By LEE J. KAHRS
One of my most vivid childhood memories is sitting at the kitchen counter with my little brother, John, drawing. I was perhaps nine, he a year younger, and we would each have sheets of white drawing paper and colored pencils or markers or crayons. I would often draw a bucolic barnyard scene, where the buildings were to scale but the horses and cows had elongated backs and too-short legs.
Minutes would go by, and when I felt I had put everything I had artistically into my barnyard, I would glance over at John’s paper. There, he would be putting the finishing touches on an exact rendering of a P51-D Mustang World War II fighter plane. Or, if it was after 1977 and the birth of the “Stars Wars” phenomenon, a perfectly drawn Stormtrooper.
John has always been an artist, and he has always been fascinated with mechanics and flight. He was a quiet, left-handed, redheaded kid who played the accordion and liked making paper airplanes. Around the age of eight, he started snatching my mother’s thick paperback romances and creating stick figure flip book movies in the margins. The stick figures would fight each other and then the winner would put down his sword and walk off the page. It was like a little paper stage.
On Sunday night, 1 billion people watched my little brother walk onto the world’s biggest stage to accept the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, his directorial debut, “Paperman.”
Everyone is from somewhere. It’s the somewhere that shapes who we are. Feel free to embraceJohn,Vermont, because his connection to this place helped build him into the man and the artist he has become. We are a family of valleys, and while that kitchen counter was in theHudsonValleyin our native state ofNew York, starting in first grade we spent all of our summers here in theLake ChamplainValleyat a camp inWest Addison.
One of the many gifts our parents gave us was their teaching schedules and summers off. We spent June to Labor Day here, leaving the camp after breakfast and often not stepping indoors again until dinner. We had true freedom, as long as we were within earshot of my mother’s dinner bell. There was Ghost in the Graveyard, flashlight tag, sailing, tree forts, bikes and swimming — lots of swimming. John and I would spend so much time “exploring” underwater that Mom would urge us to give our red-rimmed eyes a break. And on rainy days, John could be found drawing, or doing an airplane model, or making another flip book.
It was a tough place to leave in late August, new jeans and sneakers from Fishman’s in Vergennes packed among our things. Back to school.
High school was not easy for John, but he got through it. It was art school that really propelled him toward the future. After a year at Pratt, skip to the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design, 1988, when the school started a fledgling animation program during John’s senior year, and the rest really is history. Jump to his first job with Blue Sky Studios inWestchester,N.Y.(the folks who brought you the “Ice Age” movies) and John’s lonely life as a reverse commuter, his inspiration for “Paperman.” In 1994, it was on to California and Pixar Studios, where John spent a magical decade working on the now classic animated films like “The Incredibles,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “Cars.” Then he headed to Disney, and when Disney and Pixar settled their differences and joined forces, John was once again in the right place at the right time.
Vermontis the right place for us as well. Sprawl led my parents to retire here years ago to live year round. I followed in 2002, fleeing post 9/11New York.
Our connection to this landscape is deep and enduring, and it is being passed on to the next generation. John comes back for a week every summer to the same plot of land on the lake that my parents bought 40 years ago, and his sons, Ben and Johnny, look forward to it all year. It’s important to him that hisCaliforniaboys have that touchstone ofVermont. It is something he cherishes, something he considers worth handing down, and even at the tender ages of 11 and nine, Ben and Johnny would be dismayed if they couldn’t make their annual pilgrimage to theLake.Missionaccomplished.
It’s a surreal experience to watch your brother win an Academy Award, but I told him earlier on Oscar Day that I always, ALWAYS knew he would do great things. Sitting with my parents in their living room last Sunday night, we watched the Oscars together, and when the announcement came, we jumped up and down and screamed with disbelief. My mother started to cry, my father’s eyes were wet with overwhelming pride, and as they embraced, I heard my father say, “That’s our son.”
The phone started to ring and didn’t stop all night. That was a problem because I saw online that John told the press he’d been trying to call but couldn’t get through (my parents don’t have call waiting). He said he felt terrible because he forgot to thank his parents when he accepted his award. He did finally reach us and apologized to my mother, who quickly told him not to worry about it.
“You guys let me do what I wanted to do,” he said. “And that made all the difference.”
As our family and friends continue to reel from this overwhelming experience, parents take notice. That could be your child, so a word of advice: Sometimes when you have a quiet, left-handed redhead who likes to draw, the best thing to do is … let them. They may grow up to win an Oscar.