Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Return to Sender

I was recently asked by my high school to write an essay for their "Four Columns" publication. I chose to focus on an unfortunate incident that occurred during my college application process.

I remember sitting in Spanish class the fall of my senior year at EHS. My mind started to drift away from irregular Spanish verbs as I daydreamed about being in art school the following year. I had recently sent in my application portfolio to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). The school required twenty slides of my work, plus three original pencil drawings: shoes, a bicycle, and a subject of my own choosing. The drawings had to be done in pencil on a 16 by 20 inch sheet of paper, and then folded twice. RISD provided the envelope that all the materials had to fit in. I spent a lot of time on those drawings, trying to get the details and shading just right. It was going to be so much fun to draw and paint all day in art school …

The class bell rang me back to reality. I gathered my books and went downstairs to check my mailbox. Waiting for me was a postcard. The return address indicated that it was from UPS. I flipped over the card and saw a long checklist. The top entry read “Your package was slightly damaged in transit but was delivered to the addressee.” I scanned down the list, which got progressively more tragic. It ended with “Your package was completely destroyed in the shipping process.” That last one had a check next to it, and the address for the RISD admissions office was written at the bottom of the card. It hit me: All those slides were destroyed, but worse, so were the original drawings. The application deadline had passed. I was devastated.

I showed the postcard to my art teacher, Mr. Lisanick (Mr. L), who calmed me down and said that he would call UPS to get more information. He talked to a UPS representative and was told that the envelope had gotten snagged and shredded by their conveyor belt. All that was left was a scrap of paper that had the addresses written on them, so at least UPS was able to let me know what happened. Mr. L then called RISD and got a two-week extension for my application. I was too upset the first day to get started on the drawings, but the next day I went to Mr. L’s class and got to work rendering that pair of old shoes. Mr. L gave me a lot of encouragement and helped me through that dark time.

My drawings were better the second time around, and I was accepted to RISD. Later, when I went to RISD for a tour, the admissions person read my name and said, “Aren’t you the one who had your admissions portfolio destroyed by UPS?” Everyone in the room gasped and looked at me. At least the episode made my application stick out from all the others.

I majored in illustration at RISD, and the experience was everything that I hoped it would be. I started doing freelance illustration for magazines and newspapers right out of school, but I also had plenty of art-related jobs along the way: designing t-shirts for a screen printer, doing educational illustration at a major publishing house, working for a graphic design firm in New York City, teaching college-level art in Chicago.

Ten years after graduating from RISD, I earned my master’s degree in illustration from the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in Manhattan. I used the time at grad school to refocus my portfolio on narrative work. When I graduated from SVA I had a portfolio of work geared toward children’s books, and I started to get work right away illustrating for educational publishers. I have illustrated close to twenty books—mostly educational readers—but also chapter books and an interactive storybook app that I also wrote.

I recently illustrated the picture book Dozer’s Run for Sleeping Bear Press. The story, written by Debbie Levy, is a true tale about Dozer, a dog who slips out of his yard, spontaneously joins a half marathon, and ends up running about the last eight miles. The annual race is a fund-raiser for the Greenebaum Cancer Center (part of the University of Maryland), and, when the press reported the story about Dozer’s joining the race, people from all over the world donated money on his behalf. Dozer ended up raising more money than any of the humans. I’ve become known for illustrating animal stories, and this was a fun one to work on.

In grad school we had a required writing class. After a few weeks of writing assignments, the teacher held meetings with individual students. At my meeting, the teacher said, “You write really well. Where did you go to college?”

“I went to RISD, but I placed out of English, so I didn’t do much writing in college. But my high school had a great English department, and that’s where I learned to write,” I replied. And that’s the direction that I’m going in next. I have written a couple of chapter books and picture books. I plan to hone those manuscripts and contact literary agents soon, and I’ll be sure to let the EHS community know what happens.


Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

Wow - that's quite the story Dave! I'm so glad it all worked out! :) e

Jen said...

Wonderful story Dave!