It Was 20 Years Ago Today Part Three: Real Life

Continued from my last two posts, remembering the very earliest days of my career, and my training at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario. As I said previously, so much of this is based on memory and old snapshots, so it’s only as accurate as my ageing brain. So if I get stuff wrong, please tell me! Also, almost every single photo has the wrong year burned into the edge, so ignore that!

The Roommate Situation

Overall, I think I was really lucky when it came to roommates. While I lived in Oakville, I officially had two roommates with whom I shared the basement suite, but in practice, I really only had one. Stevie effectively lived with his girlfriend, but one or more of their sets of parents didn’t like the idea of them living together, so Stevie kept a room in our suite. After meeting him a few times in the early weeks of living there, I would eventually only see him on the first of each month, when he’d drop off his rent cheque.

I don’t have a lot of stories about Stevie, apart from the fact that he generously allowed me to use the computer in his room, so I didn’t have to travel to the school to send my endless e-mails back home. His room was very tastefully decorated in African tapestries, and Ngil masks, the kind of authentic, stylized carvings I’d never seen outside of the Ten Thousand Villages store in Circle Park Mall. Perhaps incongruently from his tastes in décor, Stevie’s favourite musical artist was John Mellencamp, and we bonded over a shared love of the noxiously saccharine TV show, 7th Heaven.

♫ “Come on baby, take a ride with me, I’m up from Indiana down to Tennessee” ♫

My other roommate was Calvin, a graduate of Sheridan’s 3-year undergraduate Illustration program. He was generous to me as well, letting me tag along when he’d drive to the grocery store. I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone who could draw as well as he could. But Calvin also represented something of a cautionary tale to me in those days. Though he was undeniably a more gifted artist than I was, he was in those days a housepainter, with me being the only audience for his creative abilities at that time. So there was always a shadow of a reminder with me, that even the vaunted name of Sheridan didn’t guarantee immediate career success.

I don’t remember him looking—or standing—so much like Jean-Luc Picard, but there you are. Engage!

I honestly don’t know what kind of roommate I was. I hope I wasn’t too messy, or wait too long to clean up my used dishes, but I worry I wasn’t as conscientious as I could have been. I definitely think I was lucky to have the roommates I did, even if the close quarters would make us (ME!) irritable at times.

Lean Months

As mentioned in my first post about Sheridan, because of some unexpected wrinkles with my student loans, money was very tight my first semester. I’d never lived away from home before, so things like budgeting, and cooking were pretty new to me. During the week, I’d try to eat as lean as I could get away with. All the clichés about college life were true for me that first semester, diet-wise: my staples were simple meals like peanut butter on toast for breakfast, canned beans on toast for lunch, and then Kraft Dinner for supper. The weekends were when I would live a little. On the Saturdays when I could afford to, I would buy a three pack of chicken breasts, and newly-introduced “Ready Crisp Bacon”. I’d fry up two of the chicken breasts, and make a clubhouse sandwich with fries, which I’d eat at the start of Hockey Night In Canada*. Then I’d work on assignments with the game on, taking a break at the start of the second Hockey Night In Canada game, where I’d make another sandwich and eat that. Then I’d go back to work at my drawing table until 2am, when “Super Friends” came on YTV. I’d watch with heavy eyelids and then crash.

Snapshot of the drawing table in my bedroom, circa 2002.

On Sundays, I’d cook up the last of the chicken breasts, and make myself an enormous batch of chicken soup, which I’d share with Calvin (and Stevie, the rare time he was home) and still have enough for supper for most of the week.

I would bike to school through most of the winter, but in December, it got so cold and icy that I broke down and bought a bus pass. This meant I got to enjoy warm rides to and from school, but it also decimated my grocery budget, so by the last two weeks before Christmas, all I had left was Kraft Dinner. I’d eat one box a day, and I got so sick of it, I had to wait until I was starving to eat it.

Presenting: the saddest Christmas tree in the world. One of the rare cases where even Dr. Phil can’t help.

My mom seemed to have a preternatural knowledge of when I was feeling lonely, or down in the dumps, and it seemed like every time I was going through a bad spell, I’d get a cheerful call from her telling me “I put $15 in your account, go get lunch at Wendy’s” or to go buy myself a comic book or something. Those little surprises, along with letters or mix CDs from my sister Shawna, and e-mails from my friends back home really sustained me.

Man of Two Worlds

As invested in my studies as I was, I still always had one foot back home, for better or worse. In those days I was in the middle of a doomed engagement, and a dead-end co-dependent friendship, so a part of me felt it would be disloyal to fully commit to my life in Ontario. But as it often happens when someone goes away, life moves on without them. So in a way, it felt that by clinging to a home actively forgetting me, and resisting my life at Sheridan, I was ensuring that I belonged nowhere. It was a lonely feeling.

Slowly, I got to know the other students in my courses as real people and not just as the intimidating artists who (in the first semester especially) were kicking my keister with their insightful and stylish work. In addition to being gifted artists, they were almost all terrific people, too**!

In Defense of Screech

Toward the end of first semester, posters hit the walls of Sheridan announcing that TV’s “Screech”, Dustin Diamond, would be appearing at the campus bar (possibly named the Marquee? I can’t remember). I asked my fellow classmates if they were going to check it out, and to a person, they all emphatically said no. Mostly because I wanted to go, and didn’t want to go alone, I challenged them on this, and said, “Do you not want to go because he played a nerd on TV? What if he’s really funny?” My impassioned speech defending Screech meant almost my entire class went to the show, and to my chagrin, I thought it was absolutely terrible. He mostly just talked dirty, with few real punchlines, and said rotten things about the Saved by the Bell cast. My classmates mostly liked it, so it was extra funny that I was the only one who didn’t have a good time, after my vociferous advocacy for Dustin Diamond. To his credit, he was super friendly and nice when I got a picture with him after. May he rest in peace.

Perhaps the poorest photo quality of any photo I have, but I assure you, that really is Dustin Diamond.
My friend Aaron at same. It’s alright, because he’s saved by the bell.

Big City Nights

One advantage of being in the Greater Toronto Area was that it brought me closer to my old high school pal, Aylwin Lo. While most of my crowd in High School went on to the University of Saskatchewan, Aylwin enrolled at the University of Waterloo, in a furtive attempt to avoid having to hear me play Haddaway in my car. Now that I was in Ontario, I was able to connect with him a few times, meeting him in Toronto. It’s during these visits that I fell in love with Toronto, which remains my favourite city.

Being completely new to Toronto, I let Aylwin take me under his wing and show me around the big city. He INSISTED we eat at Hooters. I tried to make the best of it, but you can tell I was pretty uncomfortable.
When I scanned this photo, I saw that it said on the back “Aylwin’s idea of a good photo of me in front of Muchmusic”. I guess those art school critiques made me a little bit harsh—it’s actually a pretty cool composition!

Out of my Shell

As time went on, I got more comfortable at school, and carved out some pretty decent friendships. Rhonda was the first person to really reach out in friendship and was always very kind to me. She’d have me over to her and her roommate Deanna’s apartment in the giant brutalist cement towers near campus for chicken fajitas (sooooo much better than beans on toast!) and outdated board games.

No matter what the question, the answer was Pat Travers.
I hope my kids never learn that in college I experimented with loitering.
Judging from the sheer volume of photos I took of her during what was only a few visits, I deduce I must have had a crush on Deanna back then.

Aaron was one of my closest friends in those days, and I have happy memories of sleeping over at his place, getting pizza and wings, and watching the animated GI Joe movie late into the night. He’d also indulge my slurpee addiction, driving me to Oakville’s only 7-Eleven (despite there being a Mac’s on every corner). I still remember his little car straining on a big hill as he drove me to the Hamilton airport with all my worldly possessions when I moved home.

Real friends high-five.

Ted, or Thadeus as he’s sometimes known, was everyone’s friend. Always chipper and welcoming, we bonded over Kung-fu movies and comic books. I’d run into him years later as a guest at my first comic-con.

Your guess is as good as mine.

When Christopher Reeve guest starred on Smallville, I had my friends over to my tiny basement suite to watch the episode with me, and eat my famous chicken soup. These are some of the only surviving photos of my bedroom in Oakville as well!

Ted, Sarah, Aaron and Rhonda. Pretty sure that’s my sweater Rhonda is wearing.
Décor was not a strength.

Killer D’s

One weird detail about Sheridan was that in a course with only ten people, four of them had D-names, that all sounded vaguely similar. My name is Don, and our program also included people named Dom, Donna, and Dong-Hai. Dom was another great pal, and we bonded over a shared love of John Byrne comics, Lord of the Rings, and British culture.

If it wasn’t true, I couldn’t have these photographs.

Murderer’s Row

As I write this, more and more memories are springing to mind (teaching Sunday school! Renting a car with no brakes!), so I may someday write another post about art college, or better yet, make some comics about my time there.

But I can’t end the post without noting just some of the world-famous artists who either taught, or guest-lectured at our program. As mentioned in my last post, my mentor at Sheridan was Kathryn Adams, herself a much in-demand illustrator. The head of our program was Joe Morse, an award-winning illustrator (once, in the middle of a lesson, his cell phone rang, and it was SPIKE LEE on the phone asking to buy a painting!). The other mentors in our course were Riccardo Stampatori and the world famous Gary Taxali.

From left: Warren, some jerk in a red sweater, Sarah, Dom, Gary Taxali, Aaron, Riccardo Stampatori, Tammy, Rhonda and Thadeus.
From left: Ellyn, Tammy, Warren, Joe Morse, Kathryn Adams, Andy.

Guest lecturers included heroes of mine, like Canadian cartooning legend, Seth, brilliant painter Anita Kunz, hilarious Illustrator Christian Northeast, and flat-out genius Christoph Niemann. Even as I type this, I can’t really believe I got to interact with all these people, much less have them evaluate my work.

Such Great Heights

Sheridan College changed my life, entirely for the better. In addition to all the ways I grew during the first time I lived away from home, the lessons I learned at school are ones I still use to this day.

Donna, Rhonda, me and Sarah in our studio at Sheridan.

Looking back I often wonder how my life—and career—would be different if I hadn’t been in such a hurry to move back home to Saskatchewan, and had stayed in Toronto. The Back to the Future films are among my favourite movies ever, so I know a thing or two about the precariousness of time travel. I don’t want to do anything that might mess with my present timeline, but it’s sometimes fun to ponder. My future wife would do her training with African Inland Mission in Toronto only a short time after I moved home—what if I’d bumped into her four years earlier?

Apart from social media, I haven’t kept in terribly close touch with the people from my program, which I regret. But I sure feel fortunate that I had them as friends in those days.

A Reservoir Dogs style candid of Dom, me, and Aaron from my birthday supper that year.
A polaroid Thadeus sent me of my display in the graduating gallery exhibition, which I’d missed because I’d already moved back home. From left: Kathryn Adams, Dong-Hai, Donna, Rhonda, Joe Morse, Aaron and Sarah,

Everyone I’ve kept in touch with from Sheridan has gone on to unsurprising and completely deserved success. Some have gone on to great heights in illustration graphic design, and web design. Others are fine artists, sought-after tattoo artists, are illustrating children’s books, or working in television. I’m still illustrating, and carving out a living doing creative work these two decades later. But I wouldn’t have imagined any of it, had I not gotten in to Sheridan College.

Rhonda and me on my last day in Ontario, in front of my house on Towne Blvd. My beloved bike at my feet.

Thanks for sticking with me, I know this was a long/personal one. I’ll have wrap-up posts soon about the springtime comic shows in my hometown and on the coast in Vancouver (plus a fun announcement!). Thank you for reading, I love you.