Epic.

snail2

My mother just sent me a link to a site documenting a journalist’s trek on foot from southern Africa to South America (I’ll give you the link in a minute). This isn’t just another endurance stunt —Paul Salopek is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer for National Geographic so his trip is all about science and journalism. He started earlier this year and will take seven years to complete the odyssey.

I have always been fiercely attracted to this sort of epic journey.

A few years ago, I was in thrall as my pal, d.price, rode his recumbent bike some 5,000 miles from Eastern Oregon to Key West. I loved Travels with Charley and On the Road.  Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl (finally a movie!), Bill Bryson’s Appalachian trail book, A Walk in the Woods, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. The Happiest Man in the World by Alec Wilkinson describes Poppa Neutrino’s quest to build a boat out of garbage and sail it across the Atlantic. Mike McIntyre walked across the country with no money and relied entirely on The Kindness of Strangers (which is the name of his amazing book about the trip). The list goes on.

Ten years ago, I wrote a proposal for a book in which I’d follow the original epic travel journalists, Lewis and Clark, from St. Louis to the Pacific. I was going to adhere to their path and record the differences the couple of centuries had wrought. My editor said, “Make the trip, write the book, and then we’ll see.”  I didn’t. Life got in the way. Good thing Jefferson wasn’t counting on me.

Recently, Jenny has been urging me to drive across country with our dogs. I am sort of intrigued by the idea. Pros: 1. It seems romantic and epic and larger than life. 2. This is the perfect time of year for it. 3. It would be a great symbolic start to my life on the West Coast.  Cons: A) I don’t have a car. B) I think taking the dogs would make this a really bad idea. C) This is really her fantasy and she’ll already be across the country in her office in LA while I check into a long string of Motel 6s. For now, the cons have probably won but I still like the idea a lot, particularly if I could get a travel companion who I could stand to sit next to for a couple of weeks and who would be willing to stop and draw along the way.

Maybe next spring.

What intrigues me a lot about Paul Salopek’s journey is its emphasis on slow. He is taking seven years (!) to do this because he really wants to absorb the world as he goes. And he is looking for people along the way who are also seeking slowness in this madcap, speed obsessed world.

I think that’s the right thing to look for. Boy, it’s hard to slow down. I sat in the park this morning with my dogs and did a drawing. It was a small drawing, just filling a little box on the page, but I had to catch myself mid-way because I was tearing through it, barely looking at the arch I was drawing, just scratching out hasty, inaccurate and ugly lines. What the hell was my rush? It’s Sunday morning, I have nowhere to be till brunch, everyone else is sleeping, and yet I am belting through this drawing as if I was in an Olympic event. If I was Paul Salopek, I’d probably be half way to Rio by now.

Even though it’s been several weeks since I left the rat race, I still have my rat cleats on. I can feel it in the need I still have to accomplish things, to generate product, to log hours on my calendar. I so very much want to focus on the journey, the process, not the finish line but all these decades in the business world, in New York, still have me panting and pushing. I remind myself: I am on an epic adventure that will probably take another few decades to finish (in fact, I would like to push off the ending as far as possible) and what matters is the daily walk through life — the things I see, the people I meet, the lessons I learn.

If I’m really honest with myself, the reason I am not driving across country with my dogs is that the monkey is telling me I need to get to LA and start getting on with it. There’s no time for meandering and roses sniffing. I need to set up shop and start making something of myself. The monkey is wrong, again, of course. I make something of myself every day. It may not be something that can be direct-deposited, it’s true, but it’s also something that can’t be accelerated. Step by step, day by day, eyes open, head up.

—-

Here’s the link to Paul Salopek’s journey.  (I have put off giving it to you till the end of this blogpost for fear that you would rush off to read it and never come back to finish my blather. Clearly, I am better at slowing you down than I am at putting my own brakes on.)

On drinking the water.

20130811-164947.jpg
As our plane swooped down over Mexico, endless green filled the windows. My first instinct was to wonder what sort of farming this could be, dense, unbroken and stretching to the horizon in every direction. As the wheels touched down, I saw it was jungle, an impenetrable mass of unruly, complex life. The runways had been cut out of the wilderness but no attempt had been made to cultivate the creepers and trees. Nature was too vast, man too small.
Mexico is a mostly modern country with drive-through Starbucks and TGIFridays. But many Mexicans accept the unrelenting power of nature, impossible to dominate completely when the air is humid and the sun shines brightly all the live long year. Grasshoppers the size of iPhones, careen through the sky with chartreuse scales and hot-pink wings. Raccoons wander into four-star restaurants and take corn chips off the bar. Cars are sun-faded, concrete is cracked, donkeys walk slowly. It’s not a rich country, but that’s not the reason things seem shop-worn and resigned. It’s because Mexicans accept the inevitable encroachment of Nature, that it’s pointless to be fastidious when geckos will wander onto your kitchen counters and carpets of kelp will wash onto your freshly grouted patio.
I like it.
In New York, we have been beating Nature back for 500 years and we think we’ve won. So we can’t help but freak out when mice nibble on the organic granola box, when mosquitos find their way under our 600 thread count sheets, when Hurricane Sandy knocks out our wifi for a week. If Nature gains the slightest foothold, we take it as a sign that our entire civilization is crumbling.
I like that in general Mexicans are so much less uptight about perfection. They are cool if you do things that are a little risky — but hardly dangerous. Things that would have flocks of lawyers descending anywhere in the States. Unsecured seatbelts don’t have those annoying warning alarms. There are packs of cigarettes in the minibar. People build restaurants out of driftwood and light them with masses of candles. Some cars are missing fenders or bumpers and are painted patchily by hand. Most streets have no sidewalks or street lights so walking at night under starry skies can be an adventure.
We sat in a beachside restaurant that served food that would have been the envy of any entry in the NYC Zagat. But before our appetizer arrived, the waiters patrolled through with smoking pails, emitting clouds of burning citronella so chokingly dense we could barely see our $12 artisanal margaritas. The mosquitos and gnats were barely dissuaded but no one bothered to complain to the Health Department, pausing only to reach under our designer linens to scratch the welts.
Mexicans don’t value their lives less than their Northern neighbors. They just accept that we can’t control everything all the time. And that this acceptance makes life easier and preserves resources for more important things. Insisting on perfection makes thing a lot less interesting and spicy. It’s also a losing battle.
Maybe it was the heat or the Negro Modelo but my pen line was a little looser in Mexico. I did a number of scrawled pages in my journal, drawn half lying down, book propped against my spreading gut, mango juice on my unshaven chin. Maybe this was how Gauguin felt.
I am sloppy as a rule, but I’m not always loose. I value looseness because it feels more organic and expressive, more human, more natural, more the way life is. Less uptight, less gringo. Jack tells me his drawing teacher insists they draw standing up, with their pads on an easel, and that they draw from the shoulder, not from the wrist, to make bold and sweeping lines with their whole bodies. Flat on my back on my chaise, I am far from that, but I feel integrated, natural, in tune with my surroundings. My body, immersed in sweat and heat and verdant richness, feels sensual and at ease. My inner critic, the monkey is dulled too. He is chewing lazily on a mango in the shade, indifferent to my drawing. He can’t be bothered to nag me when we have the jungle at our doorstep. In Mexico, monkeys sit on your roof, squat on your car, hoot from the trees above your hotel window. But it seems they stay out of your head.
Over this past week in Mexico, I haven’t been as insanely productive as I might have been. But I have been more in tune with my nature. I’ve dismantled waves, I’ve counted grains of sand, I’ve listened to grackles eat French Fries, and I’ve felt the walls of perfection erode. Rules, goals and expectations, it turns out, may not help me make as much stuff as simply sitting in the sun and letting the world grow on around me.

I Left My Art in San Francisco…

We had a lovely mini-vacation by the Bay, eating all sorts of things and walking for miles and miles. We had amazing ice cream…

b2763ae8dc4811e28c5322000a1f8f97_7

…at a place with this for its mascot…

d2604e02dc4811e28c8322000a9e08d3_7

It’s been a bit nippy and drizzly but that didn’t dampen the mood. We bought way too many books and saw so much art everywhere.

8c410454dc4111e28df922000a9f1991_7

We saw all sorts of beautiful street murals in the Mission, including on one of my favorite of all streets, Balmy Alley:

8df55ce8dc3f11e2a8af22000a9f133c_7

I did see the following on a car’s bumper sticker…

b7dfad9edc4711e29b2522000a9f13d5_7

…but then again it was on this car….

58747c06dc4f11e2918122000a9f4d8a_7

Oh, and I gave my talk at the HOW Design Conference about creativity and sketchbooks. At first, I was a little worried about the turn out…

71885b40dcea11e2947622000a9e138b_7…but ultimately hundreds of people showed up and many came up to say hi afterwards. If you were one of them, I hope you had as much fun in San Francisco as I did.

a2605b5edc7311e2babb22000a1e868c_7Tomorrow morning, back to New York.  (I’ve done way too much traveling of late.)

 

On the Road

Here are a few souvenirs from my  whirlwind tour to San Francisco. I spent some time at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

clock

Waiting to see Christian Marclay’s “The Clock”. I watched this piece from 2:32 until 3:27. I could have stayed much longer but the film gave me an incredible sense of how much time I was wasting by watching it. The seats were incredibly comfortable. So of course I napped briefly. I think it was from 2:44 until 2:49

 I really love Jenny Saville's work. This painting is about 10 feet tall. It's super raw but also almost photographically rendered in places. Super fleshy . She's a disciple of Lucien Freud. And I'm a disciple of a disciple of a disciple of Lucien Freud.   I love to take photographs in museums but I almost always get in trouble when I do. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has a crazy rule that you cannot wear a backpack with both straps on. It has to hang off one shoulder or else a guard will come over and correct you. Mysterious and strange. like so much Modern Art 2 days ago

I really love Jenny Saville’s work. This painting is about 10 feet tall. It’s super raw but also almost photographically rendered in places. Super fleshy . She’s a disciple of Lucien Freud. And I’m a disciple of a disciple of a disciple of Lucien Freud.
I love to take photographs in museums but I almost always get in trouble when I do. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has a crazy rule that you cannot wear a backpack with both straps on. It has to hang off one shoulder or else a guard will come over and correct you. Mysterious and strange. like so much Modern Art.

These pages were drawn in idle and potentially bored moments and turned out to be the best things I got from the trip.

IMG_0283

Watercolor, PITT artist pen, gold ink.

IMG_0284

Watercolor, PIT Pen, waterbrush

IMG_0285

Left: Watercolor, PITT Pen, waterbrush. Right: India ink, dip pen.

Baltimore!

Jenny & I and Tommy Kane & Yun drove down to Baltimore for the weekend. Our main objective was to eat crabs. And we certainly did that. crab a1c1921ab44d11e2950722000a1fc86f_7 We also stumbled into a half-dozen divey bars around town. This was one of our faves: bad decisions Baltimore also turned out to have some amazing art on virtually every corner: atomicman

We saw this Amish version of the Scream propped in someone’s window. scream

The art highlight of the trip was  a visit to The American Visionary Art Museum. AVAM They don’t allow cameras inside, so check out their site for more.AVAM pig It’s  a museum devoted to untrained artists and it is so moving, inspiring and awesome.  AVAM car I’ll be thinking about what I saw for months to come.  It is well worth a return trip just to reexamine everything again. black and white We also went to the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival and drew critters and ate funnel cakes. sheep sheep2 sheep3 dog in nest

The weather was amazing. jENNY James

And it was a fantastic time with some of my favorite peeps.

tom and yun

My Bangkok Travel Journal

cropped-rowe-wpdog.jpg

Last month, I took a week-long trip to Thailand. It was a fairly busy business trip but I managed to squeeze in time to do some drawing here and there. I brought along a new sketch book bound for me by my friend Roz Stendahl. It’s made with Guttenberg paper which is really lovely but quite different from the sort of hard, hot press watercolor paper I am used to.  Guttenberg is soft, almost like sheets of linen, but takes any sort of medium easily. I also like the way the buff tone looks in a travel journal, sort of parchmenty like an old map.

I made a few decisions before I left about how I was going to work on this trip. First of all, I wanted to make a journal of observations, rather than purely making drawings or paintings.  So I didn’t just plunk myself down on a random  street corner on my trusty  folding stool and draw what was instead of me.  Instead I wanted the equivalent of postcards, a real record of my experiences and drawings that illustrated what I was doing.  That also meant that if the environment was less than ideal for drawing, I would take a couple of quick pictures and work on the pages when I had time, often back at my hotel room desk.

I also decided to draw boldly, with thicker lines, more sure and blocky.  I’ve been inspired by people like Fabio Consoli and Kathrin Jebsen-Marwedel and Bryce Wymer, artists who think graphically rather than purely representationally.  (All three of these guys are in An Illustrated Journey, BTW).

I also decided I wanted to shake up my usual bags of tricks and so I brought along  my gouache and some gold leaf, some white paint and some much thicker pens.

(Click on the images to expand)

Thai-01

I made this spread days before I left, when I was getting excited about the trip and was imagining where I would go. I looked up stuff on the Internet and practiced my Thai calligraphy.  I laid down a super rough square of gouache with a dry brush, then painted a map on top of it with black and white ink. I smeared a stroke of glue stick across the top of the right hand page, then rubbed down a sheet of gold.  It doesn’t scan well but looks great and Siamese in the book.Thai-03

My girlfriend J.J. lent me her North Face bag — it’s bright red so you never lose it at baggage claim. I was angsting a fair amount about jet lag — my trip was so short I didn’t want to waste it staggering around in a daze. Medication helped knock me out and I generally did pretty well though I would usually fade by seven PM.

On the left page, I used gouache straight of the tube. On the right, I used watercolors from a tiny pocket-size paintbox. The writing, like most of the words in the journal, were done with India ink and  a dip pen.paint-box

I like the contrast between these two pages and the way the different media work. I also like spot illustrations in the middle of a block of text.Thai-05

This page is a bit of  a hodge-podge.  The drawing of me on the right was done in the rain,  by a street artist who charged me 100 baht ($3).  I was horrified by how paunchy he made me look and wondered if I should have tipped him much more. The drawing of the bunny dressed in a clown costume came from a photo I took in the market— I drew it later in my room and added some gouache.  The bowing Thai lady I made up but she looks quite typical.   Even Ronald bows like this in Bangkok:

McNamaste.

McNamaste.

Thai-07

I like the way the gouache boat turned out. It reminds me of Miroslav Sasek, an illustrator I love but who never drew in Bangkok as far as I know. I drew the gent in the corner surreptitiously while we rode on the boat then hit him with watercolors later on.  The enormous reclining Buddha was so impressive I could only record the impression he made on me, gigantic feet towering twenty feet in the air

Thai-09

I love how gouache is  forces me to think backwards from the way I am used to doing with do with watercolors. Lights can go on top of darks and the medium is so much more forgiving. I find it much easier to use and the right sort of  boldness for capturing Bangkok.  It’s got a very different emotional quality from what I am used to and obliterated my line. Some of these images seem really unfamiliar to me, as if they were painted by someone else. I like that.

Thai-11

A fairly ugly spread. I wanted to capture the intense color of marigolds and the intensity of her costume, but I worked too quickly and mucked it up a bit.  Not sure what I was thinking with the potato print looking body on the right. Oh, well, turn the page.

Thai-13

On the left,  I got a chance to be a little a painterly, working from observation, thick and wet on wet. The right hand side is very cartoony, but it captures all these absurd parking attendants in their uniforms, bossing cars around the parking lots. Thai-15

Watercolor on the left, gouache and white paint marker on the right. I drew the first building in a sun-baked courtyard, super quickly, with a brush pen. Then drew it again hastily from another angle.  I added all the details and the color later on when I was in the air-conditioning.  I had painted the right hand page with dark blue gouache the day before, not sure what I’d draw on top of it but the bone white stupa called out to me as a study in contrast against the clear sky. I like this spread.

dog-at-thai-boxing

On one of our last nights, we went to Thai boxing. Eight bouts and as many beers. Great fun.Thai-17

The next morning, still a little dazed, I illustrated my thoughts with a quick made-up drawing of boxers. Later, on the way to the airport, I drew a young woman on the back of a man’s scooter and wrote about why it had perplexed me. In my haste, I didn’t hold my book the right way up.Thai-19I only drew the ubiquitous king once I was safely out of the country. I’d wanted to draw him all along but had fantasies of being pulled aside at the airport and made to explain my crummy likeness. He does have enormous ears and a generally unfriendly and unroyal air, more like a dull CEO.  This is done in gouache and gold paint pen.

As you can tell by the diminishing quality of my pages, Thailand wore me down. It is hot, noisy, crowded and I was thoroughly over Thai food and stilted English by the time we left.  It can be hard mixing business and drawing but I’m glad I have  a record of the trip and quite pleased with a few of my pages. I stretched myself with some new materials and some stylistic experiments. I’m scheduled to go back in a couple of months. Maybe I’ll try oils.