Artist Danny Gregory inspires during ISB visit

By Tom Fearon

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New York author and illustrator Danny Gregory began his two-week visit to ISB with a Q&A session at a high school assembly on Wednesday, September 17. Encouraging students to be flexible to change and seek inspiration in their surroundings, Gregory stressed the importance of discovering their creative potential and never losing sight of their passion.

The London-born artist has authored and illustrated more than half a dozen books during a career that has seen him work in the US, Australia, Pakistan and Israel. During his Q&A session, he spoke about how he combined his work as the creative director of an international advertising agency with his artistic talent, and revealed what inspires him each time he picks up his pencil and sketchbook.

Do you have to be an artist to express your creativity?

Everybody has the ability to be an “artist” in some way. You don’t have to create paintings exhibited in a gallery or museum; we all have the potential to express ourselves creatively. Being creative means solving problems and coming up with new ideas. Everything is changing, especially in Beijing.

To think like an artist doesn’t mean you must have that title on your business card, if you even have one. But you have to be prepared to investigate and take risks. You all have the opportunity to be creative in everything you do in school and in life.

It’s less work to do what has already been done, but to be creative you have to always have inspiration and an active mind. Think about how what other people in other fields are doing could influence you; how a director creates a film could be relevant to how you want to create an app. If you want to start a business, look at how people are operating businesses in completely different fields and see how you can apply that.

For me, drawing has always been a useful tool for focusing my mind and seeing the world in a different way. Think of some other form of creative expression, be it creating music or writing poems, and use that to tap into your creativity, keep ideas flowing and make new connections.

What life lessons can you learn through being creative?

Being creative allows you to avoid boxing yourself in. It’s tempting in life to look for a label for yourself, but a more creative approach to life is allowing yourself to expand and take any opportunity that comes your way. This approach can open all kinds of doors for you. I’ve reinvented my life in different ways because I was open to do that, but there have also been times in my life where I felt I needed to be in a “box.” When you do so, you feel safe and can say, “This is where I live and this is where I work.”

But it’s a dangerous thing to do in a way, particularly when you consider the pace our world is changing. If you put yourself in a “box,” you’ll find the world has changed and left you behind because you haven’t been able to adapt.

It’s also tempting to think if you work really hard and develop certain skills, you’ll be set for life. But everything is changing all the time and if you narrowly define yourself, you may end of underprepared.

Be curious by making connections with your surroundings, meeting different people and taking risks is how you will thrive in the future.

How do you manage your responsibilities and cope with stress?

I live in New York City, which is a very busy place, and I was a major executive at an international company that involved a lot of responsibility. But I found that you need to make a commitment to use time to explore. It might be a matter of setting your alarm half an hour earlier to have some time to yourself that you might use by reading something new or creating art. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by your responsibilities by thinking about how busy you are; try and stay relaxed, and have faith in yourself by remembering you’re a smart, hardworking person. If you check all the boxes by engaging in every curricular activity, applying to all the right colleges and performing really well in your tests it’s easy to believe life will be fine, but life isn’t really that simple.

Considering yourself and what really interests you is more important than following a checklist and doing all the things you feel you have to do. Be true to yourself.

What influenced your decision to switch from advertising to art?

I was a copywriter and wrote lots of commercials before I became chief creative director. I published half a dozen books while working in advertising and also taught workshops.

When I was in my mid-30s I started to draw and keep a record of my life in drawings, but being creative and artistic were things I did all the time. I eventually realized I could decide to do what I wanted to do all the time, which is what I do now. It was tempting for me to think for a long time that I had to be within the corporate structure, but I learned to trust myself and do what was important to me. If they carve anything on my tombstone, it probably won’t be the titles I earned in the corporate world. Hopefully, it will be something a bit more poetic.

Why do you draw unusual scenes in life, such as people standing in line at Costco?

I carry a sketchbook and pen with me all the time, and whenever I have a spare moment I draw. Life is full of spare moments; a lot of the time we spend our spare time using Facebook, texting a friend or staring off into space. I do these things too, but I also use my spare time to draw.

How has living in New York influenced your art?

New York is full of things to draw; there’s so much energy and many things going on, but it’s also my home. I certainly go to museums and galleries and immerse myself in the “Art” world with a capital “a,” but I think of myself as existing in the “art” world with a small “a,” which means art that is part of life.

Danny Gregory will present workshops to ISB art students of various grade levels until Friday, September 26. He will attend a book signing and participate in a student-led dialogue from 4:45 pm to 5:15 pm in the MS/HS Cafeteria and then attend a student art exhibition and book signing from 5:15 pm to 6:15 pm on Thursday, September 25.

News, September 18, 2014 9/18/2014

School daze

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I don’t have loads of fond memories of teachers in high school. And most of the art teachers were especially forgettable. And as you know, the monkey voice in my head makes sure I still retain some ambivalence and self-doubt surrounding my own position as an artist and as a teacher. Nonetheless, I’ve agreed to spend a week with high school students at the International School of Kuala Lumpur and went with a few sketchy ideas and an open mind.

ISKL is a terrific school. It has students from fifty countries, all studying in English, and they go on to top universities in the US and Europe. Great art schools too, RISD, Cal Arts etc. They have lavish resources, a dark room, a theatre, art classes three times a week, a swimming pool, sports fields, a great library — so much more than Jack had in the NYC public schools system.

Whatever they do in life, the school is giving them a solid and broad base of culture. These are well-behaved kids, prepped for success, eyes drooping from after-school tutoring and late-night study sessions. Their parents are diplomats, engineers, top executives in global companies, or the cream of Malaysian society. Several have the talent and drive to get into a great art school, but their parents want them to study economics or law. Still, they are not hectored drones hell-bent on success. Just good kids who need to be goaded to take some risks.

Which was why I was there.

It took me a few false starts to figure out how to proceed. I began with a lecture with almost 100 slides, selling them reason after reason for how great illustrated journaling could be for their lives. I repeated this mistake in three different classes that day.

I went home the first night, still half dead from jet lag, dismayed by the realization that I’d become one of those droning teachers I hated in high school, telling kids what was good for them, urging them to follow my example, using incomprehensible, made up jargon, telling them what was wrong with thinking any way but my own. I’d behaved like I was doing a presentation back at my ad agency, selling my ideas hard, rather than being empathetic, rather than understanding where I was or what they needed. I’d talked so much that first day, we hadn’t even had time to do any drawing.

It’s one of the problems with being an ‘expert’, when you aren’t really sure what your expertise is or how it’s useful. It takes time to recut your experience to suit the current situation, to figure out how what you know night be of service, If you come in hellbent on asserting your expertise or tone-deaf and presenting your same old stump speech, you risk boring or alienating the people you wanted to help. You have to become expert in being an expert. In part, that means, knowing what you don’t know.

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One idea I’d sold my host Ian on, was that we could get the kids to create a whole bunch of great sketchbook pages documenting the stories of the school. They could interview the staff in the kitchen, draw the equipment in the gym, sketch the poses people struck while studying in the library, and at the week’s end, we’d have a great collaborative project that he could curate somewhere. It wasn’t a bad idea but it didn’t set the kids on fire. I was excited to poke into all corners of the school, but these kids spend all day all year there and there were few revelations left, despite my exhortations to discover a new way of seeing. We did spend a couple of days drawing the turtles in the pond, the band rehearsing, the lost and found. But I realized that this very loose assignment was too ambitious and not sufficiently attuned to the way the kids think.

This was not like teaching adults. It’s not the self-motivated atmosphere of Sketchbook Skool. Kids aren’t in high school because they want to be, they’re not looking for ways to realize their potential. They’d much rather hang out with their friends or play video games. So they need you to focus them, tell them what you expect them to do, and make it finite. The older kids are working towards their International Baccalaureate, sort of like AP classes in the US, so they need final projects for their portfolios, not meandering explorations of the recycling cans or the locker rooms. My first days of loose experimentation in creative freedom left them lost, afraid of doing wrong and wasting precious time.

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Next we gave them more specific assignments. Draw six things that are round but very different sizes, draw them the same size and arrange them evenly across the page. Draw a stack of books you’ve read in the library, giving them dimension, paying attention to the letterforms. Interview and draw one worker in the kitchen. Draw the place you’ll miss the most after you graduate. This was better, and they certainly did the assignments uncomplainingly, but much of the work was still sketchy and lacked passion.

Next step was to tone down all the demands of illustrated journaling, rather than insisting on 1. interesting drawings, 2. confident line work, 3. insightful, witty stories in 4. nice calligraphy, with 5. good composition and 6. a well laid-out page — let’s just get excited about drawing.

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Things took off when I demonstrated how to do a technique I showed in Sketchbook Skool, I call “slow/fast”. First we drew a one-minute gesture drawing with a fat brush dipped in watercolor, followed by a carefully observed, detailed pen drawing right on top of the initial study.

We wheeled a motor scooter into the middle of class and sat around it drawing. The kids were silent, lost in drawing, and the results were awesome. The teacher told me, “This is usually my most unruly and disruptive class and I have never seen them so engaged. And I love the drawings they did. Many asked if they could keep working on them in their free time.”

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I tried the same Slow/Fast technique with another group, dividing them into pairs and having them pose for each other. The portraits were a huge leap from the work they’d done early in the week, individual, well-observed and alive.

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Next we made a dozen or more squares on the page, then drew little snapshots of random scenes through a viewfinder, like a contact sheet or scenes from a movie. Again, the drawings were carefully observed and lively, the compositions were interesting and fresh. Initially we knocked out each little drawing in a minute or two, but then many of the kids went back and added more detail and color.
IMG_6999I also taught through example. I shared the pages I had made outside of class drawing around Kuala Lumpur, I passed around old sketchbooks, showed images I had made over the years. I did a lot of drawing, participated in the exercises, then walked around pointing things out here and there, try this, consider that.

On the last day, I hauled out my slides and books again, and this time the response was different. Now they loved drawing and it made sense so we could delve deeper into conversations about layout, expression, inspiration, technique, possibilities.

My biggest lesson was that you first need to show students how it feels to love making art. You need to have that momentary flash when you see why it’s so great. It could be the deep meditative experience that comes from really concentrating and going deep. It could be that moment when you pull out of that daze and look at what you have made and are blown away. Just doing one great drawing give hope. Even if the next one sucks, you know you can do it because you did it once. And when you have that knowledge, you have secure ground to build on.

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Early in the week, one girl made several really great pages but I would hear her muttering to herself or her neighbor how much she sucked at drawing. Then I saw that she had written, in graceful swirling letters, right on her page, that she thought this drawing was awful and that she was no good. I explained how untrue I thought this was but also how, by asserting it over and over, she was creating a self-fulfilling process. We kept pushing ahead with more experiments that would distract her monkey mind and by the week’s end, she showed me drawing after drawing with pride.

I felt good but I wasn’t really sure if I’d really made an impression on the classes. So many of these kids are reserved and polite and not effusive and the monkey was still wondering if all this time and travel and work had been worthwhile, for them or for me. On Saturday afternoon, I went back to my desk to pack up my stuff and there on my laptop was a card. On the cover was a lovely watercolor portrait of me and inside the students had written (neatly lettered and beautifully composed) how much my time had meant to them, how much they had learned, how they now embraced risk and mistakes and how grateful they were I had come to their school.

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It felt like every corny movie about teaching I’ve ever seen, Mr. Chips, Mr. Holland, Mr. Kotter, but I was really touched. It’s a cliché, I know, but those kids taught me more than I taught them.
Now on to Beijing, to learn some more.

What on earth am I doing in Kuala Lumpur?

I am nearing the end of my week working with students at the International School of Kuala Lumpur. It’s been a great experience and I think I’ve probably learned more than the kids.  Here are a few photos and drawings from the week so you can see what I’ve been up to.

Click on any picture to open the gallery..

The shortest distance between two coasts is a wonky line.

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Playwrights say that if a gun appears on stage, somebody will use it before the curtain falls. Photographers say that the best camera is the one you have with you. The New York Lottery says “You gotta be in it to win it.”

I just spent ten days in a car with a journal on my lap.  As  result, I did a lot of drawing. Not that drawing in a car is ideal. I am prey to carsickness so jolting highways and juddering views are usually not the ideal environment for the delicate stomach of my muse. Nonetheless, as I looked out the windshield four thousand miles, I was constantly drawn to draw.

Aphorists say when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And as I spent my whole day with a pen lightly gripped in my hand, everything looked like a drawing. The only effort required to start a drawing was to shrug off the cap and, whenever I wasn’t at the helm, I seized every excuse to draw (thank you, Tommy Kane).

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The unfolding miles inspired me to use the pen which in turn defined the journey we were on. I saw connections between things, I saw unusual shapes, I saw common things suddenly looking very uncommon. I was hyperaware of the light, of the weather, of the ravages of time. Holding a pen can be like donning polarizing sunglasses, sharpening everything in your field of vision.

Now I am back on terra firma, I want to hold on to that urge and habit. To keep recording all the days that pass under my feet, to keep seeing even the most familiar landscape with the fresh eyes and open mind of a traveler.

Further on down the road

The final leg of our cross-country drive.  4,000 miles, 10 days, loads of eating, driving, drawing, and fun. Click on any picture to see the gallery. Or you can follow me on instagram: dannyobadiah.