The flight to Hanoi is fairly tough, especially back in economy class. You read your magazine, then your read your book, then you watch the good movies, then you nap, then you watch the bad movies, then you eat some kind of chicken, then you watch the Korean TV shows, then you read the inflight catalog, then you land in Hong Kong.
It’s a whole other day, you want breakfast but it’s dinner time, you shop for gold Rolexes and look at perfume displays and then you get back on the plane again. It’s a different plane supposedly, but whatever.
Hanoi isn’t quite like any other place I’ve been. It’s crazy like Bangkok, but more down-to-earth. It’s vibrant like Beijing, but less ambitious. It’s dusty like Kuala Lumpur, but without face veils. It’s warm like Doha, but no Maserati showrooms.
Most days seem foggy but that’s actually motor fumes and wood smoke. The Air Quality Index is 45 in New York. In Hanoi, it’s 360.
Scooters mosquito past all night and day, vast swarms of them stacked high with egg cartons, toolboxes, slim dogs, kettles of fish, and toddlers. If people wear helmets at all, they look to be made of plastic, covered with flowers, or manga characters, like inverted kindergarten lunch pails.
Ah, Vienna! I cracked open the trusty travel journal, uncapped the old brush pen and began to draw the Hofburg Palace. Soon, I realized that I needed to be creative, resourceful, and as resilient as a Hapsburg to tackle the task.
And speaking of travel, I am flying to Indianapolis today to shoot the next class for Sketchbook Skool. I’ll try to report in from the road.
Ten years ago, I illustrated a book called A Writer’s Paris by Eric Maisel. It’s about why/how you could/should move to Paris, at least temporarily, to fuel your artistic impulses. It worked on mine — Eric’s publisher paid for Patti and me to spend a long weekend wandering around Paris and making many of the drawings that would fill the book. What a time!
I’ll be honest, I don’t remember the book’s argument in detail. I was irritated that the publisher thought to combine my drawings with some collage artist’s work and so I couldn’t read the final version of the book with an open mind. That peevishness notwithstanding, the basic premise of Eric’s book came back to me as I sat here in the Piazza Benedetto Cairoli with my Macbook on my lap. I’ve been in Rome for less than forty eight hours, but the magic of a different continent, city, culture, place and pace is already working on me.
At Jack’s suggestion, I didn’t book a hotel room but found an AirBnB just a few meters from the door of his school. It’s a fourth floor walkup in a 15th century building with a giant front door key and iron shutters I swing open each morning to flood my room with sunshine. As I sit here in the Piazza across the road, I hear the tram rattle by, the chuckle of an accelerating Vespa, the doo-da, doo-da of the carabinieri, and snatches of Italian wafting over from the men on the next bench, smoking and joking. I’m not in Kansas anymore.
Being in a new place always open my eyes and ears. Everything is unfamiliar to some degree, a degree that inspires my record in ink to be deeper and fresher. My travel journals contain the richest pages on my shelves, the most experimental, the most free. Each day in a new city is both energizing and depleting. I strain every hole in my skull to suck in more and more information and end the day wrung out and deep in sleep.
Hanging out with my boy in his new city makes my imagination run wild. He lives and works in a gorgeous old building, a 15th century villa with frescos on the 16 foot ceilings and huge windows flung open upon mouldering terra cotta walls and stone alleyways strung with phone wires. His bed is narrow and hard but he has his own studio, bigger than our living room, with a checkerboard marble floor and walls filled with sketches and pages pulled from the old Italian magazines he buys at the flea market. A few blocks away is a park full of Roman ruins, fenced and gated to protect the hundreds of ferrel cats who’ve made it home. The Jewish Quarter is full of street markets selling big blocks of mozzarella and cadres of prosciuttos in chrome slings waiting to be shaven. Jack has learned to make pasta from scratch and to order a cornetto and a cappuccino with confidence.
He has less than a year till he graduates. But something in me tells him not to worry, to take it slow, to revel in this season in Italy, that it will be something he never forgets. Last week, he and his classmates traveled to Abruzzo and put on a performance in the earthquake ruins of a tiny village. Next week, he heads to Venice to sleep on a boat. I tell him that for the first year or two, he can keep his needs modest, can earn money here and there, can work on being a man of the world rather than a slave of the wage.
I spent a year in a garage in LA. And then I came back to the Manhattan haunts I had commuted through for decades, a new perspective on the same streets. It would be nice to have a garret here in Rome. Or to couch surf across India like Prashant. Or to get a cabin in the woods or a minihouse I could pull behind my car. It’s hard to eat leftovers with the same relish, but certainly New York is the kind of place I can have creative reawakenings, just like Eric’s Paris or Jack’s Rome.
Going somewhere fresh and rich and living just for one’s art for a period, that’s something every creative person should try, methinks. Forget the pressures of income of language and culture and history, just for a month or two, long enough to rearrange the pieces and shake the monkey back into his hole.
I don’t know that I need an adventure so complete, to completely pull up roots and repot on foreign soil. More likely, the many trips I have planned over the next few months will suffice. Next weekend, I’ll be in Austin. Then to Prague, Doha, Reykjavik, maybe Hanoi too. Shifting perspectives, fresh pages in my travel journal, the search for adventure, new faces, new menus, new conversations, all adding up to a big thick deck to shuffle and deal myself out another winning hand.
I’ve just completed the first leg of my European crusade: a week in Switzerland. Basel is a lovely medieval city along the Rhine right on the edge of Germany and France. It’s home to loads of banks and pharmaceutical corporations and two dozen museums — some with extremely contemporary contemporary art, one which is the size of a doorway.
I’ll tell you more about my visit to the city in another post. Today I’ll just try to summarize why I was there.
Last winter, I was invited to be an artist-in-residency at the International School of Basel this September. Perhaps you remember that a year ago, I was in residency at another ISB (the International School of Beijing) and had a lovely and illuminating time, so this invitation was very welcome. I was pumped to spend more time with kids, making art, and wallowing in their creative energy. Additional pluses: I’ve never been to Switzerland and, of course, Basel is a mecca for art.
My week began with a school assembly. Six hundred children under the age of 11 sat on the ground while I introduced myself and talked about all we would do in the week ahead.
Then each morning at 8:15, I’d let a couple hundred kids and their teachers into my gigantic office/studio/lecture hall and showed them films and gave them creative assignments. We drew breakfast and lunch and shoes and upside-down bicycles and portraits and more. We made enormous murals that covered all the halls and stair wells. We ended the week with a sprawling field trip to the natural history museum to draw dinosaurs and endangered animals and then drew the cathedral and the twisting medieval streets.
It didn’t stop in my classroom. The kids went home at night mad for drawing. Each morning, moms and dads came into the school with stories of kids transformed. They filled up sketchbooks at home, drew with their parents and teachers, insisted that nobody eat their dinners until they had been drawn.
After school on Tuesday, I met with all the teachers and showed them how art had opened my eyes. I told them that art is not just for art class — it’s for learning about the world and can be applied to any discipline, from literature to social studies to science to music to gym. I pulled out examples of my travel journals, of my investigations into homelessness, fishing in Manhattan, and dogs in coats. I showed them my maps and Koosje’s recipes and the SBS students’ instruction manuals.
The next day, an inspired math teacher asked her 4th graders to make drawings that explain the concept of ’rounding up’ numbers. She showed me dozens of stories and watercolors the kids made in response to her assignment. They were all different, all clear, all beautiful. She was able to see how well they understood the concept and they could use their pieces to teach the 3rd graders this concept.
On Thursday evening, I met with the parents and told them why I had come to Basel and why I thought it mattered that their kids had started keeping illustrated journals.
It was to prepare them for the future — not a future as professional artists necessarily, but as successful people in an ever-changing world. The days of being able to assume that a well-educated person could finish school, get a corporate job, and rise up the ladder till retirement, are over. Instead, kids need to be prepared for the unforeseeable. Technology is upending every industry, traditional jobs are withering while new opportunities are springing up in surprising places. Change is the constant. Kids need to learn to swim in it.
Parents can no longer assume that a traditional education in math, science, literature, language and history will be enough prepare a child for the future. A crucial new skill will be the ability to think creatively. That doesn’t mean dabbling in fingerpaints, but knowing how to spark innovations, to develop ideas, to present them clearly and persuasively, to find resources and collaborators to bring them to fruition, to build networks, to be entrepreneurial. I told them that’s why I supported my own son’s plan to go to art school, so he could learn skills I think will be essential to his future. If he had majored in English or pre-med, I wouldn’t have the same sense of confidence that I had given him the necessary tools.
I told them that they should look at art not just as a sign of being cultured, a middle-class luxury, but as a key component of their children’s total education. I suggested they insist the school’s administration support and look for ways to incorporate art and creativity into all aspects of the curriculum.
If a student is encouraged to look everywhere for inspiration, to combine ideas into new ones, to replace competition with collaboration, to accept mistakes and ambiguity and learn from them, to have faith in the creative process, to know how to overcome its pitfalls, only then will he or she be prepared for a world full of self-driving cars, delivery drones, mobile apps, and Donald Trump.
Knowledge alone is no longer power — it’s something that pops up in your browser. Knowing how to use that knowledge to create new ideas and solve new problems, that will be the source of true power, a power that will serve all mankind.
I know I promised to eschew advertising on my blog but, come on, people, it’s in my blood! I can’t help it. So here’re a few announcements, updates and, yes, ads about things I’m doing that you might like. to know about.
The gist: Sketchbook Skoolkourses are now available on-demand rather than by semester. Sign up and plunge in any day of the year. We’re like Orange is the New Black — but with a full palette of colors.
• Next, an exciting announcement: we have just completed the final nips and tucks to the design of Shut Your Monkey: How to control your inner critic and get more done and it heads to the printer next Tuesday! You can preorder your copy today, however.
• My other new book, the Art Before Breakfast Workbook has just come back from my editor and I am ready to continue work on the design phase of the book. It looks quite gorgeous already, I must say.
• On Saturday night, I will strap myself into a Lufthansa flight to Switzerland to work with the students, teachers and parents of the International School of Basel. I have been working on lots of little films and projects to inspire them and can’t wait to see the art we make together during my artist-in-residency.
I am also excited to see Basel which I hear is brimming with dozens of amazing museums. I also plan to eat chocolate. I’ll post news of my trip here, maybe even before I get back.
• Next, I will RyanAir to Rome to spend a few days with Jack who has just begun his semester abroad (he’s in Abruzzo today). He has promised he will take me to his favorite places to draw. We also plan to eat pasta.