How to do everything


Dear Artist,

An artist wrote, “As someone who’s always organized, I long to break free in my paintings. I wonder if it’s in me to be wild and unstructured in this one area of my life. Do others deal with this dilemma? Is it a case of, ‘how you do one thing is how you do everything?’”


photographing the Chama Valley,
New Mexico, 1961
Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)
photo Todd Webb

Thanks. Picasso had his multiple women and periods; Bacon, his hoarder studio and brushwork; and O’Keeffe her monastic Ghost Ranch from which to capture the emptiness of the New Mexico sky. Think of these connections as an overarching, personal spirit exaggerated in a few choice areas, rather than a dogmatic rule of sameness stroked on with a big, limiting brush. Outliers are possible. My dad wasn’t much for putting the caps back on his paint tubes and might have been smothered by a pile of books and yogurt cups if not for the TLC of my mother. His work, on the other hand, spoke to polish, often marked by the pin-perfect finishing of a number 6 sable. A longtime mystery, his secret was revealed to me one summer while I was flicking and flailing all over a lap canvas in the deep ranges of the Rocky Mountains. He looked over my shoulder and said, “Try to choose at least one area to be neat.” Through a channelling of care, he was a rock of a parent, ran a tickity-boo business and in life, like in his work, took the time to be tender. In fact, all areas of his life carried the élan of his paintings — he just happened to be doing it in the pants of a hobo, with the help of a raggamuffin dog.


Georgia O’Keeffe
Ghost Ranch, New Mexico

The secret is to do it your way. Button up, go feral or make a productive mix. Let your sweet spot find you. The Chief Technical Officer of a Fortune 500 recently asked me to meet her on the tarmac at Burning Man for a week of unwashed, hemp-crunching counter culture. Her idea of a palate cleanse was to drop the shackles of boss life and set stuff alight. For artists, such extremes may or may not be necessary. Perhaps, instead, the artist’s prerogative is to save her most unfettered impulses for the canvas. From there, she can always choose at least one area to try to be neat — or not.


Georgia O’Keeffe, Ghost Ranch, 1968
photo Arnold Newman



PS: “I believe in deeply ordered chaos.” (Francis Bacon)

Esoterica: Claude Monet — gardening in life and paint, flanked by kids, cultivating other artists — got progressively looser as he aged. His octogenarian water lilies, aided by cataracts and a very long brush, peaked as an inspired interior window, revealing the mastery of a technician. I used to tease my Dad that, like Monet, he was heading towards his most avant garde decade, when the cares of the world would soften and his wisdom could articulate through rabidly lucid and poetic focus. While my dad and his paintings were denied their eighties, their unique complexities remain in the carefree, polished and paradoxical strokes of a total, human package.


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“A week ago it was the mountains I thought the most wonderful, and today it’s the plains. I guess it’s the feeling of bigness in both that carries me away.” (Georgia O’Keeffe)