The Art of the Find

On a rare scroll through Twitter the other night, I stumbled across a blog I’d never seen before. Created by a designer and web developed named Reagan Ray.

Reagan is a curator. He collects things he loves, category by category, and shares them with the world. From famous Texans, to comic book super hero lettering, to his top 22 sci-fi films.

His most recent post takes you through the title lettering of all the Oscar Best Picture winners. From the 1927 Wings to Parasite. It’s a beautiful scroll. Having it all collected in one, clean place, allows you to look and make new connections and think in new ways about the work.

A section from Reagan Ray’s ‘Best Picture Lettering.’

Curation itself can be an art form – the act of actively looking for things you love, things that inspire you, and collecting those things from the corners of the world. That’s a gift for others to find. A place for others to find appreciation.

In a Wired interview, musician, Brian Eno, said:

“An artist is now a curator. An artist is now much more seen as a connector of things, a person who scans the enormous field of possible places for artistic attention, and says, What I am going to do is draw your attention to this sequence of things.

(Here’s the full quote for free)

Scrolling through my Pinterest boards, I see the collections of things that have inspired me visually. Flipping through my notebook, I see the quotes I’ve curated and documented in pen.

Looking through my movies-watched list, I can see patterns. Scrolling through my saved Instagram posts, I see phases of art as I scroll through months and years of saved artworks. Cartoons, then comic book illustrations, then lino-cut prints, then ultra minimalistic posters. Then architecture photographs, fashion illustration and logo designs. We are all curators in a sense.

Looking through your curated collections from seasons passed can show you what you cared about. What you liked best. What was making an impression.

What we curate doesn’t only help guide what we make or what we share, it also tells us about ourselves. It can invigorate us, or show us our own growth.

Curating doesn’t just document the world around us, it documents us.

Imaginary Instruments

I’ve had a couple tedious work days in a row. The kind that felt like I could not, for the life of me, figure out a solution to the problem I was working on. The sort of hours spent pondering how anyone could every possibly be so pitiful as to pay you for anything you ever make, because it’s all utter rubbish, and you should’ve been an electrician instead. These last couple days, I’ve taken to pacing around my kitchen when I hit the dead ends. It’s a better alternative to tearing my own hair out, but doesn’t come with the brute satisfaction. Sometimes I lay on the couch and toss my baseball up and down, over and over, seeing how close I can get it to the ceiling without putting a dent in the popcorn plaster. But these aren’t sure fire ways to clearing my head or finding a solution, or even alleviating the frustration. It’s in these moments that I wish I played an instrument.

I recently discovered that Einstein, when faced with a problem he couldn’t seem to solve, would pick up his violin, and play.

Apparently he even named his beloved violin – Lina she was called. He often talked about music as an inspiration and source of joy in his life.

If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music. … I get most joy in life out of music.

This connection between Einstein and music seems an odd one at first, but this video beautifully describes some of the science behind it. 

Recently, Austin Kleon – my favorite author of the moment – has recently taken up piano in his free time.

Playing an instrument can sort of be a super power. A super stimulus for the brain. Plus it’s beautiful and sophisticated and an excellent use of time. There are no downsides to playing an instrument. It is good for you in every way. But… it’s hard. And that’s where I get stuck.

These last couple days of tedious work, though, full of pacing and hair tugging and rubbing my palms into my eyes, may be enough to push me into a new musical journey. Maybe an instrument is just what I need. More music could never really hurt.

My favorite composer, Aaron Copland, said at a concert dedicated to him for his 80th birthday:

I was able to spend my life at music, in music, with music. Not everybody is so lucky.

Save Ralph

The sphere of commercial illustration and graphic design is not known for its groundbreaking introspection or abstract meaning. It is easy to doubt whether or not I will ever be able to create things that move people or make people think or make people laugh in the same way a book or a feature film or a even my friend singing in their living room can.

Just yesterday, though, I cam across a new animated short film called Save Ralph. It inspired me to keep striving for better. To keep practicing, to keep writing, to keep drawing, to keep dreaming. Maybe I won’t ever direct a feature film or write a book that changes someone’s life, but I think one day I could make something like this.

Something that uses a playful, children’s-book aesthetic to speak about real issues and strive for real change. There is something really special and unique about that juxtaposition. Something that really captures my imagination. (Like creating a gritty world around Peter Rabbit.)

This short film beautifully highlights the power of storytelling, imagination and art in the fueling of social change and the passing of ideas.

This video made me think.

Goya and Van Gogh

Two famous painters from history – Francisco Goya and Vincent van Gogh – were born on this day, 275 years and 168 years ago respectively. I do not have anything very insightful to say, I just scanned through each of their works again this evening, and pulled several ‘comparable’ pieces (only in rough terms of color and subject matter) to put on display here.

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First we’ll start with self portraits, hard at their work. (These remind me of one of my favorite paintings)

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Churches with blue skies.

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Women in blue.

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And finally, secluded gathers behind tall trees.

It’s quite beautiful to see how unique these two worlds are. And, despite how different the subject and scene of each painting is, how clearly every work fits in to the over arching world of the painter.

Both Goya and Van Gogh really found their thing. I wonder, when I’m old and gray and looking back at my life’s work, what my thing will be.

Here’s a bonus video about a piece of Goya’s work by one of my favorite YouTube channels.

Quantity Masks Crudity

Even crude work becomes impressive in high enough quantity. Like Jason Polan’s Every Person in New York.

Pretty much anything becomes impressive or beautiful to us humans in high enough quantity. LEGO clone troopers. Layers of paint. Words repeated a 100,000 times in a row.

Sometimes, if you find yourself struggling to create a singular masterpiece – create 50 or 100 or 1,000 small, crude pieces. And the mass collective can become the singular masterpiece.

If you’re struggling to write the book, just get one sentence down today. In her book on writing and life, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott describes her own writing process. She sits at her desk, wondering what on God’s green earth to write, maybe hyperventilating a little, until she finally notices the 1-inch picture frame beside her monitor.

It reminds me that all I have todo is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running.”

The title of that chapter is “Short Assignments.”

Lots of short assignments lead to big payoffs. Often times, quality only comes with quantity. With practice. With repetition. Or simply, with enough of the bad that it simply morphs into a giant, singular good. David Bayles and Ted Orland display this idea beautifully in their book, Art & Fear:

[A] ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

Quantity leads to quality.

This project – drawing 100 of something – taught me this lesson in my second year of art school. In my case, it was finding spaceships within splotches of watercolor.

Today, I started a new quantity-over-quality project, with these 2×3 inch paintings of shapes. It was fun to paint with real brushes again, rather than my stylus and computer. And though these are not special in any way individually, I’m hoping once I fill a wall with 30 or 40 of them, the quantity will mask the crudity.

A Lens of Celebration

Van Neistat, filmmaker and older brother of Casey Neistat, released the first videos on his brand new YouTube channel – a series called The Spirited Man. I was ecstatic to see this, and even more so when I watched the videos. Then watched them again. And again and again and again. And fell in love with them.

It is hard to say what I love so much about this trailer and this series. The handmade quality in a world of digitally created and pixel-processed work? The moments of silence and peace in a sea of noisy and hype-based media? The clear and ever-present lack of social media and current trends? All of this. All of it. And so much more.

But what struck me the other day watching it again is that this trailer is simply a celebration of the things that make Van unique as a filmmaker and a human. He celebrates the ways he is different. He celebrates what makes him spirited, and encourages others to do the same.

I wrote down “celebrate what you love” in my notebook, then, curious, typed it into Google. Immediately, I found this beautiful TED Talk, from a former National Geographic photographer that plucked so many of the strings in my mind and heart that I had just tuned.

Here are a couple of my favorite moments, quotes from Dewitt Jones:

I just decided that if I had a choice between a world based on scarcity and fear, and one based on possibility… Then man I was choosing possibility. And no matter how dry and desolate, no matter how bleak and devoid of possibility a situation might seem – if I could just celebrate the best in it… I could find a perspective that would transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.”

Celebrating what’s right is not a perspective that denies the very real pain and suffering that exists on this planet. Rather, it’s a perspective that puts those problems into a larger, more balanced context.”

The world becomes a more beautiful place when we are actively working to celebrate it.

No matter how strange a situation that I walk into, the first thing I’m gonna ask is, ‘What’s here to celebrate? What am I falling in love with?”

Find what you love – anything you love. Write it down, think about why you love it, and celebrate that thing. That’s something I’m going to strive to do in all my work moving forward – it’s something I can’t get out of my mind.

Ted Lasso and the Meaning of Life

I already talked about the spirit and impact of Ted Lasso, but I can’t stop thinking about this character. Specifically, the seemingly endless well of optimism and joy that Ted carries with him everywhere he goes.

The idea of happiness is one that I think about a lot – where does it really come from? How do we find it? How can we live a life centered around happiness?

My mom used to always say that your attitude is a choice. “You can choose,” she’d say. “You can choose if you’re going to be angry or upset. You can choose joy or frustration.” I sort of thought this was codswallop. I can’t just choose, I’d think. It’s not that easy mom, you just don’t understand. But I think there is truth there. Of course, you can’t choose what your emotions are, and you certainly can’t choose to pretend to be happy in the midst of sadness or grief or stress – that is neither helpful nor healthy. But I believe there are countless moments in our days and lives when, thinking we have no control, we settle for anger or sadness. But maybe it’s not the emotion we are choosing, but the attitude. The attitude then impacts the emotion.

In a powerful moment near the end of season one, Ted brings up a Walt Whitman quote: “Be curious, not judgmental.” Choose to listen rather than reject. Choose to engage with the world rather than block it out.

Proverbs says something similar:

Apply your heart to instruction and your ear to the words of knowledge (23:12).” and “The beginning of Wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight (4:7).”

So is this curiosity or penchant for learning what gives Ted his optimism?

Maybe happiness just comes naturally when we work our very hardest to give rather than take. In a TED Talk, the actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt said:

The more I go after that powerful experience of paying attention, the happier I am. But the more I go after that powerful feeling of getting attention, the unhappier I am. If your creativity is driven by a desire to get attention, you’re never going to be creatively fulfilled.”

Ted works to be actively curious and engaged in those around him. Maybe it’s through his curiosity that he finds things that bring joy. Perhaps in order to be happy, you first have to work to see the happiness around you.

Of course, maybe Ted is just a wildly happy guy, and it’s simply by being happy that he is able to inspire joy and change in those around him. But for those of us with a curmudgeonly bent, we need a stepping stone.

Be curious – you may just stumble onto something that will make you smile.

Content in Contentedness

In a recent discussion on the Tim Ferris Show, Seth Godin said again and again that “knowing there’s enough [in life] opens the door to merely do the work.

Contentedness paves the way for contentedness.

If we take away the expectations of numbers or dollars or hopes for more, we allow ourselves to do the work. To create. Not arbitrarily, not simply – but merely. To work without expectations attached is to work towards giving, not gaining. Giving to yourself and giving to others in generosity.

And when we are working to give, we learn to give things that truly matter.

Here are three other things Seth Godin wrote recently that I loved.

Interesting people are people with interests

In March of 2020, right at the start of the Covid-19 U.S. quarantine, a playwright named Lauren Gunderson put on a series of playwrighting masterclasses, hosted live on her Facebook page. I gleaned many journal pages worth of information through those livestreams. One of the things that really stuck with me – like an arrow in my skull – was the adage “Interesting people are people with interests.” Gunderson said this was something her Grandmother would often tell her.

She talked about it in the context of creating fictional character – maybe her Grandmother simply referenced it in discussing the neighbor down the block who created large metal statues from scraps in their front lawn, who knows. Characters with interests are characters who interest.

Austin Kleon wrote on the same subject in 2017, though flipping the perspective from fictional characters to the authors wrote them into being. He bring in several quotes from other thinkers and authors on the topic of being interesting, but my favorite has to be advice J. Maureen Henderson gave to students in an article she wrote:

Work on being an interesting person other people want to be around and are willing to open doors for…. There are many roads to becoming an interesting person, but they all involve developing your curiosity and your desire to know and understand — yourself, others, the world around you. You can read. You can pursue a new activity like knitting or rock climbing. You can volunteer. You can commit to asking three people a day an open-ended question about themselves and really listening to their responses. You can share your information and connections freely.

It’s not just that interesting people happen to like interesting things. Rather, their interest in the world leads them to interesting things, which makes them an interesting person.
Austin Kleon sums up my thoughts better than I can by saying this:

If you want followers, be someone worth following. [“Have you tried making yourself more interesting?”] seems like a really mean thing to say, unless you think of the word interesting the way writer Lawrence Weschler does: For him, to be “interest-ing” is to be curious and attentive, and to practice “the continual projection of interest.” To put it more simply: If you want to be interesting, you have to be interested.

Interesting follows interest.

Picasso’s Letter

“Everybody has the same energy potential. The average person wastes his in a dozen little ways. I bring mine to bear on only one thing: my paintings, and everything is sacrificed to it – you and everyone else. Myself included.”

This is a quote from a letter Pablo Picasso wrote to a lover, discovered through this video about the daily routine of the artist.

It seems quite a dreary way to live, but effective. Isolating, but inspiring. Like so many things, there are positive things to glean and add to my own life, and things to leave behind.

It seems as if Picasso was the ultimate hustler.