Memories and Gratitude

It is interesting to me what memories come back when one is faced with a loss that leaves a hole much bigger than expected. I’ve been sitting with the news of this loss for a few months, and this has given various stories time to surface, many of which I now understand were the seeds of major turning points in my artistic life and subsequent career. But, honestly, who understands that in their college years, especially when those years are rife with insecurity and self-doubt?

My early 20s were spent agonizing over not being enough. I had gotten my first college degree (in Fine Art) survived a toxic job situation complete with rampant sexual harassment, and now spent my evenings retreating into dim corners of whatever dance club was open. I had my sketchbook, pens and a tentative relationship with an exceptionally talented artist who was fairly well-known in the community at that time. He, too, carried his sketchbook everywhere and was well-used to the praises and accolades of his peers. I hung on his every word and took his advice to me as gospel. As the vastly superior artist, he knew better in all things, and that included what I was capable of producing. For him, I was enough. Just. It was clear to both of us that I would never be anywhere close to his level, so I didn’t bother trying.

I had just been ripped off to the tune of several thousand dollars on a large amount of spec work (I know … TRUST me, I know) that had come to me through a recommendation from this artist. He was retained by the studio owner for further work and paid quite well. I was let go with phone calls unreturned and emails bounced back. When I expressed any sorrow or anger over this, he would simply shrug and chalk it up to yet another indication of our respective worth as artists. The message could not have been clearer.

Enter Al Kamajian.

Al and I met in one of the many now-defunct Goth-Industrial cubs of NW DC where I would stake out space to draw in a darkened corner. It was the early 90s. I had just gotten my first pair of glasses, which I knew I needed but refused to wear much of the time, because vanity. Al was dating an acquaintance of mine and they spent long hours dancing together. My first working memory of Al is of watching him negotiate the dance floor with skill, joy and complete confidence. We would exchange greetings at the start of the night and farewells when either of us left. It wasn’t until he found me in my corner struggling with some cross hatching on a recent illustration that he struck up a lengthy conversation and told me that he was an artist as well.

Since my experience with other artists up to that point had me believing the myth of the starving artist, meeting Al was like a beam of focused light that lit up my perceptions of what it meant to be an artist. Not only was Al a working artist, but quite a successful one too. After our initial sketchbook meeting he made a point each week at the one particular club we both frequented to seek me out, ask what I was working on and share his current projects. He gave me advice on use of light and shadow, line weight and composition. This was not the nebulous, vague and often hurtful advice I was used to. Al was specific, gave examples, asked to borrow my pens so he could show me what he was describing. It was the sort of advice that made my artist self light up inside with an “a-ha”. When he told me I could find a current completed project of his on the magazine shelf at Borders Books (this should give you an idea of the time all this was taking place), I was eager to go and find it. It was a cover painting for Scientific American, a skeleton using primitive grinding tools. This particular cover image is now widely considered iconic, citied by many as one of their favorite illustrations from that publication. Another of those images, the Robo Tuna, is below. It is probably the piece of art for which Al is best known.

The artist I was seeing at the time was somewhat puzzled by my interactions with Al, and in hindsight I realize it was because of the changes he was seeing in my perception of my self, my work and my worth as an artist. Al was blisteringly angry when I described the spec work debacle, and while he gently but firmly chided me for working with no contract, he also recognized that my inexperience had been thoroughly exploited for another’s gain. He introduced me to the Illustrator’s Club, an organization still active in the DC Metro Area, told me about resources for recouping losses and for legal advice. It was incredibly validating to have someone actually angry on my behalf, and for that someone to be a knowledgable working artist whose perceptions and experience I could trust. Most importantly, he told me, almost apologetically, that I needed to find a better and more supportive network of friends, rather than spending time with those who discouraged my growth and constantly cited what they perceived to be my limitations.

It should be mentioned here that at the time this was all taking place, Al was close to two decades my senior, a fact he swore me to secrecy about, not wanting to attract criticism for his continued attendance at clubs that attracted a generally much-younger crowd. In our time spent together, Al was never ever intimidating, inappropriate, or creepy. He had no hidden agenda. He wasn’t setting me up for some sort of payback in the future. Al was genuinely interested in what he saw in my sketchbook, what it could mean for me as an artist and how he could help me manifest it into some sort of practical reality. He was a mentor in the true sense of the word.

As the years passed, Al’s relationship with his dance partner dissolved and I saw him less and less. By the time I stopped attending clubs altogether, he had as well, and we lost touch as our paths diverged once more. I still looked for and saw his work on the magazine stand, each time holding on to all that he had told me and encouraged me towards. In the day and age of the Internet I began looking for him to see if we might be able to reconnect, but the one email address I found was a dead end. Al was not a user of the social media that was emerging, so searches there weren’t successful either. Undeterred, I made a semi-annual pilgrimage of the Internet, but never managed to turn up anything useful.

I stayed determined to find a way to contact Al. I wanted to tell him that his advice had led me to listen to experts in the field of scientific illustration. I wanted to tell him I had sought out proper training with some of the best artists in the industry. I wanted to share that I was working within professional artistic standards and putting together a useful CV for a significant career shift following a scheduled internship. Most of all, I wanted to thank him for his very real part in laying the groundwork for it all. I wanted to thank him for his time, his interest and his expertise. I wanted to thank him for seeing the potential scientific illustrator in an insecure college student who was listening to all the wrong people at the time. 

When I met Jen Christiansen at the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators conference this past July, I knew I had found my best chance to be able to do so. She lit up with recognition at the mention of Al’s name and said that yes, she would be happy to help get me in touch. The following month, she left me a voicemail with terrible news.

In June of 2018, the world lost Al Kamajian to a rare blood disorder. It was a rapid onset illness that took less than a week to claim the life of the man who, for so many years, I had so wanted to thank, and to tell of the profound difference he had made in my life. I had missed my chance by a matter of weeks. Jen and I spoke for a while and I thanked her for letting me know. She also put me in touch with Ed Bell, Al’s former Art Director at SciAm, with whom I had the chance to connect and reminisce about our lost colleague. While Ed had known Al in a professional capacity, I had known more about his personal life, so our conversation ended up being an amazing collaboration to form a fairly complete picture of who Al was and what his world was like.

Ed very generously sent me some of Al’s preliminary sketches and some prints of the covers mentioned above, and I am profoundly grateful to have something of Al to take forward with me into my emerging career as a scientific illustrator. It is my hope that on some level, he knew that the conversation he struck up with me over my mediocre sketchbook was a turning point. I only wish I could have told him so myself.

Thank you Al, for everything you unknowingly did to get me here. You are very missed, and you will never ever be forgotten.

2 Replies to “Memories and Gratitude”

  1. Profound thanks for sharing your remembrances and thoughts about Al. Although I admired his work, I didn’t know him well: Your words have given me a much better sense of the person behind the art. I’m so sorry for your loss.

    1. Thank you for posting your response here Jen, and for all of your help in this matter. I am so happy to have been able to connect with you and with Ed. You’ve both helped me move through my memories in a way that has been growthful and gentle. One life really does touch so many others in ways we can’t anticipate. Thanks again.

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