Ralph Denman was a hard working, no-nonsense educator who ran his own private school.
I attended Denman Day School from the 2nd grade until the 7th, when Ralph Denman finally retired.
It was a wonderful school that focused on the basics of reading, writing, arithmetic, history, foreign languages and art.
I liked art best, but it got me in a lot of trouble.
Put down that pencil and pay attention
Placing a binder full of blank paper in front of a kid who loves to draw is like dumping a bag of Halloween treats in front of a candy lover. It’s nearly impossible to resist!
When I was in Denman Day School, I was constantly drawing and doodling in my binders and the margins of my text books.
During class lectures, I loved to sketch as I listened and took notes. Frequently, the teachers saw me doodling and yelled, “Johnny, put down that pencil and pay attention!”
The assumption was that doodling was a distraction. Sometimes it was, particularly when I became overly absorbed in what I was drawing.
But just as often, the doodles supported what I was learning. If only I had known back then the arguments in favor of visual note taking. Maybe I would have gotten into less trouble with my teachers.
A kind of creative escape
Rachel S. Smith is a visual facilitator who speaks about the value of drawing while taking notes. In an article at qz.com she wrote:
“Using simple words and pictures helps us to see connections between pieces of information.”
When I used to doodle in class, I often incorporated key points and information into my drawings. It definitely helped me remember more.
As Rachel S. Smith notes:
“The act of deciding what to draw and where to put things gets linked in my mind with whatever I am hearing.”
Here’s Rachel S. Smith’s TEDx talk on the subject.
Doodling and sketching stayed with me through grade school, high school and college.
In fact, I continued the practice throughout my law enforcement career. Be it meetings, workshops, professional classes or conventions, my notes were always adorned with related doodles and cartoons.
These visual notes not only helped me remember and connect ideas, they made all those meetings and training classes more bearable and productive.
Drawing, sketching, cartooning and doodling became a kind of creative escape for me. An artful way to get through a lot of information and boring details.
The very thing that used to get me into trouble in grade school became a valuable part of my professional and personal life. And not just for note taking.
I found that incorporating little cartoons in my work related memos, reports and letters brought smiles to my coworkers. I was often tapped to craft birthday and retirement cartoons for my co-workers.
My cartoons lampooning office events were immensely popular. Even the bosses whom I gently ridiculed couldn’t help but laugh.
See new possibilities
Away from school and work, creating artwork also served me well. In fact, it was my greatest passion and pastime.
I was seldom bored as a child because I spent hours drawing and sketching in my Academie sketch pads. Rainy days were no big deal for me, because it meant I could stay inside and draw.
Sometimes, I’d be locked in my room doodling superheroes. Other times, I’d hike into the woods to sketch birds, deer, trees and plants.
Eventually, I discovered oil painting and sought expert instruction. I flew to Idaho to study landscape painting from Scott L. Christensen, one of the top painters in the country.
Landscape painting (both in my studio and en plein air) became a healthy, stress reducing escape from my professional life as a police chief.
My painting passion introduced me to other artists and new ways of thinking, which indirectly benefited my police career. I learned to approach problems creatively and to think outside the box more.
My artwork and creativity made me more well rounded, curious, attentive, well adjusted and just plain happier.
Writer Katherine Parrott, in a Huffington Post piece on creativity, wrote:
“Some of the greatest visionaries of our times have been highly creative people — think the Wright brothers, Walt Disney and Steve Jobs. No-one ever created anything exceptional by sticking to the status quo, and the creative attributes of being able to see new possibilities or ideas and think of solutions are hugely valuable skills.”
The gift that keeps on giving
What is the creative or artful thing that quickens your heart? Perhaps it’s writing or music? Needlepoint, sculpting or photography?
There are so many different creative pursuits. Some may not fall under the traditional “arts” but are an art unto themselves. Like creative coding or artful web design.
Whatever your creative passion is, here’s the exciting part. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. You never get tired of it. You always look forward to it.
The other cool thing is that your creative passion is all about the journey, not the destination. Take my landscape painting, for example.
Yes, I want to draw and paint like some of the contemporary masters. People like Richard Schmid, Casey Baugh and Scott L. Christensen. Not to mention some of the past masters like John Singer Sargent and Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida.
But it’s the process of learning, growing and improving that’s the most fun for me. With the creative arts, there’s never a point where you finally arrive.
Sure, you can reach a level of mastery, but you’re never really done. There’s always more to learn.
“The further I get, the more I regret how little I know.”— Claude Monet
Writer Drew Kimble, in his blog post at Skinnyartist.com, noted:
“Success almost always arrives slower than we expect, which is why we should focus on measuring our progress rather than our results. After all, the reward of being a creative artist is in the doing, not the having.”
Your creative passion. This is the gift that keeps on giving. It’s like a “loyal companion.”
People may come in and out of your life. Your career will have its ups and downs.
But your art will always be there for you.
Patiently waiting. Anxious to reward your creative urges and artfulinspirations with the peace and deep sense of fulfillment that comes from creative expression.
It was there for me when I was a boy doodling in the classroom.
It accompanied me many late nights in college.
It got me through some tough years in law enforcement.
It sustains me now.
(Originally published here)