Hard confession

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years convincing people that making art is just as natural as breathing. And as easy. 

But maybe I’ve been avoiding the hard truth. That making art can be hard. It can be hard keeping to a habit. Hard pushing past blocks. Hard mastering new media. Hard facing your mistakes. Hard being your own cheerleader. Hard seeing clearly. And hard putting yourself out there.

I’d convinced myself that if I make it seem like the barrier to entry is just a bead curtain that I will be doing people a favor. But when I make it seem easy and you find it hard, you might worry that you are exceptionally untalented or lazy or dumb. Which is far from true. 

The fact is that sometimes making art can be very demanding. 

And that’s okay.

Just because something is hard doesn’t mean it’s scary or to be avoided. Hard can be good. It can make the corpuscles course through your veins. It can make you stand taller. The things that are hard to do are often the ones worth doing. Success isn’t meant to be easy. 

In my own life, I have many things on my plate, but I’ve been working to eat my vegetables first and save dessert for last. Just because something is easy to tick off the list doesn’t mean I should do it first. Instead, I try to crack at least one tough nut a day.

At times, I’ve had the reverse approach. I told myself that it is better to have a sense of accomplishment by plucking low-hanging fruit and doing something easy — making the bed, answering email, emptying the dishwasher — than it is to tackle the things I dread.

But Ive learned that the pleasure of having won the hard battle is far greater and worth the pain. 

Now I start the day by thinking and writing and inching ahead, and end it in front of the TV with a basket of towels to fold. Life is easier when you scale the mountain first and coast down it the rest of the day.

My advice: Your days are numbered and there’s loads to learn — so don’t be afraid of something because it seems difficult. Rather, seek out the toughest challenges and fight your way through them.

It can be done. And you are the one to do it.

Calaveras

dayofthedead

This past weekend was the Day of the Dead, a lovely Mexican tradition in which people visit the graves of their loved ones and bring a picnic to share with the souls of the departed. Patti and I loved this holiday — it combined our morbid fascination with graveyards and mortuaries with a sense of humor and cartoony festivities. I wrote about this three years ago, when thoughts of death had suddenly assumed a new and less whimsical tone.

Last Saturday, Jenny and I joined thousands of other Angelinos at the Hollywood Forever cemetery to commemorate the Día de los Muertos. It’s a huge party. There’s a contest for who can build the most impressive memorial shrine and everyone has their faces painted to look like grinning skulls encrusted with jewels and flowers.

I love that this holiday turns the traditional gloominess surrounding death on its head.  Instead of an occasion for grief, it is a celebration of the lives of the deceased. The Mexicans believe that a person dies a second death when their memory is forgotten and that makes a lot of sense to me. Immortality means you had an enduring effect on the world, that the things you did for people while you were here will be carried around in their hearts. If you set an example for others to follow, you never really pass away. I see that in Patti — because people have such vivid and positive memories of her, she lives on.

These days, I live a life that is three thousand miles from many of the memories Patti and I shared.  I am not walking the streets she did, no longer live in her house or sleep in her bed or see the people who knew her so well. I worried about that when we Jenny and I first talked about coming West, that Patti’s memory would somehow fade when I was far from the physical world she lived in.

Now I know that’s not true, because I brought Patti with me.

I brought her photo in a frame that I see every day but more importantly, I brought the part of me she created over the quarter of a century we spent together. I also believe that Patti wanted me to grow and change and have adventures. She told me so a million times,  a million times I did not hear because I was encrusted in my habits and fears. Now, when I feel the pieces scrape and shift inside me, I know that she would approve. She would be so happy that I am here, with Jenny, in this mini house, painting in this garage.

Patti was the one who taught me how to love, how to go beyond my self-absorption and love another unconditionally.  If she hadn’t taught me the importance of true love, I could not truly love Jenny as I do today. But loving again does not diminish my first love. And conversely, the bottomless well of love I had to share in my past with Patti does not mean a drop less in my future with Jenny. There’s plenty to go around. The more love you give, the more love you have. And the hardest part is learning to share that endless love with yourself, to be kind and generous with who you are.

Recently, a Facebook friend who had suffered a recent loss, sent me a few questions about my experience with death. I’ve been waiting for a reason to share them with you and DIa de los Muertos seems as good a one as any.

-How did you survive your worst sort of days?

I guess I had no choice. I had a loving wife and small son and what other option was there but to persevere? I didn’t believe in God. I didn’t believe in karma or fate. Life was shitty and I could either deal with it or check out. In retrospect, I think that my love for my wife was a key factor to my will to continue. We planned a life together and her accident was not going to stop us from being together and having a meaningful time of it.  When she died, I no longer had that to hold me together, But I had my son and my commitment to be there for him. And I had my memory of Patti and her example, the fact that she had survived a huge blow and had carried on for so long. She loved life and she loved people and I tried to absorb some of that spirit, to look on the bright side, to count my blessings, to continue to be creative. I used my art to gain perspective on the blows that were dealt me, to get them out of my head and on to the page, so I could start to put the loss behind me, and have some thing to live for. And I reached out to other people, I shared my story, I tried to make my life meaningful, and of service to others.

-Days when getting out of bed seemed impossible what motivated you?

After Patti had her accident, I got out of bed to change Jack’s diapers. He was nine months old. Life was going on. The sun was still rising and setting. There were new things to experience. I wanted each day to be better than what had preceded it and slowly but surely it did.

-What do you say to people who say things that they think are very helpful and seems to create a deeper hole in your soul?

I am glad they are trying to help and I think them for it. In each person’s story there is something useful. But I know that only I can truly understand what I have gone through.  Platitudes can be so annoying and distancing but I try to concentrate on the love that is behind them.  The fact is, people don’t really know what to say. And often it is surprising how certain people react to tragedy and change. I was amazed when people I thought had seen it all disappeared when we needed them. And I was equally amazed at people who I thought barely knew me stepped forward, rolled up their sleeves, and helped me so much.  Do not underestimate the importance of other people’s love and comfort. But don’t be disappointed if they don’t know how exactly to help.

-being blindsided… Moments or days where you almost feel normal and a smell or a texture brings you to your knees in grief. 

Yup. That’s very familiar. Grief appeared and knocked me on my ass when I thought I was long out of the woods. And it isn’t necessarily prompted by a smell or a sound, it can just pop up out of the blue.  The flip side of this is that in time those little moments turn from painful to sweet, a lovely reminder of what one has  lost, of how much it meant, of how dear it still is.  I can smell perfume, hear an Ohio accent, and be transported back into Patti’s arms.  What was once unbearable becomes cherished. Give. It. Time.

-Does it get better, Danny?

If it didn’t our species would have long vanished in a never-ending rain of pain.  Every day you make progress. Sometimes you slip, sometimes you jump forward.  It is a wound and if it doesn’t kill you, you emerge wiser and happier.  As the Buddha told us, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

- What helped and helps you the most as you continue moving forward?

In so many ways, my life today is better than ever. It is the life Patti always wanted for me. I have changed almost every aspect of my work and my home and am now on new adventures.  My life is going on. It took three and a half years to get here.  It was worth the trip. Thank you, Pat.

— Anything other words of experience you can think to offer?

I got a lot out of The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss by George A. Bonnano. He points out that 95% or so of people emerge from grief in a year or less.  And of course, I  got a huge amount of help and wisdom from my grief counselor and from my lovely and wise girlfriend, Jenny James.

Thinking outside the books.

gallery garage

A canary sits in its cage, gazing through the bars. Year after year, it watches the world beyond and dreams. One morning, it notices that the cage door is open. The canary catches its breath and waits to see when it will close.

Eventually, the canary hops onto the edge of the door and pops out of its cage. It flies around the room, sits on the back of the couch, perches on the bookshelf. An hour later, it returns to the cage and goes back to gazing through the bars, dreaming. The door is still open. So is the window beyond.

Freedom is not easy. Security, comfort and familiarity are.

……..

Many birthdays ago, long before I had the habit of drawing, my mother and my sister chipped in and rent me a studio for a month. It was the most terrifying gift I had ever received. I went down to Desbrosses Street in Tribeca, and walked into the studio. “Mine, all mine,” I muttered under my breath. The room was about fifteen feet square and empty. I took out a pad and a piece of charcoal and wrote about how I felt having studio all of my own. I filled several pages with writing in charcoal, taped them to the wall, and left.

I came back a week later and made a small collage from cut-up pieces of magazine. I taped that to the wall and left. A week after that, I drew colored lines on the collages with a highlighter marker. The final week in the studio, I brought in a photo of my grandfather and a large canvas. I painted a very bad copy of the portrait onto the canvas. At the end of the day, I left the canvas, the collage, and the charcoal writing on the studio, locked the door, and never went back.

……..

When I arrived in Los Angeles, I had planned to work in the second bedroom of our house, to sit at a small desk in the corner and write my new book. Then I saw our two-car garage, 300 or so feet of emptiness. Like the garage, I stood with my mouth wide open. I spent the first week, filling it with tables and shelves and cubbyholes.  I spent the second week sitting at my desk, writing my new book and rearranging bottles of ink. Occasionally I would draw in my journal, using a fountain pen and a white pencil.

I spent the third week thinking. I realized had managed to reproduce my office in New York. I had a lamp, a rug, a laptop, a phone, a box of thumbtacks. I ate lunch at my desk and surfed the web. I was even filling my calendar with a record of my daily doings in case I had to fill in timesheets at the end of the month. All that was missing was a couple of account executives and a client.

So I went to the art supply store and bought whatever I wanted (if you remember my old essay, “Art Supply Porn“, you’ll know my fantasies are legion). At first, however, that just amounted to a few tiny palettes for gouache and a bottle of ink. Oh, and a block of 14 x 17″ mixed media paper.

Back in my empty garage, I opened the block and did a tentative self-portrait in ink. This simple act I was breaking one of my cardinal agreements with myself. I was making drawing, with no writing , that was not in a book. No wonder the self-portrait looked like I had just eaten something bad. Then I did a gouache painting on the block and pinned it up next to the self-portrait. Then in a fit of pique, I got a house paint brush, dipped it in inks and drew a huge painting of Tim on the back of an empty Ikea box.

I felt slightly winded and rather nauseated. I took out my journal and told it what I had done, revealing my betrayal and the dim feelings I had about it.

The next day, I bought a 64-box of Crayolas and some tempera and did a wax resist portrait. Then I did some more gouache paintings, then a painting of the back of the house in poster paints on cardboard. Soon the garage wall was full.

michael-ave-hi-resAThe following week, I sat on the corner of my street holding the fattest Sharpie I could find. On a big sheet of cardboard, I drew the house across the intersection. When I had filled the whole board, I went back to the garage and got another piece of cardboard and continued the drawing, a big, grubby, dog-eared diptych.

michael-ave-hi-resBThe next day, I continued the drawing, working my way down the street. When I was done, it was eleven and a half feet wide. Then I added gouache, creating a cheerful portrait of another glorious day in my new neighborhood. Just as my hero David Hockney was transformed by the California sunshine, I felt a call to use candy colors and bold lines and to work as big as all outdoors.

michael-ave-hi-res

Click to see it bigger.

Now I am working on a drawing that is as big as my garage wall, fourteen feet in all, a broad panorama of all the crazy houses arrayed along the Venice canal. I even added a gondolier.

My sketchbook now looks a bit small and grey but, despite my sudden expansiveness, I love it still.

If you are getting little set in your ways, check out the door of your cage. The world is wide and a little terrifying, but it’s wonderful out here.  You don’t need to chuck your job, your home and all the rest, but try flying around the living room a bit and enjoy the view. There may be a cat out there, but if you fly high and far, you’ll be safer than you are trapped in a cage with an open door.

Yarddogs.

IMG_0163

Since they were wee pups, my dogs Tim and Joe have spent their days on our apartment on the 8th floor of a Greenwich Village building. They had free rein — running around the living room, rassling on the cowhide rug, napping on the couch, yapping at the elevator — and if they want fresh air, they could go out on one of our balconies and look down on the street to monitor for cats and large black dogs.

Three times a day, they would don their collars and leashes for a walk up to the Park and down Thompson Street. Tim would pee on the corner of West 3rd Street, Joe would poo outside the Catholic Center, then they would come back through the double doors of our lobby and hop in the elevator. They were so comfortable with this routine that if I had a chore to run, I could let them ride up on the elevator on their own, confident that they would get out on 8 and wait for me in the apartment.

Their lives were pretty typical of New York dogs, many of whose lives are quite unusual. I have a friend who cooks her dog breakfast every morning and then pays a person to sit in her apartment all day with her dog so she never has to be alone. Maybe that’s typical too. When she complains about how badly the dog behaves, I would tell her (jokingly),”You need to just chain that dawg up in the yard and leave her to guard your property.”

When we arrived in L.A., Tim and Joe were a little bewildered. No elevators to ride, no fire engines to bark at, no half-eaten chicken bones to snatch off the sidewalk.

At first, we left them briefly alone in the house and they had a field day, knocking things over, peeing, howling at the neighbors.  Then we bought a gate so they could be sequestered in the kitchen — more peeing, more whining. I was getting worried — while I do spend a lot of time working in the house, I need to be able to go to Costco without hiring a dog sitter every time.

Each morning, I open the kitchen door and they trip down the steps into the backyard.  Within seconds of waking up, they can be peeing — dog heaven. But for Tim this luxury was utterly confusing. He looked up at me as if to say,”If you don’t want to pee in the house, but only outside on a leash when we go for a walk, what am I supposed to do here in the yard ?” Meanwhile, his brother was under a lemon tree, extruding a foot-long turd.

As I walked them, around the block several times a day, I noticed all the dogs barking at us from behind our neighbors’ fences. A lightbulb went on in my head. Aha! People leave their dogs in the backyard all day while they are at work. Yarddogs!

And so began Tim and Joe’s, transitions to yarddogginess. After several days in the back, they are content to spend the day lolling in the grass, sniffing through the geraniums, or relaxing in the shade of the orange trees. When I come home, they amble up to me casually, not clambering up my shins or clawing madly at the screen door. They meet me like a fellow animal. Being yard dogs, spending the day watching the hummingbirds at the feeder or rolling on the lawn, has made them more dog-like. The cold, hard streets of New York seem far away.

We built  a fomecore dog house. Joe likes it. Tim's not so sure.

We built a fomecore dog house. Joe likes it. Tim’s not so sure.

Slowly, I am undergoing my own yarddog transformation. I spent my first two weeks here in a frenzy of activity, building furnitures, stocking the pantry, reading guidebooks, writing and painting to fill the walls. I felt like I was still doing a job, in this new jury-rigged office I’d built in the back yard. I was still putting on my collar and leash and mimicking my old life in New York. But no one was holding the other end, no one was there to guide me and tell me what do.  I’d started to work for myself, but I had an absentee boss. I lost my sense of what the day’s work amounted to, because I was doing a lot of busy work to fill the day and it wasn’t moving me forward. And, for the first time in my adult life, I was alone all day. Instead of being surrounded by colleagues, meetings and deadlines, I was an old weirdo sitting alone in the garage drawing pictures for the hell of it. It should have felt liberating but I was still far from liberation.

So I made a couple of changes.

I started to structure my day and to set up some goals. I put landmarks on my calendar: going to the gym, drawing, working on my book, preparing my presentations, going to museums, and so on.  I would work on one project for a couple of hours, take a break and switch to some thing else.  It was still orderly, and somewhat corporate in its structure, but it provided me with a lot of relief, just like walking Tim around the bock before setting him free in the yard.  Eventually, I’m sure my regimen will loosen up as I discover new rhythms and a sense of accomplishment, but for now, I am getting lot more done and I feel more relaxed in this new life.

Another realization I had was that though I am not physically surrounded by co-workers, I do know a lot of people who are doing similar things. They are the ones who inspired me and showed me what a different sort of work life could be like. Illustrators, designers, drawing teachers, entrepreneurs, who work on their own and have designed successful creative careers and who I can reach with a an email or by opening Skype. They are my new colleagues. So many of my friends have generously offered me their time, chatting with me and giving me perspective. Sharing their wisdom has shown me how to do this. I am still weird, still in the garage, but I am not alone.

Changing one’s life is exciting and fresh but it is also scary and a lot of work.  I am learning so much every day.

FOM (Friends of the Monkey)

3-monkeys

While your inner critic, that churlish monkey, sits glowering in your head, he has allies all around. They are camped on the hill and are riding in from all points of the compass, waiting for their colleague on the inside to lower the gates and let them flood in and maraud.  Most of these confederates are unwitting. They don’t know they are part of the army that can bring you down. But the monkey knows.

Some of them are driven by monkeys of their own. When you share your creative plans, your intention to start making art or to invest in yourself, they will start chattering from the trees, gibbering in fear. Fear for themselves. When you announce your brave decision to reverse the course of your life, to begin to make things again as you haven’t since third grade, you will set a shining example that will reflect back their own failures to live up to their dreams.

This isn’t universal of course. Many will applaud you and offer you encouragement. But skulking in the crowd will be those who are resentful and bitter and frustrated. And they will begin to lob suggestions, improvements, cautions, and advocacy for the Devil, designed to make you balk and backtrack.

Creativity is a particular magnet for this sort of monkey convocation. In my decades as a creative professional, I have encountered this spirit time and again. When I am awash with excitement at a new project or the possibilities of an assignment, these monkeys slink into my office, slump on to my couch and start to tell me the latest gossip, the latest management bungle, the latest reason to lose faith. They will complain about the assignment, the industry, the market. They will try to drag me into long sessions of venom and bile. They will splash me but I work to remain unblemished. Better to get up and leave that be infected with their toxicity. They are creative at coming up with reasons to stall and malinger, such is their monkeys’ gift of gab, and my own internal monkey howls with glee and joins the chorus.  These voices get me nowhere and need not to be heeded. Cut the chat short and get back to work.

And, while I am busy pointing fingers, let me point them at the mirror too. For in my own moments of weakness and doubt, I have been equally capable of joining or even initiating these grumblefests, feeling insecure in myself, acquiescing to the primate within and dragging in to a colleague’s office, leaning on my hairy knuckles. It’s a toxic affair that makes everyone feel, not purged, but depleted and sick.

Another band of accomplices are the media. The monkey loves the mindless vegetation of watching TV, numbing you with celebrities and gossip. Not the stories of artists and creative inspiration but the mindless doings of fabricated and often malignant chitchat. Besides being a time waster and anesthetic, the media can also skew your perception of art, artists and the true nature of success.

The banker is another friend of the monkey, cajoling you to focus on the bottom line. So is the electric company and the credit card company. They can make you do the monkey’s bidding, downscaling your ambitions because you feel trapped. They don’t deal in might-bes, they want theirs and now. They warn you not to take risks, to keep your day job, to be sensible. Of course, they have the right to get paid. But not to decide your future.

If you are a creative professional, you had to overcome the monkey just to get your career started. The monkey probably warned you and your parents: Don’t be a designer, an art director, an illustrator, an architect, a programmer, a musician, etc. It’s too risky, too competitive, etc. but you did nonetheless. But maybe now you see that the monkey finally let you follow this professional path but now won’t let you pursue your true passion — making art, speaking in your own voice, being your own client. The monkey giveth and he taketh away.

If you are wrestling with this issue, stop thinking. The monkey wants to engage you, wants you to obsess about his heckling and turn your creative energy into a response ego him. Don’t. Focus instead on what you want to do. Draw something. Write something. Then don’t look at it. Don’t judge it. Don’t show it to anyone else. Turn the page and write some more, do another drawing, dream another dream. When the books is done, fill another. Just keep going. Don’t ask for feedback from anyone who might derail you. Better to work alone in a cave than throw your work to the monkeys. Distance and perseverance are the best antidotes to this scourge. Build up your ramparts and lock the beast in your darkest, deepest dungeon.

Then get back to work.

Do you find your monkey has allies? What do they say? How do you deal with them? I’d love to know.