I’ve still got a lot of kid in me! Children’s hospital patients inspire Utica artist

Published 2:00 pm Sunday, February 5, 2012

UTICA — As David Pollard watched a TV special about the children’s hospital in Jackson, he was so moved, so saddened that he wanted to do something for the youngsters to make them smile and laugh, “to bring some excitement into their lives.”

But all he had, he said, was his art.

That was all he needed. He called the hospital, told them his story, made an offer and his plan is in the works. Soon he’ll be greeting the patients with gifts of his paintings.

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David paints cartoon characters, all bright and colorful and happy, all on poster boards that measure 22-inches by 28-inches, They’re as vivid as the smaller ones in the comic strips, books or TV.

He’s completed 165 in the past 2 1/2 years. The walls of his home on Old Highway 3 near Utica are covered with them. There’s Mickey Mouse and Charlie Brown, the Roadrunner and the Coyote, characters from the Smurfs — just about any that have marched across the printed page or been on Saturday morning TV. Some, like Superman, which is David’s favorite, are icons in American culture. There are others that have been around for decades, such as Tarzan and Popeye the Sailor Man.

David never had a lesson in art, has never been to an art show or gallery. He grew up on Cook Road near where he lives and went to school in Utica. It was about 31 years ago, when he was 13, that he began drawing in PE class, competing with three of his friends to see who was the best. They began by drawing little cars, then went on to comic books. Soon the school’s personnel were using their talents to draw logos and decorations.

His art came pretty much to a standstill when he graduated from high school and, at 18, went to work in construction. At the end of a 12-hour day there wasn’t energy or interest to pursue his artistic talents, so it was put on hold.

As in painting, though, he also taught himself to operate big equipment, and he did it by watching the other operators. For months he watched as a bulldozer operator ran the machine. Then one day when he was sitting on the dozer, and a big hole needed filling, his supervisor said, “David, crank it up and fill that hole.” David cranked it, pushed and pulled a few levers to make sure he had the hang of it, “and then I put that blade down and filled that hole.”

From the dozer he went to the track hoe, left that for the back hoe, and then such farm equipment as cotton pickers, learning “a lot of stuff, but I never learned to run a motor grader.”

In some ways, he said, it was just like “being a kid all over again,” and in some ways it was also like art: “You have to have a steady hand. You’ve got to have a feel for it, from the lever to the line to the bucket.” His livelihood was heavy equipment — it was fun, he said, “and I love it.” But when you mess up, you have a problem, and his problem was several ruptured discs, one pressing against a nerve. The result was early retirement.

He had to have something to do, and going back to his painting “kept me from going crazy.” His work had gone basically unnoticed until recently, he said, for “nobody knows I do this except the people around here.” He’s given some away, to children and to the elderly, but he said he usually just hangs them on the wall. Friends have recently encouraged him to show his work.

David uses water-based paints — not an artist’s water colors, but the type of paint one would buy at a hardware or decorating store. He has painted on glass and wood but usually uses poster board because canvas costs too much.

In addition to cartoon characters, he paints logos, such as the Saints, and advertisements. He’s done a few Bible scenes, some flowers, “but I can’t get into portraits,” admitting that cartoons are more fun and also relaxing.

The time he puts into each painting depends on several things, including his physical condition and how complicated the subject is, because he doesn’t leave any area unpainted.

It also takes a lot of patience.

“I don’t go fast,” he said. “I like to take my time so that I can do it right.” Enlarging the subject requires patience as well as a steady hand — and a good eye.

He begins by making a sketch with a pencil, then outlining it in black, painting it, and then outlining the subject once again in black. It takes a lot of time — usually two or three days.

Sometimes he gets frustrated, can’t get it right, “and I have to get up and walk away for a while. Sometimes until my mind gets straight I get up and walk outside and then come back to it and figure out what I was doing wrong. As long as you’re frustrated, you’re not going to get it right. Relax, you can focus on it, then come back and straighten it out.”

For inspiration, David watches cartoons and buys comic books, and “when they come out with a new comic book, I get it.” He changes the characters enough to the way he wants them and uses bright colors because “I like for them to stand out so I can see them.”

He wants to share his art with the less fortunate, with the children, he said, because, “It ain’t just about me in this world. It’s not about money. It’s about helping people.” He paints for grown folks, too, he said, but “I mainly draw for the kids.”

And he laughingly admits, “I’ve still got a lot of kid in me.”

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.