The Creative License: Giving Yourself Permission to Be the Artist You Truly Are


My guide to discovering and increasing your creativity. It’s over two hundred pages of essays, ideas, and watercolors. Here’s a peek inside.

Buy Now From Amazon

I got the first note from someone who has bought my new book at Barnes and Noble today and I realized it is high time I shared some more details about the book with everyone. First of all, I have put together a crude little gallery with a few representative spreads from the book, generally one from each chapter.

Next I’d like to share some opinions from people who’ve gotten their hands on it. I hope to do this less in the spirit of self-congratulation (though I am quite proud of this book) and more to just let people know what the whole things is about and hope fully to inspire some readership.

Let me also say something quite important up front. I have written this book and kept this website going for years now for a simple reason. Re-awakening my creativity and sense of myself as an artist changed my life and helped me to deal with the most horrible thing that has ever happened to me: the day Patti was run over by a subway train and her resultant paraplegia. I am not exaggerating when I say that Art became much of the reason for me to carry on with my life.

I believe that we are all born creative and that, at some point in most people’s childhoods, they lose the urge, but not the ability, to make art. This is a tragic loss. Through the history of our species, ordinary people have always made paintings, sung songs, decorated their homes, expressed themselves in a hundred ways. Today, however, we are increasingly creatures who expect others to provide us with entertainment and culture. We take for granted that creativity is the domain of professionals. We are convinced that if we cannot be perfect, we should not try.

What a loss. I believe fervently in the spirit of amateurism. I know in my heart that it is far better to do an inaccurate, clumsy drawing than not do one at all. It is better to sing off-key than be mute. A scorched home cooked meal is far more nourishing for the soul than a frozen dinner. And I want to rekindle that spirit in whomever I can.

I make a decent living at my job. So I don’t do drawings and watercolors and write essays about creativity or even publish books in order to make money. I do it because I feel that it is important to encourage others (and simultaneously myself) to give oneself permission to be the artists that we all truly are.

My book is called The Creative License but of course, I can’t issue such a license. I can’t give anyone permission to be themselves. All I can do is provide examples, suggestions, encouragement and hope that magic happens.

One of my first readers seems to be getting this. Tonight, after reading just a chapter she writes:

After only the first 11 pages, I feel like you are a voyeur in my life. You said it very well when you talked about people who just have to create. (When I see something beautiful, ugly, interesting–whatever, I don’t just want to look it–I want to get it down on paper and recreate it). But you really struck a nerve talking about those of us who put that creativity into a box and try to keep it there for whatever reason (Will my kids really want those journals that I fill when I’m gone?–yeah, they probably will.) “So with the very first chapter you have looked deep into the heart of people who know they are creative, but stifle it, and the people who are afraid to find out that they are creative. And that encompasses pretty much everyone! I realize that the title of the book is “…giving yourself permission…” but the “familiar” tone that you use to expose those thoughts about creativity almost make it feel like it’s OK for the permission to come from an outside source–the author–someone who has a grip on the understanding of the creative process. “

I hope her enthusiasm doesn’t wane and that the ensuing chapters continue to fuel her creativity and lead her to new places.

Finally, here is a very generous review from one of my favorite artists, my watercolor teacher and mentor, Roz Stendahl, one she recently posted to the Everyday Matters group:

“I was fortunate to be able to read the proofs of Danny’s new book, “Creative License: Giving Yourself Permission to Be the Artist You Truly Are.” First a disclaimer for those of you on the list who don’t remember my name from my infrequent posts. Danny is a pal. We’ve corresponded, chatted on the phone, he’s visited, we have drawn together. You could stop reading this email right now because of that, expecting a bias.

But I also am a life long journaler and I teach visual journaling at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts so I read almost all the books that come out in this field. I want to provide up to date recommendations for my students.

I think these things put me in an interesting position to tell you something: reading this book is just like spending time with Danny. His sense of humor comes through. He is silly and playful, wry and sarcastic by turns, but always engaging. Something is always popping out of his brain. He’s gathered all this up and put it in a book. And he wants to encourage you to draw and tap into your creativity.

There are a lot of books on creativity on the market. Some of them try cheerleading and cajoling, some encourage you through psychology, and others practically shame you into picking up your art materials. Danny’s approach is different. Like the great pitch man he is, he creates an analogy (creative license is like a driving license) and then joyfully explains and expands until you want in. The nice thing about this approach is that you don’t end up with two dozen vegematics in your attic like Opus. You’ll end up with a visual journal that records what’s important to you and you’ll be more connected to your life.

Danny’s book is organized in such a manner that it can be read straight through or dipped into. There’s an introduction which establishes the groundwork for you to view yourself as a creative being. The driving license analogy is introduced here.

This is followed by nine chapters which deal with everything from how to draw (giving you instructions for exercises to get you up and running today) to shock (getting out of a rut), resistance (going on), and identity (self acceptance as an artist). (And lots more.)

Each chapter is further divided into smaller sections, often only a page spread or two, dealing with some aspect of the chapter topic. These sub sections read like brief meditations, parables, or pep talks.

I feel this type of organization is one of the best aspects of the book. It allows the reader to come back to the book for small tune ups so he can get back on the road (keeping with the driving metaphor).

Throughout the book Danny provides his readers with suggestion upon suggestion of things they might want to draw, examine, think about, or respond to. If you are new to drawing, visual journaling, or doing creative activities in your life, this book will help you realize how you’ve been a creative being all along. Now’s the time to reengage your life, dreams, and creative self. Danny’s book will give you enough gas to get you a fair ways down the road and the insight to be able to spot refilling stations.

If you already have a creative license and use it daily in your life, the book will still encourage you. Chances are your take on visual journals and creativity is skewed differently because you already understand your process. But a fresh view, another angle, can help you appreciate what you have and enable you to flex your creative muscles even more.

After reading the book I felt that the experience was like being swept up into a brainstorming meeting where there was a lot of laughter and enthusiasm but also serious, earnest work. I believe you’ll enjoy this book.
I’ve only seen a black and white proof, but I’ve seen many of these journal sketches in person. The book is going to be a colorful and visually entertaining book.
Danny can sell an idea and he does it clearly and with humor. I’ll be taking this book along to my journaling classes so that my students can benefit from the perspective Danny brings to the topic.
Danny didn’t ask me to write a review, but I felt compelled to because there are a lot of “creativity” books on the market and we talk about books on this list. Why buy this one? If you’ve enjoyed and found Danny’s insights on his blog helpful, if you like the supportive aspects of exchange that happen on this list, then you’ll enjoy this book which grows out of this seed. The book will speak to you in accessible ways that other creativity books might not.”

If you gotten this far, I hope you’ll check out the book. And if you do buy a copy and read it, I hope it’ll motivate you to expand your creativity. And finally, I hope you will evangelize, gently helping others to see their own creativity, helping make the world more present, more forgiving and more beautiful.Peace out. Commercial over.

Collaboration isn't just for the French


I am writing this on a flight to Los Angeles where we are going to shoot the first five commercials for the campaign I began last summer. It was July 27th when I stood at a urinal on 22nd street and was suddenly struck with the idea which, through various barrel jumps, backflips and slaloms, has brought me to this seat on American Airlines.
Of course, it’s absurd that it should have taken 200 days for three or four minutes of advertising to go from my urinal to your television. Well, actually the commercials haven’t even been filmed yet. It’ll be closer to 300 days before they actually hit the airwaves. This is certainly a long time for even advertising to be birthed, but not unheard of.
When you sell your creative work, the results are invariably a collaboration between your imagination and the processes of the person or corporation who is funding them. In the case of a new brand advertising campaign, your collaborators include various levels of decision makers in your agency, some ‘creative’, some administrative and some strategic, all of who provide input based on their own experience, ego, time and attention span.
Next, the work runs through the filter of the client company’s marketing executives. Some have long and illustrious careers producing great advertising and can often make your ideas better and sharper. Others have ended up in marketing by virtue of their success or failure in another part of the company. I have worked with clients who were former antifreeze salesman, flight attendants, bank tellers, and tax attorneys. When I created ads for the Postal Service, my client was a former mail carrier. However, their past is not necessarily an indication of their utility as creative collaborators.
As I have done a lot of corporate and brand advertising, I invariably end up presenting to CEOs and CFOs. Most of them have little interest in advertising and consider it a waste of time and money. They tend to be results oriented, I’m from Missouri, kind of left brainers, Some, by virtue of having a lot of money and a lot of power, have odd and interesting ideas about how advertising should work. They often cite their wives’ or children’s opinions. Because they are unused to talking about executional creative matters, their words are often ambiguous and hard to take at face value and much time is spent by others, parsing their phrases and trying to determine the hidden meaning behind all sorts of cabalistic executive signs. I have worked with agencies who note down the colors of executives’ ties and shirts in an effort to come up with logo and advertising palettes that will pass muster.
These creative approvals are funny things. They are so often subjective and frankly irrelevant to the effectiveness of advertising. The best clients are the ones who are extremely clear and smart about what they know best. They tell you what they want to accomplish with their businesses and how advertising can help. They couch their reactions to the work you bring them in terms of their original intent. Often they are surprisingly lucid and insightful, demonstrating in spades how they got to where they are. They respect the people they hire and assume that they will do their work well. They keep their egos in check and use their authority to clear impasses further down the food chain. They can break loggerheads with a phrase or two. As one CEO said to me recently, ‘People assume that because everyone has a voice that this is a democracy. It’s not. I want this done so let’s move on.” Someone who works for someone who works for someone who works for him and who had been our daily contact had said something equally memorable and candid in an earlier meeting:” My boss told me that my job is to tell you what you have done wrong. I can’t see anything wrong in what you’ve done but I still have to figure out how to do my job.”
There’s little question that, unfortunately, much of what we are paid for is to deal with the process. To be able to listen to someone’s incoherent rant and turn it into some thing actionable. To respond to the various thumbs stuck in the wet clay of one’s idea and yet emerge with something that isn’t embarrassing and wasteful.
There are different styles that creative people have to deal with this obstacle course. Some defend their work against every single remark and soon devolve into shrill defensiveness. Others sit quietly, waiting for the moment to insert a devastating retort. Some try to come up with constructive responses as the clients lays out his objections. Some give long rebuttals that communicate little but ego and leave the client wondering if they heard a word she said. Some sit gulping in anxiety, waiting for others to defend their efforts. Some smirk smugly, all but saying ‘ You are such an idiot”.
The most constructive approach is, first, just to listen. Particularly when there are lots of clients of various levels in a room, they tend to circle around each other, ideas canceling each other out, objections overruled, problems solving themselves. Then, if the audience has the patience, summarize what they have said and see if they agree with your summary. Then offer a solution or two for the present and withdraw and try to form a coherent plan of response. When you do respond, show them what they asked for, accompanied with a range of other solutions.
I think most clients like the creative process. They want to be wowed. When they come up with their own ideas and insist upon them, they also have a nagging feeling that they’re doing the wrong thing, buying a dog and barking themselves. In some ways, advertising seems easier than other creative forms. When I do illustration work, no one has ever redrawn my pictures like some clients feel they can rewrite my copy. When I work with composers, I have (almost) never seen a client tell them which specific notes to play. A bad and desperate client will push past agency and director and go up to an actor and tell him specifically how to say his lines but he’ll rarely get in front of the camera himself.
The key again is to listen and observe. That’s the way to get the clearest sense of what’s really going on. Then by re-presenting the client’s POV to him or her, you show that you get it, you want to help, you care. Don’t insist on logic — often the process spits up a lot of nonsensical mandates that come about through intricate games of Telephone that make no real sense. People, intimidated by their inarticulate bosses, can resort to just taking dictation and passing the buck on to you. But try to see through that and get to the truth underneath.
Then, try to take all of the comments as a new creative challenge. Be willing to sacrifice your children in order to end up with an even stronger result. I’ve often had good ideas become great ones as they were annealed on the forge of the approval process. Despairing of being able to fix your crippled creation, you toss it aside and fabricate a far more elegant solution.
Am I making it all sound horrible? Do I seem like an arrogant know-it-all who thinks all clients are boobs? Maybe so, but I don’t really feel that, not most of the time. It’s a thin line to tread between making something that fits the needs of the people who hired you to do it and something that you are proud of, that is fresh and exciting to you. I often write commercials based on events or perceptions that have occurred to me and it is heart breaking to see them mangled beyond recognition. It feels very personal. But in the end, it really isn’t. That’s what Art is for, to express the personal. The creative work we are paid to do, while growing from our integrity and values and personal aesthetic, is always a collaboration and must be respected as such. When created honestly and openly and generously, it is is the best sort of collaboration, Rogers and Hammerstein, Dolce & Gabbana. At other times it’s more Rogers & Frankenstein, Dolce & Gambino. So you pick your fights. You say to you yourself, if they want to drive this Lamborghini over the clff, it’s their dollar. I won’t allow myself to be twisted in the wreckage. Recognizing that jobs and millions of dollars are at stake, that these matters are impacting people’s better judgment, doesn’t make you a hack. Just a professional.
So the simple answer is: throw yourself 90% into what you do for money. Reserve that small part for self-protection. Be willing to stand back, to be objective and dispassionate. And channel the feelings you have, the reaction to disappointment and limitations, and put it into the work that really matters: your Art. Now be uncompromising. Insist on the highest quality from yourself. Be clear, be strong, be energetic and bold. Experiment, reach, push. Stay up later than you would on a client project. See yourself in this work, the real you. Keep working, keep fighting, be heedless of others. And keep telling yourself that you work to earn a living and that you must never forget to to do the living that you have earned.

A good thing (Nancy Howell's story)


From my visit to Martha’s trial last year. The Morning News editors were advised by their lawyers not to run it in my story. I’m sort of glad as it’s a fairly shitty drawing done in the height of nervous anxiety at breaking New York law.

My office is in a large building on Manhattan’s West Side. Our neighbor, one floor down, is the headquarters of Martha Stewart Living OmniMedia, so we expect to see the old ex-con wandering our halls and lurking around the showers any day now. Her stock has been soaring since she went into the clink, so I imagine we’ll hear well mannered caws of redemption from the many willowy blondes we see in the elevator each morning.
I like Martha (though I wish she’d lighten her ass up a tad) but I’m not going to talk much more about her today.
Instead I want to tell you about Nancy.
nancyNancy grew up in the South West, I think it was Albuquerque. She was always a creative person and, over Dad’s objections, she majored in Art at U of NM because she loved to draw. This was in the 70s when, frankly, drawing was not the thing. Instead her instructors were pushing performance art, conceptual art, earth works, that sort of thing. Before the first semester was over, Nancy, beaten, changed her major. She decided to become a physical education instructor., She figured art and PE both had something to do with anatomy, so she’d still be in a related field. When she graduated, she got a job as a substitute gym teacher. She would lie in bed each morning with the pillow over her head, hoping not to hear the phone ring and call her in. She hated being a gym teacher.
Nancy loved playing music. She was in band after band, playing the clubs and bars around town, making a little cash here and there. Not enough cash, however, so she got a job in a bank. She was the teller in the drive-through, sending deposits back to the branch over a pneumatic tube. She hated this job too and sucked at it.
One day, Nancy was on her lunch break at the TGIFridays across the road. It was decorated in that nostalgic style that blossomed in the ’60′s, full of mustache cups and barber poles and merry-go-round horse amidst the spiderplants. Hanging over each table was an ersatz Tiffanty lamp. Nancy deiced there and then that what she wanted to do was to work professionally in stained-glass. She found out that one of the country’s largest commercial workshops for stained glass was right there in Albuquerque and she soon had a job there.
Nancy’s friends were envious. She’d quit her straight job and was making money entirely through creative endeavors — glass in the day, music at night.
Nonetheless, Nancy still wasn’t happy. She realized that despite her field, she wasn’t really an artist. The glasswork she did was not original; she was just working from pattern books, filling orders from templates. And her band, good as it was, was really just a cover band. If they ever played original compositions, the audiences squirmed and the bar owner would complain. Albuquerque ain’t no CBGB and there was little appetite for true originality
So Nancy shed her job, her hometown and her husband, and came to New York City. Soon she had a job with the premier stained glass workshop in the country. She worked on St. John the Divine, on corporate headquarters. She even redid the glass in the Statue of Liberty’s torch. For the next fifteen years or so, she was at the top of her game. She had a new band with her new husband and they played the cutting edge clubs of the City. She had two kids. She seemed fulfilled.
Then Nancy reached the next crisis. She was the #2 person in the #1 firm. If she became #1 she would sit in an office at a computer all day and cease plying her craft. She’d topped out. She also felt past the age when she really enjoyed carrying enormous panes of glass into the grimy tops of old buildings. The work was more physical than she wanted. Time for a new page.
The part of glasswork Nancy had always enjoyed the most restoring or creating the hand-lettered legends that adorn big windows, naming the saints, the dates, the greats of the Church or the Corporation. So she decided to try her hand at something brand new to her. During her last year as a stained glass artisan, she spent each night taking classes and practicing calligraphy. She went to workshops, she learned materials and she worked hard at her craft. When the year was up, she opened her first business. She sent out a small announcement to editors and art directors and she was off doing work for weddings, for publishers, for all sorts of exciting and glamorous clients.
Within three years, Nancy went from a novice to the main calligrapher for Martha Stewart. Whenever you see some ornate lovely penmanship in MS Living, chances are Nancy did it.
Is she fulfilled now? More so than ever. But she tells me she’d still like to push further, to create pieces that are she writes herself, works of pure art that are not commercial but express herself at the deepest. She’s working on that now. Nancy and Mark and her kids are about to move out of the City to concentrate completely on their art, to play more music and to breathe fresh country air.
Nancy is a constant reminder to me that you can get what you want, no matter how far fetched it might seem. First off, know what it is you actually want. Then be willing to work hard, to take risks and most importantly, to listen only to the little voice in your head that first spoke the dream.
I hope Martha got a chance to listen to her voice as she weeded the prison grounds. Sadly. I have less faith in her than I have in Nancy. Or in you.


jellyfishLast night we went to a preview for James
Cameron’s new movie, Aliens of the Deep. It was pretty spectacular in
3-D Imax, all shot on the bottom of the ocean with extraordinary
critters and lunar landscapes. Cameron chatted with us just before the
screening and told us he much preferred these personal efforts to
Hollywood fare and would be continuing down this path. Here’s a guy who
made many of the biggest blockbuster movies ever (Alien, Terminator,
Titanic, etc) and won Oscars (Top of the World, Ma!) and instead of
making more and more crap full of explosions and mayhem has
increasingly devoted his creative energies and resources to these
little underwater documentaries aimed at schools and scientists.
As I mentioned a couple of days, I am thinking these days about the
balance between creativity for one’s pleasure versus creativity for
hire. With the exception of the few Damien Hirsts and Richard Serras
making big bucks, art is a business done mainly for its spiritual
rather than financial rewards. As an illustrator, one can make an okay
living, probably about the same as an experienced postal worker. One
has a certain amount of liberty in the way in which one works but, by
and large, you are executing other people’s ideas or at best creating a
drawing to accompany a story someone else has created. If you work for
publications, you’ll have decent freedom to interpret the assignment
and most of your drawings will be accepted pretty much as you draw
them. If you get one of the rare advertising illustration assignments
still left around, you’ll make a lot more money but have to redo your
work many times to fit the exact visions of the art director, creative
director and client.
Advertising is one of the most lucrative businesses for creative
people. We make double what designers do but generally get half as much
respect from our clients (most of whom make far less than we do). Our
ideas have to go through many layers of approval and then rounds of
testing but millions are spent to share them with the world.
Make no mistake. There is a fundamental difference between the work we
do for ourselves and almost anything we do for hire. Art is an
exploration, an unfolding of things that are deeply rooted in who the
creator is. It is not meant to fit an agenda or even express a message
(though much art is decoded for its ‘messages’, an aspect of the work
that is usually a byproduct of the artist’s process and not its true
purpose). Creativity that is commercial is always restricted by its
purpose. It may seem very free and loose and personal but it isn’t.
Even if one uses a song or an image that were created for personal
reasons and one puts it into advertising or design, one changes its
spirit forever. You can’t help but deform it by changing its content.
The song may sound lovely in the commercial but it is twisted to fit a
different agenda and thus loses it true beauty, a bird in a gilded cage
At the highest end of the advertising and design world, it appears that
top creative people have enormous control and freedom but I know many
such folks and though they are freer than their peers, compared with
the freedom of true fine artists they are crippled slaves.
Making the transition from one world to another is awfully hard.
I have hired artists to make ads for the first time and they are
horrible at it. I have hired movie directors to make their first
commercials and they struggle with the whole notion of shooting
something to time, to fitting a story into 30 seconds. Even Martin
Scorcese balked at it and produced mediocrity compared to directors who
are used to fitting their skills to the task. Composers, photographers,
painters, actors, all have trouble making the transition to the narrow
confines of commercial creativity.
The inverse is equally true. When I first started working with
publishers, I completely misunderstood the relationship. I thought my
editor was my client and assumed I had to follow their suggestions to
the letter. My agent disavowed me of this, pointing out that I
was the client, I was the goose laying the golden eggs, the producer of
the product that everyone else was profiting from ( which is equally
true in advertising but that value equation is rarely acknowledged as
if one’s salary was a lump-sum deal that expunges any rights of
ownership). Sure, the relationship was one of business partnership but
my vision was what my publisher wanted. That was a tough one to get
used to but enormously satisfying and liberating. IWhen I write a book
(and it becomes increasingly so with each book I do), I am out to
express myself and to find the best possible way to do so. Others’
functions is simply to help me understand how clear and engaging I have
been in doing so but the direction and responsibility are mine. That
feels a lot more like art to me. The check one cashes in such a case
may do less for one’s bank account but much more for one’s heart.

These thoughts on the value of creativity are rudimentary and a little
conflicted. I’ll keep working on them and share them as they are

They pull me back in


It’s a year and a half since I left my last job, left meetings, left acount executives, left downsizing, left that tight feeling between my shoulderblades. For the next year, I managed to do a lot of drawing and travelling. I created this blog, worked on the staff of the Morning News and the New York Times, and finally achieved my dream of being paid to be an illustrator. I finished one book and then conceived and wrote another, the book I have always wanted to read. I spent a lot more time with the people I had abandoned during my four years of senior management: I picked Jack up from school, I sat in the kitchen and talked to Patti every morning, unencumbered by bosses and office gossip. I met hundreds of great creative people around the world. A happy time.
Somewhere in the back of my head, probably on a nerve that connects right to that tightness in my shoulders, a little voice continued to murmur. “You’ll never make enough money. You’ll never be able to afford the standard of living you had during all those years in advertising. You are still a rank amateur. What will you do when you’re sixty? Seventy? What if you live as long as your grandfather? You can’t survive to 95 on scraps. Wipe that smile off your face.”
On and off, I freelanced in ad agencies. I had steady clients who brought me back in time and again. In one day of advertising freelancing, I could make what took me a couple of weeks of illustration and so I did both.
And I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it like I hadn’t in years. I was being hired just to sit around and come up with ideas, to make things. Not to hold clients’ hands or draw up lists of people to fire or listen to my boss quote from his most recently read book on management techniques. All they wanted was ideas and I have become a fire hose of those. At the end of each assignment, I would throw on my suit and present the work to the client and most everything was well received.
Then last summer, just before I went on my cross-country trip, I came up with a campaign that won a small agency an account worth about a quarter of a billion dollars. When I finished my trip, visiting Andrea in San Francisco, I got a call on my cellphone while walking down Market Street. They wanted me to come back and run the account.
It was exciting to have been part of this sort of victory. We had beaten the biggest, most famous agencies in the country, based on a line I’d thought of at the urinal one afternoon. The agency has done a lot of good work and it is on a phenomenal wave of success. Right after the big win, we reeled in one of the leading sneaker companies, then an international beer, and now we are on the verge of three other huge new accounts.Our success is like nothing in the recent history of advertising and there are just a meager overworked handful of us doing it.
Like the tsunami that hit Asia, this agency’s momentum has threatened to devestate all of the changes I made to my life over the past couple of years. It is easy to succumb and work sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. I can give up this blog, see my family only in their pyjamas, stop drawing altogether.
I can also succumb to the tension and fever pitch and not even enjoy the incredible creative opportunities on my plate. I just got the go-ahead to shoot a dozen commercials, each with a budget over a million dollars. I’ll be traveling around the country to do it and yet I can still make myself feel miserable about it. Miserable because I worry about what I am losing, breaking my commitment to myself. Miserable because I can worry about not living up to expectations. Miserable because I’m an ad guy again.
It has been a struggle not to succumb. I know that sounds dreadful and there are so many people who would do anything to be in my place. What I am wrestling with, truely, is the danger that I could slide back under the waves, go back to how I felt a half dozen years ago, when I didn’t draw, didn’t share my feelings, couldn’t conceive of myself as an artist.
But guess what. I can and am and will continue to win that battle. I am not the person I was. And even though I am in the world I left, I am a new man. My year off was transformative. My imagination works better than it ever did. My confidence and self-knowledge are magnified.
If you are considering chucking a job or career or a direction that stifles you, I hope my experience is helpful. You can decide to walk away and then to walk back without feeling like your experiment was a failure. You will return, if you do, changed and smarter and knowing where the exits are in case you feel like you need fresh air ever again in the future. Or perhaps you will stay on the new path and never look back. All that really matters is that you take each day as it comes, look for the beauty in it, abandon preconceptions and focus on what you want to be. A healthy, creative, complete person.
I wish it for you. And for me.

Notes from a chat with Julie Dermansky


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.


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.

Meet Prash

chapel-1Every so often I see work that makes me say, “Well, yes, that’s what I’m trying to do but some thing seems to have interfered between my brain and the page.” Prashant Miranda’s journals always make me feel that way.
He emails me tantalizing glimpses from them every so often and I get quite green with envy. His watercolors are so loose and bright and expressive.
Prash came to Toronto from India some five years ago. He says: “if I was to describe myself…i’d say that I am a scribe. I keep sketchbooks all the time, it’s moved from sketchbooks to sketchboxes…with loose pages, and now they are leather pouches that I stitch myself.”
Prash has sent me journal pages he made in India: on his recent visit to Quilon, his childhood home on the south west coast of India, and of the lighthouse in Tangeserri; to Benares, the holy city in the north; and to Goa. And also scenes from Canada, his new home: his solo camping trip on an island in the Moose River; and, most recently, an old sedan being being shot in his neighborhood for the Russell Crowe movie, Cinderella Man.
Prash worked for Cuppa Coffee, a lovely animation studio where he’s developing a kids’ show called Ted’s Bed. The series looks to be an updated version of Nemo in Slumberland and the website is full of watercolored postcards with beautiful calligraphy in Prash’s signature style.
If you’d like to know more about Prash, drop him a line.