Category Archives: Visual Arts/Design

An Interview with Hugh MacLeod of

Cartoonist Hugh MacLeod of talks about creative sovereignty, the business of art, and the pursuit of blinding moments of clarity.

AC_MacLeod-280For people who haven’t read your book yet, can you share one or two of its key themes?

HM: The book’s called Ignore Everybody. I first published it on the blog under the title How to Be Creative. And it wasn’t really an instruction manual — I wasn’t telling people what to do. I was talking about the landmines I hoped they wouldn’t step on because landmines are expensive to step on.

My main thesis is that when you first have a good idea, there’s no one who can really tell you whether the idea is good or not. For it to be any good, it has to be so out there, there’s no point of reference. Also, really good ideas, once they’re executed, tend to alter the power balance in relationships, and people are very conservative about changing power balances. I think it was chapter 4 where I said that good ideas have lonely childhoods. The initial loneliness of a good idea is to be expected.

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An Interview with Keri Smith

Artist and author Keri Smith talks about why she writes creativity books, the importance of play, imperfection, and impermanence in her work, and why we need to aim for "the all-consuming place."

Keri Smith

Photo credit: Jefferson Pitcher.

What got you started making creativity books?

I’ve been trying to figure this out for myself. For some reason I cannot stop making activity books based on the subject of creativity. I seem to be obsessed with it, even though I will admit that I get tired of talking about it directly and would rather just have people do something (as opposed to talking about doing something) — a conundrum for an author, yes?

I can tell you a few things that I know about it in list form (just because I like lists):

  1. My medium is most definitely books. I have been obsessed with books my whole life and worked in bookstores for years. As a child I had a favorite activity book (called Good Times) that I think had a lot to do with forming my creative brain.
  2. I love the idea of creating books that give people more of a direct experience with life instead of walking through it passively. Get up out of your chair and take a look at things around you for crying out loud! Turn off the TV and use your brain cells before they deteriorate completely! There is no time to waste. Aren’t we all just aching for a bit of adventure? It’s all there in various forms. It’s just about a conscious decision to “tune in.” My books are just a little reminder of why and how to do this (for myself too).
  3. I am drawn to experimenting (in various forms). My favorite artists and authors are often those who are “playing,” trying things, not necessarily succeeding at them, but seeing where an idea takes you. This concept of play comes up constantly for me and is in large part the foundation for all of my work. To truly conduct an experiment, you must not know where you are headed. It can be scary at times, but that fear is what excites me about it. What happens when I try “this”? A direct confrontation with the UNKNOWN. It is such a great metaphor for life because none of us truly know where we are headed. We can try to control it but at a deep level we aren’t ever really in control.
  4. My family life growing up was not about taking risks (make sure you have all your bases covered, don’t attempt things unless you know what the outcome will be, take the safe route). I think in part my life/creative work is a form of rebellion against this and about choosing to do the opposite in a given situation to see what happens. I had to learn to trust in my ability to deal with whatever comes up in the moment. And guess what? You really can deal with “whatever comes up.” You are much stronger and more creative than you think. But you have to jump off a cliff all the time to figure that out. Every time I do, I learn how amazing a feeling it is. There is nothing that can hurt you in this. Fear of taking risks is a fear of living.
  5. For a while now I have enjoyed working with the concepts of imperfection and impermanence (the Japanese refer to it as wabi-sabi). I think this concept is quite rare in Western culture, which seems obsessed with making things as perfect as possible — technology, bodies (plastic surgery), mechanization of life, etc.

So I see the books as another way to present the idea of embracing imperfections and actually incorporating them into your process (Wreck This Journal is a good example of this). I guess what I am saying here is that books are a way to share my philosophies and get some different ideas out into the culture at large. At some level I enjoy the thought of taking ideas from some slightly edgier artists and thinkers and incorporating them into my work so that a new audience can experience them.

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An Interview with Tobie Giddio

Visual artist and fashion illustrator Tobie Giddio talks about music and meditation, and finding inspiration in the New York club scene.

Image created for Tiffany & Co. by Tobie Giddio, reproduced  courtesy of the artist.

Image created for Tiffany & Co.
by Tobie Giddio, reproduced
courtesy of the artist.

Can you describe your background?

Well, I started out in fashion illustration. I studied with a number of teachers at F.I.T. [the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York – ed.]. And one of my main mentors was a teacher who was very rooted in fine art, so I was getting taught both principles at the same time. I was learning about drawing, and drawing the figure, and drawing the fashion figure, and then at the same time I was learning how to abstract the figure and learning about color and fine art and especially the modern art folks. To this day, I work in the fashion industry, and I spend a lot of time abstracting fashion and beauty and nature.

How does fashion illustration work — when you’re working on an ad, for example, what are you working from?

Well, I studied drawing from life…. And then, as time went on, I left drawing from life and now I mostly draw from memory. The figures just keep sort of coming. I draw them from my mind.

If it’s a job, I’ll often have specific clothing to draw. Most of the things on my site — a lot of the things that I do for myself in my studio — they’re just sort of memories and little vignettes of things that I’ve seen, and I’ve really loved.

I love to look at the couture in Paris and very beautiful, extravagant runway shows. I’m not that interested in regular fashion — American fashion. I look at those European shows, and then a lot of the details might show up in my work.

You seem to be very productive. Was that always the case or did something kick in along the way that helped ramp things up?

Well, I don’t know if I’m really that productive. I mean, it looks like a lot of work — when I look at my website, I think, “Oh geez, I have done stuff.” But I don’t draw every day. To me, productive people are people who draw every day or paint or are sitting at the piano every day. I don’t. But I do work. I’ll work when I really feel inspired to work. And I’m capable of producing a lot of work in a small amount of time. But I don’t necessarily work every day.

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Category: Visual Arts/Design

An Interview with Tucker Nichols

Artist Tucker Nichols talks about why he likes early thoughts and exposed decisions, and the importance of not giving other people the keys.

Tucker Nichols

Photo credit: Lisa M. Hamilton.

How would you describe your creative process?

Recently I realized I’m trying to make work that freezes a moment in time that I would otherwise discard (or refine to make look like other images already in the world). In a text piece, that means writing something down that I’d otherwise pass by and then making a drawing of it later where it’s totally out of context. Or coming up with something slogan-like on the spot and painting it across a storefront window…. Planning a drawing is tempting, but I’ve found it rarely works for me.

With my abstract drawings, it’s more of a puzzle where I make up the rules as I go — like, what would it look like if everything’s being pulled to the edge on the left and there can only be two things and they have to be really different. I’m always trying to stop short of a completed thought because once it’s fully formed, it tends to lose some of its juice for me. Early thoughts have so many different possible outcomes; I prefer thinking about where other people might take them.

And then sometimes I have to draw a glove or a ketchup bottle or a branch because it feels like the right thing to do, and to not draw it would be adhering to some arbitrary rule about what kinds of things I am supposed to draw and what kinds of things I am definitely NOT supposed to draw. The early parts of thoughts don’t obey rules very well.

Are there particular tools that you rely on to gather and develop new ideas?

Absolutely. I go through about fifteen small orange Rhodia pads a year. There’s no set order to the pages, I just fill them up with thoughts or road signs or overheard phrases I’d otherwise forget completely. Then when I’m in the studio I can leaf through them and see what’s worth pursuing — and a lot of it is definitely not worth pursuing. I try to be quick when I take down a note because usually I’m quoting something someone I know just said, and that can be kind of awkward.

I just bought a digital recorder for the car, which was great for a drive on 99 recently but is a bit harder to take ideas off of. Fun to speak into though. Sometimes I feel like I could talk into my thumb and it would be just as useful.

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Category: Visual Arts/Design

An Interview with DyAnne DiSalvo

I had no doubt that I wanted to do what I wanted to, and this was the way I was going to do it. Which meant going to publishers, and calling back agents, and getting in editor's faces, and not ever thinking that I wasn't going to get what I wanted. Because of course I was. Just, somebody give me the contract!

DyAnne DiSalvo

Photo credit: Brian Butler.

Your creative output is pretty striking, with dozens of children’s books to your name. Is there anything that you attribute your productivity to?

Well, I try not to judge myself. I try to be “my own best friend.” [laughter] Which is a lie. But I try not to get too wrapped up in the difficulty of the moment because I’ll just wallow in that for as long as I like, feeling bad for myself. So what I do is, I read. I play music. I have conversations with my friends about poetry or writing or whatever they’re working on. I walk my friend’s dog. I travel a lot. Whatever fills up that time. And I’m always thinking about my story, whatever I’m doing, as I’m doing it. And I think that’s incredibly helpful. I just allow myself to never lose sight of my art-piece and to live life.

Do you ever worry about burning out?

I think yesterday at one point it went through my head that “you’re not going to write this story, so why don’t you just quit it now?” [laughter] And I thought “But oh no! I have all these other things I have to do!” Because I have so many different story ideas that I can’t wait to pick up again and write. So I’m not at a loss for ideas. I’m just sometimes at a loss for how to put it together.

Right now I’m teaching myself how to write a novel. I’ve never written a novel before. The Sloppy Copy Slipup was humorous. And it’s pretty easy for me to be humorous and write short, clippy, fun things. But this is for fifth grade as opposed to third grade and they want a little bit more.

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An Interview with Ze Frank

The Show's Ze Frank talks about unsolvable problems, "brain surfing," pain management, and how creative pursuits change perception.

Ze Frank

Photo credit: Scott Beale /

Are there any techniques that you use in your creative process that help you generate new ideas?

Self-awareness is one of the big keys. If you read a lot of the psychology literature on creativity, one of the only real, solid correlations with being able to shift your creative output is the belief that you can change it. So for me — I think I picked this up in a Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi book — I’ve spent a long time just trying to figure out the kind of cycles that I go through, trying to pay attention to the different kinds of states that I find myself in.

There are times when I feel like I’m craving what I call unsolvable problems, and I have the kind of energy you need to move forward into uncharted territory and brave that side of things. And then there are other times when that seems like the most difficult chore in the world. So I’ve also gotten pretty comfortable knowing when I need to pick up solvable problems. Programming definitely fills that void for me. Also illustrating, doing little illustrations, things like that. This is a long-winded way of saying that I think I’ve got a range of techniques that feed into how I’m feeling at that particular moment.

Do you have any day-to-day habits you rely on?

I make something every day — I think that’s really the only habit that I’ve fallen into over the last few years. No matter what, I make something. This last year with The Show has been kind of convenient because it’s given me structure to play against. Before that, with the project, there was less structure and it was a lot more difficult. The Show narrowed the focus and made it a little bit easier because I know exactly what I have to work on each day. That aside, there’s this thing I try to do that I call “brain surfing.” Do you know the technique “morphological synthesis”?

I don’t.

There’s a really beautiful book by James L. Adams called Conceptual Blockbusting. It’s a book that was written in the ’70s on creativity. The idea is, you just start with a concept that’s immediate to you. I mean “immediate” in that you have some kind of direct emotional connection to it in that moment. And it can be as simple as a word. Maybe somebody pissed you off in line, or you’re worried that your toe is broken. And you just start with that and begin to associate things with it. It’s not really free association, so it’s not just anything that comes to mind. But you tell little stories to yourself that move you away from that initial concept.

So if it’s your toe being broken, you start thinking to yourself, well, what would happen if something else was broken and you tried to drive a car? Then you move away from that and you think about the worst car race ever. Now you’ve moved into a demolition derby. And you just sort of work in circles. At different points you stop and relate wherever you are back to the original concept. And just play. Sometimes I write these things down on paper, and sometimes I just sit there and do them in my head. But for me, it’s a nice little play zone where you can find very weird and silly things.

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An Interview with James Warren Perry

Painter James Warren Perry talks about self-regenerating art, giving thanks, and why he aims for irony-free, unrepentant beauty.

Sanctuary #3, 42" x 72" acrylic on canvas,  private collection. Reproduced courtesy of the artist.

Sanctuary #3, 42″ x 72″ acrylic on canvas,
private collection. Reproduced courtesy of the artist.

What helps you generate new ideas?

Travel is a wonderful way to feed your creativity. You’re taken out of your normal context and can assess things in your daily life from a different point of view. I paint all over the world. When I’m off in Southeast Asia and then come back to Northern California, the shapes that seem very familiar to me on a day-to-day basis somehow seem quite exotic.

Do you have any day-to-day habits that you rely on?

I’m really glad that you used that word — “habit.” Honestly, most artists that I know who have had sustained periods of productivity — people who have made careers of it — are very regular in their working habits. They just get up in the morning and they do it. Getting in the habit, that’s the thing that will sustain you much more than the stereotype of the artist who’s in the throes of creativity.

If you look at how artists have been portrayed in films, most of it’s not great. [laughter] I always think of Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life. He’s in the throes of madness. Most people I know that are pretty darn good artists, they’re just somehow regular people. They just get up in the morning and work.

On your website you talk about the importance of quieting your mind and giving focused attention. Are there any techniques in particular that you use to accomplish that?

I’m a lousy meditator. Or, let’s say I’m a very undisciplined meditator. But on the other hand my painting is very meditative. If I’m out on location, I’ll find something that really speaks to me. And I’ll set up and just take a big deep breath before I get going. And I’ll meditate.

I’ll also give thanks. I have a ritual: I paint with water-based paints, and every time I clean out my bucket, I always drop a little bit of water on the ground. It’s just my way of giving back and saying thank you and being very present about what it is that I’m going to receive. Even the most mundane moments can be very special, if we choose to be conscious.

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Category: Visual Arts/Design