The best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell thinks people should be more disagreeable. “A disagreeable person (as defined by psychologists) is someone who does not require the approval of others in order to pursue what they intend to pursue.” In a recent podcast conversation, Gladwell shared this particular unpacking of such individuals. In praise of this character attribute, he furthered that perhaps we, as a culture, sell short just how integral this trait is — particularly for people who “endeavor to improve our world or drive innovation.”
“If you are someone who can’t move a muscle unless the world aligns behind you and pats you on the back, there’s a limit to what you can accomplish.”
Offensive, unpleasant, obnoxious, and abominable… all words which could seamlessly be swapped out for “disagreeable" in its familiar interpretation. The term is customarily lodged in such a light, yet as Gladwell posits in the above language, the characteristic is the X factor in terms of breakthrough. Through the ages, nowhere has this trait been more critical than in the creative life where innovation is endlessly driven. We make art to move ourselves and possibly to move others. In staying true to the former, we make the work that at some point may achieve the latter. Losing the “please” factor liberates our practice and our process and opens a truth fluency in our creative pursuits. It is precisely how we get to extraordinary.
Archie Bunker, Larry David’s character on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Lucy (sister of Linus)… all amply embody the “obnoxious” quotient and could be deemed consummate disagreeables. But, in looking through the trait’s alternate lens, Vincent van Gogh, Zadie Smith, Jackson Pollack, Miles Davis, Jack Kerouac, David Lynch and the likes might be as well. Absent any concern for applause, in their creating, grammar is defied, lines are blurred, mediums are mixed and instruments are unconventionally rigged and tuned, all in order to artistically express themselves in the only means the know how.
Singling out the painter Mark Rothko, I devote a chapter (titled, Who Cares) on this truth in my new book SUPERFLOW Light Up the Artist in You (Nine Rivers, 2021). For the first twenty-five years of his career, Rothko made his paintings on nights and weekends — due to his day job as a teacher—selling zero to few works well into the 1950s. During this chapter of his life, he simply had no interest in defending his work to an audience that could not understand him and his bolt from tradition. Rothko refused to let their confusion derail his world of imagination. So, he continued his slow probe of layers and color blocks, insisting on a creative dialogue that included only him and his art.
How is a “disagreeable" nature integral to our art making? As modeled by Rothko, by refusing to let one’s brushstroke be directed by some external source (i.e. praise), songs and poems and plays are incubated and gestated from the interior — that field of pure imagination. Can you imagine the wonders of which the world would have been swiped had Rothko allowed his inner wisdom to be hijacked for the sake of the high fives of another?
We can practice being disagreeable through the ongoing checking of our personal motives. It’s a powerful probe to pause in whatever creative thread you are following right now and inquire in to weigh the degree to which any external approval might be compromising your true vision. This is not an exercise in which to beat oneself up, but rather just to notice what you notice and in that recognition perhaps dial back that diversion.
“An artist is a person whose hunger refuses yesterday’s bread.”
Today’s group think culture is endlessly pounding home a message of compliance. Of course conformity makes sense in certain of life’s respects, but creative expression is not the place in which to practice passivity — not if you hope to make the rhymes and pictures and paintings that astonish. Creativity extends to each of us a distinct platform for practicing and flexing the disagreeable muscle, to make small protests as we say “so what,” and then go see for ourself. When we do, we unlatch the gate to making work that is limitless and boundless and pure. Stay hungry, practice, study, practice, breathe, practice and be well. And to that mix… allow some space for being disagreeable?
Corrective measures — something I find myself endlessly charting right now in order to counter the fog which seems so determined to linger. Concentration is perhaps the prize I am mostly seeking in my plotting, and fortunately there are art museums. One of my go to upgrades in blurry moments is to take myself to these havens of wonder.
Art… it stands ever ready to meet us when the commotion of life depletes. Sometimes softly, and at other times more audibly, yet rarely does it fail to deliver. In its presence I reclaim my curiosity, source resilience and am reminded of some other way. A recent visit to the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, found me gathering such offerings. Standing before Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, (1999) created by the Swedish-born American sculptor, Claes Oldenburg (in partnership with his wife, Coosje van Bruggen) my correction arrived.
Oldenburg is best known for his public art installations which typically feature over-sized replicas of everyday objects like the typewriter eraser. His works are a slow build, with an extended period of pre-op work playing an integral element to the finished product. “We work our way through one image after another in words and sketches, testing them in models that can serve as the starting point of fabrication in large scale.”
Well before taking on his actual works, Oldenburg immerses himself in the practice of building “studies”. Studies have a long history in the visual arts, tracing as far back as the Italian Renaissance. They are drawings, sketches, models or paintings done in preparation for a finished piece. For the artist, they serve as visual notes and are often employed to explore the problems involved in rendering subjects and to sketch out its elements.
Oldenburg’s studies of his towering typewriter eraser are installed just steps away from the grand finale, and these initial iterations speak of what feels like some bygone era of making art, offering insights into the sculptor's slow process of acquainting himself with his subject. The work's early glimpses also drive home the fact that the extraordinary is not built on swift glimpses. It is born of staying and waiting and following one’s questions. While the sculpture (pictured at top) is the “wow,” it takes on an entirely different scale alongside the hints of its origins.
Although I am not one who sculpts, how might I weave "studies" into my practice(s) of making pictures and building sentences? And, what do these visual notes require? Time and single pointed attention. And, perhaps most importantly patience — well before any first notes are played or brushstrokes are applied. And just like that, I find myself miles away from my speedy and scattered reality — transported back to wonder by this history of another which has so powerfully illustrated that studies translate to work, in progress. I have seen for myself that beyond offering an artist fresh insights, studies force a slower climb. They add layers (and hours and days, and perhaps weeks) to the process, which of course runs counter to much of the messaging assailing us in today’s results oriented culture. Yet, these layers create time and space to consider multiple orientations and compositions, and to refine one’s vision. Fingers are not snapped to suddenly make happen such magnificence.
“A request for concentration isn’t always answered, but people engaged in many disciplines have found ways to invite it in.”
I’m in the habit of calling upon sculptures and paintings and assorted other works of fine art in my “requesting”. Museum field trips are my bridge back to me. What is the place or space or experience that sorts you out? The invitation that the author Jane Hirshfield refers to in the above language takes the shape it will for each of us individually. Roam where you want to? The point is to keep making the appeal.
Evertime… Does it mean there exists an infinite number of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, years and decades? Is it a field in which one flows boundary-less and free? Is it just two rather ordinary words hitched together by some thinker bold enough to build a vocabulary all their own? The website definitions.net explains evertime as, “the exact moment of each actual moment.” Hmmm….
I look down at my handwritten notes to self, and evertime stares quizzingly up at me. I think that probably I swiped the term while off field-tripping… snatched it from one of those small plaques installed alongside works of art in museums and galleries. Likely the two words were selected and fused together by some curator to say some thing, just so, about a painting or a photograph or a master work of some fashion.
To that stranger in the gallery or museum who strung together the two rather ordinary words and left for me the cue, I now silently bow. His or her or their curious blend plucked me from my drift and for a few moments dusted off the haze in which I am accustomed to roaming. They, and likely the accompanying art, were cause for some note on my part. And, here in a nothing special notebook, among my assorted scribblings and jottings, I uncover evertime. Another chance meeting with a message that clearly has something more to say.
Evertime… as I allow it into my morning practice of expressing something, I am reminded of the edgeless horizon. As I segue into some free writing, I take its abstract directive to slow my steps and take the time my imagining demands. As I do, the gate unlatches into a wide open where I do not know the time, or the answer. And, that for now, makes all the difference in the energy which I bring to the words and sentences I find myself placing on the page. Sentences lead into one another, uncalculated, as paragraphs begin to build. My mind take me back to 7 or 8 years old, carefree and up in the air on a swing. Carving through time and space. No destination in mind, but the muscles are freely flexing.
“You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”
"Whether field tripping or grocery shopping, have ready a small (nothing special) notebook at all times," is an invitation I offer to readers in Chapter Five of my new book SUPERFLOW Light Up the Artist in You. It is not an earth shattering directive by any means. Why is it so worth one's time? For just this… in order to record those hues, quotes, faces, soundscapes, landscapes, threads of billboard copy, song lyrics or peculiar word blends that speak up to you. Regardless of your medium, notice these things that tug at you in some way and catch them. For one day these random seemingly records will gather you and serve as power sparks when making your first brushstrokes or sketching out your opening scenes. My experience has been that they find you for some eventual purpose. And, though your communion with them may be well down the road, such jottings are powerful allies in the creative life. Take them as they come. Trust that they will find a way into your expression as needed. When they do? Sift into their riddle, and paddle out…
Have you looked at the sky today? It's an exercise requiring so very little of us, yet often when posed the question, the answer is not "YES". Subtraction is the mighty trick for reclaiming small portions of our (choked) fixed 24 hours and a tool for getting to "YES". It begins with saying “no thank you” to those responsibilities, commitments, myths, invitations, bad habits and assorted other detractors that make less of you, instead of make more.
Subtraction is limb #2 in SUPERFLOW, a soon to be published book designed specifically to light up that artist in each of us so that we might access the superpower that is our creative muscle. As we slowly emerge from this all-depleting life chapter, our creativity is here at our disposal. In 10 refreshingly light chapters (brimming with insights and guided practices), SUPERFLOW offers the sequence for seizing it.
The SUPERFLOW approach to flexing our collective might was crafted to serve as a functioning modern-day playbook for channeling the beauty, we each uniquely see, out through our most authentic lens. Its content invites artists of all levels and all mediums to consider a new game plan for making art. SUPERFLOW's structure is unique in that it is a duet of 2 components which stem from the Tibetan term for the word enlightenment, a union of two words "sang" and "gyey".
The first half of the book is dedicated to “sang”, meaning a clearing away ofthe delusions and bad habits of the mind, and the second half to “gyey”, the developing and bringing forth of our true nature. After a deep exploration focused on creating those conditions which makes space for our true visions to emerge, SUPERFLOW's second half ("gyey") guides the reader through a process for expressing their creative notes. Throughout both segments of the book, its pages detail experiences from my 2 decade long spiritual practice, and my life as a working artist. They also makes space for a host of shared wisdom from artists of all disciplines. A series of powerful practices invite the reader to engage directly with its teachings as they unfold.
The SUPERFLOW sequence is a structure of principles intended as a game plan for reclaiming a bit of you — a doorway into living your purpose. So many of us cling to the false narratives that we are somehow not creative and have no business engaging in the making of art. SUPERFLOW busts through that fog extending readers both a permission and a framework for following their imagination - at an easel, sitting down at the piano, behind the lens of a camera, at a potter's wheel, with a keyboard or sketchpad... endless margins.
I share this approach for lighting up the artist in you not claiming to be an authority figure of any sort. But, there is tremendous satisfaction in making one’s formula for breakthrough available to another. In its application, I continue to personally witness small SUPERFLOW epiphanies both in my own creative endeavors and in the pursuits of countless other artists and artists- to-be. The accompanying before and after image examples illustrate the difference this playbook can make.
There's a term in the Sanskrit language... "Ehipassiko". It translates loosely to, "come see for yourself". SUPERFLOW the book will be available in wide release in early summer, and I invite you to do so. Please stay tuned for virtual and in-person creative workshops which will offer transformative experiences for lighting up the artist in YOU... and lots of space for looking at the sky.
SUPERFLOW: LIGHT UP THE ARTIST IN YOU
PALM BEACH PHOTOGRAPHIC CENTRE
BREAK OUT BEYOND THE ORDINARY IN YOUR CREATIVE LIFE
4 (VIRTUAL) 2 HOUR SESSIONS: 10 AM - 12 NOON
THURSDAY, MARCH 11
THURSDAY, MARCH 18
THURSDAY, MARCH 25
THURSDAY, APRIL 1
The term "soul companion" often conjures up visions of human beings, in harmony speaking a language all of their own. A recent experience behind the lens found me extending this concept out beyond the margins of its typical application. The shoot had me recalling that a place has a soul all its very own and in recognizing and honoring that truth, we can achieve a similar harmony... where process truthfully replies to its echoes.
Addison Mizner defined the architecture of South Florida. Establishing his signature Spanish and Mediterranean style in the 1920s, he went on to design more than 50 Palm Beach villas and Florida mansions for the nation's "leading social families", as well as the famed Everglades Club. A romantic and freewheeling visionary, his designs often took on the air of movie sets from Hollywood's golden era.
"A prose portrait suggests the atmosphere of the sitter's identity, not just their physical appearance."
Many of Mizner's timeless dwellings live on here, where I now make my home. There is a sacred quality to their light and energy, an irrefutable soul, a timelessness which staggers. I recently had the chance to photograph under one of his roofs, and stepping into that glorious energy had me hearing that halt loud and clear, and its (re)direction to speak back accordingly. So, I stepped out of my routine. I reposed and got intentional with my equipment and the capture's approach. How might I craft the setting's soul companion?
PLACE + PROCESS
What is a soul? Loosely defined it is, "the immaterial presence or actuating cause of an individual life". Few are created equal. And yet these lives have ways of finding an "other". In getting quiet, pausing with place and reading its essence, there comes an opportunity to stretch this definition out beyond its borders in the pictures we make. Through tuning the creative process to its very key, we can honor the soul of a place, and... discover its companion?
The companion images in this post were created in Palm Beach using only natural light and the Lensbaby Velvet 56 and Sol 45 lenses.