What happened in the Studio.

In New York, they say, you are never more than ten feet from another human being. If there isn’t someone next to you or behind you, then they are on the floor directly below or clomping around on the floor above. Even if you wander deep into Central Park, lost in a fantasy of woodsmanning deep in a copse surrounded it would seem only by squirrels and woodpeckers, a bunch of Italians or Koreans will inevitably blunder around the corner clutching guidebooks and ruining the calm with their foreign tongues.

No wonder we New Yorkers are so misanthropic; we can’t get away from people.

It wasn’t always so unusual to have some space to oneself. When I was an odd teenager, I used to go alone to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens of a Sunday. In the ’70’s, most of Brooklyn was still uncool, and I could stroll my grounds for ten or fifteen minutes without seeing a single other (non-imaginary) person.
Those were the days when I read all 92 volumes of PG Wodehouse as well as Anthony Powell, R.F. Delderfield, Evelyn Waugh, and other perpetuators of the mythical British landed gentry. While my classmates were making zipguns and apple bongs, I was sewing suede patches on to the elbows of my thrift store tweed jackets and shopping for monocles.

My only companion to the Gardens was my imaginary friend, Lord Roger Watford, and we would walk through the rose garden, pretending that it was part of my vast baronial estate and that the adjacent Brooklyn Museum was in fact my manor House.

Brooklyn has changed a lot since then and so, by and large, have I. But one of the many delights of the studio Jack and I rented this summer was having access to the vacant lots, abandoned dumpsters, and empty streets of the 100+ acres of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The Yard was once abuzz with shipbuilders preparing to conquer Japan but in the ensuing decades it became an abandoned stretch of dandelion farm along the East River. Recently it has been landmarked and revitalized and turned into a hive of artisanal activity, full of little manufacturers and artists and photographers and woodshops and film studios and even a commercial farm.

We rented a studio from two women who had been painting there for several years and were taking the summer off. It’s several hundred square feet on the third floor of a brick building, neighbored by a landscape painter, a potter, and two graphic designers. The building is all industrial utility, with painted cement floors, steel casement windows, wide staircases, no air conditioning, and a tarpaper roof that looks out at a spectacular views of the East Side of Manhattan, stretching from the Brooklyn to the Manhattan Bridges and beyond to Queens and the Bronx.

There’s a street full of crumbling rowhouses being demolished on one edge of the Yard, and wandering through the site reminds of the exhilarating freedom I felt when I was ten or eleven in Israel, sneaking into building sites to inhale the smell of fresh cement to look for abandoned porn magazines, cigarette butts, and the dregs of dusty beer bottles.

On the ground floor of our building was a photo production studio full of industrial printers that churned out materials for store windows and fashion shows. There dumpster was filled to the brim with sheets of rejected foamcore, aluminum plates, and rolls of paper and fabric. Other dumpsters in the Yard brimmed with cardboard boxes, wooden pallets, skeins of wire, plastic buckets, and dead computers and TVs.

These dumpsters became my art supply store. Each time I biked into the Yard, I would dive into one dumpster or another and pull out some interesting surface to paint on. Yards of rubber matting, an old canvas, a sheet of plaques honoring David Dinkins to be displayed at the US Open, an life-sized portrait of a blank-faced Calvin Klein model.

I’d haul my find up the three sets of stairs to the studio, turn on the fan, flick on the radio to an eclectic college station in New Jersey, fill my water jug in the janitor’ sink, and get to work.

I came with nothing. No ideas, no ambitions, maybe just a small plastic bag from Blick containing some medium I’d always wanted to try. At first, it was spray paint. A dude with too many eyebrow rings explained what the variables were that led to an entire wall of locked cages of paint. Gloss, high gloss, flat, matte, indoor, enamel, oil, acrylic, high pressure and low, and every color known to man. We flipped through a menu book full of spray caps and nozzles and I assembled a bag of twelve, different shapes and angles of spray, some slim as a pencil, others designed to cover a wall and empty a can in seconds.

I hauled a placard announcing a diabetes fundraiser up to the roof and uncapped a can of matte black acrylic. I snapped on a medium-sized nozz and made a slow oval on the board. It was a lot less controllable than I thought. I built up faint layers to sketch out a head. Then I discovered that if the faster I moved, the sharper the stroke. I used my whole body to make the stroke, reaching up then bending down to the ground. Slowly, like layering sfumatos of watercolor, a face emerged. It wasn’t a face I’d imagined — it just appeared through the gloom.

The paint dried almost immediately in the baking July sun. I dragged the board and the cans down to the studio and squirted out a few inches of white and of black acrylic onto a folded sheet of paper. No palette for me. Jack had already explained that he and his pals at RISD didn’t go for all that jazz, no sheets of glass or wooden ovals with thumb holes. Just throw some paint down on the table and have at it.

Now, I used to fool around with acrylic paint back in high school (after I returned from surveying my property and mixing with the commoners), but I have been a watercolorman for the better part of a decade. Painting with opaque paint is so very different from watercolor. I like to layer my paint and build up glazes, slowly shaping the image over time.

But opaque paint like acrylic, oil, and gouache obscure whatever’s beneath them. You are committed to your last stroke, rather than conversing and harmonizing with all the layers before. This took some getting used to. Unwieldy as the spray paint is, it allows for that process of building. With out a medium of some kind, the acrylic just negates all that came before.

I had also forgotten how much of large-scale painting requires you to move around. Unlike working in my sketchbook, a painting that’s four or five feet tall, demands that you use your whole arm to paint. And then you need to stop and step back, often across the room, to get perspective on what you’re doing. You need to juggle and balance, moving constantly around the whole surface, darkening here, obscuring there, sharpening an edge, scraping off a mistake.

The painting is a living thing and the act of painting is all about responding to that life. Sometimes you reach perfection, then fuck it up with an an ill-conceived dollop. Then you battle back from that blunder and the painting turns a corner and brings you somewhere you’d never known could be.

This back and forth went on for a couple of hours till I reached a point where I was afraid to screw things up anymore. I’d painted a man who seemed to be going through something. Writhing, pained, pulled into himself but surrounded by turmoil. It wasn’t what I’d expected and I didn’t know if I liked it. But I was soaked in sweat, dehydrated, and happy.

On my next trip to Blick, I picked out a set of oil sticks. They are solid tubes of oil paint that work like juicy grownup crayons. Basquiat used them and I had always wanted to as well. I had no idea how or what I’d do with them but I sprayed a sketch in red and then started to draw. The juicy sticks are more like lipsticks than crayons actually, a bit out of control, very opaque and bold, but their lines are sharper and less intriguing than brushed paint. So I threw some acrylic on top, only to discover that while water-based paints dry quickly in summer studios, oil sticks take a while to dry and when you rub over them they smear.

Actually, that was good — it made the lines less boring and I started to rub them with my fingers. Soon that was a mess so I added more paint. A man emerged. He had no irises. I painted some in and he became boring so I blinded him again.

The spray paint started to scare me a bit. At first, I only used it on the roof, but then, impatient, I started to touch things up in the studio. I’d spray a layer of paint over the acrylic and the oil stick, knocking the image back a bit so I could then pull out parts of it again. But spraying paint indoors is not good. So I hauled it back to the roof where I fought the sun and the wind.

For the rest of the day, I imagined my lungs filling with paint mist and my eyes caking over with a layer of royal blue. I remembered once, in my early twenties, spray-painting a chair Chinese Red and afterwards looking in the mirror — my nostrils looked like they were leaking blood, my nose hairs struggling like overwhelmed filters.

This memory and the hypochondriacal fears of clogged lungs led me to Home Depot where I bought a spray mask and some goggles. These were really unpleasant to wear on the rooftop and my goggles quickly steamed up on the sunny roof so I was painting blind, but at least I wouldn’t end up with black lung and a ventilator.

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One of the concerns I’d had when I first contemplated getting this studio was what I was doing it for. I knew I didn’t want or need a bunch of paintings to hang in my apartment. I wasn’t going to display the paintings in a gallery, submit them to a show, or show them to anyone at all. But I wrestled with this for a while. I didn’t want to seem pretentious, like ‘look at me, I’m a painter”. Plus, I was sharing my studio with a guy who actually is a painter — Jack, my son, the real thing, trained, newly-minted art school grad. Though I knew he would never say anything about what I was doing unless I asked, I didn’t want to have to worry about whether what I was doing was correct, was proper painting, was art. I just wanted to have fun, slop some shit around, work big, see what it was like.

And then, a few weeks into our lease, I realized I could just throw out everything I was making. Put them back in the same dumpsters I’d taken them out of when the summer was done. I’d snap some pix for a souvenir and then bu-bye. No muss, no fuss.

What a relief! I knocked out a half-dozen portraits of people who live in my skull, experimenting with different media, stumbling, recovering, going over the deep end, surprising myself, and knew all along I wasn’t handcuffed to the results. All process, no pain.

One day, I dove into a dumpster that was full of coffee urns. You know the kind they put in conference rooms, with the stack of paper cups, the pods of creamer, and the dish of wooden swizzle sticks. There were dozens of these abandoned soldiers and I hauled a bunch onto the road. Immediately I saw that they were stocky little men, like me. They had thick legs, barrel chests and protruding spigots. When I opened their lids, some screamed, some yawned, others laughed or just looked blank.

I hauled four of these guys behind the studio building and began to paint them. This was around the time of the political conventions and Donald Trump was all in my head. I found a lamp with a dangling plug and a workman’s glove and added them to the top of one urn, then painted the whole thing bright safety orange. I stood him in the corner of a brick wall and snapped his picture.
It felt a little adolescent but there was also something strangely moving and powerful about this angry little man with a stub of a penis. Later we left him by the edge of the East River, his back to Manhattan, braying with fury.

Another urn got black pants and a white shirt and tie and then I drew on some anguished arms. He opened his mouth wide to howl. Jack and I put him in a subterranean cave we found by the shoreline, then an abandoned hut, then by a smashed car. He said something different in each spot.

I gave another urn a pair of christmas ornament balls and spray painted him matte black. He looked like an ancient fertility statue, something mythical and powerful. We posed him first on a concrete block, then raised him up on a giant, black steel structure high above an intersection where he could looked down on passersby, a little god in a roadside shrine.

Another urn was all-white and we placed him far out in the river, alone on a mooring in the water where he will sit until a strong gusts knocks him into the water and sweeps him out to sea, his mouth agape.

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On the final day, we packed all of the paintings into the car and drove back to Manhattan. It was the first day of the new term at NYU and Jack and I walked back from the garage through throngs of excited freshmen, carrying the stack of huge paintings. Outside the main dorm building, I signaled to Jack. Barely breaking stride, we leaned the paintings against a doorway and kept walking.

Maybe some weird kid took one of my portraits them to hang in his or her room, a souvenir of that first weekend in the big city. Maybe a janitor stuffed them into a dumpster later that day. I’ll never know, nor do I care. They have their life, I have mine.

I can’t be bothered to judge what I made. But I can judge the process. I enjoyed the liberation I felt in the studio this summer. I liked the risks I took, the exhilaration I felt, the battles I waged. I don’t think I’ll be a painter again for a while, but it’s great knowing that beast is in me, that I can make things without premeditation, that the process can be an adventure, that I can step away from the confines of a small page and a book and a little set of watercolors. It’ll be nice to see what effects my exploration has on the next sketchbook I fill.

Inspiration Wednesday: Fun with Faces

I am working on my homework for Week Four of Polishing at Sketchbook Skool. Nelleke Verhoeff is a fantastic teacher, a former street performer, hilarious and imaginative, and if you have missed her klass, please try to take it next time Polishing comes around.

 

Hygge!

So far, so good. The mercury is in the 50s in New York and winter seems to be slower to come this year. I did encounter a few snow flakes in Indianapolis but I also discovered a concept there that will help me weather the cold.

My Indiana friend told me she used to suffer from Seasonal Affect Disorder. I know lots of people who do. SAD is a form of depression that comes on with the shortening days of autumn and lasts till spring. The treatment usually involves gazing at boxes of color-corrected lightbulbs and popping Wellbutrin. But my friend said that one word had helped her enormously. One word and she immediately felt a color-corrected bulb go off in her head.

Hygge. It’s a Danish word that’s pronounced “hoo-ga” and has no direct equivalent in English. It’s sort of like ‘cozy’ or ‘snug’ but it’s bigger. Hygge isn’t just about soft sweaters, wood paneling and roaring fireplaces — it’s about attitude, about a sense of well-being. About being gentle and calm rather than battling arctic gusts. And it’s about people. It’s about having a warm heart, even in cold times. About sharing comfort and cheeriness with friends and people you love.

hyggeDenmark, despite 17 hours of darkness each midwinter day, has the world’s happiest people.  They value being good to oneself. To finding warmth in others. To sitting around in wooly socks, sharing a mug with a couple of friends. To chilling, without being chilly. The Danes buy more candles more capita than any other nation. And, come on, they have a pastry named after them.

This winter, I plan to hug hygge. I will enjoy the changing rhythm of winter, rather than fighting it tooth and claw. I will cultivate cheeriness. I will fill my house with friends and warmth. And I will take it easier on myself.

Care to join me?

Child’s Play

Sometimes I want a spoonful or two of sugar in my tea. I want to reread The Wind in the Willows. I want to watch Tom & Jerry. I want to eat Lucky Charms, or a meat pie with ketchup, peanut butter and jelly on white bread. I want to listen to Danny Kaye singing Hans Christian Andersen.

I want to spoil the kid in me.

My childhood was far from idyllic but things from my childhood can make me feel comfortable and free. And that freedom makes me feel creative in a visceral, fundamental way. The smell of paste, the feeling of scribbling with crayons, splattering poster paint with a big mushy brush, they loosen something in my head, the something that binds me to judgment and fear. School art supplies release me from rules and expectations and let me free to play.

I’ve been using materials like these more and more, since I started to explore in my California garage and then spent time with schoolkids in Beijing. I bought tempera and huge rolls of brown paper and Play-Do and sheets of cardboard and started to let loose.

It took work to let go, to undo the handcuffs and shake off the rust, but poster paints and fat cheap brushes helped a lot. There was nothing at stake. I could chuck paint around then toss the results in the trash. I didn’t care. And the kids in China didn’t either. We were just playing.

A couple of months ago, I started working on some projects using these childhood materials I’d rediscovered. I made some videos for an imaginary kid, someone six or eight or ten, to show him or her some cool things we could make together. I turned my thumbs into rubber-stamps, I melted crayons, I made masks out of grocery bags, I made stop-motion animations — and I had a lot of fun.

These videos were the foundation of a new set of lessons that I plan to take with me to Switzerland and Dubai these fall, to work with kids and show them some new ways to play. But they are also a new kourse we created for Sketchbook Skool because playing is something that’s not just for kids, it’s for the kids in all of us. I’ve seen time and again that when grow-ups are given permission to mess around with cheap art supplies, they reconnect with their original creative impulse, that impulse that fuels even the most sophisticated art and professional creative projects. Without that wild child, art becomes business, stiff and academic and overthought, and driven by fear and judgment. But unleashed it can produce anything.

I also liked the idea of creative projects that kids and grownups could take together and inspire each other. And that kids, out of school for the summer, could do on their own to keep their creative flames a flickering.

The monkey fought me a lot as I put these lessons together. What if adults resented being treated like children, felt patronized? What if I looked foolish? Unprofessional? Lost my ‘authority’?

Aw, screw it. I had fun and I think anyone watching the lessons will find some fun in them too — or might want to ask themselves why not. They gave me the same sort of comfort I find in childish things and my drawings and writing have been a lot looser since I started, more open to experimentation, less filled with consequence. I can’t wait to work with schoolkids again this fall. And to see what you make of our new kourses, Playing and More Playing at Sketchbook Skool. Here’s a little preview of the kourse if you’re interested:

Oblique Strategies

A couple of days ago, Jack and I went to hang out with a friend of ours while he works on his latest album. He was spending a week or two in a giant recording studio on the West Side. It was Saturday but he had a bunch of engineers huddled in the booth while he sat alone in this gigantic space and laid down bass tracks. During a break, he explained that it was one of the last of the great studios, built in the ’70s, an enormous space with warm acoustics, where lots of classic albums had been recorded.

It seemed a unusual place to find my friend, who is famous for cutting edge electronic music and dance tunes. I’ve usually experienced his works in progress as MP3 files that arrive in my email box, songs that are reworked and morphed over the years. He generally works alone and surrounded by computers. But here he is in this creaky wooden yurt of a room that looks like a sauna and feels like the end of an era.

He told us that he was trying to record an album using no electronic instruments, no effects, a string section, and even the electric bass he was laying down would ultimately be replaced by a standup. He asked if I’d ever heard of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies. I nodded but then admitted I hadn’t. He said that Eno had a made up a deck of cards each of which had some instruction or limitation which you’d follow to turn your work in a new direction. It had inspired him to try something completely different. It reminded me of a film called the 5 Obstructions in which Lars Van Trier has Jorgen Leth make and remake a film according to various rules he’d give him. It was one of the things that inspired me to think of ways to shock my own system when I draw, to challenge myself to work in very particular ways or with various limbs tied behind my back. It’s the idea behind the Everyday Matters challenges, to provoke you into a direction you’d never considered, trying something that may be uncomfortable but which opens a door.

Creativity is all about fresh perspectives, about finding the truth and seeing what’s really there. You have to break out of the box you’re in and get things moving — even if that means tricking yourself. Sometimes you have to draw with your eyes closed to see clearly. Sometimes that means standing on your head, or drawing with a Sharpie, or using your left hand — or turning off the computer and getting in a string section.

Self Distortraits

As I flip through my last few journals, I see that I am more and more drawn to drawing faces. Maybe that’s just a function of winter — when the weather is warm I can go out and plunk down on the sidewalk somewhere and draw landscapes, buildings, dogs being curbed. When the weather is inhospitable, I sit at my dining table and after I’ve drawn every object in the room, I flip through magazines and start drawing faces.

I tend to draw a lot of self-portraits — not become I am so fabulously handsome but because my face is always handy, right there, wrapped around my eyes. I’ve done hundreds, none of them even remotely alike. This winter, fiddling with my computer, I started taking distorted pictures of myself with my laptop’s built-in camera, then distorting them further with dip pens and brushes and sumi ink.

They’re part of my effort to do more than just draw exactly what I see but to add some feeling to the exercise. Of course, it’s impossible for me not to inject some subjectivity into any drawing. That’s enhanced when I keep it loose and free, the flaws enhancing my point of view.  But I find that when I start with something that’s unfamiliar, like the bulges and twists the computer puts into my face, I tend to pay more careful attention, take nothing for granted, create something that looks like a photo in the degree of detail; and yet feel free to push the lines further and add more sweeping grotesqueries.

I’m done with series for now as the sun has come out and my park beckons