Being Amidst the Northern Latitudes

The image is fuzzy, but it shows a phenomenon strange to someone who grew up in the American Southwest. It’s summer, officially, and at 10pm, around when this picture was snapped, as the flood of Timbers fans streamed out of the Stadium on Morrison St, it’s still a bit light out.

The deep blue of the evening sky still hasn’t turned to indigo. Twilight seems to last forever these days. It’s unsettling and not just a little magical to me. For most of my life, 10:00pm is always solidly night. Yet, here, the shreds of day cling to the horizon, encouraging us to stay awake, keep working, keep moving.

The long nights of winter are a much lyricized tradition. We should remember their counterpart, the equally persistent light and promise of summer days.

The Anxiety of Small Moments Is a Reminder of the Joyous Big Ones

The idea that we have to overcome our fears and amxieties isn’t new, but the reality that simply living in the 21st Century generates some level of it is—by definition, even—very new.

Humanity moves from threat to threat, along its geologically short timeline. The big things we’ve done are still a scratch on the full line of eons. There isn’t just monkey mind to deal with, there’s lizard- and insect-level leftovers in there somewhere. It’s easy to dredge up trepidation and feel like we should just hide.

So along with that ongoing series of anxieties, I try to think about opposing feelings, and when I’ve felt them. We almost always have both in our lives. Some moments when we felt larger than life, loved, connected, part of a thing greater than our individual selves. It makes it easier to notice the small, ongoing fears and know they, too, shall pass, if we let them.

At This Moment, Everybody Is Going Somewhere

Just a quick observation: staying still is not an option for very long. We’re headed for old age, if nothing else (and if we’re fortunate). We can pretend we’re standing still, but the world moves.

And it’s okay to sit there, sometimes, and watch for a while. Looking around every once in a while helps you not to miss life, as a formidable fiction once said.

But don’t make it the only thing you do. Here endeth the platitude part of the lesson.

We’ll be moving in some way, of course. I think it’s better to try to move ahead making art, deliberately and thoughtfully. We’re defined by what we do, not what we don’t do.

A Quick Note on Getting More Sleep, Which You Need for Not Being Tired

Artists, you need your dreams. You need them even more when they’re in the middle of a solid sleep cycle.

It’s well established now that lack of adequate sleep (for almost everyone, that’s 7–9 hours) compromises most systems in your body. Nap it up. Snooze or lose. Shovel in the shuteye.

I didn’t do as well in school on days after I’d stayed up till wee hours painting. And the paintings weren’t as good, either. Creativity needs serious unconscious time. Here endeth the lesson.

What Being Kind of Old Gets You Is Kind of a Big Deal for Being No Big Deal

Aging comes with a few characteristic abilities, many of which seem to be complaining—about the weather, what hurts on your body, these kids today (DISCLAIMER: I’m firmly in the the-kids-are-alright camp and expect to continue to remain).

And the cost isn’t cheap. Bodies break down and get slower. It’s nothing unusual, it happens to everyone who keeps living. It’s ordinary stuff.

But there are definite benefits to getting older, and the biggest one is simple, accumulated experience. True, wisdom isn’t inevitable, but it’s a lot easier to harness. Appreciation for beauty and recognition of darkness is easier, too. There’s a wealth of years that lets us understand the world better and how it all fits together.

If you’re an artist getting older, this is your advantage. “Write what you know” becomes a massive toolbox, which for a young person would tend to be a small, spare tray. You can use this in your work: put everything you are into it, because the ocean of accumulated life inside you is very big, indeed.

A Little Skepticism on the Worth of Art Fairs

This one, which is going to feature the work of newly-graduated MFA students, is something I’d like to see. But then, in the details, are things like the prestige of venue, and the million dollar cost.

I’m not sure it’s the direction I want to see. The art world is already so focused on sales, and this is more of the same system that pushes artists to structure work to market preferences.

I get the opportunity to the students, and congratulations to them for getting in on this. But I’d like to see a bigger push to strive for meaning and broad openness in both art and its exhibitions.

You Don’t Have to Revere Your Influences That Much

It’s a bit like the zen koan “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” You need your influences, your artist heroes, and you stand taller on their shoulders. But you can’t focus on them too much or your own style won’t progress. Or, at least, progress will be slower. And life, as a wise philosopher once said, “moves pretty fast.”

Counterintuitively, the more you love your favorite artists, the more you have to dismiss them when you work. Steal liberally, but broadly, and the mix will become your own.

Making Plans As Charcoal Sketches, Not Oil Paintings

There’s a tendency for the organized—even slightly organized—to spend lots of time designing the plan for a project or schedule. It can be really satisfying to see a detailed layout of your time, and how it’s supposed to get used.

But life is tricksy, and tends to defy our expectations and demands. The detailed scheme is like an oil painting you spent weeks on, perfecting the details and carefully mixing colors and layering. It’s sometimes fulfilling and valuable to make something with the full force of your skill and intention. But the plan isn’t that time.

The plan benefits from a little flexibility, like a charcoal sketch you can erase and blend as you go. Unless you’ve got a trust fund and a studio and all the time in the world to yourself, life inevitably throws curve balls and monkey wrenches into the works with regularity.

Adaptability and an openness to small changes in the plan means you can keep the main effort for your work, and your time spent where it’ll be most satisfying.

Trifles Aren’t Worthless, They Can Lead to Big Ideas and Big Projects

The first thing you are asked to do in any drawing class for homework is to start a sketchbook. Sometimes there are specific things you’re asked to draw, but often the bulk of the pages are up to you as to what you fill them with.

Most working artists keep a sketchbook, too. It’s a repository for thoughts, lists, and…throwaway scraps of imagination and observation: ephemera. And they usually stay that way. The stuff we put in the sketchbook is just practice and things that occur to us in the moment, visually.

But having captured those fleeting shreds, every so often we’ll find a gem of an idea that’s actually a vein of possibility we can mine and turn into something big and meaningful. Keep an eye out, you never know where the scraps will reveal themselves to be more.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Sick

There are mostly disadvantages to getting ill. If you’re feeling particularly bad, there are scary (scarily expensive) doctor or hospital visits. But usually, it’s just a drawn out discomfort that leaves you disoriented and dazed.

There’s an advantage for artists: it can help you see in new ways and think new thoughts. They may not be coherent thoughts, but any chance to break out of patterns and routines of thinking is good. Try to write things down or sketch ideas. Usually, you’re too weak or uncoordinated to do real work, but getting the gist on paper (digital paper, too) can help you see different ways to make things when you feel better.