Art for writing's sake

"Surrogate Mothers Nest," a painting by Geoff Barnes This post is #30 in a series of 50 dedicated to the art and life of writing, in support of the 50 for 50 Project to benefit WriteGirl. If you like it, or if you think it could have been improved by a better writing education for its author, please give generously. And pass it on.

The same grandparents who instilled in me a love of reading and writing also gifted me with my deep and abiding love of real, honest-to-god art.

Not posters or reproductions (not that there's anything wrong with that), but art: Paintings. Statuary. Sculptures. Bas-reliefs. Lithographs, woodcuts, silkscreens. Mobiles.

I spent a good part of most weekends during my childhood with Gram & Gramps, reading or writing or making art, and hearing the stories behind the many, many, MANY paintings and sculptures thoughtfully arranged throughout their beautiful apartment on the Near North side. You grow up with an ear for words and music or a eye for color and shape by being immersed in the stuff, and I was: living with art made me an artist, albeit one more facile with words than music, color, or shape.

There's an energy that artist-made art is imbued with. We get a hint of an echo of it in dead-tree books, which is why it's so hard for those of us who grew up loving them to let go of them entirely. But fine art vibrates with the energy of the artist, the energy that flowed through the artist and into the medium. The paint, the metal, the stone, the wood. My grandparents had art of all kinds surrounding them at all times, all their lives. Their very first painting (which I own) they bought on their honeymoon, in 1928. The mat and even the matboard have yellowed, but the painting itself, of a village street somewhere in the tropics, looks like it could have been painted yesterday. It is timeless. It is a wormhole through time, connecting me to my grandparents, to that island (which they most decidedly did not visit for their honeymoon), to the artist, to a sun that shone on an Earth that is my Earth and not my Earth, on people who are like me and not me.

My grandparents had paintings like they had books: everywhere. The kitchen, the bedrooms, the hallways, the bathroom, not just the living room. (Their personal photographs, on the other hand, actually were personal, tucked away in discreet leather frames on the dresser, or on a corner of the desktop. Or, you know, with a magnet to the fridge, just like everyone else in the known air-cooled universe.)

Which is how I have my artwork, everywhere, just like my books. Above my desk, in my hall, in my bathroom, in my kitchen. By my front door, where they're the last things I see when I leave. In my bedroom, where they're the first things I see when I awake.

Art makes my writing possible, inspiring me out loud when I can't have music on, putting into two- and three-dimensional form what floats around in my head.

Which is why I was particularly delighted when a fellow writer, Geoff Barnes, outed himself to me as a fine artist, and offered to contribute to the 50-for-50 Project not only his dollars (which he'd already done, and generously, thank you, Geoff!), but his artwork. Or, to be precise, his original, custom, one-of-a-kind-made-for-a-supporter-of-50-for-50 artwork.

That's right: the winning bidder of this newest auction will become the owner of a one-of-a-kind, custom, original painting by the one and only Geoff Barnes (aka @texburgher).

You can see one sample of Geoff's delightful work above. You can see a number more in this Flickr gallery. And you can (and should) most definitely hear Geoff talk about them in this video. He's charming and self-effacing and all the things one should be in general in life, and specifically on video.

Now, come on: what better holiday gift can you imagine than painting created on behalf of a good cause by a writer/artist/father-of-three? "Pony" doesn't even come close.

xxx c

Poetry Thursday: Hustle

roller derby chicks!

It takes over
when you want something,
like a sleeper Cylon switch
tripped on some remote mother ship:

one day
you're sitting on the couch
eating Fritos
watching the Wheel;
the next
you're an unstoppable force
in a series of headlong collisions
with a never-ending stream
of immovable objects.

God help you.

You can
of course
avoid this
if you like.

The racing of your heart
and the ringing in your ears
and the rumble in your belly--
they all go away
or at least
you can pretend they do.

But a word of advice
if you would not awaken:

Stay away from New York in the spring
and Paris in the fall
and Rome, anytime.

Stay away from the suburbs of Dallas
and the swamps off the Gulf
and the hills of Kentucky
and anywhere else
there are people
or buildings
or neither
or both.

Quit going to plays
and museums
and ballparks
and beaches,
especially the ones next to oceans,
and absolutely stop watching anything played
at a professional
or amateur level.

You should also probably forget
about thinking and writing,
and dreaming (day or night),
and give up yoga and running
and fighting and screwing
and even being celibate for any length of time.

This one particular French cookie
I read about?
Kind of spongy? Shaped like a shell?
Avoid it like the plague.

Speaking of reading,
give that up entirely,
along with talking
or listening
or even eating anything
besides maybe Fritos
and something to dip them in
while you watch the Wheel.

Oh. And if you ever decide
to play hooky
from your hateful day job,
and skip out on a client dinner
for a falafel sandwich on your own,
do yourself a favor:
stay out of this one particular
cinema in Westwood.

I'm pretty sure
that firetrap
they call "Theater 2"
is a Cylon base
riddled with
hidden switches.
Because 25 years later,
I still cannot remember the movie I saw
but I know that I haven't slept
a wink since.


Image by Bukutgirl via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Book review: The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb

diptych of two illustrations from r. crumb's illustrated book of genesis I am not one known for my godliness. Church makes me itch, I've been a doubter from way back before I knew there were such things, and, while I've been exposed to big, honking chunks of it thanks to eight years of Catholic school, I've never read the Bible all the way through. Those "begats," they always put me to sleep.

I've always found the idea of comic-book renditions kinda suspect, as well. Sure, there are some stories in there that lend themselves to literally graphic retelling: look what DeMille did with Exodus and 4 million extras; I do, at least once a year. But the various panels I'd seen made these efforts seemed more like sucker bets, ways of roping in kids and the egregiously impatient, more like Jesus porn than anything really illuminating. Illustration, like design, should earn its keep, not be reduced to cheap gimmickry or decoration.

Revelations from the genius of documentation

R. Crumb's cartoons have been illuminating things for me since I stumbled on them at the tender age of seven or eight, in a stack of other grownup-type reading material at my grandparents' apartment.1 It took a while for my baby brain to catch up, but I now realize that Crumb's work was my first exposure to drawings carrying equal weight with words in grownup storytelling. Plus, you know, there were all of those great, dirty pictures. Way more interesting than the back issues of Playboy I also unearthed in Grampa's study (which to an eight-year-old were already pretty interesting).

Dirty subject matter will only get you off so far, though. Once you'd burned through the material a first time, for the naughty bits, you could go back and pore over the minutiae. I'm a fan of minutiae, by which I mean I can get a little OCD at times; re-reading early Crumb is very soothing, and it only gets better as he gets older and his talent deepens and his scope widens, not a lot, just enough to incorporate his other interests, like old-time blues and jazz, or the creeping industrialization of the countryside, or, now, really old stories about where we come from.

The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb is book-ended by an illuminating forward, where he documents (in hand-drawn lettering) his impetus for creating the book and acknowledges the great amount of help given him in bringing it to life, and an equally illuminating commentary (in mercifully legible typeset characters) at the end, where he discusses various pertinent items concerning the content and background of the chapters.

Do yourself a favor and read the book all the way through first, without skipping ahead to peek at what are basically extended footnotes. While the commentary helps make some sense of a few really impenetrable parts, for the most part, I found myself fully sucked into these ancient stories, begats inclusive, in a way I never have before. I wondered about all the people I sprang from (at least half of them directly descended from Noah's son, Shem, according to this particular history); even more, I started to wonder about all the people and stories who weren't in the book, the ladies doing the begatting, for instance, and how some of their stories really, really didn't add up. Crumbs drawings pull you in and slow you down even as they make you want to race through and gobble the story up whole. Reading this version of some of the greatest stories ever told is maddening and intoxicating and, yes, interesting.

"Goddammit, this is a good book!"

As God is my witness, those are the exact words I spoke, out loud and without thinking, when I finished the whole shebang, and, I think, why Crumb's work is a triumph: it engages people who might not otherwise engage with these ancient stories, and provides a way for us to plug into the ancient throughline of humanity. Despite predictable accusations from certain quarters, the book is as far from titillating as you can get when you're talking about a work where every five seconds, it seems, someone is either smiting someone or begatting with them. As more reasonable members of the religious community seem to have pointed out, it ain't like the stuff isn't written in there, people.

It's unlikely that I'll have a conversion experience even having had my first connection with a holy text. But like my brothers and sisters on the other side of this great religious divide, I now have an interest in a story we share. That's a shared place, and shared places can be the beginning of mutual understanding, right?

Or not. But either way, it's a helluva good read...



1By piecing together various stories, dated documentation and memories, I finally deduced that the underground comix in question had been a gag gift for my grandfather's massive 60th birthday bash, although given his interest in keeping up with the times as they were a-changin', he may have bought them himself: Gramps was hip to Dylan when Dylan was coming up on the scene, and had the ancient LPs to prove it.

Images by Rachel Kramer Bussell and ideowl via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Yo! Disclosure! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt's excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.

Update: Brad Nack's 100% Reindeer Art Show

several paintings of reindeer on a metal table

I took a quick trip up north and my friend Brad Nack took an equivalent trip down south and we met in the middle, at delicious Papa Lennon's in Meiner's Oaks, where I took possession of FOUR, count 'em, FOUR, of the 2009 reindeer he painted for his 100% Reindeer Art Show.

It was fascinating getting an up-close-and-personal tour of the paradox of choice. Which I now understand can be neatly summarized as the paralysis of choice. More is not necessarily better: more is more.

Of course, objectively, I think it's a good thing that there are lots and lots more reindeer out there for other people to adopt. Not only is each piece I saw uniquely wonderful, there's something equally wonderful about each one coming from this incredibly large and rich and diverse herd, if you will, of paintings. We are more than for being a part of, that kinda thing.

Anyway, you can see the four I'm coming home with here. And if you would like a reindeer in your family, you should visit Brad immediately. They are very affordable, and require far less maintenance than regular reindeer, or so I am told.

In the meantime, do more with less, steady on, and, as Gramps used to say, keep your pecker up!


Image by Colleen Wainwright via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Referral Friday: Bowls of fire, buckets of ire

Referral Friday is an ongoing series inspired by John Jantsch's Make-a-Referral Week. For more about that, and loads more referrals for everything from cobblers to coaches to gee-tar teachers, start here. Pass it on, baby!


I'd dipped into the work and writing of artist John T. Unger years ago, when I first started blogging.

An inventive and talented artist with a generous spirit, Unger not only makes a good living by using the web, he shares his knowledge and experiences out loud on his blog for the benefit of other people on the same path. What's more, he does it with as much style, humor and care as he seems to put into his art; I'm a sucker for any fine artist who can also write his ass off.

He even cares about his ecological footprint! Unger's main art these days takes the form of these delightful firebowls, one of which is pictured above. Rather than create them from new materials, he works with salvaged materials from the scrap heap, and fashions them into usable works of art durable enough to last for generations. And he's doing all of these from the sticks in Michigan, helping to pump money back into the local economy. Making money and making art while he changes the world in his own small way? When I'm ready for a firebowl, count me in!

Unfortunately, he's currently enmeshed in the some of the weirdest, unpleasant-est litigation I've heard of in a while; "Kafka-esque" comes to mind. It's complex, as these things generally are, so I'll just quote what Unger himself wrote on his site:

My original art has been copied by a manufacturer who is now suing me in federal court to overturn my existing copyrights and continue making knockoffs. I have a strong case, a great lawyer and believe that if I can continue to defend myself, the case will be resolved in my favor. If I run out of funds before we reach trial, a default judgment would be issued against me and could put me out of business. I don't believe my opponent can win this case in court and I don't believe he really intends to try. I believe his goal is to use strong-arm litigation tactics to force me to keep spending money or risk losing my copyrights , not by true adjudication, but by default if he is able to outspend me.

Unger has already spent $50,000 of his own money to defend himself, but he'll need a lot more firepower (I know, I'm hilarious) if he's going to expose this weasel for the weasel he is.

To raise the necessary funds, he's selling his firebowls at a discount and also offering smaller pieces of specially created art for purchase on Kickstarter, the crowdsourcing fundraiser site.

As he says, he'd rather trade you art for your money, but he is accepting donations of any amount as well. I'm still downsizing, so I downsized myself out of a little cash for the cause.

Ultimately, in addition to having right prevail personally, and being able to continue to use his art to support his family, he's hoping to raise awareness about copyright issues on behalf of all artists. If for no other reason, I support him for that, although as someone who has gotten much value from the information he's shared, I'm only too happy to support him in some small way.

I hope you will, too, and that you'll pass along this message to your people as well.

Fight the power! With fire!

(Okay, really, no more bad jokes...)


Referral Friday: and Nikki McClure

Referral Friday is an ongoing series inspired by John Jantsch's Make-a-Referral Week. For more about that, and loads more referrals for everything from cobblers to coaches to gee-tar teachers, start here. Pass it on, baby!


Nowhere are my whack-job Virgo tendencies on better display, metaphorically and literally, as you can see by the photo, above, as they are in my picky picky picky set of criteria for a great, functional wall calendar.

  1. It must be stunning, because it is going to be displayed prominently on my wall.
  2. It must be simple, because it is going to be displayed on my wall all year. I use my digital calendar to write stuff down in; I want a wall calendar to show me the date, period.
  3. It must be compact, because it is going to be on my wall, which I like to use for other stuff besides two square feet of What's Going Down When.
  4. It must be easy to read from four feet away, because my eyes ain't gettin' any better.
  5. It must be matte, because glossy paper is for magazines and bad motivational posters.

I fiddaddled with all kinds of calendars over the many, many years I've used them, but once I discovered Nikki McClure's, I stopped looking.

Her woodcut papercut* illustrations are both stunning and simple, wearing well over the year and years after. I've saved most of my Nikki McClure calendars from previous years because they're too beautiful to pitch or even recycle.** The sentiments are thoughtful, not cloying, the design is perfection and the paper is delicious. I could eat that paper.

Toward the end of last year, it struck me that, just like having the previous and upcoming years printed alongside the current in one's checkbook in equal weights, you know, back when we still used checkbooks, it might be useful to have such a set-up on the wall, so I could at a glance see what's going down, what's coming up, and, if necessary, grab a day/date from the previous month. Production people scope out a few months at a time on those heinous but useful dry-erase calendars; wouldn't the same thing be nice if it was, you know, nice?

A year later, I can happily say that it is. I no longer have to fire up my electronic calendar while I'm pacing around with the phone, or jump to a different program when I just need a quick date. It helps when I'm writing thank you notes, it helps when I'm writing in my notebook (I date the pages of stuff I'm working on), it helps when trying to get a basic handle on where I am in time and space (this will sound crazy to more organized people, but may make sense to ungrounded, arty-farty visual types who are perpetually in danger of floating off into the stratosphere if they become unmoored.)

So a couple of months ago, I wrote to the fine folk at BuyOlympia, showed 'em my rig, and asked if they could perhaps offer a specially priced three-pack for other OCD types. They talked to Nikki, everyone agreed, et voila! Here it be.

As they point out in the item description, a perfectly fine use of the three-pack would be to keep one and gift two friends with the other copies. Let's turn the world onto these wonderful calendars, and keep Nikki in linoleum blocks and carving tools until she drops! Or, if you're not into Colleen's Overzealous Ordering of Time in One Place, you could have a calendar for key rooms in your house. I swear, just like a clock, it's nice to be in eyeshot of a calendar.

Especially one that is essentially art masquerading as a useful item. Because as we all know, when in doubt, buy art...


*Sorry! I knew this, I swear. But Ms. McClure emailed me herself to remind me that they are cut with an X-Acto from a single sheet of black paper.

**And they're still (mostly) sitting around. Hawk-eyed McClure fans out there will note that a couple of birdie illos made it into the frame, but boy, I'd love to pass along what else I have to an interested party. If that's you, email me your contact info and what you like to make. I'll ship off what I've got to the first one I get. Thanks for your emails, Nikki McClure fans! They've been snatched up by a lovely reader who will use them to decorate the walls of the apt. she's newly moved into.

Image by Colleen Wainwright via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Referral Friday: 20x200


Referral Friday is an ongoing series inspired by John Jantsch's Make-a-Referral Week. For more about that, and loads more referrals for everything from cobblers to coaches to gee-tar teachers, start here. Pass it on, baby!

I think if you are a writer, especially one who wants to sell books, you should consume as many books as possible.

I think if you are a seller of products or services, you should buy other people's products and services.

And I think if you are a living, breathing human being, you should buy art. Go look at it, too, in museums and galleries and such. Make some, while you're at it.

But buying art is some of the most joyous of energy-exchanging you can experience. To look at something whose sole purpose is to wake you up or to tell you the truth or to make your heart sing and say, "Yes! Yes! I support this! Yes!", that, my friends, is better than diamonds, or sunshine, or the finest small-batch bourbon swirling around in your glass before it heads down your gullet.

Especially diamonds.

I get that some people are a little freaked out by the art-buying process. I remember getting dizzy, the first time I spent real money on a painting, $1,000, in 1986.

The dizziness passes, and you're left with the most wonderful feeling in the world, easily accessible ever after with a mere tilt of the eyes upward, or even a pause of remembering while you and your baby are separated.

Jen Bekman, curatrix of the 20x200 project, makes it easy-peasy to buy art. Artists offer their works at various price points, small, medium and large, and there are dozens of galleries to choose from. We know I'm a fan of Mr. Monteiro's, so I started with the print shown above. You should start anywhere you like.

But start. Please start...


Limits vs. tolerance: knowing the former and cultivating the latter


I'm perpetually about five steps behind the smart kids like Merlin and Julien, so I'm just now reading Twyla Tharp's absolutely outstanding, OUTSTANDING, I tell you, book, The Creative Habit.* (Julien, if you're reading this, you were 100% right, and I owe you a beer. Or something.)

Since Merlin first started talking about the book some time ago, I've noticed a term creep into his writing more often: tolerance.** As in, tolerance for ambiguity when it comes to approaching the making of stuff, and tolerance for sucking during the process of making it.

Possibly in turn, or possibly because it's part of the zeitgeist I'm soaking in, I've noticed the term floating up into my own consciousness a lot lately. I've worked steadily at cultivating my own tolerance for ambiguity and for sucking, as well; I lump them together as tolerance for "mess," which I've built up a much, much higher tolerance for both physically and psychically.

Interestingly, my tolerance for clutter has decreased as my tolerance for mess has increased. On the surface, you might see them as the same, but I see them as quite distinct:

Mess is the inevitable by-product of creation, the few eggs you're going to have to break to make an omelet (or the few thousand you're going to have to break to make one expertly). Mess is the artist's studio during work hours, or the writer's office halfway through a book, or any creative person's brain at the beginning of a huge, and always scary, undertaking.

Clutter is the crap that gets in the way of creation, the weeds and distractions that keep you from the business at hand. It can can be thoughts that no longer serve as well as tools that are broken or outdated. It's the fat and the noise and the junk that stands between you and your goal: if you're an actor or a dancer, it might be literal body fat; if you're a singer or a speaker, it could be a weak diaphragm or shit habits that are destroying your pipes. It is almost always TV, for everyone, but it can also be any number of bad consumptive habits, from too many beers after "work"-work (getting in the way of your artistic work) to excessive reliance on gossip rags, chick lit or internet forums.

For some of us, clutter is simply too many things we've said "yes" to that we don't really want to do, or that aren't moving us forward in significant ways. I have become much closer to my little friends, No Fucking Way and Not a Snowball's Chance in Hell, although I have to constantly remind them to use their indoor voice and smile politely when out and about in the world. My new-favorite dish is the "no" sandwich: slipping a big, bad slice of Wild Horses Couldn't Drag Me There between two pretty slices of "Oh, aren't you sweet to ask!" or "That Sounds Like So Much Fun" or "I Reeeeeeeally Wish I Could." The point ain't to stomp on someone else's delicate mess with your big clodhoppers, but to recognize what works for them may not for you, and vice versa.

I get a little panicky about how much time I have left to get the music out of me every year about now. And yeah, I realize that worry is a form of clutter, too. Still, addressing what's standing between me and what I've decided I want becomes more and more important as I creep inevitably toward what I hope is a natural and long-off death, but which I recognize could be lying just steps away, up on the fire escape, Acme anvil in hand, waiting for me to turn the corner.

So I say "no", or at least, "let me sleep on it", to more things, that I may say "yes" to the right things. Creating limits, so there's a safe space to cultivate tolerance...


Image by "T" altered art via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

*I'll be reviewing it next week, but feel free to buy it now, even without the review. Because the first 100 pages are better than most of the pages of about 2,000,000 books put together. It's just the best book I've read for working creatives ever. Juicy, full of ideas and inspiration and exercises. Funny. Well-written. No fat. Blowing-my-mind good.

**You can read the central post about it, which also links to a really nice talk he gave at this year's MaxFunCon on dealing with The Resistor during the creative process.

How to keep failing


Back when I was a young pup Shilling for the Man, I wrote a lot of ads for a certain mass-market sports beverage.

As in, a lot of ads.

Because while those of you who haven't had the pleasure of working in the salt mines of advertising might not know it, the ratio of ads-come-up-with to ads-actually-produced is crazy high. Or low. You get my point: creatives, as they are affectionately known, dream up and sketch out far, far more ideas that get shit-canned than make it to the airwaves.

As a result of this crazy ratio, and a particularly trying mix of difficult personalities (which was out of my control) and quarter-life crisis (which, to be fair and in retrospect, was probably largely out of my control as well), I started to experience burnout. The well ran dry of ideas (how many ways can you sell spiked water, anyway?) and I started to feel myself turn into a hack, applying what had been successful in previous go-rounds to the supposedly new challenges before us (which, come on: spiked water? there are no new challenges). I turned to a formula, such as it was, and my copy became sort of a caricature of its former self.

It scared me enough to start the wheels in motion for my escape. There were other contributing factors, egregious politics, rampant greed, physical burnout, but I could see I'd need some sort of major cranial overhaul to keep going in my chosen career, and while I don't think there's anything wrong with advertising per se, I never could get 100% down with the amount of resources it consumed for the value it produced. At least the typing monkeys were working towards a second Hamlet.

Success is terrifying. I mean, it's great for about 20 minutes out of the 2 million it took to get there, the peak experience of a big sale or shiny statuette or the equivalent is a serious head rush. But then there's that blank page the next day, and the mandate to fill it with something equally awesome or even more so. Death, death. But that's exactly what happens to creative after creative, artist after artist, blogger after blogger once they hit something like their stride. Reach a peak, or even a plateau of competence, and the pressure is enormous to stay there. Worst of all, you can even stay there for some time, convinced that you're evolving, that you're building on a solid foundation of hard-won knowledge instead of lolling about on your dusty, crackling laurels.

A while ago, I bookmarked a wonderful piece on this subject by fine artist Robert Genn (whose semi-weekly newsletter, The Painter's Keys, is one of my favorite regular reads). It's titled "Sterility," after Pablo Picasso's take on the eternally interesting (if confounding) topic. Sterility, Picasso said*, is the result of copying oneself, an infraction he considered far worse than copying others, because engenders artistic death.

The opposite of sterility is fertility, and Genn's argument (and Picasso's, by extension) is that fertility is a learned state, or at least, that learning and action can help keep one in a state of artistic productivity or fertility. This resonates deeply with my own experience, which I liken to having to throw myself off a goddamn cliff just as soon as I've caught my breath from climbing up there. It's terrifying, it's exhilarating, it's teh suxors, as some geeky kids somewhere said at some time. Flinging myself into the gaping maw of who-the-hell-knows what, again and again and again.

To you, reading this now, it may not seem so. You may see (or hear, however it works) some kind of voice or through-line. One post is enough like the other so as not to seem schizophrenic, but different enough (and either good enough or trainwreck-ish enough) that you're moved to read more than one.

That voice is more like a side effect of flinging, though. Flinging and exercising, in tandem. You write and you write (or paint and paint, or what have you) and you learn stuff: tricks, tools and such. The rules, if you like. Those are muscles, and they do get stronger. You build up a kind of tolerance for the climbing, and maybe a better sense of how and where to fling yourself. You might even learn a thing or two about how to land without blowing yourself into a Wile E. Coyote puffball of smoky smithereens.

It's the flinging, though, that gives you the voice. Flinging and flinging and flinging. And getting up, either on the next cliff or from that faraway ground, and prepping yourself to fling again. And 48 years into the game I'm here to tell you: the flinging? It does not get easier. It just gets so that you become reasonably sure you will not die (or go broke, or whatever your doomsday scenario is) as a result of the flinging.

Before I scare anyone off of making any kind of art ever again, please remember that little phrase a few hundred words ago about fertility being a learned state. There is stuff you can do to change it up, to challenge yourself and to generally keep up the "private search for 'new'" necessary for fertility. Genn includes a short list for artists of tricks, change your media; mix your media; change your working environment; etc, to be used singly or in combination that is pretty easily adaptable to other fields of artistic endeavor. And once you get the in mindset, you do get better of keeping yourself in the state of flux/growth, or at least, you learn where to look for help.

And then? Back to flinging...


Image by greencolander via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

*The actual quote, which I liberated from this very spicy bit on Picasso, is this: "One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility."

Referral Friday: 2009 reindeer and one Brad Nack


Referral Friday is part of an ongoing series inspired by John Jantsch's Make-a-Referral Week. For more about that, and loads more referrals for everything from cobblers to coaches to gee-tar teachers, start here. Pass it on, baby!

A few months ago, on our way between picking up some Saturday morning coffee and steeling ourselves for the walk back up a big-ass hill, The BF and I dropped in on a local open-air art market. There were the usual crafty type things, jewelry and candles and whatnot, and there was one artist's stuff that stopped me dead in my tracks.

Brad Nack ain't your garden-variety artiste. He's a man with a past that includes such disparate items as sailing around the world with a crazy person and managing a pretty famous band, which activity I think technically makes you the crazy person.

After the gallivanting, he came back to what he was really good at: painting and being awesome. Seriously, what do you call a guy who sets a goal for himself of painting over 2000 paintings in one year...for TWO YEARS IN A ROW...just because? I call it awesome, and I know what's what, bub.

Perhaps it was in his blood: his father, Ken Nack, was an artist, too, studying with Fernand Léger in Paris in the 1940s. (Here's a nice snapshot I found of the two of them, Brad and his dad, not Brad's dad and Fernand Léger.)

Let's put aside the gimmick, if you want to call it that, of painting over 2000 reindeer in time for the holidays. (In case you're interested, I don't call it a gimmick: I call it a really cool project, and some smart marketing, to boot.) I like Brad Nack's paintings because they're technically great, they vibrate with life and humor (thank CHRIST) and because they remind me of a crazy cross between Paul Klee and a particular style of mid-century illustration I always dug. And, hell, it doesn't hurt that Brad Nack is such a cool guy. Well, seems to be, from the very small amount of interaction we've had. But you can tell, you know? You just can.

You can follow along with Brad's reindeer painting adventures on his blog, and contact him about claiming one. I suspect one of those suckers is going to end up chez communicatrix, and I love the idea of a whole bunch of us being connected by a whole bunch of paintings by one way cool dude.



Photos: (top) 2009 Reindeer Project paintings in progress; (bottom) four of 2008's Reindeer Project.

¡Olé! to you, fellow artist

For those of you who do most of your creating off-stage, you may not have experienced the ¡olé! moment. That's my new-favorite term for the magical thing that happens when you get in the zone and out of the way and the work just flows through you. The term comes to me via the astonishing Elizabeth Gilbert in her very moving (and funny, and smart as hell) TED talk, below. As Derek Sivers says in his own post pointing to it, Gilbert's words speak to pretty much any writer or musician; I'll go one better and say that if there is any pursuit you've spent a lot of time getting your body tuned up for, you'll dig it:


The ¡olé! moment happens rarely onstage, but when it does, there's a kind of thrum inside and outside of you, a strange inner/outer vibrational shift where you're very aware of what's happening and you also feel like it's something happening to you, or possibly through you. It's pretty sensational, and I'm pretty sure it only happens when a confluence of circumstances are in place:

  1. You, prepared
  2. You, letting go
  3. Some kind of Mysterious Hoodoo Shit happening elsewhere

It's probably happened to me 30-odd times in my entire performing career, and that includes auditions and scenes in class as well as performances. I don't know if that number is on the low, high or average side, but I do know that when It Happened, it was as much something acting me as me doing the acting. No matter how many times It Happens, though, I can tell you this: It can't Happen enough; the feeling is so amazing, and the level at which you're able to transmit that creative energy is so crazy-high, if you could bottle it, you'd be a bajillionaire, even in a down market.

Especially in a down market.

There are some things that I believe up one's chances for the magic happening. As you might guess, most of the actionable stuff happens in areas #1 and #2. One of the reasons I hammer hammer hammer away at my actors in my monthly columns to Always Be Creating is that it really helps with both of those things: you become both better prepared, because constant application of effort to a certain practice makes you more skilled and confident, the 10,000 hours rule, and you are better able to let go because sheer volume of work means that any individual instance becomes proportionally less important, thereby enabling you to be way more relaxed than you might otherwise be.

It's one reason I decided to post daily to the blog. Yes, a part of me is hoping that replicating the Monday-through-Friday nature of the old-time daily column will somehow trigger the Magical Woowoo Hoodoo into manifesting a modern-day Royko gig for the communicatrix, but another far, far more realistic part of me knows that there's no way I can't get better at this if I'm doing it more often.

As Gilbert says in her talk, there is huge relief in making the shift to thinking you have access to genius rather than that you have to be a genius. My job as access point is to stay in shape and show up daily.

The rest of it? Is up to the genius.

¡Olé! to that...

xxx c


In case you have ever wondered what I sound like when speaking in public, I finally have a speaking page up which contains an embed of a decidedly non-TED talk. At least I know now what I'm tuning this old carcass up for.

"Art, 100; commerce, 0" (or, "There's Always Time for What Moves You")

"the only rule is work" While I have been noticably AWOL here of late, I've been off-the-charts generative in other parts of my life.

Even reductive, as necessary.

Writing. Designing. Cleaning. Writing.

Creating presentations for me to speechify. (Yes, multiple: when it rains, it pours, baby.) Writing off-color songs and performing them before a live audience (use caution with that last link).

And, most exciting of all, clearing the decks for what looks to be the adventure of my middle-aged life, later this fall.

On top of all that, I got a crazy-ass bee in my bonnet to submit an entry to this little contest Southwest Airlines is running. Not because I have a great love of air travel (really, they're gonna have to turn me around on that one), but because some real-life connecting over the weekend in the form of an impulse trip to Albuquerque reminded me of how awesomely stupendous it is to see people in person. And something about the crazy vortex of creative energy that's currently experiencing me (no pun intended, and yes, that grammatical construction was correct) inspired an idea.

Did I say "inspired"? More like "leapt out of my head, grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me...HARD!" Because that's how it is with creativity and ideas and The Juice: once you open yourself up to it, and kinda-sorta let it be known that you will be a responsible conduit craaaaazy things happen.

There are some things you have to do to make this great state of creativity happen. Merlin has been posting a lot of good stuff about it lately. In fact, he's been so on fire, I'm guessing he's practicing a lot of what he's preaching.

And more's the better for all: us, because we get his best, and a goodly dose of inspiration, to boot; him, because I can almost guarantee you he feels better these days when his head hits the pillow.

You can't always be in productive mode, of course. Fields lie fallow once yearly for resting/recuperative purposes, and probably, so should we. (Well, not for a season, necessarily, but you know.) I'm guessing that even high-percentile-prolific people like Seth, Chris, Walt, my friend, Tim, and anyone else who makes a metric crapload of cool stuff on on a regular basis takes a break sometimes. (Brogan, you officially need to take one more often!)

But at some point, you put your ass in the seat, hunker down and do the deed. And you say "yes" to all the good stuff that comes along that really lights your fire, regardless of how busy you are. Because, trust me, you will always find time for the good stuff. And the stuff that grabs YOU? And won't let you go? That's the superfine, añejo stuff. That stuff, you clear your calendar for.

I am hunkered; I have swept away all non-essential items. But I am going to come back from this crazy jolt of creativity with new vigor and a plan, so look out!

In the meantime, if you feel like helping me out on my crazy little project for Southwest, and you live in or near one of the cities listed here, email me. The address is all over this site, but you can also just send to communicatrix at the gmail. Easy-peasy.

Thanks for playing. Now...go make stuff!

xxx c

Image by litherland via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

For Kevin, on the occasion of his 50th birthday

It seems impossible that my cohort is turning 50, and yet, there it is.

I'm sliding into it myself, just three years and change to go. Truth be told, I can't wait: my 40s were so much better than my 30s, which were so much better than my 20s, which were so much better than my teens, I figure my 50s are going to rock the house.

Or, at the very least, that I'll get another decade or two of yum before I hit the point of diminishing returns.

On the other hand, it's a good thing I've some time. Half a century is a significant achievement, and calls for a marker of equal significance. I received one such tribute about a week ago, from my friend and former art director, Kevin Houlihan. He assembled 50 of the people he'd met along the way, from the godmother who held him at his baptism to a friend he met in a bar about a year ago, and asked us each to write a little something for a book he wanted to assemble about the people he'd met along the way.

Here's the beauty part, though: instead of asking us to write about him, he asked us to write about ourselves. His point? That, as his wise and no-nonsense New Hampshire-bred father used to say, "You can tell a man by the company he keeps." So Kevin sent each participant a series of questions designed to help us unearth what it was about us that had helped him learn about himself.

The result? A breathtaking compendium of musings, stories and yes, a little haranguing, that is universally appealing because of the specificity of approach. I'm forever parroting every English teacher I've ever had about the key to great writing lying in the detail of the personal truth one lays out there; maybe instead of yakking, I could just direct people to this book.

Unfortunately, it's a private publishing of 50, one for each participant. There has been a groundswell of support for a more public release, but until that happens, you'll just have to content yourself with one of my entries and imagine the rest. The question to me was what, if anything, did the various & sundry creative outlets for my expression have in common, and how did I continue to nurture my creativity.

It's a wonderful question for anyone to ask of themselves, or of their loved ones; it's a glorious question to be asked...

xxx c


I have called my life many things in an attempt to get across the idea of what it's been like to live it, to express the heart of my journey. One of my fave-raves, coined several years ago upon quitting my Hateful Advertising Career, was that I was “Living My Life Backwards”: going from a hyper-responsible, overachieving, 401K-building, condo-and-cat-owning twentysomething to a foolhardy, largely unemployed, dream-chasing thirtysomething. (And then a sex-crazed, metaphorically-old-purple-wearing-lady fortysomething.)

Not a bad quip, you know us copywriters, always with the handy quip, but somehow too…pithy. As Einstein said, Everything as simple as possible and no simpler, please. (As an aside, that's where a lot of advertising and marketing goes off the rails: oversimplification. That, and too many objectives. But let's not go down that bad path, shall we?)

I wish I had a pithy answer for my life's work now, for what motivates me, for what the thread is. But I don't. I have a long and boring story, which I'll summarize here:

Many years ago, when The Groundlings Sunday Company pulled over and dumped my baby-actor soul by the side of the road to fend for itself, I thought I needed a theater company to call home. And so it was that I found myself standing on a stage in a tiny, back-alley theater in Santa Monica in front of an insane French woman (sorry, redundant), “auditioning” to be a paying member of her highly experimental theater company.

She let me perform my wildly inappropriate monologue, but it was clear that what she wanted to do was get to the Q&A.

“What would you do,” she called out from the dark, “eef I asked you to take off your pants, take off your shirt, take off your shoes and stand zere nakeed on ze stage?”

“Uh…ask you why?”

There was a long pause. Then, whether to out me as a poseur or to see if maybe, possibly she could salvage this ten minutes and put an extra $35/month in the theater's coffers I don't know, but she threw out another one:

“Why,” she called out again, “do you want to be an actress?”

No one had asked me this; I had not even asked myself about the why. Why does one throw away everything with no promise of a something down the road? Why does a sane, smart girl with a career and a title and a condo and a cat toss it all out the window for what younger and more talented people will tell you is one of the world's worst career options?

I stood in on that dusty stage, lit from above, threw head back and my arms open wide and let whatever it was inside me that had been responsible for my irrational decision do the talking: “To tell The Truth!!!”

It was right, that Voice. (It always is, you know.) My whole life until then had been a quest to funnel The Truth as it is writ large somewhere in the cosmos into words and pictures that made sense down here. So I did it for awhile in advertising. And then in acting. And then in design. And now, with words, both on the blog and aloud, wherever someone will let me.

If I get off track, it gets me back on. If I need inspiration, I go back to the well.

The Truth.

I mean, come on, can that ever get old?

Illustration Friday - Suit

suit I have not yet got the hang of this Illustration Friday thing.

Apparently, you IMMEDIATELY draw the topic when it's announced on Friday, then upload as soon as possible so that everyone sees your thumbnail first. (Non-competitive and non-judgmental, my Aunt Fanny....)

So it is too late to submit my entry under last week's topic, "Suit".

But it is never too late to start drawing. Or thinking, for that matter.

Next week's topic: "Rejection".

After 10 years of acting and 45 of living, how hard can that be?

xxx c

Nerd Love, Day 5: Score one for the Nerds

all my favorite Thanksgiving foods rhyme with d. lee Nerds with a secret are like little kids before Christmas: they cannot, CANNOT, I tell you, wait for the big day.

The big day, in this case, was supposed to be closer to baseball season. Or at least post-Stupid Bowl. But I could not, COULD NOT, I tell you, wait one more second. Because I finally got my old pal, Tim Souers, the genius I blogged about a year and a half ago, to start a blog.

True, there are only a few actual "posts" up there. But he's uploaded two seasons to the image galleries, two seasons, people!!! Hours and hours of chewy, arty goodness.

Of course, the beauty part is, not only have I given this outstanding gift to the world (via, well, you know, Tim's time, talent and effort), but Tim is cool! He is a Cool Person!!! Who has started a blog!!! Which means...

I actually converted someone to the Nerd Side!!!


I will get you all, my pretties...

xxx c

Scanning my #$@! photos, Day 6: Portrait of the blogger as a(n older) mercenary

gold coast art fair '73 Me, selling more pre-communicatrix art at a later (1973) Gold Coast Art Fair. Ponied up for the license this time, too. Paid for the framing, taxes on sales and everything, even though Doting Grandfather offered to pay the expenses and let me enjoy the profit. Not my style. That shirt I'm wearing? 100% hair!

And yes, my prepubescent hands are wandering disturbingly near my crotchal area yet again. What can I say? Give me the child until she is seven and I will give you the slut...

xxx c

Sparky Donatello's Self-Portrait Marathon, Installation #1

Colleen WSJ stipple Sometimes the path to self-clarity involves a lot of sketching.

This time, it involved a lot of Photoshop filters.

Not much time left to the marathon. Then again, there's not that much time left to my marathon, if you catch my drift.

So here I am on the high board, jumping. Watch me, Mom! Mom, watch me! Mom! Are you watching? Moooooooooooooooom...

xxx c

More on the Self-Portrait Marathon at Crack Skull Bob, here. Link to Wally Torta's genius work on Flickr, here.

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Cubs: the thinking artist's sports team

cubs fans

Let's be upfront about this: I don't give a crap about sports. You can have your football, your soccer, your precious curling, with the exception of one strange season in college where I was possessed by the magic that is hockey, up close and personal, I don't get it.

So this whole World Series hoo-hah eludes me entirely. And I'm from Chicago, current home of GO,SOX!!!WOOFWOOFWOOF!!!! All I know is that King of the Hill was bumped for too fucking long and can we all please just get on with it, already?

And yet.

And yet, while I care nothing about sports or the athletes who play them or the fans who cheer them on...

cubby radio

...while the Super Bowl was, when I was forced to watch it, made tolerable only by the unbelievable Italian beef spread laid out by my ex's aunt and uncle, and hopefully, a football pool win...

...while I could live my entire life without seeing or hearing about another sporting event...

...there's something about the Cubbies.

Back in my ad days, we'd get offers of free (box) seats for all the major Chicago sports franchises. I got to see Michael Jordan from the 12th row, and yes, it was beautiful. I got to meet Michael Jordan, when he acted in a delightful batch of Wheaties commercials I wrote (hideous proof to be uploaded to Flickr soonish). But the best graft, the most coveted of all tickets, were to the Cubs games. Even when you didn't get the fabulous box seats with the high-end booze bar and the off-duty Hooters waitresses who'd roll the dessert cart by.

Maybe it's because Wrigley Field is so old and glorious, springing up 50 yards from the Addison "L" stop, surrounded by post-war brownstones, in the heart of a fully residential district.

cub kids

Maybe it's the rich history, so few wins, so many beautiful, beer-soaked afternoons in the sunshine for the fans.

Maybe it's the way they've inspired my old friend from ad days gone by, Tim Souers. I'm mad for his art. Mad, I tell you. He's been doodling these strange and wonderful illustrative observations with pens and Doc Martin's Dyes between coming up with brilliant commercials for some 20-odd years now. A few years ago, he started documenting his love for the Cubs in a personal journal, a few pages of which he scanned and sent to me recently (god bless the interweb!).

So if the Cubs are what it takes these days to inspire Tim, then color me royal blue and red and slap a giant "C" on my forehead.

More baseball.

More Wrigley.

More Tim Souers.

Cubs in 2006!


Paintings © 2004 - 2005 Tim Souers

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