A year on the line


Dear Artist,

When asked if culinary school was a good route to celebrity chefdom, Anthony Bourdain, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, implored aspirants to first spend a year as a line cook. “You’ll make no money for a very long time, it’s physically demanding, you’ll have no life, and if at the end you can’t imagine doing anything else,” he said, “you’ll know it’s the life for you.”


“Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus” c.1617-18 oil on canvas, 55 x 118 cm
by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660)

I was reminded of an old New York friend who made most of her annual income modelling once a year at the auto show. One night after her waitressing shift, she confided that what she really wanted was to be a star. “After countless auditions, it’s dawned on me that the job of an actor has nothing to do with standing on a red carpet,” she said. “I realize that I have to be in love with the activity of being alone in my apartment running lines in the mirror.” In painting, days spent solving problems at the easel are also lonelier than shoring up credentials, insecurities and connections at art school. Like the line cook, a year on the art line, unpaid and unsung, delivers the most sobering answer to the question at hand: “Can I be an artist?”


“Old Woman Frying Eggs” 1618
oil painting by Diego Velázquez

Here are a few extreme measures:

Save enough money to live like a hermit for one year. If this feels impossible, try a month. Your location need not be at the centre of a bustling art hub. In fact, a discount shed on the fringes of the uncool could be a better bet for solvency and focus.

Now, quit working on other things. Can you hurl yourself into the galaxy of nothing else?

Equip your workspace with enough supplies for wild experimentation, with the goal to produce failures for an impressive end-of-year burn-pile.

Tell the distractions you’re unavailable, without going into detail about your plans.

Eschew participation in commercial activity.

Now, begin:


Still Life by Diego Velázquez

Follow organic developments.
Veer away from the obvious.

Avoid falling into stylistic rote.
Hone stylistic tendencies.

Develop flare.
Make a commitment to teaching yourself the basics.

Don’t worry about finishing uninteresting things.
Bring promising stuff to completion.

Hang potential winners around your place for a second look.
Delay commitment to a direction.

Make the work you’ve always fantasized about.
Make the type of work you think you dislike.

Postpone extensive external feedback.
Invite only a tiny and select audience to comment.

If, at the end of your year on the line you cannot imagine doing anything else, it could be the life for you.


“Christ in the house of Martha and Mary”
1618 oil on canvas, 60 x 103.5 cm
by Diego Velázquez



PS: “In your light I learn how to love. In your beauty, how to make poems. You dance inside my chest, where no one sees you, but sometimes I do, and that sight becomes this art.”

Esoterica: Anthony Bourdain worked in restaurants for over 20 years before he submitted an article to The New Yorker called, “Don’t Eat Before Reading This.” After expanding it into the book Kitchen Confidential, his writing took him from struggling to pay his bills to executive chef; food, travel and fiction writer; and television personality. He held onto his grit, work ethic and sense of wonder in spite of a lifelong struggle with depression, which took his life on June 8 of this year. “The journey is part of the experience — an expression of the seriousness of one’s intent. One doesn’t take the A train to Mecca.” (Anthony Bourdain)


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.

“Skills can be taught. Character you either have or you don’t have.” (Anthony Bourdain)



  1. I’ve pretty much been following those instructions for 5 years (although I could get stricter on some, particularly regarding choosing a small, select audience) … and yes, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I only wish I’d done it earlier in life.

  2. So timely for me right now — wrestling with competing demands while trying to summon the commitment to just go ahead already and MAKE the time to devote to my artistic development instead of just talking or thinking about doing it! Thank you!

    • Susan Warner on

      ‘Making the time to devote to my development’… it’s so difficult to ignore the basics needs of life. Someone Has to clean, cook, do laundry, pay bills organize lives
      Of others. Even while being encouraged to
      Do my creative thing, I can still see through and around to those basics crying out to be
      Attended to.
      I see the changes and improvements in my work if I devote my energy just to the art. Who can make this kind of focus and
      Commitment to the exclusion of all else?

  3. Dear Sara,
    Thank you for continuing yours and your dad’s work. This is a beautiful letter in many ways. Thanks for speaking about Anthony Bourdain also. I liked him a lot and was so saddened by the news. Your tribute to him is so kind and respectful.
    Bless you and your family for your kindness.

  4. Raymond Mosier on

    This the second but the best I’ve read on this subject in the past week. In my later years I realize and no longer regret not pursuing the artist’s life was not for me. The one element not mentioned directly is COURAGE. I did not have it.

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