Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Fantasy Art and National Teacher's Day

Today is National Teacher's Day, so I thought it appropriate that I make a post I've been meaning to make for a while about one of my teachers back in Middle School - my 9th grade art teacher, Tom Wood, at Albion Middle School in Sandy, Utah.

I've mentioned before that I got into fantasy, science-fiction, pulp stories, and D&D back when I was living in Utah in the early 80s.  One of the guys who got me into all of this stuff was a really awesome artist friend named John.  This was back at the end of 6th grade, at Eastmont Middle School in Utah.  I was friends with John for most of 6th grade, and all of 7th and 8th grades.  That entire time, played D&D, traded comics and novels, and drew.  A lot.  John was really, really good, and he encouraged me to get better.  Even today, I am but a very pale shadow of what John was back then, but he never really made fun of me - instead, he taught me his style (which I think he had learned from his dad), and he would push me to get better and stretch my boundaries.

I was fond of trying to copy the drawings that I saw in Dragon magazine and on the covers of the pulp novels we read.  I remember when the Dragonlance novels came out there was one drawing of a really old ancient dragon (I don't remember which one), but it's leathery bat-like wings were so old and stretched that in places, there were holes in them where the wing flaps had been stretched too far.

John knew me too well.  "Next time you draw a dragon, I don't want to see you draw one with holes in the wings.  Just use your own imagination and your own style.  Don't copy other people."

After 8th grade, we were all supposed to "graduate" from Middle School and move off to a bunch of different High Schools based on where we lived.  John, and most of my D&D friends, were getting moved to Jordan High School.  My sister went to Alta, so I assumed that's where I would be going.  Most of my soccer friends, and the girl that I had a HUGE crush on, were going there.  There was a third high school, Brighton, but that was the one that nobody really wanted to go to.

And then it happened... halfway through our 8th grade year, we were made aware that the school district was building a new school.  This one was going to be an experiment - a middle school that was only for 7th, 8th, and 9th grades.  And, guess who got put into that stupid district?  Me.  Yup.  I had to do a fourth year of Middle School.  It was so ridiculous and very demoralizing for those of us who had to go, because all of the kids moving onto to High School started to make fun of us for being stuck in Middle School again.

So that's a very long introduction to talk about my art teacher, Mr. Wood.  He was the art teacher at the new Albion Middle School, and he was definitely a huge change from the art teacher I had at my previous middle school for 6th-8th grades.  That woman was more of a "traditionalist" teacher, who played classical music on her stereo during class and had us paint still lifes and draw live figures and stuff.  It was a very good foundation, but just kind of boring.

Mr. Wood was the exact opposite.  He was funny, laid-back, low-key, and encouraged us to use our imaginations and draw things spontaneous rather than copy from looking at something else.  He had done background animation work on the "Thundarr the Barbarian Cartoon", which made him super cool in my book.

One of the first assignments I remember he asked the class to do was to draw a Wizard.  "Any kind you want.  Go crazy and use your imagination."  He wrote the word on the chalkboard, only he spelled it "Wizzard."  Like the total unhelpful kid who always has to point out mistakes, I raised my hand and said, "Um, you spelled it incorrectly.  Wizard only has one 'Z'."

Without skipping a beat, Mr. Wood looked at the chalkboard, and said, "No... this is a Wiz-ZARD!  They are the top of the top - the absolute best wizards in the land!"

Part of me was skeptical, because even at the young age of 14, I could tell that he was totally bluffing.  But, another part of me thought it was totally cool that he rolled with the punches and came up with that explanation to save face in front of the class after the class goody-two-shoes tried to call him out.  So, I shut up and gained a lot of respect for Mr. Wood that day.

I can't seem to find the picture that I drew, but I remember it very clearly.  I went a totally different direction than you might think.  Rather than drawing a super awesome powerful D&D type wizard, I drew a cartoon dog, Hanna Barberra style, with a pointy wizard cap and robe, pointing a wand that was shooting stars directly at the viewer.  The title was, "Dweomercraft Dog." 

Mr. Wood totally dug it.

©1984, Martin R. Thomas
I wish I still had it, but I have included two other sketches I did while in Mr. Wood's class so you can get a sense of my style back then, and also the kinds of things he let us draw.

One of my other favorite assignments included getting to silk screen my first t-shirt.  Mr. Wood wanted us to make our own version of a concert t-shirt, so he asked us to pick a band and make a design that was complementary, but not a direct copy, to something they had done on one of their albums, and then create a template and silk screen a t-shirt.

©1984, Martin R. Thomas
I picked the U2 album "The Unforgettable Fire", which was my absolute favorite album at the time, and did this oval shape that had a filled-in sunset background with a silhouetted castle in front, and then the "U2" logo at the top.  Again, Mr. Wood really liked my design, and I remember it was also the first time in my adolescent school career that girls paid attention to me as something other than a total dweeb loser.

"Hey!  Did you see that?  He likes U2!  He can't be a total loser!"

That was a huge turning point for me in learning that I could talk to people about things that they were interested in, because I had a broader field of knowledge that went beyond gaming and SF/Fantasy.  I had just never tried it before.

So, here's a big thanks to Mr. Wood for helping me gain a little confidence, both regarding my artistic skill, but importantly in life in general.  I tried to look him up online and I can seen references to him, but nothing where I could send him a quick email note. It looks like he's still teaching art in the Jordan School District, or at least he was a few years ago.


Also, I would be remiss not to take this opportunity to thank the teachers at my daughter's day care.  They do an awesome job, and I highly recommend that if you are looking for a daycare facility in the Pasadena area, you give Pasadena Day Nursery a look.  You won't be disappointed.

What teachers influenced your gaming and fantasy habits growing up?


  1. As a father of a two-year old, gamer, teacher, and fellow blogger I relate more and more to your blog each day. The building in which I teach is a "new" building for 5-6 graders and, while I don't have any particularly fond memories of art teachers myself, the art teacher at my building is amazing and, in many ways, similar to your Mr. Wood. He brings out absolutely amazing works from kids of all types. Maybe I'll post a slideshow sometime. BTW, how is it you have so much of your art from so long ago? I've lost so much...

    P.S. The fact that Mr. W worked on Thundarr gives him credit beyond belief!

  2. Hey there! A Belated Happy National Teacher Day to you as well, Dylan. Cheers!

    Glad you're enjoying the blog. I stop by Digital Orc all the time, so the feeling is mutual.

    Oh, and as for my old artwork... well, the reason behind it is a long story, but in a nutshell, my parents and grandparents (both sides of the family) did not keep anything over the years, so I always had trouble in school when you were supposed to do those genealogy assignments and stuff, because, for example, my dad doesn't even know who his paternal grandfather is. There are no records or documentation. It used to frustrate me to no end that our family had no kind of records or mementos or anything. So, as a kid, I started to save everything - school papers, drawings, diaries, letters and cards from friends... and I have it all, still to this day. Some of them are packed up in the garage, but some of them I keep in my office/"Fortress of Solitude". One day, the entire collection would make a very nice "Presidential Library", except of course that I'm not President.

    The cool thing is, that's why I have access to all of my old RPG stuff. I still have my very first character sheet from Moldvay Basic D&D back in 1983 saved in a folder right here near my desk.

    So... you can expect LOTS of "here's an old thing I designed 25 years ago that sucks" posts in the near future.

  3. I really enjoyed this post. I'm sure your former teacher would be touched to know that he was such a positive influence on you and that so many years later you'd have such fond memories of him. I imagine this is what motivates most teachers because we all know they aren't getting rich and there are a ton of headaches that go along with being a teacher.

    Although I don't recall a teacher influencing my gaming or fantasy interest, I've really been blessed with learning from some amazing teachers. They challenged and inspired me in so many ways. The main thing I learned is that it isn't about the grade but about the learning...to enjoy the journey of expanding my knowledge, my world, my views, and to open my mind to the possiblities.

    Many thanks to the teachers who helped shape me and so many others.


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