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Artistic Itch Cured by Etch-A-Sketch : Man Masters Tortuous Toy After 20 Years of Twisting Its Knobs

May 12, 1989|DAVID WHARTON | Times Staff Writer

The problem with creating masterpiece works of art on an Etch-A-Sketch is that if you make a mistake, you can't erase. You have to start over. Or, once you have finished a picture, if you drop the thing, it's ruined.

"I've dropped several excellent pieces," said Michael Angelo Vidal Jr. "I still think about them. It's a shame."

Vidal has spent more than 20 years hunched over an Etch-A-Sketch, using what most people consider a child's toy to make what he considers serious art.

The result is a collection of intricate wildlife scenes, sketches of flying dragons and portraits of such luminaries as the Beatles, Johnny Carson and George Fischbeck--all of which are drawn in the squiggly, black-line style of Etch-A-Sketch.

These works are being shown until the end of the month at the Burbank Central Library. The display--20 Etch-A-Sketches arranged in two glass cases--has drawn "ooohs" and "ahhhs" from small crowds in front of the circulation desk.

"This is amazing," said Sunshine Saint Onge, 15, of Burbank. "I've never seen anything like this, especially on an Etch-A-Sketch."

The merits of the work notwithstanding, some might think it odd that a 38-year-old man would devote his talents to working with a toy. Vidal, however is not alone. The Ohio Art Co., which makes the toy, maintains a nationwide Etch-A-Sketch Club and says 10% of the members are adults. The company estimates that there are 40 Etch-A-Sketch artists across the country.

"The work we see is incredible," said Pat Grandy, manager of advertising for Ohio Art. Virtuosos often send photographs of their work to the company. "Some of the results are amazing."

Said Vidal: "I consider it art. There's a great deal of skill involved. It takes an awful lot of time to learn how."

Vidal began learning while he was in high school in Burbank. He'd always been interested in art and, one day, happened upon an Etch-A-Sketch.

"I couldn't do anything with it," he recalled. "I decided to master it."

When Etch-A-Sketch first appeared in toy stores in the late 1950s, it was not intended for anything more sophisticated than child's play. It is a simple plastic box with a glass-enclosed slate. Two knobs control a stylus that draws across the "magic screen."

Inherent artistic limitations abound. The only way to erase is to hold the toy upside-down and shake, thus clearing the entire slate. Etch-A-Sketch draws in a continuous line, so everything must be connected. And drawing with the knobs--one controls up-down, the other left-right movement--requires a certain amount of ambidexterity.

Nevertheless, Vidal found that with practice he could draw accurate geometric figures. He soon discovered a trick to disconnect adjoining figures in a picture. Later, he began to take class notes on the "magic screen" or knock off a quick portrait of a lecturing teacher.

In the years since, he has become a free-lance commercial artist and continued, in his free time, making Etch-A-Sketch art.

A drawing may take as little as one hour to complete, or as long as several days. Vidal works when he gets the urge, usually several times a week.

Like a painter selecting his brushes, Vidal carefully chooses the Etch-A-Sketches he buys. Some machines, he says, don't have adequate clarity. Sometimes the knobs can be too stiff.

And this is a somewhat expensive hobby. If Vidal likes a picture enough to keep it, he can never use that Etch-A-Sketch again. The toys go for $8.99 each, and he has preserved 30 that contain his favorite drawings, being careful that the work is not erased.

With the 1960s returning to vogue, more than 2 million Etch-A-Sketches were sold last year, and the toy is as popular as ever. Vidal is hoping that his work will ride the crest of that popularity. He hopes that art galleries will want to show his drawings.

"These are incredible," said Tom Thombray of Burbank, who stopped by the Burbank exhibit with his 3-year-old son Spencer. "We all had one of these as kids and used them with varying degrees of success. I could hardly draw a circle with mine."

Burbank Central Library is at 110 N. Glenoaks Blvd. It is open from 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, till 6 p.m. Fridays and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays.

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