As a five-year-old who loved drawing and painting, Caroll Spinney discovered puppets after seeing a performance of The Three Little Kittens. When he was eight, he bought a monkey puppet at a rummage sale for 5 cents, collected some scrap wood and built a puppet theatre. He made 32 cents from his first show. “That’s when I knew I would be a puppeteer when I grew up.”
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“It is useless to advise solitude for everyone,” wrote Paul Gauguin, “One must be strong enough to endure it and to work alone.” In these days of social sharing and manufactured applause, bona fide aloneness has become for many a kind of terrifying emotional enterprise. I’ve even noticed that solitude for some would-be creative types — once the de facto maturation ground for an artist — can now feel intolerable. Add to this the new reality that real, unadulterated solitude can be difficult to carve out — it’s practically endangered. Where do we go to be truly alone, to access our deepest stirrings and hear our inner poetry?
In the summer of 1936, 33 year-old photographer Walker Evans was invited by writer James Agee to take time off from his work with the Resettlement Administration to collaborate on a story for Fortune magazine about Alabama sharecroppers. The two set out to the tenant farms of rural Hale County and began documenting the impoverished lives of three families. Today at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, I’m staring back at Evans’ most famous work — a portrait of 27-year-old Allie Mae Burroughs, mother of four and wife of Alabama cotton and corn farmer Floyd Burroughs.
About halfway through the HBO documentary, “Becoming Warren Buffett,” a scene shows Warren Buffett and Bill Gates sitting at a table, each painting a picture — apparently a first for both. “He doesn’t know much about art,” says Bill in a voiceover. “I can’t tell you the colour of the walls in my bedroom or my living room,” says Warren. “I don’t have a mind that relates to the physical universe well.” For a moment, I thought I detected the slack-jawed bewilderment of a guy on the precipice of failure.
Recently, a subscriber wrote to ask about a letter he called, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Artists. Sounding familiar, I took to the Painter’s Keys search bar tool, but came up short. A quick pass at Google gave me a seminar aimed at 3D computer graphics animators, and so I wondered, might it be time to take a closer look at the “habits?”
First published in 1989, Stephen R. Covey’s best-selling self-help manifesto The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People triumphs character over personality in the achievement of goals.
A recently retired schoolteacher shared her career-long response to students complaining of boredom: “Only boring people are bored.” I strained to think of an artist who had ever complained of being bored. I wondered: Are artists innately gifted with a love of time? Are they anointed with savvier powers to daydream, to reflect, to be curious, inventive, doodling and self-reliant? Do they possess a diminished need for pastimes and entertainment? How did they get here? Are artists born not bored?
In July 1977, a broke and couch-surfing screenwriter was sparked to action by a book of paintings by a Swiss surrealist. He called the artist in Zurich and invited him to work on some concepts in Hollywood. The artist, an insomniac who suffered from night terrors, was also afraid of flying, so they agreed instead on England, where for 11 months the artist lived above a pub in Shepperton, Surrey. There, he built a prototype out of Rolls Royce parts and reptile vertebrae, working only from a brief sent in the form of a letter from Los Angeles
An artist who wishes to remain anonymous called to say he’d fallen out with his creative partner. As a result, he was bogged down with disappointment, bad blood and a logjam of paperwork needed to release a big idea, now begging for a clear-headed, singular captain. Apparently, this idea was special enough to be fought for, but mourning, reworking and cleansing it has drained his bank account and put a hold on other creative options, paralyzing his happiness and momentum. At the risk of simplifying his problem, I suggested he get to work right away on something else.
I once took a turn as a sometimes player in a New York rock band. The leader, a long-haired, Gibson SG-wielding screamer who also studied Buddhist meditation, told me that in Rock ‘n Roll, making it clear about what you’re against rather than what you love is most effective. With this formula, rockers have successfully defined themselves. By kicking off a point of view, they have united, disrupted and inspired their audiences.
You may have noticed the odd times when something is irking you, putting you into a bad mood, and you sit down at your easel and do good work. While it’s not as pleasant as when you’re in a good mood and everything is coming up peonies, it works to your benefit in another way. In my experience, a bad mood helps the attention span and the critical faculties — not necessarily to be more creative, but with a wider vision and a sharper focus.