Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Grateful for the teachings of Dad

At the risk of being sermonic I’d like to start by urging those of you who are able, please humor me and those of us without parents this reminder to hug and appreciate your parents, family and loved ones this Thanksgiving.    

It’s always a shock to lose family and loved ones, and it’s a standard aphorism that we should never take them for granted. But man is it so true. Losing my mom in 2011 was a shocking surprise to me despite her heart condition…  I think this awareness made me put extra effort into connecting with dad when I can these last 5 years because, due to his health and serious issues requiring many hospitalizations, I’ve been sort of bracing myself to lose him for almost a decade now. 
So we just lost my dad earlier this month after he was already in the hospital for 2 weeks.  It was a roller coaster few weeks of hope and loss for us and the oversimplified version of it is that he had had a series of small strokes. After, these past few weeks, during which all of his children had visited with him and stayed with him, and after it was clear the doctors could do no more he was removed from life support and passed peacefully.

Many know how close I was to my dad as he was a 3D Designer and commercial sculptor too (also inventor and more which I’ll get to).  Strangely the shock isn’t half as much as he’s been having serious issues that put him in the hospital for years now. I’ve rather been preparing myself and *MORE IMPORTANTLY* trying to forgive any frustrations and just write to him and stay in touch in any way I could while I could.  See there was much I wanted to say to my mom but she passed very suddenly and I honestly wish I’d thought to write her more letters too so the things I couldn’t say in time on our weekly phone calls were able to be said.  At least I got this chance with my dad.
I discovered this early mentor/student exchange saved among his papers

Also, don’t take handwritten letters for granted either.  Years down the road I still have correspondence from grandparents and great grandparents, a legacy that’s interesting and valid still and gives incite to my early childhood and thus who I am and where I came from.  If you can find those and keep those.  And consider writing hand printed letters so that future generations can too.

And of course photos.  I’m so glad we’ve got hard copy photos everywhere for the memories.

My youngest brother isn't present yet (I'm only 3 here) but a rare group pic

In City Island NY, on Iris
So let’s see… I won’t do my dad’s legacy any sort of justice because I’m rather private about sentimental things I guess but to start, my place in the scheme;  I was my mom's only child. My 3 older siblings (like me) also lost their mother a while back to cancer in the early 2000’s. We all have a younger brother and I'm honored to be good friends with his mom as well. That’s 5 Kilbourn Kids total.

  As such, he really adopted a mentoring role with me on his weekends.  I was definitely lucky this way with both parents really trying very hard and showing me tons of love  and edumacate me as best as possible.  I definitely felt that I was raised as an only child aspect despite having siblings I saw mostly at the holidays.   Sibling household dynamics fascinate me and most of my close friends and even my husband all come from bigger households. :) 
Dad always encouraged my horse obsession - here he is holding my OTTB mare "Fussy"
Mom and dad were separated when I was 3 so it was just mom and I from then on with visiting dad every other weekend.
Both mom and dad were also brilliant sensitive people with advanced degrees and it’s interesting that I haven’t matched their level of education (Masters) nor do I feel half as smart as them (IQ tests bear that out too admittedly) still in many ways.  Dad was big on letting me know anything was possible.  Yes, the whole “but could I be president” sorts of conversations parents have with their kids as well as encouraging me in any way possible.  Still despite being a “know it all” and privileged kid quite honestly I’ve always been humbled by my parents’ insightfulness and intellect.

Dad also was very big on adventures, many stories there.   I will leave those off… many of them involved him saying “Whoops!” hahaha… and then adventure ensued. 
He actually lived in the apartment at this boatyard for much of the time.  Smurf was off to Hartford (Coleco offices) I presume.

And then of course there was the very informative time spent with him in the studios or home workshop doing 3d projects for the companies he worked for (when being lead designer means rush projects don’t stop just because you have your kid for the weekend).. I spent hours marveling at how things worked in a toy company for example.  Being the cobbler’s child I actually had very FEW toys..  Even more oddly this actually made me leery of ever pursuing art, especially commercial art, as a career!  It’s grueling work and USUALLY* it’s uncredited.   Often you work with a whole team.  I was always sad to see he not only didn’t get to sign his name to his work but he also had to pass it on to the next parts of the team for refinements – his work being altered!  As an aspiring artist this was a shock.  

Now to be clear there were other artists in my family, extremely talent fine artists all too and their work was unadulterated and more typical “art” forms. However they didn’t sell enough to make a living at it (even though internationally recognized).  This was the lesson really, it’s rare to make a living wage anymore as a full time artist.   Dad went from freelance to full time employment back to freelance.  He liked his work most of the time, at least I never heard him dislike much, but also to was the lesson of doing art you don’t like or that isn’t very “artistic” (like designing joy stick controller).  All commercial artists (3d designers to graphic) are probably familiar with that.  And honestly it probably made it easier for me to broach graphic design as a career later and then eventually accept and really appreciate the commercial work I’ve done, limited as it is so far.

Why not drop this here.  No explanations really needed.
To be clear about one other thing, doing work that’s not moving you, such as making graphic designs for something very mundane and drab like a corporate folder, is like a bad day of fishing.  It’s still better than anything else you could be doing for a living. ;)

Working full time as an artist is a gift and I learned that from dad in spades.  Being able to make your own career path was his goal for all his children and all of us have had our own businesses for the most part.

I’ve discussed with him earlier this year for instance the time he worked with Coleco on the Cabbage patch kids.  I remember him back in the 80s going off to meet Xavier Roberts and his Babyland General world he had created for the original soft faced dolls.. it was the sort of work story ANY kid would remember (he also met other people for other projects, and had similar wild stories about what their studios were like).  However I also remember seeing these 2inch diameter “kids” dad was sculpting and being incredibly skeptical.   So I asked him this year why they ever had him work so small on the initial designs.  I guess there were consultants brought in from outside (other major toy) companies and ultimately the design was reworked by a 3rd party group in China or some such deal.  It was really fascinating to me honestly.  It also makes me appreciate the companies I have done work for that have given me credit at the END of the game.  It may be a lot of pressure but sometimes it’s a little sad that the artist cogs in the wheels of design are forgotten.  So please know that my dad was involved in many hits of the 70s and 80s including aspects of these recognizable hit items;

  • ·         Cabbage Patch kids (to be clear - Xavier Roberts is the artist who created these for a long time prior to the super fad)
  • ·         Smurf mobiles and other lots of smurf gizmos (creator/designer Peyo sounded equally as interesting as Roberts, at least his studio did.  I don't remember if dad met him directly)
  • ·         Cat in the Hat mobiles & things (I don’t remember him going to meet Suess though, pretty sure that didn't happen)
  • ·         ET mobile et al, (I do remember him VERY excited to go meet Spielberg and then instead only to get to meet both Spielberg’s assistant but also only ET’s understudy/double as the real deals were far too busy... it's never as glamorous as you would think)

There were maybe 5 to 10 other artists on these projects with him but he was still one of the unsung heros there.  I’m such a fervent supporter of giving artists credit still to this day in part because when we don’t respect the “creatives” as they were once called in the biz, the creatives leave and the world without the more brilliant creatives is a very soul-less place I don’t want to see come to fruition.  Watching him work taught me the value of team and also of self-respect there.

Dad's Olin boot patent (see that long link below for this on the patent office site)

Dad used to tell me stories too and I would think they were exaggerated only to learn later on that nope, they really were true.  Like that he “invented” a major design for Olin ski boot.  I remember doing a report on it when I was younger, “my hero is my dad” theme and having a drawing of the gusset he’d gone in on a patent for, but later when the internet became a thing and I stumbled across the ability to look up patents for ha’ha’s I looked up his name and well, here it is;
Just him and Bob on that one.  The sketches are so standardized I’m not sure if he or Bob or a 3rd party artist was brought in to do them (I can’t recognize his work there but almost feel like those are his handwriting style numerals).

Other crazy stories all the time would crop up and sort of blow my mind a bit.. I was talking about Bucky ball technology once and he mentioned "I knew Buckminster Fuller" and I'd pause.  What?  And then he'd mention he took a class or maybe it was a short workshop by him at Pratt.    It wasn't too much of a story or name dropping, he just was like that.  He did a lot, knew a lo and met a lot of really cool people too.  Dad just lived a fascinating life.

Also quickly back to life as a kid of a Coleco employee for a minute.   As we head into Christmas season here I can say that 34 years ago I was transformed into a begging pleading kid “omg omg omg can you get me one???”.  I learned that despite being an employee there, and an “insider”.. that more employees wanted dolls than Coleco had for them.  So there was a closet with a PILE of dolls and a raffle system.   And that the dolls would not be boxed or come with their birth certificates (a major part of the charm I guess).  I’d like to add that this is pretty much the only doll I ever wanted.  Even though I’d scorned the little 2inch faces a year before.  Go figure.  Hype works man.  Anyhow, I did get one. I remember her name still, Alyssa (maybe spelled differently).  She came in a box and I later learned he didn’t win the raffle.  Isn’t that ironic?  Later on he did get one for his 3rd wife and I recently salvaged her from storage.  She’s in rough shape here (and not very valuable as a factory sample – it’s all sentimental).  Anyhow, that was an interesting bit of madness/history that gave me insight into companies that would serve me later.  

Refugee from the storage items that are mostly gone now.  She's very moldy and damaged.  One of those 'employee closet' dolls later on after that first crazy hyped Christmas.

I just cannot emphasize enough what a force he was in urging me to be as creative as possible.  From offering to help in any way, with supplies and help cutting things (most 10 year olds don’t wield dremels).. to photography.. to graphic design work even.  I feel like the luckiest of my siblings in that way, that I had this ability to relate to that, and he always espoused how proud he was of how industrious I was.   It was my outlet, as I was pretty much a loner (and still sort of am most of the time).  There were also things my siblings just didn't understand like all the gifts of the more unique dead animals he found.  One almost ruined Christmas but I took the bag elsewhere to open it and my siblings remained mostly ignorant of the horrors it held). ;)   I definitely was encouraged to be different as were each of his children in special ways.  We all got newspaper clippings of stories and cartoons applicable to us.

Dad showing my horse for me at a farm fun show.  He loved animals.

Then there was the practical dad stuff too.. Albeit not entirely in the normal ways.   Such as that dad also taught me to drive…with a few twists.  Seriously, like “lets take the [nice classic car fanciers collector item] Toronado car to the hay field and drive in between bales of hay”…. And one pair he had me drive between pushed in both side mirrors.  This car was in such nice condition you can only imagine. Or you had better go into this snowy parking lot and blow donuts until you learn how to correct a slide in the snow or ice (very very valuable skill).

He also taught me to boat years before, mostly driving an outboard.  In fact recently I had a dream I inherited one of the (many) boats he lived on (serially)… and realized I still didn’t know diddly.  It was a stress dream about not being able to do things he would dance around and do as par for the course in boating.  Just little "hold on let me moor her better here before we go" type of things I'm sad to say I wouldn't even know where to start.  He even would take newbie boat owners at the marinas he lived at out on their boats and give them tips and ideas. 

The Rottie is "Duncan" and the brindle guy, "Taco" was mine at this time but I gave him to dad when Duncan died.  Taco was so happy living life as a boatyard dog with dad.

Dad was totally a teacher at heart.  First and foremost a teacher and I think most people felt a pretty charismatic one, the kind that got you interested in the topic.  He initially taught art after he graduated from Wesleyan (Masters in teaching) if I recall the course of events correctly.  I know he met my mom this way, and taught at the same high school in Hamden as my mom’s dad (also art teacher, and a sculptor whom he admired – which is how my parents met).   We spent a lot of time talking about his teaching as I tried to learn tips on how to be a better teacher.  I really haven’t gotten many, he was a natural.  I once watched him explain to someone how a combustion gas engine works with a loaf of French bread, spoons and glass jars.  Later cgi graphics verified for me how accurate his piston examples were.   It's a rare talent to be able to make due with supplies at hand to teach more complicated principals with not only accuracy but entertainment value!
Dad and my brother this past summer, in a boat again obviously!  Dad is telling interesting stories about the river here.

A couple of years ago we were walking (very slowly, he was extremely weak at the time) in a groomed trail wooded area of North Carolina swamp preserve  and he pointed out a buck standing off in the distance in the woods.  Despite the horns with all the wood and the deer being frozen still I struggled to see even after being aware of it and its location.  Dad always was a good shot, it runs in the family.. but this wasn’t about hunting, it was about being sharp and observant.  I can only hope to be half that sharp into my 70s, let alone beyond.

So much is lost when we lose anyone.  My dad was of course not perfect and he himself would say he wished he’d taken better care of himself if he’d known he was going to live so long.  That said, he lived and died on his own terms in many respects and while that decision to accept removing life support was hard, his passing immediately let us know that he was ready.
Captain Kilbourn living life on his own terms.  Smooth seas dad.  We miss you.
 There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.
The Wind in the Willows
The boat rat quote was one of Dad's favorites.