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Zen and the Art of Art-Making

IN MEMORIAM: Karl Lagerfeld, 1933 - 2019 This blog is dedicated to the vision, creative courage, and intellectual audacity of Karl Lagerfeld.

"If I never become a rockstar household name, I'll still have won because painting has taught me more about myself and life than I could have ever wished for."

I typed those words in casual conversation with a friend just a few days ago, but the longer I chew on them, the more they blossom. Art-making, and my journey through creation, has been the most incredible trip through self-awareness and an exploration in what makes me most human.

I've always been a child of the fast life. In many ways, I'll probably always have some of that in my blood. The thrill, the rush, determining the speed of my own trajectory and then running with it. I've always loved that feeling. But I've also experienced the opposite side of that coin: endless corporate task lists, crushing deadlines, reckless decision making, rush jobs at the expense of my physical and mental health...the feeling that no matter how hard I rage against the machine, I will wake up in the morning to work for someone else so that I may continue to wake up in the morning to work for someone else. It's a crushing treadmill. An inescapable feeling of misplaced power. At 27, should I feel like many of my peers do (often in silence, but more frequently, as a growing chorus of young entrepreneurs) and succumb to this feeling for the rest of my working life?

We all know which conclusion I've arrived at. This remarkable little adventure has taught me so much about myself, and most of it has nothing to do with the skills I came preinstalled with. Sure, there is an amount of mettle and stubbornness which accompanies the entrepreneurial mindset. But just as important as an insistence on success and quality is an often overlooked trait: intellectual humility. All of my skills and qualifications mean nothing without the ability to be open to new frontiers and ideas which may challenge all of the previous assumptions I held about the world.

What will probably end up as just the first installment of many as I continue to grow and wander, I give you: Zen and the Art of Art-Making.

1. Ideas do not abide deadlines. Ideas have no use for time, and things of quality have no fear of it. As some people probably think artists do, I've woken up in the middle of the night with a burning idea, completely unable to sleep until I've brought it to life. I've also had remarkable ideas whose time have not yet come. They're napping on a shelf somewhere, waiting to kick and scream. But more often than not, many of my favorite final pieces are the product of a slow, meandering process. For this reason, I've learned to juggle many pieces at a time in order to give them the right amount of space to stretch and breathe.

2. My purpose is to spread magic.

Art-making is something we are all capable of. There is no arcane witchery here. My purpose is to spread magic, and to encourage you to spread magic too. When we make things, we not only challenge our own capabilities and notions of the world, we challenge yours too. We think in new ways in order to help you see in new ways, and hopefully, that gift continues giving. Artists plant trees so others may enjoy the shade, and that extends far beyond the visual, performing, or applied arts. Making people smile, helping others, and giving without expectation are all art forms in their own right.

3. There are no dualities.

We have been trained--as citizens and as critics, to evaluate most everything in dualities. Is something true or false? Black or white? Right or wrong? Beautiful or ugly? Smart or stupid? And on, and on, and on. I find this troubling, not only as it relates to our perception of current events, but as it relates to our receptivity to art. Art does not demand to be judged. It does not demand anything, really. It only requires you lean in and listen to it. If anything, art demands to be experienced and felt. Abstract art specifically.

Linear, qualitative judgments (about anything) almost always convey nothing with the purpose of saying something. Am I good or bad today? Neither matters if you can't lean in to "the why" and get to the root of what you're really feeling. The same may be said of artwork. Are you attracted to the color combinations an artist chose? Is there a particular quality of mark-making that especially interests you? Is there a form or sense of movement in a piece which takes you back to a poignant memory or makes you want to dance? These are the things which truly matter when evaluating artwork. You will encounter pieces of dubious quality. You will encounter work which does not whisper to you. You will see work which revolts you. But you do yourself a disservice when you hide in the shadows of duality. Nothing is ever merely good or bad.

4. I won't fight for something I can't stand. And I won't stand behind anything that doesn't meet my standards. This is a very important lesson, and one I wish I'd learned much earlier in life. I have gone to battle with so many projects only to lose. Learning to manage expectations, both the expectations of my clients and the expectations in my mind's eye, has been a steep learning curve. What I think I want is almost never what I end up falling in love with. I have come to realize that if I am wrestling with a piece, it's because something isn't clicking and I need to have another go at it tomorrow (with fresh eyes). Sometimes that means I need to start again. Sometimes that means I've gotten carried away and revisions are in order. Whatever it may signal, it always signals the beginning of something even better than I had in mind.

5. There are no mistakes.

Or, as Bob Ross might say, "There are only happy little accidents." Painting is a lot like being a jazz musician, and where I thought I'd end up is much less interesting than where I ended up. Most always the path I took was a series of incredible accidents. The improv led the way. For example, the 'Inertia' Collection was the result of a pint of paint I accidentally spilled on a canvas that had been prepped for another project. I was initially upset to have "wasted" paint and "ruined" a project for a client. It would mean money out of my pocket and more time I could have spent elsewhere. But something wonderful happened--as I walked around my mistake, looking at it from all angles, the spark of an idea flared in my mind. What if I could save these moments forever? Perfectly preserved in time...that would be something. One week and a lot of experimentation later, 'Inertia' was born.

6. There is beauty hiding everywhere in plain sight.

And when I am struggling to find the beauty in a situation or a work of art, I know that my world has become too small and I need fresh eyes. I met an artist once who had a camera roll full of the strangest miscellany, or so I thought at the time. Once I spoke to her, she helped me find the beauty in the texture, weave, and color of a swatch of fabric on the seat of a city bus. Sometimes I run my hands over the texture of a brick wall or a patch of grass, because so much of our daily life is sensual and exotic if we only pay more attention. The next time you go somewhere familiar, pretend to be a stranger or a tourist. See all of these things for the first time as if you were a child. Smell and touch as if for the first time. Experience the world rather than pass through it.

7. If you want to test my integrity, give me a blank canvas.

Give me a blank canvas and I will give you the best of me. There will be growth and reflection, research, analysis, wonder, and a multitude of perspectives long before I ever make a single mark. Much of the work I do you will never see, but when I am done, I will have given you a tiny piece of myself that is meant just for you. I hope you will look at it and see new things, experience something new, grow with it on your own adventure, and share it with others.

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