Death Valley Sketchbook

deathvalleyjournal

A decade ago, I did a week-long drawing trip through Nevada and parts of California with my pal, D.Price. The sketchbook I kept (only my 7th to that point) was the first step in my publishing career. When I shared it with an editor at City & Co., who liked it so much she asked me to assemble a book of my journals. Ultimately, though I ended up placing that book with Princeton Architectural Press (Everyday Matters), it was so nice to have someone interested in my work and this concentrated drawing trip was the kick-off point.
I was flipping through the original journal today and thought I’d make a little video tour. It’s also notable as several other firsts — one of my first hand-bound books, one of the first times I made a dedicated journal for one trip, and one of the first times I experimented with watercolors.

The film I made ended up being eleven minutes long, so I cut it into two episodes. You can see them both there.

Oh, and if you like this sort of thing, let me know and I’ll do more if it. (Though I am not trying to make anything technically sophisticated with these little films, I would love to know if there’s any particular information you’d like to know about my sketchbooks). I appreciate your comments and insights.

Drawing on memories

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Patti had a birthday last month, the 22nd we’ve celebrated together. When you’ve been together as long as we have, you have to think  a little hard at birthdays and anniversaries and Christmas time to keep things fresh, to make sure that you can still express how much you love each other without falling back on the tried and trite.

Anyway, this year, I decided that one of the ways I would commemorate our history together was to take our ancient home movies and transfer them onto DVDs so we could watch them over and over. We have scads of old video tapes but the cameras that recorded and played them are long defunct. In fact, we have never looked at any of them since we initially shot them – films of our first trips together, of our wedding, of Jack’s early days and so on, all moldering in shoe boxes. Now we have a dozen gleaming DVDs, a box set of our lives up to about 1997 or so.  We have all watched them together over and again, particularly the ones when Jack first learned to use the potty and his first big argument with us on a trip  to Nova Scotia.

One of the more profound DVDs is the one I made when Patti had her accident and I was alone each night at home with the baby. For two months, I made videos of our daily life to take up to the hospital to show Patti that we were okay, that life was going on, that she had something to come back to. These are the hardest tapes to watch because I feel so sorry for the me that was, giving Jack a bath, rocking him to sleep, listening to music (Teddy Bear’s Picnic, The Ugly Bug’s Ball, Let’s Go Fly a KIte…) that was once so sweet and important to us but forevermore will signify the hollowness of those days.

Funnily, the more I got into drawing, the less video tape I shot. As the films peter out, my journals expand, so our whole life is recorded but just in very different media — and with very different effect. I read recently that when you look at old photos, they stir up old memories, facilitating recall. But when you look at old home movies, those images tend to actually replace your memories of the periods being recorded. When you think back on those times, your brain tends to pull up scenes from the films rather than organic (but not necessarily as reliable) memories. My mum had an 8 mm. movie camera when I was a baby and the images from those old reels are the only scenes I can remember from when I was two or three or four. Maybe nobody has much memory from that time, and mine are quite vivid, but I know they are all just scenes from one movie or another.

When I watch these old movies, I sort of vaguely remember the times when they were taken. When I look at these old videos, my experience is often of surprise. I think about how young well look, or weird my hair was, or how I seem to speak out of the side of my mouth. The experience is from outside — I am watching myself but not as myself. In fact I would venture that most of my experience is not radically different from what a total stranger or an acquaintance might think of the same footage.

The drawings in my journals, however, summon up a completely personal and intimate feeling. It’s more like a time machine than watching TV. I am in the moment, I am me now and also the me I was then.The act of drawing, painting and writing rather than just pushing a button on a  machine, forms completely different sorts of memories, When I look back at a page, even one that’ s more than a decade old, I remember so much about what I was doing that day, my mood, the weather, even the smells in the air. The experience itself is deeply embedded in my head and just glancing at the drawing takes me back there.

I am so glad to have both sorts of records of my past (not to mention dozens of photo albums and zillions of digital snapshots). I can travel back to any period of my life now and see my life as a continuum. There are so many lessons to be learned by looking back and seeing where one has come from, who one has known, how one made choices, how one felt.

Creating these records, particularly the ones that consists of just some feeble drawings and a few scratchy notes, is probably one of the most important things I’ve done. That sounds odd perhaps, that recording and observing one’s life could be of the most important things one can do with it, but that is the true purpose of art — at least to me. The value of taking a step back, of putting a frame around a moment so that it can stand for a thousand other moments unrecorded, to learn from one’s mistakes and to cherish one’s blessings, to hold up one’s experience so that others can share it and learn from it,  these things seem like the very purpose of art — and of life as well.

Clarification

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I’ve been following a discussion on the Everyday Matters group and it has gotten my wheels turning. The talk has been about the utility of specific drawing assignments suggested by others, whether there’s really utility or purpose to everyone deciding to draw a piece of fruit one week, a pair of shoes the next, and then sharing their work and discussing it. While some people love it and have made it the main business of the group, others have complained that it has diverted the purpose of the group and distracted it from its original intention.
I’m not interested in taking sides because I think any sort of drawing is a good thing. However, I’d like to clarify what I’m up to with my drawing. While I have done some nice drawings here in Rome, I’m not interested in being a travel writer or an illustrator or a fine artist.
I want to live my life to its fullest and I find that drawing what I encounter deepens my appreciation. While I share my work with others, I make it for me. When I have unusual and interesting experiences like I’m having in Rome right now, my drawings seem to have a wider interest. But my core philosophy is that every day matters. Every single day. The day you meet the president. The day you have a baby. The day you find a special on sirloin at the supermarket. The day you get your shoes back from the cobbler. I find that drawing helps me to commemorate those events, large and small, dull and transformative. For me, that’s the point of art. To deepen my understanding of my life.
If someone else’s suggestion that I draw a particular thing opens my eye to fruit or glasses or the pattern of sunshine on my counterpane, then that’s great. But ultimately, we all live different lives and are handed assignments by each dawning day. Each day we’re handed a new set of challenges, new rivers to ford, new choices and wonders and pains and lessons. If we think the day is full and familiar, we need just dig deeper into it, look for fresh insight, peel back the layers of the onion. I find that drawing helps me do that.
Art lessons familiarize one with the tools but they are not a substitute for digging one’s own ditches, constructing one’s own nest. They are just abstractions and life is very concrete. I enjoy what I learn in life-drawing classes, but learn far more by drawing my wife’s sleeping body, my reflection in the bedroom mirror.
To draw, one must draw. Exercises and academic and books provide examples of what one might do, but experience is the real teacher. Take tomorrow as your assignment. Draw your breakfast, your bus stop, your bathroom wall while you’re shitting, your laundry as you fold it, your children as they watch TV, your pillow as you wait for lights out.
Be bold with your exploration. Capture what you do and have always done. Then push yourself to new experiences if only to draw them. Visit new neighborhoods and draw them. Meet new people and draw them. Try new foods, read new books, smell new flowers, do anything that will deepen your understanding and your appreciation of your world and your place in it.
I don’t care if you think your drawings suck, if you are ashamed to show them to anyone else. What matters is that you pause and contemplate. If your record of that contemplation is inaccurate, try again. Feel deeper. See deeper. Slow down. Relax. And tomorrow, do it again. You aren’t being graded or evaluated on your drawing. No more than you are being evaluated on your life itself. The only thing that matters is you. What you experience. How you experience it. How much you get out of this day and the next. This is your life. Dig into it. Embrace it. Notice its curves and angles. Explore its corners. Feels its edges and put them down on paper. The pen, the page, are just tools for you to take time and slow it down. I can’t make you do it my way, any more than I can force you to live your life my way. You decide, you forge your style, you pick the line that draws your life.
Take tomorrow and instead of hesitating and questioning and doubting and fretting, draw your breakfast, draw your day. Then try it again the day after. With each successive day, you’ll be clearer and deeper. If you miss a day, don’t freak out or beat yourself up. Just take on the day after that.
Share the results if you’d like. By sharing you will find commonality and support. But maybe you don’t need more than self sufficiency. In that case, keep your drawings for yourself. Or toss them out as you do them. The drawings don’t matter, the drawing does.

Feeling a little La-la

santa-monica-cacti

I have been holding on to my jet lag quite well while here in LA; getting up early and going to sleep most nights before ten. Still my internal clock has slowly drifted west a little more each day; I’m probably somewhere over Oklahoma today, rising at 6:30 and feeling rested (last week it was 4:30). It’s been great to get up at dawn and have a couple of hours to myself. I usually walk along the beach for forty five minutes; to the Santa Monica Pier and back before breakfast, passing the homeless people still in their sleeping bags under the palm trees.
After breakfast, I work on my book. I am able to dart on to my computer several times a day to make adjustments to the work in progress, rewriting, redesigning, lettering and drawing elements to insert into the layout. Last night, while waiting for a final meeting on casting, I finished my final read through and am pretty much satisfied. The book is 208 pages long; each with a unique design, rimming with drawing and colors and thoughts and weird lettering. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done and I feel deeply satisfied by it. I could go on tweaking forever and yet it also feels quite complete, organically whole. I will look at it on the plane again tonight and then send it off to my editor.
I’ve spent most of my days over the past week and a half working on the campaign we are set to start shooting next week. We’ve figured out every shot and transition, pulling the spots apart and reassembling them, challenging them to their basic premises and seeing how we can plus them. We have dozens of roles to cast across the campaign and each day look at DVDs full of actors in LA and New York. Last night was our last round of callbacks and we are in pretty good shape. This afternoon we will take our clients through all of the decisions we make and on Tuesday the cameras will start to roll. We have tested so-called ‘animatics’ (basically cartoon versions of the spots that let us see how people respond to the basic plots of the spots) with consumers and they have all done exceptionally well, hitting historic highs for communication, persuasion and likeability, so we are hoping that our clients will be filly on board with all of the subsequent decisions we’ve been making. But, of course, one never knows. Our director has just finished shooting a movie and every day must meet with the studio and discuss the edit; he says it is a horrible experience and one he won’t repeat any time soon.
This evening, I’ll be on the red-eye back to New York. I’ll get to spend a few days with my family (who I miss terribly) and to duck into my office and straighten out some things on the other parts of my account. We are in the midst of launching a huge print campaign too and have photographers to hire and many, many details to work out.
It has been a very stressful experience because so much is riding on our efforts both at the clients and at the agency. Hopefully things will all go smoothly and the tension will subside.
My book is keeping me sane, quite honestly. It is like a quiet lagoon I can dive in to when all around me is chaos. It’s not just the fact that it’s a real project that has been met with so much good energy so far. It’s also that it’s mine; a little world of my own making that reflects nothing but my own experience of reality. It’s also something I hope will be very positive for those who share it and will help them to embrace their own creativity and make lagoons of their own. Drawing has always brought me such peace and happiness and the further I wander into the Valley of Darkness, the more important a beacon it becomes.
Sure, my book is going to be published — but that’s not it; all of the books that precede it, the 38 volumes of drawings I have filled in the past few years, have all brought me this satisfaction, helping me see the world as it truly is, not a tangle of subjectivity and judgment and tensions and ego, but a place of peace and great beauty, even in the smallest things.
That said, I’ve finished my breakfast now. I’m going to go and do a little drawing in the sunshine before my day takes off.

Like father, like son

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A few days ago, this drawing arrived from my stepmother, Sue. It was drawn by my father when I was about three, around the time my parents were divorced.
Many of these objects are things of my mum’s. I think she still has the copper ashtray on the lower left. Sue pointed out how similar this piece is to much of the work I have been doing and I must agree. I never really thought of him doing illustrated journaling but clearly he did.
Keir lives in Leicestershire, near Nottingham (that’s in England, folks). His three daughters (my half sisters) are all grown and he seems to spend most his time drawing daily self portraits or writing software for his own amusement. I’ve only seen my father a half dozen times since the divorce and we correspond very intermittently. I have a few of his sketchbooks from the early 1960s and I have always loved them.
Between Jack’s painting and this newly arrived drawing from Keir, I must say I am thinking quite a lot about heredity these days.

Here is some more of Keir’s work circa 1964 (he never shows his work so I hope, on the off-chance that he stumbles across this web page, that he doesn’t take offense to this little tribute exhibition). Some of it is pretty angry and hard core so please don’t yap about the language or the macabre-ness:


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.