A Quest for Camelot: September Newsletter

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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

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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.

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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.

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

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Run Big Monkey, at Home

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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

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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.

Momentousness

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Here I lounge, 45 minutes from our house in Garland, just down the road from the preschool where JPS is at this moment attending his first day as a student in a classroom. He has been absolutely stoked about the coming of this day. Since this time last year, when he had to endure sending his sister off to 2nd grade while he remained buckled in his seat, and when he walked the halls of her elementary school holding my hand and watching kids who were just a little bigger than he is walking in lines, carrying backpacks and lunchboxes, he’s been ready for his first day of school.

When we officially enrolled him at this school, which specializes in preparing hearing-impaired kids for the specific challenges they’ll face when they start kindergarten in a mainstream classroom, his mom took him on his first school-supply shopping trip, where he picked out the race car backpack above. He has packed and unpacked it, worn it in and out of the house, and requested numerous photo ops since he came into possession of it two weeks ago. This morning, the backpack hangs on a hook in a cubby with his name taped to it.

He has done his best to prepare himself for this day. His favorite game over the last year has been School, which is played on his bedroom floor, with his stuffed animals as classmates. Most days, in addition to pretending that his parent is a teacher and he’s the student, he also pretends to be a Jedi, a Marvel Comics hero, or a friend from Sesame Street, while the parent/teacher follows suit. We’re hoping he’s not too dismayed today when his teacher addresses him by his name.

JPW and I are having a strange moment of togetherness. Our kids are productively occupied elsewhere. This doesn’t happen to us. So, we just ate a morning snack at a diner, and now we’re nestled in a corner of the library around the corner from JPS’s school. Foggy impressions are stirring in my memory of a life I once lived that may have produced in me the calm ease that I am now feeling. Naturally, the need to be productive has brought me to this keyboard; but, the fact that I have not been needed by a small person in the last two hours is such a foreign sensation that I guess I’m at a loss. Soon, I hope to enjoy this serene state of mind without a feeling guilt or unease that I’m neglecting someone. Of course, I’m not; at their ages, the kids are better off in a classroom with peers than they are, sadly, with us all day long. Sadly? What am I saying? Don’t I crave the freedom to move and think without constant interruptions assailing me like the attention-destroying sirens and riveting guns that bombard George Bergeron’s ears in the Vonnegut short story?

Or have I become even more of a love-junkie than I was before parenthood?

Run Big Monkey, 2010

Run Big Monkey, 2010, James Hough

As I was painting and sanding in turn, trying to build up a good-looking surface on this painting, I eventually started to see the image of a baboon running across the top of the canvas. Normally I don’t go seeking imagery in abstract artwork, especially my own; usually it’s impressions, visual and emotional, that I’m seeking. But, these paintings emerge through a process a lot like excavation, so when I see in them things that look like symbols or archetypes, it’s fitting to go with it and see if the image and the paint work together in the end. The image and the paint both feel primal, so I think it works.

Run Big Monkey is a big painting that took a lot of elbow grease. A friend of mine has this interesting idea that maybe I should set my prices by adding up the labor hours and multiplying that number by an hourly wage, which is an elegant theory; I like how it demystifies the way we assign value to artwork, at least monetary value. Paintings like these, however, for all their size and complexity, would probably have too high a price tag with that method. It is a cool idea, though, charging by the hour. What do you think?

I made this painting on top of an old canvas from a series of nine paintings I did in 2005 for a big LA show at Patricia Faure Gallery, which has since passed away with its long-beloved owner Patty. Those paintings were labor-intensive themselves, though less so than Big Monkey. I had the same idea then about pricing my artwork as I do now: the lower the price, the more likely it is to sell. I talked to the gallery people about the price for the pieces. I wanted them to be $4000 each. They talked me up to $6500, using the argument, which sounded great at the time, that a gallery of Faure’s prestige has to maintain a certain baseline price level; in other words, the fact that my paintings had been chosen by that gallery made them more valuable right off the bat. By the time I arrived for the reception the price sheet showed that they were $8000 each. None of them sold. Now, I take my share of the responsibility for this: had I made them better, they would have had a better chance with collectors. But, had they been priced lower, they also would have had a better chance.

Running an art career on my own, as I am right now, I feel a nice sense of empowerment. I can set my prices as I deem appropriate. On the other hand, lacking the connections that a good gallery provides, I am much less likely to sell any of these larger paintings, even at the fraction of gallery market value that I have priced them at.

It’s an odd dilemma that I’m in. $4000 is a lot for most of us to spend on a painting, even at the large scale of Big Monkey. Yet $4000 is a suspiciously small amount for seasoned art collectors to spend on a painting like this. In either case, something seems fishy. In fact, sometimes I think the best move would be to double my prices across the board so that they seem more legit. This quest of mine to make serious contemporary art at a decent price may be doomed from the outset. Perhaps if I can eventually persuade an art dealer to lend them some legitimacy and partner with me, then things will go more smoothly. In the meantime, I’ll just keep working toward my goal and try to make interesting things happen.

Run Big Monkey is acrylic on canvas, 87″ x 67.″ It resides in our living room, on the only wall that can hold it. Because it’s so big the bottom foot and a half is obscured by the loveseat in front of it, so it feels like it’s part of the household, vying for its own space like everything else in here.

It’s Henna

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A few weeks ago as summer vacation was coming to an end I produced my most recent voluntary public art commission. My niece had returned from a trip to Hawaii with a small tube of smelly green goo–a lot like a fine pesto, really–for making henna tattoos. She had run out of time in Hawaii to have the tattoo done by an experienced henna artist, so, knowing that her artist-uncle was coming to visit her in August, she brought home the means for me to give her the tattoo myself.

Henna tattoos last 2-3 weeks, so their impermanence was reassuring to me, having never pigmented someone’s skin with more than a Sharpee, which would have been back in high school. I did an image search for “henna” to get a grasp on the kinds of decorative motifs common to the practice and made a small test tat on my left ankle to get a feel for it. I accidentally smudged it with my other foot after ten minutes, but the darned thing is still visible down there, three weeks later.

I present the photos above in the order that I made the tattoos. My wife, being the dutiful guinea pig, got the first and most restrained design, and then they got more involved as I gained confidence. It was a relaxing way to spend a beautiful Utah afternoon with my really very wonderful in-laws.

I’m told you can get like $50 a piece for doing these! Maybe a sketch-portrait/henna stand is in order. I always feel like a schmuck when I go long stretches between selling my artwork while other folks are squeezing stinky goo on paying customers all day long. Ah, the artist’s life.

Jormungand at Home

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Here is Jormungand Releases His Tail in its current natural habitat, which is directly in my line of vision if I look across the room from my side of the bed. I give it a good look for a few moments maybe every other day; I miss it much of the time because I take off my glasses and switch off the light when I retire for the evening, my eyes settled into the bliss of blurry darkness that is so welcome after a day of constant seeing. When one’s job is to make stuff look good one is always seeking more good-looking stuff to learn from and, through the act of sustained looking, trying to figure out how the good-looking stuff looks so good, in case one can use it in the studio. So, nighttime for the bespectacled artist is a welcome respite, and as much as I admire Jormungand, it’s daily absence from my visual field for hours at a time renews my fondness for it.

Jormungand Releases His Tail, 2010

Jormungand Releases His Tail, 2010, James Hough

Last fall, while I was working on God’s Covenant at the Event Horizon, I was also at work on a painting similar in size and technique. I was looking a lot at the mid-to-late-20th century American painters Joan Mitchell and Philip Guston while I painted, seeking to be inspired and educated by these makers of beautiful messes. The particular Mitchell I studied over and over was a tiny reproduction of La Grande Vallée (1983) from an AbEx series of commemorative stamps (as seen below, bottom row, second from the left, between Motherwell and Gottlieb). The blues and yellows in that painting were all the more arresting and mysterious because of the small scale of the stamp; it was like looking at a glorious painting across a football field.

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The Guston I had in mind while I worked on the painting that ended up being Jormungand is called The Light (1964) from the collection of the Modern in Fort Worth. Like the Mitchell above, this painting is so much about vigorous, broad, wriggling brushwork, this time in grey and pink.

What happens when you look at a lot of art over a lot of years is you start to see how some people just know how to make things look good; this description, “one who makes things look good,” is for me the best definition of what an artist does. Of course, determining what looks good is a subjective process, and this is kind of the point. If we all liked the same stuff, or if we could apply objective criteria to a visual object to determine its “good-looking” grade, then making and looking at and talking about art wouldn’t be much fun. Because the experience of beauty is elusive and specific to the individual, the pursuit of beauty can make life an adventure. And, when two people stand before a giant, scribbled canvas by Guston or Mitchell, for example, they can draw on their memories and intuition, exercise their senses of taste and judgment, and come to know better their own and each other’s notions of truth and beauty, which I think is as worthy an experience as any.

And, the art doesn’t mind our scrutiny and judgment, because it’s inanimate, perched on the wall, exposed fully, intended for as much gazing as we have to give it. The arts in general provide the perfect outlet for our innately human compulsion to judge others in order to understand ourselves better. And it is an excellent antidote for the more pervasive and, I think, malignant forms of judgment we indulge in when we watch reality tv or skim the pages of glossy magazines, calling on our ideas of beauty and righteousness as we repudiate or extoll, depending on how much they confirm or subvert our individual visions for the way things and people ought to be, the images of real human beings before us. In this way, art, which is both amoral and inhuman, can make us more moral humans.

Mitchell and Guston just make things look good. Their individual senses of scale and color, the way they each handle paint, and everything else they bring to their canvases, despite their abstract messiness, makes them distinct and lovely. These two painters continue to give me a lot of material to work with in my own studio. Looking at Jormungand now, you would hardly think that it started as an homage to The Light, but a painting has to start somewhere. As I built up layers of acrylic and sanded them down, transforming the surface slowly into what it ended up looking like, with the tans and blacks swirling up a wicked froth, it felt more and more Norse in character. And, having been watching the live simulcasts of the Met’s Ring cycle, I went in the direction of the epic (rather than the cosmic, as with Covenant) when I was titling the painting. In Norse myth, Jormungand is the world serpent who encircles the Earth and holds the conflicting universal forces in check by holding his tail in his mouth, making of himself a protective ring for our planet. It is said that when he one day lets go of his tail, the Norse version of Armageddon will begin. Which sounds wicked and fits the vibe I get from this painting.

Jormungand is acrylic on canvas, 45.25″ x 41.25.″ Like Covenant, it also lives in our bedroom, and I’m happy to report that I have yet to get tired of looking at it, which for me is a good sign that I’m on the right track in the studio. I’ve destroyed a lot of old artwork over the years as they age before my eyes and start to look stupid; I don’t foresee that happening with these paintings.

Walking Through Camelot

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It’s still terribly hot here in the Camelot neighborhood, and forecasts of cooler temperatures and rain have been steadily warming up and drying out. September in Garland is much like August except school is in full swing, and, to the detriment of students and staff alike, on hot days like these the kids don’t go outside to run and scream for recess. It’s just too toasty.

I can report, in spite of the swelter, that I’ve made some small progress in the Camelot campaign. I’ve knocked on fifteen doors, and talked with ten neighbors. I’m working on the fourth drawing of the series. I mailed my friend Erin’s drawing over to Fort Worth a few days ago, after all the botched attempts to get close to a likeness; when she receives it I’ll post the image.

I knocked on my first door that said, “No Soliciting. Day Sleeper,” in larger-than-ordinary lettering, right there on the door. It was just after 7pm, still light outside but the lowering sun was providing enough shade that we could hop scotch from patch to patch and feel okay. I say “we”: I brought the kids along. Although I didn’t know the “No Soliciting” house was coming up, I felt less creepy and rude having them there with me. I could hear a tv inside the house as I read the warnings on my neighbor’s door, so I went ahead and rang. He was guarded as he opened the door, but the kids and their melting popsicles seemed to put him at ease.

We talked for a few minutes. He said that my request to come sometime and get a photo of him for the drawing was a bit forward of me and that he’d need to see examples of my work and think it over. And he’s right. What I intended to be a win-win for my neighbors–drawing a free picture of them–is also an imposition. Who lets a stranger, whom they’ve just met by answering the door, take a photo of them?

So, it looks like I will be stretching my timeline in this process of meeting, photographing, and drawing neighbors. When I mentioned to some friends in the neighborhood that I probably need to make a brief newsletter about my project and my intentions, they jumped on the idea and said it would be a good occasion for a block party. If someone (myself) is willing to deliver fliers to all the homes in Camelot then we can announce the party and try to ensure that everyone is invited! In fact, two of my neighbors have suggested this, so we’re going to do it, probably in late October when it’s only in the 90s. I’m happy to report that some good for the community has already come out of this project!

Next, I’ll be drafting a short newsletter, explaining my intentions to meet and draw everyone in the neighborhood and make a book about the experience, featuring images of the drawings and some prose about how it all went down. And, we’ll be planning this block party, which is now less than two months away. I’ve never been to a block party before–what fun!

Life, with Art

It is said that when selling artwork online one should take nice photos showing the art in a pleasing environment, such as you would find in the pages of home design magazines like Dwell or Architectural Digest. Looking at photos and ads in these mags, I get the feeling that the usually fluffy decorative paintings, which occupy about 1/10th of the photograph’s space, are worth a similar fraction of the tastefully designed room’s value. Want to make a $15,000 painting look like it’s worth its price? Take a picture of it in a mouth-watering, $150,000 interior.

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(One quick note: the painting there on the left is a Will Cotton, who is a living master of fluffy decorative painting. I saw one of his oils at the Dallas Art Fair last spring and the gorgeousness of the paintwork made me cry; artists like him keep artists like me away from representational oil painting. I have nothing to add to what he’s able to do with the brush.)

Another type of luxury interior shot–usually more about furniture than art–features young adults lounging on a couch or the floor, sporting comfy footwear, engaged pleasantly in a book or laptop, or smiling contentedly at each other. The woman should be holding a ceramic coffee mug. And if a child is playing quietly nearby, you have a masterpiece.

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Ahhhh, isn’t that the life? Cleanliness and order, tranquility and contentment, good lines, feng shui.

I am a skeptic, which means I ask for evidence to support a claim, and which I guess makes me a realist, too. I like for my ideas and values to correspond as closely as possible to the actual state of things outside of my body, in the objective world we all presumably inhabit. And I find little evidence in my experience that supports the existence of the kind of lifestyle enjoyed by the characters in these photos. They remind me of sitcoms in which one of the characters has had her baby, but the story must continue, so when new mommy needs to act like the grown-up that her audience is accustomed to, she just lays baby down for a nap or puts baby in a playpen where baby coos softly, or not at all, and lets mommy do her thing. Photography like this, and really all photography in most every magazine, drives me nuts.

So, in my ongoing effort to brush aside delusion and fantasy and replace them with a more familiar reality, I want to share my installation shot of God’s Covenant at the Event Horizon, in the condition in which it actually exists.

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Our furniture is used and well-worn; our bed is unmade; our laundry is underfoot; our carpet is characteristic of a rental home. Our kids do not play quietly or alone. JPS had the fun idea of bringing all his Batman toys onto mom and dad’s bed, and he only played with them solo because he saw that a camera was pointed at him. He has the reputation around here for lying on his back, absentmindedly spinning our recliner with his feet, if no one will play with him. His mom and I encourage independence in our kids, but the fact is that unless a friend or cousin is in the house, they are either playing with us or engaged with some kind of electronic screen.

If JPW were to sit on the floor with a ceramic coffee mug, it would probably end up shattered on the tile and certainly end up overturned on her clothes, few of which are white, because she is the mother of young children and knows better. We read mostly on the toilet, which is the only place where we can occasionally find peace. If we were to snuggle up on the couch with the laptop, we would be assailed by the children, who cannot bear to be excluded from gazing at a monitor.

I find life an insane, unwieldy, improvised mess. We humans are animals, and serenity, while longed for (as millions of magazine photos show us again and again), is rarely achieved, and short-lived. And I wouldn’t want it any other way. Life is an adventure that is not to be tamed by the right couch or composite flooring material. And certainly not by art. I think the best art and photography embrace and celebrate the insanity around us, which is what my photo of a painting in a home with a child is going for.

God’s Covenant at the Event Horizon, 2010

I want to catch you up on some of the larger artworks I’ve made in the last year since we moved to Garland. A lot of the paintings I’ve done over the years are in the medium-to-large size range–between about 3′ and 8′ in one dimension–which doesn’t lend itself either to ease of shipping or modesty of price; they are a bit heavy, and they take a lot of time to make. As you know, I have a broad commitment to finding ways of making reasonably-priced artwork and connecting to an audience that includes, but is not restricted to, the traditional contemporary art world. But, I am also committed to making the best artwork I can, and this pursuit sometimes takes me beyond parameters such as pricing, weight, scale, and so on.

God's Covenant at the Event Horizon, 2010

Now that I’ve begun the Camelot quest and I’m making the effort to meet the members of my community here in the Dallas area, as well as on the web, I want to make these larger, more intensive pieces of art available for your viewing and, because there’s always a chance, purchase. If a neighbor did one day decide to buy one of my larger paintings, the collector, being local, is all-too-easy to reach for delivery, so shipping would be a non-issue. For now, and for simplicity, there will be no Paypal buttons for these pieces, as I don’t expect those of you who live far away to want a painting shipped to you at a cost somewhere in the low $100s, considering crate-building, weight, and insurance. And for you local potential collectors, cash or check is an easier form of payment, and I don’t have to cough up a percentage to Paypal for handling it. If one of you would like to subvert my expectations and pay for the crating and shipping of this or another large piece to you, please show me the error of my ways, and I’ll accommodate you posthaste.

That long preface behind us, let’s turn our attention to the painting above. It was one of the two paintings I first made once we got settled here. Some of you may have seen it on my former blog, Look On My Works. It’s comprised of many layers of paint which I alternately built up and sanded down until I liked what I was looking at, which is a kind of supernatural cosmic landscape, and I titled it with the kind of language Wayne Coyne uses to name Flaming Lips songs.

Covenant is acrylic on canvas, 48.5 ” x 41.5.” It lives in our bedroom, as it has since last autumn, and, unlike most of the stuff I’ve made as an artist, I haven’t gotten tired of looking at it. In fact, like the best work an artist does, it makes me say to myself, “Wow. I can’t believe I made that.”

Jim Public Is Growing Up

I’m happy to announce two extensions of the Jimiverse!

First, I’ve made this blog available for Kindle at Amazon.com. The cost, set by Amazon, is $1.99/month, and you get a 14-day free trial. If you click the Amazon link in the sidebar, just there to the left, not only will you be taken to the Amazon page where you can subscribe to Jim Public: Your Local Artist, but I think I get a couple of cents if you end up subscribing to it after having clicked that specific link! I can already feel the weight of those pennies jingling in my pockets…

Next, I created a Twitter account. I’m @jimpublic. As I make blog posts, I will tweet the link over there in addition to providing a link on Facebook. If any of you can suggest some good folks to follow on Twitter, shout them out. So far I’ve already stopped following a lot of comedians who keep spouting out mean-spirited one-liners that just don’t work for me.

It’s thundering outside! Our crunchy corpse of a lawn may just have a second chance at life.

Camelot? Yes, Camelot

In my last post I talked about making mistakes, and although I don’t intend for my errant ways to become a habitual topic on this blog, I would like this morning to present you with an example of sloppy decision-making.

When I dreamed up this idea of Facelife I first came up with the quest of meeting all my neighbors and then I came up with the name, which I thought was a funny reaction to Facebook and to what is lacking in online social media, namely facetime; society functions better when we, in addition to choosing our friends as we do online, also have to learn to coexist peacefully with the more random assortment of folks near whom we happen to live in our community.

In naming my endeavor, the responsible route would have been for me to consider the name for a while, weigh the pros and cons, and decide, ultimately, if this would be a name I was willing to stick with. If Mark Zuckerberg, for example, decided that he didn’t like the ring of “Facebook” and decided, today, to rename it “Zuckerbook,” pandemonium would ensue.

My neighbor-meeting project has no ambition or possibility of becoming the type of cultural and business phenomenon that Facebook has become, but I should have treated it with the same kind of care at its inception, because renaming things in mid-stream is bad form. But, it turns out I don’t like the ring of “Facelife.” I don’t want something I’ve done to have a reactionary title. (Last year, I purchased a web domain called “jamezon.com” before dumping it for similar reasons and moving forward with the better-named “jimpublic.com,” and I should have kept that lesson in mind.)

As I’ve been chatting with neighbors and learning more about this community, I’ve learned that the neighborhood’s nickname is “Camelot,” which I should have deduced on my own since the name of each street here has an Arthurian regality to it. So, henceforth, my quest is now called Camelot! I won’t be going back and re-writing history in old posts, but I have re-named this category on the blog, and the term “Facelife” will cease to issue from my lips.

To Camelot!

Screwing Up, Over and Over Again

If I ever decide to write a blog devoted to my screw-ups I have an overabundance of material to work with. I could begin with my decision on Monday to write down as much as I could remember of my conversation with Marge so I could share it with you, as a kind of character sketch to accompany her portrait. Because we had such a nice, long chat, I was concerned that I might mess up some of the facts, so, like a diligent journalist, I submitted a draft of my story to her for fact-checking.

After delivering it to Marge, who received it with alarm at having possibly anyone read what she had to say to me, I realized that I was a jackass. Conversations are generally understood to be meant for those involved, and I had done the equivalent of revealing a hidden tape-recorder to my new acquaintance, which could not have been great for her trust in me. I spent the rest of the evening, all that night, and the next morning preoccupied with the guilt of having been a jerk to a senior. And the following morning, seeing her in her yard after I had dropped off JPG at school, I pulled up, rolled down my window, and told her to disregard the story. I apologized for the invasion of her privacy, and told her that I’ll just stick to chatting and drawing.

I think it turned out okay. She didn’t mind what I had written and, anyway, was way more interested in talking to JPS, who was groggy in the back seat. Don’t you love how seniors adore children! Seeing her affection for my kids helps keep things in perspective during the many times a day that those guys drive me nutty.

I lack the gift of playing out scenarios to test them for potential problems, and I’m only a little less bad at identifying my screw-ups as they occur in social situations. Usually I just go for it and stand prepared to apologize, which I end up doing quite a bit and which can’t be good for the image I’d rather project as a man who knows what he’s doing and stands behind it, no regrets.

Fortunately there is an area of my life about which I am resolved and confident–my artwork. But I screw that up all the time, too. However, one thing about art that makes it better than life is that when I screw up a drawing, nobody gets hurt but me. And it does hurt. I get frustrated at my feeble skills and then take a minute before I start another drawing, wondering how I’ll manage to make it any good after all the botched versions leading up to it. I present you a case study below.

4 Erins, each screwed up

I spent twice as much time failing to get a likeness of Erin as I did eventually finishing the drawing. I would draw, realize it was awful, get angry, leave the table all flushed with hopelessness, and then return to start the cycle anew. Drawing a young woman has its challenges, because every line has the potential to age her by decades. Erin, who is probably a couple years younger than I am, kept turning out looking like a wizened, mature woman from the Rex Morgan comic strip. The woman in the upper right looks okay, just not like Erin. I especially marvel at the version of Erin as Abe Lincoln.

So, I share this with you as evidence that one success is usually the outcome of many failures, and that the cliches about never giving up are good advice.

Painting at the Elementary School (Year 1 of 9)

Elementary Hall Art 1

With JPG in 3rd grade and JPS not starting kindergarten for another two years, the Public family is looking at eight more years of involvement with our lovely neighborhood elementary school. Last year was our first year in this community, and my wife and I volunteered throughout the school year and over the summer, assisting with field trips and parties, teaching a few art lessons, making props for the talent show, and, finally, painting five inspirational-type words in the hallways, as you can see above and below.

Kindness, Respect, Attitude, Honesty, Responsibility.

If, during each of the nine total years that we’ll be a part of the school, I spend a day or two adding some painted flourishes to it, I’m hoping it will be an all-out public school spectacle by the time we’ve moved on to middle school.

So, I am finding ways to merge my missions of being an artist and doing something worthwhile in the community. Volunteerism is an excellent way to achieve this goal. And, when one volunteers for her community the effort is never fully given away because, as a member of the community, she receives the benefit of the work along with everyone else. The same goes for making drawings of my neighbors and giving them the original artwork: we both win in that exchange because, as it has been through centuries of human society, the gesture of gift-giving enriches the relationship that is being established.

Elementary Hall Art 2

Neighbor, August 23, 2011

110823 jim public neighbor

Facelife has begun!

On Monday morning it was not yet 90 degrees and there were some clouds in the sky. “The sooner I start this, the better,” I thought, and I recalled that I had seen a retired-age woman working in the yard of the house where I had planned on beginning the neighbor-meeting campaign, which meant that she might be home during the day. So, before I had time to think about what I was going to say, I approached the door and rang the bell, relieved that it was too late to worry about whether or not to go through with this.

The woman opened her door and I introduced myself as Jim who is trying to meet everyone in the neighborhood. After a few seconds, when she seemed comfortable with the idea that I had just come by for a chat, she stepped onto the porch and we began a visit that was to last for the next 45 minutes. I thought about the piece of door-to-door soliciting advice that warns about people who would take up too much of your time talking if you let them, and we laughed when I shared with her that this admonition was the very thing I was hoping for.

Marge is very nice. I took my kids over there yesterday to say hello, and she gave them some books, lollipops, and a ceramic Casper the Friendly Ghost that goes in a flower pot. We talked about knowing one’s neighbors and how it can improve our quality of life. She told me a story from her childhood about an old Jewish man they called the Sheeny (she never knew what the spelling was supposed to be) Man who came through the street once a week collecting old tires and other castoffs. She said that when he came through, rather than chasing him off with a brandished stick, she and her siblings would run inside to her parents shouting, “The Sheeny Man’s here! What can we give him!” I like that little story. Having a sense of community forces each of us to judge less and accept more.

I feel good about this first door-knocking! We’ve chatted a few times over the past few days. I hope I don’t have to endure too many shoo offs and/or language barriers before I find more folks who are up for a neighborly chat. I gotta say, I’m a little high right now. The social beast in me, for the first time in a long time, is patting its great belly, eyes half opened, smiling, sated.

The Public Family, August 22, 2011

110823 The Publics

That’s me and JPW, the tall ones in the back. JPS is the short one with the silly grin, and JPG is showing us her demure smile.

So, Facelife continues to come together. I have always hated approaching people without having anything to offer. This has been a problem for me in dealing with the gatekeepers of the art world, and in fact it is my experience in the arts that informs my distaste for having little or nothing to offer to someone. Artists want other people to show their work and help them to be successful. We hang around receptions and weasel our way into parties and dinners so that eventually our big break will happen. Hanging around artists for long enough, one starts to feel that they see you and everyone else as potential ladder rungs that they may step on as they climb to art-stardom. I’m all done with that.

Which is one of the reasons why I’m focusing on my community and not on my superiors among the cultural scene. So, back to Facelife, when I introduce myself to the people in my neighborhood, I want to have something real to offer them as a gesture of goodwill. I also seek a life in which the facts of daily living and the less tangible world of art can blend into one. And, I have stumbled upon just the thing to unify art and life! With the permission of each person/household I meet, I’ll snap a photo of them, make a drawing, scan it for my records and my blog, and give the drawing to the subjects as a gift.

As I try to build my audience through my blog and other activities in the community and on the web, I’ll be showing these drawings and sharing a little about the characters in them as I get to know the people around here. I feel that giving the original drawings back to the people who made them possible is the neighborly thing to do; it’s a gesture that I hope will embody my appreciation for the role that they play in this Facelife experience.

The above drawing of the Publics is a prototype. Mine is the first of the 227 homes in the neighborhood to be represented on this blog.

Reading, Crying

082211 JPG reading to Jim and JPS

Yesterday was the last day of summer vacation. In one hour I will be dragging what I hope will be two very chipper children from their beds, 2 1/2 hours before the time they awoke just yesterday. JPW, my wife, would have preferred that I had started channeling them into the straight and narrow in anticipation of today’s abrupt return to school-year reality, but I opted for the opposite approach, which means that my kids and I languished in bed until after 9am these past few days, and no Saxon math or piano practice occurred.

While this description of summer’s final weekend may reek of sloth, I counter it by sharing with you just how much reading went down over those same two days. JPS, being a few months shy of 4-years-old, doesn’t “read” much yet, though he can sound out many one-syllable, single-vowel words, a fact that makes his parents both proud and eager for the day a few years hence when all four of us can enjoy an afternoon of quiet reading, each with his or her own book. JPG, on the other hand, is reading well ahead of her age level, which is to be expected of any child whose parents’ dirty-hippy tendencies have steered her from the screen to the page. I maintain that if you take 100 3-year-olds, curb their consumption of television and computers, and replace that time with one-on-one reading instruction, while modeling the behavior as an adult who reads for leisure, two years later you will end up with just shy of 100 5-year-olds who read well and often, leaving an allowance for the few kids who will have learning disabilities and will need continued practice and guidance to catch up with their peers.

As the summer heat pounded outside, we didn’t leave the house much this weekend. JPG was content to read her mom’s Archie comics by the dozen, but I needed a way to pass the time that could engage all three of us. She and I had three chapters of Wilson Rawls’s Summer of the Monkeys to finish, so I gathered us in the living room and read aloud, which doubly pleased my daughter, because she not only loves being read to but has also been promised that when I finish reading Summer to her I will begin the long postponed reading of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

The reading was going as well as I could have hoped. JPS brought in his monkey and woobie and lay around with his finger in his mouth, as he has always done when he’s resting or mentally checking out for a bit. He even chimed in with a few pertinent questions, such as, “Is Jay Berry a boy or a girl?” and “Who’s the girl?” before returning his finger to his mouth and rolling his eyes back into snuggle-coma position.

But, good things can’t last forever, and I had anticipated that I would be the weak link in our quiet afternoon of story time. For those of you who haven’t read Summer of the Monkeys, first, I recommend it as a great book for upper elementary age people, and second, I’ll say that it’s a crier. I knew what was coming, having read it when I was about JPG’s age, but as the book built to its climax and even as it coasted through the denouement, I was finally overcome.

I get emotional while I read books aloud to my daughter. Usually we are reading stories that are legitimately tearful at times, but I think there’s something in the act itself of dad-reading-to-daughter that pre-loads my tear ducts and sets my lower lip aquiver. I like to think that this routine display of an adult male’s emotions lends depth and intensity to the reading, but it’s more likely that it’s just irritating for my listener to have to endure so many pauses during key scenes as the reader stabilizes his breathing and tries to force the croaks out of his voice. I suspect that these often lengthy pauses in fact destroy the pace of the story and lead to attention drift in the listener. But yesterday we found a solution.

When the weeping was too distracting and I had to tell my audience, “Sorry: this book makes my cry,” JPG offered to take over and do the reading herself. The poor kid was ready to get this show back on the road. I was grateful, and as I calmed myself with sips of afternoon coffee, I listened to her read several pages. She’s a good little reader, but very fast and not terribly articulate in her delivery, as all little kids are, so I’m looking forward to a new routine of passing future books to her when I reach troublesome waters and need a few minutes to steady myself. I could use the break, and she could use the practice.

Later, before bedtime, I read the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to her, which is my favorite of the series for its sensitive and accurate portrayal of early adolescence. It was the Potter novel that, for me, after J.K. had already upped the stakes with Prisoner of Askaban, made it clear that these books were the real thing, not mere escapism, but a microcosm of human life. And, I’m glad that I can pass over the book to JPG when I need a moment, because just reading Goblet to myself makes me heave and splutter.

Nancy

Yesterday ended the Public family’s epic month of vacationing, and we now look ahead to 3rd grade starting in a few days for JPG and pre-K for JPS a few weeks further. As we were getting settled on the plane which was to rend us from Salk Lake City, and as we were just tasting the first bitter notes of acceptance that travel season was indeed over, something unexpected and very nice happened: the woman who was to take the seat to my right extended her hand and introduced herself, “I’m Nancy.”

I’ve made small talk on airplanes over the years, and I’ve done my fair share of burying my nose in a book, but I’ve never been so directly and pleasantly addressed by the person who was to spend the duration just inches away from me. I would have bet money that any chit-chat with my fellow passengers would have begun with a bemoaning of the summer heat. “I’m Nancy,” with an extended hand, is a reminder that in all things simple directness is not only the easy way, but the most effective.

She was very nice. In fact, I recognized her from our flight four days prior to Salt Lake from Denver, the inverse of the journey at hand. I didn’t remember the tall, suited 19-year-old young man seated in front of her, Nancy’s second oldest son, whom she had been escorting from Minneapolis to Salt Lake for his mission (or mish, as those of us who have spent the last 1.6 decades in close contact with Utah and their famed religion sometimes call it) to the Philippines. As we talked, we learned that her son and my near-4-year-old son both have hearing loss of different kinds: her son has eustachian tube issues that have left his ear drums perforated–something they are hoping to correct after he returns in two years–and JPS has neurological hearing loss, which cannot be corrected surgically but has been very effectively treated, so far, with an excellent pair of cute little green hearing aids and a few incredible speech therapists.

She talked some about raising 6 kids–all boys but the youngest–and I talked about being an artist and stay-home parent. I had accidentally brought my five most recent paintings on paper to Utah in my large sketchbook, so I pulled them out and did a little show and tell. It was fun. This is the kind of thing I live for. Meeting a kind stranger, talking a little, and, as the icing on the social cake, showing some artwork. I like to think that showing one’s artwork to strangers is a good thing, because most people seem not to have much contact with art or the makers of it. But, what was so nice about the whole experience is that the 90 minutes we spent next to each other were so warmly colored by the way she initiated it.

It’s so easy to despair about the state of humanity; every day offers too much evidence that we humans are a sorry lot. In fact, two nights before the flight, we were playing a game at my brother- and sister-in-law’s house, and to the question, “Which animal/insect do you find most disgusting?” I answered, “Humans.” It was for laughs, but there was some truth to it, too. One of the things I hope to get from Facelife is a counter to that tendency to see the worst in people. We’re complicated, full of goodness and badness, and I think that if you seek the good in people you’ll find it. I’m hoping to.

As you know, it’s still terribly hot, so I have yet to knock on my first door of the Facelife campaign. But, what a timely and inspiring moment I had on that flight! Being on the receiving end of what I’m setting out to do, and being greeted by someone in such an open manner, have gotten me more excited about meeting lots of strangers. If I can pull it off like Nancy did, it will turn out to be a simple task.

And, I should mention, as we talked on the plane, I regretted my answer to that disgusting animal question. I should have said bagworms.

The Hyper-Local Artist

I’ve stated that I am a hyper-local artist, and I see two aspects of what this means.

First, I am a geographically local artist, a person who does creative work in my suburban neighborhood and attempts to connect the work to the life of the neighborhood. True, I am still in the planning stages of the Facelife door-knocking campaign, which I’ll be starting as soon as it’s under 100 degrees by 5pm, probably next week if we’re lucky. My daughter JPG starts school next Tuesday, which seems as good a time as any for me to start my own autumn adventure.

Because Art refers to a broad, shape-shifting array of activities, artists have perfect freedom to give whatever form they want to their practices. My own values of community living, grassroots engagement, and making affordable artwork all feed into this hyper-local shape I’m giving to my practice. At this point I know what I think is important to leading a worthwhile life and I have a good idea of the kinds of artwork I want to do, but as I proceed with my values guiding me, my oeuvre could look and sound and feel like pretty much anything, and I love the sense of adventure in that.

Next, I’m a local artist on the web. Because of its virtual nature, the web is simultaneously vast and local because all web content is a mere URL (and maybe a password) away. As I do what I do here, my goal is to reach out to my geographical neighbors here in Garland and to my virtual neighbors here on the web. Reaching out to fellow internet-users is a big challenge obviously, because my web content comprises a near-undetectable trace of all the information on the web. But, as anyone who has started a business from scratch will tell you, of course it’s all hard work, and it may all come to nothing, forcing me to seek a living elsewhere. At this early stage of my conquest I am still full of optimism that persistence will win the day for Jim Public, that as I pound the cement pavement outside my front door and the digital pavement beyond my computer monitor, I will nurture this thing and make something that is meaningful to enough people that I will earn the privilege to keep doing it.

There was an article this summer on Glasstire, the Texas-based art site, that discusses the lack of urban density in DFW and the impact of this lack on the art scene. The author suggests that it takes geographical and social density to create the kind of energy that gives spark to a vital art scene, and that Dallas’s art scene isn’t so vital because the city and its inhabitants are too thinly and broadly spread. Reading that article was a signal moment for me. I think it was the tipping point that helped me to gather my ideas about what I want to do as an artist and put those ideas into action, rather than tuck them away in the corner of my mind labeled “crazy” and continue pushing for a more conventional art career of making expensive artwork and wiggling through the social channels to get it seen by the right people so that the wealthy can fee secure in bestowing a purchase on this youngish, strange artist among many young, strange artists.

I believe that by going hyper-local, both in the neighborhood and on the web, I can make artwork that means something to people and that makes me the kind of modest living that will let me keep doing this. And don’t mistake my talk of making a living for a call to support you local artists or whatever. An artist is owed nothing by his community, and you should feel no obligation to support him just because he’s locally-based and engaged in some socially special activity. Art is like anything else: if you like what I do and you want some of it, you can choose to buy some. It is my job, the artist’s job, to make something that people care about, not the public’s job to care about what the artist is up to.

That said, talk to y’all next time!

Ready for the Small Time

August has truly been a summer travel extravaganza for the Public family. During the weeks prior to our camping in the New Mexico mountains we spent 5 days each in Austin and Tulsa. Then after one day of recovery from New Mexico (and Carlsbad Caverns, which was beautiful both underground in the caves and on top of the mesa looking out over a hundred miles of desert disrupted by the sudden majesty of the Guadalupe Mountains) the four of us headed to DFW airport for our final summer trip to Salt Lake City. Salt Lake in the summer is so absurdly beautiful that it exists outside of my personal conception of time and space. Living as I have in Oklahoma, Texas, and southern Nevada, I cannot conceive of summer as being anything but mostly miserable outside. So, while our yard in Garland now has a fault-line of dry earth stretching across it, baked by intense heat and drought, the yards here in Utah are lush and dewy, water flowing copiously through the city’s network of streams and channels. It’s way refreshing.

On the plane heading out here, I opted out of sliding my credit card for $6 worth of Direct TV programming, but I did get to watch a handful of ads promoting the upcoming fall season of mostly reality programming. The X Factor and one of those Top Chef type shows both caught my attention. The bevy of talent-seeking programming is a sign of the times, obviously. The internet and our growing capacity for narcissism are part of this trend in which many of us can seek, if we choose to, our fame and fortune and vindicate our latent certainty that each of us has something special to offer the world. I am totally part of this trend.

However, I don’t want to be the next Kelly Clarkson or celebrity chef. My ego craves recognition, but my quality of life requires that I spend much of my time with loved ones, or reading, or making stuff. To be a superstar you have to make sacrifices; to make millions demands more than I’m willing to give. But, I do want to use the contemporary media landscape to transform myself into a ministar. To hell with megastardom: I’m aiming for a middle-class living here.

For me, choosing to be a visual artist is about working hard to make up new content all the time, to find an audience for it, and to make enough money that I don’t have to get a day job. It’s a lifestyle about maximizing work time, because the work is its own reward. So, if I can create interesting content and make it available in different formats for the enjoyment, edification, and purchase of a relatively small number of people in my local and internet communities, and I can pay my bills, then I have a the life I want.

The internet has the potential to redistribute stardom into a scenario in which the are many more of us making a far more reasonable amount of money. I love Gaga, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, and a lot of other arena acts that have monopolized stardom in recent decades; I want those crazy fame-seekers to continue to blow our minds and make piles of cash. There is no Gaga without a heavy revenue stream to support the operation. On the other hand, and on the other end of the income spectrum, I’m eager to take my place among the broad, diverse scene of cultural acts who pull in an annual haul somewhere in the mid-five-figures. This would constitute a huge success for me and my endeavor.

The X Factor talent series, and those like it, represents one phase of the transition toward everyone having the opportunity to be famous entertainers. What people like me are shooting for is the next extension of that trend, toward a cultural landscape in which thousands of small acts work hard to make their art and to build their audience so we can make are modest living doing what we love.

Everything’s Hot But My Feet

Vacation has a way of stretching out the mind. I’ve just spent the last week in a re-purposed Girl Scouts camp in central New Mexico. My household met up with most of my wife’s siblings and parents for 6 days of camping, and it was quite the bevy of cousins, uncles, in-laws and so on. JPW, my wife, brewed a 54-bottle batch of homemade root beer, which was not only delicious but perhaps mildly alcoholic, as I was pleased to hear from my mother-in-law, whose tongue never touches booze and seems well qualified to make that call.

The site was remote enough that my phone had apparently been discharged for several days before I wondered where it was. Obviously, there was no wi-fi for the bloggers among us on the mountain. Without the satellites and towers to keep me connected to this beloved digital world, and without my computer or studio to fill my days with habitual tasks, I had a lot of time to fill my lungs with piney air and reflect on the state of my life; and, while I could fill untold numbers of posts with these reflections, I’m going to exercise some discipline and tact and just share a little of what my idle mind turned up last week.

It’s been a few weeks since I dreamed up the Facelife project, and I’ve got to say I’m getting some cold feet. Maybe it’s like my granddad, Pappy, told me in the moments before I surprised my bride with a self-penned serenade on our wedding day, which is that the panic helps you to be alert and ready to perform well. Pappy spent decades in front of audiences, leading choirs and directing musicals in northeast Oklahoma, so I think he was no stranger to these jitters. When the Facelife endeavor starts, what I will be doing is something of a performance, as I approach the front door of stranger after stranger and try to introduce myself as a normal dude who’s trying to do something interesting in the neighborhood. What I fear is that, no matter how sincere and prepared I am, my neighbors will see me as too weird, possibly too threatening, for their taste, in which case I will transform from a benign, anonymous guy in the neighborhood into a definite weirdo who should be avoided.

The optimist in me says that many people will think what I’m doing is mildly interesting and then go back to their Vizios and forget about me. Then, the next largest group will like the idea of my knocking doors and introducing myself, busting down a little of the isolation we suburbanites often feel from each other. I hope to strike up some acquaintances and, if I’m lucky, maybe a decent friendship with members of this nice group, but I’m not planning on the latter; we’ll just see what happens. Then, finally, the smallest group will be the few whom I freak out by my forwardness. Like I said, I’m not planning on knocking the “No Soliciting” homes, but I must assume that eventually I’ll run into a feisty, proprietary libertarian who will brandish me off her land.

I’m considering saying something like this:

Hi. My name’s Jim. I live here in the neighborhood, a couple streets over. (I’ll offer my hand if they come out to greet me.) I’m trying to meet everyone in the neighborhood. (And if they don’t have anything to say at this point, or if no turn of conversation presents itself, I’ll say:) I’m writing a blog about the experience of meeting all of my neighbors, and I’d like to invite you to read it sometime. (Leave card with info. And if I feel the conversation needs to end, I’ll bid them good evening:) Have a good evening. I’ll see you around.

If you have any ideas for improving this pitch, bring them on. Pretend I just knocked on your door and gave you this introduction. Are you annoyed? Alarmed? Pleased?

Tips for Going Door-to-door

Knocking on peoples’ doors as a way of introducing myself to them is an unnerving prospect, so I’ve gathered some tips from the web that I hope will keep me out of bad situations. A caveat: I’m writing this post in a lobby where MTV2 is broadcasting, so I can’t guarantee the quality of what follows. You know how it’s a good idea when you’re trying to do your best to surround yourself with the best? It’s dangerous to try to make something worthwhile when the context you’re working in is of such sub-par quality that any effort on your part represents a substantial improvement on the situation. Right now there’s a show on about a heavy black guy and a skinny white guy who may be a skater. I feel like a normal fish in a very stupid pond.

  1. The first thing I’m going to do is keep a friendly expression on my face and speak in a clear, confident voice. I won’t offer a handshake unless the person comes onto the porch to greet me. And I’ll state my purpose right away, as most people assume that I’m a religious proselytizer or a salesman until I say otherwise.
  2. I will have either a card or a brochure to hand out. I think I’ll say something like, “Can I leave this with you?” I should offer it with a choice, so I’m not forcing them to take something they don’t want. And, because people may not be receptive to me as I stand on their porch and take up their time, the literature I leave will give them a chance to see what I’m about on their own time.
  3. Some sites warn that there are some lonely, chatty people out there, and that I should keep a mental clock and not stay for more than a few minutes, especially if the person wants to debate me. The advice I’m reading is mostly for political canvassers, and since I’m not out to promote any political values, I think I’ll be okay to chat for a minute. After all, these are my neighbors, and as long as my internal crazy alarm isn’t buzzing, I’ll savor a chat for a little bit. I live in the region where King of the Hill is set, so I’ve been really wanting to sip beer in the alley and shoot the bull with my neighbors. This may be the way to make that happen!
  4. I shouldn’t be discouraged by a string of negative responses, because most people just don’t like to be bothered. I’ve just got to persevere. I really can’t wait to see how people react to my overtures. A lot of people may well think I’m crazy because suburban protocol expects us to keep to ourselves and not to go out of our way to engage each other. So, I’ll try to keep my chin up when folks blow me off, and with luck and persistence I might be able to convert some of them to neighborly friends.
  5. If someone insults me I should just be cool, smile, and say, “Have a nice day,” because there’s no need to start a confrontation. Maybe I’ll add, “See you around,” since we live in the same neighborhood, just to remind him or her that we’re part of the same community, and that you can’t just dis someone and expect never to see the person again. I want to promote a little interconnectedness in the neighborhood. It is said, and I believe it, that one of the reasons there’s more social and political division these days is because we don’t know our neighbors and, therefore, don’t know how to live with people who are both decent and different from ourselves. I want to cut across this trend.
  6. I should emphasize that it’s just me, and that I’m not sharing anyone’s agenda but my own. I’m already at a disadvantage by knocking on their door and bothering them, so I need to express my motives clearly and immediately and try to bring their guard down.
  7. Wear a nametag. Oh man, this is awesome. I’m going to design my own tag to identify myself and look professional. I won’t be a nameless drone, but Jim Public, your local artist!
  8. In keeping with my respectable haircut, I’ll also dress conventionally. If I dress unusually I may associate myself with radical ideas, and most people don’t like that. My ideas, in fact, are somewhat radical, but they are also based in the familiar tradition of community, so my hope is that the nice shirt and nametag will help take the edge off my agenda of getting my name out there by getting to know my neighbors.

Man, this blog is starting to get a little heavy on words and light on action and photos! This is as it must be for now, but I am determined to round out the content with more activity and more pictures. Soon enough. Once Facelife starts in earnest, this blog will pick up the pace in all kinds of unpredictable ways.

Terms for Going Door-to-Door

Still several weeks out from knocking on my neighbors’ doors, I’m still trying to name the thing that I intend to do. I may have to start using the term faceliving for what I’ll be doing, however, because I haven’t found an appropriate term that means, “to make a friendly introduction of one’s self to a stranger.” Here are a couple of possible synonyms and their definitions.

canvass (verb), 1. to solicit votes, subscriptions, opinions, or the like from; 2. to examine carefully; investigate by inquiry; discuss; debate.
solicit (verb), 1. to seek for (something) by entreaty, earnest or respectful request, formal application; 2. to entreat or petition (someone or some agency); 3. to solicit orders or trade, as for a business.

Both of these terms denote a desire to get something from someone, be it a vote, an opinion, or a sale. The fact that there really is no common term for introducing yourself to strangers that doesn’t include an intention to gain something from the strangers makes me step back an consider my own intentions.

It’s true that I don’t know very many people in my community right now, and I feel that knowing more of them would improve my quality of life. In this respect, I think it’s safe to say that my conquest is about no personal gain except the gain of personal acquaintances. As I start faceliving in my neighborhood I won’t be showing anyone my artwork, much less asking anyone to buy it, so I don’t like the terms canvass or solicit.

I may make cards that feature my name, vocation, contact info, and some representation of my artwork to hand out to the people I meet, and at this point of giving a card to someone I think I would feel like more of a canvasser or solicitor. Going back some generations, there was the old practice of paying calls to your neighbors and leaving cards as a way of identifying yourself as the visitor. My practice will be similar to this, but because there is a possibility that the card recipient could visit my website and make a purchase forces me to admit that I am more of a door-to-door salesman than someone simply paying a social visit. On the other hand, my primary goal with faceliving is to make myself known to my community as an artist who works right here in the north Garland suburbs, because in order for my artwork to have any significance it is much more important for the work to be known than sold. Sales will happen as a result of the artwork having a growing audience, and it is the nurturing of this growing audience that is my top priority.

For now, I guess I’ve stumbled on calling this door-to-door activity faceliving, though I won’t use this as a technicality that lets me bug people with “no soliciting” signs. I’ve given this some thought, thinking that it could make for some entertaining anecdotes in the blog if I introduced myself to strangers whose doors tell the world they want to be left alone. But, I’m opting for letting them be. I won’t go out of my way to piss people off with this project. It’s already likely to throw folks off to have me on their doorsteps, so I’ll try to keep the odds closer to favoring me.

On Going from Door to Door

I’m still several weeks away from the official kick-off of the Facelife door-knocking campaign. As I go about my summer travels and family gatherings I’ve been searching the web for tips on being a successful door-to-door canvasser. I’m putting together a preliminary list of tips that should give me courage as the big day nears, and I’ll be posting that list shortly, for those of you who are moved to join in this Facelife endeavor and meet your neighbors, too.

One piece of advice that keeps it all in perspective is that if the experience of knocking on strange doors and speaking to new people about yourself ends up being as terrifying and awful as it now seems, having not yet tried it, you can just quit and get a different job. This advice is directed toward salespeople and campaigners mostly, but it reminds me of two helpful facts about my career. First, I’m not going to give up my art career so easily, but if this tactic of becoming a more engaged member of my local community, both as artist and citizen, doesn’t work, then I can just shelve it and try other approaches. I don’t need to get a different job, just a different method. Second, I realize that the career I’m building is an unconventional one, and, for some, not even a real job at all: I’m pushing for a career in which I make a living doing exactly what I want. So, because my job at this early stage doesn’t look like a real job, particularly to people who have bosses and regular paychecks, I feel that doing something that most of us find intimidating gives this art career more street cred. Or in other words, if I want to be a professional artist so badly, I better be willing to put myself through all manner of trials to get there.

If I ask myself, “Will doing this help my art career even a little?” and the answer is “Yes”, then I need to go ahead and do it, unless I’m exposing myself to danger or violating ethics. I need to demonstrate to myself and my audience that being the kind of artist I want to be is not about hiding in my studio and playing the role of the delicate fellow, but about making the best looking stuff that I can and showing my enthusiasm about that stuff to as many people as I can.

Facelife

facelife logo

I’m excited to announce that my inaugural quest as an artist building himself a grassroots art career has a name…

Yes, in fact it is Facelife. And here is what Facelife is: I will be donning a nice shirt and putting gel in my hair, walking through my neighborhood, and knocking on all 227 doors, by way of introducing myself to my neighbors.

I use Facebook quite a bit as a means of reaching people and building my audience, and I appreciate the site for its ability to keep people connected in new, strange, virtual ways. I will continue to use Facebook, and I may well take my friend Kerry Bill’s advice and jump into Twitter here before too long; but, I also want to defy the promise and the function of Facebook with this Facelife project, namely, by doing in the physical world what Facebook–really, any social networking technology–allows us to do in the virtual world. I am going to pound some old-fashioned pavement, knock on some doors, and literally say hello to real people whom I don’t know.

I’ll tell you, I don’t know what to expect from this expedition. I imagine no more than 5% of the people I talk to will end up having any interest in what I’m doing. I suppose a lot of people won’t answer their doors, and others will be terse with me, as anyone who makes a point to knock on strangers’ doors should anticipate.

But, I’m excited about it. What’s got my insides all full of the good jitters is that I want to do this both as an artist and a human being. The artist wants people to know who he is and what he does; he wants to build an audience and become a valued part of his community here in north Garland, Texas. The human being just likes to know people. About every other evening I take a walk through my quiet neighborhood, my home for the last 13 months. I like developing a relationship with the land, the weather, the streets, the houses, and the neighbors; and, I credit these walks with accelerating this period of adjustment to my still-new life in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. Facelife will help me take my relationship with the neighborhood to the next level.

And, each motivation gives courage to the other. The artist is relieved that the human being just wants to meet and greet people rather than try to get something from them, be it a profession of faith, a donation, a sale. And the human being is emboldened by having a pretense for the visit; I’m not just there awkwardly to say hello, but to introduce myself as a local figure who does something the stranger might find interesting.

Of course, I want for these Facelife efforts eventually to engender sales so that I can make that ever-elusive living; but, as any visual artist knows, most of an artist’s audience is comprised of non-paying constituents. And that’s okay. Art can and should be enjoyed for free much of the time. If you’re really good, you figure out ways to scrape rent together each month.

So I’ve gotten my appearance as settled as I can for now, I have a name and a plan for what I’m doing, and I’m working on the map to help me keep track and share my progress as I go. I’ll continue to prepare through August–researching tips for door-to-door types, and so on–as we do some family traveling and wait for the heat to ebb, and I expect to hit the sidewalks at the end of August, just as JPG gets started in third grade. I can’t wait to see this play out, and to share it with you.

A Respectable Haircut

jim public got a haircut 072411

I’m happy to share with you that I’ve made some progress since my first Jimmy, Meet World post, in which I took a look at my look to see what I could do to make myself less freaky-looking as I introduce myself to people in my community. I got a haircut.

I’ve spent most of my life with hair that draws on the “bell” motif. At first, the bell was the result of my mom cutting my hair to fit the times–think Luke Skywalker. Later, I was just reluctant to maintain a coherent and/or respectable appearance. My mind was usually on other things, things like art and what song lyrics mean and, later, how best to parent a short-tempered daughter, and so on. Even mirrors conveniently have shown me only what I want to see, which is just enough of my features to recognize myself as I wash my face or check for pepper in my teeth; my scruffiness is edited out by a brain that hasn’t cared about scruffiness until now. Only in photos did I see myself as I looked to others, like a sad sap from the ’70s.

What I have now is versatile: it can be styled back or up or forward. I can probably get it to stand up in an inspired-looking mess, like you see in portraits of old classical composers. But what’s key in this cut is the clean edge around the ears. It acts like one of those slim, solid frames that contain a de Kooning or Joan Mitchell painting: it gives permission for whatever is within–or above in my case–to be as crazy as it wants to be. Most of the time, however, my hair will probably look a lot like it does above, as I spend the day pushing my fingers back through it. But I reserve the option to tousle and texturize as needed.

So, I got a haircut. I tell you this not because I’m in a sharing mood–I like to share, but I have some sense of self-censure, too–but because what’s happening on this site and in this blog is the journey of a virtually unknown artist from his current state of near obscurity to one of public note. I’m drawing up plans right now for the first direct phase of meeting my local public here in Garland, TX, and those will go up soon.

This blog is handy for me. If I say I’m going to do something here, I’ll feel like a jerk if I don’t do it. I’ll be announcing my first venture into the actual, physical public in the next few days.

What to Expect from This Blog

Jim Public in his studio, July 2011

I spend a lot of time in the studio, which some of you may recognize as a standard suburban 2-car garage with paintings and free-standing walls in place of automobiles, a fact that, to her great credit, my wife has endured since we moved into our first house. Do cars really need their own room anyway?

This is where I do a good deal of manual labor (i.e., making art), looking, and thinking. In the photo, I’ve just finished the former and I’m engaged in the two latter. The looking is how I determine if a piece of artwork is good or finished or needs more work, and the thinking includes all of that plus anything else that’s rattling around in my skull.

What I’m thinking about in the photo, besides how close to done the painting on the left is, is how I’m going to establish a sturdy career. One would think that having been an artist all my life, and a professional one for seven years, I would be past that point. People who would think this include me from the ages of around 18 to the early 30’s or so. To be an artist, and I use the term broadly, you have to face the economic reality that there is an absurd lack of demand for contemporary art in the broad market and an even more absurd glut of artists out there to fill it. We have to be persistent, foolhardy, and a little delusional, and we have to distinguish ourselves. This is what I’m thinking about.

In the last post I was examining my appearance because the career I’m building is a public one, and I need to do what I can to be presentable. My goal isn’t to make public artwork–though it doesn’t exclude it–but to find ways of being an artist in the public, a presence in the community, a local artist. Becoming familiar with the people who live and work where I live and work is a big part of this vision: I want a grassroots art career. I’m not interested in ingratiating myself to the elites of DFW and beyond in order to have a shot at a blue chip art career, a career that most of my neighbors will never know about, because contemporary art is an exclusive world. It’s an exclusive world I love, but one I want to expand to include everyone whose interest I can spark with a little pavement pounding and neighborly goodwill on my part.

And this process, which has the potential to go in all kinds of directions, and which I’m really excited about right now, is what you can expect to be documented in this blog as I go along. And, your reading is an important part of the whole thing. Now I need to nail down my game plan for getting out there with the good folks of north Garland…

Jimmy, Meet World

I want my artwork to reach a lot of people and a lot of different kinds of people. Working toward building a large, diverse audience helps me achieve two goals: 1) I’m more likely to make a living doing this, and 2) I satisfy the drive that artists–all people, really–have, to cross the barriers that separate each of us, to make that human connection. Self-expression is just one half of why I make art. It’s not enough just to pull up for a jump shot, release the ball from your fingers, then turn and walk away: you want to see if you make the basket, and you want to see the crowd’s reaction.

Thinking about this stuff is always going on in my head. But, in my years of being an artist, I’ve given very little thought to what’s going on on my head. So let’s take a minute here to reflect on where I’m at on the outside, the side you see. If I’m going to be an artist with any kind of public presence, appearance deserves some scrutiny. If I can get the way I look a little more under control, maybe this grassroots art career will be a little less tricky.

I give you, Jim Public…

Jim Public headshot 1 July 2011
  1. The overall shape here is thin, so far. This is good for public relations, especially since I’m still relatively young. As I gain years and weight, I can pull off a rounder figure if the career’s doing well: we assume that heavy poor people overeat because of their failures but that heavy affluent people overeat because of their successes. Also, if we use U.S. presidents as a barometer, our last overweight commander-in-chief was Taft, whose term started just over a century ago, while President Obama today is right up there with the lankiest. So, for me, slight makes right. And even though Santa and Buddha are both popular and portly, they have much to give and ask nothing in return, so they’re on a rather different, jolly plane from the rest of us mortals who have to make a living.
  2. The hair is mouse brown and limp, and there’s a definite bell shape happening. It needs attention, be it lots of product to lift it up while keeping the length for some Depp-effect, or a good trim to expose the ears and give the head more of a strong, recognizably geometric shape. The hair must be dealt with realistically, however, because time spent doing hair is time spent not doing art.
  3. The heavy-framed, dark glasses lend an educated, yet disabled look. You see people like this every day, who leave the inner animal in us thinking, “Good for him, carrying on bravely in spite of his impairment, and he hasn’t been killed and eaten yet!” As an accessory, the glasses work okay, imparting a thoughtful, physically nonthreatening presence that will help me when I greet people.
  4. Face shaved = good. And some thin chops to strengthen the line of an otherwise vague, rounded jaw. I’m not thrilled about the gap separating the burns from the hair, which make them look like dangling, hairy earrings, but the sideburns will do for now. This face does not exude masculinity on its own, so the framing facial hair helps a little. But only a little: better for the mind to be virile and the body to be just manly enough to pass. Plus, in this photo, the burns define the cheekbones, which I didn’t realize I had.
  5. The facial expression is neutral in this photo, and I’m happy to see that it’s not too weird or sullen or cranky. Adding a touch of smile will get me closer to the safe-zone for the grassroots art-career-building. The smile needs to be sincere rather than ingratiating: nothing’s worse than a stranger approaching you with a grin that says, “Hi. I want something from you.” My goal as a friendly neighborhood artist isn’t to convince anyone of anything but my existence. The world is full enough of folks whose greetings reek of opportunism. I’m serious about this: if you know that I exist and make art, then I’ve done my job. So, yeah, this facial expression is close to what I need to introduce myself to you, I think.
  6. One last thing before the scrutiny ends and I’m all done looking at my own photo is the shirt and collar. It’s blazing hot in north Texas this summer, as always, and I had thought the light-weave, collared shirt was only about survival, but once again I’m pleasantly surprised that it looks okay, too. Especially note the collar, open one extra button for ventilation: while the shirt itself is a sturdy classic style, the open collar suggests a hint of unbridled creative passion. Striking that balance between refinement and savagery may just be the key to making it as the artist I want to be.

To conclude this self-critique, let me say that I’ve tried to be fair and practical about what the photo shows, and, unless I’m more delusional than I realize, I’m not as bad off as I had expected. I will keep eating vegetables, getting haircuts, using product for texture and body or whatever it is that my hair needs, sporting spectacles, remembering to shave, practicing good posture and smiling just enough not to look crabby. And I’ll get more of those shirts. Maybe half-roll the sleeves for that getting-down-to-business look.

As for the business I need to get down to, there will be more on that. Things are going well in the studio; it’s outside of the studio that needs the work.

One last thing. I’d like to thank Jim Public’s Girl and Jim Public’s Son–JPG and JPS henceforth–for their technical assistance with the photo shoot today. I couldn’t have done this without their eagerness both to pose as stand-ins and snap the pictures.

Jim Public's son sample headshot July 2011Jim Public's daughter sample headshot July 2011