My boy Jack came home from LA for a visit recently. It was the first time he’s been home in almost a year — I say ‘home’ but New York isn’t his home anymore. He’s an Angeleno now with a home and dog and a lovely girlfriend.
In between carousing with his former high school pals, he spent time going through all the stuff he’d left behind in his old room: paintings, books, clothes, a few battered toys. It was the final pieces of a collection curated over almost a quarter of a century, now getting its final edit. Much of it went in the trash and the remaining few boxes I’ll ship to him via UPS.
A few nights ago, my boy Jack and I went for a drink at a dive bar near our life-drawing class. We’d spent three hours in a warm room drawing a naked lady and it was time for a beer and further discussion of a central question: why were we doing it?
What was the point of filling up paper (or my case, an iPad screen) with lots of drawings of a stranger? Was it art? Was it exercise? What should we think about the drawings we’d made. Should we share them with other people? Should we hold on to them? What had those three hours been for?
The central question is one that Jack has been asking himself a lot since graduating from art school: why continue to make art?
I never took driver’s ed in high school. It just wasn’t that important when you were a city kid —at least that was the prevailing wisdom in our house. My mother and my stepfather did have a car, but they felt that if I had a driver’s license I’d just want to drive the car which was their car, not mine. I could take the subway.
In college, I walked or bummed rides and, after graduation, picked my first apartment based on its proximity to the train station. Then, when I was twenty-five, I moved for a year to Jersey City and finally had an excuse to buy a car.
Don’t get me wrong — I love cars, especially the cars that came out when I was a kid. So my first car was a 1965 Ford Fairlane, bronze paint, space-age styling, and gorgeous. I bought it for $800 and then started studying for my permit test.
Jack went through a similar issue. When he was in high school, we didn’t own a car and he had no interest at all in taking driver’s ed. I figured that every day he wasn’t licensed was another day he wouldn’t be killed in a drunken joy ride so I was fine with the delay.
But when he decided to move to Los Angeles after graduating from RISD, there was no more stalling. He took lessons this summer, and then we drove to the Bronx where Jack, full of nerves and self-doubt, nonetheless aced his road test. We drove together a few times in the city after he was licensed, me gritting my teeth as he slalomed past taxis and ground to a jerky halt at each red light.
The question that loomed on the horizon (well, one of a dozen questions about his West Coast transplantation, others to be addressed later) was how would he get around the city once he moved there. I know from my own history in LA that you quickly adjust to never walking anywhere; even two blocks to the grocery store for milk soon seems an impossible effort. One of Jack’s friends suggested Uber, which seemed a ridiculous indulgence. Another said he was going to buy a motorbike because it was cheap. I pointed out that putting steel plates in your head was not cheap.
We talked about buying him a cheap used car but worried it might break down and cost even more in the long run.
Two years ago, when Jenny and I came back to New York from our own LA sojourn, we came in our 2013 Ford Focus. Ever since, it has languished in a very expensive garage on E. 9th Street and we only take it out for a spin once a month or so, and we have been stalling on a decision on its ultimate fate. This July we finally made one. We would give the car to Jack to use in LA.
Next question; how to get it there? I researched car transporters: that’d cost us a grand or so, plus Jack’s plan ticket and shipping costs for his belongings. The obvious solution seemed to be for someone to drive the car there. But who? Jack, with his seven or so hours of experience behind the wheel, wasn’t the ideal candidate for a solo cross-country drive. Fortunately, he has a flexible dad.
So last Tuesday, with rain clouds amassed on the horizon, Jack and I loaded up the Focus and drove out of the gilt-edged garage for the last time. Miraculously, we were on schedule, hitting the road at 6:58 am and driving against the first wave of morning commuters surging into the Holland Tunnel.
I’d had anxiety dreams for the previous week. Frankly, I didn’t trust myself and, of course, I trusted Jack even less.
I had visions of the car exploding in the desert, of searching YouTube for videos on how to change a tire on the edge of rain-soaked highway somewhere east of nowhere. I mentally replayed every road scene in every horror movie I’d ever seen from Duel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I imagined running out of gas, having no phone signal, diarrhea from dicey road food, being assaulted in a truck stop by a maddened alt-Right trucker, bedbugs in a cheap motel, bad radio reception, earthquakes, tornadoes, and wild hog attacks.
Despite the enormous dangers, we made it half way through the Holland Tunnel before an alert went off on the dashboard. We were almost out of gas. I hadn’t thought of this particular scenario, running out of gas and blocking the Tunnel at rush hour. We might even make the local news!
We didn’t get on the news or run out of gas, just puttered into a gas station on the Jersey side, then kept going till we were in Pennsylvania. It was a lovely day, lovely ride, and even though Pennsylvania seems to be the most enormous state of the Union and is encrusted with Trump lawn signs, we made it across to the Ohio border by mid afternoon.
We rolled into Columbus at about 4 PM and made it to my niece Morgan’s house. We met her four dogs, her new husband, and her roommate, then had a nice stroll through Bicentennial Park and a nice dinner at The Walrus. I had one Columbus landmark on my bucket list: Jenni’s Ice Cream parlor. I have made most of the recipes in Jenni’s first ice cream cookbook and wanted to try the real thing. I had a coneful of Goat Cheese and Cherries and it was almost as good as when I made it.
We crashed out on Morgan’s couches then awoke at the crack of dawn for homemade waffles and the next leg of the journey.
The skies were dark and it soon began to bucket down rain. It poured all day. Before lunch, a new alarm went off on the dashboard. Tire pressure low! My heart thundered, adrenaline squirted and I pulled into the next gas station. In the pouring rain, I showed Jack how to use the tire pressure gauge and inflate the two tires that were a little low. It was only the second time I’d ever done that but I handled it okay, I think.
We drove through Indianapolis, then stopped at the Shell gas station in Vandalia, IL to see their fire-breathing dragon. Ten hours and 633 miles later, we pulled into the Comfort Inn in Springfield, MO.
On Thursday, we had lunch in Oklahoma City, which proved to be full of pleasant surprises. We ate some great barbecue, saw some psychedelic murals at the WOMB Gallery, then went to the OK City Museum of Art which has a nice collection of 1960s op art paintings and a Chihuly show.
We stopped at Texola, a tiny, crumbling town on the Oklahoma/Texas border and met two dogs and the guys who stand around on the only crossroad.
Jack had done most of the day’s driving, putting another 550 more miles on the odometer. He’d grown more and more confident on the highway, sometimes too confident, grumbling loudly when trucks pulled in front of us, trucks driven by people who insisted on adhering to the 75 mph speed limit. Several times, I had driven my fingernails deep into the armrest as he pulled perilously close to their tailgates.
Finally, we pulled into Amarillo, Texas, the town we were to grow to hate. The sun was setting and we were bushed. We tried to check into one motel but they only had smoking rooms. We secured a decent room in another but had a hard time figuring out how to get into the parking lot.
I walked back to the room and told Jack to pull the car into the last slot, next to a huge pickup truck. Another car was tailgating him, so he pulled to the side to let it by. He was now at a ninety degree angle to the parking spot and way too close to the truck. He inched forward and scraped our car’s fender along a bolt sticking out of the truck’s license plate. He jammed on the brakes and the vehicles locked together. In a bit of a panic, I got between and wrestled them apart.
Once Jack parked, I saw a line across the fender, the first damage the car had ever sustained. I swallowed my agitation because Jack was clearly very upset. It told him it was okay, it wasn’t that big a deal, that if something bad had to happen to us, I’m glad it was so minor.
We went to our room and then, unable to help myself, I started to lecture him, that I thought he’d been driving too fast all day, that he had to be more carful, blah, blah, dad stuff.
I described his reaction and my feelings in my diary:
I see I have scared him with my assault.
He blinks back tears and I feel sickened by my heavy-handedness, adding to his anxiety just to teach him a lesson. It’s the nuclear option and I loathe myself for using it.
I have never ever struck Jack. It’s not something to boast about, though the lessons of my childhood were often delivered by slaps, pinches, fists, hairbrushes, shoes, finger nails, belts. I vowed I’d never do the same. I would never curse or raise my voice in anger. I would rather raise a spoiled, entitled brat than sink into that vulgar, crimson swamp.
But being a parent means wielding great power, as a large person facing down a small one, as an arbiter and authority, and as the one who can give love or withhold it. Learning to wield that power wisely and fairly is an ongoing challenge. Even after all these years, I can let my own weakness carry me away.”
We decided not to drive the car any more that night. We walked past the hotel dumpsters, the Jack in the Box and the Taco Bell, till we reached La Fiesta, and downed a few Mexican beers and picked at our burritos.
Overnight, in my dreams, the scratch grew bigger and bigger, the entire front end of the car became crumpled and undriveable. I tossed and turned, making plans to sell the Focus for scrap in Amarillo and rent another to drive to LA.
In the morning, somewhat refreshed, I went out to reexamine the damage. It was trivial. I told Jack, this wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d thought. He replied, ‘Really? I think it’s pretty bad. How much worse did you think it was?’ I explained that it was limited to one small panel and that he could probably fix it with touch up paint. It wouldn’t affect the car’s performance. Worst case, a body shop could repair it for a couple of hundred bucks. My prognosis was based on zero experience, but it felt reasonable.
I did all the driving that day. It was a short-haul through the rest of West Texas, then on to Santa Fe. We passed through some lovely country straight out of a John Ford Western and our dark moods lifted under the big skies.
Grayson Perry is so clever and funny in his musings about the nature of art and how ridiculous the art world can be, thoughts that came right out of essays I have written on this blog and conversations Jack and I have had many times since he was a teenager.
Ready Player One is a novel about the highest levels of nerddom and online gaming, something Jack and I shared since he was little. Jack is far too cool for most people to know this side of him, that he loved to play World of Warcraft and read comics, that he still plays video games with his childhood besties.
Spending this week sitting 18 inches apart, reminded me of how much Jack and I are alike, how much history we share, how much we have gone through together. There are large chucks of my life that no one will every understand like he does, and vice versa.
But we are also quite different and our relationship makes that even more so. There are times, many of them, when he rolls his eyes at what I say and do. There are times that I cringe at myself for being the know-it-all-dad, swift with pronouncements that I’d be embarrassed for you or my other peers to hear me make, those do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do moments that are an inevitable part of being a parent. Jack isn’t always 100% forthcoming with his feelings, and I am overly self-conscious so I wonder what he thinks of me at times, whether I seem like a complete asshole or if he is actually taking in my priceless wisdom on how to change your oil, look for a job, or brush your teeth.
Santa Fe was relief from the long stretches of Texas and Oklahoma. We met a painter who worked in a flea market, we went to some mediocre galleries, we ate some artisanal food. The highlight for me was the Folk Art Museum.
Jack said he really liked the town, that it as the first place on the route he could imagine settling. I found it a little precious, the art was pretty mediocre, and there were too many crusty, grey-haired couples wandering around with Merrills and sunbonnets for my liking. I still preferred OK City, which at least had some hipsters under the age of thirty.
We ate more Mexican food, overdid it with green chiles, and played Casino in the hotel bar. On Saturday morning, we had a late departure and zoomed past Albuquerque, Gallup and the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest. We had to make a quick visit to my favorite abandoned campgrounds in Two Guns, AZ, a ghost town covered with murals and graffiti.
Then onto my mother-in-law’s house in Phoenix. Margie has had a rough summer health-wise and it was nice to have a quiet dinner with her and just sit and play King’s Corner.
On Sunday morning, we started the final leg of the trip, six hours on the I-10 . We stopping once, for lunch at a great old deli in Palm Springs where we shared a corned beef sandwich and some dill pickles.
We got to Jack’s new home in Echo Park by midafternoon. Ironically, we ended the trip as we’d begun it, down to fumes once again as we pulled into his ‘hood, barely making it to the Arco down the street.
I spent 24 hours in LA, helping Jack get some furniture at IKEA and start to get oriented. On Monday afternoon, he drove me to the Burbank Airport for my flight to San Francisco.
Here’re some snippets I wrote in my journal on the short flight north:
“Is he relieved as I walk into the terminal? To see the back of me and to finally be free to go where he wants, how he wants?
“I think this is why I’m here. Not to work or write blog posts. But to love Jack and Jenny. To love them as they should be loved. To do all I can to make them happy and fulfilled. I don’t do it perfectly but I try to do it better every day.
“I can tell him I believe in him, that I’m proud of him, that I love him — and I do. But those words are just icing on our twenty-two years together. What matters more is that I stand back and let go. That what I think and feel matters less and less to him.
For weeks, I have been telling myself that this trip represents the final chapter in my parental odyssey, that I’ve paid the last bill, fulfilled the last obligation, taught the last lesson, passed on the last morsel of experience, and now Jack will ride off to find his fortune while I wave feebly from a dusty window in the ancestral hovel, then recede into the gloom.
But of course this not the end of the story. It’s just one more chapter in Jack’s life and I shall continue to play a role in it, albeit a new one. I look forward to sharing in what he does so many miles from home because I know he’s not that far, that I brought him there, that his journey is an extension of my own, that we will always be connected in a way that can’t be severed and that neither of us wants it to ever be.
No matter where we each live or work or park or buy egg sandwiches, I shall always be Jack’s dad and he’ll always be my boy.”
That’s a bit maudlin for the wrapup of the trip. Here’s a better ending:
Repeatedly in the weeks leading up to the trip, jenny had told me I should show Jack where the spare tire was stowed in the car and demonstrate how to jack it up and change the tire. I kept meaning to, sort of, but never got around to it.
The fact is, I have only ever blown a tire once. I was driving across the busy Williamsburg bridge and it completely freaked me out. Jenny was with me, she called AAA, and a man in a tow truck came and helped us deal with it. Other than that, I had never changed a tire and my only idea of how to do it came from the movies.
The next day, I saw I had missed a text from Jack.
By the time I called him, he had driven over a nail, gone to a gas station, re-inflated the tire, then, when it went down again, found a place to get it fixed for $15 and was back on the road. He’d dealt with the problem on his own.
Now, I imagine if you are at all a normal person you are scoffing at this story — big deal, he dealt with a flat tire — but to me it was, of course, a symbolic and fitting end to our transcontinental odyssey.
Jack is on his own now. He’s living his life. He’s doing his thing. He’s fixing flat tires. And he’s gonna be okay.
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.
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.
(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.)
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.
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?
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.
As I start writing this, I already feel ridiculous. Hypocritical. Spineless. Overprivileged. Maybe if I just write whatever’s on my mind, I’ll get some clarity and balls. Let’s see.
This afternoon, Jack and I are going to pick up the keys to our brand-new studio. It’s a big, lovely empty space made for doing nothing in but making art without interruption.Jack can’t wait. The weeks since he moved out of his studio in Providence have been torturous as his mind brims with unpainted paintings. He’s itching to get to work and put them all on canvas.
Jack has a clear sense of himself as a painter. He’s not thinking about the whys of making art, not concerned with who will see the work and what they’ll do in response. He knows that he’s meant to make art and so he’s been like a clamped firehose, thrashing around the pavement, struggling for release.
I am stomped down, bottled up, and tightly capped. I haven’t made anything larger than a sketchbook page since we left Los Angeles, almost two years ago. Even that period in the garage was an anomaly. The idea of making art that could hang on the wall is still scary and ‘wasteful’. I have used our lack of wall space as an excuse for decades. I have long-claimed that art with a small ‘a’ means focussing only on the process and filled books to gather dust on shelves. I tell people not to think about what they will have made but only on what they are making now. When you are done, store it, frame it, burn it, I don’t care.
This is not just a black and white matter. On the one hand, I believe that when I take the pressure off myself to produce something finished and public, I am freer and more likely to take risks and make progress. So working in obscurity has helped me develop. And on the other, I don’t liven a hermitage. I do share images of my images in books and on-line. You’ve seen ’em. So have thousands of others.
But there are shortcomings to this approach. For one, I am always off-hand about the images I make. They are mere illustrations for my blog posts or book pages. It’s a way of avoiding real responsibility, this business of making pictures that are just marginalia, just a record of a nice breakfast, a quick sketch here or there.
I know this is gift-horse dentistry, a problem we’d all like to have.
I could say the same about my writing. Even when published in a book, my words still lack a certain seriousness, a full embrace of their role. It’s as if I only write captions, quips, epigraphs, body copy to be tossed out with tomorrow’s trash. A brief amusement in a social media post here, an email there.
Am I writing or drawing for the ages? Can I? Do I dare?
Maybe my years in advertising convinced me that what I make is always subservient to someone else’s agenda, another’s strategies and goals. And making advertising is inherently impermanent. A commercial last for thirty seconds, a print ad runs for a couple of months. It’s a diversion, never the main event. I know that some of my books have been in print for years, and that they have had more than a passing effect. Nonetheless this, sense of triviality is deep-dyed in me. I’d like to make something that matters. But trying to also scares the shit out of me.
Jack is a wonder to watch because he doesn’t feel a burden to achieve greatness each time he picks up a brush. He throws things around, then paints over them. He doesn’t stop to explain or justify. He just does. He’s the same kid who made elaborate Lego towers, then knocked them down to build something new.
Before Jack was born, my mother and my sister chipped in to rent a painting studio for me for a moth. I entered it with a sketchbook, a marker, and a lump on my throat. I hadn’t really drawn for ages and this room seemed designed to strip me of excuses. The first week there I wrote a long polemic about art and posted it on the wall. The next week, I made a few half-hearted collages. I spent the final two weeks trying to make a painting from an old photo of my grandfather. When the month was up, I left behind the handful of things I’d made and ran like hell.
I know it won’t be like that when we start this new adventure. First off, Jack won’t let me get away with it. But also, I have the feeling I can get there, that there might actually be stuff in me that is worth saying, worth saying large, and worth saying well. On that last point, I know that I need to work harder on what I make. Instead of dashing off a sketch or a watercolor, I want to push myself deeper into a painting, to explore, to respond, to refine. To evolve from playing the field to deepening my relationship with a work of art.
I know this is gift-horse dentistry, a problem we’d all like to have. And I am ashamed to start a summer in a painting studio with a whining screed about my inadequacies and fear. But I hope this self-assessment helps me to move past the anxiety of starting something new.
Thanks for holding my hand while I steel myself for the first leap.
My boy is now a man. He’s 6’3, 190 lbs. He has a beard and looks good in a suit. As of Saturday, he has a degree too, a BFA from the finest art school in the world. When the graduation ceremony was over, my sister texted me: Now what?
For some of Jack’s friends, the answer to that question is clear. They are the newest employees of some big corporation or another, a freshly printed job offer in their paws. Others are off on a grandparent-sponsored summer in Europe. And some are on to graduate school and a future of student loans. But Jack and most of his friends from RISD are getting ready for journey full of twists and turns. Being a creative person means living life creatively, with no clearly charted course, a brave foray into the uncharted. They are at their own helm as they sail into the foggy future, guided only by their sense of themselves as artists.
I think long and hard before I give Jack advice. I begin my dusting off my own post-graduate memories. I left school with only one plan, to avoid academia, politics or journalism, the three areas my degree in political science had prepared me for. The flame under my butt: my mother’s warning that I had to be out of the house by the end of the summer. I flailed in the job waters for a bit, then grasped at the first outstretched hand and ended up working in advertising for thirty years. It was a career, it provided security, I was good at it — but I always felt a tinge of regret that I hadn’t held out for something that more closely fit my values and dreams. No matter what I achieved, people would always ask me when I was going to quit and do what I was really meant to do. I don’t wish that for Jack.
I also graduated into very different world. It was the middle of a terrible recession. No sane person thought of starting their own business out of college. The goal was to work for a big, safe company with plush benefits and stay there for life. Advertising was a flourishing and respectable business. And the internet didn’t exist.
I also want Jack (and my) investment in his creativity to have a chance to pay off. That takes time, work and opportunity. If we give in to the desire for a swift and permanent solution to his security, he could end up in an ad agency too. Or worse. So I tell him he has time and freedom. He is responsible to nobody but himself right now, so he needn’t feel like he needs to embark on a career as yet,
But he does need a job. He needs to make money so he has options. And for a tall, smart, handsome guy, there are always ways to make money. So I tell him to start by focussing on that.
He is pretty smart about working. First, he decides doesn’t want a job that is too creative. Last summer he was a landscape gardener. He believes that if he avoids channeling all his creative energies into a job, he will still be able to paint. So he has some things lined up that will add to his coffers until he has a nest egg that will let him move out of our home and into his own. In the meantime, we’ll be sharing a studio where he can continue following his passion and I can get back to the kind of creativity I enjoyed when I lived in LA.
I tell him, try things. Be open, make connections. Soon you will find a way to make money that feels right. That feels in harmony with your creative self. It’s impossible to say what that will be. It could be some job we have never even heard of before, working with people we don’t know.
When he was first thinking about going to art school, I said, “Jack, most people don’t have a passion for anything. And most people don’t have something they excel at. You have both. Don’t walk away from it. If you love art and you are good at it, stick with it. That can’t be the wrong decision.” I still believe that. Neither of us think it will be easy in the short run, certainly not as easy as it might seem to be for those of his friends with corporate job offers in hand. But it will be easier in the long run, because being untrue to yourself is very hard indeed. Living a half-life, even with a full bank account, will leave you feeling hollow.
Being a parent isn’t easy. I am always balancing on the accelerator and then the brake, pushing him forward but not wanting to push him away. I am keenly always aware of the preciousness of our time together.
Last week I was watching some ancient videos I found on a hard drive, Jack at ten, shuffling a deck of cards for the first time, Jack on an early podcast of mine, reciting an African folktale he had made up.
In the old pictures of the two of us, he is still fresh and new with gleaming eyes, and I look essentially like I do now, a little less grey but the same. But of course I wasn’t. Patti was behind the camera, I was still a creative director, Bush was in the White House, Sketchbook Skool hadn’t been born. But Jack was another person, an energetic shrimp, his voice still high and clear, full of confidence and energy.
I want to shelter and harbor that optimism and ocean of possibilities, to protect him from the buffeting winds of reality, but I also know I can’t, he has to sail forth, he has to test himself against what the world throws at him.
I have faith in all that Patti and Jenny and I have done to make him, the opportunities and lessons we have provided. I have confidence in his intelligence, his values, his energy, his talent. But still I rewatch those old videos. Jack giving a speech about Patti’s disability, Jack marooned on a desert island, Jack playing the drums in his band, Jack parodying a kung-fu film.
A decade has passed in a heartbeat, the world has been shuffled, and Jack is a man.
When Jack was little, we started collecting his drawings in books labelled the Collected Works of Jack Tea Gregory. Before he was in middle school, we’d filled a shelf with big fat volumes. I don’t know that we always thought he’d be an artist— we didn’t give much thought to what he’d be like as a grownup. But he liked to draw and he had a great imagination and he made a lot of stuff all the time and that was just the way Jack was.
After four years at the Rhode Island School of Design, Jack and five other painters had their final Senior show last night. People held glasses of ginger ale and milled around walls covered with paintings and videos and projections. Jack had three pieces in the show, a sculpture, a painting and teeny, tiny drawing and layer he lead us up to his studio to see the rest of the work he’s been doing since he came from Rome last Christmas. It was voluminous.
Jack has been working on a series of related works for the last few months, all inspired by an encyclopedia of dogs he had as a kid. There’re a half dozen large, monochromatic and semi-abstract paintings based loosely on dog photos. There is a series of drawings and sculptures about Pluto and Goofy. A fabric sculpture of Pluto wearing dog mask that was embroidered with images of Goofy. A paper sculpture of an articulated dog that ran when you turn a crank. There was a huge painting of an attacking German shepherd. An abstracted figure with a speech balloon and a blurred action stroke. A book with a soft embroidered fabric cover that was filled with stretched digital abstraction and debossed imprints of dogs.
He has been working on a long series on Instagram. Each day he’d make a crude, bulbous, clay sculpture of Mickey Mouse. The next day he’d destroy the sculpture and reform it into another Mickey and upload a new picture. It went on for months.
Jack’s work never offers easy answers. It’s not ironic even when it’s using pop iconography. It’s always filled with emotion and a certain lack of control. It evokes loss and a commemoration of the underdog. His subjects always feel abandoned and overlooked.
When he was 19, he made a series of little sculptures he set up in the lost corners of alleyways around town. They were made by a fictional homeless artist who worked with found materials and then abandoned the sculptures to be ignored by passers by. The final pieces themselves were photos of the sculptures and their environs. One was in the ATM vestibule of a bank, photographed by a surveillance camera. In Rome, he made an installation of grubby, scratched and bent photos in glass frames. One had fallen to the ground and lay smashed underfoot.
Jack is an upbeat, funny guy. He has lots of friends, is warm and open. But his work reveals a dark part inside of him, forged perhaps by Patti’s disability and death, by his concern for the underprivileged and exploited.
Jack has always been a defender of the downtrodden. In middle school he was preoccupied with slavery and wrote plays and made drawings about old slaves who had lost their power to work. He has always worried about racism and sexism and how animals are treated.
I am so proud of him.
His willingness to reveal his feelings in his art, to have such high and selfless values, to be committed to his own creativity — they all make me bewildered at my part in making him who he is.
I don’t know where his art is going. Or where his life is going. It is beyond my control, even my influence. I think it will be challenging at times, the life of an artist always is. But I know it will be rich with experience, discovery, emotion, beauty and truth.
It’s hard for a parent to let go. To admit that your child is doing things you can’t do, sometimes can’t understand. But I have enormous faith in Jack and his abilities and talent and mind. I can’t wait to see what happens next.