Bits and bobs

Maybe it’s ’cause it’s Spring, but so many things are blossoming in my life these days.

Spring: Our Sketchbook Film called “Spring” was just on the big screen at TELUS S20FE374F-0152-43BF-9A1C-B841FCD086D2park, the new Science Centre, in Calgary, Canada. People liked it, they tell me. It seems a zillion springs ago that I sat in the park drawing for that film. This year the spring in New York seems far grimmer and my sister texted me from the train platform this morning to tell me it was cold and raining and she was over it. I didn’t mention that our car thermometer registered 97˙ yesterday in an LA parking lot. I’m a nice brother.

Fullerton: I am going to be giving my first talk in California next week at Fullerton

156-08_FC_DannyGregory_finalCollege. I will be talking about my life, my discovery of illustrated journaling and all the things it has taught me over the years. I’ll also be showing loads of images from my books.  It’s open to the public and free, so if you are in the area, please drop by and say hi. It’ll be nice to just drive to one of my talks, rather than have to fly around the world. Well, I like doing that too.

HOW in Boston:  I am giving a big presentation at the HOW Design Live conference in a few weeks. I’ll be talking about some thing brand-new for me, the inner critic, based on posts I wrote here on my blog. They’ve asked me to do the speech twice so I will be spending the whole week in Boston.  shut your monkeyIt’s been loads of fun, writing and designing a new talk, but I must say the monkey does not like being talked about and I have had to wrestle with him daily.  Now the speech has really started to come together and I am feeling great about it and I really look forward to seeing all the designers who will be there. Not to mention Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell and Stefan Sagmeister.

art Before Breakfast: My new book logois all written, illustrated and designed and is now with my publishers.  I just reviewed the galleys and it looks awesome. I am so excited about this one.  I hope it will have the same sort of impact that “The Creative License” had and help a lot of people to find the time and inclination to make art part of the their lives. Plus it has several hundred new drawings and paintings and is quite handsome. IMG_1678

Sketchbook Skool:  Our online school is humming along.  We had to cap the first klass at 2,000 students and those who couldn’t get in the door have already been signing up for when we repeat the next semester. We are well into production on the next Kourse. It’s called “Seeing” and our fakulty includes some real super stars: Cathy Johnson, Liz Steel, Brenda Swenson and Andrea Joseph. It launches on July 4th. We are doing even more elaborate and polished productions this semester and using professional video crews. I supervised Brenda’s shoot in Pasadena last week and tomorrow Liz shoots in Sydney with a director I found for her. Then Andrea will be joining Koosje in Amsterdam to shoot her klass. It’s all very international and exciting and I am now a producer, writer, artist, teacher, director, headmaster, entrepreneur, and fanboy. Koosje and I will also be teaching this and every term and I am really excited about the videos I’ll be making for my section.

Phew! Next I have to come back to New York to hang out with Jack for the summer. His term ends in a few weeks and then he begins a really exciting internship program working with some amazing painters and becoming part of the New York art scene. I am so proud of him and just know he will have a wonderful life making art. I have had such an amazing year. To think that twelve months ago, I was sitting in a meeting discussing marketing challenges for the oil industry!

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:

.

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.

Calaveras

dayofthedead

This past weekend was the Day of the Dead, a lovely Mexican tradition in which people visit the graves of their loved ones and bring a picnic to share with the souls of the departed. Patti and I loved this holiday — it combined our morbid fascination with graveyards and mortuaries with a sense of humor and cartoony festivities. I wrote about this three years ago, when thoughts of death had suddenly assumed a new and less whimsical tone.

Last Saturday, Jenny and I joined thousands of other Angelinos at the Hollywood Forever cemetery to commemorate the Día de los Muertos. It’s a huge party. There’s a contest for who can build the most impressive memorial shrine and everyone has their faces painted to look like grinning skulls encrusted with jewels and flowers.

I love that this holiday turns the traditional gloominess surrounding death on its head.  Instead of an occasion for grief, it is a celebration of the lives of the deceased. The Mexicans believe that a person dies a second death when their memory is forgotten and that makes a lot of sense to me. Immortality means you had an enduring effect on the world, that the things you did for people while you were here will be carried around in their hearts. If you set an example for others to follow, you never really pass away. I see that in Patti — because people have such vivid and positive memories of her, she lives on.

These days, I live a life that is three thousand miles from many of the memories Patti and I shared.  I am not walking the streets she did, no longer live in her house or sleep in her bed or see the people who knew her so well. I worried about that when we Jenny and I first talked about coming West, that Patti’s memory would somehow fade when I was far from the physical world she lived in.

Now I know that’s not true, because I brought Patti with me.

I brought her photo in a frame that I see every day but more importantly, I brought the part of me she created over the quarter of a century we spent together. I also believe that Patti wanted me to grow and change and have adventures. She told me so a million times,  a million times I did not hear because I was encrusted in my habits and fears. Now, when I feel the pieces scrape and shift inside me, I know that she would approve. She would be so happy that I am here, with Jenny, in this mini house, painting in this garage.

Patti was the one who taught me how to love, how to go beyond my self-absorption and love another unconditionally.  If she hadn’t taught me the importance of true love, I could not truly love Jenny as I do today. But loving again does not diminish my first love. And conversely, the bottomless well of love I had to share in my past with Patti does not mean a drop less in my future with Jenny. There’s plenty to go around. The more love you give, the more love you have. And the hardest part is learning to share that endless love with yourself, to be kind and generous with who you are.

Recently, a Facebook friend who had suffered a recent loss, sent me a few questions about my experience with death. I’ve been waiting for a reason to share them with you and DIa de los Muertos seems as good a one as any.

-How did you survive your worst sort of days?

I guess I had no choice. I had a loving wife and small son and what other option was there but to persevere? I didn’t believe in God. I didn’t believe in karma or fate. Life was shitty and I could either deal with it or check out. In retrospect, I think that my love for my wife was a key factor to my will to continue. We planned a life together and her accident was not going to stop us from being together and having a meaningful time of it.  When she died, I no longer had that to hold me together, But I had my son and my commitment to be there for him. And I had my memory of Patti and her example, the fact that she had survived a huge blow and had carried on for so long. She loved life and she loved people and I tried to absorb some of that spirit, to look on the bright side, to count my blessings, to continue to be creative. I used my art to gain perspective on the blows that were dealt me, to get them out of my head and on to the page, so I could start to put the loss behind me, and have some thing to live for. And I reached out to other people, I shared my story, I tried to make my life meaningful, and of service to others.

-Days when getting out of bed seemed impossible what motivated you?

After Patti had her accident, I got out of bed to change Jack’s diapers. He was nine months old. Life was going on. The sun was still rising and setting. There were new things to experience. I wanted each day to be better than what had preceded it and slowly but surely it did.

-What do you say to people who say things that they think are very helpful and seems to create a deeper hole in your soul?

I am glad they are trying to help and I think them for it. In each person’s story there is something useful. But I know that only I can truly understand what I have gone through.  Platitudes can be so annoying and distancing but I try to concentrate on the love that is behind them.  The fact is, people don’t really know what to say. And often it is surprising how certain people react to tragedy and change. I was amazed when people I thought had seen it all disappeared when we needed them. And I was equally amazed at people who I thought barely knew me stepped forward, rolled up their sleeves, and helped me so much.  Do not underestimate the importance of other people’s love and comfort. But don’t be disappointed if they don’t know how exactly to help.

-being blindsided… Moments or days where you almost feel normal and a smell or a texture brings you to your knees in grief. 

Yup. That’s very familiar. Grief appeared and knocked me on my ass when I thought I was long out of the woods. And it isn’t necessarily prompted by a smell or a sound, it can just pop up out of the blue.  The flip side of this is that in time those little moments turn from painful to sweet, a lovely reminder of what one has  lost, of how much it meant, of how dear it still is.  I can smell perfume, hear an Ohio accent, and be transported back into Patti’s arms.  What was once unbearable becomes cherished. Give. It. Time.

-Does it get better, Danny?

If it didn’t our species would have long vanished in a never-ending rain of pain.  Every day you make progress. Sometimes you slip, sometimes you jump forward.  It is a wound and if it doesn’t kill you, you emerge wiser and happier.  As the Buddha told us, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

- What helped and helps you the most as you continue moving forward?

In so many ways, my life today is better than ever. It is the life Patti always wanted for me. I have changed almost every aspect of my work and my home and am now on new adventures.  My life is going on. It took three and a half years to get here.  It was worth the trip. Thank you, Pat.

— Anything other words of experience you can think to offer?

I got a lot out of The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss by George A. Bonnano. He points out that 95% or so of people emerge from grief in a year or less.  And of course, I  got a huge amount of help and wisdom from my grief counselor and from my lovely and wise girlfriend, Jenny James.