Start Your Monster Engines: Owning Your Work & That Other Thing That Comes Out of the Closet


Imagination is a wonderful – and terrible thing to behold. When it comes from your toddler or small children, it borders on conundrum – especially if there be monsters…

Say the wrong thing and the monster wins, its shadow looming large over real life well past the time of age-appropriateness. (For example, we tell ourselves it is to prevent accidents, but we adults really keep those night lights on in case of monster emergencies imprinted since our own childhoods).

Say the right thing and the questions children bring you get harder and more frequent… Yes, banishing monsters is something we all attempt to do – first as children ourselves armed with amulet-power-endowed stuffed animals, and then as adults around children while armed with foggy memories of Dr. Spock (not to be confused on any level with Mister Spock) and then for a special few…juggling the unexpected and unrehearsed events as actual, real-time parents and grandparents.

But somebody has finally one-upped us all in the Monster Banishing department, and as a Horror writer who actually had monsters in her closet, I found his story intriguing…

Yet the nagging question is: in the Arts world where inspiration holds the highest value, is an artistic partnership equal if one party benefits by the snake oil feel of attempted banishment of monsters while the other appears to be the only one who receives monetary compensation and most of the acclaim?

This is a question we must ask as writers. It’s also one we should ask as Artists.

Just where is the line of artistic plagiarism? And if all legal parties agree, does the impropriety vanish?

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Gilding the Monster

When one has monsters, one looks for monster repellent. We usually start by trying to deny the existence of monsters. Then we decide on parameters, applying adult rules in the attempt to outsmart child logic. Sometimes we even try to make them cute and ineffectual. But often the best way is a direct assault. And one artist may have found a really effective way of speaking to the fears of children with monsters… or so it might seem.

It becomes, at least, an interesting question about art and invention…if not about child psychology and the right of ownership and authorship of intellectual property.

Dave DeVries, renowned comic artist who has drawn images for Universal Studios, video games, greeting cards and provided the comic visuals for several prominent superheroes has created The Monster Engine. Started in 2005, the project was born of the artist’s fascination with the simple honesty of children’s art, and specifically his young nieces’ drawings of monsters. He started wondering what might happen when those powerful, uncensored images were rendered realistically by a professional artist; and the project was born. Now DeVries creates works with children who benefit from learning how to control their monsters with his artistic guidance. He has a book of these shared creations, does workshops with school children and groups, and does special commissioned works.

Each work provides a “before” and “after” glimpse of the original art and his remake. Those that follow on this post are from his website, lending credence to his argument that his work is more an attempt at collaboration than exploitation. He also includes their names as original artists (which gives at least the appearance of trying to do the right thing by the children).

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Of course, how this hits you may depend on whether or not you are a person associated with the arts.

Isn’t this…well…a kind of plagiarism? Akin to forgery?

DeVries makes a point to emphasize that his works are collaborations with children; interviews with the kids are conducted, and “all rights have been transferred through proper legal documentation signed by each parent”… Some might find this a wee bit suspicious, perhaps even be thinking about words like “predatory” and “exploitative.” Why else would someone have “proper legal documentation” in advance? And as a former child who is a former would-be artist, when I look at these examples (although they are amazing and represent possibly the kinds of things I might have seen oozing from my own closet), I know that if my original artwork were alongside his, I would also be asking: what was wrong with my drawing that you sought to “improve” it?

And I have an adult question…

Can you really collaborate honestly with a child? Don’t we adults tend to dominate? To…manipulate to our own advantage? To “game” kids even before we realize it? Haven’t we all been drunk with power in a roomful of toddlers?

As most parents and childcare workers know, anything involving children gets really complicated really fast…

And maybe we need to keep our eyes on the other ball here: maybe what is important is acknowledging our kids and their feelings about monsters in the dark…not just attempting to gloss them over with fancy professional renderings of their portraits.

Maybe it’s time we admitted to our kids that we all have monsters from time to time instead of denying that they exist.

And about that monster problem…Is that really, truly, finally being resolved here? Does it end the monster-making and night terrors? Or this is a trendy and cute way of playing pretend? Are we dabbling in child psychology, or discovering a creative and witty way of outsmarting our monsters?

Are real monsters being slain?

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Of course, there is also the question of a little bit of fame here… a little room for pride of parent and child.

How else would we know Chelsea or Brendan or Kimberly?

The former artist in me admits that precious few of these children would find their drawings valued by art critics without DeVries’ hand, and most of them have those monsters to contend with regardless…and some can say at least something beneficial comes of it:

  • An introduction to the fine arts
  • An introduction to psychology and the fine art of monster banishing
  • And a first collaboration credit with a known artist producing reviewed artwork in a gallery or book, or both

Still, something about this is hard to shake. It makes me uncomfortable.

For those whose hackles are still erect, I refer you to the website: http://www.themonsterengine.com/ which does a much better job of showing the artist in action and clarifying his motives. While some may feel DeVries should dip into his own closet or peek under his own bed, the fact remains that many children come away from the experience empowered, perhaps even inspired to be the next generation of artists. His workshops are framed by the excited and involved faces of children no longer held emotionally hostage by the nonsensical creatures that our minds put together so well when we are young and often asleep. That should be worth something.

And one has to admit there is in grown-up hindsight something tremendously empowering about having an adult who is not predisposed to tell you well-intentioned lies look upon your work and your need to conquer monsters literally and actually help you do something about it.

Perhaps this is one of those cases…But this is another instance where we also feel a wee bit tainted by the whole concept.

And truth be told, I hate that it does bother me, because I love that children get the chance to put monsters in a safe place for later recall if they choose and when they choose.

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 I also love that DeVries involves children in the Arts, showing them how art actually moves from the emotional left side of the brain to the right…introducing them to mediums (the art kind not the trance kind)… and teaching them the value of translating experience into a communication device.

So why am I so disconcerted?

I have had this post in mind for around five years… but kept putting it off, hoping (I think) that my own opinion would gel. (It hasn’t. I am still unsettled.)

Then I try to look at things from a Horror writer’s perspective…

It isn’t really all that different than writing fan fiction, or themed anthologies, right?

But as a former artist, it just bothers me. Maybe the reason is because this involves children who are both trusting and legal minors. Maybe the reason is I see all of the adults in the room orbiting around children instead of the other way around.

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Of Monsters in Closets

So let us haul the beast out of the closet. Let us look at a legal term…because this is indeed where the mind is drifting on this matter.

“Definition of Forgery

“To illegally modify or reproduce a document, signature, an instrument, legal tender or any other means of storing information is known as forgery.” Any item that is copied is also considered forged.

When something is forged, a piece of art for the purpose of mimicking the style of a popular artist is made by a person and signed with the name of the artist. Usually, the work of dead artists is forged because their work cannot be testified. A few art forgers are very sharp.” https://www.ukessays.com/essays/english-language/forgery-and-plagiarism-english-language-essay.php

Now, DeVries has covered himself because he has created those protections (again, and “all rights have been transferred through proper legal documentation signed by each parent”…) So legally speaking, nothing illegal is happening here.

But is it moral? Ethical?

Recall that our definition also proclaims “Usually, the work of dead artists is forged because their work cannot be testified…”

Neither can that of minors. Especially when their guardians sign away those rights.

This feels an awful lot like someone asking the question: would you want to give a story idea to Edgar Allan Poe so he could write your story better than you could?

My answer would be a resounding NO! It’s my story to tell…

And when something similar happens in the writing world “by accident” and two writers write the same story at the same approximate time, lawsuits have a habit of happening.

So why is this different? Is it because it involves the work of children, or because we already rationalize and lessen our own contributions to society?

Are we so tainted by the selling of ideas to Hollywood that we think more of ideas than actually finishing the work ourselves? Are we charging now for potential, when “ideas” are only seedlings with no guarantee to sprout? Or is this really more for the parents in some weird, Freudian fashion? Does it somehow reflect positively on them (at least in their own minds)?

And do we really think that the average person (and thereby our own children) have nothing of value to offer in its raw state, that only the Established among us deserve accolades? Are we really at that point in our economy that contracting everything out is just the way we do business, where delegation is a right to claiming to have done it ourselves?

And is there really that much joy in saying “oh, that was my idea” when the nondisclosure agreements prevent your simple byline on the product: “thought of by John Doe”?

This really does speak to a larger problem nesting in our society: the rooted belief that one must be worthy before one is “allowed” to contribute by name… that we mostly are incapable and incompetent…that only our icons should be heroic, allowed to make mistakes and never be “called” on them.

We have to admit we hear it all the time in the Arts: “until you are published, you are not a Writer and you have no right to call yourself one”, “you have to pay your dues”, and “a starving artist is enduring the rite of passage; it is unseemly to be famous during your own lifetime” (all while mysterious savants pass us by making millions, often off “borrowed” ideas…). But many of us, having bills to pay, consider these elitist arguments to be…malarkey. And it’s why we sell out Literary and Artistic dreams to put food on the table and wear clothing. It’s why we bristle at what often feels like a rigged system.

So maybe it is my age talking…but something about the Monster Engine is unsettling on a primal level.

And it is not jealousy.

While DeVries’ paintings are awesome and I like what he has done, I also dislike what he is doing.

And the paradox is really bugging me.

Perhaps because this is also about how we view children in general – part possession, and part promise…all parental dream-and-expectation. Perhaps it is me feeling like the parent is still not seeing the child exactly, even as they coo over the monsters.

Do they not remember the monsters?

Because while DeVries does bring the monster to the fore for judgement and sentencing, why the monster came in the first place is part of the child’s problem. Do the parents stop, relieved and bliss-filled, at the commissioning of monster portraits?

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One cannot help but ask that question. Does this cure the monster problem? Or is it a bandaid for a bullet wound?

Monsters feed on isolation. That’s when they come, and every child feels isolation often (talk about your rites of passage…) Monsters often come when children are overwhelmed by indescribable emotions, usually spurred by adult events… this seems a pretty tall order for a drawing and a portrait to fix – not to mention a problem that repeats.

I know I felt alone with my own monsters. And I never drew them.

But then perhaps that was part of my own dysfunction. I mean I rationalized such things.

I thought myself fortunate (and maybe even kind of elitist) because I started out as a Fine Artist. I did not want to “do” commercial art, I did not like the …idea… But this meant I personally spent a lot of time trying to realistically depict things I saw… I was never headed to become a Dali, or a Bosch…no artistic monsters for me. I loved Rubens, Vermeer and the Dutch Masters, Degas, Monet, Van Gogh… I loved Bernini and Dubois…Once older and in art school I did not “wow” my surrealist-bent instructors; they wanted fairies and elves and waterfalls on bricks. I drew bricks.

So I did not draw my monsters. They stayed in my closet where my sanity needed them to stay.

Is that why I am not an artist today? Did I squelch something inside? Suppress my own artistic instincts by not drawing monsters? I don’t think so. I think my leaving art had more to do with the monsters in the art instruction classrooms than the ones I did not draw…They are why I switched to Horror writing, because my writing skin is scarred and thicker… my artistic skin has a habit of bleeding. And then one has to ask, do I write Horror because I did not banish my monsters?

And there is that what-if. Because I could have been that kid at a DeVries School Event.

As a former artist OR a current writer, I cannot shake the feeling that to have had my parents give one of my drawings to an “established” artist to make-over would have deflated me further…and the resentment would have lingered well into adulthood, suffocating me under a blanket of inadequacy already exploited by arrogant and narrow-thinking art instructors.

What happens to a child’s psyche when someone does over their work? Is it a compliment? Or a theft? A commandeering?

I know how I felt in college as an adult when an instructor snatched the eraser from my desk and began erasing my drawing so he could “correct” it…

I wonder what psychologists would say about all of this.

Enough time has passed for some of DeVries’ artist children to have grown a bit. I wonder what they think about what was done now? I wonder if we will ever know…

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What’s In YOUR Closet?

Maybe all of this is overthinking things.

Maybe on balance, what DeVries does in bringing children into a fascination with both Horror and the Arts is of significant benefit.

I admit I love both versions of the works.

I admit I wish ANY artist had visited my school when I was a kid.

I admit I wish I had had more guts to STAY with art.

I also find myself looking at the reality that art from nightmares and night terrors has led to some pretty prominent work in the Humanities.

Says Lex “Lonehood” Nover in his book Nightmareland: Travels at the Borders of Sleep, Dreams, and Wakefulness: “Whether the dreamer is threatened by an ancient demon, a vampire, a lobster, a fairy story monster, a robot, or an atomic ray, his experience is in each instance like that of a helpless child confronted by powerful forces with which he is unable to deal effectively…in adults’ nightmares, recent events, characters, or disturbances are often superimposed over archaic childhood fears, such as being chased, attacked, or mutilated…dreams reflect the symbolization, distortion, displacement, and projection mechanisms that characterize the thinking of early childhood…” (118)

With the Arts meeting childhood monsters, maybe we will get another Bosch out of all this… Maybe we will find another Lovecraft (whose suffering with persistent night terrors laid the foundation for the Cthulhu Mythos)…

And maybe we will get angry adults who just draw pictures of the monsters in their lives instead of picking up AK-47s…

But we also have to wonder about the whole picture…

I sincerely hope what DeVries is doing helps kids, and that those kids aren’t as affected by the trading off of their artwork as I would have been. (So here’s to hoping I am more messed up than most to be worrying about it.)

I really do hope his work is transformative.

Kids are our future, you know.

They need the protection of imagination realized. They need the Arts. It’s how we get the Good Stuff. It’s how we get superheroes.

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16 thoughts on “Start Your Monster Engines: Owning Your Work & That Other Thing That Comes Out of the Closet

  1. Excellent post, KC. Always be honest with your kids. Not doing so will only create more worries. That’s why there are many wonderful children’s picture books that deal with monsters. If only parents would truly listen to their kids, and answer their questions. Drawing monsters is really therapeutic and lots of fun. Thanks, KC! Happy New Year to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Likewise, Jennie! Being mindful that kids are not “little adults” but seedling sponges is so important when dealing with kids in the arts AND monsters… And it is the responsibility of all of us to protect those blossoming egos…to nurture the possibilities we see reflected in them!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, but they can indeed be put to good use, eh? As I recall my own beasties led me to ask some really hard questions in life, as well as serving to fertilize some wild imaginings that demanded to be placed on paper! I love/hate those monsters… and I would not trade them in now!

      Like

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