Holy Roller Novocaine


Most mornings, after breakfast but before we head out for the day, Jack and I flip on our amps, grab our axes and fire it up. One of us plays rhythm, a standard 12-bar blues (E,A,B7) and the other solos, usually with the drive turned up for maximum distortion effect. Fortunately, we have thick floors and forgiving neighbors and for some reason Patti generally ignores or applauds our efforts. After ten minutes or so, we return our Fenders to their stands and go out the door, our fingertips and ear drums still vibrating, adrenaline still coursing through our arms and legs.
After I drop Jack off at the bus to camp, I walk the twenty or so blocks to the office, listening to my iPod. These days my absolute favorite is a new band called The Kings of Leon, three brothers and a cousin from Tennessee who kick serious ass. They are a sleazy, boozy, brawling blend of 70s country rock, satanic heavy metal, surf, and punk, and they channel the spirits of early Stones and Lou Reed and the Strokes , (all of whom I have always loved), and Tom Petty, Eagles, Skynrd, and Zeppelin, (none of whom I’ve paid much attention to) .
Though I think I would have always dug this band, these days I find I can really hear them,. I am aware of each note; I can feel the separation of the instruments; sense what Caleb and Matthew Followill are doing on their guitars; take it all apart and put it back together; and it’s all due to the few months Jack and I have spend whacking our own geetars.
Over the past couple of years, drawing has done the same for my appreciation for art, focusing my likes but quelling my dislikes, broadening my mind and letting me see what I would have formerly walked past or dismissed. I feel increasingly less intimidated by the heavy intellectualism of a lot of contemporary art and get a lot more pleasure whenever I’m in a museum.
You don’t have to be a musician to love music or an artist to love art or a writer to enjoy a novel, but when you try to make it yourself, even in the most rudimentary way, it enhances what you get out of really great Art. In the end, we are all Artists. Some of us have long hair, greasy fu-manchus, and peg leg jeans while others just back up nine-year-olds.

Bunnies or Jesus


You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement.
– Woodrow Wilson

One of the things I love about my friend Julie is her relentless energy. She is a sculptor, a painter, a photographer, and a hardworking entrepreneur who doesn’t hesitate to apply her enormous creativity to ways of funding her art.
In the last few years, she’s put her welding torch to work making furniture and fixtures for corporations that bought her art supplies and paid the mortgage on her farm. When she was in art school and realized that she could get a lot more than the minimum wage cafetraeria workers by making jewelery and selling it dorm to dorm. But back when we first met her, before Jack was even born, she lived in a crowded storefront on Elizabeth Street. She made money painting murals for fishmongers, and built elaborate iron fences entwined with grinning animals for the local school.
Every so often we would get a postcard from Julie: “I need a new refrigerator and will be having a drawing marathon on August 18th” or “I need health insurance and will be doing a drawing marathon for 24 straight hours.” For $25, she woul;d send you one of the drawings or paintings she made and you could pick from one of the themes listed on the card: President Kennedy or dogs; war or fishes. One of the best was on Easter: pick either a bunny or a Jesus. The bunnies were horrifying plaster casts with taxidermy eyes; every Jesus drooled blood with insane googly stares.
We would often drop by her studio during the marathons; there would always be a few other people around, drinking jug wine and talking to each other whole Julie spattered ink and paint, taking a break now and then to chat. It was fun fore every one and paid Julie’s dentist, Con Ed, and MasterCard.
Art ain’t about galleries and museums and the like; it’s about love and sweat and bits of yourself. Don’t be stingy. Don’t be afraid.
P.S. I never mentioned here before what happened just a few days after I went up to visit Julie and her farm last month.A freak tornado came through and lifted her lovely pre-civil war farmhouse three inches up in the air and dropped it, twisting the walls. It dinged the front of her painting studio. But her welding studio took the full brunt and went from this to this. Julie’s fine and so was her poodle Tess. But then, too soon after, Tess a teenager, passed away from old age. It’s been a tough time for Julie but she’s pulling through with a lot of courage and help from friends, family and insurance companies. Her spirit won’t be phased.
See more of her great work on her website.

I contain multitudes

I am a wiry cowboy or maybe an ex-con, sideburned, sunburned, sheathed in jailhouse tats, wearing Dickies, Vitalis and Old Spice, a hand-roll dangling below my Fu-Manchu, stonily silent, a solid peckerwood who’s 1000-yard-staring through glacial blue eyes.
I am Robert DeNiro as Vito Corleone in Godfather II. Poised, determined, resourceful, lethal.
I am Aimee Mann: thin, blonde, beautiful; cynical, hilarious,profane; part angel, part construction worker.
I am Eminem.
I am Miles.
I am Tyson.
I am the Dalai Lama.
I am Jimi Hendrix: my fingers scrabbling and singing across the strings, my cheeks sucked in, my eyes closed, my shirt a riot of psychedelic paisley.
I am Steve McQueen, leaping the barbed wire fence into Switzerland on the back of a stolen German motorbike.
I am Francis Bacon.
I am Warren Buffett.
I am Jesus Christ.
I am Keith Richards: kohl eyes, turtle skin, brown bony arms gripping my axe.
I am Curtis, holding a piece of cardboard and a cup on Sixth Avenue.
I am Vincent in the wheat field.
I am Arnold, winning Mr. Olympia yet again.
I am Henry Miller, fingering in Clichy, scribbling in Brooklyn.
I am Dy Thomas, blowing a fag end into a BBC mike.
I am a spotty fourteen-year-old with a meager moustache.
I am a bloated middle-aged bald man.
I am a corpse.
I am Chas Eames.
I am Dick Feynman.
I am Wally Whitman.

Last night I was thinking about how hard it is to stay in my own skin. Maybe that’s the way art is supposed to make you feel, to catapult you into another aspect of yourself and let you dwell there a while. Or maybe that’s just what it is to be human and to try to live an examined life.
I’m reacting intensely to all of the things I am going through right now, all of the different audiences I seem to be strutting past. I want to’ be me’, to express that me-ness, and yet it is so varied, so contradictory. There’s me as husband, father, son, and brother. Illustrator, author, blogger, copywriter, professional, and novice. Teacher, student, know-it-all, and idiot. Ad guy, art-guy, ugly American guy, and Registered Alien. Jew, Christian, Buddhist, and atheist. Hermit, tireless self-promoter, success, and failure.
It’s not really that I’m seeking the answer any more. My adolescence is so far behind me, and I have worn out my allotment of mid-life crises. It’s more that I’m perpetually restless, only temporarily satisfied with every conclusion.
Perhaps this is the biological imperative that moves successful organisms towards adaptation and evolution. Those who are content to keep chowing down on a certain kind of leaf or to hang out by a certain waterhole are secure … until the shit comes down. Then it’s only those shifty, scuttling rodents in the undergrowth that make it to the next level. We are the descendants of every successful shape shifter there’s been till now, the freakiest of all mutated freaks, and these days, as the shit comes down more heavily than ever, only the unsatisfiable will survive. So perhaps I’m working my way up to missing linkhood.
Or maybe I’ll just be the first lemming off the cliff.
Or worse yet, somewhere lost in the middle of the herd.

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.

The Art of the Cinema

In the movies, artists are generally bastards, nuts or addicts. Here are some of my favorites.


The Agony & the Ecstacy: Irving Stone boils down the Sistine Chapel with a liberal amount of artistic license. Good painting scenes. With Charlton Heston (ugh) as Mike B and Rex Harrison as Julius II.

Lust for Life: More Irving Stone. Kirk as Vincent, Tony Quinn as Gauguin, Vincent Minelli at the helm. Beautiful and nutty and the best Vincent biopic.

Bird: Clint Eastwood’s version of Charlie Parker’s life.Good but not as good as:

Round Midnight: Dexter Gordon plays Bird, Lester Young & Bud Powell all rolled into one. It will make you love jazz.

Moulin Rouge: The original: Toulouse-Lautrec and Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Basquiat: Julian Schnabel directs this story of fame, drugs and demise. I liked Basquiat a lot more than the film but it’s still worth a gander.

Ed Wood: Proof that one of the most important things an artist needs is belief in himself.

Tucker: Automaker as artist. A sunny metaphor for Coppola’s battle with the Hollywood establishment

Amadeus: Nothing like the scene where Mozart dictates the Reqiuem to Salieri. I could watch this dozens of times. And I have.

Savage Messiah: I loved this movie in college. Ken Russell’s bio of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and his mad affair. Tortured, weird and romantic.

Pollack: Ed Harris’s tribute to Action Jackson but with a little too much drunkness and a little too little painting.

My Left Foot: Danny Day Lewis as Christy Brown, paralyzed poet and painter. Have been meaning to see it for 15 years. Will soon.

Shine: Pianist David Helfgott has a mean dad, a breakdown, and a lot of scenery to chew. Decent but overrated.

Hilary and Jackie: The lives of classical musician sisters, one wild, one straight. I enjoyed it but honestly don’t remember it that clearly.


Rivers and Tides: Simply the best movie I’ve ever seen about the creative process. Documents the work of Andy Goldsworthy the British sculptor. Still in some theatres. Avaialable on DVD in 9/04

Le Mystére Picasso: In 1956, Clouzot filmed Picasso painting on transparent canvases, revising the work as he goes, a chicken becomes a nude becomes a landscape, etc. Mind blowing.

Crumb: portrait of the great underground comix artist and illustrated journal keeper, intense and revealing. See it even if you think you don’t like him.

Wild Wheels: a tribute to art cars (covered with mirrors, grass, plastic fruit, etc) and the people who make them.

28th Instance of June 1914, 10:50 a.m. – McDermott & McGough are a pair of artists who live as if it were PreWWI, their clothes, their home, their plumbing, their manner and their photography. Beautiful and strangely compelling.


Edward Scissorhands: A fairy tale about the artist as outsider. By one of the most creative directors in modern cinema.

The Royal Tennenbaums: The story of a creative family and the least good of the great films of Wes Anderson.

The Moderns: Alan Rudolph’s story of artists in Paris in the 1920s is wildly surreal and romantic and has a wonderful soundtrack.

An American in Paris: A highly realistic story of artistic struggle. Gene Kelly, Minelli, and my fav: Oscar Levant.

Quartet: 4 stories, one of a pianist who studies for years to get a critic’s approval. Also by Maugham.

The Razor’s Edge: Bill Murray (of all people) was in the good version of this story of a WWI vet discovering himself as an artist and a spiritual being.. It was very inspiring to me when I first saw it two decades ago.

The Commitments: Slightly too raucous story of an Irish soul band but a good appreciation of appreciation.

The Hours: Virginia Woolf and all that.

New York Stories: The first part of the trilogy is by Scorcese with Nick Nolte as a larger than life painter who can only work when obsessed with a woman. Some beautiful moments.

The Horse’s Mouth: I loved this book as a kid — it made painting into the most heroic of acts. Alec Guiness plays Gulley, a screw up of a painter, in search of the perfect wall for his mural.

Got any to add?


How about Life with Picasso by Francoise Gilot?

According to IMDB there’s a TV film called:

Pablo Picasso: Réminiscence

Is that the one?

What’s it like?

I love your top two documentaries. I just watched Love is the Devil about Francis Bacon, which I found very fascinating.

Then there’s “Surviving Picasso”, came out a few years ago.

Benny and Joon has some wonderful scenes with Mary Stuart Masterson’s character creating directly on the canvas using her hands as well as drawing with more traditional materials.

‘Camille Claudel’ is a wonderful movie about the life of the sculptor that worked for Rodin and then later became his mistress. Of course its a tragic story , women artists didn’t really have a chance in those days . She ends up being committed by her brother the french poet Paul Claudel . I don’t think she was crazy just filled with a lot of passion for her art . Passion was not something women were allowed to feel in those days.

what about Cavaragio by Derek jarman and there was a great documetary about that mail artist based in NY which I saw at the edinburgh film festival… but I can’t remember his name!

I recently saw Frida with Salma Hayek. Apart from the fact that she is much more gorgeous than the real Frida to look at, I thought the quirkiness of this movie was brilliant. It surprised me.

A friend of mine at work keeps INSISTING that I need to see “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” because of its art theme. Maybe that would be a good one to check into! Thanks for the listings!

As a documentary on the creative process and the techniques and aids used by the some of the great masters I highly recommend David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge – it is available in both video and book. I was absolutely fascinated when the documentary screened here in Australia, it opened many new insights and evolution of the creative process.

i agree with the royal tenenbaums also because wes anderson’s brother did all the great illustrations (the ones that “Richie Tenenbaum” does) and all the “book” illustrations and also does a great job on the rushmore/royal tenenbaums special additions packages.

also : American Splendor about Harvey Pekar (!!!) with a little bit of Crumb (!)

I must also cast a vote for Frida. What a beautiful movie! Each frame is an artistic composition with rich rich color. Also, I’m afraid Bill Murray’s Razor’s Edge, although I’m sure his intentions were good, cannot hold a candle to the book which was simply amazing. The problem with the movie is that the protagonist is just not supposed to be a funny guy! Another movie not to be missed is My Architect which is about Louis Kahn. It’s still playing at some theaters but I’m buying this one when it’s available. This from someone who doesn’t watch the same movie twice.

P.S. -

what about songs about art / artists ?

how about “artemisia” about artemisia genteleschi (sp?)? struggle of women artists. love affair. torture by thumbscrews. pretty decent film.

I loved a documentary on the building of the National Gallery of Art with IM Pei…showing a lot of the work with Henry Moore and Sandy Calder.

All of the work that went into every inch of the place….interesting.

Movies: Sweet and Lowdown, Woody Allen, starring Sean Penn as brilliant guitarist best moment: when penn bashes his guitar against a tree crying “i made a mistake, i made a mistake”

Lady Sings the Blues, Diana Ross Billie Holiday. for the music alone and Ross ain’t too bad either ….

Shadowlands, Debra Winger and Anthony Hopkins, about C.S Lewis

Fiction: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man , James Joyce…those last paragraphs/lines, i weep everytime

Sula, Toni Morrison, the artist without an artform

Oranges are Not The Only Fruit, Jeannette Winterton, evangelical upbringing + lesbian= writer

Einstein’s Dreams Alan Lightman, a mathematic/scientific poet….vignette dream meditations on Einsteins mind during his patent clerk days toiling on relativity by night.

whoops! guess i added books too….woolf/the hours made me do it!


How to Draw a Bunny – about Ray Johnson, mail artist (2002)

Goya: The movie (1999)

(Also liked Frida and Girl with a Pearl Earring)

“Angels and Insects” includes scenes of a woman who keeps an artistic nature journal … although there are definitely other themes …

I’ll keep thinking …

My Architect – about Louis Kahn, got an Oscar nod this year, and well deserved too.

Rivers and Tides? I dunno. I felt like even more of an outsider to Goldsworthy’s work after seeing that. It would have benefitted from some serious editing.

That’s my $.02

It’s not totally about an artist’s struggle, but A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, film by James Ivory, based on a novel-based-on-her-life by Kaylie Jones (her dad was James Jones, who wrote From Here to Enternity), is about growing up in a bohemian, artistic family.

Also, Un Coeur En Hiver, a French film about a violinist and the man who makes her the violin.

Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould is a wonderful movie. About Glenn Gould.

I’d nominate Pecker by John Waters – quirky, funny and very, very scathingly revealing about the machinations of the art world.

Not to be missed is the PBS special on photographer Ansel Adams; I think it was from the series “the American Experience.” Available from the PBS catalog.

“Agony and the Ecstacy” also has a wonderful score by Alex North. I often listen to it while I’m working.

Tony Hancock’s comdey ‘The Rebel’ c.1960; an office worker goes off to live the artist’s life in Paris. Although Hancock was the best-loved sitcom star in Britain at the time he had a yearning to do a movie like Jacques Tati’s. Never quite pulled it off, tragically.

How To Draw a Bunny about Ray Johnson is really worth going out of your way to see.

La Belle Noiseuse by Jacques Rivette

Dream of Light by Victor Erice

A couple of months ago I saw back-to-back three films about artists:

Pandaemonium about poet Samuel Coleridge and his friendship with Woodsworth – and descent into drug-addled craziness – a rocknroll account of an interesting fellow.

Passion about composer Percy Grainger, another troubled artist, the story took me by surprise having thought him a “simple” sort of composer. I was very mistaken.

and The Pianist, the haunting Polanski film about Szpilman’s endurance through Nazi terror in Warsaw.

They were all exhausting and heart-wrenching stories. But man oh man, it was a good day.

The Fifth Element!

see – the part where bruce willis is listening to the diva sing – and it keeps cutting back to Leelo fighting the badguys over the stones.

see – there’s this pretty little moment when he believes everything is true. Art shows the way to love shows the way to love saves the universe.

i really need to write about this more coherently someday. :D

I have to second Stone’s Lust for Life…the movie made me want to find out more about Vincent…I saw it after hearing the song by Don MaClean–Starry Starry Night. (GREAT POET/GREAT SONG…ONE OF MY FAVORITES!!) By the way…I learned how to play it on my tin whistle Danny…how’s the guitar going????

I also have to second The Pianist. The compelling love and urge to play music touched my soul. His identity was more deeply embeded as a pianist, rather than a Jew. I feel my art defines me more than anything else as well.

Thanks everyone…I will have to visit the video store on some of these!!

I haven’t seen this one added, it is fairly obscure. You seem to

be an enthusiastic Van Gogh fan like myself, and you would

definitely enjoy “Vincent and Theo”. It shows a lot of the darker

side of Van G.’s life, such as the time he took in a pregnant

prostitute. The scenes are brilliant and suffused with the yellow

light of “The Night Cafe”.

Directed by Robert Altman, it stars Tim Roth as a quiet, intense,

muttering painter. I love this film and watch it every few months.

Also someone mentioned “Surviving Picasso” and “Camille Claudel”. Camille is devastatingly sad, but casts a lot of light on the relationship between herself and Rodin.

I also would like to mention a great film that stars J. M. Basquiat as himself, “Downtown 81″. It is a musical and poetic romp through the art and post-punk scene of NYC circa 1981. It was recently released after 20 years on a shelf! Great fun film, also with amazing live music scenes and a cameo by Blondie.

A good movie about becoming an artist, against all odds:

“Dog of Flanders”

(the original 1959 version, with David Ladd, Donald Crisp, Monique Ahrens, Theodore Bikel,)

The documentary Speaking in Strings about violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg profiles a very passionate and unorthodox musician.

i don’t have a film to add, though i did enjoy Pollack, but thank you Dan once again, for your unfettering vision. that’s what attracted me to your site initially, you take a stand for all those individuals who allowed themselves to be consumed, perhaps devoured by their passion for visual expression. you are truly a becon on this artists’ path.

‘Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh': the biography of Vincent using only his paintings, some locations and excerpts from his correspondence.It was powerful movie.


For fictional: “The Legend of 1600.” Beautiful. The duel between the protagonist and Jelly Roll Morton is one of the most amazing scenes on film. Great score by Ennio Morricone (his last, in fact).

henry and june!

Just in case anybody else is still checking out the comments on this post, here’s a hard-to-find but really great doc of an artist: Gabriel Orozco (that’s the name of the film and the artist). To crib from the Miami film fest: “Internationally recognized Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco uses found objects to instigate a dialogue into how meaning can be formed from the arbitrary and the ordinary.” Very inspiring.

i too was so totally mesmerized by Le Mystére Picasso, i think its a really long film, but both times ive seen it i cannot rememeber time. I can only remember at the end kind of waking up and realizing my mouth was open and i had a crusty line of drool leading from the side of my mouth.

How about an angel at my table – both film and book

i too was so totally mesmerized by Le Mystére Picasso, i think its a really long film, but both times ive seen it i cannot rememeber time. I can only remember at the end kind of waking up and realizing my mouth was open and i had a crusty line of drool leading from the side of my mouth.

How about an angel at my table – both film and book

Why do I do it?


At six, it was universal. We all drew, and painted, sang and sculpted. We were all architects and actors, potters and dancers. It was innate and natural.
I lived around the world as a child, in Lahore and London, in Pittsburgh and Canberra, studied at St. John’s and on a kibbutz. I could quickly fall in with any other kid and we’d pretend to be mountain climbers or scientists, we could build forts out of sofa cushions or turn a refrigerator box into a theater. I wrote and illustrated books. In a school play, I played a dog that saved a family from their burning house. I had an alter ego, Roger Watford, an English lord who smoked a pipe and carried a sword. I made pirate maps, soaked them in tea for verisimilitude. I wore my Halloween costume year round.
Twenty years later, I wore ties. I drew only when doodling on the phone. I never went to galleries or museums or playgrounds. I watched golf on TV.
I was not an artist any more.
When I was a eighteen, I wrote a college application essay on why I felt that writing rather than drawing was the more appropriate and useful medium of expression for me. It came down to a simple equation. Artists starved. Writing was useful in all aspects of business.
Princeton had a painting department. I assumed that its members were lazy, unwilling to take on a proper major or to attend a real art school. Architect students worked notoriously long hours. Fools, again. At best, I’d heard, they’d make $30 grand a year.
By twenty one, I’d become cynical, rigid and unimaginative. I was ready to get to work.
I had talked myself out of going to art school because I believed that the only way to make a living would be to be a ‘commercial’ artist which seemed horribly compromised. My experience working for a local paper had led me to believe that journalists were mere observers rather than participants. My friends who went into investment banking were total sellouts. Three months after graduation, I fell into advertising. It was a job, and got me out of my parents house.
For the next twenty years, it was what I did. I was “creative”. Noun, rather than adjective. In Harper’s, I read an essay that concluded ‘Creative people in advertising are artists “with nothing to say.” It seemed apt.
The advertising profession is divided into creatives and account people. Creatives are divided into art directors and copywriters. I was the latter and yet I drew more and better than the art directors I worked with. I had endless opinions about the visual side of the business but I was adamant that I was a copywriter. I would not be judged as a visual person. I was not an artist.
Despite all the meetings I sat through, all the product I moved, all the concessions and compromises I made, the urge to make things could not be completely quashed. First of all, I made ads. I worked with photographers and directors and editors and composers to make polished little 30 second turds. We all threw ourselves most fervently into these productions, being adamant about the tiniest things, the shade of blue of a models blouse, the placement of a comma. We would fall on our swords all the time, so intent were we to assert our creative will.
This inner artist plagued me like homosexuality must plague those still in the closet, I would jam it down, insisting it was impractical, that I was not good enough, that it was a huge waste of time and then that creative urge would pop its head out somewhere else
I was not a painter (though I did paint at home, balancing huge canvases on my dining room chairs because I would not commit to having an easel).
But I was not really a Writer either and stopped writing the fiction I had pumped out in school.
When I was twenty three, I wrote a play and some producers started to raise money to put it on. We did a reading and Kevin Bacon played the lead. I did nothing to help. The production grew until the plans were to try to open it Off-Broadway at the Henry Miller theater, then on Broadway itself. I stood by. Eventually the plans grew so big, they collapsed. I did nothing to revive the play. I’m not sure if I still even have a copy.
Three different times, I bought myself a keyboard and set up music lessons. Each time, I sabotaged myself after a week, missing practice and lessons because I was so busy at work.
I designed and built the furniture for our apartment out of birds’ eye maple. But then told myself we could afford to replace it at Ikea.
I got a book contract to write a book of highly subjective funny essays about New York bars. I wrote 250 pages but then my editor left the house. My new editor wanted to make changes. I refused. The book faded away but I held on to the advance.
I would come home and cook, hand grinding spices, rolling out raviolis, shopping for months for the perfect knife, making elaborate dishes that I would eat by myself, standing over the sink. I worked hard on what I wore, scouring vintage stores for hand made suits, collecting hundreds of ties, dressing and redressing myself to get the look just so.
Someone gave me a harmonica and I kept it in the shower where I would play it till the pipes ran cold. Whenever someone in our family had a birthday, I would develop elaborate themes to my presents and print my own wrapping paper.
I saw every movie that came out, hundreds a year, telling myself it was part of my job and tax deductible to boot, I watched them intently, memorizing camera placements, noting editing techniques, the names of key grips.
I made my girlfriend elaborate hand made gifts. I wrote and illustrated books for her, even epic poems. I convinced my boss to let me have a laser printer in my office, and then worked behind closed doors to print my books on special papers, to make slip cases and design my own type. I would finesse each piece over and over, readjusting the kerning, the leading, till it was perfect. I worked for months on each item, a single edition of one book. I was doing it for my love. But I didn’t deal with the fact that I was doing it because I had to.
Long before we became parents, I made intense home movies, costuming Patti and driving her to interesting locations. I drove her in a car I had bought simply because it was beautiful, a 1962 Mercury Monterey that was 18 feet long and two tone, cornflower blue and white. It was completely impractical, far too big for Manhattan and I rarely drove it but I polished it and reupholstered it, a gleaming feast for the eye.
Fade out.
Another decade passes. I am married. I have gained a son and thirty pounds.
My career has continued to climb. I am at the top of my field, running the creative department of an agency.
But I am suffocating.
I am under enormous pressure to make other people produce creative ideas. Money is inextricably wound up in everything. All our efforts are judged and harshly.
I slowly came to realize I have been leading a false life for so long, that I am not who I am pretending to be. I have been using my ability to make things purely in terms of how it will provide money to my family, There is no joy in the process. The things I make are completely at the behest of others, I am making advertising campaigns for investment banks, for people who sell weapons systems, for chemical producers and management consultants. I am making more money than ever have and yet I fell completely bankrupt. Nothing I do is for me. I am bitter and insomniac.
A few years before, I had found one outlet that meant a lot to me. I had begun an illustrated journal and had become quite good at drawing the little things I encountered every day. I took a class in bookbinding and learned to make my own journals. For a while, it was a great escape. But then I’d stopped that too. My position as creative director meant there was no time for such things, for the folderol of making things that did not contribute to the agency’s bottom line. I locked my journals away and for five years I focused exclusively on my job, twelve hours a day. My wife grew distant but I didn’t notice. I had no friends outside of work but no time for them in any case. Whatever little burblings of creativity used to have, that I channeled into cooking and fashion and gifts was 100% channeled into servicing clients.
The camel’s back finally broke.
Through my job I started to meet some of the top graphic designers, people like Stefan Sagmeister, Woody Pirtle, Paul Sahre, and as I talked to them, I found myself admitting how much I hated what I did, how lost I felt. I was supposed to be their client but I treated them like mentors. I so envied their lives, making all sorts of things for people, working on their own projects, committing themselves to social change, turning down work if they felt it was wrong, living on a fifth of what I was making and seeming well rounded and complete. Finally one of them suggested I get back to my journaling. Hesitantly, I did.
I let art back in the door and suddenly the walls started to crack. Within a month, I had a book contract. A few months later, I had a second, this one to publish my illustrated journals. Before long, I had an agent and was no longer a creative director.
Instead, I was me.