The Museum of You

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For most of the history of mankind, mankind had little time for Art. People spent all their days just trying to survive, tilling the soil, tending to their herds, struggling to turn raw nature into subsistence. Then we invented machines that could do a lot of that work and time opened up a bit. A hundred years ago, ordinary working people were finally able to afford musical instruments in their home, then they could buy radios, cameras, televisions. For the first time they actually had time to entertain themselves and to look for the beauty around them. Not just the beauty that they saw when wiping their brows and peering over the handle of the plow at the setting sun, but time to go to museums, to watch films, to listen deeply to music just for its own sake.
Of course, people have been making art for hundreds of years before this. But they’d been making art for the select few, those very wealthy people who had the time to enjoy it and pay for it. Royalty, then the rich burghers, and of course the church, art to tell stories to those people who had the time to come into the Cathedral on Sunday, and to be appropriately wowed and cowed by the display of gold, marble, and fresco that showed the true history of God’s works here on earth.
Artists used to be hired to perform, hired like gardeners, footmen, and stableboys. But since industrialization, being an artist who created works for his own satisfaction became possible. Artists could paint what was in their minds, could paint the things that they chose, humble subjects, everyday things, accessible beauty, and then those works could become commodities and be sold to those people of means who could afford them.
And the number of people who could actually be artists was limited. Being an artist has always been a struggle, a self-selecting profession, and very few people manage to survive. Rembrandt, Vermeer, Mozart, van Gogh, all died penniless. Ironic because the economics of the art world means that there are always limits to the amount of product available, limits that drive up prices, and generate profit for someone. And as today there are more wealthy people than ever, the limited supply of art becomes more expensive. That’s why these days we see record prices for art, for art that was created centuries ago but also art that was created last year. And we see certain people creating tighter and tighter markets for certain artists’ work, therefore those prices escalate, artificially. We are reminded time and again that art is to be made by Artists, by trained professionals, but certified by the establishment. The rest of us don’t have talent worth cultivating, can’t make anything of value.
But what about the rest of the emerging middle classes? What about all the other people who have moved up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and for the first time are able to afford art and entertainment in their lives? They bought movie tickets, import recorded music, and the technology with which to enjoy it. And they bought museum tickets, tickets that now cost $25 or more. Access to museums full of art that was originally created for people far wealthier than them, people who did not share great art with the great unwashed but kept it behind their high gates and guarded walls.
What do you do if for the first time you have the leisure and the disposable income that will allow Art to fill a part of your life, a part that wasn’t available to your parents or your grandparents and ancestors before them? Well, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to afford any of the art made by professional artists these days. Long gone are the days when one could travel to Paris and buy the work of the young Picasso for a few pennies on the dollar. Even today’s Picassos are already out of reach. Today there is simply not enough art being made by the system of Galleries and professional Artists to satisfy the needs of the more and more people who want and can afford art in their lives. That’s by design of course, making sure that demand will rise by artificially suppressing supply.

But there’s good news, for all of us who now have the time to make art a part of our lives. Because we don’t need to invest in the works of art that has been credentialed by the art establishment, we don’t need to look for art that is been marked up by Galleries, or bona fide by museums. We don’t have to believe the limitations of the established wisdom that identifies art made outside of the system as outsider, naïve, amateur, hobbyist, inferior. We may have just a little bit of spare change or spare time, but we don’t need to invest tens of millions of dollars in order to have beauty in our lives.
Instead we can start to value the art that appears in formerly blank sketchbooks, on empty canvases bought at the local art supply store. We can find inspiration by doing a Google image search. We can find instruction by looking at YouTube or enrolling in an online course.
The wonderful thing about the world we live in is that we all now have the time to appreciate art and we all can be free to make it for ourselves. You don’t need to buy into the same conceits that ruled the art world for all of those years, namely that artists were journeymen to be hired by the rich, the value of their work artificially inflated by critics, gallerists and curators. Know that we are free to take our leisure time and do what our ancestors did — till the soil, sow the seeds, and reap the rewards of homegrown art. Art that we can give as gifts, swap with our neighbors, share in our communities and enrich our lives. If we make it, it is good. It is a reflection of who we truly are —not passive shoppers or customers — but an inherently creative, expressive and productive species.
We are now entering the time of art with a small a, not Art that goes under the gavel and hangs in the hallway of billionaires, but art that is of us and is therefore infinitely more valuable to you and me.
We’ve moved from a time of no Art to a time of consuming Art and now to the time of creating art.
Have you gotten with the times yet?

Toast master.

toast closeup
I can smell the toast so deeply I can taste it. Not like “I want that so badly, I can taste it” but literally, like the atoms of carbonated bread have drifted through the air, into my nostrils, and pachinkoed down to the floor of my tongue where my taste buds are “Holy cow”ing about the yeasty taste of freshly toasted Italian bread. I have not been eating bread for a while, because I am middle aged and paunchy and this seems likes a smallish sacrifice to make in order to hold on to my boyish charm. I’m not completely convinced this is working, and perhaps I need a chemical peel, some Spanx and a toupee to really push back the years where they belong. Perhaps, but for now, I am just skipping toast.

I didn’t make this toast to eat, but to draw. It’s cooling and hardening and I can quite effectively tell myself that it will taste like cardboard and I should put the smell out of my mind.

I uncap my rollerball, bend back the covers of my sketchbook, look at the toast hard for a minute and then pick a spot to start. It’s in the upper left, my usual point of embarkation. I pick a corresponding point on the page and make my first mark. I move slowly and confidently at first, my eyes mainly snapped to edge of the toast, like a zipper. I slide along, heading right, enjoying a ziggedy path full of toasty landmarks. This is the easy bit; there’re lots of anchor points to reassure me that my line is correct. Then I hit a smooth part, an unbroken stretch, and my confidence wavers. I can deal with this  — I pause to measure the length of this flat bit, then backtrack, calibrating the distance traveled, and finding where that distance led me on the path so far. I locate a landmark on the edge of the toast, find its mirror on the drawing, then measure the corresponding distance. Now the flat path isn’t a mystery any more. I can say with certainty how long it is. I fire up my pen again and head down the road. Eventually I have circumnavigated the whole slice and am back in the upper left. On my page is a lopsided rectangle that seems to perfectly map the outer edge of the toast, all its harbors and lengths of coast navigated and known.

Now to bivouac then head inland. I look at the tiny holes that nestle against the crust. A freckle mass of pinholes where hot air escaped from the dough and pushed its way to the surface. I count six in a lopsided star configuration and copy them onto my page. Then I slide a wee bit to the left till I get to the next topographic event, a twig-shaped indentation, that goes down a fraction of the inch. I imagine myself roped up like a miniature spelunker and lowering down that crevasse. I note the footholes on the way down and copy them down in ink. I walk along the bottom of the cave, then spring back to the surface. I move on down to the next gathering of crumbs.
I continue across the toast like this for awhile, recording every indentation and protrusion, my drawing filling up with speckle and dashes.

Then I pause to survey the whole, rising up into the clouds above the island to see what I have wrought. I look around, take my bearings and suddenly feel queasy. The edge that I have been charting does not correspond with what’s on my page. I have been moving too quickly perhaps. Or maybe too slowly. I immediately feel regret, another drawing poorly observed, despite my pledge to be consistent and slow, to check every inch. The little horn that protrudes above the crescent cleft in my drawing is actually a half inch further along on the actual edge of the toast. I have jammed too much information and now my drawing is inaccurate. One mistake and everything that follows it dominoes further off the cliff. One slip-up and everything connected to it is off by more and more. Disgusted with myself, I hop across the toast and resolve to come at it from the opposite direction, hoping to deliberately distort the journey back in such a way that I will meet up in the right places, two wrongs making a right.

I head south and realize that the toast is far narrower than my drawing. My disgust deepens. Perhaps this is a lost cause. Perhaps it will work as an incomplete drawing and I should just quit now. Perhaps I should just eat the toast.

But then, the clouds break. I realize that I have forgotten how much room the thickness of the bread takes up. What I thought was the inner edge of the top was actually included the crust as well. I thought I was in South Texas but I am barely in Oklahoma. I am okay. I carry on.

I come across a large hole, the biggest one, a veritable dry lake that almost goes clear through to the other side. How do I deal with its shadows? I don’t want to cross hatch or simulate the lighting in any way. If I do, I will no longer be mapping and the tiny details will get lost in a wilderness of lines, lines that don’t describe actual observations but instead pretend to be light and dark. I only want to mark lines where there are lines. It’s a rule I set for myself early on in the trip.

So just look for more and more detail in the shadows. I indicate darkness not with the artificiality of hatching but by drawing more complex details in some areas and less where the light is stronger. Details create a sense of volume without pretending to be darkness.

I pull back up to a 50,000 foot view again. I see an area that looks more sparsely populated and head back down to see what I have missed. Another area also lie bald and patchy but i decide to leave it incomplete for the sake of contrast. If you add every detail, you end up with an undifferentiated mass. Pauses here and there to add the contrast that makes for drama and interest. The viewer’s brain fills in the missing details, staying engaged. Less work for me.

I darkening the lowest edge. It’s a conceit and rules violation because I vowed not to indicate shadows, but the drawing needs it, simulating a third dimension and lifting the toast off the page. Rules are meant to be broken, just so long as you acknowledge you know they are there.

The toast is utterly cold and dead now, the smell long dissipated. And so is my need to draw. I recap my pen, flip the book closed and wander back to the kitchen to see if there’s any celery in the fridge.

You talkin’ to me?

 

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I’ve always talked to myself. When I was little, I would narrate my doings, describing the astonishing thing I was building with Lego, the culmination of a stellar building career, summarized in grandiose terms by a plummy narrator, like a BBC biographical documentary.

As big, batty person, I talk to myself in the shower a lot, singing, using accents, getting louder and louder, repeating phrases I like just to feel them roll off my tongue and into the tub. Usually someone else in the house knocks on the door and asks if I’m okay.

I talk to myself when I make dinner, pretending I am hosting a cooking show, explaining how to properly julienne.

I talk to myself, less loudly, when I walk, immediately clamming up if someone passes by. Or sometimes I’l wear headphones just so it seems I’m just on the phone.

I dunno, I like to hear my voice in my head, and I like the idea of saying silly nothings that could amuse only me. Those I live with sometimes get irritated by my chipperness. They aren’t morning people. Or morning dogs. No problem, I’ll talk to the sparrrows.

Sometimes drawing is like talking to myself, especially when I am drawing from my imagination. A couple of days ago, I listened to the radio and filled a page of typing paper with hippos, some buck toothed, some with trotters, a giraffe or two, a crocodile in ballet shoes. They spoke to me.

I like it, it passes the time, it is not for anyone but me. But I like to listen to whatever it is in me that wants to say hi.

Kiss all frogs.

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When I was running a creative department a few years ago, I decided to make a film about creativity at the agency. Not about my department, but about people in accounting, account services, production, catering, media, and human resources. When I first put out the request for people to tell me about their creativity, the silence was deafening. Wasn’t that the job of my people?  But I insisted, and soon uncovered lots of examples of hidden creativity.  People who never saw fit to mention it in the office, went home and cooked incredible pastries, played the banjo, wrote sci-fi stories, won prizes for their roses, build radio-controlled helicopters, were in the Guinness Book of World Records.
The film was a smash and it opened all of our eyes. By removing labels, we discovered the hidden assets in our company. And we started using those assets in new ways, inviting new people to brainstorming sessions, giving them problem-solving assignments, asking them to help us crack the tougher nuts. Soon the whole agency was a creative resource. Instead of a few dozen people in my department, I could call on the whole staff.
We just don’t know where answers will come from. And when we insist on judging situations prematurely, we limit ourselves and our potential. Instead, we need to open up and stow the labels.
Invention doesn’t land neatly. We have ideas and don’t know where they go or what their purpose is yet. We need to honor those ideas — especially if they seem like mistakes.
For example, misconceptions are a sort of mistake that can lead to innovation. You mishear the assignment, you misread the brief, you misunderstand the problem, and 1+1 don’t make anything coherent.  Because the puzzle won’t snap neatly together, you really scrutinize the pieces. You come up with all sorts of explanations for this perplexing situation. You dream up new theories, new explanations for how things work.  Maybe you get a new tool and you toss away the instructions unread. You find a box of paints you’d forgotten about in the back of the cupboard and discover they don’t mix like they should. You visit a new country and can’t understand how they can eat what they do.
Most of these musings lead nowhere — after all, they’re built on a foundation of error.  But some of them, maybe just one, pivot your thinking, open your eyes to a whole new perspective. Your imagination struggles, flails and then comes up with a link no one has ever seen before. If the pieces fit too neatly, you’d be stuck doing the same old same old.
Sometimes knowing too much means not having room for the answer. Out of the mouths of babes (of all ages and all departments) come surprising insights, based not on experience, but on a fresh point of view.
Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t shun your mistakes. Don’t burn bridges.
Our wastepaper baskets contain the seeds of revelations and brighter tomorrows.

P.S. Happy 616, PL.

Master of None.

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I have always been a dabbler. I have tried so many things, thrilled at the initial excitement of learning a new skill.
Here’s a partial list.
In high school, I learned the basics of how to write computer programs in BASIC. I sort of learned to solder electrical circuits, to make picture frames, to throw pots, to weave, to make silver jewelry and cloisonné.  I formed a Marx and Engels study circle after school. I learned the rudiments of playing the banjo, the piano, the saxophone, the harmonica, the electric guitar and the vibes. I acted in plays and directed them too.
In my twenties, I learned about cooking, photography, carpentry, and construction.
In my thirties, I learned to bind books, to screen print, to ballroom dance, to lift weights, to edit film, to design books, to get around a golf course, and to change diapers.
In my forties, I learned to watercolor, to use a dip pen, to podcast, to properly pack a suitcase, to write in HTML, to use a DSLR, and to make ice cream.
So far in my fifties, I have dabbled in barbecuing, painting in acrylics, gardening, entrepreneurialism, and driving properly.

Despite all this dabbling, I am not especially good at any of these things. I am not an expert, not even particularly skilled. (I can sound like I am which can be useful to dinner parties, allowing me to find common interest with almost anyone, except rabid hockey fans.) And yet there is still an enormous attraction to me in learning something new, in going to YouTube to research instructional videos, in buying specialized equipment, in delighting at those first glimmers of ability.
Some of the skills I have tried to pick up seem like they could transform my life. Many just seem interesting. And many turn out to be a lot harder than I thought, frustrating me until I throw down my banjo in disgust, and wander away, beating myself up at another failure.
But I don’t regret being a dilettante. I think far-ranging curiosity is key to a creative mind. Though recently, I’ve wondered if I need to cool it and stay on track. Time seems to be finite and it’s better to refine what I know.
But then again, I’ve always wanted to try my hand at lithography. And boxing. And After Effects, Oh, and the ukelele. Yeah, the ukelele.

The Club

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Over decaf, a friend told me of the time her teacher inherited a country club . Acre upon acre of sprawling grounds, putting greens, tennis courts, bungalows, a pool. Each August, he closed the club for a month, hung a chain across the drive, and filled it with artists, his students. He flew in models from New York and all day long they drew. At night they spread their work across the ballroom and he picked through the field of paper, a cassowary in a stained polo shirt, diving into the pile to pluck out a sheet of newsprint here, a watercolor there. As they sat cross-legged, smoking and paring the paint from their cuticles, he would weave a long twisting narrative that connected the works, a story of art and struggle and life.
This magical month of sunshine and charcoal and stories fueled the students through the year of ordinary living, until they could return the next summer to sip bottled beer on the club porch and pass around their sketchbooks once more.
I felt my cheeks grow hollow as I listened to this story from another era, a time of commitment and freedom I will never know. To live art so utterly, to learn without end, to share, to be young, to be led, to experience the drawing life as a mighty oak to add ring after ring to, never completed, always stretching and growing and failing and learning. Not a hobby or a vocation but a 24-hour life without end.
The story made me feel old and spent, standing on an empty train platform in the rain. Yearning for youth and ink and sunshine and possibility. Till deep in my head, a voice, a boy’s voice, said the sun was still shining and the day was still long.

Walk on the Wild Side

IMG_1614I have never been a great devotee of exercise. Maybe it was because I was always picked last for playground teams. Though I have gone through occasional paroxysms of gym-going and developed surprising muscles here and there, I would rather read a book.

My grandfather claimed to have been quite athletic as a young man and, to demonstrate his prowess, at sixty years old, kicked my soccer ball over the house and into the neighbouring bullock paddock, never to be seen again. Though he never went to the gym after graduating from the gymnasium (as secondary school is called in Germany), he was a doctor and, except for the smoking pipes, cigars and cigarettes, had a healthy and balanced diet throughout his life, (lots of veg, not much meat, etc).His one exercise regimen I remember is that he walked for half an hour every day and always took a post-lunch nap. It seemed to have worked — he lived to be 98.

The one form of exercise I actually like is walking. In New York, I used to work to my office and back each day, rain or shine, forty minutes or so each way. I don’t know how much it qualified as exercise —despite all those feeble studies that say mowing a lawn or brushing a dachshund or lifting an especially thick paperback is all the exercise the normal adult needs.

I walked as much as I did for other reasons. Taxis make me car sick and cost too much. Buses are painfully slow. I don’t own and wouldn’t drive a car in the City. The subway will do when it rains but there still a lot of walking needed to and from stations, so why not walk the whole way and save $2.50?  Bicycles get stolen and can get you killed. And it’s really hard to find  a decent rickshaw any more these days.

But the biggest reason: walking gives me ideas.

I have written huge chunks of all my books while walking the street of New York. I have written commercials, had life-changing ideas, worked out seemingly insoluble problems, and all while strolling through my favorite city in the world (sorry, LA!).

I’m not alone apparently. Researchers at Stanford University put people on treadmills and found that they were far more creative when they were walking. And even after taking a walk, they came up with a lot more ideas than before, up to sixty percent more! The researchers can only surmise why this is — perhaps it’s because when we walk, we feel good, and when we are optimistic, ideas flow. It could be because when you are diverting energy to walking, it’s not as available to the monkey, and right-brainish restrictions are relaxed. Your mind is simply freer, swinging its arms and whistling a happy tune.

Since coming to LA, I’m tempted to drive everywhere. But I walk my dogs for half an hour each afternoon and I try to walk to the grocery store a few blocks away rather than take the truck.  And even walking on a treadmill at the gym works and almost as well as strolling through a sylvan park.

How do I write while I walk? Well, I used to pull the journal out of my pocket and scrawl down thoughts in pen. But now, I use my phone. I am addicted to Evernote — I just launch the app, and the amazingly accurate speech recognition software turns my murmured thoughts into text which I can then refine when I get to where I’m going. If speech reco isn’t working well for some reason, I just make a little recording on my phone and listen to it later.

Amazingly, most of these ideas float up out of nowhere and, later on when I look at them, they seem magical. I don’t even remember having most of them. Getting those ideas down right away is key. If I clutch them in my mind, trying not to forget, my creativity freezes. The idea needs to be jotted down, stored and moved off stage for new ideas to show up.

Okay, see you later. I’m off to take a walk.