Wandering around


Dear Artist,

In the last letter I mentioned a marathon type of studio activity that turns ordinary days into creative highs. Here’s yet another way:

The science of management now has a system called “Managing by Wandering Around.” This is where the boss takes to the shop floor and interacts with workers on a casual basis. He seldom gives directions but rather invites suggestions or improvements or just generally oversees and approves what’s being done. This boss knows everybody on a first name basis — he often inquires about the wife and kids and fosters mutual loyalty around the shop. He hears worker’s needs. He’s a helping-out kind of guy who pitches in. The idea is that quality is produced in this environment because employer and employee know and trust one another. There’s a sense of community and purpose.

In a self-employed private studio application the artist wanders around and allows himself to be drawn to this or that in progress — or to start new projects as he sees fit. The best way to describe what happens is that you simply notice something — and an improvement comes to mind. Nothing forces anything — there is simply a need, the solution, and the activity. The head manages, the hand completes. Given a variety of works in a variety of stages of completion it’s possible to be productive in this sort of environment for some considerable time. It anticipates that the mind is capable of working on one thing while it’s working on yet another. This system gives the management time to think things through and has a lovely, peaceful, contemplative quality. In this artist’s world there are no motives of obligation or pressure — only the most potent motives of all — desire and curiosity.

Best regards,


PS: “Real style is not having a program. It’s how one behaves in a crisis.” (Fred Auerbach)

Esoterica: You may be familiar with the workings of the Montessori schools. This approach to the education of tiny tots can be summed up as “Opportunity for the selection of activities of choice in a prepared environment.” The school is set up in such a way that each child can be drawn to and work (play) with those educational toys with current appeal.

The following are selected responses to this letter. Thank you for writing.


What for?
by Elizabeth Christian

Living by “wandering around.” I guess that is what I in fact do. But wandering around to what end? I end up totally unfocused and not finishing anything. Or is finishing not the point really. We look back on all the things we “finished” — tests taken, projects completed… and to what purpose? Often none. When wandering we have appreciated the world, made unexpected connections, lived. Simply lived.

(RG note) The sentiment is so pervasive that it has to be taken seriously. A way around it is to see your life work as a mission. We are all granted an opportunity to make our world a better place — more beautiful, more explored, more inspired. It’s a gift. “Wandering around” is one of many self-management systems that just might extract the best. Each work of art is a value-added experience for its own sake. If we are blessed with this ability it should be our joy to enact it. Connecting our work to the eyes of others is a bonus and requires its own kind of ingenuity.


Won’t mix
by Susan Holland


“Dan Hall, the longtime school bus driver and janitor in the Bothell School”
painting by Susan Holland

“Only the most potent motives of all — desire and curiosity.” You have described my studio. And my style of leadership. It’s anathema to those who are still convinced that the “top down” style is the only worthwhile kind. One thing about these two styles of management: they cannot mix well in the same office. If you don’t have the support of your staff, it will not work at all. Factions develop and people get resentful and critical.

(RG note) My staff frequently lets me down. He’s sometimes lazy. More than anything he’s not as competent as he says he is.




by Baird McLean

Your pastoral view of managing the shop floor by wandering about and inquiring after the worker’s home life while making minor incursions into the general productivity of the shop is crap. The book, “Managing by Wandering About” was about finding out what is really going on before you make decisions and changes. There is no science in managing people as there is no science in managing one’s life. To be a good manager one should strive for integrity, knowledge, imagination and accessibility. So if your metaphor betwixt the shop and garret is thin and ill conceived, the vaulted wisdom sounds cliched. The thumping of a tired drummer on tuneless song, dry brushes on slack webbing sir.

(RG note) I agree with you on integrity, knowledge, imagination, and accessibility — motherhood issues all. You’re probably right about my stretched metaphors, too. It’s a little problem I’ve had since I was a kid. With regard to management I’m afraid it’s a science that many have not cared to explore — to the detriment of many potentially strong companies and many less than enthusiastic employees. You may have noticed that much of my interest in these letters is about the development and maintenance of artists’ self-management skills. You cannot be serious if you think we are all naturally good at it.


The “I-Ching” of reference
by Keith O’Connor

I have used a similar system for years. My extensive art resource library is randomly organized on shelves. When I look for something specific I have to scan the titles of many books and this leads to new and sometimes surprising directions. It almost seems as though what I thought I wanted was out of sync with what I really needed.

(RG note) Your letter gave me the subject matter for today’s letter: The value of randomness in reference selection. Thanks, Keith.


Mellower approach
by Libby Hartigan, Los Angeles, California, USA

Thanks for your follow-up suggesting a bit mellower approach to working. I loved reading about the “Golden Day” and hearing different artists respond to it. But I know that in my own process, I tend to want to overwork a piece and can sometimes go astray if I spend too long working. I don’t really have a separate studio in my apartment, but little sections throughout the place, and I find myself wandering here and there, working on this and that. I love being spontaneous, playful and experimental, but I must balance those expressive urges with the need to plan, contemplate and consider my options.


Sheepish eyes
by Skip Van Lenten, Rochelle Park, New Jersey, USA

Your latest letter called to mind the feeling of “getting lost” in the studio in much the same way that someone might deliberately set out on a new path while hiking in the woods, or even going out for a drive — just for the sake of discovering something not seen before.

For a while I lived in the woods, in a lean-to made of fir strips and boughs, beside Indian Creek in Mendocino County, California. The area is home to a few sheep farms and logging operations, and I found all of the solitude I could ever want during the six weeks or so that I camped out. One day I was out hiking and I made a wonderful discovery.

Just for fun, I was following a sheep trail. Sheep have pretty much free range in this part of the country, and I never saw a fence or even the farm they came from, but I knew they covered these parts of the mountains regularly. Their paths were smooth and distinct. At one point, I came to a fork in the path, which in itself seemed unusual. I thought of all the old cliches and poetic lines about the path well traveled and the choices we make in our own lives, and couldn’t imagine sheep having to make the same decisions, but I followed the path to the left knowing I could always come back and explore the alternate route some other time, Robert Frost notwithstanding. It took me to the edge of a cliff, with Indian Creek far below, and a beautiful view of the mountains on the other side of the gorge. There on the edge of the cliff was a single madrona tree that shaded a rocky area that was obviously visited many times by the wandering sheep. I have rarely seen such a beautiful site — almost biblical in nature, against the setting sun — and it led me to the conclusion that even sheep have their scenic areas in life, and seek out those places of rest along the highway that provide the maximum amount of pleasure to the eyes.

How lucky we are to find those areas ourselves, whether on the trail or in the studio.


Ritual working time
by Carolina Busquets, Fort Worth, TX, USA

I like to believe that I have made a ritual out of my painting time. Once I’m alone at home and I know I’m not going to be disturbed for at least a couple of hours here’s what I do: I light my scented candles. I put on my favorite mood music (energetic sambas or soft jazz, depending on the painting at hand) I put on my painting uniform (dirty old T shirt and stained jeans) I get all of my materials ready and start painting. Even with all this preparation sometimes I still don’t feel like throwing myself into the task. That’s when I get my diary out and write about my painting, materials I need to buy or whatever it is that is keeping me from working. This usually works and afterwards I can spend hours at the easel. I do admit I actually like (or need) interruptions. If I’m in the middle of something and the phone rings I may not answer, but my day usually includes email, phone and car. I can’t seem to be able to live in total disconnection.


The Montessori experience
by Giuseppi Furro, Turin, Italy

Montessori — absolutely. This is what studio is all about. The place has to be prepared for the artist who is the playboy or playgirl to come in to play with the toys that they like. That’s why it’s good to have a lot of things and toys so that the artist can pick up and go on or off here and there, happily. And then it’s nice to put things away neatly and ready for the next time and experience.

(RG note) Recently I had a class of school children come to my studio. After, the teacher asked them all to do a drawing and write down what they liked most about the visit. One child drew a picture of a messy room, and wrote — “What I liked most about Mr. Genn’s place is that he has someone to clean up after him.”


More on grants
by Mary Ann, Seattle, Washington, USA

You have to do it with your spirit; not with someone else’s money, otherwise whatever you reap is not of your own doing. Nothing wrong in working in a deli. I did to buy art supplies, and I am now reaping the benefits of the personal sacrifice. Actually I loved working in the deli! Now I spend a lot of time sending to shows — I didn’t need a grant. I had my goals. I love your letter. Have just been to NYC and in touch with a lot of artists there. They bitch a lot but never expand their bailiwick. It always has to be NYC. I enter everything I can coordinate with my crates, and have been doing well.


More on Artspeak
by Carol Allison

I agree with the idea that the art should speak for itself. People (especially critics and academia) forget that works of art are first drawn and painted. John Ruskin’s writings were a substantial contribution to the understanding of the art of painting even though he was wrong about Whistler. Probably because he was no slouch in his ability to draw and paint as well as write. I think that is the problem too many writers (and art professors) who know nothing of the job of painting. The brief time I went to a university art class they had a review where students had to get up and talk about their work and if they didn’t pass this they were told to chose a different major. Try teaching them to draw and paint first!


You may be interested to know that artists from 85 countries have visited these sites since January 1, 2001.

That includes Allison Creviston of Bowling Green, Kentucky, who says, “The key to getting where you want in your work is mainly not quitting.”

And Joseph Barbaccia, who says “I only wish I had more room to have more projects in play.”

And Diane, who says “Since time immemorial women have been doing more than one thing at a time.”

And Mary Wiley of Sherman, Texas, who “just took a few days off and wandered around galleries.”

And Albert Christof Reck, of Swaziland, who has had two wandering encounters with clouds, in the Ezulwini Valley in Swaziland and on the River Seine in France, and I would like to publish this whole story later.


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