The Open Book

openbook

I am a member of a wonderful community called “Artist Journals 2” which is currently conducting a discussion on whether or not one should share the contents of one’s illustrated journals with others.
I had to chime in:
I’m a journal keeper who feels okay about sharing (most of) his journals with other people. In reading other posts I get the sense that there are two key reasons why people are reluctant to share what they make in private: a) violating their sense of privacy and b) embarrassment at their more humble efforts.
My own journals have never struck me as terribly private. True, I talk about the daily aspects of my life but frankly they are no more intimate than the things I share in small talk with the people with which I work. For me, my journal is not a confessional but an historian in the best sense of the word, someone who not only records the facts but develops themes and meaning that weave them together, explicating my life and showing me what’s important, lending deeper value to the things too easy to take for granted. Generally, I find that these themes and lessons are universal and by sharing them I get a chance for a sounding board.
I am a reserved and private person by nature so perhaps my journals are a way to let it out. But I am always amazed at how much people will share with others. Even in the posts on this group among a group of relative strangers, we have little hesitation to talk about our health, our relationships, our fears and anxieties. This is a group in which we have all been granted (albeit loosely) a membership so perhaps that’s why we feel we have this freedom. Still, I feel the same sense of connection with the people with whom I share my journals. Granted, that membership now extends pretty broadly because my journals have been published, but I still assume a certain kinship among the people who bother to read it, a kinship of the soul.
As to embarrassment at my experimentations —I’d rather not share lame drawings, failed experiments and inattention but that doesn’t prevent me from sharing my unedited pages. I find that by having a sense that what I am making will be seen by someone, sometime, I am actually driven to take more care with what I am doing, to polish my words and drawings and make sure my observations ring true. As to really experimental things, pen wipes, color combinations, etc. well, I usually do those on a piece of scrap paper and chuck em out. They would be meaningless to me in a few hours anyway. The one really solid reason to not share your journal is because, frankly, most people don’t care. They’re not interested in what you had for breakfast, whether it’s raining, how the cat is, whether your hair’s turning gray. Most people are interested only in themselves. Even if you cram your book with intimate revelations, chances are most readers will flip through, say, “Very nice” and hand it back to you, None of us is that important! But I find sharing is an enriching experience. It connects me to others and makes me see how universal my concerns and experiences are. It drives me to make my pages less sloppy, my writing more terse. It is a gift of myself which often leads to wonderful conversations and gifts of all sorts on return.
Diaries with locks on them are things of girlhood. Open your life, I say. Be brave and share yourself.

Class 5H

5hDear Class 5H, Hazelwood Junior School, London, UK:
I am so very happy to hear that you enjoyed my book, Everyday Matters, and that you are now keeping journals of your own. I was blown away to see how good your drawings and writing have gotten already.
I can only imagine how happy I would be if I had been writing and drawing in a book ever since I was your age! Your drawings are excellent and you seem to be taking your time and really studying what you are drawing. That’s the key: take your time, relax, enjoy yourself and don’t worry too much about how it all comes out. Keep doing that on a regular basis and you will become great artists (not that you aren’t already).
Now to your questions:

What do you like about your drawings?
I like the act of drawing itself, the calm careful way I can sit and empty my mind and let my eyes drift over an object and my pen glide over the page until I am done and then I look and am surprised to see what I have made.
I like having drawings I’ve made to look back at, to remind me of another time and place. Sometimes I walk down the street and say, “hey, I know that building, I drew it three years ago, it was sunny afternoon, I was on my way home from the store, I hadn’t eaten lunch yet, and I was going to go see a movie with my family right afterwards.” It’s like running into an old friend.
I like drawing really complicated things like engines or detailed buildings or dogs with lots of hair.

How old were you when you started your sketchbook?
I guess I was about 39 or so. Now I’m 43. Really, really old. I have some of my hair, all of my teeth, and am still able to hold a pen without shaking much.

Do you enjoy living in New York?
I really do. I was born in London (Elgin Crescent, Notting Hill Gate) then I lived in Pakistan and Australia and Israel and I came here when I was thirteen). It’s a very interesting city, full of life and things to draw. There are great parks and museums and shops and we are near the ocean and something is always going on. We have thought of living in other places but we’ve never found a place as perfect for us.

Was it hard to become an artist?
I worked hard at drawing until it came easier. I try to find new ways to draw, study what other people do, play around with new kinds of art materials, draw new sorts of things.
It was hard to think of myself as an artist. I had to wait until other people started calling me one. When I was little I thought it would be really hard to be successful at it and so I decided not to go to art school. I wish I had started earlier in life but I really enjoy making things.

How do you draw objects and people that are moving?
It’s a little hard. The trick is to keep your eye on the thing that’s moving you’re your pen on the paper. It’s like climbing a mountain. Trust yourself and don’t look down a lot. Sometimes I just watch for a while and draw little snips and details. Then I use my imagination to fill in. If the conditions are really horrible and I must draw this thing for some reason, I take a bunch of pictures with my digital camera and use them as reference.

Do you practice drawing an object before you draw it in your sketchbook?
No. My journal is just a record of what I’m doing, so everything goes into it, warts and all. I rarely can be bothered to draw the same thing twice and I think I would lose spontaneity and fun if I did a practice sketch. If it’s ugly, well, too bad.

Does your son want to become an artist too?
Right now he wants to be a drummer. I am trying to raise him with the idea that it’s okay to be an artist but he is also a good writer and handsome. Maybe he’ll be a supermodel. Or a professional video game player.

What kimd of objects do you find easier to draw:
Eggs. Nails. Naked ladies.

Do you find it hard to add to your sketch book every day?
Sure. Sometimes I do many drawings in a day. Sometimes I don’t draw at all. At one point, I didn’t draw in my sketchbook for a couple of years (sad years). I find it’s like going to the gym. Once I start doing it again I wonder why I stopped but sometimes I’m just not in the mood. There are periods when I force myself to do it and my drawings tend to be sort of crappy at first but then they get better and then I forget that I was forcing myself to do it. I think the trick is to find reasons to keep it interesting. Draw weird collections of things. Go to interesting places. Show your stuff to other people who will tell you it’s great and encourage you to do more. Stay disciplined but don’t be mean to yourself about it. And try not to write in your journal how bad you think a drawing is. It makes the drawings feel bad.

Well, class, it’s been fun chatting with you. Keep drawing. Remember that in the time you play one level of Nintendo or watch one cartoon or pick one nostril, you could do one drawing. And soon you will all be in the Journal making Hall of Fame, be world famous, get stopped by people in the street for your autograph, have a line of pens named after you, and live a richer, happier life (well, at least the last one).

Your pal,
Danny Gregory

How are you?

hypochondriaToday my hypochondria is in remission but I never know quite when it will flair up. I was a little light headed yesterday and assumed I had internal bleeding, a cerebral aneurism, a tumor. Today, I feel fine but I’ve gone through this so often. Mild symptoms metastasize in my mind into full blown and incurable diseases. A tickle, an ache, a twinge and I am polishing my obituary.
In one of the surprisingly few books on the subject, I read that hypochondria is called “woeful imaginings” and I wonder to what extent it is a function of the strength of one’s imagination. I like to think I am a particularly sensitive person, more likely than most to zero in on the normal changes my body undergoes. That sensitivity, bolstered with sketchy medical knowledge, blooms into obsession as I check and recheck my self, comparing my observations with the old wives’ tales and half read articles in my cerebral database.
Maybe it’s hereditary. When I was a kid and the evening news would run a preview, threatening us with a story on the latest cure for pancreatic cancer or a mysterious new epidemic in Central Africa, my Mum would grab for the remote and zap whatever might infect our imaginations with fresh material to obsess over. It must have worked –she’s in perfect health and her father is still alive and well and 94.
Or maybe it’s just a subconscious excuse to fill idle time with self-indulgence, narcissism, and other attractive traits I already know I possess.
A lot of hypochondriacs run to the doctor with every symptom. But I have a different form of the disease which causes me to avoid doctors altogether, fearing that if they just catch a sight of me they’ll immediately identify a half dozen fatal end stage diseases. Ironic, considering how much time I’ve spent in hospitals with Patti.
A year ago, I summoned enough courage to have a physical. It was terrifying but I experienced near orgasmic release when I received a complete clean bill of health. Since, I actually managed to take a severe case of melanoma in for the doctor’s opinion. He diagnosed it as poison ivy and released me to my fate.
Hypochondria is pathetic, a joke. For doctors, it’s just a waste of their time and energy. People who don’t suffer from it have no clue how tenacious and debilitating it can be. Medically, it is essentially an unstudied malady and the only current treatment is a healthy dose of antidepressants. The only permanent cure, it is said, is far worse than the disease: to actually contract something real and deadly serious that will replace the writhing of one’s imaginations. It’s just a variation on the old joke about the hypochondriac’s epitaph: “See I told you there was something wrong with me.”
But, I’m fine.
Really, I am.
Why? Don’t I look fine?

Unplugged

2housesI got my first mouse in 1983. It was attached to an Apple IIC, the grooviest PC to come along, a 9″ monitor, a carrying handle, white like the current Apple design standard. There was a program called Macpaint which let you make pixelated drawings but the only input device was the big clumsy mouse ( I’m not sure if scanners even existed), like drawing with mittens on*.
Things have come tremendously far since then but I have the same reservations I had twenty years ago.
Whenever I make a picture on the computer, it is a completely different experience from working with paper and pens and far less satisfying. This could be a function of skill but I doubt it. It certainly not due to any lack of variety on the part of the folks at Adobe; they give you enough tools and filters to fill a dozen art bins. And my computer can’t blamed; it’s wicked fast and I never feel constrained as I did in the old days waiting for things to render.
The problem comes down to how easily human error can be fixed on a computer. I can adjust and readjust, move things up and down, tweak this way and that, and burn hours and hours in repetitive, tedious monkeying around. If I don’t like it, I can immediately zap it.
And for me, that’s where the Art gets trashed.
There’s so many protective barriers between my humanity and the page. I can’t puddle my water, handmix my greens, rub a spot with my coat sleeve. I probably could get the accidental sprays of ink that come off my steel nib but it would take hours to do and the impulse would be gone. There’s no chance for serendipity, no forks in the road that force me to deal with my mistakes, no messes to clean up, far fewer lessons to learn.
It simply isn’t enough like Life.
———-
*I’m sure I have some of these historical facts wrong but, all you technohistory buffs out there, please don’t feel compelled to correct me.

My Name is Mud

3-thingsAlfred Hitchcock meticulously planned out every shot in his films long before he set foot on the set. Then he waddled on with precise storyboards, his angles, lenses, lighting directions all completely worked out.
Most artists aren’t so controlled. Many of us sit down to a blank page with only an inkling of what we will do with it. Then we lay down the first lines, the first words, the first notes and begin to play around. While some novelists plot out their stories on index cards and detailed notes, others enjoy discovering where the plot will twist as much as their readers.
There is a danger inherent in either approach.
For the Planner, there is the danger of staleness, of uninspired, mechanical execution. Hitch found shooting a film to be quite a bore— he was simply executing the comprehensive instructions he had already laid out for himself and his crew. His films, while beautiful and gripping always have a certain cool, artificial quality because of his iron grip, and he rarely got the best performances from his actors.
But for the Free Spirit, there is quite another danger: the descent into mud. You look out the window to see the sun shining and the road beckoning and stride out, a sandwich in your pocket and a breeze in your hair, off to look for adventure. But, at some point in the journey, a storm may brew. The sky darkens, the horizon disappears behind clouds, the road fills with potholes and puddles and you, still driven and unwitting, plod on. Eventually you collapse — dirty, wet, miserable and lost.

rooftopsWhen all of the colors of the spectrum merge, they form clear, pure white light. But when you combine all the colors in your paint box, you always get that same khaki brown.
Sometimes, particularly when I am painting, I will get a picture to a certain point and then, unhappy with the way it looks, I’ll go too far. I’ll deepen the shadows, I’ll strengthen the outlines, and then when I’m very desperate, I’ll introduce some garishly bright color to distract the eye, vermillion skies, chartreuse skin. It never works.
Painfully, it’s when I am doing a commission or making a present for someone that I am most likely to encounter this problem. Some part of my brain will not let go and sits in the background, whining and harping and firing suggestions. Instead of letting the piece takes its natural course, I try to twist it in a direction it doesn’t want to go and the results is mud.
I’ve seen this phenomenon in my career in advertising so many times. Because the process requires the approval and opinions of many people and compromise is often the watchword of the day, we slop a lot of mud. How often I’ve been working with a composer on the score of a TV spot only to have a client wade in with ‘issues’ and suggestions. Soon new layers of drums and strings and effects are thrown over the music until it is muffled under a blanket. The same happens with writing, as adjectives and claims get inserted at the last minute like tumors metastasizing on paragraphs that had been edited and polished until they were organic and easy on the ear. So often the reason is stated: ”Sure,you understand it the way you’ve written it, we understand it, but will the consumer understand it? Let’s emphasize the main points more strongly. “And so additional legs and wings and humps are sewn on to the monster, not because anyone’s gut instinct requires them but because of second guessing and lack of vision.
When Jack was in preschool, there was one teacher whose class always did the most amazing paintings. Each one was clear and sharp and intelligent, Picassos in a sea of muddy fingerpaints. I asked her what she taught her kids, what she said to keep their visions so pure. She replied, “I don’t tell them anything, really. I just know when to take their paper away.”

What does not kill me makes me stronger

Two years ago, the manuscript of what was to be “Everyday Matters” was lying in a drawer. At the time, it was pretty much like the book that’s in stores today but it was called simply “A New York Diary”.
In late January, 2002, I had lunch with a friend who had just published a monograph of his work. He encouraged me to pick a list of publishers who had made books I liked and just send out my manuscript. “Invest a hundred bucks in copies and stamps and see if anything happens,” he urged.
So I made a list of thirty publishers and over the next few weeks, filled the mail with manilla envelopes. It took a year for twenty six of them to get around to sending me rejection letters (I’m still waiting on the last four).
This morning, inspires by my 24 hours of nausea, this morning I took out the file of letters and present some edited selections from the nicer ones:

rejectionsputnamAlthough, my efforts may seem futile they weren’t. I believe by making the effort, I set wheels in motion that through twists and turns caused my life to change, books to come out, this dialogue with you to happen.
Destiny is hard to seize. It’s impossible to control every step you will take. But by doing, by making, by generating energy, you cause things to happen.
These letters hurt me when they arrived. But they didn’t stop me. Though I felt like I was facing an endless monolithic wall, I finally found a toe hold and climbed into the Promised Land (a scary place where feelings of rejection continue to abound. More on that some other time). It’s not just because I am brilliant and devilishly handsome. I think it’s primarily because I kept beavering on.
Now… what do you have in a drawer?

If you’re so great, why aren’t you rich?

TV1

(Drawings done while watching a little over an hour of network TV)
These are dark times for the nexus of art and commerce. Every industry that tries to make a buck from others’ creativity is moribund or in flames.
The music business is more intent on suing children for downloading MP3s than trying to incorporate innovations in technology. The publishing business focuses a disproportionate amount of energy on the works of two dozen best selling and second rate authors. The movie business barely scraped a top ten list together last year. Network television bemoans the final act of geriatric shows like Friends and 60 Minutes, unable to generate anything new that mass audiences will flock to. Instead of intelligent, adult programming, they program sleaze. Fashion’s top designers have become factories or left the business. Advertising is unable to come up with any strategy to combat Tivos.

Over the past decade, conglomerates have engulfed each of these industries. Huge businesses demand regular, increasing profits to feed Wall Street and are loath to bet on anything but a sure fire hit with mass appeal. They slather on bureaucracy and centralize decisions to minimize risk and surprise. But risk and surprise are the food and drink of creativity.

And yet, despite this Armageddon, we are in the middle of an enormous renaissance of creativity. Look around you. People are taking digital pictures. They’re recording their own songs. They’re shooting, editing, scoring movies. They’re scanning artwork. They’re writing essays. They’re sharing stories, and recipes and patterns and ideas. They’re supporting each other, inspiring each other, feeding and cheering and promoting each other.

The only ‘problem’? Oh my god, no one’s making money off all these blogs and personal websites and zines and chats. So they can’t be real. They can’t count.
If they were any good, they’d turn a profit, right?

Just like cave painters had three picture deals. Just like Shakespeare had licensing partners. Just like Mozart was a millionaire, Van Gogh was pursued by paparazzi, Nijinsky had his own MTV pilot… For most of human history, creative people made creative things because they had to. Now, perhaps, we’re getting back to an understanding of how essential and human that is.

By the way, if anyone knows a major corporation that would like to sponsor this blog, please put them in touch with my corporate parent. Just kidding.