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don@donberryillustration.com

 


An Artist's Journey

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Chapter 14: Living With a Global Economic Crisis

 

The Great Recession hit my art service in September, 2008. I had just finished illustrating "The World of Caroline", a collection of poems by Ron Leonard, but had no other projects lined up for the first time since beginning my internet-based illustration service. Although news reports were bleak, I was not overly concerned. I'd been through dry spells before, I had the recommended six months of living expenses in reserve, and actually welcomed a break from the steady flow of intense work. After all, I had done about 30 storybooks in the past five and a half years. It was a good time to catch up on domestic chores.

I also inherited two cats that month when friends Kerry and Jeremy Green decided to move to Hawaii where her parents live. Kerry tearfully asked if I'd take Kuah and Polla because she couldn't bear to turn them over to the Humane Society—they were ten years old and she felt they wouldn't be adopted and would likely be euthanized—and circumstances did not allow taking them to Hawaii.

Kerry Green on cat delivery day

I agreed. In mid-September Kerry brought the cats, along with a litter box and supply of food. Kuah, the siamese, is an outdoor cat, and Polla, a mostly white guy, is an indoor cat. Three days after he arrived, Kuah wandered off and never returned. (Kerry was very upset when she called several weeks later to check on them.) Polla gradually adapted to his new home, however, and has become a fixture in my daily life.

The business drought continued into October, so I started writing this expanded bio to occupy the time I'd normally spend on a book illustration project. Research and writing the first 13 chapters kept me busy into January, 2009. Although just a sketch of my life, it at least places most of the significant people, artwork, and events into a coherent narrative. It also has been a therapeutic exercise—a way to clarify and resolve the past so that I can move forward with less psychic baggage. At least, that was my theory.

Mom duty

I turned my attention to household projects and to my duties as the family member on-call to help my mother. She decided to move from Payson, Arizona to a senior apartment community in Tucson in the fall of 2004. Since I'm the only other family in town now, tending to her needs became my job. That duty intensified in April, 2008, after she fell, injured a shoulder, and moved from independent living to an assisted care facility.

Mom underwent two months of physical therapy and training in the summer of 2009 that greatly improved her ability to get around with her stroller and more safely get in and out of chairs and her bed. They trained me at the same time. I learned how to properly support her with a gait belt and how to help her get into and up from sitting positions.

Helen Berry at Adrienne Parry Physical Therapy in 2009.

PT-01PT-02PT-03

This improvement held for months after her therapy but her condition continued to weaken and by the end of the year she was again unable to get around on her own beyond the few steps from her chair to the bathroom, and that is a painfully slow chore with her stroller that might not be in time. She can summon help from the staff with a signal button attached to a string around her neck or press one of the wall-mounted signals in the assisted living apartment. Sometimes she will fall. Sometimes there is a mess to clean up. Sometimes both. If she falls, they call and let me know. So far she has been bruised but very lucky not to have broken a bone.

My usual schedule is to visit twice a week to take her down to dinner and eat with her and the other residents. Her monthly fee includes three meals a day in their dining room, but she sleeps late and does not want to get up to go down for breakfast--she has them bring a tray--and she doesn't eat lunch. Most residents enjoy going to meals and visiting with each other, but she prefers to stay in her room to read or watch TV. When she is taken down to dinner she might refuse to sit with certain people she doesn't like and may end up at a table alone. She doesn't like that, either.

I also take her to all her medical appointments and shopping trips to Walgreen's or Walmart. Along with the primary care physician she has regular appointments with a dentist, eye doctor, and an audiologist. There can also be appointments that pop up with a dermatologist or various labs for assorted tests, and there are occasional hospital visits.

Self-training with Adobe Illustrator software

Illustration Inquiries began coming in again, but time after time the prospective client could not or would not proceed with their project. The reason was usually unwillingness to spend during uncertain times. With the bio up to date and business still absent, I decided to use the free time to train myself to become more proficient with vector illustration using Adobe Illustrator. For the reader who is unfamiliar with graphics software this may seem mysterious, but vector-based art is created using geometric functions (vectors) that allow the image to be scaled to any dimension without losing fidelity. By contrast, pixel-based images, like digital photos, scanned images, or artwork created with paint programs such as Corel Painter and Adobe PhotoShop, will lose their sharpness when the image is enlarged. Edges will become jagged, and tones and color areas will become blocky and fuzzy--this is called "pixelation".

The trade-off is that working with vectors can be very tedious, time consuming, and unintuitive. Amazing results are possible with practice, but the process does not allow the artist to paint and draw as naturally and expressively as they can with the realistic virtual brushes and other art tools available in pixel-based paint programs. Vector art is more appropriate for logos, technical illustration, advertising art, etc. Since I had been specializing in book illustration using paint programs, I had not developed much skill with vector-based art. Now, thanks to a global economic crisis, I had time to learn more.

The 2009 version of my logo became a vector graphic.

Free Art

I also began assigning art and illustration projects to myself so that I could stay productive and keep skill levels up until business resumed. The idea arose to post the new work on my website and offer poster-size, high resolution files for free downloading so that anyone could print and enjoy them if they wished. As of this writing I've completed seven dinosaur astrology posters for my Berrytoons site, and four posters for my Free Art web page. The plan is to eventually post a complete set of 12 astrology posters and other cartoon projects, and add experiments with vector art, photography, digital paintings and other creative pieces to the Free Art page as they are completed.

This imaginary scene was created completely with vectors. It took many hours over several weeks to complete and taught me a great deal about the vector process. A poster-size JPG file of the image is available for free download on my Free Art page.

As I play this way, more possibilities arise, and I find myself becoming more and more absorbed in self-generated work. Although storybook assignments have been challenging, fun, and a source of income, it's a treat to have the time to develop personal ideas this way.

My adventures with social services

By February, 2009, I realized that business may not pick up for awhile so, for the first time in my life, I began researching food, cash, and health aid programs. I found a website, HealthEArizona, that provided an on-line application process for nutrition and cash assistance as well as health care through AHCCCS, the Arizona version of Medicaid. I completed the application on 20 February, and the instructions said I would be contacted to arrange for an interview within 30-45 days.

Several weeks went by with no response. On Thursday, April 2, I went to the nearby DES office to inquire. There were 36 people ahead of me according to the 'Take-a-Number' system, but I managed to get the attention of a woman at the appointment window.

"I applied on-line. Can I make an appointment?" I asked.

"There's no such thing as an on-line application," she replied, "You must take a number, fill out a form and wait your turn to schedule an interview." Somehow, she had not been informed of her agency's internet presence.

There followed a parade of errors and miscommunications until, a few months later, I was approved for $47 per month in food stamps and was enrolled in AHCCCS. Cash assistance was no longer available. I was puzzled by the token food allowance since I had no income and was using up all savings to survive, but was grateful to have health care, something I could never afford before.

I made an appointment with a participating physician at University Medical Center, and in October walked from my home to the appointment, less than a mile away.The checkup was with an intern with a thick middle eastern accent that I had trouble decyphering, but we managed. He conducted an interview and did the initial paperwork to enter me into the system. He then did a basic check of my body with a stethescope, and called in his supervising physician to confirm his findings. She also checked me over, said "you're just fine", and was quite pleased to have a patient that didn't weigh 300 pounds or have any apparent health issues. They ordered routine lab tests and a colonoscopy be done before our next appointment in four months and I was given a multiple vaccination shot before I left. When I processed out I was told that I would be contacted by a medical assistant to schedule the colonoscopy, but that call never came.

Small jobs for friends.

Even during a drought a few small jobs trickle in. My old friend, Debra Irons. asked for help designing a promotional brochure for her watercolor exhibits. She had been gradually moving away from her custom decorating business while steadily developing her painting skills and was exhibiting regularly with the local watercolor guild. She is currently serving as president of the group.

At the same time, a former student and friend, James Babcok, asked if I could give him some instruction in using PhotoShop to color his cartoons. I agreed and he came to my studio several times with his notebook computer and pen tablet for the lessons. He also had business ideas and projects that he wanted help with, and I agreed to digitally color several of his drawings with the goal of teaching him enough so that he could do this for himself.

The work and instruction was paid at a very low rate. James lives on Social Security Disability income because of Schiziod-Effective Disorder that prevents him from maintaining a job. He lives with and tends to the needs of his elderly mother. He gets abundant counseling and business advice from various agencies and is very persistent in efforts to promote his cartoons. By the end of the summer of 2009 he was able to use his pen tablet and PhotoShop to clean up his scanned drawings and begin to digitally color them.

I encouraged him to keep practicing so that he could eventually draw directly into the program with the pen tablet instead of going through the process of drawing on paper, scanning the artwork, then cleaning up all the specks and grit that scan in along with it. Old habits die hard, however, and a few months later he called again to request that I color more cartoons. I declined because new business had suddenly come in and I also felt that James could, with a little practice, do the coloring himself.

Book illustration business reappears

Late in October, 2009, A few weeks after my medical appointment, I was contacted by an author referred by BookSurge (now Createspace), the division of Amazon that caters to self-publishers. I quickly came to terms with Deborah Davis for the illustration of her poetic story, "Dream World", and the deposit was paid. The income meant I no longer qualified for nutrition assistance or medical care. I cancelled the follow-up appointment, never had the lab tests or colonoscopy, and that was the end of my first experience with social services.

I began work on "Dream World" in November and finished in January, 2010

dreamworld cover

The referral, although wecome, was a surprise because It was the first from BookSurge since 2006 after they were assimilated by Amazon and decided to form an in-house illustration service. I had been one of their favorite illustrators and they had been a consistent source of work for me since we first connected early in 2003, however I couldn't agree to join their stable of illustrators under the terms they offered at the time. When I declined, the referrals soon ended. Although my work flow continued from committments already made, return business and from people who found my website, the pace slowed, then stopped completely when the Great Recession hit in the fall of 2008. That is also when the cats arrived and where this chapter began.

 

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