A summer whine.

As I start writing this, I already feel ridiculous. Hypocritical. Spineless. Overprivileged. Maybe if I just write whatever’s on my mind, I’ll get some clarity and balls. Let’s see.

This afternoon, Jack and I are going to pick up the keys to our brand-new studio. It’s a big, lovely empty space made for doing nothing in but making art without interruption.Jack can’t wait. The weeks since he moved out of his studio in Providence have been torturous as his mind brims with unpainted paintings. He’s itching to get to work and put them all on canvas.

Jack has a clear sense of himself as a painter. He’s not thinking about the whys of making art, not concerned with who will see the work and what they’ll do in response. He knows that he’s meant to make art and so he’s been like a clamped firehose, thrashing around the pavement, struggling for release.

I am stomped down, bottled up, and tightly capped. I haven’t made anything larger than a sketchbook page since we left Los Angeles, almost two years ago. Even that period in the garage was an anomaly. The idea of making art that could hang on the wall is still scary and ‘wasteful’. I have used our lack of wall space as an excuse for decades. I have long-claimed that art with a small ‘a’ means focussing only on the process and filled books to gather dust on shelves. I tell people not to think about what they will have made but only on what they are making now. When you are done, store it, frame it, burn it, I don’t care.

This is not just a black and white matter. On the one hand, I believe that when I take the pressure off myself to produce something finished and public, I am freer and more likely to take risks and make progress. So working in obscurity has helped me develop. And on the other, I don’t liven a hermitage. I do share images of my images in books and on-line. You’ve seen ’em. So have thousands of others.

But there are shortcomings to this approach. For one, I am always off-hand about the images I make. They are mere illustrations for my blog posts or book pages. It’s a way of avoiding real responsibility, this business of making pictures that are just marginalia, just a record of a nice breakfast, a quick sketch here or there.

I know this is gift-horse dentistry, a problem we’d all like to have.

I could say the same about my writing. Even when published in a book, my words still lack a certain seriousness, a full embrace of their role. It’s as if I only write captions, quips, epigraphs, body copy to be tossed out with tomorrow’s trash. A brief amusement in a social media post here, an email there.

Am I writing or drawing for the ages? Can I? Do I dare?

Maybe my years in advertising convinced me that what I make is always subservient to someone else’s agenda, another’s strategies and goals. And making advertising is inherently impermanent. A commercial last for thirty seconds, a print ad runs for a couple of months. It’s a diversion, never the main event. I know that some of my books have been in print for years, and that they have had more than a passing effect. Nonetheless this, sense of triviality is deep-dyed in me. I’d like to make something that matters. But trying to also scares the shit out of me.

Jack is a wonder to watch because he doesn’t feel a burden to achieve greatness each time he picks up a brush. He throws things around, then paints over them. He doesn’t stop to explain or justify. He just does. He’s the same kid who made elaborate Lego towers, then knocked them down to build something new.

Before Jack was born, my mother and my sister chipped in to rent a painting studio for me for a moth. I entered it with a sketchbook, a marker, and a lump on my throat. I hadn’t really drawn for ages and this room seemed designed to strip me of excuses. The first week there I wrote a long polemic about art and posted it on the wall. The next week, I made a few half-hearted collages. I spent the final two weeks trying to make a painting from an old photo of my grandfather. When the month was up, I left behind the handful of things I’d made and ran like hell.

I know it won’t be like that when we start this new adventure. First off, Jack won’t let me get away with it. But also, I have the feeling I can get there, that there might actually be stuff in me that is worth saying, worth saying large, and worth saying well. On that last point, I know that I need to work harder on what I make. Instead of dashing off a sketch or a watercolor, I want to push myself deeper into a painting, to explore, to respond, to refine. To evolve from playing the field to deepening my relationship with a work of art.

I know this is gift-horse dentistry, a problem we’d all like to have. And I am ashamed to start a summer in a painting studio with a whining screed about my inadequacies and fear. But I hope this self-assessment helps me to move past the anxiety of starting something new.

Thanks for holding my hand while I steel myself for the first leap.

45 thoughts on “A summer whine.”

  1. So for me it’s summer vacation, I teach 36 classes a week to K-8 students, and now MY TIME has arrived. I live in Maine surrounded by stunning beauty and I could sit here and whine too. But aren’t you in control of your monkey, doesn’t he need a little duck tape right now? Thank you for the post, I think it might be just what I needed, to know all greatness comes with struggle even if it is one we create ourselves. You are brilliant Danny, lead the way and show us how it is done.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fear-False Emotions Appearing Real! Have you read Shut Your Monkey?
    Perhaps reading a little Austin Kleon is in order.
    I give you permission to do some crappy paintings and write some crappy words. There is no judgement, Danny-except yours, of course.
    You are an inherently good man and that is what counts in the end. You are about to embark on a grand adventure with your son. He will show you the way. Just think of the memories you are creating for your respective memory banks! Lucky, blessed you!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. When that same feeling flushes over me I tell myself to paint with abandon and make something awful. Painting is like pancakes, you always have to throw the first one away. Often that intial free-for-all attempt is the most exciting work I’ll do all day!
    Congrats on the studio. I’ll be watching your alchemy break new ground.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. So you write about the monkey from experience? I found this interesting because of your level of success and that I get the feeling you think that what you’ve made throughout your career isn’t true “real” art if doesn’t fit this new criteria you’ve set. I’ll tell you what, having been forced to stop making art has made me very introspective about why I ever did it in the first place. I’ve been examining why I even need to make more art at all. (Since I’ve done it professionally for 30 years with my own degree of success) Not being able to make my art has put things in perspective. I’ve come to the conclusion that, like Jack, I was meant to make art. And yet, like I think I hear in this post, I’ve never measured up to my own criteria, let alone someone else’s. Screw it. The most important line in this post is ” I want to push myself deeper into painting, to explore, to respond, to refine. To evolve from playing the field to deepening my relationship with a work of art.” That line itself is art. And I’m learning to appreciate the art around me in a deeper way because I see it from a place of longing. So when I can again make art, I will make art that matters. It will matter because it matters to me. I will deepen my relationship with art…Even as I type this I wonder why put this out there? Who cares?? Lol, and you know what? It doesn’t matter. You made me give it a voice!! If you keep writing, I will keep reading!! (And responding) That’s art.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. What a gift, indeed! To share space with your son, who grew up to be an artist! I can’t imagine that opportunity with my daughter. Just go and the art will happen, or not. Have you read the great book by Anne Lamott? Bird by Bird. If not, please do, and if you have, then refresh your memory.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The first step, no matter how small, is always the hardest. And, sometimes, just making the decision to DO it, is all it takes.

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  7. Dear Danny,

    I can recommend a great book for you, “Shut Your Monkey.”

    Wow, to have studio space and share it with another talented artist is a dream come true. It will be a safe place to explore and discover. It will be a place to build on who you already are…just more room for the expressive pizzazz to take place.

    When you talk about how your son is so free to paint…doesn’t over think it, I think you will find that using paints and expressing on a larger scale is freeing in itself. I alternate canvas painting with drawings for this very reason. My drawings & watercolor in a sketchbook are more tight and the mixed media paintings are more fluid, expressive and bold. I HAVE to do both and I bet you find the best in both of these mediums too.

    Hey, you’ll be great and brilliant and you’ll get to buy new art supplies…WHEE! This experience will most likely lead to a new book idea, too. Cheers-Darlene

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I know exactly how you feel! I’m doing an artist residency this summer, right this very moment, in fact, and it’s with 6 other women, each talented and wonderful and supportive, such a special gift to be able to do this! One of the other residents is in the studio right now, cranking away on something she’s been wanting to make all year, and it looks GREAT! I’m in my room, trying to decide what to make, once I get to the studio, and trying not to feel as if I’m running behind. We have until the beginning of August to make some stuff, no pressure, even from the granting organization, but it’s hard to start, and they already have expressed interest in showing all the sketchbook pages I’ve already generated since my arrival. But finished pieces are far away, at this moment. You and I will both do just fine, this is just what happens when you start something you haven’t yet envisioned, and the pressure is great when everything seems perfect! It will be fine, just make a line.

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  9. Oh Danny! My monkey thinks some of my projects are fooling around, and some are way big and serious. I tell her to not be scared, we aren’t going to be tossed off the planet for making big art, and also – it isn’t ourselves, as artists, that get to decide whether what we create is big or just fooling around. It is none of our business where it gets put. Just ask Miles Davis – ” I’ll play it and tell you what it is later. ” He also said
    “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself. ” Your monkey’s fear tells me this is an important step for you – and that’s very good, no?

    Liked by 2 people

  10. A studio is an opportunity, not a mandate. Jack has the right idea: just make stuff.

    A wise man once told me to suspend all judgment about the art I make and instead to explore and see where my exploration leads me. He (aka YOU) went on to write: “I think that’s the only reliable path to making art that fits you. By being you, accepting you, exploring you. And making art that fits you is the only art making that matters.”

    A studio seems like a serious thing because it’s something “real” artists have. But you are already a real artist. This is just a new phase in your exploration. I hope you have a blast.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. It’s wonderful to read how your words of wisdom come back to you, Danny, from this creative community you nurture. I’m reminded of Fritz Perls, (founder of Gestalt therapy) who said something to the effect of, “Go out of your mind and come into your senses!” He taught the importance of MOVEment in getting unstuck.You know it well, like just pushing a pencil or brush around to get started. And of course, trusting the Process.
    I’m excited with you, and feeling ya, and looking forward to hearing anything you feel like sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. You need to read this great book called Shut Your Monkey. It is a gift to those that have read it and the author is so important to those that listen to him. He has his own way of doing art combined with words that enable so many others to enjoy themselves – what a treasure he is IN HIS OWN WAY. Isn’t it great that some people evolve into something special, entirely their own person, and then share it with others? WOW

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  13. Danny, I savor your words! Some of the truest words I’ve read have been yours. It’s just a big playroom, and the bonus is you get to spend time with your kid doing something you both love. I can only imagine the energy in that room! Enjoy, and Happy Studio Warming (if there are such things)!

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  14. It is gratifying to read the comments, much more gratifying than reading your post unless….. You are sharing a deep experience, a humbling experience, a vulnerability inducing experience and teaching that it doesn’t matter what you have accomplished you will go through it anyway. That is one thing I like about you Danny Gregory you are authentic. So without getting Freudian or Gregorian ( which really means that I am going to get Freudian and Gregorian) you have contracted the Summer Monkey which only hits when things are going great and is mild but deadly. Or it could be your ego (a thought I had about my monkey after I finished reading “Shut Your Monkey” for the seventh time. Congratulations, get back to work, and read your own book again and continue with the podcasts (no charge for the prescription the bees will cover it).

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  15. Danny – you have already created great things that have a huge impact on people! Your books, SBS and blogs have inspired so many. I hope you now just go have fun in that studio – let loose and see what happens. With all that available space and Jack to inspire you something new and surprising may happen.

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  16. You go Danny! I have similar issues after 40 plus years in the ad biz. But you are going to be amazed at what you have accomplished a year from now!!! I know it! Keep blogging and keeping it real…we love you for all the inspiration you’ve given us!

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  17. I applaud you dear Danny,
    Your raw honesty is a very courages thing. The fears ( the monkey) and anxiety we live with as artists is recognizable by all who seek a new path of expression. Go forth !!!!

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  18. I have plans on building a studio on my property because there isn’t enough area to claim as work space in my home, but I struggle with the idea of that big blank space (the studio area) too- am I justified to invest the money and labour in building it? Once built would I feel pressured to “produce” to justify having the space built? Why do I wrestle with validation? Thank you for sharing your concerns, it helps to know artists already with a degree of success do have these moments of pause. And I found the comments here from others also so supportive and insightful- I will pick up Shut Your Monkey today. Thanks for this and I have a feeling once you’re in your new space and have gotten “acquainted” with it you will unleash and fill that space with work that maybe you never knew resided in you! All the best ~

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  19. Hi Danny,

    When I was taking art classes at the School of the Art Institute, a woman in one of my classes mentioned that she does Julua Cameron’s Morning Pages (3 pages of stream-of-consciousness writing in a notebook before she even picks up her paintbrush. The minute you start creating, in whatever form, those bugaboos start to recede and disappear. Another benefit is that an idea of what to paint may bubble up. Try not to think of an end result of what you want to achieve.

    You have orchestrated an entire symphony of artists that you admire and you have shared that information and motivated countless people to pick up a pencil or brush and that is no small feat. More importantly, you succeeded in taking care of a disabled wife and raising a wonderful son during a time when there were very few support systems, if any. You blazed that trail and are a beacon of light to anyone facing a similar situation.
    There are many definitions of success, but material success is far different from spiritual success. It seems to me that you have already achieved both and no sacrificed one for the other. For that reason, I have no doubt that you will find your footing in the areas of art that you want to explore and this time around it may be Jack who provides new ideas and nurturing environment for that to happen.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Here’s another hand for you to hold… just like you have held ours when you’ve taught us all you know. Thank you so much for sharing your vulnerability with us. I understand and have felt all these same insecurities, especially in my writing life, where I tell myself I should be doing so much more than I have done. But every bigger thing comes from small step after small step. You have mastered the small steps of filling sketchbooks, one page at a time. You can make bigger things too… one brush stroke at a time. Breathe! You son learned a lot from you, and now he can help you re-learn it. 🙂

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  21. Such a heartfelt message. Of all your writings and art, I really like these heartfelt blog posts the best. It makes you human and someone I can relate to. They inspire me and motivate me to move forward with my own art.

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  22. It’s always amazing to me to read/hear people express the same fears and thought I myself have. Thank you. It’s time for you and I to head to the studio and get busy. Enough already.

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  23. Your writing and sketching have changed many lives- and then there’s all the people who walk through the digital doors of SBS. I totally understand the nervousness. If our positrons were reversed, I think you’d tell me just to get something down, don’t let the canvas become too precious. Make marks and have fun and if it doesn’t quite work move on to the next one (or have a Juliana moment!). Paint for you first and enjoy!

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  24. Thank you for this Danny. It doesn’t just help you, it helps all of us who are riddled with self doubt and who crave and fear equally the act of creating Big Art.

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  25. You go for it, Danny! I think most of us can identify with your feelings. Do we really have something great in us? Or just sketches? Or blog posts? It’s all an expression of our creativity. It just depends on where we want it to lead. I want my art to glorify God, but I’m still unsure how to go about that. I’m hoping He’ll give me a little push in the right direction if I just keep up my part…praciticing. Keep him in line, Jack! 🙂

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  26. You’re such an inspiration and I KNOW you’ll make something valuable out of it–be it an artistic masterpiece or a beautiful pile of lessons learned. 🙂 Please continue to keep us in the loop!

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  27. Congratulations on your new creative space! It is amazing that we all seem to share the same universal monkey messages, isn’t it!!

    A fellow student once commented on my angst about starting, making a mess, blah, blah, blah—-“Hey Linda, it’s a piece of paper. Get over it! The Louvre hasn’t requested that you create this painting for their permanent collection. Just get it done as best you can. If it turns out to be awesome, I’m sure the Louvre will contact you.” That made/makes me laugh and gives me some perspective. I make art for me and my own personal development AND I continue to feel anxious anyway. Glad to have good company in that. 😉

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  28. I love your honesty Danny. I’ve been writing in advertising and PR for way too long. And sketching not long enough. I love the little quips that roll off my sarcastic tongue to accompany my five minute sketches. But I think working in an agency so long means everything is whipped off in 15 minute increments. Usually not more than about two blocks of 15 in a row.
    I am working on patience to slow down and really look at something before I sketch it.
    I can’t wait to read and see more about the great things the new space unlocks for you and Jack!

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  29. it’s so interesting to me that you don’t see your value.Isn’t that the same way many of the most famous artists felt? Van Gough comes to mind. I think it’s the way you THINK about your art that has to change, not the way you do it. Just because something was “dashed off” as a breakfast you ate today doesn’t make it less. YOU make it less. I think your paintings are inspiring because they are down and dirty into life, home, living and doing. One doesn’t have to be high falutin to make great and long lasting art. The only thing you have to do is MOVE IT TO PAPER, get it out of your sketchbook then TADA!!! It’s art. (not that it isn’t art in your sketchbook, it’s just much less accessible). Good luck Danny.

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  30. Danny- you have done permanent work- your books! All of your books are solid, complete, permanent in a very similar way that a painting is. Besides I think you have a need to do it, just release the painting that is there inside of you. The only possible difference between you and Jack is that Jack has maybe a few more paintings trying to get out. The problem may be that you are focusing on one single painting. Load that space up with enough supply for 20 paintings, that way they are not that important, you have at least 19 more tries in the queue. Canvas = really tough paper, fewer sheets. Painting 1= one of the dogs. Painting 2= breakfast. Painting 3 = Self portrait. Painting 4= Jack. Now GO!

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  31. At the same time you have been holding our hands in Sketchbook Skool and on your podcast, we have been holding yours. You will do this!

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  32. First…”gift-horse dentistry”….lololol!
    Secondly, i LOVE LOVE LOVE your description of Jack’s emotional response to not being able to paint. It so perfectly explains the way I’ve been feeling….not painting due to job, shift changes, baby sitting an adorable new grand daughter, LIFE…
    And your description of your unlimited studio time for a full month parallels the feeling i get inside when I REALLY think about “what if there was a huge block of time…what would i actually do??? Danny, I love your writing!!! I think that you are great at what you have done and what you will do. I am taking the day off tomorrow to make the three-hour Drive to my mother’s house to spend the day with her. She is an amazing artist and I feel that time is wasting when I am not with her. This time you get to spend with Jack is priceles. Can’t wait to see the outcome.

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  33. Danny..knock Knock! Jack is a young adult with a famous father, no financial worries. He doesn’t have to hold down a full-time job, commute or any of the myriad of things the rest of us (including you) have to deal with. It isn’t even a fair comparison for you to make. So go a little easier on yourself.

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  34. I have a great book for you to read. “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert! Subtitled, Creative Living Beyond Fear. It’s perfect for this leap of faith you are taking! I also remember several years back when HOW magazine published an article about you. The one that included your illustrations of a bagel and bottles. I was so inspired that I made copies for everyone in the advertising agency dept. where I worked. Now look at you…all these books and journals and Sketching Skool workshops later…traveling all over the world. Reaching and teaching so many folks! A-mazing. Remember Jackson Pollack (in the movie) staring for weeks at that big blank canvas until he just exploded into action? Julia Cameron would probably say that the Art Director in you is being critical of even your unborn efforts. All you can do is show up and see what flows out of you. Blessings.

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