How to grow healthy.

My grandmother won prizes for her gorgeous chrysanthemums. She had a huge rose garden that was designed like a Persian Carpet. She had two full time gardeners who kept her topiaries trimmed and her lawns like billiard tables. She taught me to love making things grow and to respect the endless powers of Nature.

One of her pet peeves: “Why must Americans call it ‘dirt’? It’s soil. It’s earth. It’s not dirty. It’s wonderful.”

Last week, I thought about her often as we watched a wonderful film about turning dirt into magic. The Biggest Little Farm is a documentary about the Chesters, a cooking blogger and a filmmaker, who worked for eight years to transform a mistreated farm into a Garden of Eden.

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How to fight cancer.

The last few months have been wonderful for me. And simultaneously rather awful. But the awful stuff has inspired me, perhaps more than the good. That’s the nature of the creative process, isn’t it? To take the manure of life and use it to fuel new growth.

Pharmaceutical smorgasbord.

So many of my favorite artists turned adversity into raw material. Van Gogh was fueled by his isolation and mental illness into a turbo–charged creativity machine that cranked out another startling painting virtually every day. Frida Kahlo, whose body was crisscrossed with scars from polio and from being run over by a bus, turned her disabilities, her awful marriage, her abortions and miscarriages into the sources for her brilliant work. Hockney faced homophobia; Basquiat racism; Bacon, Goya, Picasso were all inspired by the terrors of war.

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How to get rid of rust.

A couple of years ago, I looked in the mirror as I struggled to button my trousers and said, “You fat bastard, get to the gym.” I dutifully signed up for a gym membership, got a trainer and vowed earnestly to show up. My initial physical assessment was depressing. I was fat indeed. But, energized by novelty, I showed up at my first appointment with visions of a lithe me doing handsprings in my head.

God, it was grueling. I was red faced and puffing a few minutes into the session. I clearly had an awfully long way to go. How would I stick to it rather than retiring to a pint of ice cream on the couch? The financial commitment was somewhat helpful; I’d optimistically bought an expensive package of training sessions so I couldn’t very well blow it off outright. Instead I just started to space the sessions further and further apart, from three weekly sessions to one that I managed to fill with chitchat rather than cardio.

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You are not alone

You need to go way out to a cabin in the woods to write a great novel. You must move up to a garret on the top of floor of a tenement to paint masterpieces. Do not disturb. Genius at work. The myth of the solitary artist, toiling alone, far from the madding crowd. We’ve all heard it. And yet I wonder, is solitude really the key to creativity?

Case in point.

In 1866, Vincent van Gogh left the Netherlands. For three years, he had been trying to teach himself to paint, essentially on his own. He briefly had a mentor who then grew tired and rejected him. He enrolled in an art school but clashed with his teacher for his unorthodox style of painting. Two months later, he quit to move to Paris.

Within 18 months, Van Gogh went from dreary, ham-fisted brown paintings to bright, lively, emotional masterworks that are some of the greatest paintings ever made. What made the difference?

Paris. Or more specifically the community of artists he found in Paris.

For the first time Vincent was exposed to Impressionism, Symbolism, Pointillism, and Japanese woodblock prints. He befriended Pissarro, Signac, Bernard, Seurat, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Gauguin. His palette changed. His painting technique changed. His line quality changed. His sense of himself as an artist changed.

When Van Gogh finally found himself in the company of artists, he discovered what being an artist truly meant. He borrowed ideas and discoveries from them. He modified pointillism, he painted with complementary color, he discovered light, and in two years, he made over 200 new, fresh paintings.

Marinating in all those influences, helped him discover a unique and utterly personal approach to painting. By associating with great and generous artists, Van Gogh found himself.

Many of our teachers tell me they love being a part of Sketchbook Skool, because they usually spend so much time working alone. They love to commune with other creative minds, to share ideas, to talk shop, to find new solutions to common problems. Some of them set up shared studios. Others travel to conferences and conventions. Others use social media to share their works in progress and find input and support.

For many beginners, sharing art can seem like a scary business. We fear being judged or seeming to be presumptuous by donning the artist’s mantle. But remember the explosive effect of creative community on Van Gogh. Nothing he’d made before 1886 deserved to end up in a museum. He couldn’t find a single customer for his flat, amber landscapes and dimly-lit, mawkish still lives. But by stepping out, by daring to expose himself and ask to learn from other artists, he was transformed.

You may think you are not a Van Gogh. But have you gone to Paris? Have you taken advantage of the impact a creative community can make?

Speaking of creative communities, this piece was originally written for the Sketchbook Skool Zine.  Didn’t see it in your inbox this morning? Sign up now.