Last week I published the first installment of Earliest Influences, a miniseries inspired by my newfound interest in childhood fascinations following the birth of my son. In the intervening week, Facebook exploded with a mass eruption of nostalgia in the form of those “Top Ten Albums I Listened to in Middle School” posts. Everyone I know either shared their first ten albums, complained about the meme or subverted it.
It was one of the most widespread outpourings of reminiscence I’ve seen on social media. Of course, there’s an obvious reason for it: as we step into the harrowing cultural terrain of a hateful kleptocracy and our tenuous self-regard as an essentially decent nation is shattered forever, our thoughts are drawn to a more innocent time. We cast our minds back to an age when the big, scary world was only dimly understood but still held heaps of hope and promise. This is a healthy, necessary exercise; we’ll need to be able to access that open, unguarded part of ourselves if we plan on making it through Trump’s America with any optimism or joy intact.
In that spirit I present the second installment of Earliest Influences, in which artists explain the things they discovered in childhood that spurred the first glimmers of inspiration that put them on the path to a creative life.
Rob Zverina, artist
Carbon paper: that flimsy blue-black stuff people used to sandwich between sheets of paper to make smudgy, barely-legible copies of what they were typing. In fifth grade we had to draw an anatomically correct heart. I was great at drawing spaceships and tanks, but when it came to soft tissue, not so much. My stepfather was an engineer—and German! Extra points!—so of course he came up with a technical solution. He placed carbon paper under the heart in our textbook and had me trace it with a stylus that left no marks. Result was a perfect transfer to the paper underneath.
My classmates and teacher suspected there was a trick involved, but since it wasn't on tracing paper they accepted it and—seriously—predicted a future for me as a medical illustrator. I used the method again on a cross-section of skin, the skeleton, the brain and alimentary canal and was hailed as a genius every time. Never mind that I could never come to that level when we had to draw in class.
One might suggest that influenced me to be a lying sneak, but I prefer to think it opened up a world of artistic expression where it was OK to use mechanical means to make up for a deficit in natural talent. Perhaps, more importantly, it enabled me in those pre-Internet days to make my own porn by tracing photos of models in catalogs and magazines, minus the clothes and filling in the juicy bits with crude approximations of anatomical best guesses.
We had to be resourceful then. Kids these days have it too easy.
Corey J. Brewer, musician
I was eight years old in 1986 and my parents had given me full use of their library card. I was reading anything I could get my hands on and after seeing and becoming obsessed with the movie Stand By Me I read the collection of Stephen King short stories from which it was adapted. Over the next few years I burned through the entirety of his work available at that time.
I also started watching the other film adaptations of his books, which turned me on to the movies of John Carpenter, George Romero, David Cronenberg, Brian DePalma and Stanley Kubrick. My intro to AC/DC was because I got the soundtrack to Maximum Overdrive. Stephen King’s books lead me to a lot of good stuff I'm still inspired by now.
Meghan Trainor, artist
I miss Carrie Fisher but honestly, I never wanted to be Princess Leia. When it came time to play Star Wars on the preschool playground it was obvious to everyone that my best friend Jennifer, with her braids and ribbons and cute dresses, was to inhabit that role. I was like, Okay, so I’ll happily be one of the robots. No, you can’t be a robot; robots are boys. No, boys are boys, robots are machines. Still nope. No. No playing Star Wars for you, extra girl.
I don’t know exactly what transpired in between that exchange and Halloween, but I do know I was Darth Vader in a very homemade costume anchored around a wooden spoon wrapped in tin foil. Screw your patriarchal bullshit, I transcend robot. I am Darth now. I might not have used those exact words at four, but the memory I carry in my heart is that.
Lest you think I let this beef die, I injected a computer chip in my shoulder for my Master’s Thesis at NYU and said: There, I am a cyborg now. Apparently that’s me: Darth Petty. The question of girl robots, of machine and gender, are ever present in my work. It is the vocabulary with which I question systems of oppression, revel in liberation, come to understand sensory data. It is my merkwelt.
John Osebold, musician/performer
The earliest influences that led directly to my career as a world-class violinist were (1) my brother and (2) Antonio Vivaldi. My elder brother Paul was already a formidable violinist when he was six and I was a wide-eyed three-year-old with a bowl cut. I used to go to his lessons and listen to him play. I even once called his lovely teacher Marvin a dumbhead, perhaps believing the man would be impressed by my own artistic skills.
Then I told my mortified mother that I wanted to play like Paul. After starting violin lessons of my own the following year, I was impatient to reach Paul's skill level, stubbornly rejecting my teacher Sister Catherine's attempt to start me out on a box violin replica. Within a few years I advanced via the Suzuki Method to Book Four, which contained Vivaldi's Concerto in A Minor, first movement. This piece made my tiny brain explode.
Vivaldi somehow touched the far reaches of outer and inner space, proving to me that music could say much more than any other form of communication could. Through that first movement, then afterward the third movement, I discovered within me a fire I didn't know I possessed. And it was that fire that led me to quit violin lessons at age 17 because I thought guitar would make me more attractive. To this day, the Vivaldi concertos are still some of my favorite pieces of music, and Paul is still my favorite brother.
Celene Ramadan, musician
My earliest memories of caring about what people were making had to be the Bangles and the Monkees.
The Bangles stick out to me because as a small child I remember impersonating Suzannah Hoff's nasally voice and my mom thinking it was really good. For better or for worse, she encouraged me to impersonate singers in that moment and it became a lifelong obsession. I believe the Bangles were high on our radar growing up because they had the hit "Walk Like An Egyptian"; we were one-half Egyptian and we were three girls, so we really felt like they were OUR band.
Then the Monkees’ show was always on television and I really connected to Davy Jones. I didn't have a crush on him—I was way too young for that and didn't even know what that meant. I thought I WAS Davy Jones and was meant to be Davy Jones. I remember we had some Monkees on vinyl and I listened to "I Wanna Be Free" on repeat over and over and over again because I thought it was the deepest, most beautiful song in the world.
See the first installment here.
Teaser photo by Brent Gilliard.