For me, one of my litmus tests for music is: can I paint to it? And, in that, I often look for full albums. Afterall, then I don’t need to change the music for an hour, at least. Yet, people are so quick to consume these days that the ‘track;’ has seemed to take precedent over the album and, in my opinion, it’s been harder to find full albums. That ‘full album experience’, for instance, means that to really enjoy track 5, you need to have followed the rhythms of track 4. The bloops and pops of track 9 set up the first strummings of the guitar on Track 10. And so on. That’s how you listen to an album. You don’t skip a track because you don’t like it. The first time through, you have to listen all the way through. A good album rewards the patient listener. Each song is part of the whole and the whole is something you can only appreciate if you sit with it. This album is one of those that rewards the listener’s investment of time and space with an ever-evolving soundscape of patient songs.
This album – “Slow Down” by David Block aka The Human Experience – effortlessly alternates between the loud and soft, the faster (but not too fast) and slow (but not drawn out), the careful delicate lines and the rougher hewn rhythms. Filled with soulful stillness that alternately flits and lilts, plods and plunks, and lifts up and floats along, everything on here fits perfectly into the mix. There’s no rush. There’s no hurry in it. It is music that eases tension. It softens the edges. Yet, it never feels vague or unsure. It drifts off but you can trust it – it knows where its going and never feels like it loses itself in its meandering rhythms. Instead, they meander like soft threads that weave together an appropriate outfit for your dreamy soul.
One of David’s strong suits is collaboration. He’s a great collaborator and it shows in this album. Guest vocalists of seemingly all shapes and sizes bring a variety of voices to the table. If it weren’t for David holding it all together, in the background, in the foreground, all around, then it might not all fit together. But it does. And it’s grand in soft and subtle ways. Then there’s the guest instrumentation – like Mal Webb and his high floating trumpet on “Traveling Blues” that sings along perfectly with the swampy back beat. The trumpet is the Western answer to the mizmar flute that comes from the Middle East. It’s our call to jazzy prayer.
The vocals on each song dance along perfectly with the precisely composed rhythms. “A Little Deeper” picks up the rhythm but in a way with its steady beat pulsing in a lucid dream that never drops into a hammer, just a soft clap reminding us that this isn’t music to necessarily fall asleep to. Not quite yet anyways.
Then there’s a song like “La Maruciya” that has, to me, a sadly beautiful sound. With the slighlty raspier deeper vocals, it balances out some of the higher female voices on the album. It’s not all light and roses. It’s these deeper places too. The song that follows continues that flow and the album drifts off and away like a cloud.
Basically, I could wax eloquently about each song – but I’ll leave it and the listening to you. This is the reward of the album: the broad arcs of sound and moods. Sure you can have one nice pretty song and it’s fun and everyone is happy. But can you sculpt a sequence of events that paints a bigger picture – something that is more than a momentary feeling – something that echoes more finely? This does that grandly. There’s a maturity, a realness, and a richness in this album to David’s musical voice. It’s not trying to shake you up. It’s not trying to calm you down. It isn’t trying to do anything. It’s just doing what it means to do. And, in that, it feels effortless. There’s a great beauty and a lot of work that goes into making a work of art feel effortless.
So, thank you, David, for doing that work. This is a lovely addition to my music collection.
When I was 3 my mom came running from the other room when she heard me screaming. My hand clutched my face and blood was streaming out. She thought I’d lost an eye but I’d only slammed my forehead on the corner of the coffee table.
When I was eight I fell right down from the top of a set of monkey bars – it seemed so high at the time – and slammed my head on the ground. I don’t remember much of it but it didn’t seem to do any lasting damage.
When I was 19, I left a Phish show at Great Woods Amphitheater in Massachusetts with some kids I’d met. I was in the passenger seat when the front tire blew out and we went careening in circles across the highway stopping inches from the guardrail. I’d like to think I was wearing my seatbelt.
When I was 20, I landed on the blunt end of my ski pole and my spleen exploded inside of me. Bleeding internally from major arteries, I was rushed to the hospital and what remained of my spleen was removed and I was stitched back up. After a brief teetering upon the precipice and sent back out into the world. I was back skiing a month and a half later and, after a summer of cross country adventuring, spent the following winter doing the same along with some indeterminable amount of concussions.
When I was 25, I was on the beach of the Kalalau Valley and a wave crept up behind me and slammed me face first into the sand. I felt every vertebrae twist and turn and crunch. I pulled myself back up, slightly dizzy and still able to breath. Everything looked brighter. My back, though twisted, wasn’t broken.
When I was 39, I looked away from the road for a moment and drove head first into a stopped car at 50 mph merely. I veered ever so slightly to the left and, on the driver’s side, the engine was practically in the window. I was able to open my door and stumble away.
There’s a thousand other things. There was the time in Canada. That time in Vermont. Probably a dozen other times in Vermont. There was the weird dude who picked me up hitchhiking and showed me his home, his greco-roman style indoor pool, how he likes it when young men come over and swim. There was that other guy in Spokane. There were multi-day backpacking trips by myself in the middle of nowhere clambering over cliffs and along the faces of steep waterfalls without a care. There were too many late night drives to count. There were times with a blade, a flame, an everything… There are so many times that life zigged instead of zagging. Life went one way and I went with it and I – and my life – was swept in one direction instead of another.
I share this not to say that I’m lucky or blessed or whatever. Those are stories to ascribe to the action and they are of no real use other than to make me feel special or unique.
When life looms large on my horizon and every moment feels like a Titanic-meet-iceberg slow crumbling sinking ship and I don’t know where to turn, I think about these moments and, more than anything else, they remind me to be grateful for the ability to see, to feel, to think, to breath, to stand, to walk, to live, to keep going, to keep moving onwards. I’m grateful that I still have this life to live and the better part of my body to live it with.
At the moment, I am comfortable. My body is at ease. There are no great aches or pains that call my attention. My cats are sleeping peacefully. There is rain falling outside. I think about all the seemingly endless close calls and I think about all that is yet to come. Life isn’t done yet and there’s cards yet to play, dangers yet to face, and dances yet to dance. I am ever grateful for these moments and movements, this dance, this breath. In the end, it’s the only thing I really have. That is, until I don’t.
I am just one more blade of grass on this vast plain and at any given moment, something could come along and mow me down. I’m grateful for each next breath and my vow to myself, to the world, every day, is to use that breath as wisely as I can.
My public face is reasonably apolitical. I intend for my art and writing to inspire a brighter, more beautiful, and more hopeful world. I do my best, most times, to let it just be that. I think that there’s so much in the way of politics already that I don’t feel a need to bombard you with more. Afterall, as they say – if you aren’t outraged already, then you aren’t paying attention. And it’s never been my intention to outrage you all the more.
But here’s the thing: in recent days, the beast of racism, of sexism, of xenophobia has reared its head in this country in ways that I thought unimaginable. And it is all in the name of economics and politics. Those things ultimately – on their own, are not political. To call them “political” is to do a disservice to the humans who are affected by these attitudes every day. They are issues of hate and division and fear. While those are the tools of politics, they are not politics not in and of themselves.
I want to tell you: there is no place for that here. I have no patience for racism, sexism, misogyny, or homophobia or anything else that is hateful and divisive. They will not find any fertile ground to plant themselves upon.
I will listen. I will try to understand where it comes from. How we got here. But it goes no further than that. There is no coddling. No time for apologists. No second-guessing. No compromise. No quarter given for hate.
Many people who don;t experience these things directly, when presented with it by those who do, begin their next sentence with “yeah, but….”
So let’s just stop right there and discuss that part first because it is very important.
Racism, sexism, homophobia, and other such attitudes, are like weapons. They are used to hurt, subjugate, and make those who wield them feel powerful. However, if you are not the person for whom the weapon was designed to hurt, then you probably won’t ever completely understand its impact.
For example, if you are a man then you aren’t going to feel that sexism spear when it hits you. Maybe a woman is telling you about how she experiences it in the world – maybe how sick she feels right now that a prime example of a misogynist has been elected into the highest public office of the US. Or maybe she is with a group of other women and they are all expressing dismay at various examples of sexism that each has experienced. Maybe you start to feel defensive. You want to say it’s not all like that. The same story goes for race or anything else designed to subjugate and exclude that you yourself don’t experience.
“Yeah, but…,” you begin…
Just stop. Here’s the thing: as a weapon, the weapon is not designed to hurt you. If you are white, racism is not designed to hurt you. If you are a male, then you won’t feel the brunt of the spear of sexism as it impacts the women around you. And so on. No matter how much you examine that weapon – looking for the trap, the part that draws blood, the part that injures, you won’t really feel it. You do not have the apparatus – your skin color, your gender, or whatever – by which to experience it.
But this doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It simply wasn’t designed for you. It is imperative to not let your own experience of it (or lack thereof) invalidate the experience of others.
Instead, just step back, give up whatever you are holding onto that is letting you not hear those who are speaking up – especially if they are telling you that they have been hurt – and instead try to just listen. Really listen.
Right now, in America, an alleged sex offender has been elected for President. Not Bill “I had a consensual blowjob in the White House” Clinton. No, this is a self-admitted misogynist who has multiple allegations against him as well as multiple recorded statements that illustrate it. It’s plain as day. For sexists, for misogynists, his election normalizes attitudes of dominance that women live in fear of every day.
Right now, in America, someone who has made multiple racist comments and, in fact, was fined for excluding blacks from his apartment buildings years ago, has been elected to the highest public office in the country. The same man has the tacit approval of the Ku Klux Klan and continues to appoint to his committee those with outspoken racist attitudes. For racists, this seems to normalize the attitudes of racial domincance that continue to pervade this country in every level of society.
Right now, almost half of the American people who voted have elected someone who is backed by the anti-Gay Christian Right. This same person chose, as his running mate, a man who claims homosexuality can be “cured” and would like to do away with laws protecting the LGBTQ communities. For the homophobic, his ascent to a place of power normalizes and validates the latent or expressed homophobia everywhere.
Right now, America has elected a person who has stoked the fires of xenophobia enough that people are committing countless hate crimes across the country in his name and he has yet to denounce those actions. In fact, he argues that building a giant wall between the US and Mexico is a good idea. He proposes registering all Muslims and banning all others from entry. In doing so he normalizes nationalistic and xenophobic Us vs. Them attitudes (which are largely ‘whites’ vs everyone else) and the hate crimes that lie at the extreme end of those attitudes.
In short, the man who has been elected to be President of the United States is helping to normalize hate, fear, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and more in ways that I never expected to see. Ever. I never expected it would now sit squarely in the chair that is supposed lead this country of the United States forwards.
Yet, here we are.
I have spent the past week, as have many others, disgusted (and depressed) by this stark reality, grieving for all the families now living in deep fear of being torn apart, for all of the women who see a sexual offender now celebrated, for an environment that will soon be trampled (as he proposes to dismantle the EPA and calls Climate Change a hoax)… and so on.
I can barely believe it. And yet I can… Because there’s so many who live in fear of the other, looking out for I, Me, and Mine, influenced by the Mass Media barrage and the decrepit American education system which has decidedly failed them.
So I want to tell you this: my art is for everyone, everywhere, regardless of race or religion or gender or sexuality or anything I might have missed. It is meant only to inspire openness, hope, joy, maybe brighter more vibrant lives for everyone.
Yes, it obviously comes through my own cultural lens. It is tied to personal experiences that, in their details, are unique to me. But the archetypes of the human experience know no boundaries. We all cry and love and live and die the same. We are all in it together. This planet. This family.
This is all we’ve got.
I’ve had countless wild experiences. I could ascribe all sorts of stories to those experiences. But only one thing really shines through though as a worthwhile story to believe in. In the end, I’m left only with my breath and my body, my sensations, my experience of the world. And you, too, are left with your own.
In the end, all I can do is be kind to myself and others. Just be good to each other.
That’s it. There’s nothing more.
The only reason I can bring my art to the soaring places it reaches is because of the seeds it starts with. That intention is merely to create beauty, joy, kindness. It is not trying to be something. There is no agenda. I am not here to preach. It comes from one place of joy and beauty and moves onwards and upwards from there, downwards and inwards, to the greatest forms of that seed’s expression. Even the darkness leads to that and comes from that. For me, my art is what it looks like to be alive.
We are jewels reflecting light.
Hate will find no footing here. There is no ground upon which its gnarled roots and twisted forms can take hold. I will listen. I will understand. But there is no place for hate here. Only love.
If you are on the receiving end of these weapons know that I hear you. I see you. I’m with you. I always have been. I always will be. Because there isn’t just you. Just me. There is us. We may be divided by cultural boundaries, linguistic barriers, or any other perceived form of separation. But in the end: I respect your right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and together we defend that for each other. There are millions and millions of us creating a space where we can thrive, as best as we can, in the ways that we know how, while trying to cause as little harm to others. We are stronger together than apart with our choir of voices and our multitude of colors.
We are a speck in the history of the universe. But we are no less beautiful for it.
A friend asked me this:
How do you stay focused on one painting for so long? Obviously they take a while but if the initial inspiration was just a sketch made in a matter of moments – how do you keep at it 4 months later? Where do you find the will to keep going?
To me, each painting is a song. It encompasses a mood, a momentum, a tone, a melody. It relishes in a particular note or chord progression. It screams or hums or parades through with a specific cadence or rhythm. During the time I work on it, I’m singing that song to myself over and over and over again. So I try to find songs that inspire me – songs I want to sing for that long or that need to be sung. It has to be something I want to sing for 4 months or 6 or longer. I am going to wake up and sing it every day and I’m going to go to bed singing it as well. To me, ultimately, there’s only one thing that is worth that. I don’t have a word for it. it is neither a shape nor a sound. But it leads me onwards. And I know it when I see it. And each painting sings another little part of it.
The initial melody – it comes to me in that first sketch. I might be sitting somewhere and there is that creative breeze (or tsunami) and I jot down a few lines, some curves, shapes, a sensation. It’s a good start. It’s like writing down the first 5 notes of a song that’s floating through your head. But there’s so much space left for exploration.
Later on, as my eyes travel over the painting, they pick up different moments and find new themes and melodies to explore. Musical sentences weave in and out of each other forming unexpected harmonies and rhythms. There are relationships to explore and discover and these open the painting up in ways I hadn’t planned on. I try to find ideas that speak to this process. I love the unexpected.
After a while, much of the basic image is created. It is then that the real song begins to find its real voice. It’s there that the song expands. It is like going from a sextet to a full orchestra. With larger paintings, I aim to make each violin become twenty with each casting its own shade and voice to the choir. Each oboe, clarinet, kettle drum – all resounding as if they are an entire section unto themselves. I become a composer at that point with this living breathing thing I’ve created, expanding each moment to its fullest potential.
Each time I sit down to paint again, my eyes travel over the painting, looking for the moment – the hook – that draws me back in… and then I’m back inside it. The painting is finished when there are no hooks drawing me back in and each little moment blossoms on its own and as a whole
I think often of what Jerry Garcia said of the Grateful Dead song “Dark Star”. If you know that song, you know it’s a particularly lengthy composition that was filled with new explorations every time it was played. You never know what you are getting into with it. What he said of it is this (though I can’t seem to track the exact quote down anywhere): that what he loves about playing that song is that it can be opened up anywhere. Between every note is an entire world of musical possibilities and that there’s no other song in their catalog that has that kind of space within it.
I think about paintings like that and my favorites to work on are the ones where that divide between each moment, each shape, can be opened up into infinity. As an artist, part of my job is to pick and choose the moments that are worthwhile to follow, the ones that really speak to and with the piece as a whole and help it become what it wants to be.
There’s a lot of songs to sing and, likewise, to play. If I am to consider myself a composer of painted songs, I look for and wait for that which inspires me. It has to push the envelope, hit a point, be able to be brought, led, followed to a peak that….
Well, consider this: we never tire of the sunrise or the sunset or golden light that ripples a tree’s leaves or the slope of a mountain against the blue sky or the crash of the ocean wave or the clouds that tumble by overhead. It never becomes trite. There seems to ever be magic, exuberance, nuance, relief even, in all of those forms and sounds and spaces. Whatever that experience is – that is where I follow each piece.
And so, I am an orchestrator of colors. A composer who is lifting his brush like a baton to conduct now the purples, the oranges, perhaps the blues or whites…. slicing through yellows and then the roiling clouds in pale golds, cascades of shapes, sounds, these pieces that create some emotive context and lead me, you, us…. into the place it wants to go.
I’ve learned over the years to trust that place and trust myself in that journey. We’ll get there, no doubt. I’ve learned to be ever more patient with each canyon and trough, each peak and each facet of that jewel. So that when we come to the glorious conclusion, we’re left saying: THAT. That is exactly what it is supposed to be.
Yesterday morning I was making a smoothie. The front door was open though there’s a screen door. I heard someone yell in over the noise of the blender. There was rougher looking guy at the door with sunglasses on and a couple of bags and, well, looking like the street folks who live round these parts. My guards went up. My inner walls raised. My triggers on alert. Because… because it happens. It’s second nature when you live in the city for a long while. There is immediate suspicion when someone enters your personal bubble uninvited.
He asked me nicely if I could fill up his water bottle because he was so very thirsty. He looked pretty thirsty. It was hot outside. And there’s not much in the way of public water (though plenty of people watering their lawns). I took the bottle from his hand, waiting for the other hand to grab me. For the trick, the ruse, the part where my sense of security is challenged. But nothing happened. I returned from the kitchen with the filled bottle back. He took it and took a good drink. Then he thanked me and continued on with his day, wherever it might be leading him.
This man was thirsty. That was it. And he asked the nearest spot for something to drink. I would like to say FULL STOP. But I’m thinking: was he scoping my house? What would it have been if the door had been open but I hadn’t answered? Like that neighbor who had someone go in and steal his keys and then his car? What if I’d been a woman? But maybe he was just thirsty. End of story.
There’s so many walls that get built up. So many fears and suspicions. Often, those fears have been validated by entirely true stories we hear repeated time and again. Someone broke into my own car once. But maybe this story validates a different perspective: that helping each other, that offering care, that simply being friendly and generous to each other is also a valid story. As they say, trust in allah but tie your camel. Trust that doing good for others is the best approach but leaving your keys in your car is probably not a good idea.
This world is a beautiful jewel… and then there is this world that we humans have live in within that world with all of our struggles, wars, discord, our suspicions, identities, and fears. It is an intricate web we’ve created to govern and rule and give and take and create layers and layers of fine-grained separation. So often I look up and see once again my fellow humans crushing or being crushed by my other fellow humans. When the door is held open only for those of a certain color, race, gender, creed, sexual orientation, income level, but shut on everyone else, then there is no love.
The best we, I, all of us can do sometimes is be generous in our own lives… forging ahead on the most compassionate path. The best we can do sometimes is to remember to hold the door, offer a drink – metaphorically or otherwise.
May you never thirst.
It goes like this: You have made or saved or borrowed a nice chunk of money and have decided to invest in yourself. After all, people have told you to invest in things you believe in and YOU believe in YOU!
In any case, people have been telling you they would love to see your art on _______. Those several or a dozen resounding voices start to sound like a whole lot of resounding voices. Everyone you’ve told thinks it’s a great idea. It’s ambitious but so are you! You look into production. You visualize yourself calling up retailers and people handing you money for the _______ that you now offer. It will be an enormous success! Nagging doubts be damned!
So you make the thing. You are reasonably if not totally stoked with your new product. People are going to love them! You make your labels and marketing materials, prepare your media campaigns, and so on. It’s on your website in your shop. You’ve invested almost (if not entirely) your last cent into it. Maybe you even borrowed extra funds to push through the final stages. You are proud of your hard work, as well you should be. It’s been nerve wracking and a bit hand wringing. You usually don’t spend so much money all at once, it’s like your hemorrhaging it, but you’ve got to spend money to make money, they say.
Then GO day arrives. You release it. You have the big show. The event. The moment. You sell a smaller percentage of what you thought you would… Returns are sparse and a large portion of your costs are still outstanding. It’s a bit unexpected but that’s ok! There’s mail order! Wholesale! Retail!
But that doesn’t go the way you’d hoped either… It’s a tough game and a rough road, trying to create or start a business – if even a side business to the main business. You find yourself calling or emailing people to sell them stuff they’ve never seen and trying to still feel confident in it and maybe you can hire someone to do it but hiring someone seems like another money drain when really you want to go back to making your art, when you’re done curling up and crying, and you start to feel like a very small and lonely fish in a very big and lonely sea.
Those people – o those finicky people – who said they’d love to own that thing… they buy a few but fewer than you expected. In the end (but lo, this is just the beginning) little money remains, you’ve got a bruised ego, dashed hopes, feelings of failure, a sense of embarrassment, questions about your life decisions, maybe you should never have gotten into this business at all and by ‘business,’ I mean following your dreams. Maybe you should have just been a carpet salesperson. Or an accountant (not that there’s anything wrong with either of those endeavors).
Why, we ask ourselves, did we make this big mistake…
I share all this because I’ve been there and I imagine that, if you haven’t been already, that you might be there at some point or another too. Recently I was packing up my home and finding detritus of past projects. It’s like, at best, one in ten rocket ships make to the moon of our dreams. The other 9 endeavors never took off and some crashed and burned before even arriving at the launching pad.
First, I want to tell you this: IT’S OK. There really are no mistakes. Mistakes are this: we stub our toe, fall in a pit, whatever – and we DON’T GET OUT. We walk around cursing. It is imperative that we keep moving forwards. One of the tough parts of being an artist is that we really are on our own quite often. We are making up a thing and then ascribing a value to the thing and then hoping that other people will pay us the value we’ve ascribed. We are the ones who make ourselves get up in the morning and look again at that half-finished mess of a masterpiece we are creating, even if sometimes that mess feels like our own lives.
I’d like to address a few of those pieces of the inner emotional response to some of the bigger mistakes we make and share some thoughts on how to address them.
We look around and it seems, in our more self-loathing moments, that everyone else is doing better, is more successful, has it all together, is all dialed in. Everyone looks happier, healthier, more fulfilled. We are, we imagine, the only failures left in the world and we don’t want to share our current experiences lest we be judged. We want to hide that failure away and not tell anyone.
There is more to be gained by reaching out to others, your community, friends and family who are have been successful even, than you might realize. Most people have been there. And there are more people who believe in you than you realize. If you have a partner – a significant other – you might find that their support in these times is the golden salve, it’s the thing that says “it’s ok, we’ll figure this out.” They are your dance partner. Or your community is your dance partner. Your world. It is a dance. And this is just part of it.
This is the antithesis to the pride we felt earlier. It’s the bottom of the roller coaster. We start cursing our blatantly prideful hubris. Pride goeth before the fall, we tell ourselves. Such is karma! But this is just looking for a reason to hate on ourselves – to be that inner judgmental critic to be the mean boss to ourselves who punishes us for messing up. The truth is though, it doesn’t help a thing. In fact, it only hurts and will lead us to other possibly more self-destructive behaviors.
So the thing to do is look lovingly at yourself and say ‘it’s cool, it’s ok, we’ll work it out.’ That thing about being the one who has to get up in the morning and look upon your half finished mess of a masterpiece? You also have to be the one to put your arms around your own shoulders, to lift your own chin up, to push aside the social constructs of what ‘success’ is, and keep moving forwards. That’s the best, the very best thing you can do for yourself.
Fear is the mind-killer, fear is the little death, to quote Dune. Fears: we all have them. These mental constructs are a deeply ingrained part of our social conditioning. Having or not having enough. Losing that which we do have. Running out. Failing. Limits to our own success. There’s a lot of people who have written and spoken at length about money psychology and the mental ceilings we create to limit our own success. I highly recommend seeking some of them out if only to shift the perspective from ‘how did I fuck up’ to ‘how can I make this work’.
Beyond that though, when it comes to the moment – the NOW – it’s important to always be looking upwards and downwards at the same time. Keep your eye on the prize as well as the defeat. Want a life and lifestyle that allows you to create your art? Focus on that. And focus on what it might look like otherwise. And then continue to arrange your life in such a way that allows for that dream you are moving towards.
If in that flow, there’s a thing that seems like a pit, see how you can turn THAT into gold. What’s the emotional content? How do you find inspiration there. And so on. Be patient with yourself and what you’ve done. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Being an artist is a long-tail game. We are alchemists: turning raw materials into gold. Life gives you endless raw materials to work with (to put it the nicest way I can think of) and it really is up to us to churn it into something MORE.
It’s all just grist for the mill, to quote Ram Das.
There’s no magic button. If we experience hurt or pain or failure, it’s best to feel it all the way to its deepest core. Read about the lives of other artists, musicians, and writers – the failures in every person’s life are many while the accomplishments, sometimes, are few. This is why the accomplishments stand out so much to us, when we make it. But be warned: there is no real making it. There is no ‘end goal’. There’s no moment of true security or stability. Everything is built interrelationally and the only stable and secure thing we can expect is CHANGE. So be willing to change – directions, gears, perspectives, goals, outcomes.
If you fail at something, it’s ok. I’ll be the first to tell you: I’ve failed so many times. It’s part of life. Often though, we only think it’s failing because we have these preconceived notions of success. The same is true for success. Success too is a social construct. Next time around, I think I’ll give a few words to that aspect of our artistic lives.
In any case, failures and successes bleed into the other on this continuum. It’s best to just keep moving forwards, creating the biggest, boldest, most beautiful vision you an imagine.
PS: The video clip is from “Meet the Robinsons” – highly recommended :)
“What matters is to move surely and calmly, with the appropriate humor and appropriate melancholy in the temporal and spatial landscape that we are.”
– Michael Krogerus “The Decision Book”
One of the things I can thank my mother for (and there’s many things) is instilling in me a healthily strong sense of humor. Dinner time for the family of five in my house would often see my dad recounting something he’d heard on Paul Harvey, a radio talk show host, while driving home from work. I’d remark on something I thought funny – some increasingly sarcastic off-hand comment. My mom would respond with a leveling up of the funny. Then I’d respond. And so on and we’d bat it back and forth like some kind of ping pong resulting in humorous guffaws and, much to my dad’s chagrin, whatever he had to say was lost to the peals of our laughter but at least the dinner table was happy and smiling and, ultimately, maybe that’s all that mattered.
It feels sometimes like it is easier to descend into melancholy, resigning ourselves to the uphill struggle, than to rise to humor – to finding the lightness. In some ways, it seems to be more natural a state than humor, even. We are born into this world then slowly sink back towards death. It is, after all, easier to sink than to swim.
Life pushes and pulls at us, sometimes forcing us down upon our knees nearly defeating us. For many, life is one person stepping upon another ad infinitum saying to each other ‘because I was stepped on, I will step upon you’ and so on. There’s no humor there, no joy, certainly no laughter other than the malicious laughter of Ha Ha Ha Now I’m King of the Pile.
How do we even keep going? When the anger runs thin, when the furnaces falter, when the candle flickers?
I default, ultimately, to humor. Perhaps it is what I learned would keep me going. In my alone times, in my quiet times, I often found myself laughing at the story and looking for the punchline, any punchline, that would uplift.
Humor uplifts. Yet, humor takes practice. Learning to smile at our mistakes and the backhands of the world. To dance with that crap storm that is life sometimes. It takes effort to instill a lightness in our step. Our muscles weaken from our burdens. And our burdens, as we pass through life, can just seem to get heavier, if we let them.
Laughter helps lighten the load. It’s ok to shrug off those crushing weights. It helps shift the weight. It is not to discredit the crushing weight of the world. It isn’t a distraction from the deadly darknesses.
Think of laughter as a sword that renders the evils of the world limp, void, because laughter is the antithesis to the darkness. For every pain, there is a pleasure. For every wail there is a chuckle. It is a terrible and terrifying aspect of life. Every downtrodden human looks for a chance for laughter.
The absolute cosmic joke that I cannot put into words makes me shake my head at the whole vast parade of ups and downs, lefts and rights, of rights and wrongs.
When I falter and fall – when I am there on my knees sometimes in my darkest moments… even then… even then there is a shard of a light: a glint or glimmer – there is the muscle memory of humor that is laughing at the situation. At me. With me. I exercise that laughter muscle because sometimes that’s all I have, a tiny shiv of humor to poke at the demon that has been unleashed. A smirk to send it on its way.
And while there may be laughter, there is still the awareness of the grimness of the situation. The weight. The gravity. The audacity of humans.The absurdity of life, shifting and pulling and pushing at me.
Life – a good life – like a good garden, requires careful cultivation. While there are bits of our past best discarded, there are often other aspects that we’ve held onto that are worth keeping and treasuring. They give us strength and help us to persevere. Sometime we can add new tools to that collection, sometimes the old tools need refinement. For example, I did have to make a serious effort to shift my ‘humor’ away from ‘cutting and debilitating sarcasm.’ After much trial and error, I found that the razor sharp edge of cutting and debilitating sarcasm was often deadly when it came to friendships and real connection with others. I went back to my proverbial forge and did my best to reshape that sword into something more loving.
We talk of being a warrior in the world but a warrior’s life need not be all battles and confrontations. In fact, the true warrior does their best to avoid real battles, real fights, as much as possible. We need not stalk and stew, waiting for the next bogeyman or woman to leap out at us. We can wield the sword with love and joy as much as anger and hatred and, with it, dispense compassion and laughter as much as we can sow destruction. Laughter slices through illusions, games, concepts sowing a sweet garden and inviting in joy.
Justice comes in many forms. I think that on a personal level, the world where we walk onwards, head held high, light, weightless, soft, resilient, persevering through the storm when some injustice has been meted out upon us, laughing all the way is the greatest form of justice – because I swear to you, life is brief – it will vanish before you know it – and your laughter – your true heartfelt laughter – will inspire more than you might ever know. It says, it screams, it laughs: I AM. Laughter is rebellion against the tyranny of the mind.
Melancholy, too, has its place. It is the soft meditative reflection and an important piece of our human experience but we need not dwell there permanently. By the same token, we cannot dwell solely in our own little humorous cave. In both cases, dwelling solely in one or the other, we might miss some of the more precious moments of this life. So I think it’s important to hold both in our hands and walk through the world weaving them together. We cry, we laugh, we sink, we swim, we soar. No moment is the end all be all of moments. We look for the sadness in the humorous moment and the humor in the sad moment. Because there will be one after another after another after another until the day that we die.
For me, those shining peaks, those peals of laughter around the dinner table of my life – of my mind – all my various selves making light of the situations: it makes the depths all the more rewarding and helps me navigate my life in a direction that feels all the more whole.
The reward for that practice is this: a life that feels worth living and a life that inspires joy in others. And, to me, that treasure is priceless.
Let’s talk about fonts because HOW you say something is nearly as important as WHAT you are saying. Rhetoric, – speaking and writing in a persuasive manner – goes far beyond simple word choice. Our choice of fonts in the branding of our message offers subtle clues to observers of how we think of ourselves, the kind of image we are want to portray, and the audience we hope to connect with. When we read a text, we are reading it in the tone the speaker wrote as much as the tone it is packaged in.
When choosing a font, some ideas to consider:
We’ll talk about a few different and important aspects of fonts. I think anyone who steps foot into the self-directed world of the self-employed should have at least a basic understanding of the psychological impact fonts have on their audience. That understanding gives us a greater ability to convey the message we have to share with the world.
You’re driving down the highway and you pass one of those strip malls that has everything from Party Central to Michael’s to Best Buy to Nordstroms and so on. We’ve all seen those tall signs with their lists of stores. Best Buy is in thick letters. Michael’s is an italic serif font. Party Central is jaunty and thick. Nordsrom’s is rather thin.
The tl;dr is this: thick fonts are used when deals are being offered. Thin fonts are for the finer fare.
The thick fonts are selling themselves to a segment of the population that wants more for less. Best Buy, Big Lots, KMart, Target – these are all thick fonted brands offering the best value for the dollar. Even Dell vs. Apple: Dell is a thick font while Apple is a thin font. Apple is considered the ‘finer’ product while Dell is considered an entry level computer brand. On the other hand, Nordstrom’s, Macy’s, JC Penney, and many more are seen as offering a finer product and the thin lines of their branding intends to convey that. To the masses, the thin-fonted brands are generally considered sleek and refined.
So: thick fonts connote a sensation in the mind of being a good deal though possibly lower quality and thin fonts are considered more refined and of higher quality.
For those that don’t know, the serif is the little curly cue at the end of a letter: Times, Garamond, Baskerville – these are serif faces. Optima, Helvetica, Arial are your sans-serif fonts.
The sans-serif conveys a sense of modernity. Most tech companies – Android, Apple, Samsung, Microsoft – all of them use sans-serif fonts. They are seen as efficient, easy to access, easy to read, very straight forward and user-friendly. Even though Sony uses a serif style font, it’s still as refined as possible. Sans-serif fonts are great for smaller text on a flyer or blocks of text on a website as it’s easy for the eyes to parse the information that is being presented.
Serif fonts on the other hand feel ‘classic’. They are the fonts of literature and learnedness. Serif fonts are great for books and titles. Serif typefaces have been shown in research to engender a feeling of greater trust in the reader. They feel comforting and relaxed – the serif font is something that has been used on some of the most revered books, titles, and texts since the dawn of the printing press.
If you are printing a book, say, then this it is most often better to choose a more ‘classic’ font. There’s a reason people stick to the classics. Garamond (my personal favorite) has been in use since Claude Garamond developed it in the 1500s. Baskerville was designed in 1757. There’s new serif fonts that arrive now and again, but many of those are based on older designs. For instance, there’s Garamond, Garamond Pro, and Adobe Garamond – all versions of Garamond but redesigned and refined for modern use and tastes.
If the serif fonts that we love arrived with the introduction of the printing press, then the sans-serif fonts primarily showed up in our vernacular with the advent of our modern technological world. Helvetica – the most over-used font of all sans-serif fonts – was developed in 1957. It rode in on the crest of the nuclear age and our retro-future 1950s. By the same token, Optima – my personal favorite for all my personal stuff – was designed in the mid-50s as well. There’s countless others that have been designed for our modern use – for screens and interfaces, street and subway signs, and so on. Apple recently released a new font they fittingly call San Francisco that is the de facto font for their Yosemite operating system. It is designed to be shrunken down to a very small point size without losing legibility, something that serif fonts don’t do very well.
Decorative fonts are tricky. Here’s the thing: the decorative font you choose will probably be out of style in a few years. How often have you seen a typeface that instantly conjures up a specific decade? That 70s font. Or that 80s font. That raver font. And so on. The best thing to keep in mind is that decorative fonts become dated easily and, as such, they are usually best suited for posters, flyers, etc – anything that has a specific one-time use. Decorative fonts are passing so use them for things which also are passing.
I talked a lot about stores and mass-market consumer brands. But then, what if you DON’T want to hit the mass market? What if your market segment is, say, the London Punk scene or New Jersey rockers or people who will sew your patch to the back of their denim jacket? I think this image sums up that entire discussion. The Beastie Boys? Street punks who don’t take themselves very seriously – hence the lower cased letters. AC/DC? KISS? Thick easy to read font for the working man – if the working man likes electricity. Sex Pistols? If you’re into dangerous ransom notes, then you’ll be into them. Bruce Springsteen? He’s a no nonsense kind of guy and, I guess, that’s what he’s trying to say with that boring no-nonsense font? I think that bands in particular get to flaunt font choices. Afterall – if the music screams, then why shouldn’t the logo? Or, as in the case of Led Zeppelin: their music is an amalgamation of all sorts – metal and sitars and pretty songs and crazy songs – so their font is both reminiscent of Charles Mackintosh and art deco and sharper more electric lines.
Bands are artists and they’d want the rhetoric of their fonts to SAY something – it sings along with the music, just as your own text should sing along to whatever your own art happens to be.
So maybe you want to be quirky or zany – there’s a font for that! It’s not Baskerville. Maybe you want to be seen as austere and refined. There’s a font for that too. You can’t use Fiesta and then expect to be taken very seriously. Our minds have been wired through constant visual conditioning to experience the world in a certain way. Sure, you could try to upset the status quo and write something incredibly serious comic sans, but, unless you’re goal is to sow confusion and not actually be taken seriously, you won’t be communicating your message clearly.
Personally, I figure there are places where I can push the boundaries – as in my art – and then there are places – like in the title branding of my website – where I’d rather play into the norm because it is inviting and feels safe for people who might otherwise not stick around. On the other hand, if you go look at the Misfits logo… well, they WANT you to feel uncomfortable. They would rather turn away people who won’t like their logo. That works for them. There’s an audience for everyone and there’s a way to reach that audience. It starts with what we say and then how we package it.
The next time you’re out in the world: take a look around. There’s a whole lot of people in our consumer culture trying to get our attention – from billboards to bus stop benches to packaging to web banners and so on. All of them are trying to present information in such a way to draw us in – to trigger an emotional response, to buy our trust, to earn a living. Think about the fonts that are being used and how they make you feel. Then think about what YOU yourself are trying to say and how you fit into that dialogue – and how you stand out. The truth is: when we go into business, we ARE a part of that dialogue, whether we want to be or not. So making clear and intentional choices of how we want to engage in that dance is imperative to creating a solid business container for ourselves.
I hope you enjoyed that little font-diatribe. We’ll talk more in the future about the rhetoric of our design choices and how it frames our respective art.
Businesses run on products: product conception, product development, product sales, product redevelopment, and so on. Information products. Plastic tchotchke products. Useless and useful products. Products products products. If we aren’t buying a product then we’re producing a product or selling a product or discarding a product in order to replace it eventually with another (theoretically) superior product.
We keep producing these products for two reasons: to make money for the creator/sales person (and all of the attendant jobs that they create) and to satisfy a utilitarian need that some aspect of our human existence has necessitated. Sometimes that aspect is basic: a shirt to shield us from the sun or warm us in the cold, shoes to protect our feet, a roof over our heads, and so on. Other times – and this is often the case – the desire goes much deeper. We buy products to satisfy a desire to be attractive or feel beautiful (based on the current cultural paradigm of beauty), or to reflect some part of our perceived identity, and, very importantly, the desire to be loved by others. In the end, it seems difficult to decipher the difference between ‘basic need’ and ‘desire’.
Artwork, at its purist, at its most whole, is born from the desire – an inner urge – to simply create. It is born from a desire of self-expression. We want to bring something new into the world. That urge drives us forwards – compelling us to always do more – because that which we have already made is never fully satisfying.
From this act of expression arises a piece of work which can drive into the deepest parts of our humanness. The more we make our work from the desire to make a product, the more we lose the initial inspiration that drives it. So we have to let go of the need to show people up or prove ourselves or tout our skills or impress our friends or loved ones. If we can let go of the desire to make a new product, to fill up the shelves of our proverbial store… If we surrender instead to that creative flow and just drown ourselves in the act then the work which arises from that pool is a thing of authentic expression. It may be nightmarish. It may be the heavens unfolding. It is the all and everything. It is always at least some point in between. It is, at that point, merely an act of creation, and, at that I think, an act of love.
Art in and of itself is not a product. It can become a product and go on products. It can be housed with products and ultimately, it does become a commodity. But its own blossoming into the world and subsequent creation is the art, the vision. When we sit down to do our art, it is best to lose the idea of that creation being a means to an end. It is not the basic utilitarian urge driving it. It may put food on our tables and clothes upon our backs but it is not and should not and CANNOT be done as a thing merely to make money. Thinking ‘how much am I going to make from this piece? Is it enough?’ limits the expression. Then we are putting it in a box with a set of conditions and value structures that our brain constantly folds into it with every brushstroke or thread we weave. We forever limit ourselves in our act – wondering if we put ‘enough’ in for the value it is supposed to have.
True art making is an unconditional act. You may be making a painting, a drawing, a jacket, a dress, a book… Whatever your art is that you choose: you know that when you are in it, you have surrendered to the act itself and therefor want to make it the best it can be.
And yet, as an artist, there is no real end product because the minute we finish one thing – hopefully to the very best of our ability in that moment – we move onto the next. All art making is the detritus being HUMAN. Art is the expression of living. Of breathing. Of seeing. Of one’s own personal vision. Art speaks to and from this act in some way (and this is ultimately why art can be valued so highly but we’ll get into that another time…). Ultimately, though, the end product is the Self Which Has Created The Work. That is Art as Path.
One, for lack of a better word, curse in that is that we artists often do just enough to create a space for ourselves to make our art and hope that everything else will fall into place, just as it does in our work. This is why it can be difficult sometimes on our own to also be marketers and promoters and sales people and so on. The business of art can fill up the schedule. We start commoditizing our act. It can feel constricting and limiting.
In a world that is constantly pushing consumption with a thousand and ten flashing ads, how do you stand out anymore? How do you even share your creation?
So we go back to square one: art as an act of love. So first and foremost: always just concentrate on making great art. It takes time, but it will shine through. The first painting, the first bit of writing, the first moment… May slip under most radars. But then there is the second, the third, and so on. You are playing a symphony all on your own. It takes time for others to pick up on that tune. Each piece is a note of a song you will play your entire life. And it takes some patience on your own part to learn to dance with all the moving parts.
We are playing a symphony all our own so it’s best to learn to play all the instruments to some degree. You are the conductor moving this musical piece of your life forwards. Think of your art as the lead violin or the grand piano – it is the instrument that sings – the one that all of the other instruments are framing. Perhaps the webmaster hat is the oboe and the accountant is the kettle drum and the archivist is the cello and so on. These other hats, these other modes aren’t in opposition to your art, they are also creative acts and they support that lead. This is learning to play your art and wear all of those hats as a symphony united, rather than as separate components. In the symphony, they all support each other.
This still brings us back to the actual creation of the thing while living in a commoditization-happy world and how we can best foster that so the authentic voice shines through. I have sat with business leaders and motivational speakers and all sorts of people. They tell me the steps I can take to build my email list and get more Facebook followers and create affiliate programs and so on. All of those steps continue to define me as a product, a commodity, with an ideal, a soundbite, a public image, easily consumable and digestible for this fast paced world we are told we live in.
And, sometimes, all of those steps look to me like they lead away from the raw unfolding vision. It’s like piloting our ship through a narrow rapids, making sure our delicate boat makes it through uncompromised.
I consider this painting on my easel. It is a painting commissioned by someone. Certainly there is a desire for the client to be pleased with it. Of course I want that! But I can’t let that be a driving force: ‘gosh, I hope this reflects the value we have ascribed to it!’ And so on. There are all sorts of thoughts that arise: how many hours am I putting into this? Is it enough? Am I working hard enough?’ All the stories and the product outcome and the chatter and nonsense. All the self-image and ego and drama and dreams and clutter of am i good enough? is it enough? – detritus of a consumer culture that echoes through my psyche from countless ads, commercials, social norms, and societal structures and, who knows, is maybe just part of the human experience which I am working through in my own way.
I return again and again to the driving force, that driving urge. It is that reason I or you or someone else is hired. It’s that thing that people want. When we become formulaic, when we create work merely for profit, I think we lose that. It’s important to remember: we can talk all about it, we can display it all we want, but in those moments in our studio, the swirling pool of creativity is what we have to surrender to again and again and, hopefully, with practice, we draw something forth that is inspiring again and again.
Would we make and give away our work for nothing? For no return? There are projects I engage in like that – where the cycle of returns has a different value structure. But in the end I do have bills to pay and rent and phone and all the other trappings of modern life – not to mention personal goals. Our time is of value and we’ve spent hours practicing and practicing what we do. And, in the end, we have a thousand other creations to make. So we create value systems and exchanges in order to support growth: in ourselves, in others, in the world.
Because of exchanges like that, people say that it’s money that makes the world go wrong. I think that’s incorrect. I imagine that it is love that makes our world go round. Without love – this lifelong connection and devotion to the authenticity of our work – we are useless empty shells, just consuming, never-endingly consuming. We are mere product creators, at that point, lining the shelves. Without love feeding this urge to create, I could never bring this painting on my easel to the place I want it to go – or the place I was hired to make it go, and I say this even for the darker pieces I’ve made. Even if this emotion of ‘love’ is in our imagination – even if it is merely a story we’ve conjured up to make life feel more meaningful, then it is, to me, the most worthwhile driving force I’ve found: this love of creation, a desire to bring it into the world and create from this place. The sensation of dancing with the creative act – this sensation that, when followed, seems to conjure up, for me, my most ideal self. When I turn away from the canvas, it is what drives me to be more compassionate, to make smarter decisions, to care for others, and to give of myself. It is having that entire symphony playing all together in harmony. The tedium doesn’t feel so tedious. The side projects feel more inspired. The work – all of it – in my eyes, shines.
There can only be the awareness of the present moment when making a piece of art and, to find that core passionate creative force – whatever color or shape it may be – to create from that place in the making of our art – whether it be painting or writing or baking bread or driving a truck or helping others in whatever our paths may be – and whether our work be light or dark, sweet or otherwise – it enables us to create something that ultimately feels like a worthwhile pursuit. I imagine that a thing made from a place of loving-kindness is ultimately more nourishing, more valuable, more beautiful than it would be otherwise. It may take a while for the world to catch up to you. You may sit in silence, alone and wondering if there’s anyone out there and I assure you, there is. But to play that note, that instrument, that symphony will, ultimately, allow you the happiest most fulfilling life you can imagine.
Were that the place from which all things were made from, I imagine we would have a happier and healthier planet.
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