Mess-makers anonymous


Dear Artist,

The well-known physicist and writer David Deutsch is also well-known for the messiness of his workplace. Once, when a TV crew came in to record an interview with him, they offered to tidy up a bit before beginning. He told them they could if they put everything back exactly the way it was. They did.


“Chambers” 1978
oil on canvas, with metal doorknob
48 x 96 1/8 inches (121.9 x 244.2 cm)
by James Rosenquist (1933-2017)

Deutsch argues that his chronic messiness is part of his creativity process. Apart from admitting that “tidying up is boring,” he cites the value of cross-pollination and multi-tasking that a messy work environment gives. “The resources for all the different lines of thought are left open,” he states. Multiple projects are picked up or dropped at will and their serendipitous physical presence invites the “grab and proceed” process.

There is some evidence, however, that it’s better for most of us to be organized. Julie Morgenstern has written an excellent book for mess-makers who might wish to see the light. Organizing from the Inside Out points out flaws in our nature that keep us forever trapped in our messes. She identifies a key weakness as “the failure to systematize common decisions.” This often comes from poor or lazy habit patterns that arose in our early lives. It’s a matter of step-by-step relearning. You must “analyze, strategize and attack.”


“The Divergent Paths of Artists’ Lives to Infinity, The Identity Changes, 2008”
oil on canvas, 68 x 62 inches
(172.7 x 157.5 cm)
by James Rosenquist

Among other tips, she effectively shows how to manage space and time. “Organized people,” she says, “will make fewer and better decisions in the long run.” According to Julie it takes more time to be disorganized than it does to be organized. Efficiency is the goal, inefficiency is the enemy. Creative people who read my letters will be familiar with my enthusiasm for efficiency.

For the record, I’ve noticed something curious in a few studios. Messy environments actually generate neat art. Organization that doesn’t go into the room goes into the art. David Deutsch mentions the joy he gets from organizing his computer files — and how neat it all is in there. Many painters talk of the idealized, dimensional world that they can temporarily live in and organize to their liking. Could it be that our art is a sanctuary?

Ataxophobia is the fear of untidiness. Apparently everybody has it to some degree. The production of art may be in part a sublimation of this fear. Perhaps guilt plays a part. Taken daily, art is the pill that makes order out of chaos.


“Welcome to the Water Planet” 1987
oil on canvas, 13 x 10 feet
(396.2 x 304.8 cm)
by James Rosenquist

Best regards,


PS: “I chop and change between what is called ‘work’ and what is called ‘recreation.’ There are no discontinuities in my day. I only play tennis with people I find interesting.” (David Deutsch)

Esoterica: When I was a student at Art Center in Los Angeles, I lived in a boarding house with several other students. Our landlady was a quiet woman who had moved west from Nebraska after the passing of her husband. Stella Dunlavy was a person who had firm opinions and stuck to them. While she may have taken in foreign students from time to time, I was, as far as I know, the only Canadian she had ever seen. One day, as I was coming down the stairs, I overheard her telling one of the boarders, “The Germans are warlike, the Japanese copy things, and the Canadians are a messy people.”

This letter was originally published as “Mess-makers anonymous” on June 7, 2005.


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.

“When things become peculiar, frustrating and strange, I think it’s a good time to start painting.” (James Rosenquist)




  1. One thing I always loved about your dad’s letters was his sense of humour. Thank you for this. It made me smile! I’m afraid much of the time in my studio I’m a messy Canadian too, and appreciated David Deutsch’s comments which might help me explain and justify why. Sometimes I feel guilty with the mess, but do think for me it is part of my creative process. Luckily I have a large studio (and once in a while I get busy and clean the whole place.)
    Happy New year to all! May it be a creative year!

  2. Maybe your studio is big enough. Maybe there’s room to put everything away. I’m living in mine- so there’s far less room than I started with. Some things are ordered. I love that. Some things aren’t ordered- mostly because they’re being used. I deal with it. Most of us move in and out of pieces- projects- beginnings- finishings. I don’t remember a time when I started something and then finished it before doing anything else. Just not the way it works.
    A couple of days ago I read an Neil Gaiman quote suggesting that we move ahead with making mistakes. That if we’re motivated enough to be making mistakes- then we’re MAKING something. Order out of chaos. Making- and making mistakes- better than not making.
    My 2019 FB post last night: Hopefully one day soon we’ll reach the conclusion that we’re all connected and we’ll make peace with each other- and not war. Happy New Year.
    So never stop making- even if sometimes you make a mess. When it’s timely- clean it up. It’s all just a part of the ongoing creative process.
    The Chinese Year of the Pig approaches. Could be an interesting mess…

  3. I agree with your dads comments. Personally I am somewhat messy, a bit if a hoarder too but before I start s painting I always clean up my painting table and the palette . It works for me. It clears the mind so I can focus on a new beginning.thank you for the article .
    Happy New Year to you.

    • Linnette Taft on

      I’m a little like Jean Belluz. I’m not a clean freak, but I like some order. I too have to clean my palette and brushes before I start painting. I wish I could remember to clean my brushes when I’m done for the day! And I also never finish one painting before starting another. Many of my paintings are work in process. When I do commissions my husband groans and says, are you ever going to stop! And when I deliver to the clients, he tells them ‘thank God you are taking it so that she can stop ‘messing’ with it! And I do so agree Neil Galman…I definitely improve because of my mistakes.

  4. I am one of those people that creates a mess but then needs to re-organize in order to begin again . I feel more able to focus creative energy on the creating when my environment is neat and there is not a lot of unnecessary ” stuff’ all around me. I have been dreaming about my soon – to – be new studio – a large space with big windows and lots of natural light … and how minimal I want my “stuff’ in that space to be…… just the space, the light and the current work – along with a table to put all my paints on…… I think our environments help make us feel creative and give us our energy … and whatever environment feels right for you….. go with it … messy or minimalist…… whatever works…. just go to your room and paint [ who said that? ] …. Happy New 2019 to all the artists in the world… may there be joy and celebration of art in your new beginnings.

    • Hi Robin, I am glad you are looking forward to your new space and I look forward to your creations as they unfold between tidying up … You’re right, painting is messy and maybe that’s what we love about it, and perhaps cleaning up regularly offers a necessary contrast. Happy New Year and Happy New creations!

  5. My studio is quite messy until I reach a point of near chaos, then I tidy up (somewhat) to make sure I can locate everything I need. With space to work, and the materials at hand, I’m happy. Even though I envy those with highly organized, spare and clean work areas, I could not maintain one when I was able, on a rare occasion, to get there. I comfort myself with the image of Alexander Calder’s studio in Connecticut. And although I will probably now read Morgenstern’s book, I have little expectation of changing my ways.

  6. Mother, grandmothers were all neat freaks. Their homes seemed more like museums than a home to live, breathe, and create which is why I embrace this message from friends:;”If your house is clean, you’re not painting enough.” Painting, drawing, creating all free me from that sterile childhood. When the mess turns overwhelming, I clean and reorder, but until that tipping point, have a Happy New Year 2019, and keep painting! And yes, there’s a new studio coming, full of space and light and art surrounding me!

    • Mary, you are so right! “If your house is clean, you’re not painting enough.” Most of the time my house is spilling over with “stuff” like half finished paintings, or paintings waiting to be framed etc, because my little studio room won’t hold them! If everything is clean, it means I’ve run out of stuff to frame or paint or “think about” and I have to start a new project!

  7. Mess is fine, neatness is fine. Making art is all that matters. I will never forget Robert stepping between haphazardly scattered paint containers, brushes, rags, and in the midst of the chaos, his beautiful super-neat painting came to life. We all do the best we can. Happy New Year, Sara, and all our art friends!

  8. My studio is upstairs , hardly move thru it , my wife would not let anyone up there and I agree with her , when I’m there I want to paint not clean up , maybe someday .

  9. My studio is good, except it’s lacking in horizontal surface space, so everything is kind of messy. There are three large desks for various projects, several low tables, a table for the etching press, shelving, and a small closet that’s mainly used to store matt board. Though I probably have enough space, it’s still cluttered and disorganized, and sometimes I think I spend more time looking for things and moving them around from one desk, shelf, or stack on the floor,to another spot than I spend actually creating art. The solution – my wish – is always for more horizontal storage/working area. If I were a gazillionaire, my studio would be a gymnasium with many large desks, a desk for each medium and current project: drawing, journals, book making, painting, woodcuts and linocuts, monotypes, encaustic collages, digital photography and printing, etc. Plus extra desks just for putting things on when I don’t know where they go.

  10. I can’t agree with you more…..My working placeS are very messily ORGANIZED. I will not able to work if it’s been completely cleaned up and organized by cleaning crews to organized my things.

    So glad I am not alone in this.

  11. I have small studio but that’s no problem. I am used to making do in many other aspects of life. I am fortunate.
    As far as mess– my motto is “it’s different strokes for different folks.”

  12. Deutsch rules!
    My studio is what some people would call a total mess…. I LOVE it. Truly gets creative juices flowing for me. It helps me to put things into my paintings in ways that would never happen if “stuff”was out of reach/sight.
    However… my husband is the opposite so any shared spaces are neat and tidy… well, mostly.
    Thank you Sara and all you glorious artists for making the world better and sweeter …

  13. Maybe my new years resolution will be to keep a tidier studio …but I just cleaned my studio and it took some time to get into the flow and “create” in it again- So I guess I too am a Messy Canadian. It is interesting that the outdoor studio for En Plein Air has a lot of distractions as well though different ones and having inly the bare nessesities seems enough. Is it really about choices then and what drives them. Great letter that made me smile too. Order in our chaos – where do we find it-?May the new year reveal it as we try to do our best to create! Happy New Year!

  14. Transformational flotsam lounge upon my surfaces waiting to be reborn. Each catches my eye from time to time….some capture my mind and I must breathe life into them. How stifling to fill pigeon holes! I’m an artist….not an accountant!

  15. “Messy bed, messy head”. “Nature versus nurture”. We can’t help how we are hard wired. At least, not yet. I have always been a hopeless neat-nik and can’t do or start anything until everything is in its place within my field of vision. Some years ago when I was 52, I met my birthmother and guess what. She also was a perfectionist in the extreme. It’s in the genes. Although I can make quite a mess around me when I am painting, it (and the work in progress) has to be in order when I am finished for the day. My German/Austrian roots must surely be to blame. Or thanked, depending on one’s point of view. I do admit that I am envious of those who can live in visual chaos. I accept that I can not. Sometimes I even drive myself crazy with my need for order and perfection. The good news is that my paintings don’t have to be perfect (in my mind) and I find that to be calming and liberating.

    Nancy Guzik told our group in a workshop some years ago, that according to her husband and mentor, Richard Schmid, one should leave a painting at the end of a session in such a state that if you were to die during the night, the painting could stand on its own merit, even though it isn’t ‘finished’. I like that.

    In Light & Love,


  16. I’ve funished a project and the place is a mess. Reading becomes my go to activity. When I get the urge to clean up the studio I know the next endeavour is brewing in me.

  17. Years ago, I was going to turn my motto, “You Don’t Win Best in Show for a Clean House,” into a sign for my studio door. Still haven’t gotten around to it because I’m too busy making creative messes and loving them!

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