No title. Really, that’s the title.

ArtistI think my mother was the first one to tell me, “You can’t call yourself an ‘artist’.  Other people will decide that for you. It’s pretentious to assume the title for yourself. It’s like calling yourself a  genius. Maybe you can say you’re a ‘painter’. But not an artist.”

My mum is humbling like that.

“Teacher” is another title I am loathe to assume. I don’t have a degree in teaching, I don’t work at a school. And I think teaching is one of the most important and difficult and unrecognized jobs around. I really do think that’s a title you have to earn.

But I guess I do spend a fair amount of time telling people stuff, instructing them on how to live, to drawn, to think. So I’m either a bullying bore or I am maybe a teacher. Not that the two are the same thing, of course. It’s just that if you walked into a bank and started criticizing people’s penmanship or cracking knuckles in your local Starbucks because people have poor posture and are chewing gum, well, that wouldn’t fly. Teachers get to know better because they do.

I’ve had loads of corporate titles and they all seemed sort of ridiculous. Yesterday, a guy gave me his business card and said, “There’s no title there because I still haven’t quite figured out what it is I do.” He was being modest (he was actually the boss of a really big company) but I liked his attitude.

Let me get to the point.

One of the biggest irons I had in the fire when I left my last titled job was to put together an online class.  I’ve alluded to it here a bunch of times since — but it never seemed quite right to me.  Maybe it’s because of those two titles, ”artist” and “teacher” and the even more daunting combo: “art teacher.”

A couple of weeks ago, everything changed.

As result of number of amazing conversations I had in Amsterdam, most importantly with Koosje Koene, a clear, bright path has opened up. I now know what I will be doing next and I think it will be amazing.

It combines everything I have been working on for the last decade. Making art; sharing with other people; meeting so many amazing “artists” and “teachers”; thinking about creativity and all of its gifts and obstacles; the Internet and the global nature of everything; Everyday Matters and what it has come to mean on Yahoo! and Facebook; the thousands of emails I have received from great people everywhere; my decades in advertising helping big companies tell their stories —  all of this mass of rich stuff lumped together in one beautiful stew that finally is really bubbling.

A group of us are working on something that I really think is fresh and fantastic. It’s an answer to all those people who have asked me to do more workshops or to teach online or to give them advice or make more Sketchbook Films, all the people who are interested in art and want to make it more a part of their lives. And I think it’s a great answer, like nothing out there.

We still have a lot more work to do but we think we will be ready to roll it out in March. Gulp

It’s a lesson that settling for an existing title or solution or direction may not always be as good as making up something brand new.

Which is what we are doing.

If you find this, whatever it is that I’m going on about, interesting, stay tuned.

And if you’d like me to update and include you in our project, send me an email. Please do. Even if you are only intrigued. Or vaguely interested. Or utterly confused. It’s gonna be big. And probably won’t involve titles.

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On making shit.

turd

A recent turdlette.

It’s so easy to despair. You sit down, uncap your pen, start drawing and then realize you have drawn a large, stinking turd. It’s inescapable and it’s bad. So bad that the stench drives you from your sketchbook for days.

Congratulations, you are on your way. The fact is, crap is the inevitable byproduct of the creative process. It’s supposed to be. And it happens to us all.

(And now you know why the background of my blog is brown).

Let’s get some perspective. I recently took a huge book out of the library that contained all 2,137 known works by Vincent van Gogh. It almost broke the rear axle of my truck. Now, bear in mind that those are the 2,137 pieces that have actually survived for 125 years. You just know that there were several times as many that Vinnie or his brother or some skeptical landlord trashed, burnt or flushed long ago. So, maybe van Gogh made five or ten thousand drawings and paintings over his ten years of art making. Three a day. Sounds reasonable considering the tear he was on.

How many are great? Ten? Twenty? Let’s go crazy and say, a hundred — that still means his hit rate was, generously, 1%.

I love the movie Amadeus. But let’s face it, it’s fiction. The idea that Mozart just sharpened a fresh quill and wrote down the Requiem or the Jupiter or Don Giovanni or any of his other 623 works of varying quality as fast as he could take dictation from God is just nonsense. He  squeezed out turds every day, just like the rest of us.

Picasso left behind 50,000 works. On some days, he made five paintings. The Cahiers d’Art, the complete catalog of his works, takes up 33 volumes and costs $20,000! Did Pablo think all 50,00 were genius? Did his gallery owner? I doubt it. So, these are some of the greatest geniuses of all time and even they didn’t hit home runs every time at bat. That’s why they worked on paper — because it can be crumpled up and hurled against the wall in frustration.

We have good reason to be afraid of failure.  Even if we actually are great.

In our commercially rapacious world, we don’t allow for crap (although there’s certainly plenty of it). The minute we set someone up on a pedestal, we start working to pull them down. If you write a great book, have a great show, make a great record, expectations will be immediately ratcheted up. But your initial success will probably be followed by something that isn’t quite as good. Overnight, you’re the Knack or the Stone Roses or Terence Trent D’arby. Or Skeet Ulrich. Or Lindsay Lohan. And once you stumble, you’re dead Meatloaf. There is little tolerance for failure.

Better to just be Harper Lee and quit while you’re ahead.

You are different. Because you are learning (hopefully for the rest of your life).To succeed in the creative process, you need a long-term view. Thick hide. And you need to keep working. You can’t get hung up with self-doubt and give up at the gate. You can’t mistake a failed drawing for a failed you. You aren’t your turds. You just aren’t.

And stop insisting on perfection as the price of moving on. Even Tiger Woods isn’t Tiger Woods. You have to swing at lots of balls, before you slowly inch your way from van Gogh’s brown potato paintings to Sunflowers and Irises. It’s a battle of inches. Slowly but surely, your turds will smell sweeter.

Learn from your mistakes. Otherwise all the pain you endured from making that bad art was just a pricey ticket you never got punched.

Bottom line: If you’re going through a period of making bad art, you must go on. You can take a break, but eventually, soon, you must go on. Because otherwise what you’re running away from isn’t the way you put pen on paper. It’s fear of who you are. And you’ll never escape who you are. Instead learn to accept and to love it. Flaws and all. And then to go on. Trust me, you are more together and less smelly than Vincent van Gogh.

Don’t be tripped up by a few bad drawings.  Keep them and learn from them and let them improve your future art and your future self.

People who never produce turds die of constipation.

Thinking about my super hard-working boy.

IMG_0616 - Version 2

Artists are dismissed as dreamers. But being an artist takes focus and perseverance. It is a tough job, grounded firmly in the real.

Dreamers are roadkill. Artists work. That’s why they call it “The Work”. Not “the ideas,” “the notions”, “the dreams”, “the visions”.  The Work.

Being an artist means seeing the world as it is and having something to say about it. Most people don’t. Most people are content with hackneyed second-hand points of view. Tree hugger or tea partier, paper or plastic. But being an artist means diving into what is really out there, building your own filter from scratch, a filter that adjusts the contrast, brings out the details, heightens the textures and looks deep into the shadows. If you have nothing to say, your hands will tremble, your lines will be weak, your compositions will be flat and your audience will be yawning. You need to reach down and take a stand. On something, anything.

Being an artist means working to see yourself as well. To figure out what colors you see in. What shapes you like. What appeals to you. And trying in some way to understand why. Not why as in words but why as in feelings, nuances, shades. What do I like, me? I like bent things, dead things, wounded things. I like things that are beaten by the sun and wrinkled by the years. I like to see their history in their surfaces, to feel what has happened to them, to trace the map of their journey carved into their flesh, to empathize. Why do I like these things? Is it because I know I am not perfect, I have been ravaged, I persevere and I honor those who do too? Or is it because I cannot actually make beauty? I need to ask myself these questions, even though I don’t aim to ever articulate the answers. I need to see in to that ugliness and share why it is so beautiful to me. So you can see it too, so you can see the love inside your own pain.

Being an artist takes courage. It takes balls and sweat to see the world through fresh eyes and to develop the skills to express that vision and then go out on a limb and share it. Because it’s a long row to hoe, a thankless journey most of the way, a trip no one ever asked you to take and no one feels obliged to cheer you along on. If there are any spectators along the road, they are probably skeptical, probably see you as a self-indulgent weirdo too lazy to get a proper job. But don’t look to me for sympathy. Or applause. Because being an artist is a cause you choose for yourself, the rewards are in the journey, and there is no Promised Land. You have to want to proclaim your vision, to broadcast your voice, to change the world. The finish line doesn’t lie at the doors of the Whitney Biennial, it lies at the grave. Every day is a lesson and a revelation and they follow one after the other to the horizon, providing their own reward. Artists accumulate wisdom and depth and no gallery owner can take a cut of that and no auctioneer can ring a gavel down upon the lessons learned. 

The only thing to goad you on is your fire and your nerve. Because after all, who asked you? Who asked you how you see the world, what’s good or bad, what needs changing, what could be. No one. You decided you had something to say and now you want to say it. No one is obligated to listen but you will make them sit up and take heed.

Being an artist means being an entrepreneur who imposes his vision, who asserts the value of what he is doing and insists people look at it and take him seriously. No one else will do it for you. No one else will come up with your business plan or a strategy or a new idea. You don’t answer to a committee or a board or market research. You make your product, you sell your product, you create your market, you get your ass out of bed each day and punch the clock you built.

Being an artist means being a craftsman, a self-promoter, and productive without a boss, a company, a client. You are making a product no one asked to buy, sourcing your own materials, developing your strategy, and above all, shipping what you make. It can’t just sit in your brainpan or your sketchbook, it needs to be stretched, framed, and hung up for the world to see and buy and resell and love and learn from.

If that scares you, cool. Museums show about 2% of the work they own. There’s already plenty of genius in storage.

But if that excites you and inspires you, awesome. Do the work and bring it on.

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” 

—Howard Thurman

The art of living.

flowers

Life is not an oil painting, sealed behind varnish and clamped in a golden frame, hanging in a white walled gallery in Chelsea, waiting to be bought by a hedge fund manager’s third wife.
Life is not an edition of etchings, a long series of identical impressions.
Life is not a mural, intended as a public display or the backdrop to an expensively furnished room. Life is not wallpaper.
Life is not a bronze sculpture, cold, monumental, an abstracted, idealized image of a hero long forgotten.

Life is a shelf.
A long shelf partly filled with journals. Some of the journals are hand-made, some store-bought, some in ornate covers, some stained and dog-eared.
Some of the journals are completely filled, others are abandoned half-way, maybe to be taken up at a later date. Some of the books are filled with paper that felt just right under your pen, smooth and creamy, bold and bright. Others were experiments that failed or overreaches, made of materials you weren’t ready to master quite yet.
Sections of the shelf may be filled with identical volumes, a type of book that you found comfortable at the time and stuck with it, disinterested in experimentation and change so you kept filling one after another. On the shelf, they may look the same, identical spines all in a row like a suburban cul-de-sac. But inside, each page is different, drawn by the same hand and pen, yet recording unique observations, days that fill up identically-sized boxes on the calendar but were all filled with different challenges, discoveries, lessons and dreams.
Each page of each journal is always different. Some are perfectly drawn and brilliantly written, insightful and illuminating. Others are a failure, with poor perspective and distracted lines. Some of the pages are dappled with raindrops or a splash of champagne, others are drawn in haste, still others crosshatched with great intensity and care. Some contain shopping lists, phone numbers of new friends, boarding passes to far-away places. Some are bright and colorful, witty and bold. Others are intimate and personal, never to be shared. Some pages describe loss and death, others a drawing of a gift you took to a baby shower.
None of these pages is an end in itself. No matter how good it seems at the time, eventually, you turn each one over. Even the ones at the end of a volume are merely leading to the first fresh page of the next. You fill the page, maybe you like what you drew or maybe it was a disappointment, but there’s always another to follow and another beyond that.
You try your best with each blank page, try to make something fresh and beautiful. Some of the time you feel excited and proud of what you’ve made, at other times you are disappointed and desperate. Often, a page you thought was just a turd looks a whole lot better when you come back to it years later. The drawing you thought was clumsy and flawed reveals some new insight and truth about who you were at the moment, fresh energy, naiveté, hope, darkness before the dawn. Each drawing, whether you know it at the time or not, contains truth. You just have to trust it and keep on drawing and writing and living your life.
Life is a process, and every one has the same end result: that last volume, partly-filled, cut off when we thought there was still art left to make. No need to rush to get there. Make the most of the page that lies open before you today.

Clockwork Orange. And Blue. And some Green.

ImageMy neighborhood is cute. Little one-family houses with little yards all arrayed neatly along the six or so blocks of our “avenue”. My neighbors are friendly without being too. They’re definitely not New Yorkers but they don’t try to hug me either.
One evening, I tethered the hounds to the porch railing, strapped on my iPod, cracked open my colored pencil pouch, and started to draw the house across the street. Because, as George Mallory said of Everest, it was there.
As I say in the journal caption, I was listening to a dreadful story on a terrific podcast (RadioLab, actually, not TAL), and one part of my brain was listening intently to this story of a guy who corresponded with the man who raped and killed his daughter, while the other part drew every brick on my neighbor’s facade.
Now, do you remember the “Ludovico technique” in A Clockwork Orange where Alex is fed a drug that will make him nauseated by violence, strapped down and forced to watch a sadistic movie which is scored with something by Beethoven? Forever after, his beloved Ludwig Van makes him panicky and sick.

I guess my drawing/listening experience had a somewhat similar effect on me. My brain and all my senses were so wide open, so receptive, hungrily drinking in the details of my neighbor’s home while fixedly listening to this awful story. My eyes signals and ear signals somehow came together to create an utterly false experience, so now every time I walk out my front door, I feel a terrible pity for my neighbor and the ordeal he went through. Which he didn’t. Except in my journal.

They really should put a warning on this sort of story — “Listening to this broadcast while operating colored pencils and a fountain pen may cause a lingering sense of tragic empathy and melancholia.”

I’ve met the neighbor, by the way. Nice, cheerful guy and I don’t think he even has a daughter. At least not one that seems to be alive………..