Pictures Not At An Exhibition by
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Having been an anthropology major (in the bowels of the Peabody Museum in Cambridge) and then  — formerly — married to the President of the American Museum of Natural History, I’ve got a lot more I could say about natural history museums than art museums.  That said,  I have also spent a fair amounf of time in the latter, including the near-obligatory art history survey course my freshman year in college with the equally near-obligatory Janson’s History of Art as our primary text book:

Having been an anthropology major (in the bowels of the Peabody Museum in Cambridge) and then  -- formerly -- married to the President of the American Museum of Natural History, I've got a lot more I could say about natural history museums than art museums.

(I trust this looks familiar to almost everyone.)


But I choose to go in another direction and instead briefly tell about my own pathetic little history as an “artist.”

When I was in grade school, I had two main interests: sports and drawing.  Neither turned out to be my destiny.  As to the former, you can read my recent interview-prompt story to know about that, at least with regard to baseball.  As to the latter, I had a fairly decent eye and could draw pretty well for a kid, but nothing prodigal about it.  In fact, I think one of the things that I most enjoyed about it was simply because I was ambidextrous.  My parents, both lefties, quickly encouraged me to write right-handed, as they knew it would be so much easier going left to right on a page without worrying about smearing the ink and being able to see what I was writing.  But, of course, there was no reason that I couldn’t draw from right to left, so I often drew left-handed simply for the “freedom” it gave me.

Stylistically, I had no style.  Like most kids, I just wanted to draw something so that it looked like “real life.”  So forget Impressionism or any other “ism” for me.  And, as to subject matter, at the time, sports were far more interesting to me than, say nude women.  (Yeah, forget “Plus la change….”: Some things do change over time.)

To the extent I had a muse, he was an illustrator named Robert Riger whose work appeared frequently in “Sports Illustrated.” Riger drew very realistic pictures of sporting events, and particularly pro football. Not surprisingly, he was also a professional sports photographer.  The featured image is a collection of football sketches he did for Shell Oil around 1960; I recall asking my father to gas up his car at Shell one time rather than his usual Mobil just so I could get the set.

Like Riger, I loved drawing pictures of the major team sports — football, basketball, baseball and hockey — and tried to do them as realistically as possible.  Was I any good?  Well, my parents thought so, but they were my parents.  They even got me some sort of an album in which I could carefully mount all of my drawings.  Actually, I eventually needed two albums. Again, was I any good?  We will never know.

Though I remember keeping the albums at least through high school (“Oh, that’s cute,” my high school girlfriend, who was much better than I ever was, once nicely remarked when I jokingly showed her my “etchings”), at some point they went the way of my baseball cards and model trains and mysteriously disappeared from my closet when I was away at school. But we can be sure that  their loss is hardly to be mourned by any art museum.  Hence my deservedly humble title.

Interestingly (at least to me), I still remember certain vignettes about my drawings.  I can think of three off hand.

First is the fact that I was almost more concerned with the players’ uniforms than in what they were doing, and I always tried to make their logos particularly interesting. Indeed, I invented a team, the “Arrows,” mainly because the name created some obvious graphic opportunities.  In particular, the cross part of the “A” could be made into an arrow extended rightward.  Additionally, the bottom of the “s” could extend leftward to underline the whole name  I illustrate crudely:

Brilliant, huh?

Second, I remember one particular problem I had drawing hockey players.  Specifically, I found it difficuly to have them with both hands on their hockey sticks, with one hand substantially below the other (as hockey sticks are typically held), without the latter arm looking ridiculously longer than the former.  At some point, I realized that bended elbows and a hunched over posture took care of this issue, but it took me a while to work that one out. Did da Vinci have the same problem?

Third, I remember that my self-styled “piece de resistance” was a football drawing in which I had somehow managed to get all twenty two players included, albeit some were pretty much hidden behind other ones.  I was pretty damn proud of the piece.  But then my 14-year old cousin, a smart ass who was visiting us over the summer, saw it and pointed out that the players were spread out all over the field without any regard to where they might be in any sane football play.  I remember being really ticked off by his dismissive remark.  I mean, critics, right? However, after he left, and particularly as I learned more about football and football formations, I realized that he had been exactly right and my picture made no sense from that standpoint.  In fact, at his father’s funeral some thirty five years later, I apologized to him about this.  Amazingly, he remembered it too and it was a nice, amusing moment for us to share.  (His father, a huge football fan and also a smart ass, would have appreciated it as well.)

In any event, I am confident that my career choices did not lead to there being one fewer great artists.  As to there being one more great lawyer, well, I’m not so sure of that either. Or even that such a need exists.

Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin

Characterizations: funny, right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    First, of course I remember Janson, it still sits on my bookshelf with many other art books.

    But who knew that we had such a great little sports artist in our midst? Good for you for sticking at it, trying so hard, combining your love of sports and drawing. That’s a very nice hobby for a youngster, and it didn’t matter if you were truly “gifted”. You had some talent and you enjoyed it. That’s what counted. Drawing the entire football team took a lot of time. The fact that they weren’t in a play formation was somewhat beside the point (they aren’t in a team photo either). But interesting that your cousin’s comment stuck with you all those years; it must have burned. You laugh it off now with aplomb and glad you both got past it, but it probably hurt when you were kids and you were so proud of your creation. Critics, who needs ’em, right?

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks so much, Betsy, for your kind words. All critics should be so kind. That siad, I really think I am simply looking at my “artistic abilities” (and knowledge of football) with a clear eye now and don’t feel the least bit scarred or troubled by what might have been. I feel the same way about my piano lessons, though I didn’t enjoy those nearly as much.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    OMG — I remember Janson’s book so well. It’s too bad your mother tossed your sports drawings. It would have been fun to revisit them. On the other hand, I found an old sketch book that I had filled with really awful attempts to do portraits when I was in what we now call middle school. I wish that had been tossed, as it was painful to see my lack of talent.

  3. Marian says:

    Janson, yes of course, John. That brings back memories … I love how, as a kid, you combined your art and sports interests. While I guess you couldn’t aspire to being Leroy Nieman, it seems as if the drawings gave you enjoyment, despite some of the negative comments you received. Too bad the drawings don’t exist.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Yes; everyone does seem to have had and remember Janson. As to Leroy Nieman, for whatever reason, I never really liked him. I think I viewed his drawings as too “stylized” — whatever that means — when I wanted realism. Plus, I always thought his whole mustache-cigar-paling around with the jocks schtick was infra dig for an artist. (See — I can be a critic, too!)

  4. Who knew you were a frustrated sports artist John!

    But look at it this way, if you had pursued that career you might be retired by now anyway! So all’s well that ends well!

  5. Suzy says:

    I guess I must be the only one who doesn’t know Janson. I have never seen that book before. Of course, I have never taken an art history course either. Fine Arts 13 had no appeal for me, I was strictly music! But like others, I am sad that we don’t get a chance to see your drawings. That one of the football team must have been amazing. And I agree with Betsy, who cares if they weren’t in their positions on the field!

    • John Shutkin says:

      I didn’t realize that you were not only burdened with Nat. Sci. 5, but you didn’t take Fine Arts 13. How did you expect to meet cute Cliffies — the main reason all of us guys signed up for the latter. Nonetheless, you have overcome enormous obstacles in your undergraduate education. But, as your own story makes clear, you obviously didn’t need Fine Arts 13 — or Janson — to learn to appreciate art and great museums.

      And thanks for choosing artistic license over football logic, even with my unseen masterpiece.

  6. Oh, John, I truly hope you still enjoying making art on some level, and that you keep a sketchbook handy! I seem to remember a previous story where you included something you’d drawn…maybe something along the lines of graphic design? Anyway, screw the profit angle…even doodling is fun and good for the spirit. (Have you heard of Zentangle? And can you believe coloring books for adults are all the rage, and have been for some years now?)

    • John Shutkin says:

      I still like to draw and doodle, but it only reinforced my opinion that I’m really not very good at it. And I do know about the coloring books, but sending my kids to Bank Street instilled in me a ridiculous sense that “drawing inside the lines” is no fun.

  7. This was a very enjoyable voyage into a child’s and then young adolescent’s mind and relationship to art and drawing. As one who has thought a lot about how we encourage young people to express themselves, through art as well as language, it is great to have such a well thought out self-portrait of the artist as a young boy.
    P.S. If you aren’t familiar with the works of Kadir Nelson, please do yourself a favor and look for them–especially WE ARE THE SHIP.

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