Starting with a Clean Slate, Old Masters of Etch a Sketch Make Marketable Art in a New Medium

updated 01/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

As art lovers checked out an exhibit of works by Steve Hanks in an Albuquerque gallery in 1974, they became increasingly aware that something was terribly wrong. After a few hours, some of the drawings looked strangely altered, as if whole sections had been left out. And worse was to come: After two days, 20 of Hanks's works had vanished completely. The case, however, did not require the detective abilities of a Hercule Poirot—almost any kid could have solved it. All the drawings had been done on a toy called the Etch A Sketch, and as practically every child knows, an Etch A Sketch image disappears when you shake it. Unwittingly, Hanks's patrons had jostled his art into oblivion. But did the suffering artist flee to Tahiti or cut off his ear? No way. "I kind of like the idea," Hanks recalls, "of a drawing that's always on the edge of being erased."

Etch A Sketch, a mechanical version of the familiar Magic Slate, is a lap-fitting device that has been bought by 50 million Americans since 1960. It has been popular as a pastime for fidgety kids, but Hanks and at least half a dozen others across the country are now elevating its limitations into art. Since they discovered the gadget's aesthetic promise, they have had to make certain refinements—notably, figuring out ways of insuring that their creations will survive, at least physically. As a result, Hanks, 36, has now sold hundreds of his pieces for $100 to $200. Stuart Cameron Vance, 27, of Manhattan has sold framed sketches for $400, and Pittsburgh's Gayle Wurthner, 33, sold one Etch A Triptych for $1,200.

From primitive childhood beginnings they have also moved up to art's greatest styles. Hanks draws indoor portraits. Wurthner does male nudes. Jeff Gagliardi, a Boulder, Colo, commercial artist, has re-created part of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and Vance has created 52 Etch A Sketches showing the 14 Stations of the Cross. "I wanted to do something kind of grandiose with a fairly silly toy," Vance explains. "I felt the contradiction helped my work break out of being a novelty into something with weight."

Etch A Sketch artists haven't yet sold museum curators on their art form, but they have impressed critics with their dexterity. To Etch A Sketch, you have to turn two knobs connected to a stylus, which puts scratches in a layer of aluminum powder clinging by static electricity to the underside of the toy's glass screen. One knob cuts a thin, black, vertical line, the other a horizontal line, and when turned simultaneously they create curves. Shaking the box dissolves the drawing by covering the scratches with aluminum again, unless they have been rendered permanent. Though most people can barely make a decent squiggle, a practiced artist can create perfect circles or 3-D effects with a continuous line. "It's a very detailed and difficult medium," says Leslie Levy, an Arizona gallery owner who now exhibits Hanks's drawings. "Every line shows. You can't erase any part—just the whole thing."

Preserving the pictures also takes fearless coordination. One common procedure involves cutting a hole in the back of the toy and emptying out the loose aluminum. Spraying a fixative on the back of the screen then keeps the remaining particles in place. A false move, of course, erases the art forever.

Unlike many other artistic revolutionaries, Etch A Sketchers are refreshingly unpompous. "I was born with a strange mutated brain that enabled me to draw on an Etch A Sketch," says Vance, who began twisting the knobs before he could write. None of the artists etches full-time—Vance and Hanks are painters, Wurthner is a film production designer—so their output is sporadic. David Sosalla, a special effects supervisor for Lucas Films, makes only a few etchings a year, spending 80 to 100 hours on each one. Hanks is probably the most prolific. He works from 30 to 90 minutes per piece, sketching while hanging out in various Albuquerque restaurants. "The neatest thing about it," he says, "is that it combines entertainment and art. It stirs up more excitement than when you sit down with a sketch pad."

Younger fans may find a new drawing toy even more exciting—the Etch A Sketch Animator, which hit the market last fall and has sold out across the country. Computer operated, the $59 Animator lets artists erase, move images around, draw a series of 12 pictures, then recall them in quick succession to create a flip-book-style cartoon. But Hanks still stands by the original, which sells for around $16. "Because you can erase or move lines on the Animator," he says, "anybody can get a good drawing on it. That just isn't a challenge."

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