Craigslist Ad Experiment: Update 1

After a few hours spent posting a mere 25 Craigslist ads, the Internet and I reached a consensus that this was probably a stupid way of testing for demand for the products and services I can think to offer.


To recap, I recognized my failure to monetize a business in a few months as… A failure to monetize a business in a few months. Typical but suboptimal. Thought about why that happened. Decided I needed to figure out what I could offer that would sell like my car. And made this list of 14 things that might be like that thing if I pitched them to the market. 

Then I started moving like a researcher. 

It’s always a mistake to move like a researcher when you can move like Christopher Walken

My new business friends who are good at framing things like to say they’re not mistakes. They’re free seminars. So here’s a free seminar I made this morning. 


Morning Seminar: Go Where the Water Is


My first mistake was approximating equalization. This is wonky social science terminology for not randomizing groups to treatment and control like in a true experiment, but just planning on doing something like every other. Or in this case, posting each of the 14 possible goods/services I brainstormed to one Craigslist market every 14 cities on the global list of Craigslist markets. 

That’s how I wound up posting about my oil paintings to Bemidji, Minnesota. Which was about when I decided this was dumb.

That was also about when my posting speed improved. So it started driving me less crazy to do this dumb, repetitive task! But Craigslist also picked up on my improvement and said—whoa there, you can’t post that fast. 

Don’t they know they’re providing me free market research services? 

The positive way of saying this is: not all market research is created equal. I don’t care about how the effects of my ads scale to tiny markets. I only care about big ones. So I should have started by crossing off the Bemidjis or just circling the Detroits. You go where the water is in all areas of life. And in market research terms, that means testing in larger populations, especially where you’re more likely to find people like you.

I can vastly improve on the first idea of how to do a little market research—approximately equalize 14 Craigslist ads across global Craigslist service areas to see who responds to what—by going where the water is. That means: 

1. Target demographic centers. More people (within the Western context) = more business. So I want to post to Detroit, not Bemidji. 

2. Tailor tests. More artsy types = more art business. More colleges = more editing and tutoring work. Etc. So maybe I wanted to post about my paintings to Santa Fe, not Daytona Beach. 

3. Grouping products and services. My list from earlier this morning of 14 products or services really condenses to six groups of products or services. Reframing things within categories ensures that a potential client who’s interested in one thing (like paintings on Etsy) gets the chance to express potential interest in a closely related other thing (like art merchandise on Zazzle). 

The old list looked like this after I coded it for easier “approximation of equalization” and Excel stuff: 

Products and Services to Test Demand for on Craigslists A
1.    The paintings I’m selling on Etsy ? Etsy (E)
2.    The art merchandise I’m selling on Zazzle ? Zazzle (Z)
3.    Painting commissions ? Commissions (C)
4.    Website and online store design and building—I made my own ? Web (W)
5.    Social media management—making a business social media presence across platforms, and teaching the fundamentals of how to engage the right networks and maintain them yourself ? Social (S)
6.    Market research—what I’m doing right now with Craigslist, and more in-depth experimentation in other ways using other tools ? Research (R)
7.    Editing and submissions advice ? Editing (E2)
8.    Tutoring ? Tutoring (T) 
9.    Grant proposal assistance ? Grants (G) 
10.    Start-up consulting/Entrepreneurship coaching ? Start-up (S2)
11.    Positive selective attention coaching ? Positivity (P)
12.    Low information diet coaching ? Low-info (L)
13.    Books, my precious books ? Books (B)
14.    World peace through art ? Peace (P)


The new list looks more like this: 

Products and Services to Test Demand for on Craigslists B

1. Art: paintings on Etsy, merch on Zazzle, commissions on website. 

2. Editing, tutoring, grant proposal assistance (for which I already have a website up and running). 

3. Web support for business: website and online store design and building + social media management.

4. Market research and start-up consulting. 

5. Positive selective attention & low-information diet coaching. (Both of these things are about cognitive and emotional resource management, but that’s not the best possible language to pitch them with.) 

6. What are actually my pet projects I’m not sure I can monetize on an immediate timetable if at all, but doing what I want is the point of all of this, so I might as well try—my books and my world peace through art plot. 


New Plan

As much as I hate to spend a few more hours on Craigslist not knowing if this way of testing for demand for services will work at all, it seems important to at least follow through on the revised experiment. That means whipping up ads for 2-6 in the updated product and services list, matching each category to appropriate areas by common sense or intuition, and giving it a go. 

This will get tricky when I get to #6, which is probably where I should have started since it’s the most important set of possibilities to me. But it will also take the longest to work through.

Market research for unwritten books is tricky. Commercially successful authors of recent note like J.K. Rowling have established fan bases online through fora and other community-building. I don’t have anything that fancy set up. So I probably want to create a survey summarizing ten possible book projects and ask my blog readers, Facebook friends, and Twitter followers to help me by voting or saying what they want. The trouble with that is that it doesn’t involve money, and we know that attitudes (I like/don’t like this) and behaviors (I will actually give you money or not for this) can diverge quite a bit. 

And I don’t know about posting my world peace through art proposal. It’s beautiful in my head and might sound stupid outside of it. Plus, if it’s a good idea, maybe I should just pull it off anonymously. That’s often how I work best. Plus, the SCORE (retired executive) members I got free Small Business Administration advising from thought I should be pitching a bolder, crazier plan to the Internets—but I’m pretty sure this one is actually too crazy to put out there unless I pull it off first and then talk about it later, if it works. That’s how I did college apps (two years early without a high school diploma), my name change (no one in my family knew for over a year when I legally changed every part of my name), and relationships in my 20s.

This social network stuff is hard, new, and weird. But you can see—at the long end of the statistical tail of success stories—how when it works, it really works. And in the middle of the distribution, people have better health, emotional, and financial outcomes when they have strong social support networks. You don’t build them by quietly trudging along or gunning for something other than your dreams. Although I’m not sure how you do build them. Or indeed how you know your dreams without just trying a bunch of stuff to see what feels right and what works. But I’m also not sure how you get success on any meaningful terms without pouring all the crazy out of your heart and onto the fire. Someday maybe that will be a seminar. For now it’s a plan. 



Craigslist Ads Experiment, Part 1: Wtf, Markets?

I wanted to raise about 23k in a few weeks before throwing all my stuff in storage and taking off to travel the world making art for a year because it feels right. But I am not really making any money. So I figure it’s time to think about this some more. Namely, it’s time to think about where demand is for what. 

Craigslist offers two ways to test demand systematically. The first way is checking for what people are advertising for.

When I check what people are advertising for on Craigslist, sexism makes me too angry to even.

A whole lot of people would rather pay me to trip over a coffee table wearing a short skirt than solve the world’s problems. Meanwhile I have a ten-point plan to defeat the Islamic State. But you would rather lick my toes? Fantastic. How’s 3:00? If we don’t all die in a fire before then.

The second way Craigslist offers to test demand systematically is advertising and seeing how people respond.

I figured out this would probably be the best way to test demand for the different products and services I can offer by selling my car. I wasn’t selling hardly any paintings with lots of effort. But in under 24 hours, I sold my car for more than I bought it for over two years ago. People need cars. The price was right. The market worked. Maybe the same principle holds for the other things I have to offer, if I pitch them right. Let’s see.


The Experiment



Craigslist serves five main regions globally: the US (420 lists), Canada (55), Europe (95), Asia, Pacific and Middle East (65), and Oceania —Australia and New Zealand (2). Of these, it might be weird to post in English in the European and Asian markets. But I’ll do it anyway. Exchange rates make doing business in Canada and Oceania different from doing business in the U.S. And goodness knows within the U.S., a major metropolitan area is very different from a small town, a Southern city is very different from a Midwestern one, and all bets are off in the West.

“Ceiling Ballerina Holds the Orbit of the World in Her Heart,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for 89.45€ now—over 50% off for a limited time during the last week of my moving sale—on Etsy. 

I could analyze the differences between these areas in greater detail, decide which ones matter most, group the Craigslists, and then randomly assign different ads to different subgroups of the markets the lists represent.

But I don’t care about any of that right now—I just want to know where there’s a market for what, and then think about how to increase profit after I start making it. So at the risk of missing a lot of information, I’m basically mixing up all the categories I could break the Craigslist markets up into like they don’t matter. This gives me a total of 637 lists to advertise products and services on, to see what people want to pay me for and do more of that (as long as it’s fun and doesn’t involve my toes).

Notice that Craigslist is providing me free market testing. This is very nice of them. Thank you, Craigslist.


Products and Services

There’s a lot of stuff I could do for money. I’m not gonna do most of it. Here is the shortlist of exciting things I could do for money that I’m not going to try just now: drop shipping, day trading, gun running (legally with a federal firearms license), drug peddling (legally with online supplement sales), and prostitution (also known as getting a job).

If I get really desperate, I’ll try day trading. Like a lot of women, I’m pretty good at it on paper and not super comfortable risking real money because it feels like gambling. But that is actually part of what makes women better traders.

“Fortuna Spins the Wheel,” oils on 16″ x 20″, on sale for 89.45€ now on Etsy. To paraphrase Machiavelli, Fortune is a woman—and she’s gonna spin your wheels. 

The whole point of this life experiment is to figure out what I want and go for it. So I only want to offer products and services that I really want to be providing, that I think make the world a better place by adding obvious value, solving people’s important problems.

Here are the things I can offer that fit that bill:

1.     The paintings I’m selling on Etsy

2.     The art merchandise I’m selling on Zazzle

3.     Painting commissions

4.     Website and online store design and building—I made my own

5.     Social media management—making a business social media presence across platforms, and teaching the fundamentals of how to engage the right networks and maintain them yourself

6.     Market research—what I’m doing right now with Craigslist, and more in-depth experimentation in other ways using other tools

7.     Editing and submissions advice

8.     Tutoring

9.     Grant proposal assistance

10. Start-up consulting/Entrepreneurship coaching

11. Positive selective attention coaching

12. Low information diet coaching

13. Books, my precious books—the ones I want to write, not the ones I have in boxes for storage now, those you can’t have

14. World peace through art


I might come up with a few more. Probably I should stop there for now though. 

That’s only 14 product/service “cars” to test across 637 Craigslists. That means I should be able to test each “car” in at least 45 markets. I want to keep track of where I post what, so I’ll do that in Excel. (I will force myself to do that in Excel.) 

Overall, this should give me a more informed sense of where there’s demand for what, which products or services to focus on selling more of, and how much value the world places on things other than my toes when I point out what I have to offer and how it can be useful.


Materials and Next Steps

I’ve been meaning to do this for days, and it always feels “too late.” Like, why didn’t I do this five years ago? When is the perfect time to do it? What is the perfect way?

This results in it not getting done.

So today I’m writing these 14 ads and posting them on 637 Craigslists. It is not the perfect time and they will not be perfect. It will be done though, and I’ll learn something.

I’ll probably report results early next week. Probably nothing will happen. Experiments are weird like this. This isn’t even an experiment in the proper sense of it—I’m not randomly assigning anything, I don’t care about statistical significance, and I’m not even defining outcomes of interest in advance because I don’t know what to expect. I just want to see what happens. 


Failure is a Step

Here is basically everything I own. It's about to go in storage, except the suitcase and backpack. Those are coming around the world with me this year. Unless I can fit everything in the backpack. 
Here is basically everything I own. It’s about to go in storage, except the suitcase and backpack. Those are coming around the world with me this year. Unless I can fit everything in the backpack. 

In a week, I’m putting all the lovely original oil paintings on my online gallery in storage. So if you’d like to buy one to support my life experiment in making art and traveling, now’s the time to visit my Etsy store.

After that, you can still get art swag at my Zazzle store. Or turn up Ringo and ask me to paint you a postcard

I’m perversely excited about all the mistakes I’ve made in just a few months of attempted business launches. Better to fail earlier and harder, and learn, than not.

Had I not gotten super cool-looking—but statistically insignificant—results in pilot testing for my dissertation research… That everyone I talked to was sure would pan out—but didn’t… I might have gone in a different direction… And not been crushed when the initial results turned out to be wrong.

Had I not gone along to get along in relationships for many years, I might have started asking for what I want sooner.

Abject failure can generate better outcomes than early, middling success. 

And boy have my initial business launch attempts failed. Here are three things that seem to have gone horribly wrong—and how they underscore what has gone terrifically right. 


Horribly Wrong Sequencing

I quit my job before monetizing my business. 

Don’t do that. 

Unless of course you’re called. And then accept that your sequencing will look screwy to everyone else. And you will figure out what is next as you go, because you are showing up to what is next in your own life, on your own time. 


Horribly Wrong Investing

I invested five figures in launching my business. Before adequately testing the business model. 

Don’t do that either. 

Unless of course you’re trying to figure out how this business thing works. And then accept that risk is part of the game. And a lot of apparently successful businesspeople actually lose more than they gain. Risking and trusting are integral to producing better individual and aggregate outcomes. As long as you listen to the outcome of the risk, and adjust. 


Horribly Wrong Goal-Setting

I tried a bunch of different goal-setting exercises, like Napoleon Hill’s autosuggestion and Tim Ferriss’s dreamlining. There are a million different forms of the same basic exercise here. They’re all about directing positive selective attention to actualizing what you really want. Which requires first knowing what that is. And figuring out what you really want is actually a LOT of work. 

Do that. 

Throw it away. Do it again.

It’s hard. We’re all looking for the golden ball in Robert Bly’s terms—which is an allegorical way of saying we all lose touch with something, maybe just by being born, maybe by growing up (or trying to). And knowing what we really want is part of getting back in touch with a certain holiness, so we can get it. 


How Three Wrongs Make Right

A lot of failure in asking—for painting sales, publications, editing clients—has desensitized me to the horror of it. This increased comfort with failing enabled me to sing my own songs on the streets of Mexico despite barely being able make noise in my own apartment sometimes. It enabled me to ask my housing lawyer to get my damages back from the great Cambridge bedbug imbroglio of ’14 (don’t ask)—or file in district court already, because it’s been eight months and that little mess tanked my meagre savings. (I’ve been asking nicely and sleeping on a sleeping bag since September. It’s like a little camping party in my apartment.) 

And it enabled me to ask Richard Branson for advice on Twitter. 

He answered. 


This is brilliant. This is right. I still haven’t figured out quite how to apply this to my own goals. Simple is hard. 

I also still haven’t gotten baptized—a goal for the day—despite calling over a dozen churches. SIMPLE IS HARD. 

But I’ll get it. Because I know how to ask for what I want. Politely. Persistently. And I’m doing it. 


More importantly, I’m figuring out how to ask other people what they want. Systematically. So I can give them what they need and profit from helping them. 

Just like research turned out to be much more about learning what I didn’t know I didn’t know, than testing my original hypotheses—which were almost entirely wrong—so too business turns out to be much more about learning what problems I can solve for people for fun, that I’m not even sure they should pay me for because I love doing this stuff… That asking, listening, changing, asking again, listening, changing, asking again game that vocalists play with accompaniment in improv, and radios can play too. It’s all chaos. It’s all good. That’s how social exchange works—decentralized, unpredictable, fluid, and better than anything you could imagine before showing up to play. 

It’s basically the Bill Murray of business planning. Show up. Do what people need. Have fun. Poof. “No one will ever believe you,” but you better pay taxes on it anyway. 

At least that’s what VERY preliminary results of my first market tests show. More about that soon. 

Making the time to prioritize your own work, spending money like you believe investing in your dreams is a good investment, and articulating exactly what you want like it matters and you can get it aren’t mistakes. They’re steps. Just like any failure. 



Roads and Doors

“I must now go a long way… I must face a fight that I have not faced before. And I must go on a road that I do not know.”—Gilgamesh, Tablet III, 2100 B.C.

“You don’t wanna stay on your farm in Kansas forever and sing that same song over and over to the animals that don’t pay you any attention.”—John Waters on the message of The Wizard of Oz


Roads and doors keep appearing among the 200+ oil paintings I plan to sell in under 2 weeks at over 50% off in my Etsy store before putting what remains of my stuff in storage and starting my year-long life experiment in traveling and making art.

Roads and doors are journey symbols.

Please help me sell all my art in a few weeks to follow my dreams by buying some paintings, and consider also donating to the Wounded Warrior Project for Armed Forces Day (which was Sat.) and Memorial Day coming up next Monday. Warriors are journeyers, too. 



“Open Road,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now in my Etsy store. 

There’s something about roads.

“Open Road (2),” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now in my Etsy store. 

There was a time in my life when that thing was fear.

Statistically speaking, driving is a much greater threat to American lives than terrorism. Every time you drive a two-lane road, your life is literally depending on a stranger staying on one side of an arbitrary yellow line.

Roads depend on trust. 

“Open Road (3),” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now in my Etsy store. 

At some point, I got over the fear and drove alone from LA to Boston, camping along the way and taking the photos that became this painting series

“Maryland—Green Ridge State Forest, Red Road,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now in my Etsy store. 

Freedom of movement is internal as much as it is external. That’s why Americans don’t just drive for work and adventure. We drive for freedom—although the environmental costs of the habit threaten our security.

We also move around more than people from and in other countries. This reflects an internalization of our freedom of movement. What is legal and infrastructural becomes mental and emotional. We can move. 

“Open Road (4),” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now in my Etsy store. 

Moving is supposed to be a major life stressor, like divorce or loss. But we opt into that stress a lot. Maybe because we intuitively sense that not all stress is bad. Stressing muscles is the best way to strengthen them. Moving into fear is the best way to overcome it. Trying new things before you know how to do them is the best way to learn. 

“Open Road (5),” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now in my Etsy store. 

Roads represent all those things. Faith in oneself at the wheel—and other people at their own. Forward progress that builds. Navigating the new. And discovery of the unknown, or at least the unknown to us. 



Like roads, doors are really rich symbols with lots of journey associations. 

“Gratitude,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, gifted in the second Great Art Giveaway of 2014, in the second cross-country move for my old job. 

The doors that I couldn’t stop painting this fall and winter similarly celebrate faith, change, and the unknown. 

The first one in this series, “Door of Light,” built on the images of the smiling face of truth I wrote about last week

“Door of Light,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now in my Etsy store. 

The series also integrates the symbol of the trust dandelion that I had been painting and writing about, building on Cory Doctorow’s writing on information and network phenomena. As i see it, trust is a somewhat unique entity because it sits at the intersection of emotion (we feel trusting or untrusting) and information (we trust based on information, and transmit information about who to trust to others, usually based on personal interaction). Trust moves along social networks like other forms of emotion and information, in a pattern that looks like a dandelion. 

“Door of Light (2),” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now in my Etsy store. 

As you can see better in the darkness, the trust dandelion on one side of the door frame and the bullseye of science—that is but one eye on the smiling face of truth—hold up the door. 

“Door of Light (3),” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now in my Etsy store. 

Meanwhile the light of the world creeps under the closed and locked door. 

That light is faith. It might be secular—faith in the fragile human goodness of ourselves, others, and the world. It might be religious. 

“Door of Light (4),” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now in my Etsy store. 

For me it’s religious, and the religious experience my faith stems from includes the gift of this great joke. I had a dream while I was painting this series about the door of light in the darkness, closed and locked tight. The light of the world creeps in gently underneath. Even though, as it turns out, all the locks are on the wrong side. 

I think that’s what goodness in the world is like when we trust. We unlock goodness in other people they were just waiting to have recognized. 

“Door of Light (larger),” oils on 24″ x 36″ stretched canvas, on sale for $220 now in my Etsy store. 

And anyway believing that makes things more fun. 

“Door of Light (5),” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now at my Etsy store. 

Journeys and Fights

“Boston Harbor from the Air (2),” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now in my Etsy store. 

On National Armed Forced Day this weekend I thought about the veterans in my family. One of my grandfathers joined the Navy illegally at 17 to fight in World War II after Pearl Harbor. The other joined the Communist International to illegally fight Franco and fascism in Spain before the U.S. joined the fight. 

Some journeys—like my grandfathers’ when they were young—are fights. Every fight is a journey. But is every journey a fight? 

There is conflict in every journey, in every story. But I don’t think every journey is a fight.

A fight is a frame—a particular metaphor we can use to tell a story. You can pick a different metaphor, and it’ll change the way you think. What you believe, and so how you feel, what you perceive, and how you act. You can tell a story of fight, or a story of adventure and learning, about any conflict. “Good Morning Vietnam” isn’t a fight story. It’s story about the power of humor, music, speaking truth to power, and valuing people as people, not as means or ends. 

Sometimes I think I need to have a better mission than traveling and making art—a cause, goal, budget, timetable, and the other components of a grant proposal that I’ve had for my life for as long as I can remember. 

Then I remember the rules of the road. The year-long life experiment on which I’m about to embark is in part about simplifying. I don’t need a grand plan. I don’t need a mission. I just need to show up to life. The poetry and paintings, amazing human connections, and other forms of magic seem to happen on their own when I do that. It’s how I wound up singing my own songs on the streets of Mexico City last month despite having never busked, been to Mexico, or sang all that in front of another human being in real life before. 

I don’t seem to make hardly any money doing any of this yet. And I’m on that like it’s a problem. Come to think of it, that is a problem. 

But it’s also what I’m supposed to be doing. So I’ll do it like I mean it and we’ll see what happens. 

I have an incredible degree of freedom in how I live my life. It’s probably unprecedented in human history. I can move freely about the cabin of the world using planes and trains, sell products and services globally using the Internet and phones, and do it all cheaply enough to still have money (or credit) to buy paint now and then. 

The sacrifices made by people like the grandfathers I didn’t know—and countless other men and women fighting countless wars—gave us this freedom. So I donated to the Wounded Warrior Project this weekend and lit a candle in honor of all our ancestor fighters and travelers who took new roads and opened doors so we could be alive on the face the earth today. As Maya Angelou once asked an angry Tupac Shakur, having no idea who he was: “When was the last time anyone told you how important you are? Did you know our people stood on auction blocks and were sold—bought and sold so you could stay alive today?” 


Three Magic Animals in Art

“Kit Fox in the Darkest Woods,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

Three magic animals keep appearing among the 200+ oil paintings I plan to sell within 2 weeks before putting what remains of my stuff in storage and starting my year-long life experiment in traveling and making art. Hounds, butterflies, and foxes appear in art across many cultures and contexts. Accordingly, their meanings are as varied as humanity—hunter and pray, motif and symbol, friend and accessory. 



Franz Marc's
Franz Marc’s “Dog lying in the snow” is one of the most popular hound images in the world. 

Franz Marc has already painted the best dog paintings in the world, and Mary Oliver has written the most beautiful poems about dogs. Yet in Marc’s vision, there’s a loneliness and angularity about the dog in the snow. While in Oliver’s, the dog is togetherness and comfort.

I love how art can make of one thing at once a notion and its opposite, without deception or contradiction. That way of holding the richness of experience, which can be like that too, seems to be a large part of its power. We all have so much meaning and richness inside us that we have to tell stories all the time to make sense of the world within and without. Giving people tools to tell those stories better—more brightly, more gratefully, more critically—is the service art does to the internal life. That’s what people pay for when they pay for art.

That’s probably why a lot of artists, like Keith Haring, had a policy of not interpreting their art. Giving the viewer all the interpretive power instead. Telling people how to interpret even your own art, in that school of thought, takes a little bit of power away from both the viewer and the art. 

Alternately, a lot of story-tellers, like William Blake, have used art to clarify and enrich their own story. There’s no question of whether or not you’re going to offer an interpretation when the whole point of the art in the first place was to illustrate your story. 

As a writer first, I fall in the second camp. I’ll tell you what I think my art means. Most of it illustrates my writing in the first place. 

Hounds to me symbolize linearity. They’re familiar, comforting, seek tasty animals of fact in straight lines. They’re common. They can be sweet and useful. They’re often presented as the only animal in the world—as in Popperian social science methods texts that teach only linear, falsifiable predictions from linear, falsifiable theories are scientific. For this reason, linear theories and plans can seem like the only animal in forest. But there are plenty of other important meaning-making animals. For one thing, there are also butterflies. 



Damien Hirst's butterfly mandalas are the most (in)famous example of butterflies in contemporary art. 
Damien Hirst’s butterfly mandalas are the most (in)famous example of butterflies in contemporary art. 

In science, butterflies symbolize chaos. For example, the Lorenz system literally looks like a butterfly. Chaotic theories don’t always generate readily falsifiable hypotheses. That doesn’t make them unscientific.

Thankfully, we can understand a lot about chaotic systems like weather without actually being able to model predictions about it all that well. But weathermen still get the timing and amount of snow wrong all the time. And we still debate to what extent global climate change is man-made, and what it will mean in the future. 

“Butterfly at Normandy,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

A lot of human systems are chaotic, too. Predicting rare events like revolutions and terror attacks is a chaotic systems game. 

“Butterfly Storm,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

In more ordinary terms, we often hear some version of the expression: “a butterfly flaps its wings in China, and there’s an earthquake or Timbuktu.” Meaning that sometimes small acts or events have huge, faraway repercussions. That type of effect is inherently non-linear, chaotic. It’s the so-called butterfly effect. 

“Butterfly Storm (2),” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

Sometimes, for instance, conflict brings about peace. One might hope anyway that the shadow of the butterfly wing of tragedy can bring attention to old wounds that need healing. I mean tragedy in the classical sense that good actors meet terrible fates despite having their hearts in the right place. And I mean old wounds like the racialized problem of inequality in America.

So in the painting below, the shadow of the butterfly also looks like a man with his hands up, on the ground, alluding to Michael Brown and the problem of lack of recognition between police and communities of color in American today. 

“Butterfly Storm (3),” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 
“Butterfly Storm (4),” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

Lack of recognition is a prison. We’re not free to develop the goodness in ourselves when we don’t recognize it. We’re not free to help others develop their goodness when we don’t recognize it. And the world isn’t free to flourish when people don’t feel safe enough to risk, economically (in markets) and politically (in democracy). 

But risk is scary, and these chaotic systems—markets and democracies—are hard to predict. So a lot of people and communities remain confined in the cloven pine of stasis. 

“Butterfly Release from the Cloven Pine,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

There, internal states remain internal. 

“Butterfly Sigh,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

There’s no risk of spectacular failure, because there’s no risk—apparently. But the greater risk is arguably from not risking at all. 

“Larkspur Butterfly,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

You might say the opposite of these caged creatures are people who risk great personal cost for the greater good. That those people have butterflies of grace in their faces. 

“Rosa Parks is the Butterfly,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 
“Slahi is the Butterfly,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

Looking at people like I’m going to draw or paint them always brings out the butterfly. Recognizing the goodness in people tends to bring it out like that. 

Butterflies also turn out to be a significant motif in Mexican visual culture (arts, crafts, advertising, fabric) —as I learned after photographing and painting them for months and then feeling called to Mexico City last month. 

As the sidewalk there said, life can be magic when you remember to be free. 




“Sleepy Foxes,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy, with deference to Franz Marc. 

In the same way that hounds and butterflies mean lots of things to lots of people, foxes are rich in associative possibility. To some they mean protection or comfort. To others hunger or wiliness, or their combination—the willingness to steal chickens. 

“Kit Fox in the River of Fire,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

To me, the fox symbolizes all those things and more. In theoretical terms, a fox theory is the rare synthesis of linear and chaotic—the meta-theory that often eludes us. 

For example, relativity and quantum physics don’t yet square into a unified theory.

This is also a problem in fluid systems modeling. Laminar flow regimes are linear and turbulent flow regimes are chaotic systems, and we don’t yet have a meta-theory fitting them together.

Similarly, we don’t have a unified theory of justice that combines the chaos of internal states and human as opposed to rule-bound interactions with the linearity of procedural justice and justice as fairness. I think the synthesis is something called justice as forgiveness. But I’m more interested in trying to make it with tools like art, faith, and entrepreneurship than writing academic stuff about it. 

“Underground Kit Fox,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 



Hounds, Butterflies, and Foxes

So I tried to envision what it looks like for linear hound and chaotic butterfly theories to fit together in integrated fox theories. 

“Butterfly, Fox, and Hound in the Waves,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

I pictured them on the smiling face of truth I’ve written and painted about before. 

“Everyone in the Smiling Face of Truth,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

And in the tree where the fox might hide from hounds or the butterfly might be confined. 

“Kits and Larkspurs Treed,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

But in the end, what felt most whole and right for envisioning Kit Fox, as I call the character of this linear-chaotic synthesis in the story she lives in in my head, was simply darkness. Falling through the night, as from one universe to another. Or maybe she’s only coming down from the tree. 

“Trust Fall Fox,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 


Three Types of Powerful Women in Art

As I look at the 200+ oil paintings I plan to sell within 2 weeks before putting what remains of my stuff in storage and starting my year-long life experiment in traveling and making art, one of the themes that emerges is that of powerful women.

Some of these images are religious—couched in the context of the paradigmatic story of a holy woman, Mother Mary. Some come out of biographical interest in successful female artists—Frida Kahlo, Nina Simone, Anna Karenina. And some tell stories I have in my head, illustrating poems, characters, book seedlings and such. Here are a few of each type, on sale along with all my art for over 50% off in my new Etsy store


Holy Women

“When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me.”—Saint Paul

“Lady of Guadalupe (13),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, on sale for $24.34 now on Etsy. 

Earlier this week, I wrote about the story of the Lady of Guadalupe that I learned in Mexico City last month. Hers is a powerful example of story and art changing the world. 

“Lady of Guadalupe (14),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, on sale for $24.34 now on Etsy. 

Simply by appearing—a Mexican Madonna—and asking for a church, she decreased violence and increased religious tolerance for newly converted Mexicans living under Catholic Spanish rule. 

“Lady of Guadalupe (15),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, on sale for $24.34 now on Etsy. 

All it took was a miracle. A painting, to be precise. The Lady of Guadalupe turned a pile of roses into a painting before doubting Spanish eyes. The apparition made the deal: Mexican peasants got religious tolerance, Catholic Spanish got a miracle and a monument, the Lady got her church. 


Female Artists 

“Frida’s Ghost,” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, on sale for $24.34 now on Etsy. 

Frida Kahlo was a creative deal-maker, too. She made a career flipping her liabilities into assets. 

“Frida’s Ghost 2,” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, on sale for $24.34 now on Etsy. 

Frida was fond of saying she had been in two bad accidents—the one that put a whole through her belly and left her in chronic pain, and Diego Rivera. 

Out of the first, she made a self. Known for her dress and demeanor as much as her art, she turned the weaknesses of her disfiguration and what might have been disability into strengths. Learning from scratch how to dress to cover up her imperfections, she became a fashion icon. When she put on layers of lacey shawls and all her jewelry to go to events, street children would follow her asking, “Where’s the circus?” And she would smile and walk on. 

Out of the second, she made a life with her husband. 

Nina was always better with birds than men. But she, too, is known in no small part for making for herself “a new dawn, a new day, a new life.” 

“Nina Plays Behind the Door of Light,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

Nina also took it upon herself to promote civil rights and racial discourse through her art, popularizing the lynching poem “Strange Fruit” and speaking often from the stage about “our problem in America.” 

Another female artist I like to re-imagine in this re-making light, although she’s not often celebrated in this way, is Anna Karenina. 

Anna was an artist—she fashioned a different life for herself than what was expected, under strict social constraints. And in the end, it wasn’t different enough. She thought—

“Haven’t I striven, striven with all my strength, to find something to give meaning to my life?”

Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl talks about the universality of this striving, “man’s search for meaning.” The quest is often associated with distress when people are isolated or feel betrayed, as in the ancient story of Hecuba, the woman who transmogrified into a dog after losing everyone she trusted to death or betrayal. Tolstoy, Frankl, and Euripides all tell us the social context of the universal search for meaning is what turns existential angst into dehumanization—sometimes. 

This is how I like to reimagine Anna turning that dehumanization around—

“Reverse Hecuba,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

“Reverse Hecuba”

The wounded dog 
who is a deer 
limps toward 
the nightlight 
of the approaching train. 
Lies down 
with her head 
in the clanging lap. 

“Reverse Hecuba 2,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

Iron and wind 
tuck her in. 
The train passes
like night
like life
and like death. 
Morning comes. 
A new woman stands.

“Reverse Hecuba 3,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

One of the things art is about is making universal human experiences—like injury or weakness (Frida), or existential crisis (Anna)—generative instead of (purely) destructive. And that’s one of the reasons why powerful women in art are really powerful. To be visible when you’re not supposed to be (Lady of Guadalupe), or appear beautiful when you’re supposed to be sick (Frida),  is shocking. To make a choice, any choice, other than what’s expected (Nina talking race, Anna walking off on her life) is, too. There’s a reclamation of the power to set the terms of the discourse in all these things. That’s art. 


Story Women 

“Complete Set,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

This painting is part of a diptych illustrating this poem in my second poetry book—

[  ] ?

represents the complete set of all giveable fucks. 
Ask me one more time for a plan, 
and I’ll point to the next available tree. 

When I organized and emceed a local stand-up group back in Virginia, I often found that poems, songs, and political satire could (and should) be boiled down to really tight jokes. It just takes time, and willingness to fail and fail better. 

“Complete Set 2,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

That’s what my year-long experiment in traveling and making art is about. Showing up to play. Before I’m ready, before anything is perfect, before I even think I know what my plan is. It’s hard, but it’s the fastest way to learn. It’s also more fun than not. 

Part of me wishes I had a more ambitious, community-oriented project laid out on Kickstarter. Being me, I have a list of such projects. But my lease is up in three weeks, and it takes 30 days to plan a good online fundraiser plus 30 days to run one.

So I guess I’m starting the year-long experiment early by showing up to the move before I feel ready. And maybe it doesn’t have to be any harder than that. 

Later: more Story Women paintings. 



Moving Sale, Day 3

My lease is up on 05/31 and I’m starting my year-long life experiment in traveling and making art a few days later. So I’m having a moving sale—selling 200+ oil paintings in 2 weeks. 

Here are the two paintings that have sold so far today—along with others still available in the galleries they’re from, and part of the stories that weave them together. I threw in a surprise bonus painting with each painting sold, and shipped them right away. 


Outside the Legion of Honor

When I visited the Bay area for the first time for work earlier this year, I was lucky enough to have time also to visit the Legion of Honor fine arts museum in San Francisco. 

“San Francisco—Outside the Legion of Honor,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, SOLD today on my Etsy store for the SALE price of $100. 

Even the trees outside the museum knew they were part of a special place of art. 

“San Francisco—Trees Outside the Legion of Honor,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

The waves crashing nearby knew, too. 

“California Waves,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

As did the bridge at night. The Golden Gate Bridge WAS part of a big art installation I caught the tail end of—lit up for a limited time by 25,000 LED lights. 

“Golden Gate Bridge at Night,” oils on 16″ x 20″ canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

The LED lights have all come off the bridge now. The water underneath at night must look very different. Still lit up by buildings, boats, and passing headlights. But darker. I was lucky to catch it in this window of much light. 


Waves in the Intelligent Universe

When I read the Wendell Barry book Digging In this fall, I couldn’t stop painting this idea from it: “The human definition of the natural world is always going to be too small, because the world’s more diverse and complex than we can ever know. We’re not going to comprehend it; it comprehends us.” 

“Waves in the Intelligent Universe,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, SOLD on my Etsy store today for the SALE price of $100. 

This idea—that social science has it all backwards—was what inspired me to start writing and illustrating a sort of an updated Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. 

“Moon Eye on the Smiling Face of Truth,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

Although originally conceived as a sort-of combination comic book and methods text—obviously—I might throw away everything I’ve written as part of starting the big experiment. I want to find the hardest problem in the world and work on that next. 

“Over the Water,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

But in the current story, Science is trying to hit one eye on the smiling face of truth. This riffs on the reliability/validity bullseye diagrams professors often use in first-year methods courses. 

“Science Trying to Hit One Eye on the Smiling Face of Truth,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

The vultures of prejudice, violence, and hopelessness sometimes blight the smiling face of truth. 

“Vultures on the Smiling Face of Truth,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

This matters in research methods, because all reasoning is motivated reasoning. People with brain injuries to emotion centers can’t make simple decisions. There’s too much noise even in the simplest decision—forget the whole, wide world—for us to decide anything without feeling. And researchers make decisions all the time about what to look at and how. 

“Sky or Sea, Morning or Night?” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy.

Deciding what to look at shapes the world you live in.

Belief shapes emotion, which shapes perception and action. The perception part of this is sometimes called selective attention in cognitive psychology. Selective attention is about selecting a signal to pay attention to in the noise of the world.

Depression is about negative selective attention—the real-life problems that predict it, like chronic pain and loss, are real. Similarly, sensory hypersensitivity is about lack of selective attention—the stimuli that tend to bother people with hyperacousis or some forms of autism are quite real, too. Synchronicity and serendipity are about positive selective attention. And happy coincidence and good luck, too, are a real part of the world. Humankind being a statistical improbability, they’re a rather important part of the universe we live in. Far from being an error term, improbability is the stuff of life. And paying attention to the good in it helps develop goodness.

“Smiling Face of Truth at Dawn,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 

It can be hard to see, but the smiling face of truth is there even in the lowest-probability events. In life, a lot of people find after much time and reflection that what might have seemed to be incredibly bad luck turned out to be or yield some bit of important guidance or protection. 

“Smiling Face of Truth at Sea,” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, on sale for $100 now on Etsy. 



Speaking of serendipity, the loveliest, funniest thing made my sales today happen. Yesterday, I sold the mic stand I just bought to sing on the streets in Mexico City to Erica, a wonderful singer in the Boston band Sebio, off Craigslist. I sold it to her below market value, like I’m selling all my art. 

Erica was nice. We got to talking about my plan to learn more, faster, traveling and making art, after selling all my art and putting the rest of my stuff in storage. She thought that was kind-of awesome. And she posted about my art on Facebook. 

One of her friends, Pennsylvania painter Dustin Porta, saw it and did the same. 

One of his clients, from a New Orleans market, saw it and bought two paintings. 

You can say this is just how network phenomena work. Information and emotion spread along social networks like dandelions, in Cory Doctorow’s poetic expression of the way network phenomena look when you mathematically model them

Or you can celebrate the magic in the chance meeting that went right. The way I lucked out when I least expected it. The great outcome for everyone that resulted from nobody’s plan. 


Holiness in Mexico

Continuing the series of Lunch Money Paintings from Mexico, today I’m featuring a series of paintings about holiness. I’m having a moving sale to unload 200+ paintings in 2 weeks before beginning my year-long experiment traveling and making art

Lunch Money Paintings are the price of a nice lunch—22.6€ + shipping—at my new Etsy store. They’re the 9″ x 12″ oils on watercolor paper works I made with a palette knife in Mexico City last month on the roof of the hostel where I volunteered after leaving Harvard to make art. Among other things, the Mexico Study proved I can learn more, faster, make art, and slash rent and other expenses by traveling. 

The first set of Lunch Money Paintings focused on Catedral Metropolitana, the second on Torre Latinamericano. Now things get freaky. 


Wings and Flashes of Light

The omnipresent reading pile, soon to be replaced by a Kindle as I try to not compress my spine (any more) with the backpack I'll be taking around the world. 
The omnipresent reading pile, soon to be replaced by a Kindle as I try to not compress my spine (any more) with the backpack I’ll be taking around the world. 

I’m reading Jennifer Skiff’s God Stories: Inspiring Encounters with the Divine. Skiff compiled short, first-person accounts of people’s experiences of divine intervention. 

As a social scientist, I see a lot of possible cognitive errors in how people interpret events to fit the idea of God or something like God—the intelligent, caring, and hilarious universe. But you could say the same errors apply to how people interpret events to fit the idea of a godless world. To be super wonky about it, you can generate evidence against the null hypothesis of no God much more easily than you can generate evidence against the alternate hypothesis of God. Because God is a chaotic theory and those aren’t falsifiable by linear evidence generation. This is just Hayek on the chaotic nature of the social world

Anyway, one of the things I learned in Mexico was how much less taboo it can be in other places and cultures to talk about godly experience. In America, and especially in learned circles, talking about experiencing flashes of insight, answered prayers, and other forms of divine intervention is really a no-no. And talking to God—and listening—is considered evidence of insanity.

In Mexico, it’s normal.

Pretend we’re in Mexico. 

“Angel,” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 

This is an illustration of wings and flashes of light I saw in Boston during a religious experience in which I left Harvard because I couldn’t do anything but make art. Then I went to Mexico City for a month because I felt called there. I’d never been to Mexico before. I lived in a hostel when I’d never stayed in one before. All the while discovering resonances between the art I’d been making and the magic of Mexico—the butterfly motif—the brown Madonna (my Tent of Civilization series and Mexico’s Lady of Guadalupe). I’d never heard of this stuff. 

I seem to have gone on an accidental pilgrimage. 



“Basilica,” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 

The Basilica is a Roman Catholic church in Mexico City. Some sources say it’s the second-most visited church in the world—second only to St. Peter’s in Rome. Others say it’s the most-visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world. 

“Basilica (2),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€. + shipping on Etsy. 

The holy site where it stands actually contains eight churches.

“Basilica (3),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€. + shipping on Etsy. 

The Spanish built the first church because the Lady of Guadalupe—an Aztec Mother Mary—appeared to the peasant Juan Diego there and asked for one. She gave him roses that turned into a painting of her when he opened his cloak to prove his vision to disbelieving officials. 

“Juan Diego’s Roses,” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 

To be clear: the Lady asked for a church. They gave her eight. One of them leans a little bit, but it’s still standing. 

They really know how to treat a Lady in Mexico. 


Lady of Guadalupe

The Lady is everywhere in Mexico City.

Here she is in a prayer candle flame in the church where they hold services these days. 

“Lady of Guadalupe,” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€. + shipping on Etsy. 

And in the Basilica. 

“Lady of Guadalupe (2),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€. + shipping on Etsy. 

One of the reasons Spanish religious officials didn’t believe Juan Diego at first was that the apparition was a native woman. She was a Mexican Madonna. 

“Lady of Guadalupe (3),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 

Being Spanish, I suppose they had always imagined Mother Mary as Spanish. It’s funny how we often extend what we know into the unknown. 

“Lady of Guadalupe (4),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 

Reimagining her took a bit of convincing. 

“Lady of Guadalupe (5),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 
“Lady of Guadalupe (6),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 
“Lady of Guadalupe (7),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 

But in the end, it was impossible to argue with the miracle right before their eyes. 

“Lady of Guadalupe (8),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 

So the Lady got her church. 

“Lady of Guadalupe (9),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 

And the Mexican peasants got greater tolerance for local religious rites from the Spanish. 

“Lady of Guadalupe (10),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 

After all. You wouldn’t persecute Mother Mary if you were a Catholic. 

“Lady of Guadalupe (11),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 

It wasn’t something you could say at the time either. Witness: 

Humble Mexican Peasant: Mother Mary was Mexican, now stop torturing and killing us for practicing our religious rites. We converted, ok? It’s called syncretism, assholes. Be cool. 

Spanish priest: [Snaps fingers and has peasant tortured and killed.] 

“Lady of Guadalupe (12),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 

But you could show it. And Juan Diego did. 

“Dysmorphia of Dreams—Lady of Guadalupe,” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 

In the way that kindness often creates kindness in social interactions—and violence, violence—this act of showing mutual recognition created mutual recognition. 

“Tonantzin,” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy. 

As it happens, another Mexican Mother god was around before the Lady of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego. Her name was Tonantzin—Mother of All Gods. 



Lunch Money Paintings 2

Yesterday, I started posting Lunch Money Paintings to promote my move sale

I’m selling all my art at cost before putting my stuff in storage and beginning my year-long experiment in traveling and making art. This means I want to sell 200+ paintings in two weeks. The cheapest ones are Lunch Money Paintings. 

Lunch Money Paintings are so called because they’re the price of a nice lunch—22.6€ + shipping. They’re the 9″ x 12″ oils on watercolor paper works I made in Mexico City last month on the roof of the hostel where I volunteered (aka, sat by the liquor drawing people to induce drink-buying). I’m breaking them up into subgalleries to blog, since there are about 60 of them and that’s too many for people to really see them. 

Western View 

Yesterday’s post featured the East/Southeastern view from the hostel roof of Cathedral Metropolitana, the biggest cathedral in the Americas. Today’s features the Western view.

“Ciudad México Sunset,” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy

Other than the slowly setting sun and haze of very many cars between very many mountains, the predominant feature of the Western sky in the heart of Mexico City’s federal district is the Torre Latinamericano. 

“Torre Latinamericano,” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy.

At 44 stories high, the Tower is the world’s first skyscraper built on highly active seismic land. It withstood the 1985 earthquake. 

“Torre Latinamericano (2),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy.

On a bad air day, the top can disappear in the midday haze that bites newcomers’ throats. But at night it always seems to slice up into the sky, as if marking the city for God to come back to. 

“Torre Latinamericano (3),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy.

You can pay 80 pesos to go the top for a panoramic view of the city. 

“Torre Latinamericano (4),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy.

Or you can make friends with Dmitri who works on the 29th floor and get in for free. 

Below the tower, pigeons take flight before the evening thunderstorms that come on suddenly, early warning signs flashing quiet gray. 

“In Flight,” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy.

The storms consume everything. Landmarks, horizon, metal grates over closed shops, police clustered on corners in the darkness. 

“Storms Over Ciudad México,” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, 22.6€ + shipping on Etsy.

They wash the city clean before the sun goes to bed in the Cathedral. They wash the air, too, that otherwise smells vaguely of the incompletely closed sewage system running underground. And they leave something extra there. The charge of the storm. 




Day 1 Moving Sale Results

In one day, I achieved about half of my impossible fundraising goal. 

By finding a math mistake. Unless I’m making a math mistake now. 


I made about 92.83€ by accident trading Bitcoin, and lost about 64.98€ on a sale for daily profit of 27.85€. 


The bad news is that no paintings sold. Recall that I’m trying to sell over 200 oil paintings in two weeks in order to lighten my storage load, pay off business launch debt, and seed the year-long art travel life experiment launching next month

But my mic stand sold! To lovely Boston musician and new friend Erica, of the awesome band Sebio.


Breaking out a small subset of paintings to showcase in one blog post I then promoted on social media correlated with a big increase in traffic. 

“Catedral Metropolitana (9),” oils on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper, $24.34 + shipping. 

Specifically, I had 137 page views today. This is pretty good for a website that’s only been up a week. It’s up from a previous peak of 76 on May 4—the day the website launched.

But the peak could’ve been at least also in part from the second Mail Chimp newsletter I sent out to my email list. And from talking with a nice person in real life who then promoted me in turn on her own Facebook. (Thanks, Erica!) 


So the moving sale launch today was a success. I got a little better organized. Made a little money. Drove traffic. And sold something. That’s a start. 


Lunch Money Paintings

This is the first of several posts featuring the oil paintings on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper I made with a palette knife on a hostel roof in Mexico City last month. I volunteered there while pre-testing the year-long life experiment I’m beginning next month.

These are lunch money paintings because I’m selling them for the price of a nice lunch. Since I plan to sell all my art in two weeks, they’re $34.34, including domestic shipping.

On my hostel rooftop perch, I couldn’t stop painting the Catedral Metropolitana.

Catedral Metropolitana (2)” is the big church in the heart of Mexico City’s Federal District.

Catedral Metropolitana (3)” is the biggest cathedral in the Americas.

Like many cathedrals in Mexico, the Spanish built “Catedral Metropolitana (5)” on top of a former Aztec holy site.

“Catedral Metropolitana (6)”

Outside the cathedral, trees and lights make a small square nightly home to a few residents. Otherwise, the streets are deserted at night except for police and passing taxis.

“Catedral Metropolitana (7)”

At night, the cathedral gains light while the sky loses it, like the light of the sky is going to bed in the church. In the morning, the light gets up in much the same way.

“Catedral Metropolitana 8”
“Catedral Metropolitana (9)”
“Behind the Cathedral”

Inside, there are many altars, rooms with pews oriented in different directions, places to pray with candles.

“Door of the Cathedral”

So instead of facing one front, it’s like the people inside are praying out in all directions, to the whole world.

“Man in Prayer”
“Light Inside”

Like a radio sending a signal out in every direction, or a lightbulb putting out light to a whole room.


Moving Sale

Welcome to Phase 2 of my year-long experiment in making art and traveling

In Phase 1, I learned from a lot of early mistakes in attempting to “launch” my “art business.” Most of them involved paying nice strangers to try to get things done faster and better. And things then not getting done. 

Then, I left Harvard and sang on the streets of Mexican City for a month.

The Mexico Study proved four things:

(1) Academia is not for me. A lot of people told me I was crazy—clipping my wings at best—but leaving Harvard felt so good. So right. 

(2) I can make art anywhere. With anything. I don’t need an apartment, a studio, or even canvas. (In Mexico City, I painted on watercolor paper on the hostel roof, obvi.) 

(3) Free advice from friends can be better than paid help from strangers. Especially when you have no idea what you’re doing other than learning from mistakes. I got fantastic information and help from nice folks in the hostel bar. Plus I got free room and board for sitting near the liquor talking to people.

(4) Always keep a Lifestraw in your go bagBecause you have to drink the water. 

Bigger-picture, the Mexico Study was a pre-test of my year-long experiment. It worked. Expenses slashed, art made, lots of learning. Game on. 

False Start

Last week, I announced the year-long life experiment in traveling and making art. I launched my new website and blog, plus an Etsy and Zazzle store to sell my art and art merchandise. So now I have art T-shirts like Keith Haring

That will make me roughly $1/shirt. And has made me exactly $1. (Thanks, Ms. Fairweather. Fifth grade was the best.) 

Any profit is good profit. But that’s not what I want. 

So I should say what I want. Set a clear goal, say what I’m doing to achieve it, and when it’s going to get done.

I’m also doing everything Noah Kagan suggested in Tim Ferriss’s latest podcast. More on this later as I see how it works. 


The Goal

By 05/31, I want to have all my paintings gone, plus commissions and other services selling, all my Phase 1 business launch debt paid off, and funds to store my stuff for a year.

But 05/31 is when my lease is up for real. So to be safe, since moving is hard, I want to try to get it done in two weeks instead of three. 

Look. All I’m trying to do is raise $42,200 in two weeks when most businesses don’t make profit in the first few years at all. 

It’s just a moving sale. How hard can it be? 

Moving Sale

My lease is up at the end of the month. At that point, I plan to put everything I own in storage to cut living expenses and enact the idea that the world is my home while learning more, faster, by traveling. 

I want to have sold all my art by then so I don’t have to pay to store it. That means selling hundreds of oil paintings I made since August. (I don’t have any older art because I gave it all away twice last year before the two cross-country moves my postdoc required. It was a gratitude exercise, it was great, but now I’m trying something different.)

In other words, nothing bad happens if I don’t raise the money. I store or otherwise dispose of the art and manage the Phase 1 debt. Maybe I do odd jobs traveling instead of running an online business that funds it. Maybe I do something completely different that hasn’t occurred to me or presented itself yet. 

But I expect to meet my goal, because the work has that value.


Here’s the value break-down. I worked backwards from my fundraising goal, and I’m selling everything below market value according to thirty-party sources. 

1. Paintings. 

When I regularly showed and sold oil paintings between 2005 and 2008 in Virginia, my 16″ x 20″s  went for around $300 and my 30″ x 40″s for around $1200. My selling base rate was higher than my competitors—although in the regional art business, that meant I still took annual losses. So when the art market crashed in 2008, I mostly stopped exhibiting to focus on grad school.

Forty-nine dog years and one PhD later, I have that much more painting experience and the art market is making a come-back. 

But instead of raising prices above the previously established market value, I’m selling at less than half market value. Only for the next two weeks. 

This means I’m selling paintings at materials cost times two (for labor) to avoid paying art storage costs, clean house for my new experiment, and get more people reading my new blog. 

Pricing on that logic looks like this: 

a. 9″ x 12″ paintings: $2 paper + $10 paint + .17 cent envelope + $5 shipping (domestic) = $17.17 * labor = $34.34

b. 16″ x 20″ paintings: $10 canvas + $30 paint + $4 shipping box + $12 shipping (domestic) = $56 * 2 labor = $112

c. 22″ x 28″ painting (I only have one of these in stock): $30 canvas + $30 paint + $50 box and shipping guestimate = $110 * 2 labor = $240

d. 24″ x 36″ paintings: $40 canvas + $40 paint + $50 box and shipping guestimate = $130 * 2 labor = $260

e. 30″ x 40″ paintings: $50 canvas + $60 paint + $50 box and shipping guestimate = $160 * 2 labor = $320 

With my existing painting inventory, that means that if everything sells I should make about $27,000.

That’s misleading—part of the take is box and shipping costs. So I’m probably about $17,200 shy of my goal if “all” I do is sell 260+ paintings in two weeks.

Except now my Etsy store only has 233 paintings instead of 261, even though nothing has sold. Did I just lose two dozen paintings? No matter. The gap is basically the same whether I know my inventory and how to count, or not. 

That’s where commissions and story-telling come in. 

2. Commissions. 

My previous commission work normed from $700-$1500. People like custom work, and I like doing it. 

So let’s split the $17,200 difference between commissions and story-telling. That means my goal is to make $8,600 in painting commissions in the next two weeks. 

But my time for performing services in that window will be limited. I need about three hours a day to pack and mail paintings, three hours a day to pack and do other move prep, three hours a day to manage other business stuff, and nine hours for sleeping and other animal things.

That leaves only six hours/day for 14 days for portrait and story-telling work—84 hours. So I have to charge $103/half-hour commission to make my goal.

That’s way below market value for 9″ x 12″ oil paintings—much less custom work. 

Plus, my unwritten rule on commissions has always been that you only buy what you love. I only want people to be delighted with my art. If you aren’t, you don’t buy it, commission or no. So it’s risk-free for you to commission a painting. 

3. Story-telling. 

This is #1 on my list of what I’m worth and have to give others. Primarily, I’m a writer. I write all sorts of things. I’ve published opinion essays in The Guardian, academic work in journals in like Testing, Psychometrics, and Methodology in Applied Psychology: The Musical, and poetry in The Georgetown Review. (I may have made up part of one of those titles.) I’ve written children’s books, a play, a screenplay, a dissertation. 

But first, I’m a poet. You may wonder why I’m fundraising at all, since poets are well-known as being rich and famous. I’ll never tell. 

I’m offering four types of story-telling services to make the remaining $8,600 of my two-week goal. 

a. Website and online store design and building. Do you like my website? I made it myself. My Etsy and Zazzle stores, too. I could make something like this for you, next-day, for $600.

Market value of this service is more like $1200 and it usually takes three weeks. Then you usually get hooked in with hosting fees and stuff. 

I don’t want to host your site. I don’t want to maintain it. I want to teach you to do it. It’s not that hard. And we both have better things to do with that time and money. 


I’m only offering this service for two weeks, as part of my move sale/fundraiser for the next phase of my life experiment traveling and making art. 

b. Social media management. Setting up a social media presence from the ground up is daunting. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, G+, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, and whatever other thing is invented between the time I finish typing this sentence and the time you read it—which ones do you need? Business or personal, or both? I can get you set up to “be social” and manage the accounts yourself for $200. 

There’s not an established market value of social media management services because the field is so new that nobody knows how to do it. This is why big companies keep making big social media mistakes. And little people keep making little ones and getting fired

Get started on the right foot with consistent brand across platforms that establishes the right tone. It’s much easier to continue on that path than to stumble across it yourself, like I did. 

c. Marketing. The ghost of Bill Hicks is blowing smoke at me right now. But I guess you could say I’ve done PR. For nice people when I like what they’re doing. (Pause for coughing fit.) Chill, Bill. I love you. 

All businesses are art businesses. Talking with people about their art—what they make and give the world of their passion and labor to make people’s lives better—is fun. Marketing at its best is just about appreciating that omnipresence of art in commerce, and communicating that appreciation to others. 

The median market value of a bad press release ranges from $750-$7500. 

Most of the press releases you can buy are bad because they don’t involve any market research. That’s dumb. We live in an era when you can run a survey experiment in half an hour on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to assess what your market really values or how they respond to different press release options. Why would you not take advantage of that amazing opportunity to talk to your market and pre-test your materials? 

To be fair, I don’t. But that’s because I’m busy running a bigger experiment with my life right now. I’m testing new things by trying them, and I’m trying them too fast to pre-test. 

Anyway. I can design and run your market research and PR experiments, and write accordingly better, more evidence-based press releases than market leading services. I’ll do it for $300 per survey experiment or press release. 

But only for the next two weeks. 

d. Editing and submissions advice. I’ve done freelance editing work for academics, creative writers, and lawyers. I’ve published in dozens of venues including literary and academic journals. Editing is easier. So if you’re stuck, let me help you. 

My normal editing service is $100/hour. That’s about market value

I’ll drop it to $30/hour for the next two weeks. Because I can do editing work anytime as filler in the race to the goal. And submissions advice is just fun. Plus I love helping other writers. Plus I want to build a client base in services I can perform while traveling. 


Maybe—just maybe—I’m spreading myself too thin for a change.

Because I definitely need to keep the blog updated with results of this experiment. Plus break out the paintings in featured blog posts by subgallery, to tell people about them. There are just too many on the Etsy store for them to otherwise be accessible. And when I chart out the sub galleries in blog post-sized chunks, that’s two weeks’ worth of blog posts right there. But if I don’t promote the services every day, I’m not going to get the business. Duh. 

So I’m probably setting myself up for failure. But, perhaps perversely, I feel like I have to go for exactly what I want to have any chance of getting it—even if it’s not really reasonable, so I can’t possibly do it right.

It’s all a big experiment. And the most important thing I’ve learned so far about experimenting is to do lots of it and keep trying new stuff. Because the learning is in the mistakes more than anything else. As long as you’re really showing up to the mistakes. And you have to keep trying new stuff to keep making new mistakes. 



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”

Paul Dunbar

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.



Portrait of the Artist as a Young Barfly

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. 


Painting the World: My Year-Long Experiment

This is my new favorite rooftop perch, by Catedral Metropolitana and Palacio Nacional in Ciudad México. 

Catedral Metropolitana and Palacio Nacional, Ciudad de México.
Catedral Metropolitana and Palacio Nacional, Ciudad de 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. 

Hostel friend enjoys rooftop art.
Hostel friend enjoys rooftop art.

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. 

The Goal 

Is to better become my artist self while better being part of the world. That means four main things right about now. 

1. Painting. 

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. 

2. Writing. 

Shape up my book drafts and partials into finished products. Begin self-publishing books on my website within 12 months, and keep writing. 

3. Music. 

Perform my music regularly on the streets and in venues all over the world as I work up an album. 

4. Comedy. 

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. 

4. Trust. 

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. 

I am so not returning the canvas.

2. Send me clients. 

For art sales, painting commissions, or my side business that I also enjoy tremendously—editing, tutoring, and grant proposaling

3. Send me food.

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. 

Or Not

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.