happiness is… research note #17

Studio view

Studio view.

A few fragments at the end of a 5.5-week residency at Montalvo…

My art expresses optimism and positivity. I do, at times. And not, at others. Just like most everybody else.

In the past two weeks, I made five Irrational Exuberance Flags. Each ~4×6′ flag and accompanying sash takes at least two long days to design, pattern, cut, sew, and finish. Working late and waking early, with noisy storms puncturing my sleep, I fell into exhaustion and crankiness. It’s ironic—the project is intended to inspire delight and pleasure.

I do strive to apply positive psychology to my process. Most often, I find flow in production, zoning out with podcasts on—just enough noise to prevent negative rumination. But I’m goal-oriented, and with production deadlines looming, I dug deep. Put my game face on. Chunked it out.

And I’m so glad I did. A few days ago, on a sunny, windy day, I did a test run and hoisted the flags on Montalvo’s 30-foot flagpole. After a year or more of only seeing these flags as sketches and prototypes, my flags were finally flying!

If you have never hoisted a flag, I highly recommend it. It’s joyous.* Hoisting a flag is somewhat like flying a kite—you watch it go up, up up, and it takes on new shapes and an endless variety of motions. Like kites, flags catch the wind as well as the light, with just enough translucency to appear to glow against blue skies.

(*Here’s your chance to hoist a flag: the public will be invited to sign up to select an Irrational Exuberance Flag and raise it on Montalvo’s flagpole as during the course of the Happiness Is… exhibition.)


After looking at the flags on the flagpole, I realized that one flag design was too much of an outlier. I knew it in my heart when I woke up this morning, on my last full day of this stint of the residency. Jumping right back into do-work mode, I made a sixth flag and sash to take its place today.

Most viewers won’t know about this extra step, but I know…. I know that bringing the project that much closer to the best it can be is deeply satisfying. I traded off the positive affect of a more leisurely pace for the chance to reflect on this project and have no doubts or regrets. And I’m glad I did.

Montalvo has been a lovely experience of time, space, focus, and support. Kind people and diverse artists. Lovely redwood creek, brushy orchards, lovingly prepared food. A nicer, larger studio than I’ve ever been able to afford, and will ever for quite some time. The opportunity to realize large projects that have just been sketches carried around in notebook after notebook.

Homesickness, too. Nostalgia for affection. For small, mundane rituals. The holidays in a wood-stove-warmed house, snow outside, laughter of children, awaiting.

Artworks packed up, ready for my return in January to install the exhibition. Studio is clean again. Without  clutter, the endless bits of thread stuck on my clothes and shoes, it all looks newer, and ready for more projects. Ambivalence means being pulling strongly—equally—in two directions. I am ready to go home. But I look forward to coming back.

Happiness Is… opens Friday, January 25th at Montalvo Arts Center’s Project Space Gallery. Opening Friday night, artist’s talk Saturday. Full list of events and gallery hours here.


It’s a joy

On Tuesday, I drove 240 miles to de-install and pick up my work from Catskill, NY. Today, I spent over 2 hours in transit going to Chelsea and back to photograph my installation. After this, I’m going to color-correct the photos, then work on a residency application. (Meanwhile, my latest studio project has been untouched—frozen in a state of incompletion—for the past 1.5 weeks.)

There is little joy in schlepping. The transit left me knackered, and feeling not especially productive. But I want to contrast these niggling feelings about artists’ extrastudio activity with a different sentiment about being an artist, to make space for an attitude adjustment.

When I visited Michael Arcega’s and Stephanie Syjuco’s studios in San Francisco last Friday, it felt like this is where they report to work, because it’s their jobs to be artists. This is less about occupations—Arcega and Syjuco both work as teachers—and more to do with the seriousness and intention of their practices, of their drive to be making and exhibiting as artists. The visits made me want a bigger studio, and somehow restructure my life so that I can spend more and more of my time being an artist. I left feeling inspired to be more ambitious, diligent, and committed.

I savored this sense of forward momentum. During my long drive to Catskill, I came to this realization: Being an artist for a day—working on your art, managing your art career, even undertaking extrastudio activities—is a gift.

Artists often want to focus on studio work—most of us probably became artists because of the pleasures of creativity and discovery. But there is much more to being an artist, and rather than disparage the extrastudio work—the unending grant applications, the mounting rejection letters, the mindless schlepping—I thought about being grateful for it. There are countless other things competing for our attentions—but we choose to be artists, and therefore the activities we engage in are of our volition and intention.

A few points of reference come to mind:

Lee Pembleton, in my interview with Earthbound Moon for Art Practical, said,

We pour our resources in to the work. Of course, it is not a suffering work, but an ecstatic one.

The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, is about finding pleasure, satisfaction, purpose, and happiness in one’s work. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that there are spoken words in this nearly silent film, and they are of lasting import to me.

Yes, there is little pleasure in schlepping. But perhaps I can approach this work, in all of its facets, however transcendent or mundane, exciting or tedious, in terms of finding satisfaction and purpose. From that perspective, the ability to be an artist—the capacity and circumstances—are delights in themselves.


Miracle Polish by Steven Milhauser

What I saw was a man who had something to look forward to, a man who expected things of life.

See why Millhauser’s my new favorite fablist—read the short story, “Miracle Polish,” by Steven Millhauser on


Happiness, and the difference between desire and satisfaction.
The cave; seeing things as they are or how you want them to be.

mirrorsblackportrait, 2011, mirrors, paint, frames, wire, motor, hardware; 112 x 21 x 21 in / 2.8 m x 0.5 x 0.5 m (site variable)
mirrorsblackportrait, 2011, mirrors, paint, frames, wire, motor, hardware; 112 x 21 x 21 in / 2.8 m x 0.5 x 0.5 m (site variable)