art

creative influences – part 1

photo by Anton Corbijn

Inspired by this post from Megan Clark about her favorite people, I thought it would be fun to list some of my most enduring creative influences. These are the writers, artists, ideas and images that have burrowed inside my head and now refuse to leave. We all have them — both accidental and intentional.

Here’s my brief list. I’d love to hear yours.

Amedeo Modigliani

Like most kids, I loved to draw, but I could never re-create what I saw in my head. That didn’t stop me from trying. In high school, I remember sweating over an oil painting of a couple sitting in a ’50s-style diner. It was terrible. My generous art teacher suggested it resembled a Modigliani painting and encouraged me to look up his work. Wow. While her comparison was wildly exaggerated, I saw in his art the power of individuality. There’s no reason to paint, write or create like everyone else. Do it your way.

***

Julia Cameron, Natalie Goldberg & Anne Lamott

Admittedly, these best-selling women are a little touchy-feely. They mix art and spirituality with abandon and in some chapters, you can almost smell the patchouli rising from the pages. Their books on writing, however, remain among the most dog-eared volumes on my shelf. Once you peel back the flowery descriptions of Cameron’s horses in twilight or Goldberg’s spiral Snoopy notebooks, they offer some of the most practical advice I’ve heard about the creative process: Forget your fear, get the F*** to work, and don’t judge it until you’re done.

***

Lisa Cholodenko

High Art and Laurel Canyon are two of my all-time favorite films. There’s something intoxicating about the way Cholodenko blends images, words and music together on the big screen. Neither movie is particularly plot-driven, either, which highlights another principle of creativity: The work doesn’t have to be huge; it simply needs to be compelling and true.

***

Anton Corbijn

I’ve written before about my love for this Dutch artist’s work. He’s a photographer, film director and all-around creative visionary. His gritty glamour and a slew of high-profile projects (including the 2007 film, Control) draw increasingly hungrier audiences, but he’s been shooting steadily since the early ’70s. I’m continually inspired by his work ethic and singular lens on the world.

***

These are just a few of the people and works I’ve long admired. Writing this post was a reminder that there are many, many, many more. In fact, I’m going to do another list soon.

Baring these influences is also strangely liberating. There’s a lot of baggage around the idea of creative references and, specifically, the pressure to value what’s exclusively considered highbrow, established or cool. You can and should seek out brilliant work at every opportunity, but you never know what will hit a raw emotional nerve. In the end, that’s what really endures.

 

posted 23 Sep 11 in: art, books, inspiration, media. This post currently has 3 responses.

meet wendy macnaughton

photo c/o Division of Labor

It all started when my friend Jo-Anne – a gorgeous lawyer who dances Flamenco – sent me a Sunday Book Review sketchbook called “Snacks of the Great Scribblers.” From Truman Capote’s evolving (devolving?) drink schedule to John Steinbeck’s penchant for cold toast and stale coffee, the piece explores what fuelled the words of our most esteemed writers – living and dead.

I had to know more about Wendy MacNaughton, the artist behind the charming illustration. I followed the digital rabbit trail to her documentary series for The Rumpus and lost a good hour on her website and blog. Talk about talent. Wendy backs up her artistic prowess with a tangible sense of empathy and a journalist’s eye for detail. It’s a compelling, one-two creative punch.

Now based in San Francisco, Wendy has lived in Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Paris, New York and East Africa. She earned degrees in both art and social work and has sold used books, counseled survivors of torture, designed humanitarian campaigns in Kenya and Rwanda, produced a film in The Democratic Republic of Congo, and written advertising copy, among other pursuits.

Just over a year ago, Wendy left her campaign strategy job to work full-time as an independent artist and illustrator. She had been toiling away on freelance contracts in her off-hours for several years and the work was flowing steadily. It was time to make the leap. “It felt like the biggest, but also the smartest, risk I’ve ever taken,” she says. “Everyone was cheering for me – but it was really nauseating.”

The nausea is now firmly under control and Wendy is busier than ever. She draws the regular “Meanwhile” column (an illustrated documentary series on San Francisco communities) for The Rumpus, and her work has appeared in GOOD, Edible San Francisco, 7×7, Longshot, Time Out New York, Gizmodo, The New York Times, and Gastronomica. She sells her prints on 20×200 and Etsy (more on that below), and takes editorial and commercial commissions. Wendy has also turned her pen to packaging, site-specific installations, and several books are in the works. I can only assume world domination is next – one sympathetic commuter, musician and library patron at a time.

illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton

1. How has your transition to self-employment turned out?

Super well. It’s crazy. It has been better than I expected. One thing just seems to lead to the next. People always say, “It must be so nice! You’re working for yourself.” But I’m the hardest boss I could ever have. I work a lot. There’s also no distinction between my life and my work. I draw all the time. I’m busier than I’ve ever been, but I’m also happier than I’ve ever been because I’m doing what I love to do. It all sounds cheesy and cliché, but it’s true.

2. What fuels your work?

Just looking at things, like how a line forms in a coffee shop, or the weird ways that women tie sweaters around their necks. The way a woman ties a sweater around her neck has an amazing story behind it. Empathy is critical, and when you look at someone through an empathic lens, there’s a huge story there. It’s never just what you see on the surface. Life is a lot more interesting through other people’s eyes than through mine.

3. How do you balance the different demands of business and art?

I don’t. I’m disheveled. I have all the stuff that would make for organization, but a lot of it’s still in boxes. I’m working on that, and I’ll probably be working on it for the rest of my life.

In terms of the nitty-gritty, I try to keep a file on every client. I’m really good at keeping emails and printing stuff I need to print out. I have a standard invoice that I customize for every client. I make up a contract. I learned a hard lesson recently that I need to bill half [my rate] upfront and half on completion. I wasn’t doing that and I got in a really hard spot. I think a lot of other people have learned that same lesson.

I also have two agents now – a commercial agent and a book agent. It was a challenging decision for me, because I thought I could do a lot of what they do for me, in terms of promotion. Working in advertising, I became good at talking to people and getting new business. Obviously the agents can do it better than I can, and they’ll handle all the business stuff, which will give me more time to focus on my work. So, there’s a tradeoff. They take a large percentage of the money, but hopefully that math will work out for the benefit of my artwork and give me more time to make it.

Are books on the horizon?

I just partnered with the San Francisco Mayor’s Office to create a book of the piece “Meanwhile, The San Francisco Public Library.” I titled it “The San Francisco Public Library in its Own Words.” It will be out on September 15th and available in SF bookstores and online.

My partner, Caroline Paul, is a writer, and she and I recently collaborated on a proposal that’s out at publishers right now. She wrote it, I illustrated it. I’ve also met with some publishers about doing a couple other projects. So, yes, hopefully there will be two or three more books in the next couple years. I definitely want to do a book of the Meanwhile columns from The Rumpus. That’s a big goal.

4. Is there another artist or creative pro whose business model you admire?

There are two – and they’re both great people and friends of mine as well.

The first is Lisa Congdon. She has an interesting background and she’s a self-taught artist. She has great business savvy and has really diversified herself. She does commercial illustration, her own books, book covers, prints, and she does some speaking. She recently had her first solo show at a gallery in San Francisco, which I thought was great. It’s so easy to get swept up in commercial work, so to create an entire body of work for a show at the same time is really impressive.

The second is Jason Polan. He became known for making little books and ‘zines and selling them out of a suitcase in Central Park. He did a series called “Every Piece of Art in the Museum of Modern Art” where he literally drew every single piece in the MOMA collection and made it into a book. Now he’s drawing every single person in New York. Those personal projects have led to so many sales, commissions, and shows. He’s booming. I really respect Jason, because he does many things, but he’s focused on his personal artwork. Companies, individuals and publications ask to use his work, but he doesn’t change what he does.  He’s also a really good drawer.

5. How many revenue streams do you have?

I do a lot of editorial and commercial illustration. That includes magazines, newspapers, and reports. I’ve also done packaging, I have a couple books in the works, and I’ve done environmental graphics, where a company or store pays me to draw on their walls.

Then I make my own work and sell the originals. I make prints occasionally. I also sell my work on 20×200. They’re great. I love them. They work with both established and emerging artists and give them a great platform and great publicity and financial support. Their model is really fair and good for the artists.

I also do commissions. People will hire me to draw something that matters to them, whether it’s a character from a book or a map of a meaningful location. I’ve had a few people ask me to draw maps of their lives, which is an honour. I’ve also done general gun-for-hire stuff, like wedding invitations and other freelance work when I’ve needed to, financially speaking.

6. What is your bread-and-butter income source?

I have a couple big commercial clients and an ongoing branding project, but it’s mostly a lot of editorial work. My bread and butter comes very quickly in small bites. It’s not like a stable loaf on the table. People are throwing slices at me and I have to catch them.

7. Do you have a passive income stream?

Selling my prints on 20×200 is great. I can’t tell you how nice it is to get a cheque every month from those sales, even when it’s for a few hundred dollars. Those few hundred dollars really help.

I’ve also put some prints up on Etsy. I’m testing it out for a few months to see how it goes. Handling the fulfillment is a pain, but it was pretty incredible to list a few prints and make a good chunk of money in several weeks. I was shocked. Everyone around me was like, “duh,” but I’m still not sure it’s something I want to continue doing if I have to manage it all. I do see the promise, though, and I’m thinking about the books in the same way. It’s a lot of work on the front end, and then it would last over time.

8. What tools or financial opportunities do you think artists and creative pros should consider?

The Internet (as ironic as that seems), and I don’t mean social networking. I think now is a really, really great time to be an old-fashioned artist. With all of the hullabaloo online and the bells and whistles and Photoshop-y Illustrator stuff you see, people are really burnt out on the speed. Seeing something online that’s hand-drawn or painted slows people down. It’s like a breath. I think it’s important for artists to think about how they fit into that realm and how they can take advantage of it. How can artists format their work in order to connect with people using online platforms? The 20×200 site, for example, allows people to have art and buy physical prints – and that model wouldn’t exist without the Internet.

I also feel very lucky to be in San Francisco, because there are so many people involved in cutting edge technical and social media stuff. After I read about Longshot magazine on Twitter, I wrote and asked if they needed an illustrator. They said yes, so I went in at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning and there were all these people who hadn’t slept staring at computers. I walked in with my paints and my paper and some brushes and pens and sat down at the table and said, “Okay. What do you want me to do?”

The editors handed me an article to illustrate. I finished the illustration in a couple hours and they were blown away – and it had nothing to do with my artwork [ed. note – yes it did]. It was the fact that someone could create a painting right there and hand it to them. It was a physical object on paper, ready for publication. It was such an epiphany for all of us. It was exciting for them to see something handcrafted specifically for the project right before their eyes, and it was exciting for me to see how valuable that was to people working online. My new business brain said, “Here’s an untapped space.”

The first big client that really helped me switch to being a full-time artist and illustrator was Gizmodo, which is a tech site. The job came directly from working with Longshot. Gizmodo hired me for one month to draw five days a week. They gave me an assignment every day and I had to develop an idea, illustrate it, scan it and adjust it, and send it back to them so it was ready to roll by 6 a.m. east coast time. It was like illustration boot camp.

9. What has brought the most opportunities and attention to your work?

Gizmodo and 20×200 were great. I also created a map of San Francisco for 7×7 magazine and they used the map as the cover. That was big for me, and it created another passive income stream. We ended up printing posters of that map and selling them in bookstores, online, and in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. We just sold out and I decided not to go into another edition or do any more reprints. I’ll draw a new one in the future. But we sold hundreds of those. It was good money for a while, and it was incredibly helpful, in terms of publicity. I still get requests for it.

My focus now is Meanwhile on The Rumpus, which is something that I feel really strongly about. It’s keeping my head on straight about the kind of work I want to do, and it has gotten some good attention.

10. What is the best investment you’ve made in your career?

The time I’ve spent creating Meanwhile. Financially, building a website was a big investment. I had to bite the bullet and work with a web designer and pay what, for me, was a lot of money, but you gotta do it. It’s just so important – and I’m going to be re-designing in the next year or so.

What hasn’t paid off?

You know what doesn’t work? Cold calling. I should have known that. After I quit my job, there was a lull, and that was so scary. I had finished some big jobs and there’s always a lull. You do a big job and then there’s a pause and then more work comes in and then there’s a pause, and I had never hit a pause before. I didn’t have the experience to know that was temporary, so I wrote blindly to agents. That’s just stupid. Getting work is like anything else – you do one thing and it leads to the next. It doesn’t happen out of the blue. There’s nothing that’s less effective and more depressing than making a cold call.

11. What does “selling out” mean to you?

I’m kind of over the idea of selling out, meaning that if a company wants to pay me a lot of money to do something that I think is cool, that’s fine.

If a company wants to pay me a lot of money to do something that I don’t think is cool, then the math gets kind of hard. Is it something I don’t think is cool because I don’t like the idea, but I really need the money? I’ll consider it.

But if I’m asked to do something that I don’t believe in – like I actually think it’s ethically wrong – then that would be selling out. And I’ve done that. I did it when I made this transition. I needed more money to carry me over and I was offered a big sum to work on a project for a company whose practices I don’t agree with. I took it. And it was surprisingly easy, very lucrative and even kind of fun – although I purposely didn’t tell a lot of people about it and felt ashamed when I did.

But, I can see how saying yes to one job like that can lead to another. It can be a slippery slope. Hopefully I won’t have to make that decision again, and if I did, I believe I’d turn it down. But I’m not certain about things like I used to be; there’s all this grey area. I am certain I can do my best work in the world through my artwork, so that’s my bottom line.

Thanks, Wendy!

 

posted 13 Sep 11 in: art, books, business, inspiration, interviews, media. This post currently has 4 responses.

links to love

After dinner at Delancey

Some notable links as we head into the weekend:

1.

I was thrilled to see Delancey get some love in last week’s New York Times. A longtime Orangette reader, I licked my chops in anticipation as Molly Wizenberg and Brandon Pettit built their 40-seat Seattle pizzeria. The slice of Fennel Salami I devoured there last summer did not disappoint. It’s time for a return visit.

2.

There’s a new online magazine on the block. Kinfolk has a dreamy, DIY feel with a Brooklyn-meets-Portland-by-the-lake aesthetic. Extra credit for the mini films scattered throughout the pages.

Here’s a snippet of the magazine’s manifesto:

Kinfolk is a growing community of artists with a shared interest in small gatherings. We recognize that there is something about a table shared by friends, not just a wedding or once-a-year holiday extravaganza, that anchors our relationships and energizes us. We have come together to create Kinfolk as our collaborative way of advocating the natural approach to entertaining that we love.

I wish them all the best.

3.

Have you seen this sweet-yet-sad video of a Mariachi trio serenading a Beluga whale ? You must. After all, it’s Friday afternoon.

posted 5 Aug 11 in: art, business, design, food, inspiration, media, music. This post currently has no responses.

do it for 30 days

Jacqueline Cochran / Smithsonian Institution Archives

 

Common pop-psych wisdom holds that it takes 30 days to break a habit. Most people apply this timeline to chucking cigarettes or curbing a guilty PerezHilton addiction. That’s why I love this quickie TED talk from Google’s Matt Cutts, who asks, what could you ADD to your life in 30 days?

Cutts proposes 30-day challenges as a goal-setting technique. Everyone’s got something they want to accomplish, like these usual suspects:

– write a novel (even a bad one)

– run a 5K, 10K or marathon

– cook a healthy dinner every night

Pick your target, do it for 30 days and watch your confidence soar. Even better, says Cutts, time doesn’t fly by quite so forgettably. The month becomes unusually memorable — and small changes are more likely to stick. It’s certainly sound advice for creatives, who always have a couple simmering projects that deserve their attention.

**Oh, just don’t tell anyone about your 30-day challenge. According to Derek Sivers (and a pile of longstanding research), the initial jolt of satisfaction we get from simply sharing our plans with others makes us less likely to do the work and take action.

Now go forth and conquer (but keep your mouth shut).

posted 11 Jul 11 in: art, business, inspiration, media. This post currently has no responses.

meet megan clark

“Success comes from being the exception to the rule.”

These are words to live (and work) by, according to Megan Clark. A sought-after graphic designer and owner of three affiliated businesses, Megan lands firmly in the exceptional category. She’s also developing a busy sideline gig as a keynote speaker, and loves to share her hard-earned lessons about art and commerce. I was eager to get the lowdown on this inspiring woman from Vancouver, WA (the other, less riotous Vancouver, just up the I-5 from Portland). She didn’t disappoint.

When the ad agency Megan worked for suddenly went bankrupt three years ago, it was the kick in the pants she needed to turn her off-hours freelancing into a full-time design firm, Studio M, which she recently incorporated as Clark & Co. The studio offers branding and design services for startups and big-name clients including Simple Shoes, Disney, WebMD Health Services, Nike, Tourism New Zealand, Waggener Edstrom, Razorfish, Levi’s, Holland America Line and Travelocity.

Last year, Megan and Jen Mele also launched hi, friend – an online boutique featuring printed goods and custom stationery, all designed by Megan, of course. If that wasn’t enough, Megan recently unveiled her most ambitious project to date, The Exceptional Creative. Both a downloadable toolkit for designers and a brand-new online hub, The Exceptional Creative (TEC) is built on the principle that when all else is equal (talent, work ethic, etc), the most successful creatives have exceptional communication and organizational skills. They’re professional and they’ve got it together.

Megan’s got big plans for the EC community, but her first product is A Toolkit for Designers, which includes customizable templates, questionnaires, invoices, a client contract drafted by a business attorney, and more. She’s already done the legwork. For designers just getting out of the starting blocks, or anyone who needs to ratchet up their business tools, it’s a valuable package – and it makes you wonder, why didn’t someone think of this sooner?

And when does this woman sleep?

1. Tell me more about The Exceptional Creative.

I first came up with the idea last summer. I was co-directing a program for entrepreneurs, and we were focusing on products. I kept thinking about how I was working and what I could offer to other designers, and someone pointed out that I work differently from many other creatives. I’m very Type A, kind of a control freak, and pretty darn organized. Then I thought, “How can I offer what I do naturally and spent the past five years creating to people who are just starting out?”

I created a toolkit for designers – particularly entrepreneurial designers – that includes invoices and client contracts and other necessities. I developed the product first, but then I needed a way to introduce and launch it. I was asked to speak at a university and when I was working on my presentation, I came up with the phrase “the Exceptional Creative.” I wanted to share with students the idea that if you want to get ahead as a designer (or in any creative field), you have to act differently. You have to be exceptional and be the exception to the rule. That’s when all the pieces came together and it became a platform that I’m very passionate about.

2. What was the most challenging part of building it?

Just getting it done. I had a hard time staying motivated, and I think it was because there weren’t clients tapping their toes waiting for it. There was no deadline. So, I asked a couple people to create a core accountability team for me. I put together a timeline and asked them to hold me accountable. They didn’t have to review all the materials at each checkpoint, but I wanted them to keep asking me if they were done.

Simply keeping up the momentum from the first spark of an idea and that initial excitement through all the tedious tasks was really challenging. But, there are an increasing number of designers working on their own as free agents. The more that number grows, the more people are going to realize that they need to get their business tools in order. This really drove me to finish the toolkit.

3. How will you help people understand the need for these tools?

I’m offering a free download that outlines the client experience, and I think it’s really enlightening for designers to see the stages that they should be taking their clients through. It helps them realize that these tools can save considerable time and energy, given that they go through the same process with every single client.

Personally, I didn’t realize that I needed a lot of these tools and documents until I made mistakes because I didn’t have them – especially the client contract and some of the disclaimers in the invoices and estimates.

4. Is there another artist or creative pro whose business model you admire?

Anyone who is working on a national level and has a publication, a speaking circuit of some sort, and still does studio work is intriguing to me. Someone like Seth Godin, who has created an empire for himself, is really inspiring.

Locally, there are some great people who fit that description. Frank Chimero is someone I’ve been following for a while. He’s a Portland designer who does illustration work for large corporations and magazines, but he also writes. He’s publishing a book, he’s got a fantastic blog and he also sells his studio art. That diversity is really smart.

People who have a diverse business model can express their passions in a lot of different ways – and it’s obvious that regardless of the medium, they have something to say and will find a way to say it. Those are the type of people who get my attention.

5. How many revenue streams do you have?

Currently, four. In my studio (Clark & Co.) I work on project and hourly rates, plus I’m often hired as a contractor for other branding and advertising agencies. Then there’s product sales from hi, friend and The Exceptional Creative. I also created some online business templates for INKD.com from which I receive commissions.

6. Tell me more about your passive income streams.

Building hi, friend took a lot of time upfront, but now the product sales can be considered passive income – except for customizing wedding invitations or any other personalized stationery design. Now that it’s launched, TEC offers straightforward digital downloads. That’s a completely passive stream. The business templates for INKD.com are also passive income. People can purchase the identity systems online and I receive a commission.

7. What is your bread-and-butter income source?

Ongoing clients. I work with a lot of startups at the beginning of their journeys that return to me as regular clients. I have a client who just spoke at a TEDx event in Silicon Valley and is featured in Wired magazine this month. We first worked together at a coffee shop a couple years ago. So, my bread and butter is people who’ve had a good experience working with my studio and decide to come back. It’s a lot more efficient to keep your current clients happy than it is to try and get new ones.

8. Talent aside, what’s been the secret to your professional success?

I really think it has a lot to do with being responsive. Everyone can learn how to be responsive. Acting differently from what people would expect from a designer is the biggest reason I’ve succeeded, in my opinion.

Acting differently? What does that entail?

Communicating well. Knowing how to write, how to speak, and how to pick up the phone when email might not be the best way to talk something through with a client. And if something does go wrong, which it will, you make it right – whatever it takes. Even if you make no money on the project, but your client walks away feeling like you treated them well, that goes beyond talent. It’s easy to be selfish and get wrapped up in your cash flow and forget that you need to be generous and selfless to stay afloat.

9. What’s not worth the time and energy?

I’ve been reading a lot of Seth Godin’s recent books, like Linchpin and Poke the Box. He describes how you can have the best idea in the world, but unless you actually execute it and let it out into the world, it’s not worth much. As designers, part of our training is to pay attention to detail and keep pushing a project until it’s perfect, but at some point you cross a line and the things you’re perfecting don’t really matter. It’s more important to get it out there – whether it’s for a client and a deadline or a personal project. Get it out there and let the world interact with it.

As Godin says, “Anything beyond good enough is called stalling and a waste of time.” Part of me is offended by this, but deep down I know it’s true and agree completely. In this mindset, perfection is what’s not worth the time and energy most of us spend working toward it.

10. Where do you stand on the “selling out?” debate?

I have to make a living doing design and making money is the point of business, but the reason I do what I do is because it helps people. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. If helping people doesn’t satisfy anymore and I do it just for the money, I will have sold out. There are days I feel like I’m teetering on the edge of that line, but then I get a shout-out from a colleague, a thank you note from a client or have a meaningful conversation about the work I’m doing and I remember what it’s all about.

11. Any other advice you’d like to share?

Find a mentor. Whether it’s an informal relationship or it’s someone you hire as a coach, find a mentor. Mentors can make all the difference; I know they have for me. I also have a lot of colleagues that I consider mentors. I like to collect mentors.

Also, respond to every email – even if you don’t have the answer. Just say, “I don’t know yet, but I’ll find out for you.” I think people can hide behind their email. I consider unresponsiveness a sin. I think it’s really horrible. I make a rule to respond to every email, unless it’s spam. It’s a super practical detail that can have a huge impact. The times I’ve run into trouble with my clients is when I haven’t been in contact with them often enough.

Thanks, Megan!

posted 6 Jul 11 in: art, business, design, inspiration, interviews, media, retail. This post currently has no responses.

cinematic storytelling

photo courtesy Mission Workshop

My jaw hit the keyboard when I saw these stylish videos from Mission Workshop. Based in San Francisco (in The Mission district, naturally), this hip company creates gear and apparel for cycling, travel and urban designophiles. Their bags are sleek and can withstand the abuses of bad weather — or a little bad behaviour.

Check out this gem, shot on the streets of Paris, no less.

The objects, the music, the cast, the cinematography — they all communicate, wordlessly, the Mission culture and target customer. The video also presents a pretty appealing day-in-the-life. Oh, and it demonstrates how useful that messenger bag would be for spinning around town. This is a commercial, after all.

Strategic content shows the world what your work is all about. Pick a medium that intrigues you, whether it’s photography, video, blogging, social media, newsletters or some combination of several formats. Use it as a creative playground and tell your story, your way.

posted 10 May 11 in: art, business, design, fashion, inspiration, media, retail. This post currently has no responses.

back in bloom

Whew. I just wrapped several big, highly technical projects. It’s satisfying to emerge from a dark tunnel and I’m happy with the finished products, but I’m also feeling a little burnt out. Drained. Empty. In fact, my head is a test pattern.

So, I started thinking about what builds (and re-builds) creativity. In her classic book, The Artist’s Way (What? You haven’t read it?), Julia Cameron describes creativity as a deep well that needs constant filling. In order to enjoy that blaze of inspiration, you must actively seek new fuel for the fire.

Straightforward, right? But it’s not always easy to do. Our culture prizes action, results and measurable gains. We’re supposed to stay constantly in motion, striving earnestly toward a series of lofty goals. I love juicy projects and daunting to-do lists. I’m happy when I’m in hot pursuit of something big. But, I also know creativity requires regular pruning to stay healthy.

And here’s where I had a moment of (admittedly primitive) insight. It’s not wasteful or indulgent to spend time seeking inspiration. Getting immersed in music, magazines, books, galleries, dark bars, forest trails, complicated recipes and long conversations is, in fact, part of my job. It’s essential. Editors, clients and readers will be bored silly if I’m dried out. I owe it to myself and to others to keep that well filled.

I’d love to hear how you get and stay creatively engaged. Please spill your best secrets!

posted 18 Apr 11 in: art, books, business, inspiration, media, music. This post currently has one response.

escape to italy

photos by Lissa Cowan

It’s 3 pm on a Tuesday afternoon. Heavy rain (or worse, snow) is flying sideways past the window, whipped into a frenzy by late-winter winds. Someone dented your bumper in the parking lot. A series of inhuman deadlines loom large. Lunch was tuna salad on pasty freezer bread, washed down with a mug of anemic coffee from the communal office pot.

Who wants to chuck it all and go to Tuscany?

Lissa Cowan, a writer, consultant and all-around literary talent, recently did just that. She and her partner, Sanjay, sold their Vancouver home and are traveling and working overseas for at least four months, and possibly more.

We’ve all seen a similar storyline unfold in movies like this and this and in this wildly popular book. But what strikes me about Lissa’s adventures is that she’s a full-fledged adult with a complicated life and real responsibilities. This isn’t a post-college backpacking trip. She’s not looking for love or trying to “find herself” in an olive grove. Instead, it took bravery and careful planning to (temporarily) leave everyday life in search of peace, creativity, mental space – and some very delicious food.

Today, Lissa’s sharing the details from her rented cottage in the Italian countryside. How did she make it happen? That’s what I wanted to know, and I’m sure you do, too.

1. Describe what you do for a living.

Professionally, I am a copywriter, editor, social media storyteller, communications strategist, translator and media relations specialist. My company is called Go Small or Go Home and our clients are mostly non-profits looking to make a positive social and/or environmental impact. The name for my business comes from my philosophy that working in small, unsuspecting ways with social media tools can be more cost-effective and have the greatest impact.

Creatively, I do all the above, and I’m also a writer of fiction and creative non-fiction. I have a literary agent in the UK and have been working with her on a novel project, which is finally nearing completion.

2. What are you most excited about right now, creatively speaking?

I’m excited that I’m on the last leg of this novel journey and that after this I’ll be able to follow up on other ideas I have for stories, other novels and a blog. Being able to see my work take shape in the way that I envisioned – after an incredible amount of hard work – is definitely a thrill.

3. How are you spending your days?

The trip to Tuscany, Italy just fell into place for me. I was planning to go to Bali and Vietnam, and then I was told it wasn’t the best season to be there. I started looking for somewhere to stay in Italy and found the perfect place right away. I’d been here six years ago and managed to write a non-fiction book proposal and see many places as well. I remember it being very peaceful, stunningly beautiful and easy for me to get into the ‘creative zone’ I needed to write.

Typically I wake up, do yoga, meditate, have breakfast and then start writing. I usually write for about five hours and then focus on client work in the late afternoon and evening. Though I also have about two or three days a week where I write all day, stopping partway through the day to go for a walk in the hills.

4. How were you able to leave “regular” life for so long?

It took a good three or four months to prepare to leave for four months, and a couple years before that to consider how it might be possible. My partner, who is also a writer, and I shared a home, had a cat, family responsibilities, a number of clients, and so on. Then there were lots of details to consider. For example, I needed a new, more lightweight computer with better capabilities. Because I work freelance and much of what I do is solitary, I figured that as long as I had an Internet connection, I could pretty much go anywhere. I have had some difficulties with Wi-Fi, though. For instance, last month I was on Santorini Island in Greece and had to leave a bit earlier than planned because the connection wasn’t good.

5. What were the most challenging pre-trip preparations?

I’d say the most difficult part was simply making the decision to leave. Once the decision was made, it was just a matter of making it happen. It’s not over the top to say that our lives have been turned upside-down. We were homeowners for seven years and it was hard to give that up. Yet we decided that living in a beautiful home in an expensive city was not as important to us as writing and following our dreams. The way I look at it, things come into our lives and they go out. When we have these things, we need to give thanks and accept the joy they bring to us, yet not have them rule our lives.

6. What has been most rewarding (so far) about your trip?

Definitely having the time to be more creative with my work and the time to write without worrying about all my deadlines. I still have deadlines and interruptions and I enjoy my professional work very much, but at least I’m in a place and a situation now where I can play more. To me, writing is all about having fun, exploring, and keeping that window of possibility open.

7. Any standout moments to date?

Arriving at this cottage in the Tuscan hills is definitely up there. It was pouring rain, the birds were singing. The house overlooks a valley of olive groves and dense forest. On the other side of the road, behind the cottage, I could see the medieval village on the hill. The whole setting was truly enchanting.

Generally speaking, buying local is a big thing for me. Almost everything I’m eating is produced here: the prosciutto, the cheese, honey, bread, wine, olive oil. It’s been a joy to talk to farmers at the Saturday market about their passion for what they do. And, of course a joy to eat!

I’ve also met some wonderful people since I’ve been here. In Florence I stayed in a 15th-century villa where the owner had weekly potluck dinners for her guests. I met a photographer, academics, an artist, writers… It was interesting to talk to them about how they managed to live creatively. A woman who was an art historian said to me, “Do whatever brings you joy.”

Thanks, Lissa!

posted 7 Mar 11 in: art, books, business, food, inspiration. This post currently has 10 responses.

advice revisited – part 1

Mister (Billie Holiday's dog) / photo courtesy the Library of Congress

Does typical business wisdom apply to creatives? It’s a question I’ll be considering in the next several posts.

First up: “It’s a dogfight in the middle.”

This gem comes from my good friend Lisa. It’s not the most common phrase heard in classrooms and boardrooms, but it’s ripe for examination.

The point

Most people assume it’s impossible to reach the upper echelons of their industry. We believe a coveted invitation, contract, sale, or opportunity is like a golden envelope slid under the door; you either get it or you don’t. In fact, most people don’t even shoot for the top. They target what feels like an attainable goal and prepare to battle it out with everyone else working in the same space. Hence, the proverbial dogfight.

For example

Think about TV newscasters. The climb-the-ladder, pay-your-dues model means you start at a local cable station. You build your clips, work your way onto the news desk and then aim for an affiliate network. Every night you dream about being plucked from your home in Moose Jaw, Eugene or Sarasota to land in the national spotlight. You’re a small fish longing for bigger waters. If only the right people would recognize your potential…

The translation

Creatives are not newscasters. Most avoid fuchsia and hairspray, but that’s beside the point. Aiming high means taking a hard look at what’s happening in the rarefied space you crave. For example, what’s true about the artists exhibiting at your dream gallery? What’s true about the bands playing major festivals — or the designers showing on national runways? Forget about the local DIY market. What would you do and experience if you were working at the very top of your field? How can you set yourself apart from the pack? When you target the outer limits you actually begin to think differently. A technicolor vision takes you beyond the dogfight and unlocks a path that hasn’t been fully trampled.

The verdict

This (relatively uncommon) business wisdom applies beautifully to creatives. Get out of the middle and go where things are emerging — where there’s space to realize your dreams.

– be specialized and unique

– cross-pollinate and juxtapose your work in unusual ways

– look beyond the crowd and target the top

posted 16 Feb 11 in: art, business, inspiration, media. This post currently has no responses.

originality

"Urban Light" by Chris Burden

Creativity often defies rational explanation. You can think about the work and break it down into pieces, but you can’t think your way around it. And the hallmark of originality is attention. It’s a rare creation today that will make us stop multitasking and focus completely on reading, listening or seeing.

In school, I consistently daydreamed my way through math class (and then wondered why I couldn’t do the homework… but that’s another story). My mind would travel so far from the classroom that I was practically orbiting the moon. Original creations make that kind of mental escape nearly impossible. They snap you back into the moment and command your attention. They shake you up and change your very thought patterns. The brain connects disparate emotions and ideas in one seamless thread — and whether or not those thoughts make conscious sense, you’re always, always engaged with the experience.

The American poet Audre Lorde said, “There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.” We’re all building on the words or brush strokes or visions of the brilliant minds that came before us. True originality lies in absorbing those influences, mixing them in with the mess of daily life, and then saying something completely, uttery true. That’s creativity in action.

Is this original work?

It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately — and it’s a bar I want to set high.

posted 28 Jan 11 in: art, inspiration. This post currently has no responses.

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