My painting, Rousseau Walks on Trumpet Paths, has been honored by its inclusion in the upcoming Society of Animal Artist 59th Annual Exhibition at the Briscoe Western Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas, September 19 through December 31, 2019. Rousseau Walks on Trumpet Paths is about the Ridgway’s Rail, an endangered species unique to Southern California’s coastal saltwater wetlands, a habitat that has been obliterated by waterfront developments and marinas. A very small population has been breeding successfully at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve near my home for the last several years. Their unique world may soon vanish due to rising seas, and the efforts that have been made to help them out of their endangered status may be too little and too late.
Humankind is currently causing the greatest catastrophic change to the planet since the asteroid hit and wiped out almost all life including all branches of dinosaurs except for birds. At some point in the not too distant future, a thick black line—and several billion human skeletons—in the layers of geologic time will represent our destructive, climate-altering lifestyles enabled by the burning of fossil fuels. Will we cause our own extinction? Unless we can pull our collective heads out of our collective asses immediately, I cannot see how we’ll be fast enough or clever enough to slow (let alone stop) the mounting tragedies. I do not believe homo sapiens deserve to inherit this planet in our current form. We are, each and everyone one of us, apes with cars, guns and computers. Until the worst of our monkey minds—hate, war, aggression, childishness, willful ignorance, and worst of all, fear—have been bred out of us, we will continue to make collectively short-sighted, uninformed choices. I struggle with my monkey mind every day of my life, and I invite everyone to sit down, shut up and listen to his or her or their individual thoughts and see whether it is some impulsive, irresponsible primitive primate talking or some evolved, higher intelligence. Awareness is the only place where change can begin. And we need a new species of aware, self-responsible human being to be born immediately. Otherwise, our species is toast.
The honor for Rousseau Walks on Trumpet Paths comes at a time when I am changing gears as a painter. I began this painting it in the spring of 2017 and did not feel it was completely finished until March of 2019. During that time, I moved, felt very dissatisfied with my life as a painter, and I took a part time job in addition to my long-time full-time job. I realized when I moved that I have accumulated so much art-related stuff that I cannot sell, stuff that has no meaning to anyone but me because I am not famous. Accumulating meaningless stuff is very sad in the context of a world collapsing under the weight of meaningless human stuff (plastic trash especially). I do not intended to completely stop painting or being creative in some way. I have been sketching and looking for the root of why I want to create, looking for something different, or perhaps something from my earliest days as an art student, in order to express myself without collecting frames, canvases, glass, and related art stuff. I am dissatisfied with collecting canvases that do not sell, and I need a change.
However good a painter I am or am not, being an artist has never been completely satisfying for me. For reasons I well understand and will get to in a few paragraphs, I cannot make a career of being a painter and have succeeded at graphic design more from luck than desire. Even if I could, I have no confidence that painting what I paint the way I paint it is in any way wanted or needed at this moment in the marketplace or the world in general. I’ve grown increasingly skeptical of the role art plays in our culture, and I do not know where I fit in or if I can or should ever fit in. Nor does it help that I feel hypersensitive to this moment in time, this tipping point in the evolution of homo sapiens (will we choose a path towards awareness and responsibility or will we self-destruct?) and I have neither the drive nor the clarity nor the network of associates to create something meaningful that will be seen, that expresses, that encapsulates all I feel.
A curious event has been happening for some years now, not every night, but frequently, and I have only now realized it is connected to my situation as someone who feels a compulsion to create and express myself. This event had been absent for a long stretch before, during and after the 2017 ordeal of selling our house, buying and moving into a new house—the seemingly endless and horrible process of escrow and moving. Now that the dust has settled on moving, the event seems to have come back energetically: about 20 minutes after falling asleep, not quite in R.E.M., I bolt awake certain that I had not brushed my teeth. Which is absurd. I can’t remember a time when nightly brushing has not been part of my getting ready for bed ritual. And of course the intense feeling of having forgotten something important freaks me out and I have a hard time falling back asleep, and have, on more than one occasion, got up to brush before realizing, no, I really had already done it.
Thinking it might be the start of some form of insanity or dementia, even though it’s only this one very specific cause and effect, I asked my doctor about it a few years ago. Since she’s not terribly rigid about Western medicine having all the answers and often thinks outside that box, she said in essence that it was likely my subconscious acting out, that I had not said something I should have said, causing my mouth to feel “dirty.” I took that very seriously that and thought she might be on to something. I assumed it might mean more about daily interactions with certain people I hate talking to, like an endlessly annoying coworker. And maybe there’s stuff I should be saying to Brian that I’m not. So I’ve tried to be more direct in saying what I think even if it’s not perfectly pleasant. But still it happens.
I have realized this goes much deeper than just my verbal interactions with people. I am certain now that this is about the frustration I feel over several things related to words. First, not being able to get traction publishing my book (the written word) has been a huge disappointment. I tried to pick up the pieces and start something like a blog to write about the intersection of my art and my long-time volunteering and now part-time job in environmental education. Perhaps that would draw attention to all the work I put into creating a book. But I realized I could not go down that road either because I have no intention of reading, caring about or replying to comments (interactions with the written word).
Which leads to the discomfort I feel around social media. Social media makes me feel like I’m at a noisy party where six TVs are blaring and everyone is showing me family photos and commenting on politics and asking me to comment and talk about my own accomplishment all at the same moment. This causes me great anxiety; I want to scream and run. That sort of interaction is not natural for me and I want no part of it. It is a pessimistic assumption that the glass is half-empty (well, quite a bit less than half) and nothing positive can possibly come from starting a blog or something like it. With all the trolls and scummy deplorable opinions floating around the planet, why on earth would anyone like me want to open himself up to the gunfire with serious thought-provoking, personal, question-asking essays? If you want to talk to me, send me an email or pick up the goddam phone.
While I can honestly see the advantages of living in cave keeping little contact with the outside world, it would be impossible for me to have no contact with the world. I like museums and live music and travelling to new places and fine dining and many other things outside my cave. I have come to accept that the meeting of introversion and wanting to participate in this world causes me varying degrees of anxiety. Anxiety is my natural state. It has increased since people determined to destroy the planet out of pure short-sighted ignorant greed have come into more power than they’ve ever had before. Succeeding or thriving in a world that is not friendly to the aware, quiet, shy, intellectually curious, thoughtful and/or sensitive has become increasingly challenging.
Many introverts find situations that benefit from their inhibitions and do very well regardless of what is going on around them. I am not one of them. Every fucking day is a struggle for me to feel comfortable in this world. I have done okay with a graphic design job, but failed at the career I most wanted. Until very recently, my plans were not in alignment with my personality. Mostly I've just stopped making plans. For most of my life I've been in denial that introversion and anxiety were a serious impediment to what I most wanted. It finally came to feel like a curse to have some ambition to be in the world, to draw, to paint, to design, to write with no positive outlet for my work. To succeed as an artist is reliant upon putting my vision and voice (including the written word) out into the marketplace, the very thing I have tried to do and have not succeeded because I do not have all that it takes.
To use the term “the marketplace” is a gross over-simplification, of course, analogous to saying “the sun causes of weather.” It takes four critical elements to succeed as an artist in the “marketplace;” a couple in combination might be enough, but one by itself will not be enough. First, talent. These days, with competition for attention at a premium, talent is not just the ability to paint or sculpt, it is the ability to think outside the box and construct and fill a space with a unique vision and/or thought-provoking objects. It is about tapping into the zeitgeist and going viral. Being good is not good enough; increasingly, one has to be phenomenal. Second, networking, who you know. Not at all in a sycophantic way, but rather being constantly in the presence of no one but other artists and people who promote and buy art. People to collaborate with. This is symbiotic because who you know often needs as much help as you do and together you are stronger. Third, self-promotion. Artists must have mastery of all forms of self-promotion when networking, everything from the electronic to the verbal skills to get one’s ideas and purpose across instantly and memorably. Every successful artist I’ve ever met eats, sleeps and breathes art, operates in constant self-promotion mode. Fourth and last, luck. Got to have luck, got to be in the right place at the right time, and only God can help one with that. Only in the movies can Shirley Temple take her entire output from the second grade to the gallery and become an international sensation.
I missed the boat in my art education to have been pushed, prodded and molded to think far enough outside the box to have created work collected by a fine art gallery or a topnotch museum. Because of my introversion and anxiety, I possess little ability to network, to socialize, to meet people, to enter big competitions, to eat, sleep and breathe art, to operate in constant self-promotion mode. They did not teach these things in the school I went to. My experience was that it was just expected that we all have Type A personalities and it is all intuitive. The only thing I found to be intuitive is discernment by people I most want to impress. Selling "myself" (my work, my passions, my personality) does not come naturally to me, the struggle is sensed, and the struggle is a turn off. We live in the age of where personality is far, far more important than character, and in my unqualified opinion it is worse for artists because there is so much talent out there, so much competition.
While graphic design is the thing that pays my bills, it has become, as a profession, equally comparable to the self-expression of fine art. Graphic design requires an equally all-consuming passion for the constantly shifting target of finding the best user experience. The best of the current graphic design jobs no longer entail simply designing a poster or a package or a website. Jobs now expect the artist to create all of those things plus a video and an app at the same time so they are integrated, and no detail of any product can fail the consumer’s desire. It is fast-paced demanding profession, and as soon as you blink everything changes. And because artists are so dispensable, only the truly focused succeed. I’m glad I’m close to retirement and not just entering the job market because I do not possess the ability focus on anything I don’t deeply believe in.
These are all generalizations, of course, but any career counselor will tell you to focus on one thing to find the most success. But what if “one thing” isn’t in your genetic makeup? Does it mean you are bad, a failure, or a fool? Or does it simply mean you aren’t interested in competing or focusing? And has this world failed you?
Because the subjects of my fine art work have been birds and landscape since I was 25 or so (too late to decide to be career painter), I’ve also had an equally long interest in related sciences, and have devoted much free time to a local environmental education group, the Amigos de Bolsa Chica. One might think there would be more intersection between artists interested in depicting nature and environmental education, but if making a decent living from some iteration of this intersection is out there, I haven’t found it. The Society of Animal Artists isn’t it, nor are any other groups I’ve exhibited with. It could very well be a matter of my inability to find a group of environmental artists whose vision resonates with mine; I’m not one to search the ends of the earth for minds like mine.
From all of the above several important things have finally sunk in. That artists and their art preach to choirs. That having more than one interest or focus can be a disqualification from reaching a pinnacle, especially if one is introverted and anxious like me. And that it all comes down to personality, what’s important to an individual, what one is capable of doing, what one is determined to do. No one can ever say I did not try very hard. I have failed and I have learned.
And for all my introversion, I do very gratefully acknowledge that my connections to people from the Amigos and related environmental groups with which I have long been aligned has led to quite a few sales. It is simply not enough to make a career. Yet the feeling I get from volunteering, the feeling that I am doing something useful to bring attention to an important subject in my own community is worth more than sales, worth more than being a painter because my environmental education work is, however tiny, a more tangible contribution to the preservation of Earth than being a painter.
Talented artists are a dime a dozen. While talent my gets me into group exhibitions like the Society of Animal Artist’s annual show, I have not yet sold a single painting in this setting. In 2016-17 I had three pieces in three shows around the U.S. This may sound like a cause for celebration, yet it generated zero interest in my work. I will not go into the details of what framing and shipping cost for those three pieces; suffice it to say recognition feels like a very expensive hobby. And that brings me back to why I’m searching for new inspiration, for the thing that most makes me want to create. I think I have found it, but it is too early to show. It coincides with a new part time job, Administrative Director for the Amigos de Bolsa Chica. A part-time job is not something I expected to do while still working full time, but it has distracted me from the current dissatisfaction of being a painter. I will admit it is a job I have long secretly wanted. I’ve been volunteering with the Amigos since 2000. I have become a successful grant writer. I edit the quarterly newsletter and care for the website. Now I help with membership and fundraising, schedule wetland field trips for schools and scouts, and help with the training of our Naturalists. I supervised the person who had been in this very position when I was President of the organization between 2005 and 2007. A lot has changed in 12 years, but I know what the job needs, and I’m excited to see how it unfolds. So concludes an old chapter, sort of, and a new chapter begins, sort of.
However public I make my art and my writing, and what is the point of making art if one’s output is not shared, I cannot care what anyone thinks. I no longer care that no one has the patience or desire to seek out my work. I cannot care if my writing is useful, inspiring or masturbatory. Certainly no one will have had the patience to read this far. I don’t comment and I don’t read comments, and in a digital world filled with opinions, mostly pointless, all I can say is, instead of commenting, spend that time volunteering with a non-profit that is positive, that helps lift this planet and all of its inhabitants up and out of the mess we are in. Put your money where your mouth is. If you can’t volunteer, donate to a non-profit that is positive, that helps lift this planet up and all of its inhabitants up and out of the mess we are in. If you cannot or will not do either, just be quiet and look at your monkey thoughts. And good luck with that, humanity!