Like my friend Clayton Cubitt says: “The phrase ‘respect the hustle’ makes me sad. We deserve a world where nobody has to hustle.”
Looking at the glorious grocery store advertisements in this photo of John Cage from the poster for Nam June Paik’s A Tribute to John Cage, I remembered something my friend the photographer Clayton Cubitt once tweeted:
The trouble is that it’s hard to predict what will be interesting, and a lot of what will eventually be interesting will be saved on accident, because somebody didn’t bother to throw something out, or it got lost, or it was buried somewhere. (Archeologists love uncovering garbage dumps, for example.)
“Look at this,” says the villain Belloq to Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. “It’s worthless. Ten dollars from a vendor in the street. But I take it, I bury it in the sand for a thousand years, it becomes priceless.”
“It’s all about what you ingest throughout your lifetime that creates what your eye is. Steve Bognar [co-director of ‘American Factory’], many years ago, he just told me, all the stuff you take in throughout your life, you’re creating this gumbo in your head of painting, graphic design, literature, music, it’s all in your head and in that split second [snaps his fingers], unknowing to yourself, all of that is right there. You know it, without knowing it.”
So there are multiple stages to the Ross Bros’ process: the preparation for a film, where they’re researching and filling the walls of their office with reference photos and inspiration, throwing things in the pot, so to speak, but then there’s the actual filming of the movie, where improvisation comes in.
“Gumbo is a collage of many things,” said the late pianist and songwriter Allen Toussaint, “The reason one gumbo tastes different from the other and one is better than the other is because of improvisation. Someone is improvising… Improvisation is what makes it.”
Toussaint also speaks, in culinary terms, of being a kind of artistic scavenger: “I collect scraps and wishbones and feathers everywhere I go, and then I come home and try and produce a chicken. And it works, and the more extensive travel is, the more I have in my reservoir.”
Toussaint hailed from New Orleans, of course, the city the Ross Brothers have made their home, a place where gumbo serves as a metaphor for the whole culture.
In How To Listen to Jazz, Ted Gioia writes that he thinks it no coincidence that New Orleans was the birthplace of jazz: “New Orleans was the melting pot within the larger melting pot of American life.” (See more in my post, “Ideas spread like the plague.”)
It is that place where things mix…. It’s a case where these parts make an extraordinary whole without totally melting. You know, if you have a good gumbo, you can still see the okra, you still know that that was Andouille, you’re still aware of the fact that that was duck or chicken or what have you. It’s not just a brown stew. It’s something else.”
You’re not just making your own personal gumbo in your head. There’s a bigger, cosmic gumbo pot that we all borrow from and add to.
The writer Charlie Fletcher:
Terry Pratchett once told me that the deal is that everything anyone’s ever written is thrown into a big gumbo pot: everyone who writes picks different chunks out of the big pot and recombines them into their own gumbo, which in turn gets thrown back into the bigger pot. There are only two crimes – pretending the pot doesn’t exist, or claiming you own it. Neil Gaiman calls it the stew pot.
A little more from Gaiman himself (who says he batted around the metaphor with Pratchett, so he couldn’t remember who came up with it first):
When you’re starting off as a young writer, you look at all the stuff that’s gone before and the stuff that’s influenced you, and you reach the ladle of your imagination into this bubbling stew pot of all of this stuff, and you pour it out. And that’s where you start from.
As time goes on, you realise that it’s actually kind of fun to put stuff back in the stew pot. You can throw in a turnip that nobody’s ever seen before. So I loved doing that… I’m throwing in carrots and things that other people can use if they want to. But I’m not just taking from this thing, I’m going to leave more behind.
So you take things you like out of the pot, recombine them into your own stew, and then you pour it back into the pot.
Related: Your output depends on your input
Marie Kondo mania is in full swing again thanks to her Netflix special. I haven’t watched the show yet, but I read her book at the beginning of 2016, and wrote two posts in 2017 on the connections between messiness and creativity — “Tidying Up” and “The art of finding what you didn’t know you were looking for.” They eventually became chapter 8 (“When in doubt, tidy up”) of Keep Going, which begins:
(If you want the rest, you’ll have to pre-order the book.)
Thinking back to The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, what disturbed me most — as a writer and an artist — was the idea that how you feel NOW in this very moment is the most important factor in whether you should keep or discard something.
Books are the obvious example (already covered here), so let’s take photographs: Kondo says to keep a certain amount of photos from an event, and toss the rest. And yet, I recently looked through a box of loose photos from my wedding, and I found all kinds of interesting photos that didn’t interest me when I was putting together our wedding album.
You’ve probably experienced something similar: A photo you didn’t think was interesting at the time, later on you find it more interesting than the stuff you chose to frame. My friend Clayton Cubitt once tweeted something along the same lines:
I realize that nowhere does Kondo explicitly say this, but there is a kind of anti-collecting streak in the book. Most artists are collectors, if not hoarders, and we don’t just collect the things that “spark joy”: we collect things (objects yes, but also hunches and ideas) that we’re unsure or ambivalent about. Things we get the feeling we could use later.
It tickled me recently to read this piece, “Edward Gorey, Pack Rat”:
When he wasn’t writing, drawing, illustrating, and designing—and even when he was—Edward Gorey was collecting. Over the course of his life, the artist gathered, and kept, everything from tarot cards to trilobites to particularly interesting cheese graters. “We ask the docents not to use the word ‘hoarder,’” says Hischak, grinning as he surveys the House’s newest exhibit, which focuses on Gorey’s pack rat tendencies. “But he really did hoard interesting things.”
I suspect that, like Gorey, every creative person has just a tiny bit of a pack rat in them. (I like that Gorey referred to his collecting as “accumulating.”)
I needed new some new photos, so I asked one of my favorite artists, Clayton Cubitt, if he’d take them. We spent a couple of really pleasant hours last month in his studio in Williamsburg, just chatting about art and life and taking pictures.
Clayton likes to take a polaroid of studio visitors wearing a prop crown — he says he thinks everybody deserves to be royalty for at least a few minutes. (Iggy Pop: “Every stinking bum should wear a crown.”)
Here’s a photo I took of him in action — the tattoo on his right arm, “this too shall pass,” was explained by Abraham Lincoln (a quote I used in the last chapter of Keep Going):
“It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words, “And this too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!”
“Sometimes I worry it’s weird for my subjects to see a giant ‘this too shall pass’ tattoo on my trigger arm,” he says, “But it’s true and it’s why I photograph.”
He gets a new hatchmark on his left arm for each year he makes it around the sun.
You can read more about his life and work in this interview.
Here’s my favorite photo that he took of me:
Clayton Cubitt: “Once you see that ‘artisanal’ actually spells ‘art is anal’ you can’t unsee it.”