Finding your groove

The need to make something can be a tenacious itch, clawing to be released into the world. You can try to forget it — like an early summer mosquito bite — refusing to scratch it, aiming your mind elsewhere, hoping it will just go away.
If you suppress it too often, maybe you’ll succeed in dulling your senses, in refusing to heed that inner call. You’ll have managed to wrap yourself in a cocoon, impervious, detached. Congratulations, you can focus on what’s “important,” undistracted  — for now.

Sometimes, the reason you ignore that call is because you haven’t yet found the right way to scratch it. Not every medium is right for every artist. For some reason, maybe it’s physical or aesthetic, we may need to keep shopping for a while ‘till we find the right instrument.  Bassoon players are somehow different from conga drummers, dancers are different from print makers.  (I think it’s sort of strange that in high school band, teachers will often assign instruments to kids, rather than letting them find their perfect musical partner). You need to find your perfect groove.

A few years ago, I visited Creative Growth in Oakland, CA. It’s an amazing hive of artistic activity, all coming from people with various disabilities. I will never forget the energy in that room, with dozens of artists working all day, every day, making paintings, subjects, ceramics, mosaics, prints… it was overwhelming and beautiful. Creatively, these people seemed to have no disabilities or challenges; they’d all found their groove.


When we visited the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore recently, I re-encountered an artist who I’d met at Creative Growth years before. Judith Scott was born deaf, mute and with an IQ of 30. She was also a twin. When she was seven, she was sent away to an institution. She was separated from her sister (who was not disabled), and because of her low IQ, she wasn’t given any training of any kind. So she just sat and festered, neglected, alone.
After thirty-five years in the institution, her sister Joyce managed to spring Judith from the institution and bring her home to live with her. Soon Judith started going to Creative Growth. But at the start, she could not connect. She had no apparent interest in drawing or painting, drawing aimless scribbles and little more. She didn’t speak so no one knew what she needed to take off.

Then, one day, Judith wandered into a class given by a textile artist named Sylvia Seventy. She saw the skeins of yarn and spools of thread and suddenly found her passion.  But, instead of following the projects that Sylvia was leading the rest of the class through, Judith began to make her own sort of art, something radical and new. She wrapped objects in yarns and cloth, binding them together into cocoons and nests and complex interconnecting forms.  Much of her art seems to be about connection and twins,  binding together networks and forms into a powerful and non-verbal  emotional message. I can look at her piece for ages, following the colors and lines, and somehow feeling something so sweet and strong and comforting.
I’m not the only person who responded to Judith’s art. Her work is in the permanent collections of several museums and has been the subject of books, films and gallery shows. She made hundreds of amazing pieces in the last two decades of her life.

Judith passed away in 2005. She had lived to be 61, which is extraordinary for a person with Down’s syndrome.  I like to believe that her art and her sister’s love kept her going.

I love Judith’s story because it feel so familiar to me. I can identify with what it must have felt like to go from being abandoned in an institution to suddenly seeing the light, to discovering one’s medium, one’s voice, and to see it grow richer and more complex and expressive. And how easily she might never have found her medium and remained mute and locked down. Judith didn’t have the ability to wander through an art supply store, a museum, to trawl the web, and to find her groove.

True love doesn’t just appear. You have to keep your eyes open and look for it.  Just because you don’t yet know how to scratch it, don’t ignore that itch.

How I podcast

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DOG by France Belleville


A friend asked me to describe my podcasting setup so she could emulate it. Here’s a recap for anyone else interested in getting on the virtual airwaves.

A) I have an account at liberated syndication:  I decided not to host on my site as I want sure what the traffic would be like. LibSyn is cheap and they specialize in hosting podcasts and the experience has been fine. They set you up with a special podcast blog where you can add art work and write commentary. Plus it;s easy to link it to iTunes and for people to subscribe. I set up the podcast of my mum’s radio show on her iMac account and that works pretty well for her.

B) I use a Snowball microphone. My mum got one too and we are both big fans of it. It has a USB cable so it plugs directly into my MacBook Pro.

C) I use my computer’s hard drive to record. Sound files aren’t too enormous.

D) I generally do my editing via GarageBand. It has a lot of podcast-specific capabilities. It’s very intuitive and easy, I find. Plus I think it came with my mac or was less than $80 with iLife. It also has a lot of filters and things for reducing background noise. You can set it up to send it directly to iTunes. And it’s easy to add tracks of music, SFX, etc.

E) To interview people remotely, I use Skype. It’s cheap and easy, the quality is almost always terrific (I have  a broadband cable connection at home, nothing fancy)., and I use my mic to talk through and a pair of ordinary earphones to listen to the other person with (Obviously you need to shut your computer’s speaker off so you don’t get feedback.

F) I also use a utility called Call Recorder which is just $14.95 and it does several extremely useful things. One is to record the calls to my hard drive. The second is to split Skype calls into two tracks,. one for each conversant. These tracks van then be imported into Garageband and you have control over each track separately. If one person starts monologuing and  a fire truck goes by on the other end, it’s a cinch to cut out the offending noises.

Macs are generally easy to do multimedia stuff . I tend to play around with this stuff a fair amount and via trial and error get it right. My mum , at 70, figured it out on her own, so I imagine anyone can. If you use  a PC, most of my suggestions apply, except perhaps for GarageBand. I assume there is a PC equivalent. I sometimes use Audacity for quick edits, not sure if that’s multi platform.

This looks like a pretty good tutorial:

Hope this is helpful. Can’t wait to hear your first episode!!

My perspective on perspective

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School’s back on and NYU students wander through my neighborhood, clutching new books and pencils. Quite often, I see some of them set up in the park, preparing to draw Washington Square arch. It’s a beautiful landmark, and I’ve often tackled it myself.
I like the ones who slop around with paint and charcoal but I can’t relate to those who show up with t-squares and turn out tight engineering schema, that look more like blueprints than any expression of soul. To me, drawing is about observation and sensuality more than perfection. That’s my esthetic.
I draw a lot of architecture because they define the landscape we New Yorkers live in. While I’m no Brunelleschi, I understand the principles of perspective. I know generally how to locate a vanishing point and that knowledge can be useful if I’m really stuck. But I think of it as more like understanding the principle of the internal combustion engine; I get it but it doesn’t enter my mind much when I’m driving down the road.
Here’s how I’d go about drawing* the view down my street. perspective-pen.gif
It’s a fairly complex scene so I lay down some little marks first. I find the midpoints of my page (in green) using my pen as a rough ruler. I take the same sorts of measurements of the thing I’m drawing. I also uses my thumbs as rough rulers� so and so many thumb widths to this point, so and so many pen cap lengths to this point � that sort of thing. If I didn’t measure things out like this, I’m sure I would have misjudged how wide the library’s facade was in the foreground. The actual part of the scene that is of interest only occupies about 1/8 of the whole space.
I usually start drawing in the upper left hand corner and work my way across. I’ll make little marks if need be to tell me where things intersect. When I just whip out a long diagonal line like the one in the upper left, it probably won’t hit the mark unless I set a target point.
I’ll also look for some sort of large and broken line somewhere to use as a reference point. In this case, the building on the right has a regular pattern of tiles down its length; I can use this like an in situ ruler to guide the other buildings’ proportions. I count down three tiles and say, ‘Okay, the roof of the ornate building in the center hits this height. Go down one more tile and that’s the point at which the angle of the receding part of the roof hits. Down two more and that ‘s the roof of the building behind it…’ and so on. If there’s no guide in the landscape (as there wasn’t horizontally here) I can also use my pen length to bifurcate the space and create a partial grid to set my reference points.
Remember to check your verticals. Unless you have birds’ or worms’ eyes, make sure your verticals are straight 90 degree angles to the ground. It’s so easy to start leaning them over and soon all of your lines will be out of whack.
I measure other sorts of angles by holding up my pen horizontally and then rotating it to meet the angle. That action temporarily imprints the deviation of the angle from the horizon into my brain. When I go down to the paper, I just repeat the rotation and I can usually get it pretty dead on.
I like to do all these little measurements rather than ruling down the artificial lines of perspective and then erasing them because I am trying to record my own observations in my drawings. I find that all these little measurements bring me closer and closer to my subject and that’s the goal of my work. I don’t care if it’s all accurate and perfect but that it reflects what and how I am seeing. The deeper I go the better. Somehow rulers and perspective lines make it all seem more mechanical and artificial and I just don’t like it.
In any case, the results seem okay to me. In fact, I will often be a lot wilder and just draw lines and angles on the fly. I don’t care that much of my buildings are misshapen and irregular, so long as they feel alive. Those T-square folks seem to make drawings that lie on the page like dead, academic fish.
Drawing buildings is just like drawing anything else. Be slow. Keep your eyes on the subject most of the time. Don’t freak out if you make a ‘mistake’. And do it as often as you can.
Drawing isn’t a science. Don’t reduce it to one.
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*Atypically, I drew this in Photshop on a tablet so I could use layers to demonstrate my methodology.

Notes from a chat with Julie Dermansky

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Julie Dermansky: Journal page – European monumental architecture

Julie is one of my favorite artists and she has always been a huge source of inspiration and encouragement to me. She is so committed to making art and has a lot of experience in how one survives financially and psychically as a creative person.

JULIE: Inspiration is overrated. It’s all about discipline. There are glimmers of inspiration, when you lose touch with time and place but you can’t wait around for that. When I start working on something where I am so excited it’s like some sort of drug, I’m just alive. But the only way to get there is through discipline.
It doesn’t matter why you make art, you’ve just got to make stuff and eventually you’ll understand. I won this grant that allowed me to travel for a year. I just had to write four letters back to the foundation over that year. That was it. I was 20 and I could do whatever I wanted. So I just made drawings in my journal, drawing monumental architecture all over Europe. That was my only discipline, my commitment to do at least one drawing every single day. And because the fancy journal books were too expensive, I made my own, ripping up water color paper and tying it together. It evolved as I went. And when a book was filled, I would send it home and I had no idea what the value of what I was doing could be until I came home and saw all those journals. It came out of me with no forethought and I’d never done it that way before. It just came out that way. I didn’t worry what people would think, I just tried to be honest. And I didn’t worry about the quality of the drawing, I just went with it. I hated having a page I didn’t like so I kept working it until I liked it. Those pages are so vibrant and visceral, so raw. I don’t know if I can get back to that looseness, pure hand /eye. The more time I had the more I let go, the looser, the better it all got. That art was my reason for getting up each day. For me, travel is a lot of work. Nothing planned, figuring everything out on the fly, real work.

julie-2Julie Dermansky: Steel Gate at her studio in Deposit, New York

JULIE: I was at the art students league taking drawing and this teacher came behind me and I was making a mess like I do and he said “Ah, a lefty. But its nothing like Rembrandt,” and I was, like, “Rembrandt? Fuck you! Why would I draw like him? He was great but he already drew like that. I’m not here to do that.”
If I can recognize something you did without being told you did it, you have done something magic, you have created a visual vocabulary. Good, bad, doesn’t matter you’ve created something brand new. Everything’s been tried but no one can draw like you, unique, special. It’s not the materials, it’s you.
Everyone can multiply. You struggle at algebra but you can learn it. Everyone can draw. Everyone can do their times table. It’s just a matter of developing the skill. Drawing is a skill and a science, like learning perspective.
I love Tennessee Williams – At the beginning of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof., he says something like “Every human being is in their own jail call and all we can do to communicate is to take the thing you know the best and put it out there. The strongest part of you that everyone can interpret in their own language.” He took his internal dramas and made works of art that are in the mainstream yet retain that rawness. You don’t need to know all about his internal extremeness to enjoy his work.
I don’t know why I make the things that I do and I don’t overanalyze it. I never took formal art education classes, I learned it from art historians, composition, color theory, I learned it right from the work, not from academics.
There’s work I’ve done that was completely derivative and I wouldn’t show it. It’s not part of my vocabulary. It’s my homage to the artists I love.
If you go to a museum or a gallery and you have to read the thing on the wall to understand the art, the work is bullshit. However if you go that museum and have some sort of response to the work you can’t understand, and then you read the wall, and reading the explanation helps you develop another layer of appreciation and understanding, that makes the work more rewarding, it will be a beautiful thing.
I went to see the Calder retrospective at the Whitney when I was in second grade. And I appreciated that he is a great artist but I just didn’t like it and it bugged me and I said to myself, I can make better things than that and I knew that I would. I was that confident as a child. Then looking at Picasso, I thought how did he make so many pictures and then when I really started rolling with my own stuff, I said, Oh, if you make work everyday it’s not that hard to make that much stuff. I just compared myself to the pros and never found that conceited. In Europe, it’s very conceited to say ‘I’m an artist’ but it’s fine to say ‘I’m a painter’ or ‘I’m a sculptor’.
For me the definition of an artist is someone who has created a visual vocabulary. I may not like it. But when you look at a retrospective of an artist’s work, you can check it and look for the vision, the palette, even if you don’t respond to it. It’s not about liking but seeing quality, consistency.

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Julie Dermansky: from the Lumis Collection in the basement of the Robinson science center, Binghamton, NY

JULIE: My work isn’t really done until it’s out in the world.
My uncle is an artist and told me, never sell anything for less than say $100, or make up your own number. If it’s less than that number, then just give it away. But don’t sell it. I like that rule. Keep the value for yourself. Joseph Cornell hated to sell his stuff. Leo Castelli could never get it away from him.
Andy Warhol said make pictures you’d sell for $100 and others you’d sell for $10,000. That way you just get your work out there by having something for every budget.
Some people feel the universe should take care of you, and others get out there and hustle.
There’s always a way to make money, one way or another. I grew up around the drive to make it for its own sake but for me it was a way to be an artist. Being an artist costs money and I needed money in my pocket. I started making and selling jewelry when I was 14. In college, I would go to the dorms, not be shy, just say, “would you like to see some jewelry” and spill it on the bed. I’d make $400 or $500 which made it pretty impossible to go do some job for $6 an hour. It didn’t make any sense. My art objects always sold.
I’m not qualified to do anything so it’s lucky people have always bought my stuff.
People romanticize self-employment but it’s a heavy burden because you can’t count on regular money coming in. I’ve envy people with steady jobs on one level. I have no safety net but then again no one is 100% safe and the rug can be pulled out from under anyone.
A lot artists don’t do their homework. You have to hustle, have to keep going, Have to have faith in your work. You have to be willing to go below your level sometimes without bumming out. If you insist on selling everything for thousands and never do, you’ll end up with no money and no collectors. If you need the money, don’t feel bad, get your work out there. That’s what makes your work into a commodity, because it’s visible. I don’t know who created the rules about artistic integrity, that money is evil, that you shouldn’t make work in order to sell it, that it shouldn’t have a decorative element. And no art schools have classes about marketing. It’s frowned upon.
It’s so easy to give up, to forget to market, to forget to find a market place, to not do your homework. You’ve got to feel confident about your work, that’s a key to salesmanship. You’ve got to learn about grants and sources of funding. Artists have a knack for being self effacing and for being overly self critical instead of learning skills and promoting themselves.
The art world is very seductive and full of hangers-onners. there’s so much energy and people want to latch on to it. When I’ve had relationships that have reached the point where men say you’ve got to decided between me and the work, it’s too much and there just wasn’t a choice for me, of course, it was the work.
I can’t be something else, even if I wanted to.

To see more of Julie’s work, please visit her website.

Miles ahead

toothbrush-and-the-devilI’ve been reading about jazz recently, specifically about Miles and his seminal album, Kind of Blue. Miles was intensely committed to what he did, brave in a way I wonder if I can ever be. He seemed to live without doubt. At one point, he and the author had an argument about what day it was. When he was shown a copy of that day’s paper, proving he was wrong, he said, ” See that wall of awards? I got them for having a lousy memory.” He didn’t dwell on the past, didn’t repeat himself, did what he did and kept on forging ahead.
What keeps one so resolute? Miles was successful, rich by jazz standards, but he was derided for how he behaved. People thought him arrogant, racist, mysoginistic, and uncommunicative. He would often play with his back to the audience and never spoke on stage. I don’t believe he behaved this way because he could. I think he was just being uncompromisingly himself. That was the key to his art. He was an asshole, but that was okay with Miles.
How do you learn from a person like this? How do you follow his example in order to become purely yourself? Does it mean being unresponsive to any input, being pigheaded, selfish and rude? Of course not.
Miles believed in his art. His commitment was complete and he worked enormously hard on his technique and ideas. Even if he wasn’t right (and by and large he was), he could tell his inner and outer critics that he did his very best and that he had faith in that . Perhaps that’s the point of one’s life. To discover what one loves, to pursue it to the utmost of one’s ability, and then to gauge the success of one’s life by how purely one has done that, rather than by the criteria others set.
It can be a rough road. One can struggle to make a living. One can fail to get accolades or even support from others. Personally, I wouldn’t be satisfied with a life that offended and alienated the rest of the world but maybe I am just a pussy. Still, I think if you can sustain Miles-like focus on your art, your chances are good. Van Gogh spent a decade drawing crap, but he kept at it, and then suddenly blossomed.
I’m sure many people will say: “Are you telling me that if I work hard enough, I will succeed? And conversely, if I don’t achieve the heights, it will be due to my lack of sustained effort?” I don’t know. I don’t want to paint such a black and white picture. But I think focus and perseverance are critical. The thunderstruck artist, whacked by the muse, and suddenly a huge hit, is a myth. You’ve gotta practice and practice and practice to bore to your core. Then you’ve got to have the bravery to be unflinching about exposing that core. You’ve got to be smart, figuring out ways to share your work with different people who will give productive advice and help share your stuff with others. It helps to be lucky (whatever that means).
And I believe that a positive outlook is essential too. That takes work as well. I am often my own worst enemy, my inner critic baying at every shadow. I can wake up at 4 am and keep myself awake with horrible images of my ‘inevitable’ fall from grace. In my churning mind, my foolish ways destroy my family, my savings, my health, my promise. Instead of being a grownup, I am dabbling in feeble, artsy things. Unwilling to suck it up and just do my job as a man and a provider, I am indulging myself in crap like this blog.
But, when I wake up, exhausted from the assault, I try to get to work to paint a sunnier picture. The fact is, I have dealt with harder things than nightmares and nagging internal voices. And I have done that by being positive and proactive.
The future is a blank sheet. I can try to catapult shit at it but that’s just making the present uglier. And a long succession of ugly todays will lead to an ugly tomorrow. On the other hand, I can impact the future by believing in myself, by working hard, by staying the course, by confirming my directions with those who have already travelled it, by purifying my expectations and intentions, by keeping my chin up.
Maybe Miles wasn’t actually all that confident. Maybe that’s why he put shit in his arm and up his nose, why he raged and sulked. But I know he was positive about his art. If he hadn’t been, he would still have had all that doubt and stress. But he wouldn’t have Blues for Pablo and Bye Bye Blackbird. And nor would we.

Serendipidity do dah

bryant-parkWhen folks undergo what, for lack of a less gooey term, I’ll call a creative reawakening, they often experience a surge of synchronicity. Opportunities bounce into their laps. Like minded people just show up. Connections are made, sparks fly, light blink on. Life gets spicy.
Some attribute this to a greater power: “God loves those who create”. Maybe so. I have a more down-to-earth hypothesis.
When you allow yourself to be creative, to make things, to smell roses, see colors, hear symphonies, dance fandangos, your antennas rise. You start to scan through new stations, to retune. Instead of trudging in your rut, you look up and see stars and bluebirds.
The world is always full of opportunity, of possibilities, of stimulus, and pots of gold. When you finally start to look around, to see clearly, to live in the Now and dump your baggage, you can’t help but notice. When you notice the world, you notice it notices you. You open up to people who you would normally ignore, and they open up to you, revealing how much they are like you and how much they like you too. You discover new pages of the menu. You hear lyrics to songs you used to fast forward. You read poems carved in monuments. You open your fortune cookies.
Small wonder the world suddenly seems to be flowing your way. It always did but perhaps you were too busy paddling upstream to notice.