Yesterday was a bittersweet day, driving up to Providence to help Jack move into his dorm and begin his sophomore year at RISD. Bitter because I am losing my boy again after we had a great summer together, spending a lot of time hanging out, making things, watching lousy movies, and drawing. Sweet because he was so excited about starting the new year, his first as a painting major, raring to get to work. He read several influential books this summer: the recent biography of David Hockney by Christopher Simon Sykes, Lives of the Artists by Calvin Tomkins and Patrick O’Brian’s plump biography of Picasso. They combined to give him a sense that he better get on with it, that Picasso was already an acknowledged genius by nineteen.
One of the many nice things about having a kid who’s also an artist is the impromptu discussions we have about all sorts of art-nerd stuff — meaning in the arts, the roles of galleries, the pros and cons of acrylic over oil, the best way to crosshatch, whether or not Jeff Koons is an idiot, and so on. I feed off his enthusiasm and will sorely miss him, though he’s only a text message away.
On the drive up I-95, we were talking about line quality. I was pointing out to him that when I want to do a ‘good’ drawing, I slow down as much as possible, striving for accuracy in my line lengths and angles, but that when I step back from a drawing done super slowly like this, it can sometimes seem cramped and without expression. When I look at a master of the drawn line like Egon Schiele, there is so much confidence and sweep in his line and I know it was turn in a broad, swift stroke, not a cautious micromillimeter at a time. For me, the real essence of a great drawing is the quality of the line. An imprecise drawing that is full of life and personality is infinitely better than a stale xerox.
Jack’s response was that you need to put in the time making cramped and crabbed drawings in order to develop the confidence to draw like Schiele. That you shouldn’t sit down to make a ‘good drawing’ but just be in the moment. It may turn out well or not but it’s all about doing the ground work and then letting yourself go.
He’s right. If you want to play Bach, you need to do endless fingering exercises. You need to slow down your golf stroke and study each inch of it before you can connect with a masterful drive. You need to train your neurons and your muscle fibers and to train them to be accurate. Doing lots of hasty drawings will just frustrate you in the long run. It’s like driving, you have to start slowly in the supermarket parking lot, inching around orange cones, before you can take the curves at LeMans.
Unfortunately, this can be frustrating if you are counting on amazing results right away. It can take years to have a completely sweeping line. And even if you do get that confidence after loads of practice, a few weeks of not drawing can cause serious backslide. You have to come back, warm up, start again.
However, there is pleasure even in these slow, inch-worm drawings. They are precise, they are accurate depictions of what’s in front of you and there’s a certain satisfaction in that. Next, to raise it up to the level of high art, to draw it with feeling and a sense of abandon.
It takes years to raise a boy to be six foot three and so smart. It takes confidence to drive away and leave him in Providence, RI and know he’s going to do his best.
Three weeks ago, I dropped my boy off at art school in Providence, Rhode Island. It’s a trip we’ve been planning for years, maybe even decades. From the days when Jack was first able to pick up a crayon and started making marks on paper, his mom and I celebrated his creativity and put those pieces of paper into a special binder, a collection which grew to two books, then three, then a shelf-full. We didn’t have any particular plan to create an artist or designer or an illustrator; we just celebrated what seemed special about him, and let him know that if this (or drumming or soccer or World of Warcraft…) is what he really loved most, it was fine with us.
When it came time to apply to college, I told Jack that committing to an art school had risks but so did any career path. As far as I was concerned, a bigger risk would be to seek a profession that didn’t ignite his passion, to simply try to make money at something in which he had no real interest. I know too many people who have gone down this path and found little at its end. That shelf full of drawings proved that Jack had a calling, a rare thing indeed.
I borrowed a truck from a friend, loaded it with Jack’s belongings and we drove up 1-95 to RISD. After lunch in the cafeteria, I sensed that Jack was ready to take off, that he wanted to set up his room, meet his new friends and start his life. My job was done.
I had been dreading what was to follow. I have only ever lived alone for about six months — after graduating from Princeton and moving into a studio apartment on the Lower East Side. Then I got some roommates, then a girlfriend who became a wife, then a son …. and the last three decades were filled. Overnight, I was on my own again.
For a year, I had been worried about being alone in my empty apartment — empty evenings, lonely mornings, no one to talk to but my dogs and the wind. My girlfriend Jenny has been in Dallas all summer and I have been missing her sorely too.
But here’s the funny thing: I love it.
Despite all my worries and fears of dying alone in my sleep and being eaten by my dachshunds, I love being able to decide when I get up, when I got to bed and what I do in between. What I eat, what I do, whether I watch TV or read or draw or stare out the window. It’s fantastic. Time expands. I have a huge sense of accomplishment and also of being relaxed and at my own pace. And I love having a neat apartment, not having soccer equipment on the living room floor or boxer shorts in the kitchen. I don’t have to share the bathroom or the remote control or the sofa. It’s just me and two miniature hounds.
I do miss Jack. I email him, he texts me, we chat on the phone a couple of times a week. He sends me phone photos of the art he is making and tells me about his new friends, about his teachers (for the first time ever he loves them all), about how great the food is.
And he is flourishing. He works his ass off, staying up till the wee hours doing enormous assignments. His first week, he posted the following on Facebook:
a haiku about getting out of bed;
no no no no no
no no no no no no no
no no no fuck that
Then one of his new classmates uploaded this picture:
He’s going to be okay, it would seem, and so am I.
P.S. I try to avoid getting emotional about commercials but this one has been getting to me:
Jack and I are just back from our first post-acceptance trip to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) where Jack will be spending the next four years. We ate in the dining hall, prowled the dorms and had in-depth tours of the department Jack and another prospective freshman are considering.
First of all, I am consumed with jealousy. I want to spend ten hours a day in drawing class, I want to build furniture prototypes, I want to work in the lithography studio, I want to learn to set type and study art history and read novels. I want to be eighteen again!
Instead, I’ll have to be happy with the fact that my boy will get to do all those things and more.
I was impressed by the dynamic between teachers and students. We sat in on several classes and they weren’t big droning lectures or didactic prescriptions. The teachers seemed genuinely interested in working with each creative person, discussing their work one-on-one, giving specific pointers and encouragement, bringing in other opinions from the class, cajoling, inspiring, illuminating.
One of the teachers in the furniture design department took us on a tour of the work that the graduate students are doing — so imaginative and gorgeously crafted. Then we talked about the overall perspective of the school and what it hopes to accomplish for the people who graduate from RISD. Of course, the type of focus of the students and the school on professionalism and post-graduate career opportunities varies with the economic cycle, but he said that the goal is not on getting graduates a job but making sure that they can earn a living doing the things they love. That takes many forms, many directions. Sure, some may end up as baristas but most have creatively constructed creative careers, solving problems, making things.
Our day at RISD opened my eyes to the real purpose of a great art school and of pursuing life as an artist. I guess I hadn’t thought about it enough or in my most cynical moments had settled on a vague and not very convinced view of the purpose of art school: a sort of self-indulgent playground, filing students with jargon, pomposity, and convoluted rationales for abstract art forms, a mill for perpetuating the institution of the gallery establishment and validating the views of artists who couldn’t make it as such and so had become art teachers.*
Here’s the revelation I had: RISD’s purpose is to give students the skills to discover and distill their creative viewpoint, to give them the confidence and ability to communicate it clearly to others, to develop their creative problem-solving skills, to find where they fit in the world and how to apply their skills to be useful.
That’s true whether you are a painting major or a printmaker, photographer or industrial designer. In fact, by declaring a major you are not just embarking on the road to developing the skills that will make you a better designer or sculptor. No, you are picking a passion. When you are passionate about drawing or painting or carving, you will hang in there to develop the commitment, focus, and perseverance to learn the larger life lessons about how to be a fully-formed creative person. They take lots of time and hard work and tough setbacks to acquire and you will only stick to it through this discomfort if you are in love with what you are doing. You will learn how to take criticism and use it to make your art better, or stay up all night to polish your idea, or scrape your canvas after weeks of work and start again, because you passionately want to make great furniture or fashion or photography. Passion + perseverance = greatness. As Milton Glaser says, “Art is Work”.
All RISD freshmen spend their first year doing the same thing: Foundation studies. Each week they spend a full day each (from 8 a.m. till 6 p.m. plus a night’s worth of homework) on drawing, 2D design and 3D design. They also get a taste of all the other disciplines so by sophomore year they are ready to choose a direction to specialize built on this solid layer of disciplined hard work.
Our visit confirmed what I have learned over the past decade and a half of illustrated journaling. From the get-go, I chose to draw things that interested me, not just bowls of fruit and naked strangers. This subject kept me engaged so I could develop the skills of drawing. I didn’t get bored before I established the habit because I wanted to record the things of my life and everydays. Nothing is more interesting to me than me and so I could carry on past all the lousy drawings and ink blots until I achieved facility. This is the principle behind a great art education; I’m fortunate to have stumbled upon it on my own.
Jack already knows it — witness the dozens and dozens of sketchbooks he’s already filled. But now he will learn to make art as if it mattered, to fall in love with it on a professional level, and to reach amazing new heights. I’m so proud of him and lucky I get a front row seat to what he does next.
Jack was eager to settle his college plans early and so was I. His acceptance to RISD was a huge relief for both of us. The stress and uncertainty of the college process was over and now we can both relax until September.
But doing next to nothing turns out to be a lot less fun than he thought it would be. Fall is a long way away and Jack still has to get up at 7:00 each morning and sit in classes all day, listening to droning teachers, half-heartedly writing homework assignments in the period before they’re due, doing the bare minimum to keep his grades above water so his acceptance isn’t rescinded.
I say to him, well, you’re still being taught useful and interesting things, even if your grades really don’t mean as much. Can’t you just learn … for the fun of it? What’s the point, he groans. Who cares? I’ll study when I get to college… Etc.
Senioritis isn’t confined to teenagers. At every point in life, it’s easy to be so focused on goals that one can’t see the value in anything that doesn’t pertain directly to them. All around are books and classes and conversations and experiences that would enrich us greatly but it’s easier to just do the same-old and not expend the effort for something that doesn’t same to have a direct benefit or relevance to one’s occupation or obligations. What’s the point in learning to draw or reading about ancient history or trying sushi or visiting China? We think we know it better, so despite the richness of the world around you, if your mindset is wrong you won’t absorb or even register it. You screen it out.
When we’re toddlers, we are constantly exploring and asking questions about everything we encounter. That impulse diminishes when we get older because our pre-frontal cortex develops and filters out the firehouse of information that is constantly streaming in. Most of the time, we certainly need that filter so we can be focused and goal oriented — it would be impossible to get anything done if we were always walking around in slack-jawed amazement. So we increasingly notice only those things that we have decided are related to our preconceived goals and orientations.
That means it takes an extreme form of novelty or trauma to snap us out of this narrow tunnel we have burrowed into. Something like 9/11, a death, an accident, can force us into a reassessment and new orientation. Our eyes are opened, we say, and suddenly we see things we’d never seen before.
We use this metaphoric language to describe this epiphany but what if we take this notion literally and force ourselves to actually see things anew. We can reorient our perception and put on a wider lens. Of course, we don’t want to eliminate this screening function altogether or else we might wander off the road and spend all day picking wild flowers, but we can pick moments to relax our pre-frontal cortex, return to a more childlike state, rebuild our muscles of perception, and restock our cache of creative stimulation.
When you draw something you see it in a new way. A good drawing is a fresh perspective on an object you may have seen a thousand times before: a building, a body, a bowl of fruit, your breakfast dishes. But by paying deliberate and careful attention to every nook and cranny, you flood your mind and your page with new information about what you are seeing — the texture of a banana skin, the way light hits a brick, how the knee connects to the shin bone, the exact curve of a cup handle. You are suspending the critical function of your pre-frontal cortex, refusing to decide whether there’s importance to each individual line and aspect; you just record them all. This information isn’t actually that important to you beyond the act of drawing, you don’t need to retain the visual data about that banana skin, it may have no further utility to you. But it is expanding your awareness of the world around you, strengthening for observation muscles — it has as much purpose as lifting the same weight over and over at the gym.
When your mind’s eye is open and your screens and filters are down, you get more and more useful information, and that information and experience are the raw fodder for creativity. Forming associations between apparently disparate things to create a new idea is what creativity is all about. And the more open your mind is, the more you are open to experiencing things are interesting but may not have immediate and obvious relevance to your current endeavors. By exposing yourself to art, to novelty, to new ideas, facts and experiments, you stretch your mind so that it is pliable and elastic, so that it doesn’t seize up when you have to move in a new direction. Your reservoirs of references are loaded and you have oodles of bits and bobs to build new ideas with.
Senioritis hits senior citizens too. It’s easy, as you become middle aged and older, to think you know it all, that you have discovered what matters, that you know what you like to eat and like to vote for and where you like to visit and what you like to read and that experimentation and exploration are things of the past. But if you can loosen up your built-in filters, if you can slow down and draw every petal of a flower or the hairs on a dog’s muzzle, you’ll soon see that you don’t know everything, far from it, and in fact you never will. And that realization, that the more we know the less we know, will set you free to devote the rest of your days to exploring the depth of your ignorance, to gathering sticks and shells and tastes and smells, and weaving them together in to combinations you and no one else have ever seen before.
Jack can afford to suspend learning until September. But I can’t.
Now, watch this:
I have been received occasional emails and comments from people wondering why I have stopped posting on this site. Let me begin by saying that Jack and I are doing quite well, despite the silence. We have both had milestone birthdays in the past month; he turned 16 and I turned (gulp) 50. We have been making a lot of art, spending time with each other and friends,moving our lives ahead. There have been setbacks and moments of deep sadness and anxiety, but as each one passed, I felt stronger and clearer.
I have decided however that I am less comfortable sharing enormous amount of detail here. I have received a lot of encouragement, wisdom and support from visitors to the site, but I feel that these enormous passages in our lives should be expressed somehow differently, with more care and perspective. So, while I continue to write and draw about these days in my journal, I will be much more selective in how I share them, here and elsewhere. Instead, I shall use dannygregory.com as a place to express myself as I always have, about matters creative and artistic, rather than as deeply personal as the posts I put up in the early summer. I promise to share a lot of this material with you in the future — just in a different shape and form.
I don’t regret that public airing of my private feelings, but I no longer have the same need to do so. I’m sure you understand.
Also, after being plagued by malware and paying a consultant to repeatedly exterminate the vermin in my site, I have decided to radically redesign dannygregory,com. I will launch the new site soon and on it I will share a lot of material from my sketchbooks which I hope you will find useful.
If you have visited this page over the years, you are probably quite used to my occasional bouts of ambivalence about leading a public life and know that inevitably I shall prance back onto center stage, neuroses in full display and reveal more than a sane person probably should about my experience of the world.
Until then, I remain small and timidly yours,
Oh, one more thing — Seth Apter has just published an interview with me in which I explain, for the first time, the real origins of Everyday Matters. You might find it interesting.