Chicago on four hours' sleep

I am posting this from my room in Rome, still fairly jetlagged but eager to get out there tomorrow and start drawing. Meanwhile, here are some journal pages from the last few days while I was shooting in Chicago, specifically at an 80-year old institution called the Aragon ballroom.

Most of our days lasted more than 16 hours and we wrapped at 3 am; the effects are visible in my drawings which are actually quite nice and loose though manically, Tom Kanesian in their crosshatched detail.

My colors are a little bolder than usual — I should probably continue to paint in the gloom.

I drew entirely in Sepia ink and watercolors, and many of these entries were doing in semi darkness and while severely sleep deprived. My marginal comments seem even more crabby and distracted than usual.

Early morning habits

coffee-shopToo long ago, I went to the gym every day. At seven a.m., the doors opened and a small group of us would shamble in and begin lifting weights. I had a little notebook in which I charted my regimen and recorded my progress; accumulating the little pencil scrawls kept me committed for close to a year. I was pretty intense about it, seven days a week, rain or shine, always at 7 a.m. If I overloaded the stack of iron and strained a rhomboid, I would switch to a leg routine for the next few days until I healed. But I had to keep going
I took a fair amount of pleasure in how my body developed. I wasn’t a steroid freak or anything though some of the other 7 a.m. crew were a little scary, particularly a couple of the women with lats like pterodactyl wings and neck as thick as my thighs. For me, weight lifting felt like a creative act; I liked how my arms felt like they belonged to someone else, like touching a horse or a large dog’s back. I had made my body into something, something essentially useless as I rarely had to lift toppled trees off cars or open jars of pickles, but something hand-crafted nonetheless. I don’t even know how healthy the whole thing was: I almost always hurt somewhere and woke up each 6:30 wincing and groaning.
When it was still cold and dark outside, Patti would urge me to stay in bed but I would refuse. There was simply no room for discussion. If I missed a day, I would lose momentum, my streak would end. I was convinced that I had to be 100% committed to my routine. The pathological drill sergeant in my head gave my will zero room for excuses.
Then my sister said she wanted to join me. For a week or so, she met me every 7 a.m. and it was fun to have someone to work out with. Till one morning she called me at 6:45 and croaked that she didn’t feel like going today, that I should take the day of too. So I did. And the day after that and so on. I never went back to the gym again.
Habit is enormously powerful. The bad ones are easy to pick up and a drag to shake. Each bad habit starts by stifling a voice in your head, the one that knows better, and says ‘go ahead, just try it’ and leads you to drag that first cigarette though you know it’ll lead to the grave, to accompany every burger with fries, to flop on the couch in front of the tube, to drink too much, talk too much, do too little…. The angel on your shoulder doesn’t stand a chance.
For me, developing good habits requires the same sort of censorship. However, this time I have to stifle the voice that leads me astray, to be absolutely rigid in my refusal to capitulate. It works best when I have an inflexible routine, like my 7 a.m. appointment at the gym.
These days, NPR wakes me up at 6:57 a.m., and I go mechanically through a series of maneuvers that have me walking up the street and arriving at my desk at 8:30 while the office is still cold and empty. I am at my most productive in that first hour. I’d love to add another hour to my morning, to rise before six and really get something done with my first cup of joe. I haven’t muscled myself into that harness yet.
What does this sort of rigidity mean when it comes to creativity? Can you be so iron-clad and expect your imagination to function just because you have put it on a regimen? Will the ink lie cold in the pen? Will the mind stay half-asleep?
Not if you insist. The muse can be put on a tight schedule. I have had to come up with ideas, on deadline for decades and, if anything, things flow more easily when you bear down on the brain. It’s not guaranteed but showing up is half the job. If I am focussed, resolved, and present, ideas will come.
I’d like to be more disciplined about my drawing. When I have an illustration assignment or a commitment to another like sketchcrawling, I can deliver. I just did it in Paris, crawling out in to the cold rainy dawn to draw. But it’s not as much fun as when I am suddenly inspired to pick up the pen. It feels like work. But maybe that’s because I am irregular in my early morning sessions. I mean, I could stagger over to the gym tomorrow at 7 am and bench press something but it would not be fun.
My pal, Tom Kane, has a great habit. When he walks into his office each morning, he snaps on his computer, loads the NY Times homepage and draws something from one of the lead stories in a Moleskine reserved for the purpose. Each day, at least one drawing of a newsmaker. Only then does his work day begin. His book is full now, brimming with great caricatures and portraits, built one drawing at a time. His drawings muscles ripple. Of course, he does not stop there; he draws New York City most days, detailed pen and ink drawings that fill the page from corner to corner. Tom’s compulsive too. He cannot stop until every square inch of paper is covered and crosshatched. He tells me he doesn’t do it because he enjoys it; he does it because he has to. He’s got the habit.

Sketchcrawl survivor

Tom Kane and I met up just after 8 am at the L train station and traveled into WiIliamsburg, Brooklyn. The day was cold and intermittently rainy but we were fairly well provisioned though Tom was much impressed by my folding stool (too bad I didn’t bring it to the Met last weekend) and vowed to get his own.
We spend most of the day in industrialized parts of the neighborhood and occasionally ducked into coffee shops or bars to shelter from the elements and fortify ourselves. I decided to work just in black and white and to intensify my cross-hatching. Tom is a master of detailed shading and I followed his lead.
All in all, it was a very satisfying experience, though utterly depleting. We were both completely wiped out after nine hours of drawing outdoors and felt old and stiff from the wet ground and the grey skies. Can’t wait to try it again, hopefully in warmer weather.


Tom Kane just sent me his lovely drawings from our odyssey. As you can see, he fills every inch of the page and is a committed cross hatcher (R.Crumb said, ” drawing is just an excuse to crosshatch”). He draws with a fairly ordinary roller ball pen and his work has a lot of energy and life and humor. I like the way he vignettes his drawings like old photos. A very talented fellow, old Tom.
Like ‘em? Tell Tom.

A new old friend

Sunday afternoon, I was walking through Astor Place when I saw a man in a familiar position, hunched over a big old moleskine, a pen twitching between his fingers. I knew, from across the road, that he was drawing in a journal.
As I approached, I suddenly realized it was my old partner, Tom Kane. We’d worked together in the mid-80s, dreaming up advertising campaigns for Life magazine, for cigarettes, for Barnes & Noble— we even did a very early rap song about IBM (“We were the mothers who invented high tech, now everybody wants to play Star Trek, but there just ain”t room for all that crew, all the wildest ideas come out of Big Blue, etc…).
Although I never saw him actually draw, I had seen a few pieces in his apartment, near-photorealistic paintings of pop icons, horses, and women. He obviously had a lot of talent but he expressed it on the sly. We’d lost touch over the next decade, but hooked up for a long, candid noodle lunch three years ago. Then I, in my executive haze, lost touch with him again. And now here was Tom drawing in a moleskine. What a weird coincidence.
Tom looked up from his page and, seemingly unsurprised to see me, immediately told me that he had been bought multiple copies of my last book and been lurking around this blog for a while, my book, all of which had inspired him to start keeping his first ever journal. I was floored. It was so strange to find someone who I knew and admired as a very creative and talented person hooking up with the Everyday Matters crew.
Well, as you can see from the drawing Tom was doing at the time, he sees very well. Look at how specific each window is, not just a row of squares but the very particular windows, one by one. His crosshatching is rhythmic without being monotonous, reminding of my all time favorite, r.crumb. I also love the way he fills the page, how he uses the negative space of the sky and integrates his text right into the scene. It’s a great drawing and a beautiful exercise in mediation.
Tom is a very imaginative art director. If you’ve ever seen those wild, bubble headed girls in the ads for Steve Madden shoes, you’ve seen what Tom does in his day job. We dropped over at his place and he showed me dozens of fantastic paintings, photo collages, drawings and rows of tomato cans. I could sense that he is being called more and more to devote his energy to making things that express his passions rather than peddling ladies’ shoes. I hope he follows that call.
In the meantime, I have a new journaling buddy to roam the streets with. What a happy accident it was, running into him.