A quickening.

studio

We are being very productive in the studio these days. Jack (home for Xmas from RISD) and I have been painting together, and the air is redolent with the heady scent of Gamsol and the sounds of Biggie Smalls and NPR.  Our approaches are markedly different but our passion is similar.

GARDEN

Our lemon tree has put out  a fresh crop and the oranges and mandarins are ripe for picking. Each morning in my bare feet, I peel and eat a couple.

Our vegetable garden is fully stocked now and hurling up stalks and leaves (ah, the miracle of living in Cali in December!).  It adds to the fecund atmosphere with the perfume of chicken manure and the excited yaps of hovering crows. The hounds patrol but are more apt to roll in the soil than chase off varmints. Next project: build a dwarf scarecrow.

I love watering my patch and marveling at each’s days growth.  We will be eating well come the next solstice.

Another exciting development: I have finished the manuscript for my next book and it is safely in my editor’s grasp over at Chronicle Books. Now I have a manure-load of drawings and designing to do by my springtime deadline – a lovely chore. More on that as things develop.

And finally, the project I spoke about in my last post is growing by leaps and bounds.  We are working on what it will look like, where it will be housed, how big it will be, how tall, how loud, how fortified with vitamins.  It just keeps getting more and more amazing as more great talents join our team.

I do hope you have signed up to be alerted as soon as the blossoms appear on its branches. Oh, and perhaps put a way a penny or two in your Xmas fund for seed money.

I case you forgot to sign up, there’s still time:

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An earie sign.

 

monopiniotomySince the early 1995, Frank has cut what I laughingly call my hair. Every 18 days or so, once over with a 1.5 clipper.  It takes fifteen minutes tops, we chat about the weather, listen to Italian radio. He applies warm shaving cream to my neck and sideburns, wields the straight razor, slaps on some stingy stuff. No muss, no fuss. He was trained in Sicily, authentically, pre-hipster, old school.

Now Frank is three thousand miles away. I have scoured West L.A. looking for his distant cousin and have had three haircuts from three different “barbers”. The ambience, the chit-chat, the music, the results, have all been very disappointing.

On Friday, in preparation for my trip to New York (sadly, Frank is closed the days I’ll be there) and then Amsterdam, I tried yet another place. A very nice lady tried a) to talk me out of my usual haircut, b) put a paper rather than cloth towel around my neck, and c) badly sliced the edge of my ear with the clippers. She tried to blame the shape (somewhat pointy) of my ear, then handed me a series of towels to absorb the geysering blood.  I held a towel to the side of my head while she cut around it.

By the time I woke up in the morning, with bloodstains on my pillow (isn’t that the name of a song?), the wound seems to have closed. I grumbled a bit more about it and then suddenly had an epiphany. Of course! I am headed to the Netherlands, home of Vincent V. Clearly, this is a great omen that the trip will be a wonderful artistic experience.

Or that I should let my hair grow long.

 

Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.

garage-lamp

As you’ve heard me say before, I am usually over-caffeinated and impatient. I imagined that once I had declared my intention to leave my job, served out my notice, packed my duffel bag and buckled myself into the Virgin America seat, the rest would be smooth sailing. I’d scarcely be off the plane before I’d be happily and successfully doing whatever it was I was supposed to be doing.

Two months later, I am in the garage. I am surrounded by piles of drawings, library books, art supplies, paint-spattered Ikea furniture and two dogs with dead geranium heads in their fur. I have most of my manuscript done, I have all of my presentations for Amsterdam polished and rehearsed, I have several large and more or less finished paintings leaning against the wall, my redesigned website is launched, and I have pages and pages of some sort of ideas scribbled in ink, sweat, and mustard (homemade sandwiches sustain me through most of my days, these days).

My journey, however, is not completed. I am still at that point in the ride when your feet are off the ground, you are whimpering/screaming, and glued into your seat by some magical force I forget to pay attention to in Mr Kriben’s physics class. I have clearly left the last station. It is two months in the rear view. I no longer dream about conference calls and I am starting to forget the names of people I nodded to everyday in the hall.

But my instruments however are wildly fluctuating. Let me up my metaphor. If you’ve seen Gravity([spoiler alert], you’ll know that I have passed the point where I thought I was going to suffer George’s Clooney’s fate and drift off endlessly into the void and am more or less in Sandra Bullock’s place through most of the movie, somewhere between the exhilaration of an adventurous dream come true and trying to decipher Chinese instrument panels as the flames shoot past the windows.

In short, I’m not sure where I’m going exactly but I think I’m headed in the right direction. I don’t have much better advice for myself than hang on, stay loose, and enjoy the ride.

There are days that are heaven. Listening to NPR, dogs slumbering on the studio floor, barefoot, making stuff, working till the moths activate the motion detectors to turn on the lights. I am an artist.

And there have been nights when I have awoken to the shrill monkey’s voice: “What are you doing? Where is this going? Who cares about this crap? Why’d you walk away?” I am a loser.

The good thing is the nights are short and the days, even though it’s mid-November, are still lovely and long.

So I am still vulnerable and gelatinous some of the time — but that time is lessening.  I am seeing more clearly through the clouds and am excited about the landscape coming up. I finally have a sense of what it I want to do and be (you have no idea how hard it is, even for a man of my advanced years, to figure out what you want to be when you grow up). I think I have finally gone through at least 720 degrees of torment and figured out how to make an online class that seems right. I think I know how I feel about teaching workshops and what to do about that. I know what book I want to do after this one. And I am itching to make some videos again.

But most importantly I am getting clearer about the okayness of not being clear, that fuzziness and ambiguity are an inevitable part of change and of the creative process. In the end, that’s probably the best indication I have that I am doing things right and really metamorphosing, the fact that I am shaken up, that nothing is familiar or solid ground.

I don’t regret this trip for a minute, but I sure could use some Dramamine.

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

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.