On Christmas day a week or two ago, an American painter named Wayne Thiebaud died at 101. I had never heard of Thiebaud, nor can I remember ever seeing any of his work. Which, now that I have, feels like a fatal flaw in my two years of higher art education.
I’d like to write a full piece on Wayne Thiebaud, but today I’m just going to point at some of the pieces that stopped me in my tracks the other day as I was poking around his past. Specifically his landscapes. Not the subject matter he became famous for, but certainly the subject matter that ensnared my imagination.
Look at how soft those clouds look!
These works feel like glorious caricatures of space. Caricatures of land. And that’s something I’ve never seen before. And I love it.
And now I’m going to let this all percolate and soak into my subconscious and see what comes out.
As I assume you’ve long heard by now, Stephen Sondheim (writer of Into the Woods, Company, and Sweeney Todd among others) passed away last week. A hero and a pillar in American theater.
On a plane, two days after his death, I watched Six by Sondheim on HBO. A documentary covering the life and career of Sondheim. I was enthralled by this man whose art I had already come to love, and now I’d like to share some of his words from the film.
“Nobody goes through life unscathed. And I think if you write about those things, you’re gonna touch people.”
“I’m not interested in making people unhappy. But I’m not interested in not looking at life.”
“The songs I write don’t really reflect me in any conscious way. They all are about the characters that the book writer has made, and I’m getting into those characters. I never think of them in my own terms.”
“A puzzle, like art, is making order out of chaos.”
“I still get pleasure out of writing a musical phrase I think is really good. I still get a pleasure out of writing a line that I think really encapsulates what I want to say.”
“I love inventing. The hard part is the execution, obviously.”
“It’s all about getting into the character. And you start to make lists of what she would talk about… It’s very much about serendipity.”
“The only reason to write is from love. You must not write because you think it’s gonna be a hit, because it’s expedient or anything like that. It’s so difficult to write… You write it out of passion. That’s what failure taught me.”
Throughout the film, Sondheim stressed the importance of curiosity and teaching and learning. And since watching, I have heard many people talk about the great influence he had as a teacher, friend, mentor, and supporter (I found an Instagram account full of letters he sent, it’s delightful).
Sondheim, in many ways, lived a life I would like to emulate. He laid on his couch and wrote. He created things that moved people. And he supported others in doing the same.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Playingan 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.
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.
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.
First we’ll start with self portraits, hard at their work. (These remind me of one of my favorite paintings)
Churches with blue skies.
Women in blue.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.