L.A.Tte

latte

Late weekend morning and Jenny and I were on bench outside a local motorcycle shop/café, eating breakfast and perusing the Sunday Times (N.Y. — Like a proper NYSnob, I haven’t been here long enough to forgo proper journalism for the local paper). 

We had a croissant and a fresh and elaborately made latte apiece. I am not normally a latte person but when in Rome… (where, incidentally, I never saw anyone drink latte which is normally reserved for infants or the feeble). While reading the Book Review, I absent-mindedly chugged down the contents of my cup. It was warm, creamy, slightly sweet and, soon, disappointingly gone.

I immediately hopped up and went to order another. A young woman with multiple face-rings rang me up and a man with a waxed mustache and neck tats handed me another steaming cup full of ambrosia.

I plunked back down and resumed chomping on the NYTBR. Suddenly I started to feel, well, unwell — pulsing waves of liquid anxiety coursed up my arms, my bowels felt like quicksand, my heart thundered like Secretariat, beads of sweat dribbled down my pate.  It wasn’t a stroke;  it was the effects of far more caffeine than a normal, unsedated person should consume. And I had yet to touch my second cup of well-milked amphetamine.

My point is not to warn you again the evils of the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug. Life would be duller without it. Instead, this episode made me pause to think about my gluttony and impatience. My need to rush into things that seem vaguely interesting and to find immediate solutions to potential problems that have yet to crest the horizon.

When I came to LA, I had an urgent need to furnish my home and my studio as soon as possible. Within days, I had built truckloads full of furniture and knocked out dozens of drawings and watercolors to fill the walls. I had a shelf-full of guidebooks and had visited all of the decent museums. I had contact everyone I even vaguely knew in-town and planned get-togethers.

Something inside me felt imperiled if I didn’t get a move-on. If I hadn’t built a bulwark against the dimmest view of my future, I couldn’t feel safe.

This is an impulse I have wrestled with my whole life, a need to rush to results. Hurry up and wait. I handed in my thesis three months early — my advisor scowled at me and said he wouldn’t be even looking at it till Spring. I envy procrastinators. This isn’t false modesty. It’s the same impulse that had me ruining model airplanes when I was a gluey-fingered kid, that had me making wonky, ill-fitting covers in bookbinding class, that caused my journal to burst into flames in the microwave as I tried to hurry the drying of a watercolor. If I took my time, I might come up with more thoughtful, deeper, better crafted stuff. Instead, I splatter ink, drop glasses, and dash for second helpings.

My commitment to drawing has been an attempt to slow the hell down, despite my twitchy nature. I really do want to do things well and carefully, to stick to it, to focus on the process instead of obsessing the purpose and value of whatever I undertake. When I wrote  A Kiss Before You Go, I forced myself to go slowly, to carefully check each draft, to take my time with the watercolors, to make the best book I could. It was hard and I still managed to get the book out fairly quickly, more quickly that I sometimes think was altogether decent.

Maybe advertising was the right career path for me. Thirty seconds. And all that money at stake meant I was surrounded by people who made sure I slowed down and polish every detail. I was known for making really well crafted commercials, again, despite my nature.

I left my job three months ago and I have been in LA for seven weeks now and already I am impatient. I had committed to myself that I would take six months to a year to figure out where I was going next. To explore, to reconnect with myself, to have an adventure. But the anxious monkey in my head wants another latte, wants results, clarity and purpose. It’s not enough that I am painting and drawing and blogging and writing my next book. He wants the path all worked out, wants an answer, any answer, now.

Screw the monkey. I have to be careful. That’s why I haven’t blundered into going workshops or contacting galleries or shooting all of my online classes videos or writing the five other book proposals I’ve been kicking around. I worry that I am just sitting in this garage and that cobwebs will grow over me but I must sit still.

I am trying to grow a new me. And that takes something the old me has in short supply. Patience. Calm. A long view.

And less latte.

Mechanical drawing.

brake lathe

So it turns out that there are some shortcomings to owning a twelve-year-old truck. Nothing major, just a reluctance to start the first time I turn the key. I spent the afternoon at my local mechanic’s garage, inhaling the heady perfume of grease and metal shavings, while he replaced some worn bits and poured in some fresh magic potions. Meanwhile, rather than watching the History Channel in the waiting room, I drew the brake lathe. My mechanic, who also likes to draw, made a color Xerox of my journal pages and hung it next to the centerfold in the office. A pleasant way to spend the afternoon. Can’t wait to go to the dentist next and draw my root canal.

Reading the manual.

desk

Recently I posted the huge drawing I did of my street here in LA. It was the culmination of a new drawing experiment I began a few weeks ago with the drawing above of the chaos on my worktable.
Over the years, I have played around with bamboo pens, the favored drawing tool of my old pal Vinny Van Gogh. The marks this pen makes are instantly recognizable — they have a certain roundedness to them and can be made in many thickness and degrees of blackness. My own attempts with bamboo have heretofore been disappointing; one has to redip thepen so often that it can be quite frustrating to fill a page. But recently, a chance perusal of an art manual revealed the error of my ways. Soak the pen in water for half an hour or so, it suggested, and bamboo becomes thirsty as a diabetic camel, absorbing a huge reserve of ink that can fuel half a drawing or more.
Once I had that sorted, I drew a bold outline, complete with minor variations in thickness, and was quite please with the result. Then, I decided to eschew all shading and fill in my shapes with solid gouache shapes to make a painting that was as bold as my drawing. Here and there I added a little detail and texture, but not too heavy handed. It was the sort of direct and confident drawing I have been wanting to make for ages but never quite knew what I was looking for.
One of the wonderful things about my time in the garage so far has been that I can really experiment and learn new things. I am reading more of the many art books that gathered dust on my shelves in New York. I am trying to understand the media I have been using blindly for years, improving my color mixing, understanding the limitations I often bump in to and using them to my advantage. And I am studying the work of the artists I admire most, not just for inspiration and new direction, but to see if I can figure out what they were doing and why.
I’m also taking more pleasure in my mistakes. I can afford to take a risk and then watch it go down in flames. A few days ago, I realize that the epic 15 foot drawing of the Venice canal I ‘d been working on for days was in fact a disaster. At first, I got quite depressed by it but then started to analyze what had gone wrong. By dissecting the composition, the line quality, the color range, I eventually figured out the errors I had made and how to avoid them in the future. I’m leaving the big panel up as a reminder.
God, drawing is so endlessly interesting and complex. Just when I think I have it figured out, I turn a corner into a whole new set of lessons. My garage is a lab, a school, a graveyard, a gallery, and a great place to eat a sandwich.

My other wheels.

cruiser
In New York, I had become quiet used to the Citibike program, to having a fresh bicycle waiting in a rack outside my front door to drive wherever I chose. I had always assumed that in LA I would be forced to drive every where — I remember from past visits that if you walk on foot down the sidewalk (where there is a sidewalk) , people look at you like you were covered with blood and dragging an axe. And the thought of toodling along on a bike where people are driving Ferraris at top speed while simultaneously talking to their agents on their blue tooth, sniffing cocaine off the dashboard and eating a double-double In’n’Out burger, well, that seemed pure fantasy.
As it turns out, Venice is something of a fantasy land. You see these bulbous beach cruiser bikes all over the place, and their riders are quite brazen. I’ve often had to yank my truck to the curb to avoid some blithe hipster, high on prescription marijuana, who its talking on his iphone while driving the wrong way up the middle of the road. People never wear helmets or pay attention to stop signs and generally make New Yorker cyclists look like uptight, law-abiding novices.
A friend lent us a cruiser of our own. So far, I have ridden it once and drawn it twice. It’s just not my thing. It would seem too ironic to get run over here in L.A. on a big girl’s bike. To hell with that, I’d much rather go out in a spectacular car crash like James Dean or Jackson Pollock.

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.