When Scott Reed was a child, he wanted to be a cartoonist.
“I should have been paying attention in class, but I had a notebook and a pencil — and you shouldn’t be giving those to people who like to draw,” Reed said.
Now, a few years before retirement, Reed’s cartoons have finally come to life in a 28-drawing exhibit called “Scott Reed: Characters” running through March 20 at Colby College in Waterville. The cartoons look nothing like the ones he envisioned as a boy.
Reed is an associate professor of art at Colby, where he has taught since 1987. Reed teaches printmaking and studio foundations.
“I have had a show of all prints and a show of all paintings, but this is my calling,” Reed said. “I’ve drawn more than any other thing that I’ve done.”
His last solo show at the museum was six years ago and featured a collection of colorful abstract paintings.
That same year, Reed and his partner, Debbie Ker, went to spend time at their camp on Pattee Pond in Winslow, and he started drawing geometric, abstract scenes on a mat board with a fine-tipped pen.
“They’re cartoons — high art cartoons,” Reed said. “Not so much with a punch line like ‘The Far Side.’ You’re supposed to have fun with them, yet they take every ounce of my being to do them.”
“I think the kid has come back to you,” Ker said to Reed.
He describes his cartoon drawings as “worlds within worlds.” The drawings are improvisational. Reed begins drawing without a solid idea or goal, and sees how it unfolds. Not knowing what’s up and what’s down, he rotates the drawing as his imagination unravels in detailed, geometric forms that often appear mechanic or futuristic.
“It’s fun to watch him turn them. He’ll turn it and start a whole new story,” Ker said.
“When I’m working on this, I’m working on that circle and making it exactly perfect,” said Reed, pointing to a small circle in the midst of an intricate drawing, “The parts will make up the whole. All of a sudden, I see a head and an arm — that’s the surprise.”
Reed uses a few architectural tools, such as a straight edge and a compass, to draw exact arcs and straight lines.
“I had someone tell me once that a real good artist can draw a perfect circle,” Reed said. “I think a good artist knows where to put a circle.”
Though the drawings can be interpreted a hundred different ways, in the end, Reed has a clear idea of the story being depicted. “Sosha and Sasha at the Big Ball, Sosha is Leaving,” is a drawing about two characters, one who is walking out of the picture and one who is standing in the center, resolved to stay.
Reed didn’t intend for the drawing to depict a Cinderella-type fairy tale, but once it was settled, it could be no other way. Of course, the characters don’t look like princesses; they’re composed of calculated lines, circles, triangles and squares that resemble limbs, a face, movement and even a personality.
“The drawings always come out as a surprise to me. They start as one focused line and grow,” Reed said.
Painting also is a great joy in Reed’s life, and the results of that medium carry the same playful, joyous tone as his drawings, and are built of the similar geometric shapes. The drawings are more figurative. At least one character acts in each drawing, but it’s often up to the viewer to locate the character.
From one drawing, it might be difficult to pick out the character and see a story, but with 28 pieces in the exhibit, viewers get a chance to see similarities among the drawings. Each drawing is a separate story, and each character gets only one frame to live within. But the viewer’s eyes have to be trained to seeing the stories expressed in the playful pieces, just as a person gradually observes more in comic book drawings with each turn of the page.
Reed knows exactly where it is, but sometimes parts of the drawing remain a mystery to him.
“Are those ears? Is that a hat? Who knows?” he said.
In addition to his fantastical characters, motorcycles, tractors, airplanes and rockets enter his busy scenes. Of course, the everyday machines have been tinkered with — they’re recognizable, but clearly a part of his cartoon world.
“It’s for the person to enjoy and make their own discoveries,” Reed said.
The titles aid the viewer in understanding what Reed sees in the drawings. Hidden tractors can be found in “A Tractor Again,” and if you use your imagination in “Bowling,” the entire drawing comes together into a character that is winding back his arm, ready to throw a ball down a lane.
If you want a guide through some of the drawings, Reed will give a presentation at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 16, at the Colby Museum of Art.
“The museum likes to have professors show work here so that the students and the community have a sense of their creative life outside the college,” said Elizabeth Finch, Lunder Curator of American Art at Colby Museum of Art.
With improvisational drawings, the possibilities seem endless — but Reed knows when a drawing is complete. Though he doesn’t see the end approaching, it inevitably jumps upon him.
“It’s when you can’t put another mark down,” he said. “It’s like pouring a pitcher of water. You see when there’s not a drop left to pour.”
He then moves on to the next character.
The drawings in “Scott Reed: Characters” are for sale. For information, call Colby Museum of Art at 859-5600 or visit www.colby.edu/academics_cs/museum/. The museum is free and open to the public 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday. It will hold “First Thursdays” opening receptions with music and refreshments 4:30-7 p.m. Feb. 3, March 3, April 7 and May 5.