The Saucy Soldier and the Sporty Saviour: hard-won lessons in audience and purpose

As a child I entered a competition to design a Christmas campaign poster for a local sport shop. I did not draw a picture of Santa skiing. I drew something else. Something bad.
As a child I entered a competition to design a Christmas campaign poster for a local sport shop. I did not draw a picture of Santa skiing. I drew something else. Something bad.

I vividly recall the walk along the corridor, seeing a group of children crowding around the display table, cupping their hands with laughter and furtively looking around to see who shared in their amusement.

It was November 1984 and I was 10 going on 11, in my last year of primary school. We had been studying the Great War and our project culminated in the production of clay soldiers: wounded, dying or dead on the field of battle.

Mr Wilson had read us Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen in his booming voice, small flecks of spittle landing on us from time to time. But we forgave him that. His oration enraptured us; his expectations of us and his zeal to deepen our cultural reservoir was electrifying. A little spittle was a small price to pay.

I put my heart and soul into my soldier. I gave him dirty, frayed boots, made by wrapping the clay in gauze and painting it black. He wore a dented green helmet and lay with one knee bent and one leg straight, clutching the silver handle of a bayonet that the Hun had driven into his stomach. As I made this sculpture, I was filled with a young reverence (I was probably also wearing a poppy at the time).

Walking along the school’s long corridor, drawing closer to the gaggle of sniggering children, I craned my neck to look beyond them at the target of their laughter.

As an adult looking back, I can laugh, but I still feel the dead weight of realisation.* I had been far too engrossed in my sculpting to pull back and properly evaluate my handiwork. Mine was the object of my fellow students’ laughter.

I had not produced a harrowing tableau of wartime casualty. I had in fact produced a supine soldier clutching a gleaming silver phallus. To the trained eye, the bayonet was a little too high to be anatomically a part of the soldier; but to the passing glance of a young student, it was just low enough for the wilful to infer. And so, my attempt at tragedy in clay shifted in bas-relief to become a smutty, heretical parody of the fallen.

I learned a little about audience and purpose that day. But not quite enough.

Only a month later, our local sports shop announced an art competition. We were asked to produce a poster combining Christmas and sport. The winning image would be displayed in the window of the sports shop in the High Street. Well, what better chance to get my artistic mojo back?

I licked my pencil and poured my heart and soul into a detailed, carefully shaded image of sport and Christmas. My friends peered over my shoulder as I drew. “Whatonomy, that’s incredible!” I can still hear Paul say. (His attempt at Santa skiing down a hill looked more like “Horace Goes Skiing” – a hit on the Sinclair ZX81 at the time).

So, after the humiliation of my pornographic war dead and my resolve to meet the needs of my audience more effectively, did I win?

No, Paul did. With his approximation of Santa quivering down a slope. Paul won.

I’m not saying my picture was better than his (it was). But I can’t for the life of me figure out where I went wrong.

The arc of the dart, gracefully animated as it left Jesus’s crib, was a thing of compositional perfection. There was even a speech bubble coming from Joseph.

“180!” it said. And Mary, the shepherds and the three wise men looked on in adoration.

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