What I didn’t do this Summer

When I sit down to draw something, I often start by looking at the negative space, the parts of the picture that aren’t the subject. I draw the sky behind the building, the floor under the chair, the wall behind the person. It’s a way of overcoming assumptions and getting a fresh perspective on what’s right under my beak.

Let me tell you about the negative space that defines the past few months of my life. The things I stopped doing — so I could do what I did instead.


The most obvious decision is that I stopped writing posts here. I had been writing pretty regularly on and off since 2003 and it has been a really valuable part of my process. This blog has given me a place to try out ideas, to get perspective in what I’m doing, to scratch my writing itch, to make jokes, and to talk to you. But.

When I went to summer camp in my tweens, we had to write a letter home twice a week. It wasn’t a suggestion. It was a rule. In fact, these letters home were called “Meal Tickets” because if you didn’t have a letter in a stamped, addressed envelope clutched in your grubby hand, you couldn’t have dinner that day. No one vetted the contents of the letter itself, it could say anything, but you had to show up with it or starve.

Of course, being a snotty pubescent, the letters I wrote grew more and more perfunctory, a simple “how are you? I am fine” and my parents would probably have preferred I saved the stamp money.

When I started to blog, back in the days of coal-powered laptops, I was really only writing for Richard Bell and Roz and a few other pals, and this was just a place to play, to experiment, to record ideas and muck about. I’d write thoughtful things, silly things, fantasies, pseudo-academic theories, advice, and what have you.

But in the ensuing years, while I was playing, blogging became a science, a marketing platform, a job, and I became “a blogger” and felt I had to follow the emerging code.

Earlier in the year, a well-meaning friend told me I must blog consistently and regularly to be taken seriously. She told me I should have a theme for each day so people knew what to expect on Tuesdays, say, and every other Friday.

For a whole I tried this, diligently churning out themed pieces, ripe for sharing. Not sure if you noticed.

Then another friend said I should make quotes in sharable visual form and put those out there. “I tried that too.”—Danny Gregory

Someone else said my blog posts needed to be shorter and pithier for busy people. So I cut back on my verbosity and shelved my thesaurus.

Then I worried I was blogging too much and wouldn’t have anything left to put in my next book.

Then I went through a dark and insecure time of not feeling I had anything useful to say at all but had to write anyway.


I know that you, dear reader, are saying ‘what a lot of poppycock and hornswoggle’, but such is the predicament of an aging hipster in skinny jeans trying to remain current. Like it or not, in an age of diminishing marketing support from publishers, blogs and the attendant audience-building have become an essential part of an author’s job. You and I are just working for the Man, making up for the publishing industry’s declining fortunes, by developing a strong bond into which books can be inserted and credit card charges extracted.

I hate to think that this was the purpose of all these posts, to sell stacks of paper and feather executive nests, but such is the reality of life in the trenches.

A friend told me last week that her agent said that thanks to her Facebook following (built on pithy illustrated quotes) she could expect a seven-figure advance for any books she chose to write. What should it be about, she asked? Doesn’t matter, he replied, just see what you can do to get your numbers even higher, then you have carte blanche.


Now, I don’t want you to think that I went on blog strike or anything. My days at the barricades are long gone.

But I did decide that I am going to blog just because I want to and if that means that a lot of casual first-time readers looking for quotes to jazz up their Pintrest boards miss out on a few of my pithier jpegs, so be it. If the sales of Art Before Breakfast–the Workbook are less than stellar because of my principled stand and shirked responsibilities, I will gladly resort to eating day-old bread, shaving with dull blades, and selling one of my dogs. Sorry, Tim.

And if the head counselor has to call my parents again because I have refused to hand in any more meal tickets and my ribs are sticking painfully through my delicate birdcage of a chest, I will hang my head and take the tongue lashing.

By the by, I expected that suddenly vanishing from the scene would cause some sort of ripple, that people used to getting a regular 7 a.m. email of my latest musing would notice the void, but that didn’t happen. Not by a long stretch.

In the two months I stopped blogging, I got a single plaintive message asking if I was okay. Otherwise, radio silence from my myriad ‘fans’. The hordes I imagined waiting with bated breath for every pearl of wisdom that dripped from my keyboard were evidently all out playing Pokemon Go. My moment appeared to have passed.


Blogging was the one thing on the Internet I occasionally missed. I didn’t feel that way at all about Twitter, which I similarly vacated. I have always found the limitations of 140 characters to be a pointless ball and chain on my verbosity. I realize this platform is an essential one of our age, propelling some even to the gates of Pennsylvania Avenue, but if you want me to write punchy headlines and short body copy, you’ll have to pay my day rate. I wrote thousands of 30-second TV scripts that had to be 72 words or less and I’ll chafe at the limitation no more.

I find reading Twitter posts to be mindless gum-chewing, looking for meaningful insights in fortune cookies. I like language and can take it undiluted. And I don’t care what you think of what someone else said about something else somewhere else all telegrammed in cryptic #s, contractions and acronyms. If you have some thing to say, just say it. At length. Thoughtfully.

Increasingly, brevity is the essence of the halfwitted.


This spring, I launched a podcast. It was based on my most recent book, Shut Your Monkey. Podcasting has become quite the thing these days, I like to talk, and I have a lot of interesting friends so I thought I’d give it a go.

I intended the podcast to be an ongoing discussion about the inner critic and I brought in a fairly impressive group of experts to discuss with me.
I asked listeners to help turn it into a dialogue, a forum on this all-important subject, an opportunity to swap ideas and experiences. I set up a system for people to record their own ‘monkey tales’ so I could put them on the air. I invited questions and thoughts via email too.

The dialogue part of the effort didn’t pan out. Two listeners recorded messages and one of them was mainly of a dog barking.

Nonetheless, I got quite a lot out of the experience and the discussions and enjoyed much of it.

But over time and as my plate got filled with lots of other things, the podcast became a bit of a Meal Ticket too. Each week I was writing a show, lining up an interview, recording and mixing it, then writing a newsletter and a blog post on dog.com and monkeypodcast.com to explain my experience of the discussion and share other bits and bobs to flesh things out. That in addition to the Skool, my blog, my books, drawing, other projects, navel-gazing and haircuts.

I came to realize that a) the expectations of recording quality in a podcast have gone way up since I had my first go at it ten years or so ago (most of the emails I did get were to complain about my sound mix) and b) that all the podcasts I admired were actually produced by a whole team of dedicated, qualified people doing what I was trying to do alone.

Without explanation, I suspended the podcast and again, heard from no one wondering why. That meant I could chill, not feel guilty at my latest abrogation of duty, and think about other things.

I have material for another half-dozen episodes and when I get around to it, maybe when the evenings grow long and cold, I’ll cobble them together, at least for my own benefit. I have learned so much from all my wise guests and I look forward to listening to all these interviews again.

Another thing I got out of my monkeypodcast experience was the fun of writing a newsletter. It’s quite different from blogging. It feels more one-to-one and more disposable and I found myself writing in a nuttier, more provocative way, tossing off jokes and asides.

What with all the obituaries being written for blogs, I have been thinking replacing (or maaaaybe, augmenting) this blog with a weekly newsletter.
Would you like that?

I’d make it fairly weekly (but not in a meal ticket way), and it would be delivered right to you, in full.

It would mean you would no longer be in the position of saying “Whatever happened to Gregory?” or “I wonder what he’s griping about now.” Instead, you’d know, because it was all there — in your spam folder.

“Newsletter” is such a dreadful term, though. It smacks of Rotary Clubs and dentists and earnest Methodists. And now of “Growth hackers” those horrible, young hard-salespeople who churn out clickbait headlines like “10 ways to immediately transform your sales funnel/diet/credit rating — just sign up for our free newsletter/ebook/infographic…” (I should probably shut up about this. At Sketchbook Skool we sometime resort to this sort of thing and it works embarrassingly well. I’m an old-school brand marketing guy and all this sort of DM, John Caples stuff makes me cringe.)

Anyway, if you think I should do this, I probably won’t call it a newsletter. Maybe , I dunno, a love letter?

What else?

Oh, yeah, Instagram. Most of my artists pals love it and boast of their zillions of followers and likes. It leaves me cold. I’m not into mindlessly thumbing through hundreds of drawings representing thousands of hours of work. It’s too much like Tinder for my liking. And besides I’m married.


Same thing. Been there, done that, don’t care. Maybe if I was going to reredo my kitchen or pick out a bridal gown, but it feels like too much of a mindless mind-suck for me. One clueless grouch’s opinion.


It’s nice, it’s friendly, but I do not miss it. This summer, Facebook felt like standing on the bank of a broad, fast-moving, and very shallow river. Like wandering through a work Christmas party at a huge company, full of people I sorta know, gussied up, sharing banalities, till occasionally someone has one drink too many and says something honest and embarrassing.

It’s an important place, Facebook, the gathering spot for today’s community, but there’s too much din for me, too much chaff, and I figure if anything important goes on, someone I know in the real world will tell me about it, probably in person.

The exception: the Sketchbook Skool group. I love feeling the creative energy there, a community of people who have gotten to know each other over a long time and through a shared passion and that feels like a real family. So I hung out there some this summer, but even that less often.


I was thinking I’d write a new book this summer. I had two (!) out this year but the wheels of the publishing industry turn slow and today’s notion is 2018’s publication.

I started off with two ideas. One was to write a memoir of my family, an unusual bunch. I’d delve into why my grandparents went from Germany to Italy to India in the ’30s, why my mother got married three times before I was ten, why I went to 18 schools on four continents, why my uncle’s estrangement from the family was on the front page of the NY Times, and other questions.

I also thought about writing some sort of more definitive book about creativity, to go beyond drawing to everything I have experienced and researched about how we do and don’t make things, where ideas come from, how to get better at it, why we fear it, how to encourage a new generation of creators, why society is so ambivalent toward creative people, why there’s so much myth around the whole thing, and why and how the role of creativity in our culture is changing so much right now, from the disintegration for publishing and music to the explosion of startups and technology.

I couldn’t commit to either project yet. The first felt too personal and limited in its appeal. The latter too well trammelled.

I also hesitated because I am unsure about the form. Do I need to write another book? I’ve written ten or so already — what would an eleventh accomplish?

I am resigned to the fact that I will never be Elizabeth Gilbert or Austin Kleon or Julia Cameron or Betty Edwards or SARK or Bob Ross. With no false humility, I know I occupy a narrower orbit. Maybe I lack bravura. Or hair. Maybe I am too prone to beard stroking and muttering into my teacup to be in the pantheon of creative diagnosticians.

So that’s one thing. But also, whither publishing? I had a fairly disastrous experience with the publisher of Shut Your Monkey, a book I expected to be of much broader interest than they were able to drum up. What am I getting for the 93% of my book sales they keep? I conceive, write, illustrate, design and market my books. They print and ship ’em. My editor at Chronicle is lovely but she costs me a lot.

So, should I make more books? Should I just publish them myself? Should they just be digital? How will I sell them?

Or should I put my energy into making courses instead? I have lots of ideas for things that I could teach and talk about in videos and that seems to touch people in a more direct way than books people read once (hopefully) and put on the shelf.

Or should I just blog? Write everything I am thinking here (or in my hypothetical news/loveletter, remember?)and find some other way to buy dog food?

I dunno.

This summer, I had a lot to think about in the negative space. Positive stuff that will help make me more balanced, creative, and happy.
I also realized I do too much. I go in too many directions and not far enough. If I can decided to focus on one thing rather than all the many directions I pull myself, maybe I will discover a new sense of being.

I have lots of plans, lots of dreams, but I have newfound respect and understanding for the importance of empty space, to set priorities among those many ambitions to do the things that I truly care about and enjoy the most.

Life is short, I only have about fifty years to go, so I better get to it. By next summer, things will be pretty different.

Let me know what you think about all this. I really appreciate your feedback.

Meanwhile, my meal ticket is done and I’m going in to lunch.

What I did this Summer

It’s been a while. The last you heard from me, I was whining about my extraordinary good fortune, that I had rented a painting studio for the summer to share with my son and how challenged I felt by this enormous hot fudge sundae.

And, while it may have appeared on this blog that I had disappeared into that studio and locked the door behind me for two months, I actually was absent because I gave myself an even bigger gift.

A summer off.

It wasn’t a deliberate plan at first. But despite my industrious and responsible nature, I decided to shirk more and more habits and rutware and see what grew in their place. And to see how much trouble I’d get in to for not showing up.


I made a bunch of paintings and some sculptures. Despite my initial trepidation, I let myself go fairly wild with how I made them, experimenting with new media and working much bigger than usual. Most of the paintings were fairly large and the sculptures were all knee high but were installed in various sites as if they were monumental. In a few days, I’ll write a detailed post about what specifically I did and what I learned by doing it, but suffice it to say for now that going to the studio was a refreshing departure that helped me examine and combat a lot of those fears I had expressed to you a few months ago. I drew some but less than normal and didn’t keep any sort of illustrated journal at all.


Usually, the summer is a great time to go to the movies. But over the past few years, the cinema has lost its appeal for me. I find most of the films really forgettable. I can think of two I have seen this year that I liked (Hunt for the Wilderpeople and The Lobster) and, because so many of my friends don’t seem to go the movies any more either, even they haven’t been good fodder for dinner party conversation.

Instead, I have watched TV and read books.

I made time to read a lot. I’d get up early and read before breakfast and go to be early and read for an hour every day. I read a fair amount of escapist crap as one should in the summer. I also read some fantastic books, many of them new. Many of these are memoirs and others are novels that feel like memoirs. Here are the ones that have really stuck with me, creating moods and insights that I keep coming back to as the best books do.

Americanah by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie, Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, Vol.4 of Karl Ove Knaussgard’s My Struggle, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D.Vance, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, The Sellout by Paul Beatty, The Nix by Nathan Hill, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Ahmad.

I read some books about business and about creativity. The better ones include How to Fly a Horse by Kevin Ashton, Makers and Free, both by Chris Anderson, The Prize by Daniel Yergin, Let the Elephants Run by David Usher, Choose Yourself by James Altucher,  and Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance


We watched a fair amount of TV when staying in the air-conditioned living room seemed the sanest plan. We watched the ABC series Lost on Netflix, a strange and endless tease which I hadn’t watched when it was first broadcast. It took the better part of the summer.

We watched the Olympics, although our initial enthusiasm waned over the two weeks of breathless coverage. Partly because living with a millennial for the summer who doesn’t get the Olympic quadrennial ritual and wonders why we need to watch hours of gymnastics and swimming when there 700 other things on to watch instead. And partly because I started to wonder the same thing.

The Election.

(Note: One thing that I have learned in a dozen years of blogging: avoid talking about religion or politics; it just ruins the party. But I’ll break that rule today to share how I have felt watching the election this summer.)

Since high school, I have always been a deeply committed election follower. I was a political science major at Princeton, a White House intern, and devoured all the classic books about campaigns like Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail by Hunter Thompson, The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse, The Selling of the President by Joe McGinnis, and the various edition  The Making of the President by Theodore H. White.

I like following the campaign strategies, the unfolding dramas, the twists and turns. And, in at least four elections in my adult life, I have felt pretty passionate about one of the candidates running for office.

This election has been a gobsmacking, rubbernecking train wreck but it lacks the usual pleasures. There’ve been no real discussion of solutions, no traditional campaign strategy, and the result, despite the media’s shrill thrashings, has been forgone for some time. It’s like the 1972 Olympics in Munich — instead of watching a match of amazing accomplished competitors, we are watching a highjacking. It’s disturbing that at a time of such change in the world, this important opportunity for discussion has become just a referendum on two individuals. Like a lot of people in this country, I don’t feel much enthusiasm for either candidate, and I am just waiting for it to be over. Nonetheless, it’s hard to tear one’s self away from the spectacle. I just hope I can get back to enjoying the race next time.

Okay, back to more important things we can all agree on, like Sketchbook Skool.

Sketchbook Skool.

We are entering a new phase in the Skool’s development. It may not always be apparent from outside, but we do a lot of thinking and planning and replanning and rethinking about what the future of the Skool should be and if it should even continue at all. What began as an experiment almost three years ago grew into a business. And a passion project became a job. There are times it has been the best job I could imagine. At times, I have felt like I work for the worst boss ever: me.

This year, we had lots of ambitions, tried lots of experiments, and finally came to a maturing in the early summer that has made us all feel both excited and in balance.

We have created a number of new kourses this summer. We released Andrea Joseph’s Creative Lettering klass, one of our biggest launches
ever and people really love it.

We filmed another intensive kourse with Veronica Lawlor that we will be launching later this year. I am in the midst of creating a kourse called “How to Draw Without Talent” that I am having loads of fun with. And we have several new teachers segments in the can for another 6 week kourse to launch in the winter.

Jack and I even made a film (to be released soon) called “How to Draw Your Dog” featuring our two favorite canine mascots, Tim and Joe. We’ll share that soon.

We are also advertising on Facebook for the first time which has been a great way to welcome new people and has made us completely rethink how we present ourselves and what our Skool can be. It has also been fascinating, as a person who created advertising for thirty years, to be marketing my own business, and to be using new tools and technologies that work in such amazing ways. I can’t say I ever knew exactly how any ad I ever write really worked. Now I know on an hourly basis.

This summer we also committed to doing a Study Hall video for every single week of every kourse, a daily blog post that’s useful and inspiring, a weekly newsletter, a weekly video roundup of everything that’s going on in the community and to our first wave of Teaching Assistants, recruited from our alumni.

Our growth has had some pains. We have come to terms with the fact that our platform may not be right going forward and in the next few weeks, we will begin to transition in a hopefully seamless way to a new technology that is faster, more secure, and has lots of new features that will improve the Skool. It’s one of the most essential and most disruptive things we have to do (we changed platforms last year and it was like moving to a new country) and it’s taken many months to finalize the decision but it’s gotta be done.

We are also getting better at doing our jobs. For the first time, we are regularly getting planning and things done long before they are due, sticking to proper production and marketing schedules. And we are being realistic and focused in what we take on so we can get things done, and grow in the way we want to, to accomplish our personal and business goals.

Sketchbook Skool is a great part of my life and the lives of lots of other people, my colleagues, fakulty, and students. Keeping it viable and thriving is challenging but rewarding and this summer has been one of our most important chapters, even though much of that work has gone on behind the scenes.


I signed on to do a three-month project for a former client which will take me through early October. I can’t discuss the deets but it involves a sizable budget and a fair amount of autonomy.

It has been interesting to fire up those sections of my brain that have been under a tarp for three years and see if they still work. They do.

It has also been interesting to see how I have changed in the past three years, how differently I work, how differently I view the processes of big corporations and of the advertising business. I must say I much prefer how we do things at SBS. So much less bureaucratic, more decisive, more flexible — but so it goes. I don’t miss working full-time for the Man but an occasional visit is fine.


My boy graduated this summer and has spent a couple of months working to save up for his move to Los Angeles in the fall. It has been great to have him here with Jenny and me but bittersweet because we all know it’s the last time he’ll really be living here. Soon he’ll start his new life, far away, and I am savoring every one of the moments we have left.

At the end of September, I plan to drive with him from New York to Los Angeles to help him get setup in his new apartment and to leave him the family car. Then I’ll fly home and he will begin his next chapter. Gulp.


We spent last Spring having our kitchen renovated and we love the results. Jenny and I have a beautiful, sunswept place to cook now and we are making the most of it, visiting the farmer’s market, ordering mystery boxes of artisanal veggies from Fresh Direct, and having an excuse to buy even more cookbooks. Our kitchen is so big and well designed that all three of us can work in it together, without knife fights or saucepan jousts.


Maybe it’s my demographic, but more and more of my friends and relatives are getting decrepit. They’re spending time in the hospital, struggling to reach their shoe laces, filling drawers with pill bottles. I want to avoid that. My shingles experience last Spring really brought that home. I have been ever more dedicated to working out with my trainer Keith, to avoiding french fries, double dip cones, and the sun’s rays. I am also realizing that I am not meant to be thin but that doesn’t mean I am meant to be fat. I am, however, meant to be baldish, it would seem.


This summer I began a new habit: I start each morning by writing down a bunch of ideas. Each day I concoct a different assignment and write down whatever occurs to me. It pumps my brain with blood, clears the cobwebs, and is a nice habit. Most of the ideas are worthless but the occasional one is worth developing and that’s what I’ll be doing. I’ll share some of those lists with you here, in time.


I have a new book. It just came out at the end of August. It’s called Art Before Breakfast – the Workbook. It is designed to help you develop a creative habit, of drawing and seeing the world around you every day. If you have read Art Before Breakfast, you will recognize some of the content but it has been redesigned and expanded and printed on high quality sketchbook paper so you can not only carry it around with your for inspiration but also draw and write and even paint right in its pages. I hope you like it.

And if you prefer Frühstück to Breakfast, you will be glad to know that the original Art Before Breakfast is soon to come out in German. That will be the sixth edition foreign language, including Spanish, Russian, Korean, Mandarin and I forget the other one. Aussie?

The fall.

Well, I hope you had a great summer too. Do tell me about it.

School’s back in session, I have my new shoes, fresh haircut and sharpened pencils and will be at my workstation, posting semiregularly again. So get used to coming back to this same batchannel in future for more ruminations on all things creative.


Today I am 56.
That probably seems old, if you’re forty. Really old, if you’re twenty. Ancient, if you’re ten. Young, if you’re seventy. A mere kid, if you’re ninety.
Hitler killed himself at 56.
Lincoln was assassinated at 56.
Steve Jobs died at 56.
Beethoven too.
They’d all done more than me by now. But that’s okay.
When I was five, my grandfather turned 56. To me, he seemed oldish, grandfatherly, white-haired, bearded, but then he went on and on living for another forty-two years.
56 feels more or less the right age for me to me. I’ve done a bunch of stuff in these years. Got scars, wrinkles. Lost some hairs, no teeth. Lived. But I’m not done yet. Not by a long stretch.
Happy 56th to me. I’ve had three slices of birthday cake already today. I plan to have some more.

Let’s get rid of Art Education in schools.

Art, they say, is great for kids. Art and music programs help keep them in school, make them more committed, enhance collaboration, strengthen ties to the community and to peers, improve motor and spatial and language skills. A study by the College Board showed that students who took four years of art scored 91 points better on the SAT exams. At-risk students who take art are significantly more likely to stay in school and ultimately to get college degrees.


Nonetheless, arts education has been gutted in American public schools. A decade ago, the No Child Left Behind and Common Core programs prioritized science and math over other subjects. In LA County alone, 1/3 of the arts teachers were let go between 2008 and 2012 and, for half of K-5 students, art was cut all together.

After the recession of 2008, 80% of schools had their budget cut further. Arts programs were the first victims. And, predictably, lower income and minority students were the most likely to lose their art programs. Only 26.2% of African-American students have access to art classes. As the economy has improved, there is some discussion about reversing some of these cuts. But it is not enough.

IMG_2467 They don’t need to be taught to be creative!

I’m no expert on education but I have spent a lot of time in school art programs over the past year.

In the lower grades, kids just have fun drawing and painting. They don’t really need much encouragement or instruction. In middle school, the majority start to lose their passion for making stuff and instead learn the price of making mistakes. Art class is all too often a gut, an opportunity for adolescents to screw around. By high school, they have been divided into a handful who are ‘artsy’ and may go onto art school and a vast majority who have no interest in art at all.

In short, every child starts out with a natural interest in art which is slowly drained — until all that’s left is a handful of teens in eyeliner and black clothing whose parents worry they’ll never move out of the basement.

Here’s a modest proposal: Let’s take the “art” out of “art education.”

“Art” is not respected in this country. It’s seen as frivolity, an indulgence, a way to keep kids busy with scissors and paste. “Art” is an elitist luxury that hard-nosed bureaucrats know they can cut with impunity. And so they do, making math and science the priority to fill the  ranks of future bean-counters and pencil pushers.

So I propose we get rid of art education and replace it with something that is crucial to the future of our world: creativity.

We need to all be creative in ways that we never could be before. We have so many wonderful tools that put the power of creation in our hands and we use them every day. Solving problems, using tools, collaborating, expressing our ideas clearly, being entrepreneurial and resourceful, these are the skills that will mattering the 21-century, post-corporate, labor market. Instead of being defensive about art, instead of talking about culture and self-expression, we have to focus on the power of creativity and the skills required to develop it. A great artist is also a problem solver, a presenter, an entrepreneur, a fabricator, and more.

Imagine if Creativity became a part of our core education…

High schoolers develop a creative solution together.

Instead of teaching kids to paint bowls of fruit with tempera, we’d show them how to communicate a concept through a sketch, how to explore the world in a sketchbook, how to generate ideas, how to solve real problems. Theatre would be all about collaboration, presentation and problem solving. Music classes would emphasize creative habit, teamwork, honing skills, composition, improvisation.

We’d teach creative process, how to come up with ideas, how to find inspiration, how to steal from the greats. We’d teach kids to work effectively with others to improve and test their ideas. We’d teach them how to realize their ideas, get them executed through a supply chain, how to present and market and share them.

Middle schoolers discussing a story through sketches.

We’d also emphasize digital creativity, focussing on cutting edge (and cheap) technology, removing the artificial divide between arts and science, showing how engineering and sculpture are related, how drawing and User Experience (UX) Design are facets of the same sort of skills, how music and math mirror each other. We’d teach kids how to use Photoshop to communicate concepts, to shoot and cut videos, to design presentations, to use social media intelligently, to write clearly because it is key to survival. We’d give kids destined for minimum wage jobs a chance to be entrepreneurial, to create true economic power for themselves, by developing their creativity and seeing opportunity in a  whole new way.

IMG_3485 Here’s what 100 8th graders collaborating looks like.

Yes, I know that there are high-school video classes and art computer labs, but they need to be turned into engines for creativity and usefulness, not abstract, high falutin’ artsiness based on some 1970s concepts of self-expression. Don’t make black and white films about leaves reflected in puddles, make a video to promote adoption at the local animal shelter. Don’t do laborious charcoal drawings of pop stars, generate ideas on paper. Fill 100 post-its with 100 doodles of ways to raise consciousness about the environment or income inequality or saving water. Stop making pinch pots and build a 3-D printer and turn out artificial hands for homeless amputees.

(And, by the way,  if we teach kids loads of math and science but don’t encourage their creativity, they aren’t going to grow up to be great engineers and scientists and inventors and discoverers — just drones and dorks.)

Creativity is not a ghetto, not a clique, not something to be exercised alone in a garret. It’s also not a freakshow of self-indulgent divas and losers.

Creativity is about helping to solve the world’s many problems. We need to make sure that the kids of today (who will need to be the creative problem solvers of tomorrow) realize their creative potential and have the tools to use them. That matters far more than football team and standardized test scores.

What do you think?

Related Post: How to make anything

Why men don’t take art classes.

For a while, I have been wondering why the art conferences at which I speak are filled with women. Why most of the commenters on this blog are women. Why Jack’s class at RISD is predominantly female. Why the students of Sketchbook Skool are about 85% women.

Where are the men?

Certainly men seem to like to make art as much as women do. Half of the SBS fakulty are male. The museums and galleries I visit are full of work by men. In fact, women have long complained that the art world seems biased against them.

So what is it about art education that seems more interesting to women than men?I searched the web for answers. There weren’t many categorical ones but here are some of the clues I picked up.

In 2007, the NY Times had an article about why adult classes of all sorts seem much more popular with women. Tennis classes. Writer’s classes. Triathlon classes. All were 65-95% women. Here’s what a man who teaches wine tasting said of his students: “It’s argued that women are better tasters of wine than men. A higher percentage of women have more taste-bud receptors.” So maybe they are getting more out of the class. But, echoing others who lead classes, he added: “It may also come down to the fact that men think they know more about wine anyway, so they don’t need to learn more about it.”

In other words, men know more. Or think they do. No need to take classes. Why admit you are ignorant?

Is it that simple? Men go to golf pros. They read business books. They take coding classes. Maybe art classes teach skills that don’t seem concrete or finite enough for men? Do men just need more goal- rather than process- oriented activities?

I have also been following a heated debate on Reddit (where all debates are heated) about why there are so many more successful male artists than females. Here’s are some highlights.

One theory is about marketing, that male artists are more into promoting themselves than women.

“In my experience the successful artists are the ones who concentrate their time about half on the art and half on the selling of the art. …That is selling paintings, building relationships with patrons of the arts, raising money for their dance/theater/etc. company, writing grant proposals to non-profits etc. 

“…perhaps men are more drawn to the concrete and the rational and less to the expressive and emotional. This keeps them away from art statistically but those who do get into art spend more of their time with the rational part of marketing art and less with the expressive side or art. This may actually be the more important part of becoming a successful artist.”

And self-promotion is not encouraged in women:

“When you look at hugely successful female artists they are generally the ones that market themselves well and are obsessive about selling their art. However, women who promote themselves and their work intensely are often seen as ruthless social climbers.”

Another argument: Art is less practical so women can afford to indulge in it more than men.

“At the university level, women are more free to pursue educational interests without as much criticism. When a guy takes an art class, he’s usually expected to come up with a practical application of it as a justification. Anytime a show wants to make a joke about a father worried about a grown son’s directionlessness, they’ll say the son is studying some art/humanities degree, like dance, or theater, or English.

(But as you can see in the chart above, there are loads of men in ‘impractical’ fields like philosophy and classics too).

“when a woman cooks, it is her duty. When a man cooks, he is an artist.”

Or is it just that women aren’t valued for what they do — and so neither is their art? In fact, as Richard Florida’s research on creative professionals has shown, women earn about 40% less than men do in creative class employment. I’m not sure if the situation is as imbalanced in all skill professions.

A poster on Reddit says: “Women’s work isn’t valued on a ‘profound’ level in the same way that men’s is. The perfect example is cooking. Cooking is seen as a woman’s task, but the vast majority of celebrity chefs are men. Of the female celebrity chefs, how many are really valued for their ‘greatness’ vs. how many are famous for showing you quick and convenient ways to cook at home? In other words, how often do we talk about women’s Michelin stars?”

“….I always think of the quote, “when a woman cooks, it is her duty. When a man cooks, he is an artist.”

Another says that women’s art tends to be ghettoized:

“I don’t know enough about the art or cooking world to judge whether it’s because the stuff that women are creating doesn’t push creative limits enough to warrant that kind of recognition. What I do know is that in the fiction and poetry industries, women are expected to write in certain niches. Maybe a small portion of their work will transcend those niches, but they are rarely able to make an entire career out of writing the same stuff men write about, even if the quality is comparable. ….”

What do you think is behind the disparity? Why don’t men take art classes? And why, despite all those workshops and classes and conferences, aren’t women equally represented in the contemporary art world?

Update:  it’s not just America. 

The Resolution Solution

As the last pages are plucked off the calendar, it’s time to feel the pleasure of accomplishment and the pressure of regret. Regret at the things one intended to do over the year past but lacked the stick-to-it-iveness to, well, stick to it.

The waning days of December are a time of familiar patterns. Chestnuts, figgy pudding, wrapping paper cuts, family squabbles, and vows to launch the New Year with fresh and transforming habits. Gym owners rub their hands with glee at all the self-deceivers stuffed with goose fat renewing their dusty memberships, full of the great and ephemeral intentions. Would-be artists line up at the art supply store, baskets loaded with sketchbooks and palettes and workshop catalogs. Blog keepers vow, once again, to truly stick to their publicly announced pledges to post five times weekly.

Let’s zoom down from the heights of generalization to survey this particular oath breaker. Why is it so hard for me to adhere to my own intentions? Why do I still steal the occasional late-night tablespoon of Ben and Jerry’s? Why do days, weeks even, pass without my cracking the cover of my sketchbook? Why do I still gnaw my cuticles in the darkness of the movie theatre?

Let’s get more specific still. Rather than a blanket condemnation of my many shortcomings, let’s focus on my blog keeping and try to extract some lessons from its intermittence that might apply to other habit breaking.

  1. Time and place. When I am successful at regular writing, it’s because I get up early, pee, then sit right down at my desk. Before breakfast, I am done and posted. I don’t allow myself time to question whether or not I should bother to write today. I just get up, pee and write. I’ve said this here before — habits are easier to establish by tying them to a ‘sparking event’. In my case, peeing.

  2. Inventory. To lubricate this dry start, I think about what I want to write days in advance, then jot down a word or two that might be the basis for a post. When I sit down, bleary eyed, I have a grain of sand to drop in the oyster.

  3. Structure. I have a loose agenda for each weeks’ post. On Monday I write about things that have inspired me from the previous week, Tuesday and Thursday I freeform things like this, Wednesday I find or make a video, Friday is some sort of instruction. It’s not a rigid structure but it gives my ideas a trellis.

  4. Temperance. Certainly not drinking too much is a good idea, but what I mean here is that if I temper my ambitions, I am more likely to keep producing. For instance, I had a vague notion about what to write here today, but soon my ambitions swelled and I imagined writing a really long posts with scores of ideas, research, quotes… and the thought of all that work made me want to just crawl back in bed. Instead I said to myself, just write a paragraph or two and try to encapsulate the idea. Even though now it appears I am writing much more than that, I couldn’t have started with such a hike in mind. Just planning a slow jog to the curb to pick up the paper is a more fruitful place to start. Underpromise, overdeliver.

(Incidentally, long bits of writing are not an indication of industry. I find it a lot easier to go on and on than take the time to go back and prune. By now, you’re probably feeling the consequences of my editorial laziness.)

Before I commit myself to any new regimes in early 2016, I will think about how to help myself stay true.

  1. What are the sparks that I can connect to the habit to reinforce it? For example, if I want to draw every day, I should put a sketchbook by the coffeepot and draw the view out the kitchen window each morning as it perks.
  2. What sort of preparation can I make to make the new pattern easier to adhere to? If I want to avoid eating carbs, maybe I should start by clearing the pantry of cookies and the freezer of Chunky Monkey.

  3. What sort of structure can I give my habit so it isn’t just open-ended? If I want to go to the gym several times weekly, I can put a recurring appointment in my calendar and make sure nothing else gets booked at that time. And I can add details to those appointments, thinking through what sorts of exercises I want to do on any given day.

  4. How can I set realistic expectations? I can come up with reasonable goals that won’t be a barrier to my getting going — like drawing for ten minutes or walking for twenty minutes or not drinking caffeine after ten a.m. — goals that can then be inched forward over time as I adjust to the idea of the privation or activity.

In sum, I can be like a good parent. I can provide reasonable goals, set myself up with clear and achievable markers of success, be supportive and understanding without being either a wimp or a tyrant, and remind myself that failure is not catastrophic but just a detour from a path one I still return to.

Let’s do great things in 2016 but in a reasonable, supportive, human way. And let’s start by giving up regret.

Inspiration Monday: Filling the well.

Several experiences topped up my well of inspiration. Maybe they’ll feed you too.

I’ve been reading Brian Grazer’s book, A Curious Mind. Grazer is a mega-successful movie producer (Splash, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, etc) and he identifies curiosity as the key to his success, his creativity and a happy and engaged life. By having an open and enquiring mind, he has been comfortable with risk taking and exploration. Curiosity is the spark that kindles new creative explorations.

If you can look at learning a new skill, like, say, drawing, as a thing to learn about and explore, rather than an grim evaluation of yourself and your skills, you will make eager progress. If you are genuinely curious to learn about people, you will search out new connections and ask questions without preconceptions. If you are curious, you will not let the past hold you back. If you live a curious life, you will fill your head with a rich soup of influences, ideas and inspiration. You will make new connections which will lead to new ideas and creations.

As Glazer puts it, “Life isn’t about finding the answers. It’s about asking the questions.”

Last week, Jenny and I went to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to see Refuse the Hour, William Kentridge’s multimedia chamber opera. We went with zero knowledge about what the piece was about (Jenny impulsively bought the tickets on craigslist at the last minute). I vaguely knew of Kentridge as an artist but was surprised to think he had made a stage work. Turns out he has a rich resumé in many forms and has even staged operas at La Scala, the mecca of grand opera.

Refuse the Hour is about his lifelong fascination with time, its plasticity and relativity, and the piece brimmed with fresh insights. It combines a poetic script, incredible vocal performances enhanced with audio processing, mechanical musical sculptures, dance, an orchestra playing modified instruments and film projections that layer drawings over performances

What I took away from the evening was the incredible act of creative collaboration between a score of enormously talented people. The program fairly bulged with accomplishment. Each person — the dramaturg, the choreographer, each musician, the singers — had paragraph after paragraph of accomplishments. Honestly, any one of them could have been the headliner, but they all worked together in a joyous harmony. There were so many unusual intersections between the forms, it couldn’t possibly have come from a single creative mind.

One singer took a refrain from the script Kentridge read, and turned it into a aria running up and down the scales. Another singer then sang the same aria backwards into a megaphone, perfectly mimicking all of the reversed breaths and shifts. Then an artist played an array of airpumps venting through brass horns. Next a tuba and a modified trombone took over. Meanwhile, a flickering projection of Kentridge’s hand turning the pages of a sketchbook was layered on top of a couple fighting in a stark painted kitchen set in gorgeously coordinated graphic costumes. I could go on and I would never approximate the tapestry of ideas and skills on display.

Above all, the experience urged me to think of new ways I can collaborate with others in such an open and generous way. The power of Ours over Mine is immense and exciting.

BigMagicFinalI am also reading Elizabeth Gilberts’ latest book: Big Magic. The author of Eat Pray Love has become somewhat of a self-help guru and is now focussed on thinking about the creative process and how to overcome fear.

I really like the book. Liz has a wonderful, chatty writing style, confessional and inspiring. I was particularly caught up with one notion: that ideas are a life form that inhabit the world just like dogs and walruses and have a single purpose — to be made manifest. They appear to us creators and it is up to us to shun them or to adopt them.

If we do take them on, we now have a responsibility to show up and do the work to make them come to life. If we fail in holding up our end, the ideas will wither and then slip away. Ultimately it will then appear to someone else. Drag your feet if you must, but don’t be surprised if ‘your’ idea eventually blossoms attached to another artist’s name.

I love this idea. It takes away the pressure of judgment, of self-evaluation, and replaces it with a spark which it is up to us to kindle. We don’t own the idea. We are simply its collaborator. Liz’s perspective turns the wasteful drama of self flagellation into a joyous, if sweaty, dance.

What have you read, seen, experienced, or thought of recently that could inspire me and others? Please share your discoveries and help fill my well with inspiration.