One unexpected benefit of becoming a parent is that it induces you to relive your own childhood. Watching a baby painstakingly develop into a functioning human unlocks access to memories that sat forgotten for decades deep within the catacombs of your brain, a musty neural storage facility with leaky roofs and crumbling floors into which you may never have ventured otherwise. You begin the generational task of tidying up and taking stock of its contents.
Raising a kid gives you immediate and constant access to youth with all its newness and astonishment. If you’re a parent or someone who spends a lot of time around children this may seem obvious to you, but it came as a minor revelation to me. The process began while my wife was still pregnant with the boy and I ordered the full run of Groo the Wanderer on eBay, one of the cherished comics of my youth by the master cartoonist Sergio Aragonés. I’ve been delving back into those things that enthralled me as a boy, but now with the buying power of an adult; this could get expensive. I’ve also been taking in new films and shows told from the point of view of children: the wondrous Stranger Things, the live-action Jungle Book reboot, the magnificent Boyhood.
I’m surprised—and a little disconcerted—at how disconnected I’ve become from my child-brain. But I’ve also discovered a throughline connecting those things that fascinated me as a lil’ nipper to the adult I’ve become. I’m following that thread back to my earliest accessible memories, seeking out those things I encountered in my formative years that set me on the path of becoming a creative person.
For example: Animal from the Muppets. My parents bought me a puppet version of the hard-rockin’ drummer of the Electric Mayhem for Christmas and it was my most cherished toy for years. I was thrilled by Animal’s anarchic joie de vivre and his prodigious musical chops. I was also impressed by the regard he was afforded by his bandmates despite the fact that he was mostly nonverbal and prone to fits of wild flailing. He was a freak, yes, but he was also respected and admired by his peers. Animal provided me with a model for being a weirdo in the world.
In the spirit of this foray into childhood, I asked local artists to share their earliest influences, those things that magnetized them as kids and set them on the path to later creative pursuits, the figures that shaped them long before they had an artistic practice to be influenced. I now present the first installment of Earliest Influences.
Kimberly Morrison, musician
At first I thought I was a cowboy. I had a hat, a red velour sweatshirt and Osh Kosh pants in dark denim. My most prized possession was a plastic horse connected to a metal frame by large springs that I caught my fingers in more than once. I’d bounce on it until I was bouncing not just the horse but the entire frame, loudly off the carpet and around the room. My mom decided I’d grown too big for it—I now surmise she’d had all she could take of my continuous racket—and gave it to my preschool, thus putting me in the awkward position of explaining to my classmates that “our” horse was actually mine and could they please get off it so I could get back out West?
Soon thereafter I saw Star Wars. Holy shit. The light sabers, the creatures. The music! My friends and I would invent missions that involved us battling over our swing sets and tree forts and stealing each others’ toys. Sometimes we recorded our antics, other times we’d listen to our Bon Jovi or Madonna cassettes. We always made my sister be Chewbacca. I signed my school papers “Luke Skywalker” and didn’t accept the fact that I was not a boy until I was probably 12 years old. Believing I was a boy never made me sad; they had the best toys and were protagonists in all the stories I wanted to be in.
Recently, leaving the theatre after Rogue One, I saw a woman who’d emerged from the same screening taking pictures of two young girls posing powerfully in front of a display featuring Jyn. My heart about exploded.
John Criscitello, artist
MAD magazine. When I wasn’t saturating my brain with 1970s cathode ray radiation, Sugar Smaks cereal and Kool-Aid, I had my face buried in MAD. I’d spend hours reading and looking closely and the drawings of Al Jafeee, Mort Drucker and especially Sergio Aragonés, whose tiny drawings in the margins of the magazine I would carefully copy line for line, which led me to doodling on everything and destroying my school text books by making flip book animations in the margins.
I also gained a sense of camp, drag, radical ’60s politics and beatnik/hippie and Me culture of the ’70s through this illustrious publication. The highlight of my little queer life then was carefully doing the fold-in on the back cover every month.
In addition to such high literary exposure I was also an avid user of my earliest studio tools, the one-two punch of Etch-A-Sketch and Spirograph. The former taught me superior hand-eye coordination and the ability to make one continuous line that went around and around forever and gave me my love for minimalist art. The latter taught me patience and perseverance while using a guide to create mind-bending psychedelic mandalas which probably later gave me my deep-seated love of LSD. Thanks, Kenner!
Jama Abdirahman, photographer/filmmaker
Traveling with my mom at a young age definitely had a big influence. I didn’t know it then, but it was making me look at the world from a unique perspective. I made a mental note of everything I saw, almost as if I was taking perfectly framed shots in my head. It explains how everything came naturally once I picked up a camera. I remember in high school—junior year to be specific—I was looking for classes to fill my fifth period slot. It came down to either taking a random ceramics class or video production. By chance, I ended up taking the film class only because the other class was full. Not knowing a single thing about film, I started the class and that’s where it all began. It instantly filled the endless curiosity of the world I once had as a child.
Warren Langford, journalist/podcaster
When I meet someone new I immediately try to hone in on that one rare thing we both like but gets us weird looks when we talk about it around other people. It’s an instinct I trace back to my best friend Amelia in second grade. We thought we were the only two kids in the world who liked Calvin and Hobbes. Sure, we enjoyed Garfield as much as anyone, but none of the other kids on the playground ever got into Calvin and Hobbes the way we did. Our fascination with the strip was as enigmatic to them as how we, a boy and a girl, could be best friends. The content of the comic was a kid-accessible portal into adult issues that I’m sure we didn’t 100% understand at the time, but the fact that we were trying, together, was about as intimate as two second graders were willing to get. For better or worse, I’ve obsessively attempted to recreate that feeling of sharing something that is just “ours” with other people throughout my life.
David Schmader, writer/performer
My first favorite comedic force: Bugs Bunny. Everything he did was perfect, because voice and animation geniuses made it so. My lifelong appreciation of stylish enemies of the status quo—Divine, the New York Dolls, RuPaul—proceeds directly from my love of Bugs.
In January 1980 the B-52s appeared on Saturday Night Live. I was 12 and held a tape recorder up to the TV so I could have my own copy of “Rock Lobster,” which was the freakiest and most exciting thing I’d ever heard. The band were total queers, even though only two of ’em were actually gay, and they made music so inventive it felt dangerous, while also being goofy as shit.
NEXT WEEK: More Earliest Influences from Corey J. Brewer, Rob Zverina, Meghan Trainor, John Osebold and others.