It's not easy being chartreuse


I start most days by choosing a palette. It’s often a fairly subconscious process as I flip through my pants, shirts, sweaters, etc in the semi-darkness of my closet. I have a lot of drab, typically male colors: khaki, olive, grey, brown, black. But I also have some ludicrous shades to pick from because I like to buy light color trousers and dye them in my washing machine. I have bright orange cords, raspberry and Pepto-Bismol jeans, lime green, lemon yellow and purple paisley chinos.
So what determines why I’ll end up wearing a sap green cashmere sweater and burnt umber jeans one day and a black turtleneck and black jeans another? It ‘s nothing to do with my mood really.
I can be bad tempered and dress like a clown or feel chipper and gear up like a mime. And when I choose Jack’s clothes, I invariably dress him in a similar style and spectrum to whatever I picked for myself.
Of course, a major factor is whom I’m dressing for: although when I go to ad agencies a wild wardrobe can work for or against me. The biggest subconscious factor is probably the view out the window. If skies are sunny and blue, I put on the peacock. If the day lacks color, so will I.
Then Patti will come in and say: "You’re not wearing that are you?" and I’ll say, "Of course not" and head back to my closet. Color me yellow.

Ars longa, vita brevis


Every biographical movie about an artist depicts its subject as some sort of dysfunctional weirdo. Picasso – a woman hater. Van Gogh – a psychotic suicidal. Basquiat – a drug addicted suicide. Pollock – a drunken suicidal. Warhol – a weirdo and con man in a wig. Michelangelo – a disagreeable obsessive. Kahlo – a victim of love and disability. Toulouse-Lautrec – a horny dwarf, Mozart – a child. Beethoven – a deaf crank. Their genius is a curse, fed only by their tortured souls.
In America, we love athletes. We love pop stars. But we love to hate artists.
When we are about ten we are taught that being an artist is impractical, childish, and self indulgent, that ‘talent’ is a god-given gift you either have or you shouldn’t bother. Artists are arrogant, disconnected, elitist, millionaires or paupers. This myth is why parents accept all the cuts in art and music education yet will do anything to promote athletics in school. No one would want their kid to want to grow up to be an artist.
It wasn’t always this way. Doing watercolors used to be a standard part of a decent education, So did reading and writing poetry. Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, they were all government employees.
But in 21st century America, that critic in your head has the support and encouragement of the whole gang; your parents, your teachers, your neighbors, bosses, and role models (even so –called creative people in the media promote the illusion that it’s either a fool’s game or the lottery).
Small wonder it’s so hard to drown out. It says, “Don’t sing unless you’re going to become a pop star. Don’t paint unless you know you’ll be a genius who is recognized in your own lifetime. And if you have to practice at something, work on your pitch, your swing, your kick, skills that’ll pave the way for your future.”
You are fighting enough obstacles as it is. Don’t let your own brain join the conspiracy. Tell it to shut the hell up and let you get back to work.
Because all those voices, so right about how to build profit, are flat wrong about how to build a decent life. Without art, your soul suffers; you lack a chance to express who you are, to hone your own point of view, to make your life your own. You are less than human, no matter how many Super Bowl rings you’re wearing.
When you do make something and share it with the world, your voice will be proven wrong again. People won’t say, “Well, that drawing is pathetic. That poem is lame. That note was slightly flat. That diary reveals what a moron the writer was.” If they stop to judge it all, they’ll almost certainly say, “I wish I did that.” Which will give you the chance to say “Well, why don’t you?”



Maybe it was going to the James Rosenquist retrospective at the Guggenheim but I’ve been feeling sort of sick of materialism. Everything we encounter, it seems, is in some insidious way aimed at making us burn to buy something, anything (and, yes, I’ve spent twenty years in the belly of the advertising beast, stoking that flame). Even at the Rosenquist show, where the art is all about the decadence of commercialism, the giftstore has all sorts of Rosenquist books and fridge magnets and coffee mugs.
Anyway, I feel like I own too much and appreciate it too little. So I am going to try to get more out of what I have and scale back, if possible. I even cut out my planned trip to the art store this afternoon. We’ll see how long this resolution sticks.
I like the idea of a journal diet. Draw everything you own. Everything. Every single book, every stick of butter and shoelace. Now that would be a humbling experience. Or just draw everything you eat for a week. You’ll be thinner, calmer and happier.
Speaking of calmness, I continue to wrestle with my new server, but the break at the Guggenheim was refreshing and inspiring.

Trust or Bust


In 1975, Keith Jarrett recorded the best selling solo piano album ever, The Koln Concerts. What’s even more extraordinary is that the music is purely improvised. Jarrett had spent the day feeling jet lagged and under the weather, he had to sit down and start performing almost immediately after arriving at the concert hall with little chance to prepare himself, and the piano he was provided with slowly went out of tune.

Jarrett credits the quality of his performance to all these distractions. Before every performance, he tries to make himself blank. He doesn’t practice for a month beforehand. He doesn’t plan, he doesn’t have tricks to get over the hump; he just empties his mind, feels the silence completely, then wanders out on stage and sits down before the 88 keys. What balls.

“It’s far more interesting for me that for the audience even,” he said in a recent interview on WNYC. “If you don’t have total freedom, you will not make mistakes. With total freedom, you’ll make mistakes you would never have dreamed of and may end up hating yourself more than ever. I aim to be completely devoid of ideas. But I’m not going to tell the music what I should be doing.”

He is just a vehicle, an audience member, and his art has a life of its own.
Now, how do you get to that place? If I sat down in front of a concert hall full of Germans, we’d all thrill to 15 seconds of chopsticks and that would be that. But Jarrett has laid down a lot of foundation. He had years of lessons, then played in cocktail lounges and Pocono resorts for years and committed all the jazz standards to mind. He played with Miles Davis and others, learning, absorbing, filling himself up. But so far that’s ‘just’ technical preparation. Many other people have that.

But when Jarrett improvises he allows the performance to be a distillation of who he is and what he knows. He says you have to assume that what you are doing is meaningless, be willing to toss it away. You can’t think that what you are making will be recorded, sold, reviewed, even listened to. Just do it and see what happens.

The best moments, he says, “are when I am playing only in the present and not heading anywhere. I aspire to not know what I am doing.” This is mindfulness, living in the present.

In this week’s New Yorker, in a review of Savion Glover’s new show at the Joyce, there’s the following quote: “I try to keep my chops up,” Glover told Jane Goldberg, for Dance Magazine, “so I can just be.” Glover is the greatest tap dancer who ever lived, a breathtaking artist and his goal: to just be.

Don’t dismiss all this because these are incredibly accomplished craftspeople. Sure, you need enormous amounts of technical expertise to be the best in the world. But to accomplish mindfulness, you just need something you already have: the willingness to quiet down, clear the crap and trust yourself.

  • This piece was inspired by re-reading Keri Smith**’s new essay, Ode to Ross Mendes but I have tried to avoid reiterating what she has already written so eloquently. Nonetheless, I have come to a similar conclusion via a different path: “The answer is me.”

** Keri is a wonderful illustrator and writer and a very good soul —if you’ve not done so already, please examine her inspiring new book Living Out Loud

Pen Pals

dpaI am really lucky to have a friend who has taught me an awful lot about journaling. D.Price is the author of a wonderful zine called
Moonlight Chronicles (subscribe and you will be very happy) and he and I have been sharing our work for years. We copy the pages from our journals and send them to each other and, whenever possible, we get together for journaling trips in different parts of the country.
It’s a great experience to sit down and create a page in your journal, chronicling your current experience and then share it with a trusted friend who is doing the same thing at the same moment. Sometimes, when we share the same vantage point, the same size Moleskines and and the same paint box, Dan and I discover our pages are very similar.
But when we really take our times, we see things quite differently. I tend to see light and shade, whereas Dan tends to focus on shapes. I can get quite lost in a muddy mess of paints or crosshatching and his colors are bright and sharp. Our writing is quite different too. I’m the City Mouse, he’s the Country Mouse and we are impressed by very different stuff.
When we are done, we swap books and discuss why we did what we did. It’s a great way to learn and grow.

Drawing bread

breadDrawing is seeing. If you can see, you can draw. But can you see?

Let’s see.

Looking is a language. Look: a dog, a tree, a car, a man. We apply labels — to things in order to understand and process them. In Genesis, God has Adam name the animals. Labels makes abstract thinking possible. But because we over do it, looking replaces seeing and we soon stop seeing things for what they truly are. We say ‘tree’ and stop saying ‘elm’, stop saying ‘thirty year old elm, with silvery bark missing in fist sized circles on the eastern half of its trunk, 37 foot 8 inch elm with 37,437 leaves, some mustard colored, others sap green”, and we completely miss going to the next level where language fails us all together, where things are so specific they can have no name, where they are absolutely real.

This is where drawing comes from. When you can look at something slowly and carefully and refuse to see it for anything but what it is – at this very moment – in this light – from this angle. And as you begin to see, you cease to be the many things that limit you. You drop judgments, cultural biases, history, and baggage. Time slows, and then disappears. All you feel is the pen on the paper, the slow cutting drag of the nib against the grain till even that sensation fades away too. You don’t think about art or what people will say or whether you are inept or ugly or stupid or self indulgent. You stop thinking about bills and aches and grievances and chores. You, your pen, your paper, your subject, you just are.

You sink deeper and deeper as you see more and more. You draw the edges and then the textures, the shadows, the textures and shadows within textures and shadows. The orange, the tree, the body you are drawing is just a landscape your eyes traverse. Your line takes you through adventures and surprises, over hill and down valley, into light and through shade. And eventually your journey brings you home again and you feel your pen thud back against the dock, the door step, and the world slowly cranks back up again like the merry-go-round it is and you come back to all your senses, sharpened, refreshed, renewed.

On your paper, there’s a map of your trip, a souvenir, only as accurate as the clarity of your vision. Keep it if you want, frame it, sell it, but it won’t matter – every twist and turn of the trip itself will be seared into your mind.

Are you ready to give it a try?

Making book

A few people have asked me what sort of books I make my journals in, so here’s the short answer:
I bound all the books in this group. It’s not as hard as I first thought and let me choose the paper, size and shape I wanted They are not terribly long so I can have the thrill of a new volume and the book itself won’t get too dinged up from being toted around everywhere. #1 is in linen with a slipcase, #6 has a foil stamp I did with a die I designed, #7 was a travel journal for a trip to Death Valley.
After I left a journal on a plane and never got it back, I lost the heart to bind books #8 & 10 but I will some day. #11 is an old boy’s adventure novel that I refilled with watercolor paper and is a big fat journal with no writing in it at all, just drawings and watercolors. #12 is full of drawings of New York I did for #13 which was an edition (1/1) of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince I did for Patti’s birthday. #14 is another rebound book.
These are all Moleskines, the small kind with drawing paper. #20 has an inlaid initial made of multicolored chicken shells that my friend Quentin Webb made for me. I dedicated it entirely to self portraits.
I had gone away from drawings for a while and did a lot of digital photos and mini-polaroids so I made this all black#22. #23 is a larger Moleskine I kept on a retreat from NY after 9/11. The books I favor these days are very rough and simple and bound for me by my sister, Miranda, who is a printer. #25 is my greatest hits album and with a few mouse clicks and just $10.47 can be on your own shelf in days.
These are various and sundry books. #28 was the journal I kept when Patti was pregnant and which is the basis for a new book I wrote last summer, #29 is the travel journal we kept on our New York vacation, #30 is from a trip to Bermuda and #31 is a pile of the books I use just for writing in and are far more self-indulgent and whiney than even the things you’ve seen so far on this site.

God — looking at them all arrayed like this instead of shoved in their cupboards makes me seem enormously self-involved, self-aggrandizing, narcissistic and horrible.