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6527212 November 20, 2013

Finding Natural Audience: Marc Zegans

Talent and giftedness are traps. Worrying about whether we have talent or a gift when we’re young diverts us from doing the work. Seeing ourselves as talented or gifted when we’re more seasoned sets us up to be victims, “Why isn’t the world coming to me if I’m so talented?”

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6527212 September 03, 2012

Gary Powell: Dreams and Aspirations

" ... stay alert, do no harm, listen inwardly, then express outwardly by nurturing relationships with individuals who are fair-minded and also your equals in intellect, passion, and talent." 

As creative individuals, we all have dreams. A dream is a romantic sort of thing, I think. It's the cloud you ride on or the star you leap toward.  It's the thing we focus on and believe in when all else fails, when our world is wobbly or worse, crumbling.  My dad always told me that I should reach for the stars or I'll never get off the ground, and that's what I've always done ... in most aspects of my life.  I reach and reach and reach, and look higher and higher and higher. I leap over and over again. I feel my spirit yearning to get there ... somewhere ... up there. It's a feeling that never goes away and keeps me moving forward.  

My guest today, fantastic Grammy-nominated composer Gary Powell suggests that when considering our talent and creative goals we should consider replacing the word dream with aspiration. He says that "Aspiration denotes discipline. Dreams, not so much."  Gary, who has been around the block a time or two and has amazing accomplishments in his pocket, suspects that focusing on the term aspiration may be a little bit scary for some folks. It strips away much of the romantic la-la land quality of the situation, and begs the question:

"What do I want and exactly how am I going to achieve it?"  

Aspiration, like real truth, calls us to the creative carpet where life actually happens. It brings the scenario out of the clouds and into the real world of goal setting, hard work, and dedication. It makes us sweat. It also brings to mind the similar question:

"What do I want and what am I willing to pay for it?"  

I think about this a lot.   

Gary's mantra shifts with each day but he has a few overarching internal marching orders, " ... stay alert, do no harm, listen inwardly, then express outwardly by nurturing relationships with individuals who are fair-minded and also your equals in intellect, passion, and talent." 

In considering what I want and what I'm willing to pay for it, I'm beginning to realize that having like-minded individuals in my life may be critical. Finding these folks and connecting with them in a real way can be quite tricky. As I've kept my focus on all those stars above, I've worked on that as well as some of the other key requirements that my level of aspiration calls for; I've made progress.  Now I'm struggling with the realization that it may beg for a higher price than I imagined.

Maybe it's not just about jumping toward a star; it's about feeling your feet hit the carpet. It's about running.

Gary Powell, professional composer, musician and arranger, has composed, arranged and produced music for 145 musical albums and videos which have sold some 45 million units across 69 countries. All have been produced in his Austin, Texas recording studio Powell Studio Productions.  In Powell’s work with Walt Disney Records, five of his productions have gone Gold and two Platinum. In 1999, Powell won a Grammy nomination along with co-producer Ted Kryczko for their production of Disney’s “A Bug’s Life Sing Along”.   

Of note, Dan Rather will interview Gary on AXS.TV, airing this Tuesday.  Watch for it!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9iNq1CGm4q8]

What's your story (in a nutshell)? 

Teen tennis champion and privileged son of Dallas, Texas takes the unexpected and never-traveled road; music and only music.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

Creative focus is a discipline for me. It's not about talent or aptitude. It's about study, work and a fearless capacity to achieve one's highest aspirations and goals, even as they morph in unimaginable ways under pressure, circumstance and serendipity.

For you, is music more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to make music?

Music seems to be the great integrator of all that's good about being human. In that, creating what feels like the perfect expression of any given event or feeling becomes at once, the grand unifying equation found within the totality of being alive.

How would you describe your musical style, and why does this appeal most to you creatively? What inspires you, and how does that relate to your style?

Becoming stylistically fluent as a composer is like learning new languages for a translator. Sometimes curiosity inspires me, extreme challenges focus me, and money can certainly fuel it. Outside of obvious rewards, however, personal satisfaction comes from within and is usually outside the earshot of clients and accountants.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? 

The aberrations of living a creative life are born from a societal disregard for almost any definition of what has artistic value. Celebrity we understand. Once we as people loose the connection with the art itself and next replace it with empty gestures posturing as art; artists cannot prosper. Within education, the artist could be taught strategies for negotiating within a market-based system and then slip confidently into a successful and inspiring life. This seldom happens within our higher education institutions, but it should.

Have you had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

My family had no experience with artists or the artistic life. My parents were high-functioning individuals who supported my musical interests from the beginning, which began in early high-school. Therefore, my personal drive to explore, learn and prosper was emotionally hard-wired in me from the beginning.

Unfortunately, many creative people never achieve the success they dream about for various reasons. Have your biggest dreams come to pass yet? What do you dream of achieving now? 

I went to study music as a freshman in college only knowing where middle-C was on the piano. Admissions to the music school said I would fail, but they gave me one semester to try. Even from that place, I imagined great success. What surprises me is my continuing and deepening relationship with music regardless of the success I've enjoyed. My current artistic aspirations live outside mainstream music; my theatrical concert "Aristotle's Prayer" being exhibit one. http://www.garypowell.com/blogs/category/shows/aristotles-prayer/

Do you ever wonder if what you're creating or expressing is as meaningful to others as it is to you? How important is that to you with regard to your overall goals? If you've created something that purely expresses who you are, is that enough, or is the circle only completed when someone else says, "Yes, she understands me" or "Yes, that's how I feel"?

An early mentor once told me "nobody creates in a vacuum." I'm not sure that's true. I would say that some of my most precious musical moments as a composer have indeed happened in a vacuum; a closed space, a studio, a piano, a note written on a cocktail napkin. The question is: a vacuum within what context? Surely, like universes, there are parallel vacuums we live in, so who's to say? Also, as I've aged and matured, the need for external edification has greatly diminished, even dissipated. But, the responsibility to nurture my consciousness and self-awareness has magnified greatly. This is the gift of aging. Outside the pain and loss held within aging itself, music becomes the elixir, the antidote and the unifier of all things important to being human. From that place, yes, I do feel understood.

Is there a difference between being creative and being talented? What are your thoughts on this?

Talent is simply unrealized aptitude. Talent is everywhere and largely not mined or developed. To change this, I would suggest we replace the word dreams with the word aspiration. Aspiration denotes discipline. Dreams, not so much. Maybe it's too scary to take personal responsibility in this way. Outside of the endless models of fear there are more opportunities now within the arts than ever in recorded history – we just need new models in education and new inclusive models in business to mine the gold in order to experience a personal and sustainable prosperity within this new construct. When aspirations and aptitude, existing business models and curriculum, are all in concert together, they make a powerful formula for creating successful lives: purposeful and self-directed.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

My mantra, if you will, shifts. The inspiration needed on Tuesday may not be effective on Thursday. So, stay alert, do no harm, listen inwardly, then express outwardly by nurturing relationships with individuals who are fair-minded and also your equals in intellect, passion, and talent. 

Info on Gary and his work:

Powell Studio Productions


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6527212 June 05, 2012

A Beautiful Girl: Aimiende Negbenebor

"The conflict that goes on in ones mind when you mix cultures, belief systems, race, class, etc., is quite scary." 

I don't yet know the full story of my guest, model and actor, Aimiende Negbenebor, but I can't wait to find out. It will be revealed in Asa, a short independent film currently in production by Sela Films, followed by a full length feature film.

Per Sela Films, Asa (which means "a beautiful girl") is a short film based on a true story. It's a dramatic tale of the last 24 hours before a young girl embarks on her journey to America. It takes place in two cities (Lagos and Benin) in Nigeria, West Africa.

The film chronicles Asa's life from age 7 to age 17, when she meets her biological mom and leaves for the United States. Within these last 24 hours, shrunken into12 minutes, we see what Asa's life has been like over the past 10 years, and gain an understanding for why she absolutely has to get out.

The film opens with a kidnapping plot to get Asa out of the country, and through a series of flashbacks, tells the tale of what she has had to endure from the moment she was placed on a plane with a stewardess to be dropped off at a foster home in Nigeria, to the pivotal moment of confrontation with her biological dad - she was going to leave, at any cost, and by any means necessary.

What's most incredible about Asa's story is that it could be anyone's story, regardless of race, class, religious beliefs or culture. It deals with those things that are kept in the dark and ought to be brought to light. In spite of its darkness, this is very much a dynamic tale of triumph, love and hope. It's both colorful (yes, the costumes are amazing too!) and soulful.

As I read Aimi's interview answers below and, in particular, her quote, "The conflict that goes on in ones mind when you mix cultures, belief systems, race, class, etc., is quite scary," I was struggling once again with my own mother. She chose to cut me out of her life, again, this week. This time, I'm determined to let her go.  Her decision was ultimately based on the religious, political and cultural differences that now seem to divide us. I don't think a mother should walk away from her small or adult children for such reasons, yet I understand their power.

I've always hoped the love between my mother and I would overcome any differences we have. As an adult, I shouldn't need that so desperately anymore, but it's hard not to want it when I've waited for so long. Now I'm trying to face facts. And like the brainwashed, I still struggle internally every day about whether or not I am doing the right thing.  Even when my heart and mind tell me I am, I still have an emotional ache to be at peace with all the notions that were pounded into my head as a child.

I question how adults can be blind to the needs of children, and how, although childhood is such a short span of time, how powerful an impact those years have.

Today I don't care what your culture is, or where you stand politically or religiously. I hope you stand for love. My suspension is that the story of Asa somehow relays this as well, and I'm so looking forward to that discovery. I've donated towards Aimi's production costs,and hope you will consider doing so as well.

Information on how to support the film can be found here.

What's your story ? How did you become interested in film?

My story, wow, where do I begin? I can answer how I became interested in film making, so I think I'll do that. The short version is that a theatrical director friend of mine, Michel Chahade, sat with me and basically said, "It's time we made your story into a film," and I said. "Let's do it." He's not the first to suggest making my story into something - a novel, an autobiography; my dad suggested a documentary and actually started the process by trying to get a few creative people he knows interested. I love my dad. I'm adopted by an amazing father as you know from watching the kickstarter video. I say he saved my life and he says I saved his! Funny isn't it.

I've always wanted to create. I've always been somewhat artistic. But it wasn't something that was encouraged growing up in Nigeria. After a B.E. in Computer Engineering and a B.A. in Literature, and working in the IT field for a few years, I turn around and start acting and modeling, trying to sing (I seem to think I can carry a tune ... not so sure of that though), sketching, painting (very private things for me so no one's seen those,) and writing. I wrote "Asa" and I can't even begin to express how gratifying of a process that was. After the process of making this film began, I realized with absolute certainty that this was what I wanted to do and I can't express in words what that means! I just knew I wanted to be behind the camera and make "this" happen. Since we started filming, I haven't been on a single audition. I can't even see myself doing it. I think I'm in trouble. I stumbled upon a long list of producers, directors and writers I've admired over the years recently, and realized that I'd forgotten I compiled that list. I must admit, I'm looking forward to being on it.

Can you tell us about your current project, Asa?

Asa is a short film that's based on a true story. It's a story about a young girl growing up in Nigeria and moving to the States at age 17. The story is being told in two parts. The first is the Short film that's currently in production and the second part will be a full length Feature. We had originally started work on the project with the working title "Journey" and later settled on "Asa" because this story is about her journey from childhood to adulthood. You may also say it's her journey from the darkness in her life into light. The film has many dark moments, but throughout the abuse, struggle, depression, humiliation, Asa stays very human. 

She's not the stereotypical (forgive me for saying this) black woman, at least not how black or maybe more specifically, African women, are typically portrayed. She strong, she's independent, and she fights, but through it all, she shows her vulnerability, her weaknesses, her fears, she cries, sometimes in front of people! She has her silly girl crushes like the next girl and makes the same sometimes unforgivable mistakes teenagers make, only her environment makes her punishment 100 times worse.

Asa is a film that brings to light things that are usually hidden in the dark, but also shows that that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, might sometimes place itself smack dab in the middle of the tunnel and wait there for you to get to it, grab it, and light your way through the tunnel to the other side. "Asa" is a very complex story. While writing it, I found myself questioning what parts of it is considered the norm. What should I or am I allowed to question? Am I betraying my culture because I've become "Americanized?" Should any of this be acceptable or just left alone? The conflict that goes on in ones mind when you mix cultures, belief systems, race, class, etc., is quite scary.

[kickstarter url=http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/selafilms/asa-pronounced-aa-saa-a-beautiful-girl width=480]

With regard to your current focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

Yup! The moment I realized that I really wanted to be behind the camera. There's this small role in the film, Asa's cousin interacting with her the morning she's leaving for the States. The director, Chahade, decided to have me play her and I really did not want to do it. When I realized I was in shock and thought "Oh my, I'm in trouble!"

Many creative people never achieve the success they dream about. Which of your dreams have come to pass and what do you dream about now?

I've just started living my life. I feel I dream dreams everyday that come true. I know, this probably doesn't make sense. I dream of having a constant roof over my head and I do. I dream of being able to pull out a few bills and get a meal whenever and wherever I choose to and I do. I dreamed of being able to read, write, comprehend things and I do all that. I dream about being safe (mostly take it for granted I think, considering the situations I've put myself in at times) but I am safe. I dream about staying warm, clothed, and I am. I think maybe one would have to be able to understand how walking into a Payless shoe store at 145th and Broadway, for the first time (this was late 90s) being able to put down $50 for a pair of shoes, for the first time, and walking out of that store on cloud nine, could be a memory you'll never forget, to get what I'm talking about.  I dream of making friends too, cause I fear I am terrible at that, and little by little I'm making friends. 

I guess, when you talk creative ventures, I do have many dreams I'm looking forward to seeing come true - For one, "Asa" becoming an incredible success, leading to me writing many more successful screenplays and books, and producing more successful films. Acting in a few solid ones with directors I admire would be amazing. I'm looking forward to being on the cover of Vogue. That would be a big one. I'd like to call that my vain side but I'm not so sure it's all vanity. And if I may be bold here, an Oscar! I know, the golden boy. I want one. Badly. The culmination of everything I believe for me, will be becoming an award-wining director. The thought is actually kind of scary.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to your creative interests have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? How so?

This is a complex one. My entire life is a deviation from the norm. I'm Nigerian by decent. Born in the US, shipped to Nigeria. Raised by foster parents and legal guardians and then by my biological remarried dad, in Nigeria, and then by my biological mom very briefly in the States. Getting adopted by a Jewish (Israeli & American citizen) single dad. Studying Engineering and Literature simultaneously, deciding to pursue modeling and acting afterward, and then turning around to become a writer and filmmaker, all the while refusing to fit into any one category in any area of my life. 

Yeah, one big, fat aberration! It's been more than my creative interests that's caused me aberrations in my life. But I do think that my creative interests have in turn helped me deal with life's aberrations. How so? By allowing me an outlet and a safe place to escape to at the same time.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

I mentioned earlier that growing up in Nigeria, being creative was not an option. My Nigerian parents wanted their children to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, that sort of thing. I remember mentioning once to my step mom that I wanted to be musician and she laughed so hard, it was amazing! And then of course she said musicians don't make money and that I needed to focus on more stable professions. I think it's funny how I ended up with dual degrees, one in the arts, the other sort of scientific, which never ceases to amaze me cause I'm terrible in math!

My Jewish papa also wanted an Engineer to work with him and take over his company. He actually mentored me in that direction, and it was very tough for him to accept me making the switch over to the arts fully, but when he came out to my first dramatic play, he said something to the effect of me having some talent. Then he came out to a second show and was blown away. I think he hated the third one or was it the fourth one, but after that, he was sold! He's my biggest fan and though occasionally he, you know, brings up the Engineering, he's very much supportive of me and is 100% behind me making this film.

I have lost a few boyfriends after they found out I have an Engineering degree and I'm pursuing the Arts. Painful experiences, but I lived. There was always that question of what's my plan B? "There's no way [I] expect to succeed in this industry." I had one tell me he wasn't interested in ending up having to support me, and another reminding me that I was getting old and at my age he had made his first million, which at the time we were dating seemed very funny to me considering how broke he was. I found myself wondering what he did with all that money! My most recent ex was very enthralled with me being in the arts, but he wanted it to be things he was interested in, and believe me, you don't want to know what those things are.

I must admit that I hid my creative ventures from my biological parents for a while and they kinda found out, I guess, when the time was right because they weren't upset and seemed okay with it. I think it's old age!  

To end this long story, I'd say that I don't have people in my life who fail to understand my creative interests. My creative personality, I doubt anyone will ever really understand! My drive is what keeps me moderately sane in addition to my solid support system, and the way I've learned to deal with and continue to deal with the people I may encounter who fail to understand me, is to leave them be. This may include walking out of their world. A tough lesson or skill if you will, that I am still working on mastering, but seems to serve me well when applied.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role of discipline and organization?

Ha!!! Nope. No methods unfortunately. I am very emotional I believe, so intuition, a sense of timing, that sort of thing mostly guides me. I've had to learn some serious lessons as a result of how I attack my goals at times, so I don't feel I can recommend my brand of tactic to anyone. 

Discipline and Organization are absolute musts! And I don't like absolutes. Without them, you get nowhere. So when I all of a sudden get that urge to jump out of bed and suddenly get going, first item on the list - make a list! Check it thrice. As for suggestions, research, research, research! Put everything, if possible, down on paper and know where you put down that paper! And then organize everything down to your thoughts. Ask questions especially when you feel any doubt. Look stupid before you LOOK stupid, if that makes any sense. And this is a big one, when you've made errors, own up to them. It's tough, especially when you're scared. but that's just my advice.

In such a highly competitive world, what do you think it takes to rise above the crowd in your particular creative industry, and has this changed over the years?

That's a big one (I say that a lot, don't I?) I think it takes being in the right place at the right time, fully prepared. I don't believe this has changed at all really. What I do see is that it's easier now for people to make films. There are many outlets for getting one's work out there which is both a blessing and a curse. Funding is tight and the whole structure of the past in the film industry has completely shifted. Everything seems to be blending or moving laterally. People are having to wear a thousand hats at one time, and it's become the norm. To stand out, you need, contrary to what seems to be the norm these days, Snookie, et.al., solid work, great marketing, drive, and an understanding of what's out there versus what you are presenting.

What's next for you?

Very next step, finishing "Asa" the short, submitting it to festivals, and jumping into the process for making the feature.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

Put one foot in front of the other and breathe. It helps me stay focused, and in a very funny way, helps me stay grateful. I think it's because I suddenly realize after a few steps that I'm walking and breathing, and that's pretty cool 

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6527212 May 17, 2012

Hans Meertens: Starduster

"... interesting, polysemic pieces of art can only be created when I dive deep into my own cognitions; what makes me tick, what is it about certain visual influences that some have more impact on me than others, what is their connection, where is the mystery or poetry in a certain subject, how can I dig that up?"

Last week I went to a presentation at Rago Arts and Auction Center in Lamberville, NJ.  It started at 5pm so I headed over after work. The event was an open house for their 19th/20th Century American and European Art auction held on May 12th. I was looking forward to it, yet part of me wondered if I was wasting time; if I should get home so I could paint rather than look at paintings.

Three hours later, I was glad I went.

Dr. Robert Cozzolino (Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts) discussed the distinctive character of Pop in Chicago during the 1960s. As I sat listening to Dr. Cozzolino's fascinating lecture, some of my own thoughts on art seemed to solidify. I decided that I might be ready to write a statement about my art ... something that I knew at my core. Not a bunch of long, tangled words that sound impressive, but real truth about my life and my art. I felt myself evolving.

My guest today, artist Han Meertens, talks about his evolution as an artist moving from a focus on what he thought artists are supposed to do toward recognizing that the true beauty of art is much more profound than anything someone else can define for the artist; it's about the artist, and what he or she can uniquely define.

Given my own story, I've realized that my innate drive in both life and art is to obsessively search for meaning and/or beauty in chaos. This drive brought me through my dysfunctional childhood in one piece, and has stuck with me throughout my adult life. What I've discovered, almost by accident, it that if I look into chaos, I automatically begin searching, trying to tease anything that might mean something, be familiar, comforting or beautiful. It's probably the strongest natural instinct I have. And I search until I find; it's as simple as that. I do not stop; it's a survival mechanism that has been wired into my brain. Sometimes it's a gift and sometimes a curse.

I didn't study art like Hans and Dr. Cozzolino. I have a degree in Biology, something that fascinated me as a young adult, not because I have a scientific mind but because I have a creative one that has its own unique qualities.  At a time when I was incredibly bored, I stumbled upon biology and found it interesting and challenging. Biology showed me how meaning and beauty emerged from chaos, and that attracted me. I wanted to understand it. My ability to pursue an interest in something no one expected me to embrace opened a door that provided familiarity and comfort.  It was my coping mechanism, and in some ways, my salvation.  And it ultimately led me down the path to Rago Art and Auction Center last week, where I sat eating cheese and crackers as I listened to Dr. Cozzolino. I knew I was in the right place, doing what I am meant to do.

Looking back, I don't believe I could create the art I'm creating now had I taken the path of attending the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts. I'm not knocking it in any way; in fact, I'd probably go now if I could. I'm simply commenting on my own evolution as an artist. Who really knows what alternate paths would have produced. We can't know. We can only try to understand the path we choose and why.

I'm understanding mine more every day.

As is Hans ....

What's your story? How long did it take to establish yourself as an artist? Was the journey straight or twisted , and are you surprised by your success?

After spending some years abroad as an art student in York (U.K.) and Ghent (Belgium) I graduated from the HKU - the Art Academy of Utrecht (Holland) - in 2000. I was 25 by then. I took some more courses on the art academy until 2001 before combining my career as a professional artist with a part time job as an art teacher in Amsterdam for the indispensable financial input. For 6 years I worked really hard to build a consistent body of work and portfolio. In the meantime, I had had some sold out exhibitions and in 2007, I decided the time was right to take the risk, and to spend all of my time and energy on my artistic career. I truly don't ever think in terms of success. It is tough in times like these to be financially dependent on art-sales, but being able to do what I want to do most is what it is all about.

Meertens - Stardust 
With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

Whenever I feel the need to focus on something different, in technique or subject matter and the combination between the two, it usually takes some time and effort to get it right. 'STARDUST' - my current series of collage portraits - found its final shape and form after a period of experimenting with materials and trying several approaches to transform a personal loss into something more transcendent. The ah-ah moment with this particular project was when I made the connection between a mother and Icons.

What has been your process for engaging galleries to show your work?

When I first got out there, I realized that fortune favors the bold! I have always been very straightforward. For the past years I have become lucky with that and still I'm being approached most of the time. In such cases I tend to find out more about the other artists represented, their exhibition space, etc. And most importantly, whether they are interested in me as an artist, including my artistic growth. Is there a drive to help me forward? Unfortunately in the past I have dealt with a couple of opportunistic galleries only in it to make a quick buck. There was absolutely no love for the artist or my work.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations (issues), or both?

Both. I think one of the key elements of being this passionate about and committed to creativity is the fact that it is a part of who I am, how I live and breath. Like most artists, I have always been a pretty sensitive and visual type and this cognition has led to a rather equivocal attitude to life´s aberrations.

It is great to dive into the good stuff with your senses wide open, but it hurts equally hard when things go bad. All my paintings are a reflection of how I felt at a particular time in my life. They are like diary pages to me that helped me recover from bumps along the way.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

It took some time and effort to convince my parents that attending art academy was the best option for me. I think there have been a couple of awkward situations with friends and lovers since then when we were on different planets when it came to sharing the intensity of undergoing art, or failing to keep connected when I was highly involved in a particular creative interest. Sometimes it is hard to explain the inner necessity - that drive that is flowing from a very emotional desire - to spend this much time and energy on art. I can deal with it though, by realising I can't follow all their passions either.

Have you developed a specific process that enables you to meet your creative goals? If so, can you tell us about it. Where do most of your ideas come from?

In my first years in art academy, like most fresh art students, I was focusing on fictitious concepts of what art was supposed to be like in my head, based on a very shallow knowledge of art and art history. The results were overtly 'invented', created for the outside world, without anything of the real me in it. I have learned since then that interesting, polysemic pieces of art can only be created when I dive deep into my own cognitions; what makes me tick, what is it about certain visual influences that some have more impact on me than others, what is their connection, where is the mystery or poetry in a certain subject, how can I dig that up? With the risk of coming across vague: the source for my ideas derives from a self-examining form of mindfulness and self-awareness.

Meetens - Stardust
What do you believe places an artist apart from his or her peers? So many are highly talented, but what makes one stand out as truly gifted?

An unstoppable inner force and vision to create and innovate autonomously. A combination of hard work, talent, motivation, will power and courage. Knowing when not to be modest. Also, being in the right place at the right time meeting the right people getting the right feedback and recognizing opportunities, etc should not be underestimated. But this is all just a shot in the dark, really, since I wouldn't know. I think often success is like an avalanche; sometimes a person who experiences some success, is being picked up and then the ball starts rolling which doesn't necessarily mean that the work is much better than someone who hasn't been moved forward to a spotlight point.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

"Always keep in mind you know nothing." This makes me question what I'm told, keeps me humble, curious, open to different views and most importantly; it keeps me moving forward.


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6527212 April 14, 2012

Cancer Baby Momma: An Aberration Story

It has absolutely strengthened my family. Our love for each other is right out there in the open now.

I've thought a lot about cancer lately. Besides being a writer and an artist, I'm also a consultant within the pharmaceutical industry. As part of that work, I've recently visited quite a few cancer treatment centers. I've walked past folks sitting in chemo chairs in Washington. In a Florida hospice grief center, I've been shown a small, dark room that lights up with fluorescent messages children have written to the moms and dads they miss. In a center I visited in Illinois, I saw a giant gong. Each time a patient reaches remission, the center invites friends and family for a gong ceremony to signify the courageous battle that was fought and won.
When I was growing up, a cancer diagnosis was thought to be a death sentence. Although the landscape has certainly changed and progressed, the "C" word is still one of our greatest fears, and can very well lead to death. I'm betting that very few of us remain untouched by cancer. Through my work related to breakthrough cancer pain, I've come to appreciate how even those fortunate enough to make it through that fight are struck with a debilitating and life-changing aberration. No matter what the outcome, cancer changes those whom it strikes.

Considering what I've recently learned about living with cancer and the associated treatments, I can't begin to imagine what it might be like to also have a baby growing side-by-side with that potential killer, all encased in the confines of my body. An expanding baby needs care and nourishment while spreading cancer must be eradicated with radiation and poisonous chemicals. How can a healthy baby result? Is it possible?

Sandi, the newest member of the Aberration Nation has lived through this nightmare and can shed light on the mind-blowing combination. Her story makes the aches, pains, and nausea of my pregnancies seem like a fragrant stroll through the Shreveport Rose Center. Sandi is truly a survivor who has courageously embraced her greatest challenges. Like a bouquet of roses, she holds one of the most precious outcomes lovingly in her arms.

You rece
ived a cancer diagnosis while pregnant. Can you tell us what happened?
My family and I went through a large move two hours away from our relatives. During this move I was feeling very winded and tired. I had been wheezing a lot and just having an all around difficult time even moving one box. I had been having issues for awhile but during the move it got a lot worse. After getting into the new home, I took a pregnancy test and it came back positive. My first thought was, Well, I knew I was feeling very sick ... I was having issues breathing. I got winded walking up just a few stairs or even simply talking. Having conversations wiped me out and caused me to pant. I'd been told constantly that I have thyroid issues, and tried my hardest to believe that was the issue. But I didn't know how I could carry a pregnancy to term considering how sick I felt. So we went back to the doctor. Exactly two weeks after finding out I was pregnant, I was told I had Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

What were your first thoughts when faced with the cancer diagnosis? How did your pregnancy impact your initial reaction and attitude? Did your attitude change in any way throughout the course of your pregnancy?

When the doctor first said the word lymphoma, I was pretty much in shock. I thought to myself that this could not be happening ... because I was pregnant. I couldn't have cancer. I was having such a terrible time simply breathing though that it was honestly hard to sit and think about all the details too much. I just wanted to be able to breathe again without it hurting. I also knew I wanted my baby to be safe. I was questioning whether there was any possible way that my baby and I could get through this together. I honestly became much more concerned for the baby because I figured she would have the hardest time making it through any potential drug treatments or surgeries. I was very confused. I hadn't even heard of this happening before. My attitude changed a lot during my pregnancy because I was doing well. The chemotherapy was working, and all of my doctor's appointments for the baby showed she was growing and progressing normally. I honestly looked towards her birth as a symbol of getting through it all. She was the happy ending, the good result at the end of all the pain.

Pregnancy in itself can bring emotional ups and downs, and of course, physical issues. Was this compounded by your diagnosis, and if so, how did you cope?

Ironically, I think that after going through the initial diagnosis and first two or three chemotherapy treatments, the pregnancy gave me strange comfort. I never felt alone. I always knew she was with me. I was going through something that takes lives all the time while growing a new life inside me. We often think of cancer as something that takes lives. We certainly never think of a new life beginning during it. She gave me hope when I really should have been terrified. Sometimes I was. I certainly broke down a few times but I tried to not let myself be too scared. I knew the fear would eat me alive if I let it. As far as physical issues, I was very tired all the time and very weak as well. Chemotherapy and pregnancy alone both cause these things. Together it was just that much worse. I spent a lot of time in bed and was put on bed rest towards the end of the pregnancy.

How common is this situation?

I've been told that one in 1000 pregnancies has cancer occur at the same time. It's pretty rare. Actually, in a lot of these situations you can delay treatment, but in my case I could not. I had to start in the first trimester which is almost unheard of. I was ten weeks along.

Today we have more options than in the past. What choices were presented to you, and how did you feel about them?

Honestly my choices were slim because I myself was not doing well. The specialist I saw told me I should have a therapeutic abortion because they didn't know what could possibly happen to the baby, and it would be better for me emotionally to not have to deal with a child who had problems. My life was not in danger by keeping the pregnancy at all. I was told I would not last three weeks so I had no choice but to start chemotherapy as soon as possible. I couldn't wait until the second or third trimester as they normally recommend. I didn't have that kind of time, so we started treatments at 10 weeks. I was able to do the radiation after her birth, which was nice. I was supposed to be induced at 37 weeks to give my body time to heal before radiation but she came on her own at 36 weeks.

Did your children understand what was going on in your life? If so, how did this impact the family dynamic?

My older children knew I was very sick at first but didn't know why. They knew I was having a baby and were happy about it but didn't fully understand what was wrong with me. At the suggestion of a counselor at the oncology office, we told them I had cancer. We were told to not fear the "C" word and to just be honest with our children and we agreed. I didn't see my girls much in the beginning because I as so sick. I became very lonely. They were in the same house but I didn't have enough energy to even hug them. It was very difficult.

When faced with life's aberrations, many people who seem to have tons of support can't manage to cope, while some folks with little to no support manage to survive. Did the support of family and friends make the difference for you, or do you believe your own inner resolve ultimately brought you through?

I really believe the support of my husband and children are what got me through. We had just moved away from all of our other family and friends. We were two hours from them, and honestly I didn't see any of them much at all. They were afraid to call me because of my breathing problems. I felt slightly abandoned by them but I understood their fears. However, my husband was by my side day and night caring for me. His job allowed him to stay with me and still get paid, which was so wonderful. My mother-in-law came and helped out during radiation treatments. My children were there to help, and did a lot of growing up during that time. I really think the love and support given to me mostly by my husband helped me through. I tried to voice the what ifs and he wouldn't hear it. I had no choice but to get better. He made it clear. I loved it and I needed to hear it.

How did the the story end and what did you learn from this life-threatening situation? Do you believe that you and your family are stronger now for having had to face such difficult times together?

I had my final chemotherapy at 32 weeks. I did get some preterm contractions with this chemo and the one before it. I spent a night in the hospital and they managed to stop the contractions. At 36 weeks my water broke. I went to the hospital and was Life Flighted to a children's hospital two hours away. I gave birth to a healthy baby girl, 6 lbs. 3 oz and 18 inches long, on November 17th, 2007. She didn't require NICU care ... she was healthy! I was doing okay, too. I had radiation about two weeks after her birth every day for a month and got a clear PET scan on February 8th, 2008. I was declared in remission. My baby girl is now 15 months old, and I just celebrated one year of being cancer free. It has absolutely strengthened my family. Our love for each other is right out there in the open now. I know how very much my husband loves me and I do not take one day or second for granted that I have with my family. My older daughters had to grow up a lot during this time. We all changed and we are all stronger for it I think.

Did staring death in the face change your life? If so, how has it changed?

Honestly I was very close to death, but at the time I just wanted to feel better. I couldn't imagine not being able to breathe anymore or having the pain involved with breathing. I wanted it to stop one way or another. It's not so scary at that moment--you just want the pain to stop. I got very scared later and realized I didn't want to leave my family. Most of all I want to see my daughters grow up and I certainly don't want them to forget me. I try to do things with them and show them how very much I love them because I realize we aren't guaranteed anything. We don't know how much time we'll have so I want to leave a lasting impression in the lives of my children.

There seems to be so much support for Cancer victims this days, which is heart warming. Is there enough? If not, what else can we do?

I do believe there is a lot of support for cancer patients out there and I love it. I think it's wonderful. I think that cancer during pregnancy is not as widely recognized as say just breast cancer alone. I think it's something that women don't have enough information on. Women feel alone and helpless. I want to spread the word that there is hope. You can get well and keep your baby, too. It's possible. That message is not widely known.

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6527212 March 29, 2012

Alan Katz: Last Man Standing

"The good times are extremely good. The hard times – daunting. But I honestly can say I wouldn’t have done it any other way."

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6527212 March 09, 2012

I Done Tousled with a Whale: Mojo Perry

"It’s easy to feel that you're getting lost in a fruitless effort when you're pursuing your art."

My guest today, musician and singer/songwriter Mojo Perry, is an amazing guitarist.  He's spent the majority of his life with a guitar in his hand, and as he puts it, "a pocketful of dreams."  He's a dynamic guy who equates music with art in what seems to be a refreshing and unique way. Rather than talking about music, he speaks of art. Listen to some Mojo tunes while you read:


In a recent discussion, Mojo talked about some of the difficulties he's had over the years dealing with people who haven't understood his drive and passion. I know the drill all too well. There are many perfectly wonderful folks in this world, with varying levels of creativity, who just don't get it. They don't share our wiring. At times, they ask, beg, demand, and plead with us to:
  • be reasonable
  • be logical 
  • do things that make sense
  • think about the implications
  • live in the "real" world
  • stop working against them
  • settle down
  • stop 'disturbing' others
  • listen
  • be grateful for what we already have
  • essentially join the crowd because, after all, if most people do it, it must be the appropriate action
  • lighten up
  • even ... give up
Even when they ask these things nicely, they don't realize just what they're asking. They don't know the power they hold individually and as a collective group.  They don't understand that folks like me and Mojo are not only struggling to create art, we're also longing to find our place in a world they've created. They think the leopard can change his spots and the zebra erase his stripes, all because it's a reasonable thing to do. They believe there is a comfort zone we all must share. 
I Never Meant to Upset You
12" x 12"

In corporate America there are those who ask us to "think outside the box," and be an "authentic leader."  But they want us to do so within the boundaries they understand.

My husband came home last night with a frown. Apparently, some of his business contacts had seen my painting, "I Never Meant to Upset You," and found it "scary and disturbing." They wondered what might be wrong with me that I would paint such things. I suggested that he let them know that it's a powerful little piece of art that will be shown in an Italian exhibit on Human Rights next month. 
I'm currently working with a highly creative artist on an Aberration Nation interview. It's taking months, primarily because he doesn't care for my blog format. It's not what he's used to, and doesn't follow standard 
journalistic format. I'm working with him to structure his interview in a different way. That's fine. What's not fine is that he believes something is inherently flawed about my blog. Okay, so sure, I'd like to learn from this guy (who is also a friend of mine), and I don't mind, but it has made me consider that even highly creative folks can become trapped in molds, either thrust upon them, or of their own creation.

I grew up idolizing my mother's creativity yet she evolved into a highly set-in-her-ways individual, primarily based on the culture in which she was raised. She holds sacred, never-gonna-change views about people and situations. She calls them convictions. We're all allowed to have those, but the idea always brings me back to one simple question:  

How the hell can you be so sure you're right?  

Having an indestructible belief that you're correct is extraordinarily powerful.  It creates a surge in the environment, a spark, that can either be positive or negative, uplifting or destructive. Although I learned to hide the fact for many years, I've always been one to question the status quo, rules, boundaries, etc. As a kid, I often wondered who decided this or that, and why. Sometimes I could understand the why, whether or not I agreed with it, but sometimes, there didn't seem to be a good reason. 

As creative individuals, we often have to barrel through day after day of finger shaking in some form or another, depending on who surrounds us, where we live, and other life circumstances. And the stories range from a couple of sentences to gut wrenching tales of woe. But we continue on for our art, for what we believe in, and why we believe we were created. Many of us have wrestled with alligators and tousled with whales.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSYtQy9EqTA]

Mojo is a great example of the the creative spirit, and how it must go on. It's stripes and spots, wiring, and thought process were meant to fly. After all, that magnificent flight through thundering skies and over tempest sea has carried civilization forward. 

What's your story?  Have you always loved music?

I consider myself to be a conceptual artist.  I create art from the heart and express myself as creatively as possible.  All of it comes naturally to me.  I'm the youngest of eight; the only one in my family who plays an instrument.  My art/music emerged from a strong passion and grasp of sounds that go back as far as I can remember. I choose the concepts behind my work as they make themselves apparent in my life. I've been playing guitar for five years less than I have been alive; 38 years, which affords me the ability to reach and achieve creatively.

As an artist, I try to surround myself with people and art who are better than my own.  I'm blessed that in my career I have been able to record or perform with many great people and some guitar legends I have admired since I was a kid.  I’m quite respected for my playing but even more so for my creativity.  This stems from a true passion and love for music that was so evident as a child that my mother immediately put an instrument in my hand.  I'm very happy she chose the guitar. 

My first “official” release came when I was only 15 years old, which stemmed an active recording career that has branched to an International level.   I have always loved music and seek it out.  My electronic music collection is up to four terabytes.  I listen, consume, and experience music as much as possible.  I absolutely love music and take the challenges life throws at me with a guitar in my hand and a smile on my face.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

Yes, I have had several, but one of the most recent ones is without a doubt when I sold out in Spain.  I showed up that day to what I thought was a pub gig only to find out it was a theater.  The place was decked out with art and filled with people there to share in it.  I first looked out into a large room from side stage only to see row after row of empty seats. Then the next thing I know someone walks in and says, “You are sold out tonight."  

I had never been to Spain before.  It was the first time that I saw how my art was touching the lives of others through the Internet on a large scale.  For once in my life, I was able to put faces to the numbers I read when I look at my download statistics and CD sales.  It’s easy to feel that you're getting lost in a fruitless effort when pursuing your art; Pow!… that really touched me.  I definitely knew I'm onto something.   I mean, really … I have had a lot of ah-ha moments in my career.  Like little love taps they creep into my life and kiss me, whispering in my ear to keep going.  As far as a focus ... my focus is the same as it has always been; to create art/music and follow my creative heart.  

Mojo Perry's upcoming CD cover art.
For you, is music more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to make music?

This is a very difficult question for me to answer.  Music is my whole life and has been for as long as I can remember.  I've never thought about this either way until just now.  I have such a strong desire to create that the expression just shines without me ever really thinking about it.

I really believe that being creative is allowing yourself to make mistakes, art is knowing which ones to keep. I also believe that one cannot serve without the other. Creativity and expression are lovers that will never part. However, I do try to be selective as to which songs I release and which ones I don’t. I want to contribute honest, positive art. The rest I archive and add to a collection of songs that I hope will be a wonderful box set someday after I'm long gone.  So … you might say my life is a collection of art in process. 

How would you describe your musical style, and why does this appeal most to you creatively?

First and foremost I'm a Songwriter. I approach every song I write as an individual piece of work. I have strong Blues roots at times, which often throws me into the Blues Genres.  All in all I would have to say that I am a Psychedelic Artist. I love manipulating sounds and pushing limits with my guitar. The beauty of the Psychedelic Genre is that the audience for it expects different, wild, and creative ideas, rhythms, and sounds; I absolutely adore that freedom. My career is based on it. In the marketplace I find myself in Psychedelic, Rock, Blues, Jam Band, Acoustic, and Singer Songwriter genres.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? 

I think this is an individual question because the farther out you go, the more different you become. I look at people whom I've been drawn to since I was a child: Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, Jimi Hendrix; they all suffered, they all were laughed and scoffed at but stuck it out. I'm doing the same thing; weathering the storms and creating art/music and living it up when I can and toughing it out when things are down. It’s not complicated for any true artist; it’s in our blood.  The best blessing for me in being highly creative is that I always have a way to express what I'm feeling, going through, or am dealing with. As for the struggles I go through in pursuing my art, I'm continually shown how much I care about my art, what happens to it, and the fact that it is out there. I believe that when there is a connection to your creative side you explore a lot of things off the beaten track, which means there are certain hazards that come with it. With all of it I have grown in a way that I never would have if I had not gone through those tribulations and I'm grateful for all of it.

Have you had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

Yes I have. Discretion is the better part of valor. I've had many circumstances over the years on both personal and professional levels that proved to be a struggle for all involved.  I have it going on with various family members now and many others who just don’t see why I push so hard when I get so little back. They don’t experience what I see, hear, feel, or believe, and they certainly don’t have something so convictive in their life to push for. How could they understand ? I don’t even get it myself; I’m a slave to my art and the passion that burns in my blood. It’s simple but very complicated. I don’t think it will ever change and their will always be difficult situations. I will deal with it the way I always have.  With my art/music and the gifts of being able to create something out of nothing.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZ7BUNBVlkE]

Unfortunately, many creative people never achieve the success they dream about for various reasons.  Have your biggest dreams come to pass yet?  What do you dream of achieving now? 

You are never alone when you have a dream. I have learned over the years to understand success in various ways. My biggest dreams have not come to pass; they are just beginning to happen for me. Sure, there are things that haven’t happened the way I wanted them to but that’s normal. But the other side of that coin is that there have been many great things that did happen. Sometimes it sucks to be broke at times but then again I have a lot to be grateful for.  

As far as dreams go… man… I will always dream and work to achieve because that’s just what I do and when all is said and done people will be able to learn about me through my art/music, read about me, watch videos, listen to my work, and more. That’s what I'm dreaming to achieve. Just leaving my mark and being as happy as I can possibly be with a guitar in my hand and a pocketful of dreams.  Well… all of that as well as continuing to grow as a guitarist and pushing limits. (Smiling)

Do you ever wonder if what you're creating or expressing is as meaningful to others as it is to you?  How important is that to you with regard to your overall goals? If you've created something that purely expresses who you are, is that enough, or is the circle only completed when someone else says, "Yes, she understands me," or "Yes, that's how I feel?"

Yes, I do wonder. As near as I figure, I don’t think anything an artist can create can be as meaningful to others as it is to them.  How can it?  When someone is moved enough and creative enough to create something from nothing and have a fully realized piece of work at the end, your talking about a journey from start to end. Only the person who creates it gets it that way; it’s really personal for me.  To me, the circle is complete when I feel good about my art/music, expressed what I need to express, and written, played, and created the way I want to. My overall goals will never be affected but as a person I may be affected here and there. And in the times where I'm writing in regard to a person or situation and don’t get the response I want, well… I did the best I could.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQoF0gemYIw]

Is there a difference between being creative and being talented? What are your thoughts on this?

I think there is a big difference. However, it takes talent that is sharpened and challenged repeatedly to explore creativity and created a distinguished fingerprint. Combined with method, vibe, and a multitude of other ingredients to get to a point where an artist label is achieved. 

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6527212 December 08, 2011

The Creative Blueprint: Elissa Schappell

My guest today, writer and editor, Elissa Schappell, has reminded me of two common assumptions about highly creative individuals: 1) " ... it seems a lot of writers are born missing a layer of skin. We feel things more keenly than others. We hear and see things others don’t. We know stuff you don’t want to know, feel stuff you don’t want to feel, and obsess over things you don’t want obsess over." 2) "You really can't give a shit about what people are going to say about your work." I agree 100 percent. Now, can someone explain to me how these two important concepts are supposed to work together? I've been thinking about this since Elissa's insightful interview answers popped into my inbox.  Okay, that's a lie.  I've been obsessing over it for years.  I repeatedly tell myself that I don't care what people think about my writing and art, but I do.  I've never written or painted for a particular audience, but once it's out there, I absolutely care what people think.  I let it hurt me; I let it thrill me.  Telling myself not to care is akin to telling a gay or lesbian individual to just stop, a black man to turn white, or a short woman to put on a few inches ... as if they can, and should want to.  Ignore the wiring, conquer it, or deny it; there's something wrong with you.
Here's my theory ... about myself anyway.  I spent half my life building alternatives to keep me emotionally safe. Yet I need that skinless me (the real me) to experience all the things that feed my creativity and enable me to reflect honesty in my art.  So back and forth I go, building up and tearing down, over and over again. This brings me to a third common assumption: the highly creative tend to be screwed up. Go figure. I'm tired of building alternatives for my skinless nature.  I'm ready to be real like the women in Elissa's great new book, Blueprints for Building Better Girls. [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gL-ZNJyVBfs] What is your writing story--in a nutshell? I’ve always been a writer, since the time I was a kid. I started keeping a diary when I was in fourth or fifth grade. It’s a bit mad. I started off writing in a different persona—why? I don’t know. It was where I channeled my anger. There are pages of swear words. And a troubling amount of godawful poetry, plus a dirty limerick or two. Perhaps I was smart enough to not to want to have my named attached to that business. Really though I just read and wrote all the time. We weren’t allowed to watch TV save for one the weekends, so I spent a lot of time in my room listening to music and writing. It’s really the only thing in my life I’ve been even passably good at, other than limbo and drawing fairies. Oh and making prank phone calls, which came in really handy when I had my first real job where I was paid to write, which was at SPY magazine. Now, I’m unfit for anything but this life. Which is unfortunate.
Was there someone in particular who inspired you to love books and/or take an interest in writing? My parents always encouraged my reading, and writing. It kept me off the street. Honestly, the only thing I believe that I ever got a lot of positive attention for was my writing. Which was nice because though I did well in my academics—save for math--most of the attention I received was for being a wisecracker, drawing in my notebook and talking to my neighbor. However, if I were to point to one person, who early on inspired me, I’d say my grandmother on my father’s side. She was always making things, crafts—embroidering, sewing, knitting, making beaded jewelry--she stressed how important it was to use your imagination. I remember clearly sitting on the sofa with her reading, and then her asking me to close my eyes and imagine my own story. I seem to recall it was about mice driving race cars. I remember thinking, Wow that’s pretty amazing. Imagine someone caring about that. I recently watched a video where you talk about the need to write exactly what you feel compelled to write. Can you share with us why you believe it's critical for a writer to bravely tackle tough subject matter even when it seems the world doesn't want to embrace it? I have discovered through painful trial and error, that I have to write the stories that want to be written. The ones that feel the most immediate, and a little scary to me. I need to be excited by them. A little obsessed. That’s the trick for me, hook into the obsession and then let it pull me along, stay with it, ride it out. Understand, these stories aren’t always the ones I think are the cleverest, or the most “important”. I just know that to try and do anything else is folly. I’m not at all suggesting that other writers should, or shouldn’t, tackle certain subject matter. Everything is permissible. And everybody’s got their own jam. What I am saying is that for me, personally, this is what I feel compelled to do. It’s my sickness. To say what other people are thinking and feeling, but can’t articulate, or won’t articulate. My job, as I see it, is to be truthful. I detest phonies. Lying is not one of my strengths. And I’ve learned that any writer who doesn’t work in the direction of their strengths is a stone cold idiot.
I don’t feel brave. I feel lucky that, for the most part, I get to do what I want with my life. I’m in a position where I can say what I want. No one is going to knock on my door in the middle of the night, break my glasses, and drag me off to prison. Or not yet, however, given the rise of anti-intellectualism if Obama isn’t reelected I may start answering the door with a kitchen knife in hand. You really can’t give a shit about what people are going to say about your work. Embrace it, don’t embrace it, I don’t care. I believe if you are writing truthfully about an authentic human experience in an engaging, original way a reader will connect to it. Perhaps only one reader, and perhaps it will be your mother, who is not without prejudice, even so. Even if they don’t embrace it, you didn’t compromise, you didn’t pander. That is something, or at least it is to me. You surely can’t worry about the reader’s reaction to your work when you’re writing. Not if it’s going to stop you. You have to write as though your audience is going to understand perfectly where you are coming from that your motives are pure, and, of course, that these characters aren’t in fact you.
With regard to your new book, Blueprints for Building Better Girls, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about? 
 I realized what the book was becoming, and what I wanted it to be, when in reaction to a voice I’d had in my head for a while--the voice of the party girl in “Out of the Blue”--saying, “Why don’t you write about me?” –I answered, “Because you’re a ridiculous person.” I realized then that what I was doing, dismissing this character because I thought she wasn’t worth writing about, I knew her story already, was exactly what I was railing against in the other stories. The way the culture labels women, and judges them and how damaging it is. Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? How so?
 Sure. It’s such a cliché though, the tortured artist. All I can say is it seems a lot of writers are born missing a layer of skin. We are over-sensitive. We feel things more keenly than others. We hear and see things others don’t. We know stuff you don’t want to know, feel stuff you don’t want to feel, and obsess over things you don’t want obsess over. It is any wonder we live in our heads so much? Is it any wonder we start knitting together alternate realities? Being crazy isn’t a bad thing. The trick is sustaining a level of sanity and calm in the rest of your life so that you don’t flame out. For me, writing is the place to dump out my anger, anxiety, pain, and sort through it, obsessively. To make sense of it. And make something out of it, however gaudy or ugly. Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it? Of course, but there’s really little you can do about that. You can try and pass as normal to please people, to ingratiate yourself into the company you want to be a part of.  You can apologize for feeling what you feel, you can make yourself small in order to make other people feel bigger, but it will kill you by inches. I’ve been very fortunate that while I didn’t really find “my people” meaning other writers and people who were passionate about making art until I moved to New York after college, my family has, as much as humanly possible, always been tolerant.
Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your writing goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role the discipline and organization play in reaching creative goals? Discipline and organization aren’t sexy, they’re not nearly as exciting as being almighty god and creating a world, about but they’re essential if you’re ever going to make a living as writer. Frankly, if you’re going to suffer like this, making some money is a really nice thing to do. Being a writer is a job like any other job. You could argue it’s not nearly as important as being a bus driver. If a bus driver doesn’t show up for work or is late, hundreds of people suffer. People are late to work, kids are late to school, sick people miss doctor’s appointments, and the lovers, each waiting in the rain miss each other and are never reunited. Each dies alone with their cat. The writer doesn’t do their job, who cares? The writer may lose their contract, they may have their lights turned off, they may go hungry, but really outside of those who love them and support them, who cares? You can’t get too precious about it. I need to write in the morning, before the really super critical part of my brain wakes up. She sleeps in because she is up a good part of the night screening home movies of all my various failures and reciting my list of recent crimes. It is best if I get out of my house, so I go to the studio, sit at a proper desk, put in my earplugs so I can’t hear anyone else there typing, and work until I can’t.
Has writing Blueprints for Building Better Girls changed you and your ideas about being a woman in any way?
Not that I’m aware of yet, but surely it must have.
You are also a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, a former editor of The Paris Review, and a founding editor and now editor-at-large of Tin House. What are the differences and/or similarities between the skill set and talents required for great editing and those required for excellent writing? You can’t be a writer without being an editor of your own work. Ninety percent of my writing time is spent revising and editing. That’s where the pleasure is, the fixing, figuring out what you’re trying to say and saying it as clearly and compellingly as possible. Editing yourself requires you to get some distance from your work so you can look at it dispassionately, and do what needs to be done. Whereas editing others requires you to get closer to the work. You have to think like the writer a bit. Figure out what their intent is, and looking at the work through that lens figure out how to improve the story.
I find it much easier to see what I perceive the weaknesses in someone else’s work versus my own. I am very lucky to have a few trusted readers who help me out in this regard.
What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage. --Anais Nin

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6527212 October 26, 2011

Art, Fire, and a Hurricane: John K. Lawson

"The creative cave is the looniest, loneliest place in the world. Ultimately it’s the scariest and safest place as well."

I grew up in a special type of loony, lonely cave. A place where contradiction was king. Creativity enabled me to envision another world, a future where all the confusing fragments of my life might perfectly align. Was I a hungry kid on the streets, in the gutter, or scraping by in a refugee camp?  No, I grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana in the 1970's under the emotional thumb of a mentally ill mother.

It certainly could have been worse.  

Today artist and writer, John K. Lawson, tells us that the creative cave is the looniest, loneliest place in the world. So why the heck am I hanging out in it when I'm still trying to divorce myself from all the lunacy and loneliness of my childhood?  

John also says it can be the safest place. 

I'm not a expert on psychology but hasn't it been said that we often feel the urge to go home again?  I've been simultaneously running away and toward home for years, and it's caused me a great deal of inner turmoil. I don't know what it means or which way I'm supposed to go. My writing and art have given me an outlet for that turmoil, and that's why I'm painfully sensitive about it.  Why I want it to ultimately be meaningful and have inherent value.

I'm one of those borderline philosophical sad sacks who spend pathetic amounts of time thinking about "what it's all for," and "what it all means."  I look at the thousands of words I've written and the art I've created, and ask myself, "Am I pouring years of my life into something that means nothing?"  When I die, will it all turn to dust and blow away?  Am I just a misguided idiot wasting precious time?  Is John?

With regard to creating art, John says,  "It takes guts and sometimes stupidity. You  have to have an ego strong enough to accept that the creative force is not always a pretty smiling greeting card, and what you are making might not fit over the proverbial couch or match the newest art fad."

So if it doesn't fit over my neighbor's couch or become an art fad, is it wasted? The answer is supposed to be no. But why? Is the answer no because it's healing my soul, because it gives me something to do, and provides meaning in a meaningless world?  Is that enough? 

Lately, I'm confused about what I should be painting, what I want to paint, why I want to paint, etc.  Trying to resolve those questions is slowly driving me nuts.  What I do know is that I need to paint.  I don't want to stop.  And if I had to stop for some reason, I'd write.  They are avenues to funnel out a tiny spec of all that rages in my head. If I didn't have a way to relieve the pressure, I'd explode.

John also paints and writes, and he believes that "the continual fire to create, in whatever shape or form, draws from the same source regardless of medium."

Yes, that's it.

I'm burning; there's a fire pit in my soul that just won't die. It's sad to think that it may never actually cook up anything phenomenal.  But I realize now that it doesn't matter; the fire is all that matters. It rages on. 

I think John gets it ... has it ... needs it like I do. 

What's your story (in a nutshell)?

Inside the nutshell, a curious child wonders alone in the busy cracked sidewalks streets always wanting to know what's around the next corner, or why he doesn’t feel cool inside and out because he questions everything, hoping his parents won't notice his rusty safety pin ear rings, his hands covered in spray paint and the poetry books he is reading.

Whispers of lovers, foreign lands filled with new cities and the genuine smile of strangers, beckoned me onward with the chance to experience new thoughts and experience new ideas regardless of the outcome.

Was the journey on a straight or twisted path?

Upon reflection there were many times when the puddle I jumped head first into was really a bottomless pit with slimy cracked walls, armed uniformed thugs, the stench of raw sewage and no toilet paper.

Crawling my way out, I lost many a battle watching the skin on my face and knuckles reveal bare bloody flesh, a locked and bolted door, or worse, a condescending pat on the back making me feel like a snail crawling along the edge of a razor blade.

Unable to look away or behind me keeps the journey constant even though there were many times when one step forward and two steps backwards was the only way to go.

I always knew from a very early age I had to create something. In Working Class England the word artist was never really in the vocabulary. Folks started calling me that long before I considered myself one. These days I accept the label and dig my heels in deeper.

How long did it take to establish yourself as an artist?

Twenty five years ago the concept of working part time and creating art was new to me. Europe was under the rule of Thatcherism and the main reason I stayed in the USA was the abundance of part time work. I didn’t have any formal art training, knew nothing of the gallery scene but was given plenty of opportunity to work with my hands. I made a point of living as frugally as possible, often in ghetto situations, a friend’s van, or abandoned buildings where I could use the money I made to create art.

Quite quickly all I was doing was making art and to my surprise folks started buying it. The day job disappeared and these days it would be impossible for my mind to conceive of doing anything else.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gC5a-4r4hQI]

Are you surprised by your success?

I tend to use the word gratitude rather than surprise. Every morning I look out of my studio window at all the folks working really hard, thankless jobs and inwardly thank the Universe for my lot in life.

Success for me is being able to do my job without any consideration for what others might think, not caring if it sells or not, and enjoying a good bottle of Chianti for breakfast.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

The adventure is stepping off the crumbling cliff top ledge and plummeting towards the abyss, into the unknown, realizing you have no wings to fly as the inevitable rushes closer. I try to observe the descent, feeling the air fill my lungs, feeling the knots explode in my stomach as I taste the goods. If I’m lucky something comes out of this fall, something new is translated, and some kind of expression manifests. I guess I am an optimist in the sense that as I enter the creative cave I think the end result might be worthy of daylight.

It takes a lot of guts to create something new and refreshing; the “ah- ha” moment is waking up every day and slogging onward.

You have also written a novel, Hurricane Hotel. Please tell us about the book?

Hurricane Hotel is a rollicking street car ride into the underbelly of New Orleans and was started many moons ago while living in a small dive hotel on St Charles Avenue in New Orleans.

The attraction to the hotel aside from the cheap rent was the 24/7 bar and dance hall conveniently located downstairs. An assortment of outsiders, lost souls, artists, sailors, oil rig workers, poets, dancers, ravers, DJ’s and circus performers haunted both at the bar and in the rooms.

During an exceptional hot summer, a mandatory evacuation was given due to an incoming Hurricane. Several of us decided to stay at the hotel simply because we had no place else to go. The flood water came in very quickly forcing us to go upstairs, basically trapping us from the outside world for several days. Without power the intense humid heat and lack of emergency provisions started taking it’s toil on us.

Everything became really wacky when all the booze and drugs ran out. Back then there weren’t cell phones and the hotel was far from Internet savvy. We were trapped like rats on a sinking ship. It was during this intense time that I started writing the novel.

For personal reasons I had to abandon this project for almost 10 years.

Then in the summer of 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit and we all know that story.

I was on a family vacation in the NE at that destructive time and for some strange reason, I had grabbed a box containing all my poetry and the Hurricane Hotel manuscript before leaving the city. My New Orleans home and studio sat in nine feet of floodwater for six weeks and during that time, living in a friend’s apartment in NYC, I started reworking the novel. By Thanksgiving of the same year I felt it was finished and showed a tattered manuscript to my cousin, author Andre Dubus III. He read the novel, told me it was brilliant, and proceeded to write the foreword. During this time, I made 12 hand made copies of the book and gave them to friends as gifts. Their critical response convinced me I had something worth publishing.

The rest is history and for some a good read.

What do you see as the similarities and differences between writing and painting?

Expression means translating a feeling, a fleeting moment, a response to something personal and accepting the end result is simply a snow flake landing in a puddle of tepid lake water.

I believe the continual fire to create, in whatever shape or form, draws from the same source regardless of medium.

What does each bring to you as a creative individual?

Continual room for improvement.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations (issues), or both?

The creative cave is the looniest, loneliest place in the world. Ultimately it’s the scariest and safest place as well. For the few who can let go of society’s demands and dogmas, and really dig deep enough into the self, eventually a primal place is found. This place can be described as a fountain if you like of unlimited resources where everything is possible and nothing else really matters.

For many years I wrestled with some formidable demons, being a passenger in a strange land and the jaws of poverty kept the monkey on the back, so to speak. I am lucky.  Somehow my art, a small group of loyal friends, and the kind folks at Charity Hospital in New Orleans kept me alive, kept me coming back for more. It would be fair to say I wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for my art and a few folks believing in it.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

From the very beginning no one understood why I had to make art, why I had to scribble on bathroom walls, deface posted signs, or kick down the barbed wire fence. It’s a very selfish pursuit. It takes guts and sometimes stupidity, you have to have an ego strong enough to accept the creative force is not always a pretty smiling greetings card, and what you are making might not fit over the proverbial couch or match the newest art fad . My friend Bob Hogge, says it best, “If you’re not excited or driven by what you make, why expect anybody else to be interested.”

I think these are very exciting times to be a visual artist. The electronic world has numbed the raw sense of immediacy. Film and television has opened the doors for artists to express their ideas to hundreds of thousands of people, but neither of these mediums can replace the visceral place a painting or sculpture holds.

Alone you have to go into the studio and do battle and in that struggle there is no room for caring what other people think, if you pause you lose. Period. Sure it feels good if some folks dig the end result, but I avoid trying to make art that competes against other art. If my work has any truth to it at all, if what I am saying actually can stand on its own two legs something positive will manifest.

It took me a long time to master the trick of not taking negativity personally. It comes with the ride so get used to it. Everybody is driving their own car and has a right to their own opinion whether I agree with them or not.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your creative goals? If so, can you tell us about it.

Discipline can be achieved through daily routine.

Every day I work on something.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sWKj7REtPSY]

Where do most of your ideas come from?

Good question.

Perhaps in the way an opened can of half eaten sardines, imported from Thailand, drowned in red wine, resembles the nape of a lost lover’s neck.

What do you believe places an artist apart from his or her peers?

The inability to sit still and do nothing.

So many are highly talented, but what makes one stand out as truly gifted?

Luck, continually working it and helping folks less fortunate than ourselves.

Do you plan to write more or will your main focus continue to be art?

The 1000 or so coffee stained poems, sitting in a cardboard box, beside me now, salvaged from natural and unnatural disasters, ex’s ex-husbands, and sometimes their wives, mice, and the neighbor’s cat, continue to grow legs and constantly scurry across the floor, walls and ceiling of my rented womb resembling sniveling pesky cockroaches.

No matter how many times I’ve doused them in tequila and lighter fluid, plucked their wings, singed their tails with hot cigarettes, trapped them into remote dusty corners or flushed them down the sink, Providence demands that they fly.

Hurricane Hotel, for all its flaws, can be described as a deranged epic poem.

The fact that Hurricane Hotel continues to be read and is rapidly becoming a best seller is beginning to fuel the notion the contents of my cardboard box is worthy of publishing.

It has been suggested on many an occasion I should incorporate my poetry into my paintings and this may be the next logical step.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life?


Why is this important to you?

It combats greed and beats stealing from the poor.

"Without poets, without artists, men would soon weary of nature's monotony.  The sublime idea men have of the universe would collapse with dizzying speed.  The order which we find in nature, and which is only an effect of art, would at once vanish. Everything would break up in chaos. There would be no seasons, no civilization, no thought, no humanity; even life would give way, and the impotent void would reign everywhere."  - Guillame Apolinaire

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6527212 September 29, 2011

Gifted and Hot: Tim Harakal

" ... I cure most of the unavoidable bummers in life with creativity."

It's interesting how connections are made.  A few months ago, my husband and I went to the Sands Casino in Bethlehem, PA.  While my husband was playing craps, I wandered off to the Fusion Lounge.  (I chose it because it was orange.)  As I sat at the bar, sipping my martini (also orange), I noticed that the bartender and another nearby customer were chatting about their weekend plans. It turned out that the customer was the father of the young bartender.

By the time I was downing my second martini, we were all chatting. 

I soon learned that the young bartender is an artist named Justin Klement.  He told me about his work, and handed me a CD for which he designed the artwork.  The CD is packed with fantastic original music by his good friend, Tim Harakal.   

According to Tim's site, his self-taught hands are at one with the guitar strings; they have become an extension of his heart, soul, and spirit. Influenced by his favorite band, Metallica, his music has morphed into an acoustic art form with a pop-rock edge.

I liked Tim's music so much that I just had to have him on Aberration Nation. (I also hope to have his talented buddy, Justin, on soon.)

Tim tells us below that his most recent 'ah-ha' moment was turning 25 this summer, and realizing he'd better get cooking.  From what I've seen, he's hot already.  I told him to imagine turning 45.  That's more of an 'oh-crap' moment.  Twenty-five seems awfully young, but I understand Tim's sense of urgency, and suspect it will follow him throughout his career.  It's a critical piece needed for success in any creative field.

I felt the same way when I was 25, and still do. At that age, I had a three-year-old daughter and one degree.  I had just married and relocated from Louisiana to Northern New Jersey. I was happy about all that but was terribly homesick.  That's the year I began writing my first novel. I was sure I'd already wasted quite a few years, gotten the wrong degree, etc. I had to get moving!

Every creative has a unique journey that (hopefully) continues until we expel our last beautiful breath. Mine has been a bit twisted and convoluted, similar to the diagram below. I suspect that after twenty years I'm still somewhere in the middle of that tangled mess, but I'm definitely light years ahead of where I started.

There are certainly numerous ways to measure success.  For me, the beauty of being creative is that, as Tim points out, it can cure the unavoidable bummers in life.  We can overcome all those unexpected dips and detours, and crappy things that jump out at us simply by recognizing that it's all part of the sometimes gut wrenching truth that defines being human. And we can funnel that brutal honesty into our work to create phenomenal, lasting art.   

So here I sit at 45 writing a blog article about a hot, young 25 year old musician.  Am I supposed to hang my slightly wrinkled head, wring my vein-popping hands, and feel elderly. No, because my journey continues, and it's one of value.  I spent years writing novels, then began to paint in 2008, and subsequently spent the last year and a half focusing on my art. Within the last two weeks I've come full circle to hit upon a creative idea that combines my love of writing with art. It feels like a new beginning. 

I feel 25 again. (And today at work someone told me they thought I was 35. That was icing on the cake!) 

I believe my life has a creative purpose.  I don't care if it takes 25 more years, I will continue to move forward even if I have to go in a few convoluted circles to do so.  I have high hopes that Tim will have a fairly straight path to the top, but come what may, I hope he'll always remember the diagram above.  I hope he will never forsake his wiring, and that he will keep moving despite all obstacles.  During those detours and snags, we have to remind ourselves of the power our creative spirit's offer. 

We hold a genuine cure in the palm of our hands that many people lack.  That's why creativity is called a gift.

What's your story (in a nutshell)? Have you always loved music?

Music has always been a part of my life. My parents listened to folk music and my dad played guitar, so I was exposed at a young age to a lyrically driven guitar based genre. Then, somewhere in the natural progression of things I developed an unnatural attraction to heavy metal that lead to the whole “I need to be a rock star” thing. I picked up the guitar at 16 and aside from some basics my father offered, I taught myself to play.

The singing didn’t happen until my senior year in high school. Who would have thought a metal head would have sang “I Wanna Be There” by Blessid Union of Souls for the talent show? I will never forget being half way through the song, mustering up the courage to open my eyes and seeing an auditorium lit with open cell phones (lighters were prohibited). Hook, line, and sinker ... look at me now.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

Yes…on August 1st I turned 25 and realized that I have to get things moving.

For you, is music more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be a singer/songwriter?

To me music is more about expression. How you perform the piece is what gives music life and allows it to do work. So, as a singer/songwriter, I feel most accomplished when I perform my music.

How would you describe your musical style, and why does this appeal most to you creatively?

I think my music has many personalities and therefore many styles. The songs are all so different. I have jazzy songs, funky songs, folk songs, pop songs, and I even have a song that is hip-hop inspired. So, I’m not sure how to describe the style … acoustic American maybe. Music as a creative outlet works for me because I’m a quiet guy who doesn’t read too much.  So I’m not all that great at writing or spelling. Music allows me to communicate and not have to worry about grammatical or spelling errors.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? 

The attributes have affected me in both ways. I often find myself sacrificing for the creative process. On the flip side, I cure most of the unavoidable bummers in life with creativity. In the end, it’s all positive. Being creative is a good thing.

Have you had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

My creativity is misunderstood all the time. Sometimes I don’t understand my own creativity, but who really wants to understand everything? For example, magic would suck if we understood it. I guess what I’m saying is I accept and appreciate being misunderstood.

Unfortunately, many creative people never achieve the success they dream about. You're just getting started. Have any of your dreams come to pass yet? What do you dream of achieving now?

My dream is that music will allow me to live a comfortable life. I’m not quite there yet, but I know it's coming.

Do you ever wonder if what you're creating or expressing is as meaningful to others as it is to you? How important is that to you with regard to your overall goals? If you've created something that purely expresses who you are, is that enough, or is the circle only completed when someone else says, "Yes, she understands me" or "Yes, that's how I feel"?

Writing and performance is just a way of expressing myself. I don’t give too much thought as to how it affects other people…although I do try to keep the songs positive…and applause is kind of nice.

Is there a difference between being creative and being talented? What are your thoughts on this?

I think you are born with the capacity to be creative and you can learn to be talented.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

Every little thing is going to be all right.

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6527212 September 15, 2011

Penn Jillette: Magic Hole Puncher

"I don't have any powers others don't have; I just have a different job."

Yesterday afternoon, I rode the train into Manhattan to spend a few hours at Monkdogz Urban Art, the gallery that represents my art.  In my arms I carried a roll of my recent paintings, all on unstretched canvas secured by two large rubber bands.  The plan was to share some of my new work with gallery owners, Bob Hogge and Marina Hadley.

The good news is: they liked it; they handed me a drink, gave me a cookie, and didn't fire me.

The bad news is: I left New York with a profound empty twist in my gut. It was wrapped around the gnawing truth that, in the end, no one can provide validation.  Sprinkled on top was the disgusting realization that I've known this for years, yet I can't shake my addictive pursuit.  External approval of all the creative things I work so hard to achieve will never fill the holes punched in my psyche.  I realized that if the overwhelming need to paint has become my main source of therapy, then I must paint a deeper truth. My friend, artist, Jean Marc Calvet wrote to me about this today.  He said, "Go inside the hole (don't be afraid) and you will find what you lost," and I know he's right. Otherwise it all becomes a meaningless, time filling duty, a job no one wants.

In looking at the work with Bob and Marina, I was jittery and uncomfortable.  I'd brought a few pieces that hold less meaning for me, and as we gazed at them, they wilted and grew lifeless.  On the other hand, the ones that have profound significance left me feeling exposed, as if we were all staring at my naked body in the worst sort of light. Those were the monstrous ones, and as I looked at them, I saw myself, a living, breathing freak, simultaneously full and empty.  But I knew there was much more where that came from; it wasn't enough.

If I can't put myself fully on the canvas than there's no point for me in art. Finding a way into the hole is why I'm driven to paint.  I need to take a deep breath and get on with it. I'm not sure why yet or who gave it to me, but that's my real job, my life's work.

With that in mind, I went home, spread my fingers through the paint, and literally felt my way into the start of a new painting.  It's messy, juvenile, and ugly but it looks like what I am, and I'm determined to push forward in that direction.

My guest today, Penn Jillette, of the famed Penn & Teller, says he has no creative powers that others lack; he just has a different job. Speaking of powers, Penn has written a book that seems to effortlessly punch holes in religion. He escorts us into that space many refuse to acknowledge or explore. My mother would likely burn this book based on the title alone: God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales.   In the book, Penn takes readers on a roller coaster of exploration and flips conventional religious wisdom on its ear to reveal that doubt, skepticism, and wonder -- all signs of a general feeling of disbelief -- are to be celebrated and cherished, rather than suppressed.

I have no magic either nor do I fully understand where creative ability or drive comes from, who gives it to us, or how we can be rid of it once blossomed.  I'd love to believe that God gifted me with the same special packet Picasso, Pollock, and Kandinsky received on their way to Earth. Maybe he did and maybe he didn't. 

The point is: we're all made of the same basic biological building blocks. Those complex blocks usually get dragged through some level and form of crap as we make our way.  As the dark, stinking mess we're struck with races up our noses, splashes into our eyes, and seeps between our teeth, we reach into our packet and yank out whatever seems as if it can save us. Even if I did get Picasso's packet, a million other people may also be toting around the same bag of tricks. 

Who's fully utilizing it and what does it all mean?  Whose job is it to find out?  I'd love to sit down to dinner with Penn and discuss this at some point. 

Maybe someday it will happen.  After all, I do believe in magic.  I'm a freak.

What's your story? How did you end up in the comedy / entertainment field, and are you surprised by your success?

I'm from Greenfield, a small factory town in Western Massachusetts. I learned to juggle when I was 12 and got good. I met Teller while I was still in high school and "got out" (not really graduated) of high school on a plea bargain. I wanted to be a great existential writer and live in Paris, but I went to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College instead. I hitchhiked around the country and hopped trains, did a lot of street performing, and put a show together with Teller. I gave up on Paris but not on being an existential writer. I'm more successful than I ever dreamed I could be. The first person I met in showbiz was me. I didn't know this was possible for anyone, never mind me.

You've have an interesting, successful career that seems to be going well. What made you decide to write a God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales?

Glenn Beck challenged me to write about atheist morality. I got carried away.

With regard to the book, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

Yeah, when I realized that proselytizing really was very good thing - the backbone of the marketplace of ideas.

Each novel I write seems to change my life or create a shift in my thinking or perception in some way. Did writing the book change or impact your life in any way that perhaps goes beyond other creative work that you do?

Yes, I've talked to a lot of religious people because of this book and the more I talk with them, the more I like them. I respect and love people, even when I don't like their ideas.

In general, how does creativity factor into comedy writing? Where do you get most of your ideas?

I rarely write jokes. I never wanted to be in comedy. It just seems when I tell the truth, I like to tell it funny. But, I don't ever like to do any joke that isn't true to me.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being creative have caused you aberrations (issues) in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? How so?

I don't think "creativity" is anything "magic" or even special. I think we're all just doing our best. I don't have any powers others don't have; I just have a different job.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand some of the personality traits, interests, or drive that go along with being creative? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

It's kind of the same answer. The people who don't understand when I get jacked up and rant and pull focus . . . are right -- that's just a lack of self control on my part. It's sometimes hard for my family to understand that I need to sit and think to do my job. But, that's hard for me to understand, too. It might be a lazy lie.

Have you developed a specific process that enables you to meet your professional goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role of discipline and organization?

I do the opposite of procrastination, to a fault. I leave my "in box" empty. I do everything when I'm asked to do it. As soon as I can. This request came in and I wrote it. I didn't wait until I had time to do it. I try to be early on everything. I fail now and again, but I try to just do it.

"You've got to do it, till your through it, so you better get to it" - Elvis Costello.

Were there specific challenges to writing the book that you can share with us?

See above, all of my challenges are time. I have so much more that I want to do than I can do. I don't ever get to sit down and write a book. All of my books have been written in stolen moments. When I have 15 minutes -- I write. I can't warm up and put it off. It's all done in the spaces, and I love it that way, but I sometimes think of what it would be like to have a 10 hour writing day. It seems great, but maybe I couldn't work that way.

Will there be more Penn Jillette books?

Yes, whether published or not, I'm always writing. I love it. My sister always said that she saw me first as a writer, and she knew me better than I know myself.

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6527212 August 30, 2011

Swinging into Fiction: Bamberger & Shipnuck

"Whether it’s Tiger or other fallen stars, I’ve always viewed their travails like everyone else on the outside, with a mix of fascination and judgmental superiority."

I admit it.  The thrill-seeking me would love to be a star. The money, glamor, and excitement would make it a tough opportunity to turn down. However, the highly sensitive, introverted me is not so sure I could handle it, especially given my recent peak into some of the unique challenges.

I can barely cope with my often well-meaning, yet highly judgmental mother much less a million plus people all craning their necks to see what I'm writing on Facebook, eating for dinner, or doing with the little spare time I have. And that's on top of their ongoing evaluation of whatever the heck it is I would be doing to warrant such a mob following.

My guest today, Alan Shipnuck, along with his colleague Michael Bamberger, has delved into the exclusive challenges of being a famous athlete. Alan and Michael, both successful writers for Sports Illustrated, have brilliantly swung over to the realm of fiction in what seems to be a fateful collaboration between two golf experts who discovered they were both driving in the same direction.  Their novel, THE SWINGER (Simon & Schuster) illuminates the life of the modern world-class, life-by-the-tail athlete. It's also a meditation on love, sex, marriage, friendship, celebrity, and the media.

The world is expanding as our technological capabilities skyrocket. Our lives are becoming open books strangers can easily flip through during coffee breaks or while getting the oil changed. Maybe that's great for creatives; maybe it's helping us express ourselves and reach out in new ways.  But it's painfully true that every rose has its thorn.  All of us, especially those who are watched the most, are increasingly more vulnerable to both lies and the truth.

I like to think of Aberration Nation as a unique hub where highly creative individuals can share their stories ... warts, successes, and all.  I was thrilled to have Paul Rudd join in that happy, dysfunctional  circus, and was embarrassed over how it turned out. I realized that some of those who have achieved high levels of success may not be free to support a grassroots forum like Aberration Nation. 

Apparently, some celebrities must protect themselves from lies involving hackers and stalkers, and some, like Tiger Woods, must work to protect against the truth. They give so much of themselves in their chosen fields, but it seems that in many cases, they must hold back the very thing we'd benefit from tapping into--their true spirit.  I suspect that, in many cases, that unique spirit somehow enabled them to rise above so many. It somehow made the difference we are trying to achieve.  Imagine how much could be learned from uncovering and studying the journeys (PR machine free) that these highly successful people have taken, and the real price they pay to stay on top.    

We're all human no matter what we may have achieved. Alan writes that "Whether it’s Tiger or other fallen stars, I’ve always viewed their travails like everyone else on the outside, with a mix of fascination and judgmental superiority. But writing this book was a visceral experience and at times I could feel Tree’s panic and exasperation and shame. It certainly has given me more empathy for what a guy like Tiger has gone through. Certainly Tiger has acted very selfishly and made some poor decisions but he’s also paid an incredibly high price for actions that weren’t unlawful." 

He and Bamberger have written a great novel that shines a light of reality on celebrity that, in Alan's words, "allows us to go deep into the life of a cloistered, conflicted star athlete. The result is fiction that in many ways is more true than real-life."

The journey to celebrity is much more than simply a series of fortunate events.

You have both had interesting, successful careers in sports journalism. What was the mutual key driver for tackling fiction, and how did your partnership come about?

Michael and I have both shared a fascination with fiction. We grew up reading novels, and it’s such a venerated art form. But making that leap is intimidating for a career reporter. Whether it’s our work for SI or previous non-fiction books, we both pride ourselves on our ability to gather information. To just sit alone in a room and make it all up? That was certainly a different challenge, but we both ultimately felt liberated having to rely on nothing but our imaginations.

As for the partnership, Michael and I had both independently come up with the idea of writing a novel about a fallen golf hero but neither of us got very far. Still, we felt there was a great story to tell and felt invigorated by the idea of teaming up.

THE SWINGER focuses on Herbert X. "Tree" Tremont, the most dominant golfer of all time and the richest sports figure in history. According to Simon & Schuster, the novel is written with a smile, not with disdain for athletes like Tree, but with empathy and affection and hope that Tree's transformation, redemption, and return to greatness may be around the corner. What about the character Tree, and real top athletes who may have similar lives, inspired you to write the novel, and why should readers be interested in this particular story?

Well, clearly there are some echoes to the life and times of Tiger Woods. To deny that would be silly. But this book isn’t a forensic recreation of Tiger’s scandal; really, that’s just a jumping-off point. We wanted to write a story that was uniquely our own. It is only through the magic of fiction that we can go behind closed doors and get to know every thought and emotion of the world’s greatest golfer. We can place him in the middle of a tabloid frenzy and eavesdrop on every conversation, not only of the embattled superstar but also the enablers around him and the reporters who are treating him like prey. I think readers will appreciate the intimacy of this story. As reporters we’re merely proxies for the public – it’s been frustrating for all of us to never get to know Tiger, and the revelations about his secret life certainly drove home how elusive he’s been. The book allows us to go deep into the life of a cloistered, conflicted star athlete. The result is fiction that in many ways is more true than real-life.

With regard to THE SWINGER, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

Not one moment in particular. But I remember when we were four or five chapters into the writing there was this exhilarating feeling that what we had was pretty damn fun to read and I could see the rest of the book stretching out before us. This was strictly an experiment in the beginning. We didn’t have a publisher and for a while we were considering just posting the chapters anonymously on the Internet as we went, or self-publishing. It was truly just a couple of writers writing for the sake of writing. At some point we showed the material to a few readers we trust and their enthusiasm and interest changed the trajectory of the project, but really this started out as mere farting-around.

Each novel I write seems to change my life or create a shift in my thinking or perception in some way. Did writing the novel change or impact your lives in any way that perhaps goes beyond the other sports journalism that you do?

It’s certainly changed how I think about future projects. The idea of doing another non-fiction book is pretty daunting. All that flying around and doing interviews and transcribing tape – man, that’s so much work! I’m definitely eager to dabble more fiction, and not just golf. This book has a lot cool insidery stuff about the PGA Tour but it’s also a meditation on love, marriage, friendship, sex, celebrity, the media. Writing about so many different things has given me the confidence to branch out from just sports.

With regard to your work with Sports Illustrated, some folks may struggle with understanding why and how creativity factors into the delicate mix of relaying real life information in a powerful way. In general, how does creativity factor into sports writing?

Subscribers don’t get their SI until Wednesday afternoon, or maybe Thursday. Long gone are the days when we’re informing people who won or lost. The challenge in this 24/7 media environment is to give readers something new, to take them places they haven’t already been. So fresh information is important, as is unique analysis and access. But storytelling is also paramount. There is so much byte-sized information, I think readers want to get lost in something longer and more elegant. The creativity you mention can be through the use of certain devices, like writing a magazine story in the form of a screenplay or a diary, to cite two things I’ve done in the past. But really I think the challenge is to make every story compelling and different from what’s already out there. I feel like that’s my mandate every time I sit in front of my computer.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being writers have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? How so? Did those experiences help you to identify with Tree in any way?

After all these years I’m definitely more comfortable expressing emotion through the written word. Give me a blank greeting card and I can make almost any family member cry, but it’s much harder for me to express these kind of feelings face to face.

Writing Tree’s story definitely affected me. Whether it’s Tiger or other fallen stars, I’ve always viewed their travails like everyone else on the outside, with a mix of fascination and judgmental superiority. But writing this book was a visceral experience and at times I could feel Tree’s panic and exasperation and shame. It certainly has given me more empathy for what a guy like Tiger has gone through. Certainly Tiger has acted very selfishly and made some poor decisions but he’s also paid an incredibly high price for actions that weren’t unlawful. Why do we feel such disappointment in him and hold him to such a high standard? He’s not a minister or an elected official, he’s just a jock. Certainly some of these feelings inform the book.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand some of the personality traits, interests, or drive that goes along with being a writer? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

As a writer it’s hard to turn your brain off. When I’m in the middle of writing a feature I’m always thinking about it. There have been plenty of times when my exasperated wife has caught me staring off into space during a meal or standing motionless in the shower for half an hour, just thinking and writing in my head.

I’ve always believed one of the best ways to improve your writing is to read a lot. Again, I can be easily distracted. My house often has a half dozen dog-eared magazines laying around, and stacks of books here and there. So I guess it takes a certain understanding from those you live with. It’s not like an accountant who leaves all his work at an office. A writer is sort of constantly haunted by words.

Have you developed a specific process that enables you to meet both your nonfiction and fiction writing goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role of discipline and organization?

We wrote the bulk of this book over the winter, when the golf season was more or less dormant and we had some downtime from our days jobs at SI. It would be very hard to find time to write fiction during the heart of the golf season.

Modern life is not conducive to writing. There are so many more intrusions than there used to be. Writers love to procrastinate anyway, and the Internet is the greatest tool ever invented for avoiding work. Then you throw in the constant barrage of emails, texts, phone calls, tweets – it can just be hard to find the peace to get lost in the process of writing. It’s embarrassing to admit but when I need to do some serious typing I sometimes disable my Internet access just to make it a little tougher to let my focus wander. I also do a lot of my writing after 10 p.m., when my wife and kids are asleep and the rest of the world has stopped bothering me.

Were there specific challenges to writing a novel as a team that you can share with us? How did you deal with these, and also, what were the advantages of teamwork?

It was a very seamless collaboration. We spent a lot of time talking about the direction of the book and hashing out plot details and then we just let if fly. Writing a novel can be a lonely experience; while there were certainly moments of banging my head against the keyboard, it was a huge help to have Michael there to bounce around ideas and pick up the thread whenever the muse departed. Certainly I wanted to keep impressing him every time it was my turn to type. Importantly, there was no ego invested in who wrote what. We were both editing and improving each other’s work and cherry-picking each other’s best ideas, and over time this helped meld the two voices into one.

Will there be more Bamberger and Shipnuck novels?

Michael and I had dinner during the week of the PGA Championship and we kicked around a few ideas for a sequel to THE SWINGER. We have great affection for these characters and it would be fun to revisit their lives and careers. At this point Tree and the gang are like old friends—we don’t want to lose touch with them. But there’s nothing to announce…yet.

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6527212 August 18, 2011

Simply Wonderful: Luiz Cavalli

"There are always people who do not understand a simple painter."

The other night during dinner, my husband looked me in the eye and asked, "Why do you like to paint?"  It was a simple question, one I've thought about quite a bit.  It was one of those moments in life when someone who has closely watched your evolution calls you to the carpet.  They ask for an answer or statement that somehow magically boils it all down to a simple truth.

As he looked at me, waiting for my answer, my mind went blank.  The first thing I could think of was, "I just love it."  He looked at me, eyes squinted and filled with more questions.  He and I are wired differently. All the things I wanted to say about painting raced through my head, but I sat there knowing they would likely sound silly to him. 

Maybe I was wrong. Maybe it was simply me who thought the answers lacked the complexity to fully explain my addiction.

I took a stab at explaining and enjoyed the conversation.  I was happy that he wanted to understand, and my sudden inability to explain was frustrating. I got mad at myself.  Truth is, I was already mad at myself over the painting.  Eariler that day, my mentor and friend, Bob Hogge, told me (kindly) that my last painting "wasn't the best of my more recent work."  He accurately described it as looking a bit like a page out of the JC Penney catalogue.  I wasn't happy with it to begin with so this didn't surprise me.  What upset me the most was that I'd let it happen.  I'd gone a bit backwards.

I wish I could be more like my guest today, Brazilian artist Luiz Cavalli.  Luiz and his work exude simple happiness and forward movement, the concepts that seem to define his life.  Even the chairs he loves to paint look as if they could move us through life, always toward an exciting place in the middle of exactly where we belong.  Nothing is stagnant. Nothing goes backwards. Luiz enjoyes creating art that portray his inner disposition, and in turn, his art makes us feel better. 

So what the heck's wrong with me?  I question too much, running through circle after circle in my head.  It's as if there's a convention going on with multiple speakers and tracks all zooming along at once. The neverending schedule is complex; during the breaks, decisions about where to go next trump taking the time the decompress.

It seems that I'm never satisfied with simple, even when simple is beautiful.  Maybe some of the simple things in life are actually so complex that we can never fully describe or explain them ... maybe like God, truth and beauty as well as all the deep, guttural emotions that drive us into action.  That powerful I-want-what-I-want-when-I-want-it sort of urge that is a reality for which, at times, no explanation can suffice.

So maybe in the end, Luiz' work is more complex than it may appear.  Perhaps why it appeals to so many is its ability to capture that unexplainable, complex space where true happiness and forward movement exist in each of us ... if only we can find it.  Afterall, if pure, unadulterated joy and happiness were so gosh darn simple, there'd be a heck of a lot more of it.

Note: Luiz' interview questions and answers below are provided in both English and Spanish.  We both apologize for any misinterpretations between the two versions.  We think they're close!

Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte ,
Georges Seurat, 1884-1886. (Pointillism)

Have you always know you would be an artist? How has your artistic life evolved? (Você sempre soube que sería um artista? Como sua vida artística evoluiu?)

I realized I had a bit of talent by age 17 when drawing in high school.  I started with pointillism in pen and ink. Soon I began selling my drawings to pay for school.  I studied at the Technical College of Design Communications. Then I eventually started working in advertising in the media ... working with professionals in radio and film and with television production agencies.  During that time I never drew or painted until 2003.  Then at 47 years, I began painting again with acrylic on canvas.  After three years of living as an artist, I began doing solo exhibitions and participating in conferences in Brazil and other countries.

Percebi que tinha um pouco de talento com 17 anos quando na Escola IADÊ de desenho que equivale ao Colegial....comecei a desenhar com canetas Nanquin Técnica Pontilismo em bico de pena...Ai comecei a vender meus desenhos para pagar a escola. Desenhei até a idade 20anos...Mas com 18 anos comecei a trabalhar em Publicidade na area de Midia Eletônica...Produção de comerciais para TV...com a profissão de Radio TV e Cinema produtor de agências....Ai então nunca mais desenhei e pintei....Só voltei a Pintar com 47 anos em acrílico sobre tela...isso em 2003. E a 3 anos que vivo só dos meus trabalhos....Fazendo exposições individuais e participando de coletivas no Brasil e em outros Países.

How would you best describe your personality, and how your art relays that to the world? (Como você descreveria sua personalidade, e como relés desua arte que, para o mundo?)

I am a tranquil and happy person.  I think that my art conveys happiness.

Sou uma pessoa tranquilha e feliz. E acho que minha arte transmite felicidade.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about? (Com relação ao seu foco atual criativo, estava lá um "ah-ha"momento em que você pode nos dizer sobre?)

I just love to paint bicycles, chairs, beach scenes, and people.

Gosto muito de pintar Bicicletas ,Cadeiras,Cenas de Praia e Pessoas.

You paint quite a few chairs and bicycles. Can you tell us a little bit about what draws you to these objects and why you feel compelled to paint them? (Você pinta muito algumas cadeiras e bicicletas. Você pode nos contar um pouco sobre o que atrai a esses objetos e por que você se sentir compelido a pintá-los?)

Well, since I was a boy I loved the bicycle design.  Then I began to paint the bike in my pictures ..... and today I think I'm one of the artists who has painted the most bikes.  I feel that the bike has a sense of being free and happy with life, with a lot of movement.  It also helps humanity because it does not pollute. The chairs also are always with me.  It is an object that is always in our liives, and I the seat gives life a certain movement.

Bem desde de menino desenho bicicletas....e quando comecei a pintar surgiu a bicicleta em minhas telas.....e hoje acho que sou um dos artistas que mais pinta telas de bicicletas...Sinto que a bicicleta tem um sentido livre de ser e feliz com vida....Com muito movimento e ajuda a Humanidade não polui. As cadeiras tambem sempre estão comigo...é um objeto que sempre está na nossa vida....estática e eu tendo dar vida as cadeiras com um certo movimento.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations (issues) in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? (Você acredita que alguns dos vários atributos relacionados a ser altamente criativo ter causado aberrações (questões), em vida, ajudou a lidar com as aberrações da vida, ou ambos?)
I think art and painting showed me that life is simpler than you think, and art helped me gain a lot of true friends. Life became easier and happy.

Acho que a arte e pintar me mostrou que a vida é mais simples do que a gente pensa...e com a arte ganhei muitos amigos de verdade. A vida ficou mais facil e feliz.

In what ways does art sooth or inspire you during difficult or challenging times? (De que forma a arte sooth ou inspirá-lo nos momentos difíceis ou desafiadoras?)

Really, it was very difficult to quit advertising.  I had a good salary and the living conditions of art, but today I'm able to live art.

Realmente...foi muito dificil ...largar a publicidade com um bom salario e viver só da arte...mas hoje estou conseguindo viver da arte.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?  (Você já teve que lidar com pessoas em sua vida não compreender a sua personalidade criativa, interesses ou dirigir? Se assim for, você pode nos dizer sobre ele e como você lidou com isso?)

There are always people who do not understand a simple painter, but I have had no major problems with people. It seems that art is more for the interaction and shows.  But I really just like the paint on canvas. Never give up! 

Sempre tem pessoas que não entendem um simples pintor. Parece que Arte está mais para o Interatividade e Instalações...Mas gosto mesmo é da tinta na tela. Não desisto nunca. E não tive grandes problemas com pessoas.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your artistic goals? If so, can you tell us about it. Where do most of your ideas come from?  (Você já desenvolveu um processo criativo específico que lhe permite alcançar os seus objectivos artísticos? Se assim for,você pode nos dizer sobre isso. Onde é que a maioria de suas idéias vêm?)

Well, I started painting my own pictures.  I looked at a picture I took of paint.  I have had several screens that were made of pictures of me.  I photographed a lot when young, so I looked at those pictures and painted them. And so it began.

Bem comecei pintando as minhas proprias fotografias...Olhava para uma foto que tirei de pintava. Tenho varias telas que foram feitas de fotos minhas....Fotografei muito quando jovem...Então olhava minhas fotos e depois pintava. E assim começou tudo.

What do you believe places an artist apart from his or her peers? So many are highly talented, but what makes one stand out as truly gifted?  (O que você acha lugares um artista para além de seus pares? Assim, muitos são extremamente talentosos, mas o que faz uma destacam-se como verdadeiramente talentoso?)

I'm not sure if the translation of this question is correct.  But as far as talent ... I think a person is born with it, and it's a matter of spreading the work and showing it to others.

Esta pergunta a tradução não ficou boa...Não entendi direito...Mas com relação a talento...acho que nasce com a pessoa...e é uma questão de divulgar e mostrar o trabalho.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?  (Qual é o seu lema principal ou mantra na vida? Por isso é importante para você?)

My motto is to focus on happiness and the joy of living.

Meu lema é a felicidade e a alegria de viver.

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6527212 July 29, 2011

Minya: A Creative Lifestyle

"Creativity is a lifestyle. I think that at some point in life one has to decide if he or she wants to follow their creativity and search for alternative ways, or to accept solutions and decisions that have already been established."

Einstein said, "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, his eyes are closed." 

This is particularly comforting to me today.  I've been sitting here worrying about the fact that I'm still a mystery to myself after 45 years.  I won't share the details but I've recently been reminded (once again) that despite all my education and achievements, I have the spirit of a child.  She dominates when she should be off frolicking in some back corner of my mind, picking imaginary, sun-drenched daisies while she hums a happy tune. 

At times, I'm confident that the little girl who won't go away is responsible for my ability to create interesting artwork, think outside the box, break rules (most of the time in positive ways now), get blissfully lost in my imagination, and in conjunction with my mature brain, make connections others do not.  I love that aspect of her resistance to stand back.  I just wish the world were structured in a way that would enable the two of us to be more comfortable.  I wish we could have our cake and eat it, too.  Most of the time, she's eating the cake and I'm starving. 

My guest today, artist Minya, notes that all children are in some way artists. At an early stage, the vast majority of us danced, sang, colored, banged on pots and pans, and pretended to be all kinds of things.  I made salads out of plants; played house for hours; colored a thousand pictures with crayons and magic markers; pretended I was chewing gun when I couldn't sleep; and made a mansion for my paper dolls out of flattened boxes ... among other things.  As Minya says, all children explore their imagination, but sometimes I think I went overboard out of necessity.  For some of us, especially those wired to be highly imaginative, pretending offers a unique brand of solace in the midst of dysfunctional situations.

I didn't fully emerge from my early flight of fancy until I was about twelve.  When I finally peered into reality, I didn't cope very well.  As a child, there was a part of me who was sucking life in, processing, and analyzing.  That girl filed a tremendous amount of information away with the idea that she might deal with it later.


Now I realize why the kid is so strong and the other so often weak. I realize why I'm still more comfortable in the role of the playful, imaginative girl whose willing to notice and take in what swirls around her, but prefers to shove it to the side, sending it to the auto processing file rather than deal with it. 

My goal is to keep aiming to balance myself while embracing the creativity that still fuels my spirit.  Several years ago, after fighting it, I decided to choose creativity as a lifestyle.  It suits me best and feels right.  I'm still transitioning in many ways.  I'm evolving just as I did when I chose as a young adult to put limits on my creativity, to squelch it so that I could live the type of life everyone expected of me.  Doing so had its rewards, but finally I realized there is no true choice, only a battle.  We are who we are, and it's best to accept the wiring we were allotted on production day.  

Minya tells us that her paintings symbolically illustrate the journey mankind has made – from prehistory and cave painting, to modern technologies and ways of communication used today (computers, TV, phones).  Her work metaphorically comments on actual events and contemporary life.  Maybe at a philosophical level, Minya's work somehow expresses how I've evolved from the day I decided to lump disproportionate paper dolls made by different toy companies together (because that's how real people are, thought the little girl), and play out their lives on a 6' x 6' detailed cardboard blueprint of the home I wanted to have.

The week I spent making the paper doll house was like any other.  I could have chosen to play outside.  I could have watched television all week.  I could have done anything but I didn't.  I had an idea, a concept, and was driven to create something that was unique and unavailable to me by any other means.  I didn't care that nobody wanted to do it with me.  I was willing to do the work, and I made it a reality.

But as Minya points out, it's important to understand that the work is never completely finished.  I see that now; I won't stop again.   

Have you always know you would be an artist? How has your artistic life evolved?

I believe that all children in their early stages when they start communicating with their environment, are in some way artists! They express their deepest and most sincere emotions in a straightforward way: by dancing, singing or drawing. Some of them continue to analyze their feelings and environment throughout their life by expressing themselves in some form of art. I am one of those! My artistic expression has changed and evolved during my growing up: my artistic research became more complex and articulated following my interests, and so did the materials and techniques I’m using.

How would you best describe your personality, and how your art relays that to the world.

I am, by nature, a person who notices and carefully studies their surroundings. I define my artistic expression methodically and with a lot of attention. My works represent, in a metaphorical sense, commentaries on actual events and contemporary life.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

Those “moments” do occur, they come periodically.  They represent turning points in my creative phases. They happen occasionally but do not come out of the blue! They are the result of a continuing work.  It has happened several times that, while working on one series of works, when I’m most satisfied and inspired, that “moment” strikes and suddenly a rather different painting comes out! That moment I recognize as a turning point, the beginning of a new series. That somehow happens naturally and easily and I know exactly what I need to do next, as if there is some kind of recipe I have to follow.

You do quite a bit of work on Plexiglas. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to appreciate this medium and what draws you to it?

Plexiglas is a material that in a way imposed itself to me in past few years, as it is a perfect medium for expressing my artistic thoughts. It is, as a material, in contrast with the natural pigments I use for painting. With this contrasting effect I want to point out a very interesting fact: during history people always wanted to catch the moment they live in, to register what is happening around them at that instant. They wanted to record it and to send a message to the following generations. Through my paintings I symbolically illustrate the journey mankind has made – from prehistory and cave painting, to modern technologies and ways of communication used today (computers, TV, phones). In my paintings that is depicted with natural pigments on the smooth surface of Plexiglas.

I also like the transparent nature of the material. I apply pigments on both sides of Plexiglas but at the same time I take great care of areas that will remain transparent. When finished, my works are mounted on the wall with the distance of few inches from it, hence creating shadows behind painted parts that can be seen through transparent ones. This, as a result, creates the impression of visual depth and third dimension

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations (issues) in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

Creativity is a lifestyle. I think that at some point in life one has to decide if he or she wants to follow their creativity and search for alternative ways, or to accept solutions and decisions that have already been established. Naturally, rules and codes of conduct exist in every society, but it is for each individual to decide how they will relate to them. That is one of the aspects I like to explore in my works. With straight lines and arranged square forms I want to suggest those rules, control and regulations. On the other hand, free hand movements and paint drippings suggest the “human factor”: creativity, surprise factor, unpredictability, improvisation. I personally have chosen improvisation and creativity as my contribution to the society I live in.

In what ways does art sooth or inspire you during difficult or challenging times?

During the creative procedure, the artist is exempt from all boring, trifling, everyday rules and procedures that make life complicated. They are free to express themselves and act free of any social and bureaucratic constrains. The artist is completely alone, with their tool to create anything they want – that feeling is elating and makes you feel limitless.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

I was blessed to grow up in a family of artists, both of my parents are painters. I was surrounded by people who understand and appreciate art ever since I can remember. That experience prepared me and gave me ability to search and find an appropriate interlocutor through my life.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your artistic goals? If so, can you tell us about it. Where do most of your ideas come from?

For me, every new painting I create represents an individual research. It is primarily with relation to the technique, but also regarding the artistic concept. New discoveries, experiments but also new casual effects, contribute that one idea evolves through its transformation. My ideas breed slowly and before I present them to the general public they have to go through a complex process of maturation.

What do you believe places an artist apart from his or her peers? So many are highly talented, but what makes one stand out as truly gifted?

What distinguishes one artist from another, and sets them apart is their ability to present their artistic idea. It is important that an effort of research and study of a certain phenomenon is shown. Experimentation and research of new and original ways of expression, new materials and modern technologies are also essential. More interesting, intelligent and courageous those ideas are - more brilliant and extraordinary is the artist himself.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

I think it is essential that one never considers their work completely finished.

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6527212 June 24, 2011

Releasing Complexity: Claudia Furlani

"Through art , I synthesize, play, and let off all the complexity of my inner world."

I have a strong suspicion that my inner world is more complex than the average Joe's.  I began to suspect this around age six, when I was lamenting about the kid in our class who was rumoured to have a mother who jumped off a bridge (and eaten by alligators) while I was trying to stop my own mother from killing herself.  

By the time I was a teenager, my high speed turmoil and associated thought processes began to fuse with my innate outwardly sunny disposition to create a persona that most people couldn't quite compute ... causing all kinds of issues.  Once I finally realized this, I stopped expecting to be fully understood, and I started writing novels.

Now I understand myself better than I ever have.  Like my guest today, artist Claudia Furlani, I write and paint as a way to let off some of that complexity.  I didn't bolt out of bed one morning with the bright idea of doing this.  The need and desire to do it simply evolved as I grew up and stepped away from my afflicted mother into my own life. 

Recently a few folks have referred to me as a creative.  It sounds like some kind of Star Trek alien nation.  When I considered myself solely a writer, I never thought I'd be called a creative.  I wasn't even familiar with the word (used that way) until a couple of years ago.  Everyone has the capacity to be creative and to create, so what exactly is a creative? 

I researched the use of the term creative to describe a group of folks and didn't come up with too much.  Writer Jeff Goins ran a blog post about it in February.  He says:

"A creative is an artist. Not just a painter or musician or writer. A creative is someone who sees the world a little differently than others. A creative is an individual. He is unique, someone who doesn’t quite fit into any box. Some think of creatives as iconoclasts; others see them as rebels. Both terms would be quite apt. A creative is a thought leader. He influences people not necessarily through personality but through his innate gifts and talents.  A creative creates art — not to make a buck, but to make a difference. She writes to write, not to be noticed or to sell books. She sings to sing, for the pure joy of making music. And she paints to paint (and so on…).  A creative colors outside the lines… on purpose. In so doing, she shows the world a whole new picture they never would have otherwise seen. A creative breaks the rules, and as a result, sets a new standard to follow."

Is that what I do?  I don't like being put into categories, but being a creative doesn't seem too bad.  I still want to be my own category.  It's called being a Penelope, and there is no one else who can join me in it.  It's lonely sometimes but it's where I need to stay.  I'm driven to write and paint even if what I produce sucks.  It's a simultaneous trap and release.  An obsession that sets me free.  An escape that holds me down.  Freedom among the ruins. 

For me, the process of creating is like worship, therapy, vacation, work, and communication all swirled up into one.  When you're like me, you create because that's what makes life bearable on a deep personal level that transcends even love.  The people you love and who love you are supposed to be what makes life worth the effort, but I feed on something different.  Perhaps this makes me narcissistic or psychopathic.  Not sure.  Perhaps I just need art to keep me sane so that I can love others and accept their love.  Art makes love possible for me.

Oh, the mysteries of life.  I think too much.  I try not to, but it's difficult to shut down the machine.   Like Claudia, I'm introverted, observant, and very imaginative.  We are passionate.  I am still full of love that's trying to get out.  I grew up in an environment that was overwhelming.  Art defined as "imaginative skill as applied to representations of the natural world or figments of the imagination," has enabled me to bring my inner and outer worlds together in a way that best represents who I am.  Almost everything else seems frivolous.

Art lasts forever. 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zPCTgyND_tw]

Have you always know you would be an artist? How has your artistic life evolved?

Since I can remember, I've always been involved with color, paint, drawing or painting. During college I worked on several things including advertising agencies in the area of computer graphics, an area that has always fascinated me, but my passion for art and sheer will to create freely guided my choices.

How would you best describe your personality, and how your art relays that to the world?

I am an introverted person, observant, and very imaginative. Through art , I synthesize, play, and let off all the complexity of my inner world.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

Yes, there was a big "Ah-ha" and fortunately it's becoming a new project that is underway. It's about people their dreams and nightmares. I still can't give many details in this moment so as not to spoil the surprise.

You seem to enjoy both painting and graphic art. Do you have a favorite or do you enjoy both equally? Can you tell us a little bit about what each gives to you in terms of the ability to express yourself creatively?

I do not have a favorite. Painting is something very lonely, and graphic art process is the opposite. I usually go out to photograph people or places, depending on the subject that I want to express. I choose one language or another.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations (issues) in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

Yes, I believe that has caused many, but today I do not worry about it. The creativity just helps me to cope and overcome the problems.

In what ways does art sooth or inspire you during difficult or challenging times?

The art helps, but you have to want to indulge yourself while you are creating, just so you move away from everything else. Your focus is just in your art. And at this moment all problems are dissolved

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

Oh, many times, including the first years of my marriage.  I always worked during the night and never had a strict routine. With great patience and persistence, all problems have been worked out.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your artistic goals? If so, can you tell us about it. Where do most of your ideas come from?

Ideas come from everywhere, from all places and from all things that I see.  Also, all the people I talk to.  I like to observe everything and everyone. Without that involvement, the artist closes.

I am self-motivating. I enjoy working with ideas that challenge me.  At creation time, I try to enter the "flow" of the here and now and not worry about the results.

What do you believe places an artist apart from his or her peers? So many are highly talented, but what makes one stand out as truly gifted?

For an artist to stand out as a great talent, he really has to have talent. His work should stimulate and provoke curiosity. He might even do something that's been done before, for example, writing the lyrics of a song that speaks of "Love."  Something so common, yet his ability to create will differentiate it from others.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

I follow my intuition.  I think this is my only mantra. It's important to me because up until now has always worked very well.

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6527212 May 31, 2011

CALVET: Dominic Allan

Never Believe You've Played Your Last Hand ....

In March 2010, I interviewed French artist Jean Marc Calvet.  In that Aberration Nation post, Jean Marc wrote,

"I spent a large part of my life wondering why I was born, why I was here! When I turned 36 everything started. I was painting on the walls, the ground, the ceiling with all sorts of things such as paint, tomato sauce, chocolate, mud, etc. I didn't think I was making art. For me it was a way to keep my sanity, and it still is today. The main difference between yesterday and today is that today I know why I was born--and that changed many things!" 

Now Jean Marc's phenomenal story is brilliantly captured in a new feature film directed and produced by today's guest, Dominic Allan. 

CALVET premiers this month at two major European film festivals, the Sheffield Documentary Festival (8 - 12 June), and the Edinburgh International Film Festival (15 - 26 June).

During his mid-thirties, Jean Marc's overwhelming aberrations miraculously collided with an outpouring of creativity.  Jean Marc Calvet could very well reign as King of the Aberration Nation.  In a world where millions dream of becoming recognized artists, and the art world isn't adequately celebrated, Jean Marc shining creative spirit emerged despite all the suck life threw his way, and all the suck he created for himself.  CALVET is about the redemptive power of art.

Perhaps art can't possibly redeem and/or save everyone, but there seems to be a more basic point at play.  Maybe the message found in CALVET is that when you believe there's absolutely nothing left to lose, there's still something to find.  In the end, (despite circumstance) destruction, hopelessness, fear, and misery don't choose us; we choose them.  And sometimes the answers that offer redemption make themselves known ... but we must have the courage to embrace them.

The powerful, tortured paintings of French artist Jean Marc Calvet sell from $20,000 a piece, he has major solo exhibitions in New York, yet until 7 years ago he had never touched a paintbrush. In fact, art was the last thing on his mind when, aged 38, he was on the run in Central America with a large sum of stolen money. There, haunted by his past, Calvet decided that death was his only way out.

This is one man’s extraordinary story of redemption as he embarks on a journey to make peace with his past. A man who lived a dark and violent life, who via a terrifying trip to hell and back was given a second chance.

Calvet spent his life on a course of self-destruction, more often than not trashing anything and anyone in his path – including his own 6 year old son whom in 1996 in France, he abandoned without a word. He neither saw nor spoke to him again.

“See you next Saturday” were the last words Calvet said to his son before he disappeared. “See you next Saturday” – words that have haunted him every day for over a decade. Clues as to how he could do such a cruel and cowardly thing to the person he loved most in the world lie in his deeply troubled past.

Abused street kid, Foreign Legionnaire, vice cop, professional bodyguard, underground thug – Calvet is a cat with many lives, all harrowing and disturbing. Then in 2002 in Costa Rica, he arrived at the end of the road. Lost and damned, besieged by shame and self-hatred, he bought the last house at the end of a cul-de-sac, shut himself in and refused all contact with the outside world. Fuelled by obscene quantities of crack and alcohol, he believed the end would arrive quickly.

It didn't.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wwoy3oocw9c]

After meeting Jean Marc and hearing about the upcoming film based on his life through our shared connection with Monkdogz Urban Art (NYC), I also became curious about Dominic Allan, a man so touched by Jean Marc's story that he's now sharing it with the world through film. Dominic is an award winning filmmaker who happened to stumble into Jean Marc's world while traveling in Nicaragua in 2004. Dominic shares the fascinating story of how the two men met, and the subsequent evolution of CALVET on the Director's Note page of the film's website.

Dominic is a fascinating man as well.  I'm quite certain that his own creativity has enabled Jean Marc's story to result in the outstanding film, CALVET. As Dominic points out in his interview below, the story is one fantastic thing, and the storytelling is another. The charismatic, relevant, and fateful marriage of these two components make CALVET shine.

Congratulations to both Jean Marc and Dominic for making us believe there's always another hand to play.

How did you get into filmmaking and why does it appeal to you?

I come from the rural southwest of England. Lived and worked out of London from the age of 18, then traveled a great deal. Lived in France, US, South America and many other pit-stops along the way. I now live in Spain, north of Barcelona. I'd always imagined I'd end up in the English countryside with loads of kids and it ended up being quite different so far!

Film ... well, soon after leaving school, I thought of all the things I loved and if I might be able to make a living with any of them. There two things on the short list - filmmaking and horse breeding. Filmmaking won quite easily! I have always been a film fanatic--addicted to that spell an extraordinary film can cast on you when you walk out of a cinema, especially when it lingers for days afterwards. I wanted to make films that achieve that. How I got into it and how I arrived here is perhaps not that interesting--though for all the adventures, the places I've seen, the people I've met and the things I've learned--I am incredibly grateful.

You recently completed a powerful documentary feature film focusing on artist Jean Marc Calvet. What about Calvet inspired you to make the film, and why should viewers be interested in this particular story?

I'd never heard a story like it. Quite early I latched onto what I saw as the film's message. It's never too late--never believe you've played your last hand. No matter who or where you are, no matter what your perception of your life situation, no matter how lost you think you are ... things can change is ways you don't yet comprehend. And a moment of real crisis may turn out to be the catalyst for total metamorphosis. From there, a new life is ahead of you. It was the notion that you can start again fresh with renewed integrity, and set out to right some wrongs.

Jean Marc is cat with many lives, many of them harrowing, wild, dark and violent. My own story doesn't remotely resemble his, yet I identified with something in him and his story--and it took much of the time making the film to work out what that was. Possibly this, that perhaps most of us carry a sense that we've done something that we need to atone for. We may not know what that is and for many it may be totally irrational, yet still this sense endures that we need to forgive ourselves for something. For most of us, release from that is the stuff of fiction, of well-designed movies through which we live vicariously. Here you have it for real--and it's a movie. too. I wanted to make this film in a way that would grip and carry you like a (fiction) feature film, yet at every turn you know it's real, it's documentary. I think this notion of personal emancipation and making good is a very strong universal theme with which many of us can identify. Despite the extreme nature of Jean Marc's story--it speaks to us loud and clear. It is very exciting, very powerful to believe that we have the capacity deep within us to transform and bloom, to manifest the beauty within and shine as we were born to.

With regard to the film, CALVET, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

In 2006, when I started to interview him for my research, he said something to me that I never forgot. It was a key (one of many) to unraveling the Calvet psyche. He said (and it's irrelevant which era of his life he was talking about at the time), "All I wanted was a family. The person I turned myself into didn't need one, didn't want one."

Each novel I write seems to change my life or create a shift in my thinking or perception in some way. Did making the Calvet film change your life in any way?

Well, the film was a big step away from making commissioned films for TV as a director for hire and starting to make films of my own that make a difference in some way. So a big surface change. Films should inspire people--at least for me. And sincerely, I think this job is a privilege in that I get to explore other people's lives and study the human condition--in my protagonists, and inevitably in myself too. After all, what hooks and fires me to spend (a long) time making a film about someone or something--is a gravitational pull to find an answer--and hopefully the film will suggest one! I always learn and grow through my films--that's the stuff of it. As I said, I'm working while exploring who we are. It's a fascinating journey and fathomless--often with sudden realizations that occur along the way.

Did I dodge the question? Yes, I am absolutely sure it has changed my life in some way--though we might have to do this again in a few years for me to tell you how!

How does creativity factor into making a successful documentary? As with nonfiction writing, some folks may struggle with understanding why and how creativity factors into the delicate mix of relaying real life information in a powerful way.

Ohhff, that's a hard one to talk about. Rather there are many answers The short answer is that it's all creative--from idea to research though production to completion, it's a creative process, period. The obvious stuff--looking for answers, how you visualize the film - content, style and so on. Then of course all the details - what shot, what sound, what kind of music to use or not, what tone, what pace etc ... all of it. What are you trying to say in any scene and how can you best achieve that. Documentary is very like making any other film in many ways, the dramatic story structure has to work or you've lost your audience. But you have to be flexible as an unpredictable real life situation unfolds in front of you and be true to what's happening and what's being said. Your mind dances as you work--piecing it together, what you're getting, what you're not getting, what you need. Then in the edit suite the dance changes as you craft the story with the material you have. Some of the original ideas are still there, many have gone to be replaced by new ones, hopefully better ones!

In any case, creativity is everything. Any real life situation retold by someone will be filtered through their perception and creative interpretation--unconsciously. It's not intentional, but even the person who's telling me the story is giving me their memory and perception of events. We all do this every day in every aspect of our lives. Once a moment has gone.. only memory and perception remain. So what's real and what's true? I'm not going down that rabbit hole! But for what we take as real and true--Calvet's story is as real and true as it gets. Shockingly so.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? How so? Did those experiences help you to identify with Calvet in any way?

Oh god yes--the first definitely! Has it helped me deal with life's aberrations? I really don't know--maybe, maybe not, probably not. I've probably also helped create a few! My connection with Jean Marc of course has much to do with how we identify with each other and where are sensibilities collide.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

All the time! Though more so before, less now. I think we live in a world where any creative pursuit is tough, being a creative personality is challenging--challenging to fit in and legitimize particularly in a material world where the values we are taught revolve a great deal around financial success, which as we know doesn't always mean creative success. It's a delicate business to evict compromise for an integrity that sells or combine the two well. As far as human relationships are concerned--it's perhaps both the biggest challenge and the biggest reward. Looking back, I've certainly learned and of course continue to learn how to express myself more effectively, more calmly and more compassionately. It's about how to turn a battle into a wonderful adventure--for everyone.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your filmmaking goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role of discipline and organization?

That's too big! I have endless systems I guess, some from experience, others spontaneous depending on what's in front of me. Planning, asking myself questions, finding answers, and being honest. Problem solving, persistence and faith--even when the road is loooooonnngg. I was always a bit of a perfectionist which can be both painful and rewarding--though these days I know perfection doesn't exist, only the pursuit of excellence, or rather an instinct that you've arrived where you wanted with something that you're working on--there's deep satisfaction there. But most important--one step at a time, and you'll arrive. Thinking about too much and trying to focus on it all can be overwhelming. It dilutes the step you're in and reduces the quality of anything you do. One step at a time ...

What's next for Dominic Allan?

Not sure yet ... I have a feature film in incubation and there are plenty of fires inside waiting to be lit!

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

"Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have."  -Eckhart Tolle

The older I get, the more I realize how little I know. But if there's one thing of which I'm sure, it's that. Moving into the present moment is always the answer--for real peace that is often illusive or at best temporary as we move in and out of the mental noise. As the man says, pretend there's no past nor future--there isn't, everything that happened or will happen, was or will be in the present moment. Easier said than done, don't we know ...

CALVET on Facebook.

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6527212 April 27, 2011

Obsessively Successful: Julianna Baggott

"Writing is part of the disease, but because it allows me to escape into another existence, it's part of the cure."

When I was in college, I was obsessed with writing schedules of what classes I would take each semester during each year of my education.  I can't explain it, but it gave me bizarre pleasure and satisfaction to write it down over and over and over again.  I couldn't stop.  It was a harmless obsession and compulsion.

Others weren't so harmless. 

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is an anxiety disorder in which people have unwanted and repeated thoughts, feelings, ideas, sensations (obsessions), or behaviors that make them feel driven to do something (compulsions).

It took quite a few years, but I finally accepted that I'm likely borderline obsessive compulsive. Now I know when it's happening and when it's getting out of control; I monitor myself and channel my obsessive nature in positive directions.  Doing so has enabled me to flip a weakness into a strength.  It's driven me to accomplish quite a bit.

My guest today, critically acclaimed, bestselling author Julianna Baggott, has published 16 books over the last ten years.  She writes under the pen names Bridget Asher and N. E. Bode. Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) runs in Julianna's family.  She views writing as part of both the disease and the cure. 

I can relate. 

Over the years, I've learned that I must have something to obsess about.  It can change day to day, hour to hour, but I need a vice to grip. It's sort of an underlying thought process that provides a baseline on which to support the rest of my mental world.  It may seem odd, but if I don't have something specific to feed my obsessive nature, my mind finds something.  If the thing it happens to settle on is negative, my world starts to implode.  Everything falls out of balance. 

The primary thing that seems to keep my racing brain occupied enough to keep me out of trouble is art, whether it's writing or painting.  Creativity never ends.  It never stops feeding my ravenous, racing mind that craves baseline occupation.

Maybe I shouldn't admit to this issue; but it is what it is.  I've come to embrace the way I am because I know that it's enabled me to achieve many of my creative and professional goals.  I don't know what full fledged OCD sufferers feel like or how close or far I am from their world.  Unlike Julianna, I will stand by an idling vehicle.  In fact, I've come dangerously close to being hit by cars.

I'm lucky I have observant folks in my family who watch out for me.  They know that my issue is one of being too much inside my head to remember to put kitchen utensils away in their proper places, wipe door handles, or pay attention to how much money I'm spending on any given day.  I have more important things to think about ...  I forget to eat.  I tend to be messy.  Just last week, I got caught in slamming subway doors because I wasn't listening to the loud voice that was saying, "The doors are now closing!"  Being me can be quite the challenge. 

With all that said, I no longer care.  Of course, I don't want to get slammed in doors or hit by cars.  I work on that.  I try to pay attention to the little things.  However, I've come to terms with who I am and how my mind works.  I wouldn't want to be any other way, thank you very much.  I'll find my own cure: I no longer need the one I thought I needed once upon a time.

Like Julianna, many creative folks are lucky in that we have the ability to mine our disease and discover a cure within.  This blogger, author, artist, professional, mother, wife, nutcase, etc. is finding a way to make it work.  It's not always easy, but it's worth the effort.

Many creative folks struggle for years to achieve some sort of success.  Your work was first published when you were relatively young.  How did that mold your writing goals?

I published my first short story at twenty-two and sold my first novel before I turned thirty. Still, young for this game. What I love about writing is that you get better as a function of living, surviving. Of course, there is also dedication to craft. You have to be devout to get better. I knew I wanted to be a writer young and was deeply invested at an early age. I had some talent, lots of hours, but it took a while before I could actually have things to say. Hopefully my work is more insightful now.

Was there someone in particular who inspired you to love books and/or take an interest in writing?

My parents dragged me to countless plays as a kid. By ten, I'd seen more plays than movies. Just the way it was for me. And that had a huge impact on my writing life, early on.

Where do most of your creative ideas come from?

THE PROVENCE CURE FOR THE BROKENHEARTED is filled with events that happened to my own family. It starts where we now live in Florida. The narrator, Heidi takes her 8-year-old son and 16-year-old niece to the family's home in Provence, to renovate it after a fire. We lived in Provence as a family--with our four kids and my niece in tow--for a month. The injured swallow, the robbery, the warthogs, snails, vineyards, archaeological dig, the paper lanterns on Bastille Day--all of it came from our own experiences.

With regard to your new novel, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

There were so many. I knew the first half of the novel and where they were headed--the small village of Puyloubier--but I had no idea what was going to happen there. One of the characters had a huge secret--so secret that I didn't even know about it. When that was revealed, it fit. It was an ah-ha moment--in that sometimes you must follow your characters and truly let them live their lives beyond you, as creator. An important lesson to relearn and relearn.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? How so?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder runs in my family, on my mother's side. We don't bare-hand doorknobs, eat sushi, stand near idling cars, etc.  The strange brain patterns of obsessions and compulsions play into my work.  I'm also compulsive about writing, which means I spend a lot of time at the page. Writing is part of the disease, but because it allows me to escape into another existence, it's part of the cure. The 8-year-old in THE PROVENCE CURE FOR THE BROKENHEARTED has a mild case of OCD. My first time writing about an OCD character. He gets better.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

Mostly there's an upside. I get away with a messy house, making comments that are non sequiturs, dressing mismatched, not brushing my hair, etc.  Sometimes people regard me as a giraffe--like the normal rules just don't apply. Kinda sad, but, "What can you do? She's so creative!"

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your writing goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role the discipline and organization play in reaching creative goals?

I believe, deeply, in really seeing the world around you, seeing people as real people with as many needs, wants, desires as I have. This way, if you don't see people as cliches, you won't write them as cliches. Also, practice plotting, muse when you're going through your daily life. I call this "writing while not writing." It's crucial.

You've written under different names, and have also written various types of fiction. Why did you chose not to use your real name, and what are your favorite types of writing projects?

To be allowed to be prolific, contractually.

To build audiences for certain kinds of work.

I often think about the difference between writers who seem to attack it from a business perspective (i.e., James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark, etc.), versus those who seem to be simply driven from a deep need to write regardless of business concerns (i.e., J.D. Salinger, Pat Conroy, etc.). How would you describe the differences between these types of writers? Where do you fit in?

I see myself as an artist with some projects and an entertainer with others. But only I can see the difference. When writing art, entertainment happens, and vice versa. This is my job, too. It's an industry. I believe it's my job to try to understand it.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

I try to be kind--honest and kind. I believe in empathy. I think these things should be important to everyone.

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6527212 April 08, 2011

Water Diviner: Michael Seif

"I know that the camera long ago acted as a shield between me and the outside world."

If creative folks need an outlet to carry on, are we attempting to hide behind or step forth? I'm driven to write and paint to express what I can't otherwise seem to relay.

Does that mean something is wrong with me? 


Or could it mean I have something to express that goes beyond what the average person needs to relay?  Perhaps I'm uniquely wired, and without the right outlet, my inter workings will implode in a jumbled up mess of despair, frustration, and loneliness. 

That could be it.

Late, I have come to a parched land
doubting my gift, if gift I have,
the inspiration of water
spilt, swallowed in the sand.

To hear once more water trickle,
to stand in a stretch of silence
the divining pen twisting in the hand:
sign of depths alluvial.

From Dannie Abse's The Water Diviner

Sometimes I want to explode into some kind of bizarre animal state. I long to strip off my clothes, jump in a lake, and swim like a fish until my skin shrivels up. I want to wildly race off a cliff down into a giant pool of weightless water, and struggle until I drown in a flurry of rich life. I want to be alive in a way that doesn't seem easily accessible for me.  I want to feel the wind against my skin during that zooming fall, and feel the pain of my body slapping that cold sheet of water.

Do other people need that?  Do you?

Are these peculiar desires the very thing I'm hiding from, or what I'm trying to push forth?  I've come to the conclusion that the best I can do is try to understand myself.  If I can define who I am and how I feel, then maybe I can look over and see much more than just your interesting face glancing my way.  Maybe I can break through the mystery and feel another human being as deeply as I feel myself.  And maybe you'll find and feel me, and that will be enough of a fall for both of us.

Am I too self centered?  Probably. Sometimes I think that if I were a better person, I would spend all my time feeding the poor and figuring out how to achieve world peace.  I might be the woman my mother wanted me to be, and spend all my energy sharing God's word.  But I am not that woman.  Although I'm quite willing to engage in some of those activities, my place is with words, colors, sentences, and shapes.  I am somewhere in that churning mix.  That's where I am best when all else fails.  That's where I feel at home in my own skin. In other places, I'm a fish out of water.  I get by, but I'm always dreaming of the next chance I'll have to suck in a deep satisfying gulp.

My guest today, photographer Michael Seif, photographs nudes in water. Like fish, they swim beneath the water's surface in various formations.  The images he captures demonstrate that life is a flowing, sensual experience that somehow goes beyond flesh and blood, hiding, stepping forth, world peace, and self-centeredness.  He aims to capture the basic core of life we all share, especially when swimming in waters we call our very own. 

I recently met Michael at an art opening in New York.  His long-time commitment to this creative idea was inspiring.  He told me a story about how taking a gross anatomy course in graduate school influenced his thinking about the essence of life, and how it animates the inanimate body.  His thoughts on this led him to the concept of visualizing how our bodies move in water.  How that ebb and flow can demonstrate the spirit that is apart from the body.

My goal is to find that place in my life where I'm swirling, floating, moving naked and comfortable in my own skin.  It is there that I will discover the kernel that makes me tick.  I feel myself moving closer.  My feet are in the water.  Similar creatures are circling.  There it is!  A flick against my ankle, a brush against the toe.  My skin is tingling.  I think I'm nearly there.

What's your story? How long did it take to establish yourself as an artist? Was the journey on a straight or twisted path? Are you surprised by your success?

I've always enjoyed doing creative things - making silver and gold jewelry, writing fiction, woodworking, and photography. Over almost 50 years, I've gradually dropped the other things, but photography has remained as my creative drug of choice. In the 1960s I photographed on the streets and in the subways of NYC. Since then, I've photographed trips to Mexico, Europe, India, my daughter, my grandchildren, and for the past eight years, I have been working on photographing the human figure in nature.

I photograph for two main reasons. One is to save the past, to have something to remember in the future. The other is to see better. Photography makes me get up early when the light is best, makes me do things that might be uncomfortable so I can see what I would otherwise miss.  It causes me to look harder and more carefully at the world around me.

It was only about 10 years ago that people started referring to me as an artist, something I found hard to accept because I didn't think of myself that way. And it was a series of fortuitous events that led me to have even the modest success I have today--my work being accepted in juried shows throughout the country, some sales, and praise by those whose opinions I respect. So, yes, I am surprised by what success I have been able to achieve.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

There were actually two ah-ha moments:

First, was in 1969 when I took a class with Lisette Model, a photographer of world renown, at the New School in NY. In a tough critique in front of the class, she dismissed my photographs as derivative of just about every other photographer, until she saw pictures of a friend's feet I had taken with just a desk lamp as illumination. "Flesh," she said. "You should be doing flesh." So I hired models, set up a no-seam in my Manhattan apartment and tried photographing nudes. But when I looked at the work of other photographers, I saw my work wasn't doing anything new, so I went off in other directions.

The second ah-ha was more than 30 years later, when I went for a swim in a Maine granite quarry, where everyone swam nude. The site was deep in evergreen woods, the weathered granite quarry walls were lichen covered, the people of every age swimming and sunning, all led me to say - wow, what beautiful photographs there are here! Through a few interested people I met in Maine, I was able to obtain models and work on these photographs for over eight years now.

Many artist focus on one particular subject or style. How important is this for career development? Have you ever grown tired of photographing the same types of things, and if so, can you tell us about it?

I photograph lots of subjects because I simply enjoy making photographs and I like how photography helps me see better--travel, friends, family, flowers, landscapes. But my photography of the human figure is something that has drawn me in over the years, and which I feel I am doing better and better over time. This time has been necessary to allow me to move from what other photographers have done to doing something original. This takes time, and I will keep doing it because it is so rewarding to me personally.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

I know that the camera long ago acted as a shield between me and the "outside world." I could see what was going on, but was occupied. I only had to interact if I felt comfortable doing so. Now I'm a bit more outgoing and sociable, and the camera helps me connect with people. Through my photography I have met wonderful people and have made many new friends.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

In fact, just the opposite has happened to me. I always photographed for myself--it was something I just enjoyed doing. During the 60s and 70s, my wife put up with a lot as I transformed the bathroom into a dark room on Sundays.  Yet she was always encouraging.  For more than 40 years I have been accumulating boxes of tri-X negatives and color slides and film--with no idea of what I would do with them. When digital printers became available, I scanned some of those old photos and printed them, and decided to try selling some at a local town fair. A representative of the town art center asked if I was a local artist (I told her I was local but not sure of the "artist" part) and she kindly found a venue for me with my first solo show at the town bank.

I received other encouragement by being juried into group shows, and one juror, a curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts kindly spent an hour with me critiquing my work and encouraging me to continue. Because I had little formal art training, that kind of support was crucial to me being able to feel a sense of validation, and to grow as an artist. A gallery owner in Maine was encouraging, too, and provided me with a show of my 1960s black and white photographs of New York City. She was instrumental in enabling me to find models for my most recent work, and has been nothing but encouraging.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your artistic goals? If so, can you tell us about it. Where do most of your ideas come from?

When I began my series of nudes in the outdoors, one woman agreed to model for me. She swam in the quarry as I photographed from a ledge, and suddenly she made a quick turn. I asked her to do that again. (It turns out she had been on her high school synchronized swimming team.) Her body and the wave she made as she turned became almost one, and I gradually realized that the motion of the water implied that the figure was moving, and this led to a way of showing the human being as not just sculpture, as so many photographs have done, but as a living, moving creature of nature. I quickly acquired more models who were themselves creative and saw that I considered my work with them as a joint effort and were eager to help me make innovative and beautiful photographs.

At first, I was concerned that I would run out of ideas, but after eight years that is not a major worry anymore. The models and I look to nature (schools of fish, swimming seals), to dance, and to art for inspiration. We talk about what we want to do. And then they get into the water and they organize themselves, and they try variations, and they keep working as I take hundreds of photographs. Finally, I look at the photographs on the computer and am thrilled if I see three or four out of each 100 that are ones I am eager to print.

What do you believe places an artist apart from his or her peers? So many are highly talented, but what makes one stand out as truly gifted?

I think that the truly gifted have, in fact, received a gift that provides an inborn potential to create new art, and perhaps even new forms of art. But, whether highly talented or truly gifted, the ability to keep working is what sets apart the creative artists from those that "dabble."

In a photographic critique class that I took in Boston, most of us in the class were middle-aged or beyond. The (younger) instructor commended us for doing art while working, raising children, volunteering in civic organizations, and doing all the other things that encompass a busy life. The instructor found that among his younger students in other classes, there were some who were dedicated to their art, but most who loved the idea of being artists (loved the coffees with friends, the talk, the paint-smeared clothing) but were less eager to do the hard, often lonely work of actually doing art. He referred to them as poseurs.

I really believe that while talent is important, lots of hard work is often what separates an artist from his or her peers.

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6527212 March 25, 2011

Marker Full of Dreams: Angelique Price

"Art is my heart. It makes my world full and alive, and it keeps me inspired."

I've always dreamed of being one of those people who doesn't give a hoot about what people think. I've worked hard at it.  Unfortunately, I'm beginning to realize that my dream may never come true; it may be one that just has to die. 

I still find myself actually experiencing physical pain associated with both obvious and subtle rejections. It hits me at the center of my torso, radiating from somewhere between my internal organs and my skin. When it strikes, it's a terrifying feeling that I can't seem to shake no matter how many times I tell myself that I shouldn't care what he or she thinks.

My guest today, artist Angelique Price, seems to accepts who she is with no apologies. In contrast, it seems like I've been apologizing my entire life. I suppose I know when it all started. As early as I can remember, I tried to do certain things better because no matter how hard I worked at it, I couldn't achieve the outcomes I longed for, one of which was to somehow ease the pain of my afflicted mother, my quiet father, and my brother who had a learning disability at a time when bullies and teasers went unchecked.  I always felt that I held the hope of my family, and if I could somehow decipher the riddle of how to share it, we would all survive.

No one really survived. No matter how much I smiled, how much I helped around the house, how much affection I showed my mother, how many good grades I made, how clean I kept my room, how beautiful I grew, how pleasant I remained, how organized I was, how many times I took up for my older brother in the school yard, how many veggies I ate or how high I jumped ... I failed. 

Angelique was a troubled as well; she became a "cutter." When I was younger, I'd never heard of cutting. Perhaps it's for the best. Instead, I sliced myself up via other means. I spent quite a few years desperately racing down avenues leading to self-inflicted pain and suffering. 

The paths we take in life are fascinating. Like Angelique, I was also a pre-med student in college.  Whereas she veered off into art, I barrelled through and earned my degree in Biology, despite my creative dreams. Our paths recently crossed when our art was exhibited together at a show in New York City. We both continue to move toward a dream we've stoked for years.

This week, another friend of mine mentioned how she's getting older and realizing that certain things in life haven't turned out the way she'd hoped. She wonders if it's okay that she's given up, considering that time is getting shorter and possibilities less possible. With this on my mind, I happened to hear the song, I Dreamed a Dream.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xp7ARm2Lwdo]

Although I'd heard it before, I'd never fully focused on the lyrics.  When it began, I thought of my friend's dying dreams as well as some of mine. I waited for what would surely be an uplifting ending, but there was none.  I was left with the empty realization that dreams can die; sometimes life kills them.

I can't do anything about that miserable truth. What I can do is make sure that I always have some kind of dream brewing. As a child, my deepest desire was to be part of a happy family; as a teen my dream was to be loved; as a college student I longed to understand what true happiness and real love actually felt like; as a young adult, I dreamed of finding positive avenues to express my emotions and the ideas they bring.

Angelique seems to have found such avenues for herself.  Like me, she no longer needs to cut herself away. 

Art soothes our pain.  Art "slays the tigers that come at night, with their voices soft as thunder, as they tear our hope apart, and turn our dream to shame."  Art grabs that pain in my gut and flings it into the never ending race of life, filled with beauty and complexity.  It leaves me satisfied like nothing else.  It pulls beauty out of shame, joy out of sorrow, meaning from corruption, and love from loneliness.

What's your story (in a nutshell)? How long did it take to establish yourself as an artist? Was the journey on a straight or twisted path? Are you surprised by your success?

Wow, my story in a nutshell ... that's tough. There is so much to tell. My childhood was traumatic causing me to be a disturbed and unhappy person throughout half of my life. I had no way of expressing myself except for when I would find a piece of paper and a pencil. I would usually draw an imaginary portrait and she would be crying. I was also a "cutter" and that would relieve my pain as well. I had planned on becoming a psychiatrist because I felt that the entire industry needed something new. After being treated like a number in a psychiatric hospital, I felt that the modern methods were not working and wanted to be a part of changing that. Graduating from high school with a 3.6 GPA, I was given a scholarship to Belmont University for Pre-Med. On the first day of class, I heard my inner voice tell me to change my major to fine art. I listened. I have been a fine artist ever since.

Ironically, I am also studying to be a Chord Therapist which is a therapy created by Dr. Roni Angel. It reprograms our cells to release what no longer serves us and replaces what does serve us. I have been a part of the therapy for 10 years and am a much healthier person because of it.

My art has also contributed to me becoming healthier. I pour myself into my work, expressing whatever it is I need to express. Sometimes I release, sometimes I transform myself with an idea, and sometimes I work with an idea to help me create that in my life.

I don't know that my journey has been straight or twisted. It has just been my journey. I have a very strong work ethic when it comes to my art. I am constantly creating. Six years ago, I developed a method of drawing with art markers that is completely original in its style. This has propelled my career and given me a lot of recognition. I still feel that I am establishing myself because I am not yet at the level of success that is my goal. I am very driven, intelligent and talented, so I have no doubt about where I am headed. I am also not surprised by the success that I have achieved. I have worked very hard for 15 years to be in the place I am now. I am very grateful though. Art is my heart. It makes my world full and alive and it keeps me inspired.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

Yes, the first "ah-ha" moment was when I discovered what I could do with art markers. I had never seen anything like it before. I knew I had found my medium. I am skilled with oils, acrylics, watercolors and clay, but my medium chose me. I never would have guessed it would be markers. As artists, we have to discover within us the originality we behold. My originality oozes onto paper with markers.

For you, is art more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be an artist and why?

My art is equally about expression and creation. It completely depends on my message and where I am in my life at that particular moment.

Many artist focus on one particular subject or style. How important is this for career development? Have you ever grown tired of painting the same types of things, and if so, can you tell us about it?

I do not follow the rules of the art world. I create whatever moves me. Thankfully, I am most moved by people so the majority of my work is portraiture of some kind. I am very passionate about nude women. Our society has made a little tiny box for beauty. It is my greatest desire to smash that box. I want women to see that they are beautiful exactly as they are. There is no box. Beauty is vast.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

Definitely both. Being highly creative can be debilitating and empowering. It depends on the day.

During difficult or challenging times in your life, does creating art sooth or inspire you? Is it therapeutic in any way?

It is always therapeutic as I discussed earlier. Creating always soothes and inspires me.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive?

Oh yes, I have had many people misunderstand me. I simply explain to them the truth about me, and they can take it or leave it. It's my life.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your artistic goals? If so, can you tell us about it. Where do most of your ideas come from?

My ideas come from life in general. I am often inspired by certain women and need to draw them. I am constantly inspired by my son and my husband. My son is so genuine and talented. My husband's photography is what I use to work from. We are a true team. I love digging into myself as well which is why I do so many self portraits. The other part of success in art is the business aspect. It is imperative to have an intriguing biography and artist statement. It is also important to document exhibitions, charities, publications and awards. Buyers in the art world want to know about these things. I represent myself meaning I make all of the calls and write to the galleries etc. It's a full plate. I also sell a lot of prints and I design my own t-shirts. My site for that is ELIQ.

What do you believe places an artist apart from his or her peers? So many are highly talented, but what makes one stand out as truly gifted?

Integrity and style. If an artist has no integrity, his or her art will not move anyone. If an artist does not have their own unique style, they will be lost in the crowd. Learn the rules and then break them. After that is established, work your ass off at marketing your work. You have to have the determination to do it yourself.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

"Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it." Gandhi said that. To me, it means that I must do what is in my heart and be proud but always remember that I am just a speck as well. Humanity is equal in all ways. No one is better than anyone else. And while our actions may seem futile, they are still important. But they are not so important that we should ever become self absorbed or self righteous.

Learn more about Angelique and her art at her various websites:




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6527212 March 11, 2011

Astronomical Odds: Douglas Preston

"I know some writers who like to talk about it more than they do it, who've been writing a book for ten years."

If you've been following my blog, you know that I've been writing novels for over twenty years.  I've also been working full time, among other things that tend to suck up time.  One thing I can say for myself is that I've been consistent and dedicated.  Over the years, I've fought diligently to find time to write. 

And I have won that battle.

When I began painting three years ago, I viewed it as a crazy experiment.  With that said, I had a powerful urge for it.  All I wanted to do at that time was experience the feeling of sliding a brush dabbed in gooey paint across white canvas.  I wanted to know what that would feel like because I had so vividly experienced it in my mind.  It was similar to the desire for food, water, sex ... deep,  urgent, and animalistic.  I never believed I had the ability to create visual art despite my sometimes alarmingly active imagination.  I grew up assuming that every mind contained the same dynamic world that exists in mine.  That everyone could envision the detail, color, and complexity that I create and see in my head. 

I came to realize that's not the case. 

Just when I was beginning to think that I had pieced together the puzzle of who I am, I picked up that paint brush and bam! I realized I had only been focusing on one area of a puzzle that is much larger and more complex.  I'm still trying to understand and define my creative place in the world, but after twenty years of writing and only three years of painting, I realize that it's not exactly what I thought it was.

I don't know how many years my guest, bestselling author Douglas Preston, has been writing.  What I do know is that he's written over twenty successful books. 

In his interview, Douglas shares how he got his big start.  He was working at the American Museum of Natural History when he got a call from Lincoln Child, an editor at St. Martin's Press, asking if he'd be interested in writing a book. 

Twenty-five books later ... the rest is history.

What are the odds of that happening, you ask?  They're likely astronomical.  However, something similar happened to me.  When I was working at Johnson & Johnson, an editor from McGraw-Hill called to ask if I'd ever thought of writing a book.  The result was my first book, Six Sigma for Business Excellence.

So the immature, emotional child in me asks with a pout on my face, "How does Douglas now have twenty-five books published and I have only two?" 

The adult visionary in me replies, "Who cares?  Things happen for a reason."  I'm content with my journey, no matter how hard fought it may be.  My philosophy is that if I keep moving down my own personal road, I'll eventually reach my destination.  I don't care how many years it takes.  It is what it is.  I am who I am.  I don't need to be Douglas Preston, or any other fantastic author out there.  I'd only fail where they succeeded. 

I have failed where they succeeded.

After just three years of painting, this month my work is being shown in an international art show in New York City curated by Monkdogz Urban Art, one of the top contemporary art galleries in the world.  I've been told that the odds of that happening are beyond astronomical. 

My third book, Centerpieces, will be launched this summer. 

What's your writing story?

I had been writing a column in the magazine Natural History, published by the Museum, where I worked. An editor from St. Martin's Press named Lincoln Child, who had been reading my pieces, called me up and asked if I wanted to write a history of the Museum. I said yes -- and that became my first book, Dinosaurs in the Attic. After the book was published, I gave Linc a tour of the Museum -- at midnight. I showed him all the best places in the Museum to which I had access--the dinosaur bone storage room, the collection of 30,000 rats in jars of alcohol, the whale eyeball collection, the preserved mastodon stomach with its last meal inside, and a lot of other unusual things. We ended up in the Hall of Late Dinosaurs around 2:00 a.m., with only the emergency lights on, the great black skeletons looming in the darkness around us--and Linc turned to me and said: "Doug, this is the scariest damn building in the world. Let's write a thriller set in here." And that was the birth of Relic, and of our partnership.

Was there someone in particular who inspired you to love books and/or take an interest in writing?

There are certain teachers and librarians who encouraged me -- most particularly the late Darcy O'Brien, who was a professor at Pomona College where I went to school. He was writing his novel, A Way of Life, Like Any Other, when I took a creative writing class from him, and he shared with us the drafts of his novel. It was an extraordinary experience. His novel was rejected by 26 publishers and finally published--and then it won the prestigious Hemingway Award! So he was both a great teacher and a lesson in the perversity of the publishing business.

Where do most of your creative ideas come from?

They come from every direction -- from personal experience to articles in magazines, news stories, factoids on the web, and most of all from my extensive world travels. The key is always being open to a new idea, because we are surrounded by a sea of brilliant ideas, if only we can open our eyes and see them.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

I was doing research on potter's fields when I came across a strange factoid: that in New York City, sometimes limbs amputated in hospitals are not treated as medical waste, but are placed in a small coffin and buried on Hart Island, New York City's enormous potters field. I called up Linc and in twenty minutes we had worked out the basic plot to Gideon's Sword.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? How so?

Both. It may have made me difficult to deal with at times, but I find the writer's life to be ideal, for me, if a bit lonely, and I have no regrets.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

Sometimes people don't respect a writer's working time. I've been interrupted by people in the middle of the day for various trivial things -- people who, for example, would never call me in the middle of the day if I were a corporate lawyer or an auto mechanic. But that's rare. My family has always been very supportive. They get it.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your writing goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role discipline and organization play in reaching creative goals?

Writing is like exercise or playing the violin: you have to do it every day. You have to carve out uninterrupted time. And then you have to have the discipline to stay at your desk and write, write, write. I know some writers who like to talk about it more than they do it, who've been writing a book for ten years. Sorry, unless you're writing Ulysses I don't buy it. Discipline is huge. Even after twenty five books, I find myself looking for every excuse not to write.

You're written both as a solo author, and as part of a team. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of both scenarios?

Writing with a partner has a lot of advantages. You have someone to brainstorm with, bounce ideas off, not to mention a partner who shares your triumphs and tragedy. Writing is a lonely business. The downside is that you share credit for a piece of work. But for me, that's not at all a problem. Linc is the best writing partner anyone could ask for.

You've also written both fiction and nonfiction. How do you see creativity playing a role in nonfiction?

Creativity plays a huge role in nonfiction. Real life is messy, formless, sprawling, and mostly boring. The key with nonfiction is to extract the story from this formless mass, to boil it down to its key elements, to order it so the reader can follow it--and on top of that, to be absolutely accurate both in fact and in spirit. This to me is more difficult than fiction and it takes a great creativity.

What's next for Douglas Preston?

I'm working with Linc on a new Gideon novel, Gideon's Corpse. We're having a wonderful time writing this book.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

Compassion. The word says it all.

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6527212 February 23, 2011

Parentless Parent: Allison Gilbert

The scarecrow could not understand why she wished to leave this beautiful country and go back to the gray place called Kansas. "That's because you have no brains," answered the girl. "No, matter how dreary and gray our homes are, people would rather live there than anywhere else.  There is no place like home."

L. Frank Baum

Almost all of my childhood memories before age nine are in black and white.  I think I've said that before. Why do I keep saying it?  Why do I keep drifting back to that gray, long ago place?  It's getting ridiculous.  I used to carry the shame of that overwhelming lack of color on my shoulders.  Now, at middle age, I'm beginning to feel the shame associated with still not being able to fill the hole it left me.

Most people don't understand the deep reaching impact of growing up with an emotionally disturbed parent, one who ensnares you with their sad brand of charm, makes you their caregiver, their lifeline when they have nothing else.  Most people can't imagine a five-year-old child somehow rising up to parent a parent, to provide an emotional load of assistance, and what the cost can be.  As the child rises up, they are left with a sinking hole, a blank spot that can never be filled because the time to fill it was that day, that year, that moment.  The moment was lost.

When I was twelve-years-old, my mother said that God told her that my daddy was going to die so that she could marry our pastor.  We were in our car going somewhere.  She told me this as if it were a casual FYI.  I asked her about the pastor's wife, and she replied that perhaps she would die as well.  That instant sticks in my mind as one of the single most devastating moments of my life.  It was the moment when I realized something was horribly wrong.  I remember staring out of the car window as I felt my heart break in a brand new way that only happens when you're finally old enough to grasp the notion that life is filled with complexity.

I somehow lost my mom that day.  Since then, I've lost her over and over again.  I keep trying to find her, to pull her back, to make her see me, to make her love me.  I keep wanting to find that gray place when we were both so young again because it was my home when everything was simple, when all I felt was my overwhelming, pure love for her.

It's just not working.  

Life is often ironic. A few days after I spoke with today's guest, Allison Gilbert, about her new book, Parentless Parents, I lost my mom ... perhaps for the last time. 

Once again, she is here but not here.

Allison has explored and written about the challenges of raising children when your own parents are missing from the puzzle; they are deceased.  I asked her about folks whose parents may still be alive, yet emotionally or physically out of reach. She recognized that there are similarities, but explained that Parentless Parents focuses on the singular situation of deceased parents.

Soon after I spoke with Allison, I happened to call my mother at a time when she was working to balance her monthly budget.  She spoke about her finances, and became more and more agitated.  Then she said, "Adult children who do not provide for their parents should be prosecuted under the law!"  As you can imagine, this was a loaded statement packed with years and years of struggle. In my heart, a five-year-old heard the words, "I need you to take care of me!"  I remained calm, knowing that if I became upset, she would become more upset.  Finally, I said, "I doubt that adult children could be prosecuted under the law, based on the fact that their parents have had years and years to make numerous adult decisions regarding their own financial well-being."  I was attempting to provide a logical answer that she might relate to.

It didn't work.

Within an hour, my husband and I received a abusive email informing me that I was no longer her daughter ... again.

So here I sit, a parentless parent in my own category.  Regardless of its primary focus, I need to read Allison's book.

You've worked in television news for nearly twenty years, and have won numerous awards, including three Emmys. I'm sure you did a lot of writing in that professional space. What inspired your focus on book-length projects?

It's really was a gift.  I felt that TV news provides an incredible opportunity to cover the most important news of the day, but no matter what, an article can only have a certain number of words, or television story only allows for a certain amount of time. So I felt that if I was going to use all the same skills, then I was going to use all those tools toward a project that I had much more opportunity to explore. I wanted to put those tools to use on a topic that meant so much to me personally.

You write nonfiction. Is that what you've always wanted to do, and if so, why? Will that continue to be your focus?

Yes!  I think so.  I really enjoy it!

I always enjoy asking writers who focus on nonfiction how creativity plays a role in their work. Do you view creativity as a component in your work? If so, how and why?

For sure!  Even though it's nonfiction and it's based on very real facts and interviews, I believe that how we pick and choose what to include and in what order to include them has everything to do with creativity. That is because you do want people to enjoy the books they read. You want people to want to turn each page. Picking and choosing what stories to tell, and how to tell them, determines how interesting the book is to people. It's all about creativity.

You've written several books. Have you developed a specific writing process that enables you to meet your goals? If so, can you tell us about it. Where do most of your ideas come from?

I get up really early!  So my process is to do the work when everyone is sleeping because I feel that my day is never long enough.  I create time where I didn't have time before, and so I continually get up at the crack of dawn. I have coffee. The house is quiet. I'm able to be in my work space for a few hours.  That's really the best tool I have. I carve out a time when nobody is going to interrupt me.  This has been a real gift.

With regard to your current focus, Parentless Parents, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

There are two parts to that answer:

(1) After my last book came out, Always Too Soon, the one part that everyone wanted to keep talking about was how the loss of our parents impacts and shapes how we parent our children.  I thought that was really interesting. That was the primary issue that everyone wanted to talk about. 

(2) The other part was me.  It was my personal story.  I was dealing with being a parentless parent day in and day out.  

So in response to my readers, the topic emerged as something important for me to take on both professionally and personally.

In conducting research for my novel, Aberrations, I read Hope Edelman's books on Motherless Daughters. The protagonist of Aberrations is motherless; however, my interest in writing about a motherless daughter was driven by my own profound feeling of motherlessness, which existed despite my mother being alive. She was there but not there. Did you come across any research related to situations where the parent(s) may be alive, but yet emotionally or physically absent from the family unit? Can you share your thoughts on any similarities or differences between the two scenarios?

That's a really good question!  My research was extremely focused.  There are so many variables that could have been included, such as parents who were emitionally or physically absent, parents who may have been incarcerated, etc.  There are a lot of reasons why parents are not involved.  Because of my experience that they were gone due to illness and eventual death, I kept my focus very limited.

Your web site has tons of great information for parentless parents. Can you tell us about some of the top issues that parentless parents face emotionally, and why?

There is something I write about called the I factor, where I stands for irreplaceable.  This refers to the loses that are specific to losing one's parents via death. It's not about parents wishing they had more babysitters, for example, because that's a very easy thing for people to brush aside. For example, they could say, "Well, my parents live in California and I live in Idaho so they can't babysit either." I tried to come up with the I factor as a way of explaining why there are the differences in being a parentless parent versus not being parentless. 

One of the big differences is not having a connection to your own childhood in terms of a direct link.  It's often those very specific and detailed tidbits for which a parentless parent lacks access. Parentless parents read blogs and parenting books, and do all the things you do as educated group, but the real information they need is specific to them. They are never going to get that info from those other avenues. Really important details that could impact their parenting choices are lost forever.

Not having a parent or parents, whether deceased or emotionally absent, is one of those major aberrations in life that are thrust upon us. There must be a loneliness factor involved. Is it only me who has that big hole, or is it there for everyone? If so, can a person ever really fill that space? Could it be that the gap exists only in cases where the relationship was lacking as opposed to losing a parent with whom there existed a healthy relationship? Can you comment on this?

I think there are going to be tremors of the loss or aberration forever.  It becomes part of your DNA. It becomes part of your fabric. It becomes a part of who you are.  I believe there are many things you can do, not to completely fill the void because I actually do think that's impossible, but rather to put a very healing and effective band-aid on top of the wound. 

What I mean by that is finding support.  It's hugely important that anyone who has an aberration of any sort connect with people who are of the same mind set and experience.  Finding support groups, whether in person or on line, is incredibly important.  For example, people are joining the chapters of Parentless Parents, which are spreading out across the country.  Those are great places to go; in person connections are really important.  Also, I think the Parentless Parent group page on Facebook is another great place.  So many people are on line and on Facebook already, so for people to be able to easily, and in the course of their general day, check in and connect with others who are in a similar situation is another incredible value. It helps folks feel supported. 

The last thing I would say is that family doesn't have to be what you're born with.  I truly believe in the soul of my souls that family is what you also create.  It's your best friend.  It's your aunt who may be a fill in for you mom.  Maybe it's your best friend's mom.  Maybe it's just people who you've met in the course of your life, or on Facebook who may get you perhaps better than your own spouse does. 

What was so interesting about the surveys I did is that so many people who were happily married felt that even their spouses didn't understand where they were coming from. 

People process these aberration differently.  It's a matter of putting yourself in a place where you can connect with people who can proactively make all the difference in your world.

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6527212 February 08, 2011

Art of the Nude: Ilene Skeen

"It's a dangerous thing to believe that one part of you is at war with another.  It's not a good message to teach children; it leads to all kinds of trouble."

Growing up in the Deep South during the decade of free love and the one that followed, I was taught that my body was the worst thing about me.  What did it do? I wondered. Oh, it wasn't what it did, it was what it was going to do. Flesh was synonymous with sin, and we were all infected.  Apparently, only with God's help could I ever dream of overcoming my lustful nature.  I was taught to search for a way out of my own skin before I even had the chance to get comfortable.

I don't blame my parents; we were all part of a larger societal picture.  I stood at its center, gigantic plaid bows on either side of my tiny head, wondering how I could ever be a good person inside such a nasty shell.  The packaging I couldn't possibly escape was a large part of why I was so unfairly doomed from day one. Although that painful fight never quite made sense to me, I tried to fit in; to do the right thing.  I struggled to be as gosh darn good as everyone else appeared.

This led to all kinds of trouble. Self fulfilling prophecies ran rampant.  Needless to say, I failed.  The guilt and shame was unbearable. Remembering it now makes me sad, and a bit angry.  When I should have been celebrating my youth, I was waging a full scale, unnecessary war against myself.

Years rush by ...

Now I've gone and done it.   

When Bob Hogge (Monkdogz Urban Art) suggested that I step outside my comfort zone and paint a few nudes, I wasn't sure if I could pull it off.  It wasn't so much the actual painting that bothered me. The dark shadow of those old battles caused me to shake a bit in my boots although the war had long been over.  But because I've grown stronger than my past, I forged ahead.  Doing so enabled me to move to a new level in my painting. 

My guest today, Ilene Skeen, knows a thing or two about the great nude. She's become a champion of the art form. Unlike myself, Ilene was taught from an early age that questioning the world around her and formulating her own opinions is a great thing.  As an artist, the complexity of nude art has always fascinated Ilene. In 2003, after retiring from a technology-focused career in the publishing industry, she decided to create a web site devoted to the art of the nude.  After studying anthropology to gain a greater understanding of the cultural issues around art, she launched Barebrush.com in 2006.

On Thursday, February 10th, the first "brick and mortar" Barebrush art show will open at The Rogue Space Gallery in New York City.   

So this week in the Big Apple, the kid from the Deep South who was taught to wage war against her own body will cross paths with the kid from the Northeast who learned that thinking for yourself is a wonderful thing.  We'll find ourselves surrounded by flesh.  As Ilene puts it, we won't see "a shell of meat that has no spirit or a spirit that has no shape."  Instead, we'll immerse ourselves in an exquisite sea of full-bodied art to be appreciated and celebrated.  I plan to stand there, head held high, finally at peace with myself.

I can't wait.

Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am," spurring the cultural idea that the soul resides within the mind. Let's not forget the profound significance of that tender, vulnerable shell cradling it all.  For it's the two together who make us who we all are.

How has creativity shaped your life?

I’ve always been two-sided, being strong in both analytical thinking and creativity. I’ve never been purely one-sided. This is a key part of who I am. When I went to art school years ago, I didn’t receive any skills training. They just told me to be creative. Well, that didn’t work for me. At the end of my education, I wasn't confident that I could be an artist so I went into the business world. My creativity and analytical skills served me well there.  When I found myself unexpectedly retired in 2003, Barebrush emerged as my project.

How did Barebrush.com come about? Was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

Around 2000, I was selling art through Yahoo auctions. Then Yahoo changed its rules and it became uneconomical.  However, I continued to paint.  When I retired, I decided that I was most interested in why people need to create art.  I tried to find the answer to this through an art history course, but they told me that’s not what art history is about. I ended up getting an MS in anthropology.  They invited me to study this question. After I earned my MS, I revamped my website, which had been on hold. In doing that, I realized that a group of artist on the same site would be much more interesting than just one artist. My watercolor series was called the Barebrush, hence the name. In 2006, I grabbed the domain name and drew my logo. Armed with a web site name and a logo, I bought a full year worth of advertising from Gallery Guide.  I knew I was going to do it.

I think the Gallery Guide guy thought I was crazy, but it worked out.

When I began painting nudes, my youngest daughter (age 10 at the time) asked me why I was painting naked people. She thought it was weird. I told her that many artists enjoy painting things from nature such as landscapes, animals, trees, water, etc., and that the human body is an important part of that. We represent a major aspect of nature and we shouldn't ignore that. She thought it made sense. Perhaps the answer is obvious, but from your perspective, why do some people have difficulty embracing nude art?

It’s a very good question! I’ve come to the conclusion that religion and the public school system teaches us that our minds are superior to our bodies. Many of us are taught that our bodies are either inferior, sinful, or something to be ashamed of. Artists who do nudes are concentrating on something that the rest of us are told we shouldn’t pay attention to.

Only athletes and dancers are encouraged to focus on their bodies. It’s an insidious and wrong approach. The mind doesn’t work without the body, and vice versa. You are one person with both aspects.  It's a dangerous thing to believe that one part of you is at war with another.  It's not a good message to teach children; it leads to all kinds of trouble. I’m really against it.

Have you always had an interest in art of the nude, and if so, why? Will that continue to be your focus moving forward? 

The first time I drew from the nude was first day of college. In my first art class on the first day, there was a male nude. Three or four people got up and walked out.  The teacher said, “Okay, that’s the way to eliminate people who are really not serious about art." (And in those days, male nudes models wore jock straps.) It so impressed me and it’s such a challenge.  I'm endlessly fascinated, so yes, I will continue. I’ve done other things – people, clothes, portraits, landscapes. But nothing fascinates me like the challenge of trying to represent both the physical and the spirit at the same time. That’s what I try to do, representing the body fairly, but more importantly, I try to bring out the essence of the person. I try to present the body as one the way I believe it is, not a shell of meat that has no spirit or a spirit that has no shape. I am dedicated and focused on that.

Nudes will continue to be the main focus for Barebrush, recognizing that there is a lot of other art. I was also interested in the controversy of nude art.  It is held apart, yet after a while I realized that nude art is just as much a part of life as our landscapes and pots. If I showed them all, then folks who shudder to think of looking at a nude may actually do so. My idea with Barebrush is to raise or increase the number of people who are aware of and can appreciate the art of the nude. I’ve had to walk a fine line with the other genres to make sure we don’t lose our main focus – nudes.

Kelly Borsheim
Have you had any major set backs regarding your creative endeavors that you can share with us? If so, how did you manage to keep moving forward?

Art school was a major set back because it confused me. I earned an art teaching degree, but decided that I couldn’t inflict my confusion on little kids.  I couldn’t bear the thought of not understanding what I was teaching, so I decided to keep my art to myself. For a long time I didn’t paint; I did other things. I found a lot of outlets in my regular work to use my creativity in positive ways, and I was well paid. I got into computers early on. Writing programs--making something out of nothing--fascinated me. You’re given a vague idea and then create what others envision. I would analyze, spec it out,  ask questions, research and put a design forward that would solve the business problem. There's a lot of creativity in solving business problems.

Eventually I got back to art. I began studying it. In the 90s, I took a course at the New York Botanical Gardens. For the first time, I was taught skills--perspective, shading, etc. So I have a certification in botanical illustration. The skills I learned brought me back to the nude. I decided to apply them to what I was most interested in. 

Aberration Nation focuses on creativity and life's aberrations. Some folks out there may believe that being so focused on nude art is an aberration in itself. Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

I have to say that I was encouraged to think for myself when I was a kid, to look at facts and make my own decisions. I was not brought up to be one of the herd. I don’t think my parents did that purposefully to make me into a nonconformist. They just taught me to look at situations and assess facts.

I’m a pretty poor politician because I blurt out things that I probably shouldn’t say. I’ve learned over the years to keep my mouth shut and stop the tongue before it gets off the deep end.  In general, I’ve learned to stand up for the truth, for what’s right. I’ve had examples from my family that inspired me that way. If standing up for the truth and standing up for yourself is an aberration then at least whether you win or lose, you know you did the right thing. There’s no point in sitting something out, or having something you regret bothering you for the rest of your life.

Penelope Przekop
Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

I think I’ve had trouble being understood since day one so I’m used to it by now. You just have to keep going.

Do you think there is a difference between creativity and talent? What are your thoughts on this?

For me, neither of these words have any real meaning. I believe in focus and hard work. If you know your basics and you work hard at it, you can get there.  I suppose creativity is the ability to put things together that are not obvious, and talent is the ease at which you do it.  You have to put in the time and effort to become skilled. Yes, it’s easier for some people, but none of us are going to be Michelangelo in a week. He didn’t become Michelangelo in a week. I believe that if you focus, work hard, and then assess what you’ve done ... you make progress. As you make progress, things fall into place and people say, "You're so talented!  You're so creative!"

Michael Seif
You've stated that the upcoming "brick and mortar" Barebrush show will be the first of many. What is your vision for Barebrush?

I would love for the shows to continue! What I’m hoping for is the ability to connect art dealers with our artists. It’s happening in a small way in that some of the art in this show has representation. If there is interest, there will be a dealer involved who will make the sale for the artist. Rather than get the Internet to take the place of the dealer, I’m trying to attract artists who know how to get folks excited about their work.I would like Barebrush to provide a way to promote and manage art.  Then also provide artists with an  invitational show in New York City.

Sandro La Ferla
My plan is to start focusing on other genres as well.  I also envision 'click and buy' technology being part of the Barebrush site (with only a small, reasonable commission for Barebrush).  The other genres will be bigger. Nudes represent only 5% of the art market. The other genres could have their own shows ... so I think I’ll be pretty busy.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

It’s hard for me to say off the bat. I really have a hard time following an authority just because someone says to do so. I learned that from the type of family I had. I was taught that you could get things right without having to tear the house down to do it.

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6527212 January 27, 2011

Beautiful Alien: Emily Lisker

"I always knew I was a Martian of sorts."

About ten years ago, my brother, my mother, and I had a conversation about high school.  My brother commented about how everyone around him seemed to be from another planet--not his.  Then my mother went on to describe similar perceptions.

I sat, quietly, choosing not to offer up my own story.  Doing so seemed as if it would somehow belittle my own memories. Listening to them, I wondered if every teenager feels that way, or if we simply were different as a family, that maybe we shared certain oddities due to our genetic code.

I felt sad that I failed to realize during those years that my brother, who is just over a year my senior, was feeling so much like I was.  We somehow missed a valuable opportunity to connect and find some solace within the family. We were lonely together and lonely apart.

After all these years, I'm not convinced that every teenager feels like an alien.  Perhaps they do for a moment, a day, or even weeks at a time.  For some of us, it has been a lifetime.  Like my guest today, artist Emily Lisker, I've learned " ... to counterbalance. My whole body is my antenna, it's very intense physically and sensually to be a human on this earth. I try not to push my emotional limits, instead I try to live like a farmer, early to bed, early to rise, fertilizing and nurturing my crops."

In my non-scientific research into the hearts and souls of creatives, I've noticed that more artists than writers have relayed this feeling of being alien.  I've always thought of myself as a writer, first and foremost; however, I can say without any hesitation that I grew up feeling like the biggest, brightest alien in the Universe. I was an avatar, creeping around inside an unfamiliar body.

I recognized my alien nature as young as 4 or 5 years old.  I knew I was different.  My major flawed assumption was: Something is wrong with me!  I held onto that belief for years.  It guided my early life, creating a self fulfilling prophesy.  I also assumed that I was different for a reason, and that became my great counterbalance. My dream in life was to find that reason.

Everyone is different.  Each person is unique and to be celebrated. I absolutely believe that.  It may be politically incorrect to say so, but some people are significantly different in various ways.  They are outliers on the graph of what's normal.  Some of us realize early that we are dangling on a bell curve tail.

I've never met Emily. I can't tell you where she actually fits on the curve.  All I know is that she gets it. I suspect that I could sit with her and describe my life, and she would get it. More and more I question the significance of my realization that most of the artists I interview seem to get it more than the writers. What does that mean about me, and where I'm headed?

I will always be a writer, but I'm becoming an artist.  It feels right.

What's your story (in a nutshell)?

I was from a family of artists in Westchester, New York. My parents and step-parents were in different aspects of advertising. I ran away from home, first to Brooklyn and then Chinatown in NYC, then finally to Providence RI at age 17. I worked odd jobs, then enrolled at the RI School of Design and studied painting, literature, and photography. After graduation I became a freelance illustrator for magazines, newspapers, theater productions, children's books, etc. Eventually I decided it was time to make paintings.

How long did it take to establish yourself as an artist?

I got hooked on drawing and painting as a young child, and never stopped. I had a lot of artistic confidence by the time I graduated from college, and then got lucky landing a lot of illustration work right away. Editorial illustration disappeared with the advent of the computer, so I started over with children's books. In publishing, though, you don't so much establish an artistic record as establish a sales record, and I became weary of that attitude. So I started over again, trying to establish myself as a painter. I'm 50 now, and I have a respectable local reputation. Thanks to the Internet, I got hooked on publishing my words and paintings online, and that has certainly increased my audience.

I've seen a lot of strange art in galleries, as well as more traditional pieces. How do you define great art? Is it more about the technique or emotion? What the heck is it about?

Art can be a pyramid of tomato cans in an Italian grocery store - it's about vision, not about the art object. Inspiration for that vision comes from all places. I have no idea how to define great art and I'm not sure I could for another person. I just know that I am constantly engaged in making art, and it comes out through all of my senses and pores. I exercise my receptivity - the more avenues I have to express my vision, the deeper and more widespread my receptivity. If you are doing your work your appetite increases.

But the vision has to be true. There can be no falseness, no compromise. I recently saw art that moved me and changed my life because it was visionary, and it was sincere. You can smell the slightest insincerity. The artist in this case was self-taught, his craft exquisite, but it was his vision, the truth of it, that made for greatness in my eyes.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

I believe we must counter the forces in our schools and our society that say unless you are THE BEST at something, you are not allowed. Imagine if everyone shared their food and played music with their neighbors and walked everywhere, rather than hiding in their pod cars and houses, hiding behind computer screens? Yes, I am a dreamer and an idealist, but this belief is very meaningful to me. I worry about a society that is not stressing the vital importance of making music, art, poetry as part of daily life. Don't give creating over to the celebrities! Embrace it, love it, encourage it in each other! It's about engaging in life in this moment and all moments. Be alive! Live!

For you, is making art more about creation or expression? It can be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be an artist and why?

I'm not sure I know the difference between creation and expression, or, maybe for me there is no difference. My imagination is like a wild horse that needs daily runs, a stall, hay, and carrots. My imagination must be used, otherwise I get stuck on worrying and making myself miserable. I call creating the opening of the ziti. I open, I receive, something moves through me, I visit another planet, I look over the edge at the abyss. What comes of that is my expression. I never really know what that will be, and it isn't really the point. The creative energies will turn to disease if they are not harnessed and expressed.

Many artists focus on one particular subject or style. How important is this for career development? Have you ever grown tired of painting the same types of things, and if so, can you tell us about it?

I wouldn't know anything about career development, or the development of style. My audience tells me that I have a distinct style, but it's not what I focus on. When I am painting, I first sketch freely on canvas until an image strikes me as being something I'd like to develop further. Certain images may come up repeatedly in a batch of paintings, then over time new obsessions take over. I never run out of ideas. Its a bit like how I write. I write spontaneously in longhand, and stuff jumps out at me to develop. Then I write, standing at my computer and moving words around.

What I take in from reading and looking worms its way into my imagination while I walk and sleep, and things develop unconsciously. Visually I've developed a language, a style, which evolves naturally and organically through regular visits to the studio. I don't worry about it. My vocabulary is always evolving. I had a fabulous art teacher in high school. She used to show us slides from art history, not letting us draw or paint right away until we'd filled up, bursting to express. I still do this. When researching to solve illustration jobs I always load up on imagery. Now my writing makes me hunger for reading ten books at once. As I play the sax I hear everything more, just like drawing makes you see more.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? 

I had to look up aberration to help me with this one.

1. A deviation from the proper or expected course. A deviation from what is normal, expected, or usual.

2. A departure from the normal or typical (aberrations from the norm).

3. Psychology A disorder or abnormal alteration in one's mental state.

I guess I can relate to all of it. When people admire my imagination and humor, they see me as crazy, in a fun way. When they see the truth behind what I do, they are terrified. That is the artist's role, to be the fool, the jester, and also the prophet, the myth maker. I am actually very non-crazy. I continually try to ground myself through writing, walking my dog for miles each day, baking bread, washing my clothes. I have always had a delicate chemistry that can carry me up, up, and away. So rather than fly off like a rocket I have learned to counterbalance. My whole body is my antenna, it's very intense physically and sensually to be a human on this earth. I try not to push my emotional limits, instead I try to live like a farmer, early to bed, early to rise, fertilizing and nurturing my crops.

I guess you are asking about crazy artist syndrome. I do see the world from the ceiling as if I were dangling from a swinging chandelier, and this is helpful for my art. As a child I noticed the differences, for example, between myself and my older, more conventional sister. I figured some part of my brain had melted from the ether I was given during my tonsillectomy. My husband says no, silly, you were born this way. Biologically I am blessed with a sensitive temperament, moodiness, and all sorts of stuff I've had to befriend and ultimately respect. I've needed to figure myself out. Read, read, read, hunt down books at the library! Libraries are the churches of my heart.

During difficult or challenging times in your life, does writing soothe or inspire you? Is it therapeutic in any way?

Totally. I started writing as suicide prevention. I tell this to everyone because it was that bad, and writing worked to lift me up S-L-O-W-L-Y one word at a time. When I wanted to build my own guillotine to chop off my head, my friend Susan said to me, "Try writing." When I started keeping a journal, I actually went to the window to make sure there wasn't someone there to shoot me for writing. That's when I knew I should keep writing, that writing was important, and that I had things to say.

Painting grabbed me at age 12, especially when my step-father introduced me to an amazing painter who was exhibiting in a Soho sidewalk sale. But it worried my parents when I was in high school that I was chasing poets, not boys. I still would prefer being in my studio or walking my dog or dancing in my living room to Brave Combo than being most anywhere else. The poets are my heroes, they are our national treasures, our royalty. I look to them to understand my job.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it? 

Only my husband and fellow artists REALLY understand me to the core. People are either frightened, entertained, or recognize me as a fellow traveler. Mostly they are frightened. I have taken the word friend out of my vocabulary. It gets me in trouble. I have acquaintances, pals, audience. I do not generally hang out with people.

It has been crucial for me to recognize that I can support my drive without apology. I've never had a huge desire to be normal, or to fit in, or be cool (perhaps I knew it was impossible!) so in this way I have been extremely lucky. I see many people get caught up and distracted by this need. I always knew I was a Martian of sorts. I was also lucky that my few high school friends were poets. I didn't suffer peer damage but I did suffer family tribal damage.

How did I deal with it? I ran away to a safe place, and I sank into my art. Nothing else worked. I couldn't drink or take drugs, they've never helped. I still loathe parties. I now think I was lucky in this way. My life is still beginning anew each day. I am excited that I will be teaching art again to high school students. That was a crucial age for me growing up. Having mentors and adult artists in my life helped me envision a path. So I'm excited about being part of this for students now.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your artistic goals? If so, can you tell us about it. Where do most of your ideas come from?

I am drawn to work, to communicate, and I am drawn to the solitude I need in order to do so. As a kid it was because I had a crush on this artist or that poet, etc. But now I am motivated to communicate in both a personal and creative sense. My ideas come from feeding myself food, literally and metaphorically: imagery, story, music, but also getting out each day walking, and really sleeping well at night too. All of this ferments in the brain and the magic is how it comes out. I love what Ray Bradbury said, "Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way."

He also said:

"If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories - science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world."

Isn't that wonderful? That's how I feel.

What do you believe places an artist apart from his or her peers? So many are highly talented, but what makes one stand out as truly gifted?

I'm not sure I can be the judge of that. Perhaps it's about having a particular vision or take on things. I know that when an artist has affected me I don't see the world the same way again. Last night I read Haywire, a book of poetry by George Bilgere. This morning at five AM I woke up from a dream and raced to my desk to get down the words inspired by the book. His poems had been messing with my head while I was asleep, and I am grateful. This happens a lot when you eat good poetry, art, music.

A few months ago I saw the art of Stephen Huneck. I had my library find a book of his art, and I spent all night reading about him and looking at his art. My life has been forever changed. When I first heard Brave Combo's music, I sobbed I loved it so much, and felt I had wasted my whole life not being a musician. So I began playing music. Obviously their music released something important in me. Years ago I read The Fire Eaters by Bill Cobb, and I was forever changed. I had to write!

I love to write fan letters. It's a habit that started when I was 13 and wrote to some of the illustrators my step-father represented. He was their agent, and I would bring home samples of their work and study them. I often got to meet them in their studios. It is so important for kids to meet artists. Still to this day I write thank you notes to poets and musicians and playwrights whose art has affected me. I am actually shy, so letter-writing is how I converse. I never expect a reply, but I have had lovely experiences corresponding with some of them. And once in a while what I am doing interests them, too, and then it's a lucky love-fest.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

Communicate! Connect! Envision, all through your art! I guess I am communing with life when I engage in these things. Now that I am fifty I want to make sure I pass along the enthusiasm to the ones in my community just starting. I write, I paint, I play music, and I need to do it all, to keep dancing! My name means emulate, and perhaps that is what I do. I try everything in the banquet of life.

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6527212 January 11, 2011

Incendiary: Chris Cleave

" ... literature is my tool of persuasion."

The term incendiary has a lot to do with bombs, as does Chris Cleave's latest novel, INCENDIARY (launched today by Simon & Schuster).  Incendiary also means "tending to inflame the senses," and "a person who stirs up strife, sedition, etc.; an agitator." 

I spent last year writing a novel which I dedicated to my mother.  After reading several pages, she shut it down.  She refuses to read it. It agitated her, stirred up strife, and inflamed her senses in such a way that she couldn't bear to continue ... not even for her daughter.  

A big part of my wanting to write the novel (DUST) was to persuade my mother to open up and finally see my perspective regarding who I am, who we are together, and what we are missing.  In the best way I know how, I committed myself to expressing my opinions about the deepest and most serious issues in our adult relationship.  I knew that those opinions and emotions reflect various universal truths that go beyond one mother and her daughter, thus providing the basis for a great novel.

It wasn't an easy story to write.

Yes, a part of me is devastated that she won't read the book.  That pain has already been neatly packaged and tucked away by all those efficient coping mechanisms I worked so hard to create and perfect beginning the day I emerged into my mother's stressful life.  Meanwhile, the manuscript sits in my computer now, a lonely file, waiting to be discovered by someone who will not only read it, but who will also appreciate its intrinsic literary and entertainment value.

Hearing this strife-filled, family drama, sob story, you might ask, "Did you say entertainment?" 

Absolutely!  Like all my novels, DUST not only serves as an enlightening, persuasive work of art, it also aims to absorb, enthrall, engross, captivate, and even provide a little comic relief.  In the end, I seek to entertain.  In the words of my guest today, author Chris Cleave, "Although my work has a strong persuasive element, I aim to write novels that are joyful and interesting things, rather than political tracts." 

After all, isn't that what truth in literature is all about?  Regardless of our views, ideologies, religions, politics, etc, our shared humanity is what enables us to understand and ultimately navigate through the perplexing landscape surrounding us ... wherever that may be.  Each of us is absorbing, enthralling, captivating, and even comical.  We are all part of a universal story.

My 22-year-old daughter pointed out, "If your mother was actually capable of reading and understanding the book, you'd never have written it." 

As a creative individual, I've come to terms with who I am.  I'm a person who can write a book like DUST, a book I believe in despite my own mother wanting to bomb it.  It relays something important to the world; it contains truth.  In a weird sort of way, my amazing mother gave me that gift.

I'll not stop hoping that someday she'll read and understand my words.  Until then, I'll continue to accept the support and peace of mind I gain from the wonderful guests on Aberration Nation.  When I read the inspiring words of folks like Chris Cleave, Marya Hornbacher, Antwone Fisher, Darin Strauss, Tom Grimes and all the others, I am renewed.  I carry on, believing that someday I will also be heard.

What's your writing story? Tell us how LITTLE BEE became such a success. Beyond being a fantastic novel, were there any specific pivotal events or situations that helped fuel its success?

I started writing when I was a kid – I drew satirical cartoons about our schoolteachers to make my friends laugh. I wrote a few novels that weren’t much good, and then in 2003 I quit my job, just before our first child was born, so that I could try to write full-time. I’ve had two novels published since then – INCENDIARY in 2005 and LITTLE BEE in 2008 – but I’ve written two or three more that were a bit too weird to publish. INCENDIARY has just been re-released by my publishers, which I’m delighted about because I think it’s my best work and I think people will enjoy it. I’m currently nearly finished on what I’m sure will be my third published novel.

Beyond the work itself, there are several factors that made LITTLE BEE a success.
  • First, I think the American reading public should take a lot of credit for taking the book to their hearts – it is after all quite a political and a challenging novel at times - not what one might typically expect to be a bestseller. So, more power to them.
  • Second, booksellers were very important in launching the book. We didn’t have much of an advertising campaign, so it was the kind support of the independent booksellers and the public librarians that brought the book to people’s attention.
  • Third, I was lucky to get a lot of support from Borders, who put the book front-of-house pretty early on.
  • Fourth, I worked my ass off touring the book and trying to give an interview to everyone who wanted one, big or small.
  • Fifth, I worked hard online to tell people about the book.
Also, and most importantly, I had an incredible agent, a terrific editor, and a courageous publisher. That’s not always the case when a book is published, and that’s why there were better books than mine published this year that didn’t do as well as mine.

You have said, "I see my job as providing new information in an entertaining way." That vision is certainly apparent in LITTLE BEE. I've always wanted to write novels that not only entertain but also bring something new to the table for the reader, whether emotionally or intellectually. For me, entertainment alone just isn't enough when I consider how to spend my time, and how to explore, dissect, and/or share my world. Why is it important for you to write novels that surpass being merely entertaining?

I’m from London and I like the UK, but I think it’s fair to say that we don’t have much of a democracy. We have two houses of parliament: the smaller (the Commons) is elected by the public from a set of candidates appointed by the established political parties, and the other - the larger in terms of the number of members - is simply filled with political appointees and hereditary law-makers (the Lords). There are no primaries, no fixed term limits, and no written constitution to protect the political process from the rapacious interests of media and banking tycoons. The main parties are centrist, establishmentarian and weak, and the civil service runs rings around them.

Since I believe in the potential of the political process to make life better for people, but faced with the reality that one’s vote counts for very little in the UK, I’ve decided that the best way for me to be politically active is to work on changing public opinion about political issues such as terrorism and immigration, using persuasion rather than violence. Literature is my tool of persuasion, and happily I enjoy the work too. I aim to make books that are joyful and interesting things, rather than political tracts.

Was there someone in particular who inspired you to love books and/or take an interest in writing?

Yes, my incredible mother.

Where do most of your creative ideas come from?

I don’t know. I’m sorry. I just sit quietly and think about things, and ideas come into my mind. I know that’s an unsatisfactory answer and I’m sorry – but I just don’t know how my head works.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

I’m working on a book about athletes at the moment, and the relationship society has with them. The big moment for me was when I was starting the research, and I went to watch some high-level cycle racing. I saw a huge crash, in a criterium race in the rain, and I watched all these young men picking themselves up, bleeding profusely, and getting back on their bikes if they could. And it was freezing, and no one was getting paid much, and people were riding with broken bones. I finally understood the everyday suffering these people go through just so that one or two of them can prevail and the rest of us can get a nice patriotic feeling once every four years when we watch them race in the Olympics. It made me feel a bit sick.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? How so?

The work I do is creative, in the sense that I’m producing something out of nothing, and when that is channeled into a project that is going well, I get on a terrific high because it feels like magic. That in itself is a problem, because it means that I neglect everything else. And when the work is going badly, or I can’t get other people to like my work and I end up in a vortex of re-writing, I have this quite terrifying abandonment of everything else in my life as I struggle to make the work right, because I do believe in my stories and I am fiercely determined to make them work.

I love being a writer but I don’t find it an easy job. You’re working with strong forces, and strong people, and you can’t always be the master of them. That’s true in a lot of jobs, but few of those jobs are so solitary. I think that’s the crux of it – there’s no one to quietly tell you: enough.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

I have some wonderful people in my life – my wife and children, my family and friends. People are very kind to me on the whole, and I think they make allowances for the fact that I am sometimes preoccupied or reclusive. I just try to do my best, and I think people appreciate that’s all I can do. And most days, I think I’m pretty entertaining company. I hardly ever have problems with people.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your writing goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role discipline and organization play in reaching creative goals?

My default setting is to work all the time, so really my biggest creative challenge is not discipline or organization, but finding a way to switch off sometimes. That’s easier said than done.
  • First because (as in any worthwhile job) it’s exciting and it keeps you awake.
  • Second because you can’t really plan your time.
You might deliver a book after a year of very intense work, and be planning a month off to recuperate, but the publisher doesn’t love the book and you need to get back to work immediately, and on an even tighter deadline this time. Combine that with newspaper deadlines and family commitments, and you can see that the greatest challenge to your creativity is the very real prospect of burning out. I’m sure the creative challenge is the same for all writers – you need to find a way to sit down at your keyboard remembering that it is fun to be there.

What's next for Chris Cleave?

Deliver the new novel. Take a month off. Do things real men do, like shop for power tools and sledge across Alaska, eating the huskies if necessary.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

What a great question. I toyed with some glorious mottos that made me sound tenacious, brave and dashing, but in truth I suppose my motto is the same as any parent’s: “Try not to die or go mad until after your kids have left home and settled down.” I would rather my wonderful children remembered me as a good parent than a good writer, so my aim in life is to provide for them and have fun with them. Actually that’s a pretty good rule to live by, because it puts everything else in perspective.

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