Try this: Next time you come across someone’s work and you’re not sure exactly how they do it, don’t ask them how it’s done. Don’t go after the “right answer” like some eager honors student. Look closer. Listen harder. Then use your imagination and experiment with the tools you have. Your bad approximation will lead to something of your own.
I lived in Florence, Italy for two months during the heatwave summer of 2003, then I went back to Rome, Florence, and Venice for a week in 2004, but I hadn’t been back to the country until last week, when I had a talk in Turin, and added a couple days of extra days in Milan. I love the country and the style and the coffee and the language and the food and the way once you get out on a highway out in the farmland, it looks like you could be back in Ohio.
I was trying to remember how I planned my trips 13, 14 years ago… probably with a Rick Steves guidebook or something. This time, I just starred everything that seemed remotely interesting in Google Maps and downloaded the map to my phone so I could use it offline. (I didn’t realize that even in airplane mode, if you’re using Google Maps offline, you can see your location on the map.) I’d sort of plan my day in advance the night before, but then if I found myself in a certain part of the city, I’d just pull up the map and see what was starred nearby. I also printed out the Google Maps on paper and pasted them in my notebook, so I could take notes on where I went and what I saw.
Before I take a trip, I try to jot down a few notes about what I hope to get out of it. For this one, I told my wife I hoped to discover some things I couldn’t get in Texas, and if not that, maybe discover some things I could get in Texas that I haven’t discovered yet. (I’m suddenly reminded of a story from Dave Hickey’s Pirates and Farmers: Ed Ruscha got back from a trip to Italy, and when somebody asked him what he saw, he said, “Oh, lots of things, but nothing I could use.”)
What did I see? Lots of things. (And a few I think I can use. We’ll see.)
In Milan, I stayed in Brera, had dinner near the Bosco Verticale (“Vertical Forest”) with some folks at my Italian publisher, Vallardi. The next morning I walked the neighborhood, poked into the art academy, browsed an old library, observatory, and the wonderful botanical gardens, then headed down to the duomo and saw Warhol’s last supper at the Novecento. While waiting on De Santis (heavenly paninis!) to open, I wandered into an amazing church that turned out to be something like the Sistine Chapel of Milan. Walked in Sempione Park, watched people playing soccer, had a coffee in the design museum cafe, walked past the castle, then took a car to Turin.
In Turin, I saw a Bruno Munari show at the MEF, walked the river and watched the sun set, ate gelato under the crescent moon. The next day, I spoke in the Intesa Sanpaolo skyscraper with a terrific view, had lunch with magician Ferdinando Buscema, took the metro down to the mall in Lingotto and bought a 100 euros worth of Munari books at the wonderful Corraini store, then ate a plate of pasta at the famed Eataly. Next morning, I watched the mountains wake up, strolled Via Roma, caught the flea market, strolled some more.
Took a car back to Milan, walked the gorgeous cemetery Monumentale, visited Bruno Munari’s tomb, and had a beer with the great Olimpia Zagnoli, who signed a copy of her book I’d been coveting, La Grande Estate. (The cafe we drank in employed people with special needs and they practiced the Neapolitan tradition of “suspended coffee” — you pay for two coffees, one for a stranger who can’t afford one. I made a note to find out if anybody does this in the US.) I was exhausted by that point and coming down with a cold, but happy.
On the airplane(s) home, I decided to steal from Nina Katchadourian’s “Seat Assignment” series and see how much art I could make on the way. I made a bunch of silly collages and English blackouts from Italian newspapers. It was a grueling, 24-hour day of travel, but I can’t remember an easier “re-entry” upon my return. Maybe it was that I had so much time to process the trip.
Today, before sitting down to write this, my best friend from college forwarded me some emails I had sent him from various internet cafes across Florence in 2003. A sample: “almost everything you [hear] about italians is true, they are gorgeous, [a little] vain, fashion-conscious and they watch your every move. but they know how to live…everything is slow and steamy.” Fourteen years later, still pretty true. I look forward to my next return.
No, everything’s fine. Why do you ask?
(When one is distressed, one either has to take a walk, or do like Paul Klee and “take a line for a walk.”)
Whenever I write about how important keeping a notebook is to me, people ask me what specific brand of notebook I use. I have no less than 3 notebooks going all the time:
1) an extra-small hardcover notebook that I carry with me whenever I leave the house (which is not often)
3) a fat, paperback-sized, unruled, flexible notebook, which I use at home and in the studio
Of course, only a crazy person juggles 3 notebooks, so just keep things simple and get The Steal Like An Artist Journal instead.
This week I traded my marker for an X-acto blade. It was one of those switches that seems obvious in hindsight, but I can’t say there was anything intentional about it. Just sort of happened. (Certainly inspired by the work of Brian Dettmer, Kelli Anderson, and Andrea Dezso.) Follow along as I make them on Twitter or Instagram.
From playwright Sarah Ruhl’s terrific book, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write:
Recently, my son said to me after seeing a ballet on television: “It’s beautiful but I don’t like it.” And I thought, Are many grown-ups capable of such a distinction? It’s beautiful, but I don’t like it. Usually, our grown-up thinking is more along the lines of: I don’t like it, so it’s not beautiful. What would it meant to separate those two impressions for art making and for art criticism?
See also: “Borrow a kid”
Things can get tricky when you turn the thing you love into the thing that keeps you clothed and fed. Proceed with caution.
A few folks have asked me why I haven’t blogged any scans of my notebooks recently.
A few reasons:
1) When I was working a day job, notebooks used to be my primary output — I wrote and drew in them constantly, and since I had a lot of material to choose from, I posted quite frequently. Now that I work in my own studio, a lot of my sketching and writing happens on loose-leaf paper or in legal pads, etc., and those tend to get spread all over the place
2) I got very grumpy in the past couple of years about “Moleskine worship”—that thing online where people only post these perfect drawings from their sketchbooks, as opposed to showing their mind in messy motion, thinking on the page. (I talked a bit about this in my Creative Mornings talk.)
3) As I’ve gained a wider audience for my work, my notebooks have become (as they should’ve always been) private spaces where I go to think on the page. My notebooks are shitholes where I go to dump my brains out, say things I wouldn’t even say out loud to my wife, places to find what I’m looking for, find out what I know. They aren’t pretty.
All that said, I want to show my work, of course, so I was leafing through my travel notebook recently, and picked some pages to scan.
Oh and because I know people will ask: I use a large Moleskine sketchbook because it has heavy bristol-like pages that don’t tear, it’s big enough to stick a boarding pass in the pages, and it has an envelope flap in the back for travel receipts. I do a lot of scrapbooking, so I carry transparent tape, Japanese Washi tape that my wife gave me, and a pair of safety scissors (TSA says under 4 inches is okay).
I doodle a lot and collage clippings from newspapers.
If I’m doing some sightseeing, I like to grab hotel maps and brochures and draw over them.