Senioritis

A tentative first step back into my illustrated journal. Drawn while sitting, overtired, in bed.

Jack was eager to settle his college plans early and so was I. His acceptance to RISD was a huge relief for both of us. The stress and uncertainty of the college process was over and now we can both relax until September.
But doing next to nothing turns out to be a lot less fun than he thought it would be. Fall is a long way away and Jack still has to get up at 7:00 each morning and sit in classes all day, listening to droning teachers, half-heartedly writing homework assignments in the period before they’re due, doing the bare minimum to keep his grades above water so his acceptance isn’t rescinded.
I say to him, well, you’re still being taught useful and interesting things, even if your grades really don’t mean as much. Can’t you just learn … for the fun of it? What’s the point, he groans. Who cares? I’ll study when I get to college… Etc.
Senioritis isn’t confined to teenagers. At every point in life, it’s easy to be so focused on goals that one can’t see the value in anything that doesn’t pertain directly to them. All around are books and classes and conversations and experiences that would enrich us greatly but it’s easier to just do the same-old and not expend the effort for something that doesn’t same to have a direct benefit or relevance to one’s occupation or obligations. What’s the point in learning to draw or reading about ancient history or trying sushi or visiting China? We think we know it better, so despite the richness of the world around you, if your mindset is wrong you won’t absorb or even register it. You screen it out.
When we’re toddlers, we are constantly exploring and asking questions about everything we encounter. That impulse diminishes when we get older because our pre-frontal cortex develops and filters out the firehouse of information that is constantly streaming in. Most of the time, we certainly need that filter so we can be focused and goal oriented — it would be impossible to get anything done if we were always walking around in slack-jawed amazement. So we increasingly notice only those things that we have decided are related to our preconceived goals and orientations.
That means it takes an extreme form of novelty or trauma to snap us out of this narrow tunnel we have burrowed into. Something like 9/11, a death, an accident, can force us into a reassessment and new orientation. Our eyes are opened, we say, and suddenly we see things we’d never seen before.
We use this metaphoric language to describe this epiphany but what if we take this notion literally and force ourselves to actually see things anew. We can reorient our perception and put on a wider lens. Of course, we don’t want to eliminate this screening function altogether or else we might wander off the road and spend all day picking wild flowers, but we can pick moments to relax our pre-frontal cortex, return to a more childlike state, rebuild our muscles of perception, and restock our cache of creative stimulation.
When you draw something you see it in a new way. A good drawing is a fresh perspective on an object you may have seen a thousand times before: a building, a body, a bowl of fruit, your breakfast dishes. But by paying deliberate and careful attention to every nook and cranny, you flood your mind and your page with new information about what you are seeing — the texture of a banana skin, the way light hits a brick, how the knee connects to the shin bone, the exact curve of a cup handle. You are suspending the critical function of your pre-frontal cortex, refusing to decide whether there’s importance to each individual line and aspect; you just record them all. This information isn’t actually that important to you beyond the act of drawing, you don’t need to retain the visual data about that banana skin, it may have no further utility to you. But it is expanding your awareness of the world around you, strengthening for observation muscles — it has as much purpose as lifting the same weight over and over at the gym.
When your mind’s eye is open and your screens and filters are down, you get more and more useful information, and that information and experience are the raw fodder for creativity. Forming associations between apparently disparate things to create a new idea is what creativity is all about. And the more open your mind is, the more you are open to experiencing things are interesting but may not have immediate and obvious relevance to your current endeavors. By exposing yourself to art, to novelty, to new ideas, facts and experiments, you stretch your mind so that it is pliable and elastic, so that it doesn’t seize up when you have to move in a new direction. Your reservoirs of references are loaded and you have oodles of bits and bobs to build new ideas with.
Senioritis hits senior citizens too. It’s easy, as you become middle aged and older, to think you know it all, that you have discovered what matters, that you know what you like to eat and like to vote for and where you like to visit and what you like to read and that experimentation and exploration are things of the past. But if you can loosen up your built-in filters, if you can slow down and draw every petal of a flower or the hairs on a dog’s muzzle, you’ll soon see that you don’t know everything, far from it, and in fact you never will. And that realization, that the more we know the less we know, will set you free to devote the rest of your days to exploring the depth of your ignorance, to gathering sticks and shells and tastes and smells, and weaving them together in to combinations you and no one else have ever seen before.
Jack can afford to suspend learning until September. But I can’t.

Now, watch this:

Getting back in shape

The last year has not been a great one for drawing. At least not for me. After being a dad and an employee and a housekeeper, the little spare time I have had left has been consumed with the two books I have been putting together. I’ve had to do a lot of drawing to get those books done, of course, but it’s certainly not been the sort of art that fills my dozens of old sketchbooks. It’s not really a record of my daily life.

A few weeks ago, once the last of my book files was picked up by the FedEx man,I had to admit that I had pretty much lost the habit of drawing and I’d better do something about it. I just kinda didn’t wanna.

Even though it’s been a mild winter, it’s not been conducive to drawing outside so I sat for in the kitchen for a while and looked at the odds and ends on the counter and tried to psych myself up. Instead, I sighed. I just can’t draw my pepper mill again, nor a box of raisins or my knife block. I have a new, great-sounding but boring-looking radio — its a black rectangle with a small monitor and two knobs. Most of the view out my window has been blocked by two newish NYU buildings. They are as dull looking as my new radio and, in any case I’ve drawn them over and again over the years. My mind whined: there’s nothing to draw. But really, beneath my feigned boredom, lurked fear. An anxiety that maybe I had lost my ability to draw. Look at Tiger Woods — even great talent can slip away in the night and leave you swatting the air.

I had to find a way to ease back into the water without scaring the muse away. I didn’t want the pressure of making great journal pages or writing witty marginalia. I just wanted the visceral pleasure of making lines and slowly and carefully studying something, anything. I unearthed an empty, spiral-bound journal with not terribly nice paper and filled my fountain pen. Then I picked up the dogeared copy of last week NY Times Magazine and let it fall open to a random photo. Then I began to copy the picture into the book, focussing on cross hatching, spiraling lines in neat rows, lining up a smooth gradation of micro dots, making ribbons of greys and undulations of silky blacks.

The old pen was a little rusty but not nearly as bad as I feared. And soon the sweet flood of neurotransmitters swept over me, like emptying a too full bladder, and I entered the zone.

So I made a small deal with me. Each morning after my breakfast was chewed and the French press was still half full, I would do one drawing from the morning paper on one page in the book. At least one. If the urge was there and the coffee held out, maybe I’d make a second.

Most mornings I fill a page (and I don’t beat myself up about it if I miss a day to give the dogs some extra time in the park or to make an early meeting). And the fun is back.

Granted, I’m making drawings of unknown faces from news photos, not the sort of things I want to fill books with, but I figure, what the hey, it’s spring training, and the season will eventually  start for real. Meanwhile, just keep loosening up the shoulders, stretching the hamstrings, and shagging those flies.

A new Sketchbook Film: Pencil & Ink


(Sorry for the delayed launch of this post; had some last minute tweaks to do)

Tommy Kane, Jack, and I have just completed production on another in our series of drawing films — this one about NY artist, Justin Klein. It was a long and grueling shoot day, a good 14 hours, and by the end of the shoot, our set was full of bloodied paper, broken furniture, and empty beer cans and whiskey bottles. We all left the set changed for ever.

As I say to myself with each subsequent film, this is the best one yet. It is a bit of a departure from what we have done in the past but I think you’ll agree that it is an interesting extension of our core idea.
I’ll try to post again with some behind-the-scenes details about the production and answer any questions you post here.

Happy New Year!

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Filmed with a Canon 7D, edited in Final Cut Pro X.
Music: “Lux Aeterna – Cum Sanctis Tuis” from the Requiem by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Color Correction by Lenny Mastrandrea at Nice Shoes.

Jack's Audition

Stage parents wait for their auditioning offspring.

Jack is applying to the Summer Arts Institute, a fantastic program which allows him to study drawing and painting for eight or so hours a day through July. It has loads of dedicated teachers and visits with professional artists and, probably most importantly, the company of other teenagers who are committed to art.
He participated in the program two years ago and did some extraordinary work.
Admission is fairly competitive; applicants need to show a portfolio, complete a drawing assignment, and survive an interview and portfolio critique.
Jack’s portfolio is really diverse these days, oil and acrylic paintings, pastel, conté, various types of prints and the medium at which he truly excels: pen and ink drawing.
Early Saturday morning, Jack and I rode out to the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, a beautiful new public school in Astoria. While he went off for his audition, my pal Tommy Kane drove up and we pulled our pens and drew next to the elevated subway overpass. I think this may be my first drawing in this borough.
An hour later, Jack appeared with a broad grin: “Interview went well. The teacher didn’t like my paintings but loved my drawings and sketchbooks. I think I’m in.” I’m sure his confidence isn’t misplaced, but then I’m his biggest fan. We hope to hear the verdict soon.
Next landmark event: next’s months audition for the Summer Outreach program at the famous Cooper Union School of Art.

Under the subway overpass, Tommy draws the 99c store.

This is Jack’s current portfolio.[click on any thumbnail to see the gallery].  Next time, I’ll share some of the work in his sketchbooks.

Back from Beantown




Jack and I took a brief break from New York with 75 hours or so in Boston. Neither of us had ever spent time there before —though with the torrential Nor’Easter dumping all over New England, I’m not sure we saw it at its best. We trained up there, stayed in Cambridge and managed to see Harvard (infinitely inferior to my alma mater, of course), its art and natural history museums, then visited the Institue of Contemporary Art and the Science Museum. We saw some movies, had some nice meals, played cards,talked, and drew in our journals. I broke out my watercolors for the first time in ages, and Jack bore down on his dip pen.

It was a refreshing break after a very sad week, giving us some distance and perspective, as well as a chance to start our lives as a smaller family. Drawing was a relief to both of us, a feeling that we were making something out of the nothingness, and seeing a new place with fresh eyes. Our journal pages will be a landmark for us, the first fresh pages we are turning over, with many blank ones ahead to fill.

One thing I hadn’t anticipated: Patti was always the first person to read my journal pages after I finished them. Somewhere in Boston, it occurred to me that I write for her to read and that she  wouldn’t read them, ever again. But then I realized I will always write for her, she will always be my favorite reader.