Oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas. One in a series, “Dysmorphia of Dreams,” available on Etsy.
The series is about recognition, or lack thereof. Paul Dunbar speaks to the positive potential of that recognition—
“By the Stream”
By the stream I dream in calm delight, and watch as in a glass, How the clouds like crowds of snowy-hued and white-robed maidens pass, And the water into ripples breaks and sparkles as it spreads, Like a host of armored knights with silver helmets on their heads. And I deem the stream an emblem fit of human life may go, For I find a mind may sparkle much and yet but shallows show, And a soul may glow with myriad lights and wondrous mysteries, When it only lies a dormant thing and mirrors what it sees.
People are beautiful. Art is a compulsion. These two facts combine when I go to bars. That looks like this.
This tends to result in friends. Most people want to be seen. Really seen. Recognized.
And when you look at someone like you’re going to draw or paint them—if you’re doing it with the art of their face in your heart—you’re seeing them. Art is about recognition in the heart.
Perhaps for this reason, compulsive bar drawing also often results in commissions.
Like the commission that came out of seeing Paco. Paco was sad when we first met. He got sadder when he realized he’d set a beer down on one of my wet oil paintings tucked in the back corner of the hostel rooftop bar. But I could see that Paco was basically a strong and happy person. The person you see here looking up at his dad, remembering the day when he was a little kid when his dad taught him math on horseback. The photo he’s holding are his dad’s hands during his last rites. The image also appears on a tattoo on his chest.
And in his new painting.
If art is about seeing people, then travel is about meeting them where they are. That’s why the two work so well together. Because when we’re not inured to details and locked into routine, we’re more present. More alive. More seeing.
And I don’t know what else life could be about. Although I’m bound to learn.
This is my new favorite rooftop perch, by Catedral Metropolitana and Palacio Nacional in Ciudad México.
I couldn’t stop painting it last month. When I quit my job at Harvard to make art and wound up in Mexico City (CDMX).
CDMX was magic for rethinking what it means to be an artist. The people are so friendly, I played songs in the streets that no one had heard me perform before because I´d been too shy to make noise outside my shower.
Other than throwing you into new circumstances where you meet nice people, three things about travel make art-making easier.
1. Less stuff means more creativity. Making art while traveling is an exercise in learning and relearning that anyone can make art anywhere. The human spirit finds a way.
2. Less urgent makes more time for important. The Internet abroad is so spotty that I can write my books instead of staying on top of email.
3. Less spending of money enables more spending of time on art. Although it’s counter-intuitive, living abroad is much cheaper than living in the U.S., done right.
Overall then, travel makes it more instead of less possible to better become myself as an artist. So I´m not coming back.
Painting the World: The Experiment
This year, I´m running a new experiment. I’m traveling the world making art.
I’ll still be Boston-based.
But, like, on friends’ couches. (Batts eyelashes at Boston friends.)
I´ll get to know the places I go, living cheaply or free in hostels, with host families, or at other places a bit outside the cities I visit. Use some of the gorgeous languages I studied years ago but never really used—French, Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Russian—and learn others I know tiny bits of but never really got to know—Creole, Swahili, and Urdu. Soak in the beautiful people and places that make up our home—the world.
Blogging the Experiment
The main thing this blog will chronicle is the paintings that I make along the way. The stuff I´ll also be working on that I won´t talk about as much is my writing, music, and comedy. I’m a writer first, but the book projects that mean the most to me will take some time to do right.
Is to better become my artist self while better being part of the world. That means four main things right about now.
Sell the art I make while traveling the world. Build enough of an audience doing this that I get a solo New York gallery show within 12 months.
Shape up my book drafts and partials into finished products. Begin self-publishing books on my website within 12 months, and keep writing.
Perform my music regularly on the streets and in venues all over the world as I work up an album.
Get back to performing stand-up, too. Within 12 months, go to at least one comedy festival and be making practice videos until I have a correspondent video that’s good enough to submit to The Daily Show.
Yeah, I know.
It’s ok though. I’ve pulled this before. It’s kind-of my thing.
When I was Skyping my Ph.D. dissertation defense last year while driving cross-country to start my new job as a National Science Foundation post-doctoral researcher in the fourth-ranked Psych department globally, despite having never taken a psychology class—my co-chair said: “We kept telling you you were trying to write ten dissertations. Well. You won.”
That wasn’t when I jumped up and down screaming. That part came after they passed me. (I had my doubts.)
My ten-dissertation dissertation was crazy enough to work. The project had to be ambitious enough that I couldn’t get bored or disillusioned and walk away from it. It had to be something no one else could do. It had to be something I had to get right.
Becoming my artist self in the world is also crazy enough to work. I can’t get bored with it, no one else can do it, and I have to get it right.
Rules of the Road
1. Own myself.
This means prioritizing my art. Working for myself. And showing up to my life as an artist in the beautiful, wide world.
2. Invest wisely.
It takes investing—which means risk—to launch a business. And I am an almost pathologically risk-averse person.
Yet, in one month of making art my job, I have already taken on five-figure debt attempting to launch my “art business.”
I have never done anything like this in my life.
But you have to take risks to get pay-offs. That’s how investment works. And I’m worth investing in.
3. Slow down to speed up.
It´s easy to get caught up in lists and steps. But when you have less, you need less. You can see how minimal the requirements of a good life are. How important people are. How easy it can be to just show up and play.
That’s what people who make art their career have discovered, in a realm where you can’t plan to reach your peak creative power or make the right collaborative connections or have a really powerful dream. But if you make space in your life for the important over urgent, and keep showing up there—magical things can happen.
People are basically good and want good things.
When you exude goodness and invite other people to do the same, they generally do. When you care about them and their dreams, they tell you amazing stories. And when you go for your dreams and tell them, they generally want to help you. But you have to be open to what they want, how they experience life, and what they and only they have to teach you.
That’s trust. Not knowing what the outcome will be, but showing up to play anyway. It correlates with better health and economic outcomes for people, communities, and entire nations. It’s a good way to live.
This year is a celebration of that trust.
And if I fall on my face, it doesn’t disprove human goodness. It proves fake deadlines are dumb.
5. Follow only good rules.
In other words: Break all the rules that need to be broken.
I don’t mean like paying taxes and stopping at red lights. Which, incidentally, they don’t do a lot of in Mexico City. Apparently in colloquial Mexican Spanish, “red light” means “look both ways before speeding through the deserted intersection at night as police look the other way cos they’re not stopping there either.”
No. I mean the unwritten rules. The Can’t, Have To, Don’t sets. Such as: – Don’t quit your day job. – Artists can’t make a living. – You can’t just walk away from Harvard. – You can’t say that (e.g., I talk to God and He talks to me; torture created a new wave of terrorists and we have to own our shit to fix that; we don’t actually have sufficient evidence to address really basic factual questions about guns and public safety even though this is a pressing health and security issue that affects all Americans). – You have to have a place to live or you are homeless—and being homeless is very, very bad!!! – Your dreams are stupid, and you should shut up and report to working for someone else’s. – You have to have a plan! – You have to read all the emails! – You have to type all the notes and tick off all the urgent list items! – You have to… [insert many things here] – Don’t drink the water.
Ok, so that last one turns out to have been good advice. Oops.
Unwritten rules are complicated!
Life is pretty simple.
One rule: Love people, do good, keep going.
Support My Experiment
You can support my experiment in a few ways.
1. Buy my art.
I produced over 200 oil paintings in about six months. In my studio apartment. Then another 50+ in Mexico City. Now I’m staring at the stack of blank canvas I bought before taking off for Mexico, wondering—can I illustrate the children’s books I wrote there using pen & ink or watercolors? I like to work in stages—drawings, watercolors, oils. But I should probably return this stack of blank canvas. Because making more oil paintings when I haven’t even been trying to sell them doesn’t make sense.
Gluten-free, dairy-free protein bars because I am legit a starving artist now. Also because Larabars are tasty and travel well. Crickets are also tasty. Maybe I shouldn’t say that while I’m trying to convince people to pay me for having good taste. Whatever. It’s all on the table here, people.
4. Tell your friends.
Maybe you just think what I’m trying is kinda cool and want to tell someone else about it. Social networks are magic. That would be cool. Do that please.
Alternately, you can submit a formal complaint about the nerve—the nerve!—to wildethinks at gmail dot com. By submitting your complaint to that email, you acknowledge that all such complaints may be used in a book, screenplay, painting, song, stand-up routine, or other creative vehicle for purposes including but not limited to mocking you mercilessly, mocking me mercilessly, and having fun making people happy.