his best to pose but was clearly not feeling well. His mom had even given him one of the big plastic change buckets to hold onto, just in case (those buckets were all over casinos before the printed-ticket payout machines were invented). Sure enough, mid-drawing, the kid vomits into the bucket. "You just eat at the buffet?" I asked. The kid says "Yeah . . . how did you know?"
. . . 

One coworker in Baltimore had a bad experience due to a horrendous name choice. At that location we typically threw names on the top of the drawing to "finish out" the caricature. Big, cartoon bubble letters were the standard, and people certainly came to expect it. This fellow was drawing on a night where we had a lot of inner-city visitors. Sometimes the names you had to write on the caricature got a little creative. He recounted to me with horror that he drew this adorable little girl with pigtails and barrettes, then he asked her mother what her name was so he could write it down and the woman said "Va-geeena." He said he PRAYED silently that it was spelled differently than what he feared. Nope, she told him it was V-little-A, then a space, then G-I-N-A. He looked pained as he recounted the tale, saying, "The mother didn't seem to see anything wrong with the fact that I was writing VAGINA in big bubble letters over her daughter's head. It was so awful, so awful. That poor girl."

. . . 

One artist at a beach boardwalk location was approached by a teenager asking "Do you guys draw these FREEHAND?" as teens often do. The artists said, very calmly, "No, of course not. We do it by tinfoil relief." The kid looked confused. The artist explained, "We have sheets of tinfoil, and when someone sits down, we take the tinfoil and press it against their face, creating a relief sculpture of their features. Then we put that tinfoil relief against the paper and trace from it. The kid looked smug and said "Aaaaah, I KNEW it!" and ran off to tell his friends.

. . . 

Rejects happen. But every reject is different. One night in Baltimore I drew a teenaged boy as his parents looked on, with disdain. They eventually rejected the drawing, rather rudely, but then wanted me to draw their other child, a young girl. I explained that if they didn't like what I did the first time, they were not likely to want my second attempt, so they should try the other artist on duty. They insisted. I insisted back, saying that I was the exact same person, I had not been to art school in the past thirty seconds, so the work would be the same. I told them to try the artist upstairs, as we had two booths in the mall and it was just a short walk. "LET'S GO, Brittany!" the mother blurted, "THIS WOMAN doesn't have any faith in her abilities!" and they turned heel. The guy on duty upstairs was a seasoned artist and also a tough cookie, so I was confident that he could handle them. About twenty minutes later the family came back and, to my astonishment, the mother apologized to me and said she had been rude. Little had I known that, earlier, the upstairs artist had been watching from a short distance away as they rejected my drawing and acted like jerks. Apparently, when they headed up there he had flat-out refused to draw the little girl. "But we promised her!" the parents insisted as the little girl pouted. The artist said "So what? I didn't promise her anything." He said the only way he would draw their kid was if they marched back downstairs and apologized to the artist there. They then told him they would pay him double. He said "There is not enough money in the world to make me draw your kid without that apology." Lo and behold, they put their kid's caricature before their pride and did exactly as he instructed. Then he drew the little girl and off they went, perhaps a little humbled by the experience.

. . .

That's about all I have time for now. But if you have any, feel free to share below. I love a good caricature tale. See you next Tuesday!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Psychic Caricaturists?

Those that know me know I'm a skeptic. I try, in my little way, to research claims, to fight pseudoscience, and to warn my friends when they're falling for it. Psychics are definitely in that "enemy" category for skeptics. So-called mediums and fortune-tellers have bilked tons of money off the less skeptical populace, and in between the 15-minute phone readings she offered for $700, Sylvia Browne was repeatedly called out for making false claims that, sadly, ended police searches for kids that were (against Sylvia's "visions"of their demise) still alive and in need of rescue. There are often psychics working alongside me at parties, plying a far less dangerous version of their arts with that little sign "for entertainment purposes only," giving tarot readings or palmistry or just standard cold readings. While I don't subscribe to actual psychic powers existing, I do fully appreciate the power of observation. Sometimes observing just one detail can give you an edge. And in that regard, many caricature artists have that power. Sometimes we are accused of having a tinge of the supernatural about us.

My college fortune-teller costume was WAY hotter than
this. At least I'm going to tell myself that. 
In college once I was handed an opportunity that I just couldn't resist. I was at a frat house dressed as a gypsy fortune-teller (no, this is not the start of a bad joke; it was a Halloween party and that was a pretty simple Halloween costume to throw together between mid-terms). I was introduced to a guy, I said hello, and then pretended to get a premonition: I told him that his mother was thinking of him, I could see her, in the kitchen, her name was Jeannie. He FAH-REAKED. How could I possibly know that? He didn't know me, never met me before! No one at the party knew his mother's name! The poor guy was really getting stressed about this "power" I had displayed, so I finally let him off the hook later on that night. Two weeks prior, I had overheard him hitting on my friend Jeannie at a different party. He'd been drunk and prattling on about how it would never work because his mom was named Jeannie, and things would be weird, blah blah blah, drunk stuff, etc. One little tidbit of remembered information is all I'd used. He shook my hand and thanked me for the best Halloween freak-out he'd ever had.

People seem eager to ascribe something more mystical to regular old memory and observation. Especially to artists, I notice. We do something that most people do not understand. We "capture essence" and have a special way of "seeing" that transcends normal vision (according to the mystified, easily impressed tourists who talk to me at the booth, anyway). 

I had never dated a caricature artist before Robert (he's my husband and partner at Two Heads Studios, but I think all of you know that). Ten or eleven years ago, early in our relationship, we attended a wedding together and were seated amid a bunch of other folks around our age. Not knowing anyone at the table, we made small talk and the conversation turned to jobs; to the medical students and young business professionals, we were certainly the object of curiosity.

"Can you tell a lot about a person as you draw them? Like, can you 'read' people?" one young lady asked.

"Sort of," Robert said. He told them you could indeed guess things about a person based on their facial muscles and how they used them. And then, with a mix of charm and observation, he went around the table and pointed out a few little things. "Like your date, he is young but has a furrowed brow, with some lines forming already. It looks like he has engaged in a lot of intense concentration over the years. I'll bet he's studious and quite serious about what he's studying, like a brain surgeon or something."

"OH MY GOD, yes! That's crazy, how did you know!? He's studying to be a neurosurgeon! And he IS very serious! TOO serious!" his date squealed. The surgeon-to-be nodded. Rob had hit the mark, and even had the luck to guess the young man's specialty.

"And you, you smile a lot," Rob went on. "I can tell by the muscles around your smile that it seems to come naturally to you, you're not straining or trying to be social, it's just who you are. And your eyes have been all around the room in the short time we've been sitting here. I'll bet you are a bit of a social butterfly, and maybe your friends even accuse you of being--dare I say--nosy from time to time?"

The old pseudoscience of physiognomy (matching character traits with
facial features) was likely launched by the same sort of observations Rob
was making at this wedding--but boy did physignomists get out of control,
categorizing everything from sensual appetite to "Aquasorbitiveness" (affinity
for water) based on facial traits. Maybe that whole topic is
 for another blogpost . . . 
Her friends erupted into laughter. "Yes! That is SO HER!" She looked amazed.

The table of wedding guests delighted at Robert's "powers" of observation--and I was impressed too. He went around the table and made vague but surprisingly applicable "predictions" about what each person was like, and they reacted like typical customers at a psychic cold reading . . . feeding him clues without realizing it, emphasizing whatever was correct in Robert's statements while shoving aside anything that might be wrong. And they truly seemed to feel like he had taken a look into their very soul that evening. He hadn't. He was observing facial, behavioral, and verbal cues. More Sherlock than Sylvia. I cannot say whether what Rob was doing could be considered a "hot reading" (like my story about the frat boy, where a piece of information is known beforehand), or a "cold reading" (where one fishes around to get vague predictions that are then confirmed by an eager recipient), or some mixture of both. He was observing, though, and that's what made it work.

These are the same "powers" that amaze and delight our patrons when they say "you captured his personality!" No, we didn't. We captured his expression. The subject's loved ones just read his expression as his "personality" and think we have some tricky way of knowing him, as a person, from sitting in front of us. And I guess we do. We look at expressions and behavioral cues! A kid folds his arms and pouts, we draw them that way, and the mom says "how did you KNOW he does that all the time??!" Uh, because he's doing it now. And he was doing it for 75% of the time he's been sitting in front of me. It doesn't take a psychic.

These "powers" of observation are in operation all the time, even subconsciously. When an overt douchebag approaches the booth, don't we all get that Sherlock Holmes thing going on as we assess whether we really want to draw this person or not? Don't we summarize the visual and behavioral cues and come to a prediction of what kind of pain in the ass we will be dealing with? I know I do.

Over the years, drawing so many people and chatting with them while you draw, you DO get a feel for reading people, and you also get a feel for numbers. I sometimes go out on a limb and ask if someone is a teacher or a police officer. Both those professions are pretty ubiquitous, there are a LOT of teachers and a LOT of cops. So you have a high chance of guessing right just because of the numbers. But guys who have short haircuts, no facial hair, are in shape, and have that "serious" look . . . trust me, ask guys like that if they're cops and more often than not, you'll be right. And if the cop is with a sweet gal who doesn't have visible tattoos and looks conservative, ask if she's a teacher. If you get BOTH guesses right, they will really think you're psychic. I've done that before, it's pretty awesome. And if you are wrong, no harm done, just say "you look so trustworthy, I was just guessing."

Sometimes things--really uncanny things--just end up making you look psychic by chance. I was drawing once at a holiday breakfast event at some department store, and my instructions were to draw in black and white with a color stripe (I had some primary color markers with me to throw that "splash" of colored line in), and I also had to draw each kid with a toy. I didn't have to ask WHAT toy, I was going fast and just threw in teddy bears and toy trucks and dollies, whatever I saw fit. Well, I drew this three-year-old and threw in a toy airplane, and then I grabbed my red & blue marker and threw stripes on his shirt and then a red and blue stripe on the airplane.

His mother gasped and said "OH MY GOD HOW DID YOU KNOW?"

"How did I know what?" I was a little taken off guard, she was really kind of loud and seemed shaken. She explained that the youngster's father was a pilot for American Airlines (you know, the planes with the red and blue stripes across the side). How could I possibly have just drawn an airplane--an American Airlines airplane--by chance??? She was stunned. I just shrugged and said it was a wild coincidence, he kinda looked like a kid who would like planes (who doesn't?) and I had red and blue markers with me. She told me I was psychic, and would NOT be told otherwise. It could not have been a coincidence.

Well, after drawing hundreds of thousands of these things, I'm pretty sure it was a coincidence. One-in-a-million things do indeed happen, especially if you do a thing a million times. Oh well, at least I know she probably still has that drawing, and has probably told a bunch of people her story about "the psychic artist" who drew her son.

Mind you, this is a power we should be using, all the time. If you can capture a kid (or an adult, or anyone) better by throwing in something you can just tell about their personality, do it! If you can make small talk with a couple by guessing their professions, do it! It's our job to be charming and show people a side of themselves they might get a kick out of seeing reflected back at them.

I could see some caricature artists, or just some observant people, falling into the trap of letting themselves believe they do have some kind of special power. The human mind is prone to remembering hits far better than misses (that's why I keep golfing . . . I remember the ONE good shot and easily forget the eighty-seven lousy ones I made over the course of a game). It takes careful consideration to not let the lure of feeling special get to you, but it does no one favors to start thinking that way.

Randi is a very accessible hero. I've met him several times,
 and he's so gracious about posing for photos with fans.
Or worse, there are observant people who sometimes become psychics by trade and, knowing full well they are conning people, bilk them out of money or thoughtlessly ply their emotions or even their health. Magician and MacArthur Genius James Randi is one of my heroes, and he has made a career--a very long and storied career--out of investigating and exposing frauds like Sylvia Browne. He has taken down Uri Geller, Peter Popoff and many more . . . but always in the interest of being an investigator over simply a "debunker." The James Randi Educational Foundation has offered (and still offers) a million-dollar reward for any testable proof of the supernatural. Psychics have tried for decades and failed year after year. No knowing con-artists ever try for it (Sylvia was invited, and accepted the invitation on live TV, then failed to show up). The hopeful folks who do show up are always stymied as to how their powers just seem to disappear when certain parameters are set up. When things are being observed, even unconsciously, and you blind for that in a test, the effect goes away.

If Randi were to test me and see if I could guess, at a rate substantially above chance, whether someone was a teacher or a cop, he'd find out I had no special power to do so.

But if you ever meet someone who thinks they do have that special something, direct them to the JREF, and tell them to get that prize. If they really have something never before demonstrated, there would be a couple Nobel prizes to follow, no doubt.