In my last years of high school, I made hand-painted cards and t-shirts to sell at the local craft fair. When I got to art school, I found I could support myself by selling t-shirts on my residence floor. Painted one at a time on my bed with supplies I’d brought from home, it was the most unsophisticated moneymaking scheme I could think of to pay for paint. While other students worked at the copy center or the college pub, I sat in my room with my t-shirts and eked out what my dad called, “the gift of poverty.” It was enough to get by and, like original art, impossible to scale.
When I was at the Los Angeles Art Center my friend Tom Bizzini used to say, “Fine art is a sham.” It was a popular sentiment around that workmanlike, survival-of-the-fittest, quality-counts school. In those days it seemed that there were lots of artists who were “putting in a nickel and trying to get a dollar tune.” Same as today.
Recently, I saw some of John Stobart’s work in a gallery and was reminded once again just how good he is. John is one of the world’s top marine painters — his work sells in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
An idea has been floating around creative circles recently that belief in the infinite potential of our dreams might reduce our ability to address limitations. When dreams fail to deliver, feelings of guilt, inadequacy, depression and self-doubt surface. Art reaches for truth, and fear is a natural hurdle in the approach. Accomplished art-making is achieved not by magic but by developing the character to understand and challenge fear. Better to roll up our sleeves than to suffer death by a thousand delusions.
Not many hikers are on the Grand Randonnee in the Cevennes this time of year. You’d think in a country the size of France the public footpaths would always be busy. But no one is around, save a few mushroom-gatherers quietly moving in the undergrowth. My hiking companion, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, has just turned 166, but he keeps right up with me. He’s great company and has an opinion on everything.
While walking recently through a California olive grove, a budding art collector and I ruminated on love and investing. “I’m an intuitive collector, but my husband likes to research. He wants to learn about the artists and their drives,” she confided. “We have an agreement. Whatever we buy, we must both love it.”
“As an artist,” she asked, “does it bother you if a collector buys your painting but later sells it?” Without hesitation, I replied, “The art world needs speculators. What would emerging artists do without someone willing to take a chance? And what fun would collecting be without the gritty discovery of future treasures?”
Photographers, unencumbered by a thousand years of process, have shone their light onto new levels of pictorial creativity. Good examples are Galen Rowell and his wife, Barbara. Through countless adventure-photography assignments to the Rockies, Tibet, Patagonia, Galapagos, Antarctica — even to a falcon’s nest at skyscraper top, Galen’s eye and brain have reassessed the business of viewfinder seeing. As well as taking spectacular photos, he has written about the process with clarity and charm. Noted for his invention of selective neutral-density filtering, he has also helped re-define other systems. For artists of all stripes, many of his ideas and observations are worthy of naming and claiming.
Recently, Steve Howard, Head of Sustainability at IKEA, declared that developed countries have reached “Peak Curtains.” He was speaking at a Sustainable Business debate hosted by “The Guardian.” “In the West, we have probably hit peak stuff,” said Steve. “We talk about peak oil. I’d say we’ve hit peak red meat, peak sugar, peak stuff… peak home furnishings.”
After reporting an annual net profit of $3.5 billion — achieved by providing fast furniture to Western consumers and by finding new customers in developing countries — IKEA announced a goal to double its sales by 2020 by pivoting away from disposables and instead making things that can be repaired and recycled.
A friend of a friend phoned this morning and said, “Don’t waste my time Bob — what’s your all-time best tip?” I had to put down my brush for that one. I used to think it was “Keep busy while you’re waiting for something to happen.” After some thought I realized I had honed the advice further: “Pick up your tool,” I told him.
It’s been my observation that pretty well all growth, success and creative happiness are based on the discovery and exploitation of our tools. Some tools, tried and true, come back and are used again to new advantage.
In Francis Whately’s 2013 documentary, David Bowie: Five Years, there’s a scene, shown in split-screen, of David Bowie’s longtime guitarist Carlos Alomar casually riffing, then building layers for the anchoring groove that became the 1975 hit, Fame. In that moment, the shifting shape of an artist seems to unfold in real time. Young Americans would be Bowie’s ninth studio album, releasing past Glam Rock personae to grab at his latest obsession with R&B, funk, soul and dance hall music. In style, Bowie adopted a term for his new sound: “plastic soul.” “I put together all these odds and ends of art and culture that I really adore,” he said. “Every time I’ve made a radical change it’s helped me feel buoyant as an artist.”
One of the essential principles of creativity is MAD. It’s also known as OTD, but they amount to the same thing. MAD stands for “Make A Delivery,” OTD for “Out The Door.” These concepts resonate with the idea, long since proven effective, that writers write, painters paint and tortillistas make tortillas. It also says that if you want to be an apple vendor you better have apples in your apple cart. The idea goes beyond commercial considerations. Even poor Cezanne, with all his neuroses, thought a little bit better of himself when, finally at age 55, the Paris dealer Vollard saw fit to give him his first one man show.