I Think I’ve Been Had

Jim Public portrait of two grandparents, September 18, 2011

Early in the door-knocking phase of the Camelot project–I have only a few dozen homes left to greet!–I met a neighbor who, whether intentionally or not, got the better of me. Even before he answered the door, I knew I was dealing with a character. Minutes earlier, I had been chatting with a friendly retiree a couple doors down who told me laughingly that the neighbor in question was a Cajun Vietnam veteran reprobate, which he told me he meant affectionately.

I rang the doorbell, waited, rapped on the door, waited, and at last the man answered the door not wearing much. When I told him I was a neighbor and I’m doing this neighbor-meeting-and-drawing campaign, he told me I could draw his grandparents and went into the house for a few minutes. He returned with an 8 x 10 framed photo of his long deceased grandmother and grandfather, along with a very small photo of a man in uniform who turned out to be his father. He handed them over to me, asking that I not take too long because these were his only prints of these photographs.

A little stunned, but feeling open to the strange possibilities of my quest, I accepted the task, and told him that my intentions are to draw my neighbors, and he said, “You can draw me and my wife when you finish with these.”

Normally I would have declined. As with lawyers, accountants, nurses, so with artists: there are people who think, because they know you outside your professional capacity, that they can ask you to do for free what you would charge others for. I’ve had far more offers to draw and paint people for free than I’ve had offers to pay me for these services. But in the context of the Camelot project, I’m in a giving mood, so I went for it. I don’t plan to make this a habit, but that’s just how this interaction with this neighbor went down.

What really struck me about this conversation is that this guy was in no way caught off guard by a stranger on his doorstep offering to draw him as a gift. It was as if he’d been waiting for an artist to knock on his door so he could get some free drawings of his kin, and when I arrived, he was ready, as if to say, “I’m glad you finally dropped by; I’ve got just the thing for you.”

So, I did the drawings, walked them over to the neighbor, who was happy to receive them, and we scheduled an appointment for me to come and snap a photo for the drawing I had intended to do from the beginning. When I showed up at the designated time, there was no answer. I stood waiting at the door, slowly accepting what felt like a foregone conclusion: I’m not going to get a photo of this man and his wife. He probably forgot the appointment; I don’t think he meant to dodge the photo op. But, as I’ve gone through the neighborhood and found that very few people answer their doors and even fewer are receptive to the notion of my drawing them, I’ve realized that chasing my neighbors in order to be friendly and offer a gift isn’t the best use of my energy. I’ll continue to make the effort to connect with them, and leave the decision to have the drawing made in their hands.

Which is to say, I don’t expect to be making the drawing of my Cajun neighbor and his wife; but, if something changes, I’ll let you know.

And if you want a portrait like this done, I’ll soon be adding a page where you can commission one. They’re 10″ x 8″ and the price is $50 for the first person and $25 for each additional person. If you’re looking for a good deal on a family portrait, look no further.

Jim Public portrait of a father in uniform, September 17, 2011


The door-knocking, neighbor-meeting campaign continues. I’ve been going out each day between 4:30 and 5:30, which is a time that works well for me since it falls before our supper time, and, therefore, I hope, before most everyone else’s supper time, too. I’ve been to 138 homes, which puts me past the halfway point in this project.

In the past week I’ve developed a growing fondness for the word “welcome,” especially when it’s printed on door mats or crafty signs that people use to make their porches more cozy-looking. It’s not that anyone has made me feel particularly unwelcome. A few neighbors have spoken to me through their doors, one told me he wasn’t interested and turned down my flier, and one opened the door, looked me up and down quickly, and told me it definitely wasn’t a good time. No one has been hostile, which I appreciate very much, and I sympathize with those who are reluctant to have a chat with a dude who just knocked on their door.

When I approach a home that has nothing on the porch–no mat, no cute signs, no pots, brooms, or chairs–it feels a little cold, as if the residents aren’t eager to have folks approaching their door. Occasionally I see a “no soliciting” sign, which does strike me with anxiety for fear of a confrontation; I don’t savor the idea of trying to be polite and neighborly to someone who thinks I’m soliciting them. So far, thankfully, I’ve not had to defend my campaign to anyone, and honestly I’m pleased and surprised that so few front porches greet you by saying, “No soliciting”.

The welcome mat, the “enter and be happy” or “god bless this home” signs, these make me feel all warm and friendly as I approach the door. It’s not that my will to knock on the door is affected by how welcoming it is; I just get a feeling of general reassurance that there plenty of people even here in isolated suburbia who make the effort to put a happy face on that threshold where one’s private space meets the great, wide, public world.

I have also been adjusting the way I talk to people on their doorsteps. Specifically, I had been getting bummed by the consistent expressions of polite bewilderment when I told my neighbors that I wanted to draw a picture of them. It seems that when a stranger at your door tells you, after about 15 seconds of conversation, that he would like to take a snapshot of the members of the household and make you a drawing as a gift is cause for alarm. There is no precedent in my own life for talking to a stranger on my own porch and feeling that he is there just to be friendly, and that whatever he may be saying or offering is part of no ulterior motive, but a sincere gesture of neighborliness.

So, I now introduce myself as James who lives a few streets over, who has lived in the ‘hood for about a year and is going around meeting people in an effort to get more familiar with the neighborhood. I say that I’m also doing a neighborhood project, and I hand over the flier and ask them to look it over and contact me if they’re interested, and then I continue to talk about living in the ‘hood and see if the conversation goes anywhere. This approach spares me the awkward feeling of having just startled someone who is polite enough to stand in their doorway with me for a minute. I would rather have a brief, neighborly conversation than make a pitch for what is turning out to be an offer that is being far less warmly received than I imagined it would be.

That’s the great thing about taking your ideas out the front door and into the world of people: you start to find out just how big the gap is between the drawing board of your ideas and the field of play where those ideas confront reality.

A Nice Day for Door-to-Dooring

jim public door to door 110917

Friday afternoon I grabbed a stack of “A Quest for Camelot” newsletters and walked over to the front of our neighborhood, to the house I pass most often as we drive in and out of here. I was a little excited, mostly anxious, about knocking on all these strange doors. I was jumping into the Camelot quest for the first time. I rang 21 doorbells that day, and today I got up to a total of 66, so I’ve completed 29% my goal of knocking on all of the 227 doors in this neighborhood.

What happened at the first door (shown in the picture above) foreshadowed what would occur in 73% of my interactions on my neighbors’ front porches: the experience begins and ends with the knock. So, armed with my newsletter, I was prepared for this contingency. I folded them to show the title first, so that the neighbor would possibly recognize the name of his or her neighborhood, Camelot, and not throw away the letter immediately.

At several of the homes there were obviously people inside. Some people peered at me through a parted curtain and walked away, and others carried on talking in a different language and opted not to answer the door. Living in a neighborhood with a large Asian population, I am not surprised that they didn’t answer their doors often. One woman answered, smiled, said, “No English,” but continued to stand there civilly with me while I briefly tried to pantomime my little speech before thanking her and leaving the letter in her hands. I have found that if there are slippers and some kind of cement or ceramic toad/lion/dragon figure on the porch, no one is answering that door. The combination of simply not being home and the culture and language barriers have made this theory 100% accurate so far. We’ll see if it stands when I finish.

Of the 18 people I did speak with, two were suspicious and dismissive and spoke to me through their closed door, a few were reserved but nice, and 14 were between friendly and really friendly. All things considered, though I’m still anxious about how much more of this I have to do (cold door-knocking is just plain nerve-racking, but I think it’s doing me some good), it has been a good run so far. I have not met any blatant misanthropes, and I’ve met 14 nice people I probably would never have spoken to had I not knocked on their doors.

At this point, then, the glass is definitely mostly full. Let’s hope it stays that way as I try to get the rest of these newsletters hand-delivered by the end of the month!

Highlights from the New Studies

Study 1, September 2011, Jim Public

A common thread in my artwork seems to be an urge to use every color in every piece I make. This goes back a long time, and if you look at the thumbnails of all the work I’ve put on this site, you can see that trend at work. If you were to take a jpg of pretty much any piece of art I’ve made and reduce it to 1 pixel, thereby forcing the color content of the piece into a single square that represents the average color of the entire work, you would likely get grey. I don’t mind this tendency in what I do; in fact, it’s something that’s fun to find ways to push against.

For example, in these sanded works like the one above I actually use quite a range of color as I build up the layers of paint. If you ever hold one of these paintings in your hands, you can flip it over and look through the clear plexiglass (the substrate I use to make these paintings) and see a record in reverse of how I put the painting together. There is almost no resemblance between what you see on back and what you see on the front; that is part of the adventure in making these.

But, because all these different colors are layered, the top color is obviously dominant, and the thicker the coat the more dominant it is, even if you spend all day sanding it. In this way, I can use Technique to fight against Habit, in this case, my tendency to throw a rainbow at every painting. In these sanded paintings, the rainbow is still there, but buried, and I dig and scrape until I reveal those pieces of the spectrum that contribute to a nice looking picture.

So, even though I’ve used all kinds of color to generate this painting, it’s basically a blue monochrome with noise in it. The effect is one that really works for me because my eyes–enjoying the wash of blue, darting around with the different brush marks, picking up bits of maroon, taupe, black, and so on–get a lot out of these 140 square inches of acrylic.

8 New Studies, and How They Get Here

Study 1, September 2011, Jim PublicStudy 2, September 2011, Jim PublicStudy 3, September 2011, Jim PublicStudy 4, September 2011, Jim PublicStudy 5, September 2011, Jim PublicStudy 6, September 2011, Jim PublicStudy 7, September 2011, Jim PublicStudy 8, September 2011, Jim Public

Vernon Fisher told us undergraduates at UNT that an artist is a problem-maker. We go into the studio with an intention to make something, and in the process of making that thing, we encounter problems that we have to solve to get us where we want to be. Really, we create the problems, confront them, and in working through them, we create more problems. A working artist isn’t likely to run out of directions in the studio, because each piece conjures up problems that spiral outward into what becomes new pieces of artwork, and, of course, new problems.

In this way, and in so many others, the conventional wisdom that artists and scientists dwell in opposite realms–right v. left brain, passion v. reason, etc.–is just bogus. We artists and scientists love the chase. We love a good question: it gives us the occasion to focus our powers of observation and channel our experiences into the pursuit of Truth and Beauty, which is the dual prize artists and scientists seek, and is, as the Romantics tell us, a singularity.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

That’s what Keats says, and he’s right. In our hunger for the experience of Truth and Beauty, we artists and scientists look closely at the world and try to find new places where they might reveal themselves to us. It’s like a drug addiction, except that both seeking and obtaining the fix actually make life better.

This centrifugal cycle of problems begetting problems in the studio or lab, all in pursuit of the elusive, noble duo of Beauty and Truth, this is the grandiose version of how such paintings as the eight above get here. I have so much to figure out about what happens when I try different approaches to my studio techniques, so I lay out some panels, open some paint, and start working through and creating more problems. When the result looks good, I make it available to you; and, when it looks bad (which happens a lot!) I just paint over it and start the chase again. An art studio is just a science lab with more paint.

A Quest for Camelot: September Newsletter

110913 jim public camelot newsletter september 2011

The Camelot project is a work in progress, and I’ve already had fun watching it shift and develop in real time since its inception this past summer. Having knocked on one or two dozen doors, not entirely as prepared or tailored as I had intended to be, I’ve decided that a monthly newsletter may be the way to formalize what I’m doing. The newsletter allows me to give something to my neighbors each time I visit; I like this because it lends a sense of purpose to what has started to feel a little like loitering. It also lets me communicate with people who may not be comfortable standing on their porches and chit-chatting with the local idiot, and it’s something I can leave behind when I knock and no one answers.

Each newsletter will feature some of the latest neighbor drawings. My hope is that those who are skeptical of my intentions, after seeing monthly renderings of people in the community, will come around and let me draw them, too. I feel that the newsletter, its contents and its monthly regularity, will build just a little sense of community around here. Even if it is short-lived, even if it revolves only around this project, a little bit of community building is always a good thing. In my wildest fantasies (which are an uninterrupted torrent in my imagination) I foresee pot-lucks, neighborhood parades, barn-raisings, and the like, resulting from the Camelot project. But, even if nothing materializes beyond what I’m doing right now, I will be happy for the experience itself.

New Studies Coming In

110913 jim public studies september 2011

Can I just tell you how much I look forward to having a camera that doesn’t distort the edges of my rectangular artwork? It’s like my paintings have rung your doorbell and you look through the peep-hole to see a warped, circular version of an otherwise rectilinear piece of art. Someday, this nice-sized lens of my dreams will swing open that front door of yours and show you an image of the paintings that is closer to what your naked eye would see.

But cameras don’t buy themselves, nor does anything else for that matter. So the artist must make lots of stuff, exhibit it, and hoard his pennies; only then might he be able to spring for such studio equipment. And this is the time of year for making and for exhibiting! Though it’s 100 degrees today, and should be 106 tomorrow, last week was most pleasant; the cool snap allowed me to get into the Agora, my studio, give it a deep, autumn cleaning, and make some new artwork.

Just for fun, and because I’m told that people who frequent blogs like lots of pictures, here are some photos of that fine day. It didn’t break 90 degrees! As you look them over, imagine M.I.A. jamming in the background and think of the series of photos as a montage sequence in a film in which the heroes are getting down to business. That’s what it felt like. My daughter JPG was spying on me during the cleaning, so we have her to thank for all the candids.

110913 jim public studio before

Cue M.I.A.. The song I had on repeat that day was the “Paper Planes” remix from Slumdog Millionaire, with the funk beat and 80’s synth.

110913 jim public studio cleaning 1110913 jim public studio cleaning 2110913 jim public studio cleaning 3110913 jim public studio cleaning 4110913 jim public studio cleaning 5

Fade out music. I have a warm sense of accomplishment in my belly. Or that’s the Shiner. Probably both.

110913 jim public studio after

Run Big Monkey, at Home

110912 jim public run big monkey at home

I think I said this before, but Run Big Monkey hangs on the one large wall we have in the house. There is in fact a newer painting that is 1″ longer than Monkey in each dimension, making it the current largest Jim Public piece; but, as I finished the larger painting after Monkey had already claimed the one spot where it would fit, it currently resides against a wall out in the studio. I have four more large paintings like these coming up in my studio queue: where am I going to put them? I’ll worry about making them first.

Monkey has good company in Skull Platter, 2004, by Sean Slattery. JPS–shown above reclining with a noisy toy army tank–referred for a while to Sean’s painting as Ba Ba Boo Boo during the early part of this 3rd year. We don’t know how he came up with that nickname, but we haven’t heard it in several months. During that time he had mixed feelings about Ba Ba Boo Boo, some days laughing at his silliness, other days recoiling from him with a furrowed toddler brow. Now that JPS has a noisy toy army tank, perhaps no longer feels threatened.

A Proclamation

11090711 kids homeless

I love being a dad. It’s the most rewarding job I’ll ever have. I love my kids. (That’s a photo of them, on the morning after a gorgeous cold front came in, having decided that when the weather gets cool, the cool pretend to be homeless.)

That’s the proclamation (minus the parentheses). And it may be obvious, but because this kind of thing is rarely said by me or by the parents in my social group I proclaim it now. My experience of fatherhood has been incredible, though I’m not in the habit of thinking about how good it really is. But something happened over the weekend that got me thinking about why some parents, like myself, would undersell the experience of parenthood.

I saw a story called “Parenthood Got You Down?”, answered, “Yes, sometimes,” and read the article. The author states, “It’s really hard, being a parent. At times, it’s crushing. But you’re never allowed to say this.” I read on and, recognizing such sentiments as exhaustion and frustration, figured I’d post a link on Facebook, adding my own comment, “At some level we all know that parenthood is not all roses, but it’s always good to hear it from someone else.”

Soon thereafter a friend did something that flies in the face of Facebook protocol: she offered a different point of view. And it was a welcome one. She said that she didn’t like the tone of the article, that it should be evident that parenthood is driving her crazy, and that she chooses to focus on the love and magic that her kids have added to her life. Her words didn’t make an immediate impact, but I thought about them all day and have ever since.

In the broad culture of parenthood there is one contingency that exerts a pressure on parents not to speak of their hardships, but there is another group that exerts an inverse pressure not to speak of their joys. The NPR reporter seems to be coming from the first world, the realm governed by what Betty Friedan might have called the Parental Mystique, that nagging feeling of empty isolation that parents feel as they strive to show others that all they want is to be great parents and that making baby food and attending play-dates are sufficiently fulfilling activities for an adult. This world would be the one in which a parent may feel that he’s not allowed to speak of the dark side of parenting.

But I inhabit the other realm, in which an ironic, wry detachment characterizes the way we show the world that we’re a different kind of parent. I consort mostly with folks who come from a fine or liberal arts background. We are a classically liberal-minded lot, eager to live in way that demonstrates our immersion in forms of culture that the American middle class in general doesn’t encounter. We attend art openings; we’ve seen A Doll’s House; we’ve heard of Proust. We are therefore loathe to be seen as conventional, and nothing is more conventional than becoming a parent. We mammals are expected to do just two things between birth and death: we have sex and have babies. We artist-types can get away with the former, but then to go and procreate just as we are expected to? How bourgeois! What’s next? St. John’s Bay, Dockers, and your cell phone on a belt clip?

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DOKuSQIJlog&w=450&h=277]

(Btw, that video is the best thing ever made by an evangelical Oklahoma mega-church.) So, to speak for myself, I have erred on the side of appearing not to care one way or another that I’m a parent, as if it’s just one of my several responsibilities in life that I take in stride. I hang around with a lot of artists, most of whom have no kids, and I’ve made every effort to blend in by downplaying the enormous amount of love that fatherhood has added to my life. But, as an artist, my domains are Truth and Beauty. T & B don’t distinguish between what is good or bad, but simply what is and isn’t, so if I don’t acknowledge the broad reality of parenthood as both difficult and magical then I am falling short of my duty as an artist. Parenthood is the world’s biggest half-full, half-empty glass: the potential for despair or elation is as great as life has to offer, and a glass this huge, even if only half-full, offers more than a lifetime’s worth of rejuvenating waters.

I call on parents to speak openly about the best and the worst, and everything between, of their experiences. It’s okay to feel wretched or euphoric about being a mom or a dad. The pressures we feel to appear to be a certain kind of parent are the product of internal forces, not external ones. Under- or over-selling parenthood does the noble vocation a disservice. Maybe, if more artist-parents were honest with childless artists about how magical parenthood is, more artists would have kids and it would be easier for me to find such people to hang out with! Not that the world needs more kids; but it could always use more love.