Art FOR and BY Non-Artists


In the early 2000s, I went through a spell of making all sorts of strange art. It began with simply making footprints with milkpaint, my feet, and found boards. (Really. My first creations were made using wood rescued from a discarded pallet.) I put together a collection called Art by the Foot and an accompanying exhibit called “Barefoot in the City.” As unlikely as it seems, I even sold a few pieces. From there, I did some more experimenting with milk paint, and eventually added markers on paper to my media. When I found I’d exhausted my limited drawing ability, I turned to digital art. This piece, Impossible Party, is an example. It’s a mix of marker, colored pencil, and milkpaint footprints, all collaged together on a Mac in Photoshop.

I still enjoy tinkering around with making my own art, often again in the digital realm, but now using Gimp, which is similar to Photoshop in its capabilities but FREE! ( More than making my own art, however, I still love art in general. My own skill as a visual artist is so minimal as to be frustrating, but I can really nerd-out on other people’s art, and getting into deep philosophical discussion about the meaning of art. What is it? How do we measure its worth? (“Just by the pleasure it gives here on earth?” Thank you, Burl Ives and Johnny Marks!)

Curator/author Sarah Urist Green is fond of saying a person should not let a lack technical skill prevent them from making art. In addition to her YouTube channel, “The Art Assignment“, she has recently published a book called You Are An Artist: Assignments To Spark Creation that offers encouragement to the inner artist of even the most inept of us. I also recommend The Art Spirit by Robert Henri. (This was apparently Keith Haring’s bible.) My favorite art-related how-to book is Paul Fata’s 101 Rules for the Starving Artist. This one might be difficult if not impossible to find, because I’m not sure if it was ever published as anything more than hand-made copies.

Keith Haring (Annotated)


New York, 1983: a decayed monster slowly regaining life
True: the Lower East Side still looks like a battle ground,
42nd Street is still lined with porn shops
Bums still sleep on the curbs in the Bowery
But look! There’s art everywhere, though not everyone recognizes it.
Art to wear, to lean against, to walk on, to wallow in
I’m even sitting on some.
It covers abandoned buildings and billboards, junked cars in Alphabet City.
There are SAMO tags on St. Marks and aliens on the benches in Tompkins Square.

Mostly, I’m struck by the babies
Radiant babies in subway stations,
Along with barking dogs, flying saucers, televisions with arms and legs
It’s funny, cartoonish – just doodles
Primitive drawings in modern caves,
Backdrop for the city soundtrack:
Angry young punks, New Wave poseurs, art school poets
Screaming, rapping, howling, defacing the status quo.

Childish art precociously tackling racism, religion, greed
Here’s an ugly 4-letter word: AIDS
The cancer no one talks about
It will eventually take the father
But your babies continue to radiate with undimmed energy

Artist Keith Haring was just starting his climb to fame and fortune in New York in 1981, only two years before I arrived in Boston. Back then, you could hop on People Express Airlines for $25 at 6:00 in the morning, and be in Manhattan in just a couple of hours. The first time I made this trip was in 1983. I’d like to be able to say I was a hip insider of the downtown art/music scene, but the truth is, I was a wide-eyed Iowan with no knowledge of Keith Haring, the Mudd Club, or any of the other happening stuff.

Who was Samo? It was Jean-Michel Basqiat, who was about to become the art world’s favorite bad boy. The aliens were the creation of Kenny Scharf. That beautiful sound floating above it all was the unearthly voice of Klaus Nomi, who had already become the first start of the New York New Wave scene to succumb to AIDS.

Why Create?


“Why does man create?” Probably the first time I heard this question was in grade school art class. The teacher showed us a short film called Why Man Creates by Saul Bass. A couple years later, a different teacher in a different class showed us the same film. There may have even been a third viewing. I loved it every time, even though I didn’t understand most of it.

Several years ago, I reconnected with this brilliant little movie, and I have watched it probably at least once a year ever since. It was made in 1968, and it is definitely of its time (witness the title), yet it still resonates with me. Why do we humans create?

I started composing when I was quite young, and have copyrighted several hundred original songs. Most of them are terrible. Likewise, I have tried my hand at visual art and also writing for the stage. Again: rather terrible. But I still do it. A palm reader once told me I have almost no innate creativity. My level of success as a creative artist would seem to bear this out. Perhaps that is why I have a bit of an obsession with other obsessed but untalented artists. (Please understand that I am writing this with a good portion of tongue in cheek. I admire anyone who creates original work, and dislike almost everything about the term “talented.” A better way of describing these people—modestly including myself—would be “non-traditionally talented.”) Check out In the Realms of the Unreal, about artist Henry Darger for an extreme example.

Why did I stat this blog? To quote Tevye, “I’ll tell you; I don’t know.” I know it’s a creative outlet, but why I need such a thing is a mystery. I’ll give the last word to Why Man Creates:

“Yet among all the variety of human expression, a thread of connection, a common mark can be seen: that urge to look into oneself and out at the world and say, ‘This is what I am. I am unique. I am here. I am!’”


Formal Analysis of Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Portrait of  Madame Grand (Noël-Catherine Verlée, 1761–1835), Later Madame de Talleyrand-Périgord, Princesse de Bénévent


Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Portrait of  Madame Grand (Noël-Catherine Verlée, 1761–1835), Later Madame de Talleyrand-Périgord, Princesse de Bénévent

Madame Grand (Noël Catherine Verlée, 1761–1835), by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun is a French oil on canvas painting from 1783. It is a representational portrait, highly natural both in color and light, and somewhat unusual in its oval shape. The subject of the portrait is a young woman, elegantly attired, and sitting on a heavily saturated dark green velvet sofa, with her arm resting on a matching green velvet pillow with gold trim. The background is solid black. Though close inspection reveals some cracking of the paint and/or varnish, the painting appears overall to be in excellent condition, with no noticeable loss of color or yellowing of the varnish.

The woman is shown from her waist up, with just the top of her lap shown. She is wearing a silvery blue dress, with long sleeves but showing an ample expanse of bosom.  There is a large light blue bow in her hair atop her head, another just below her chest, and one at her waist. The bows echo the blue of her eyes, which are looking up toward her right in a dreamy fashion. The dress appears to be silk or satin, with a sheer wrap around her shoulders. The simulated textures of the smooth satiny dress contrast with the velvet of the sofa and cushion. The greens and blues are cool colors, giving the painting a calm appearance. Her skin is pale but healthy and smooth, with rosy cheeks. The lightness of her skin, especially her chest, stands out against the green sofa and black background.

The point of view is straight on; the picture plane could be a window or mirror.  The woman is perfectly centered in the oval. Her head is approximately three-fourths of the way up the painting, right about where one of the foci of the oval would be. Her right elbow is out to the side, with the sofa back and cushion on that same side, giving the painting a slightly asymmetrical appearance. She is holding a piece of sheet music in her right hand, where the lower focus point of the oval would be.  Her head and the music thus give the portrait a vertical symmetry. The light appears to be coming in at a slight angle from her upper right, where her eyes appear to be gazing.

The focal point of the painting is the woman’s face. She wears an expression of amused boredom, with her eyes looking up to her right into the light, and her glistening rose-hued lips slightly parted in a near smile that Mona Lisa would envy. A row of perfect teeth is barely visible behind her lips. Her hair is light blond, brushed into an extravagant halo around her head, and falling in curls past her shoulders. A curl on her left side hangs teasingly onto her exposed chest, nearly reaching her barely concealed bosom. Her hair looks as soft and puffy as the cushion beneath her elbow. Though our eyes want to briefly follow hers, inevitably we are drawn back to her well-lit face, neck, and chest. The lighting is mostly even. Shading is most evident along the woman’s left side, and in the ribbons that adorn her hair and dress.

The oval shape of the frame gives this painting an intimate feel, with no sharp corners. The oval shape also matches the woman’s pleasing oval face. The curved top of the sofa back is yet another rounded line. Even the sheet music is curled slightly, mimicking the curls in her hair. The artist’s signature can be faintly made out following the curve of the sofa’s gold trim. In short, this is a beautiful portrait of a young woman who knows she is beautiful. Nevertheless, she maintains an air not of haughtiness, but of relaxation and humor.

Flashback: Interdisciplinary Artwork

When I read things I wrote in years past, I usually cringe. Here’s an edited piece from ten years ago; it’s almost tolerable:

Interdisciplinary Artwork

The arts are blending all around us today. Pop concerts utilize huge video screens, dancers, and a mix of live, sequenced and recorded music; websites contain graphics, sound, animation, and interactive elements; DVDs include text resources in addition to video; even “books” can now be electronic ebooks, with or without multimedia content. Artists can create sound and light sculptures. Performance artists mix spoken word, music, movement, and visuals. Interdisciplinary art abounds!

This is nothing new. Stage productions have been combining artistic disciplines for decades, even centuries. Words, music, sets, make-up, and costumes all contribute to the play. Ancient Greek dramas were frequently accompanied by music, and actors used large masks for visual effect. The biblical Pentateuch is filled with instructions for elaborate ceremonies designed to stimulate all the senses – artisans, architects, and performers would all participate in what were certainly interdisciplinary events. As much as the various art forms might like to consider themselves divorced from each other, a glance across cultures and through history shows them often joining forces.

Some of the oldest known art is part of an interdisciplinary approach. Episode 4 of the PBS documentary “How Art Made the World” features “Storytelling Aboriginal Style.” Aboriginal paintings, some over 40,000 years old, were just one part of events called “Dreamtime.” These events used music, dance, and storytelling to recreate myths important to Aboriginal culture. The power of the tales, as reinforced by this ancient soundtrack has enabled the stories and ceremonies to last right down to the present day. Elaborate tales are reenacted to the sound of singing, percussion, and didgeridoo, and surrounded by rock paintings of the key images. Performers wear makeup, body paint, and costumes.  The artwork depicts icons easily recognizable to anyone in the culture, relating to these Dreamtime tales.

The work of artist Keith Haring, has often been compared to primitive iconography. Haring’s well-known images, such as his barking dogs and radiant babies appear over and over in his work. Like the Aborigines, Haring often worked and displayed to music, this time an urban soundtrack of rap, New Wave, and punk. His art debuted on fashion stages and nightclubs and in subway stations. The images take on deeper meaning when the viewer can associate them with their original intent in their original setting. This example of modern art hearkens back to some of the oldest known art in the world. The longevity of Aboriginal art and ceremony is evidence that art means more when it has definite meaning attached to it. Furthermore, that meaning is enhanced by the addition of interdisciplinary elements like music, dance, and storytelling.

Interdisciplinary art may seem cutting edge, but it can trace its lineage back to the birth of art itself.


Cheezy Philosophy

My favorite cheese is Foxglove, from Tulip Tree Creamery in Indianapolis. This is a washed rind cheese. For those unfamiliar with washed rind cheeses, just know that they are STINKY! Foxglove is not a cheese for the faint of heart. In fact, the moment you open it, all those of faint heart are liable to run from the room. It’s that pungent. And it’s not for everyone. But I love it! Spread some of that onto demi-baguette slices, and I’m in heaven.

Personal taste is a weird thing, whether it’s taste in cheese, art, music, or books. Is taste a good barometer of quality? America’s bestselling beer is Bud light. Does that mean it’s the best beer? (I’m not even sure Bud Light is beer. I’m not even sure it’s potable.) According to Wikipedia, the Beatles are the bestselling musical artists of all time. Does that mean they are the best? (Within the world of pop-rock, probably yes, but is their music better than Mozart’s?)

If personal taste is too subjective, then what is a better way to judge good-better-best? Are there objective ways to measure art? Are there absolute standards of goodness which can be used to compare The Beatles to Mozart? Andy Warhol to Rembrandt? Foxglove to Cheez Whiz?

I enjoy philosophical discussions, and I especially enjoy philosophizing about art. It’s one of the reasons I like conceptual art so much. There’s an old line that says, “If you have to explain a joke, it ain’t funny.” Maybe not immediately, but sometimes more lastingly funny. In the case of art, sometimes the explanation is the best part.

But my intention with this post isn’t to answer deep philosophical questions; it is actually to acknowledge the limits of such questions. In any given situation, there is an amount of time—sometimes lengthy, sometimes nearly nonexistent—during which I can think about it, but then there comes a time when I must act. Especially as a creator, I can easily philosophize myself into inaction, but unless at some point I stop thinking and start doing, then the creating isn’t going to happen.

As for cheese: If I need a snack for a bunch of people to enjoy while watching a baseball game, Cheez Whiz with Bugles is the way to go. But if I don’t care how badly I stink up the room, then bring on the Foxglove!


Sometimes Good Is Better Than Great

Neil Gaiman is not just a fine author, he is a fine speaker as well, as his “Make Good Art” speech testifies ( In my journal, I sometimes like to include quotes I find inspiring. I was in the process of writing down Gaiman’s quote, when I thought to myself, “Isn’t that a little weak? Why ‘good art?’ Why not ‘GREAT art!’”

But then I thought of one of the great stumbling blocks for many an aspiring artist/writer/composer/etc.: Perfectionism. Making great art sounds intimidating; I’m not sure I can do it. What if what I create isn’t great? Maybe I just shouldn’t create at all.

Then I thought of another quote, this one from Andy Warhol: “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”

Just get it done. Anne Lamott says we should give ourselves permission to write shitty first drafts. Shitty I can do. Good I can do if I work at it. Great? Maybe, maybe not. I’ll let someone else decide. In the meantime, I have to make art. I have to just get it done.