If painting is like navigating, you might want to put down your phone. Neuroscientists at the University College London scanned the brains of London cabbies and discovered that the volume of their hippocamps — the part responsible for spatial memory, visualization and narrative — was larger than average. As possessors of “The Knowledge” — knowing by heart over 320 routes, 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks — London cabbies are said to have had an atlas of the city transplanted into their brains. The magic is that “The Knowledge,” unlike a smart phone algorithm offering every driver the same directions, allows the cabbie to create novel routes based on a mastery of experience and to retrace, tweak and embellish these routes over time.
A subscriber wrote, “I’m spring cleaning. Sketches, old matted drawings, paintings that aren’t my best, oil studies, unimportant works, etc., have finally found themselves in a big pile. Some, if properly matted and framed, could sell. The problem is that I don’t want to invest in the time, energy or frames. Would slipping them into poly bags with backing be appropriate to move this stuff? Right now, I feel like throwing them into the dumpster, but I have been told not to do so. What do you do with your studies and sketches? What do you think of having a fire-sale?”
Recently, I received an email from an Italian contemporary furniture brand. Sandwiched between complimentary remarks about my work, they requested I send some paintings to Venice for an upcoming photo shoot. “We guarantee you a lot of visibility, your credit will be printed on the catalogue and we will share with you the hi res pics. Also we will tag you in every social media platform where your artworks will be.” They signed off by dangling the names of their photographer and stylist and telling me to let them know if I was “in.”
Last night I was giving a short talk and signing books at one of our local art clubs. I happened to notice no men were in the hall. The club has many male members, they assured me, but apparently they don’t come out on rainy nights. Not to listen to me, anyway. I wasn’t crestfallen — I was being sociologically informed. I’ve always noticed the 80/20 split in these organizations, but I knew the full-female thing was just around the corner. Anyway, it was a combined lecture and holiday-season windup, the shortbread was good, and no one asked me to dance.
In the most recent issue of the journal Brain, Marco Cantani, professor of psychiatry at King’s College London has linked Leonardo da Vinci’s chronic inability to complete projects to undiagnosed ADHD. According to Giorgio Vasari’s 1550 seminal artistic biography, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, Leonardo jumped from project to project, slept only in short bursts and had trouble finishing his paintings. To Professor Cantani, the tumbling evidence is enough to suggest a posthumous diagnosis and explore the creative edge ADHD could offer affected artists.
In the recently published Against Happiness, popular writer Eric Wilson disparages our current love affair with putting on a happy face. With our “feel good” culture and the widespread use of happy drugs, everybody’s trying to be cheerful and there are no decent dollops of melancholy and sadness, he says. When this happens art becomes bland, unchallenging and redundant. Dr. Thomas Svolos of the department of Psychiatry at Creighton University School of Medicine thinks Wilson is right. “When you’re melancholy, you tend to step back and examine your life,” he says, “That kind of questioning is essential for creativity.”
Yesterday, my twin James arrived in the evening with an early birthday present. I could hardly believe it when he wheeled it across in front of the window under the eave lights, where he knew I would see it from the kitchen. Sky blue, with 3 speeds and a basket, James might as well have given me a second studio. After I hugged and thanked him, we reminisced about every other bicycle we had ever known, and all the pleasure and inspiration that can be drawn from such a timeless creativity machine.
When I was a boy my dad owned a sign shop. There were four employees: Nort, Mort, Phil and Bert. Each had their specialty — show cards, banners, silkscreen, illustration. It seems my dad was always walking around and asking, “Do you have something to get on with?” Dad lived in fear that one or the other would run out of something to do.
Not so long ago, I moved to New York to paint the paintings I had always longed to paint, with the dream of showing them in a place where they needed no explanation. I found a small loft behind Canal Street, between the fish market and the counterfeit handbags, and began filling my new-old studio with the largest paintings I could muster. There was no purpose or goal to it other than to see if it could be done.
My daughter, Sara, and I are again up to Lake O’Hara and Yoho National Park in British Columbia. Today, in the champagne air of a place known as “The Hanging Gardens of Babylon,” both of us are struggling with extra-large canvases. We’ve come this high with a little help from our friends, and we’re talking about “strong and wrong.” It’s a term currently used by some of Sara’s New York musician friends. Apparently it’s better to blow a strong note off key than to produce a wimpy one that doesn’t get noticed.