The Paperback Project

Whenever someone asks me what my favorite books are, I ask them if they need to catch a bus, because wherever they’re going, they’re going to be late. And yet despite whichever titles I am making my way through, or my literary flavor of the month, there are a few that stand out for more sentimental reasons than just the quality of the writing (although, trust me, these books are quality). And amongst those titles, I own very special copies of them.

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  • The Lies of Locke Lamora. My first copy was hardcover and sent to me by my best friend, James Kracker circa 2004. It’s the book that made me realize I could be a writer, because the kinds of stories I wanted to write were already being written. The first night I met Brigitte Winter, my fiance, we talked about this book. A paperback copy that I lent her to read still sits on our shelf, both our names written at the top of the first page. My hardcover copy bears Scott Lynch’s signature and a personal message. The night he signed it, he also gave me a draft of a story he was working on, which he read at KGB bar in New York. There’s a funny story there, but it’s for another time.
  • The Hobbit. My family’s hand-me-down copy of Tolkien’s classic found its way into my bedroom when I was a kid. I tried reading it at eight years old, but couldn’t get through it. I finally stumbled through the opening chapters at age thirteen and I’ve been a huge Tolkien nerd ever since. I read that copy so much that the cover came off. The pages have become delicate and brittle, like the scrolls you read about in fantasy stories, found by intrepid adventurers amidst the bones of an unlucky forerunner. Then, last winter, Brigitte’s stepmother gave me her own leather-bound Easton Press copy of The Hobbit. She had seen me paging through it and admiring it at her house. That edition’s been out of print for many years. It has some of Tolkien’s own illustrations printed in it.
  • The Crystal Shard. This book was my gateway into fantasy. I started in on the Forgotten Realms books at twelve years old when I came down with mono and was confined to the couch for a week. In the stoic, melancholy dark elf Drizzt, I found a kindred spirit. I spent most of my youth as one of the smallest, most sensitive kids in school and was endlessly, viciously bullied. Because Drizzt existed, I was never alone, and felt like someone out there knew what it was like to be seemingly universally despised by his peers. My original copy of this book, with the embossed cover and everything, I still own, though it is in bad shape: I let a careless friend borrow it and he treated it very roughly. Once, while visiting said friend’s apartment, I saw it discarded on the floor, stuck half-open and pinned under the bed. I then set about reclaiming it from his cat, who had taken a sudden malicious interest in it, only to find pages ripped and torn, the cover nearly shredded, the entire thing bent out of shape.   

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Paperbacks are not meant to last forever, and they accumulate a multitude of scars over their lifetimes. In this way, they are a little like us, I suppose. For this if nothing else, I love paperbacks. In the movie Memento, the protagonist’s wife can be seen in the flashbacks, poring over a paperback, the cover to which is missing, every page a dog ear, the book splayed open, the spine disintegrating. It was a fantastic detail.

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For the last 18 months, I’ve been gathering paperbacks. I’ve been haunting used bookstores, picking through estate sales, attending book fairs. I’ve became an honorary (in my mind at least) Friend of the Library. And a few very generous friends have donated some of their old paperbacks. My bedroom looks like a miniature Powells. Bookshelves line every wall. Freestanding stacks sway ominously, threatening to topple and often making good on the promise.

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There’s a method to my madness. I’m gathering all these books so I can launch a much-awaited project: The Paperback Project.

So, how does it work? In short…

  1. Gather great books
  2. Put art inspired by the books in the books
  3. Put a unique serial number and instructions on the books
  4. Distribute the books

My grand vision for the project looks a little like this: someone is waiting for an appointment somewhere. They look down and see a paperback book sitting on a chair next to them. On the cover of the book is a sticker which reads “This is a traveling book. Take it with you. Read it. Enjoy it. Inside, you’ll find a piece of art by a real artist who was inspired by the book. When you are done with it, please pass the book on. Give it to a friend or leave it somewhere for someone else to find. This book is a free book, and must not be sold.”

Surely, someone has never seen a book with that kind of message on it before! They pick the book up, read the first page, find the art inside somewhere, and take it home with them. Maybe they look that artist up on their webpage, see what other pieces they’ve done. Maybe they tell some friends about the book, the art, the experience.

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Then they notice the serial number inside and a website, so they go to the website and put the serial number in and BAM! They are presented with a map detailing the travels of that book. That particular book started in a bus stop in Baltimore, was taken on a bus ride to Huntsville, was found again in a restaurant there, made a couple stops amongst friends in town, stayed for a few weeks in a Little Free Library on someone’s front lawn, was picked up, flew to Laguna Beach on a vacation, and then was found inside a surf shop there, and so on. Folks have left comments on the website about where they found the book, what it meant to them, whether they liked it.  Maybe these people talk to each other about the book. Maybe two people fall in love (oh my!) over the book. Maybe someone is inspired to write. Maybe someone is inspired to make art. Maybe someone is introduced to a new genre. At the very least, someone is reading.

Mission. The Paperback Project aims to do four things:

  1. To put books into the hands of folks who want them, for free
  2. To create unique works of art out of common, mass-produced objects
  3. To present the idea of non-attachment to a wide audience in a meaningful way
  4. To invite participation in a game of “artistic telephone”

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This was my little dream. So I set about to do it all on my own. As a printmaker using traditional methods of carving and block printing, I would carve the author or something from the book, and print it on a blank space somewhere. It’s been, um, slow going.

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Challenges. The first problem I encountered was that I can only work so fast. It takes a lot of time to create one of my pieces and hand-print. So the PBP was limited by time. The second problem I ran into was that I’m doing this out of pocket. I have been primarily buying the books for this project instead of getting them donated, and it’s not like I have a grant to do this. The project was further limited by money and availability then. The third problem was that the project seemed like it was bigger than just me. Sure, I love to put my own art out there, but I believe in bigger things than that. I wanted to support other artists as well. I wanted other printmakers and illustrators to print and draw in the books they loved. Limited again by participation.

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So. This. Is. My. Call.

  • If you have paperbacks, we’ll take any books donated.
  • If you’re an artist, we want you to put art in those books.
  • If you’re a web designer or programmer, we want your help to design a website.
  • If you like this idea and want to volunteer your time, we want you to help us build homes for those books and/or distribute the books.
  • If you’re a graphic artist, we want you to design a simple logo.
  • Contact us at paperbackprojectbaltimore@gmail.com and let us know how you’d like to be involved

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Ideally, we want the books that people really love, that they have a connection to. We want the comment threads attached to each book on the website to start off with “I donated this book because…” We want to know the stories behind those particular copies, those unique items. And if the website proves too big a task to handle, I’ll be satisfied just to know that books are leaving people’s dusty bookshelves (no pun intended), and going off on grand adventures, to be read and discovered by a whole new crowd of folks. Maybe the story of that book won’t be captured on a website, but in the margins, on postcards stuck between the pages, on the back of a polaroid serving as a bookmark.

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Dustin, why do you want to do this? In the President’s most recent budget proposal, funding for vital programs has been cut, such as for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). There is nothing any one person can do which will offset these grievous and intentional blows to the arts, health, and science, should funding indeed be cut. We shouldn’t be cutting funding for the arts and education at all; we should be giving those programs more funding. For now, we will need to oppose these drastic and deadly measures together. And it is a more important time than ever to engage in small acts of resistance and support for the arts.

Books have had an enormous impact on my life. They have played a part in my childhood, my maturity, my education, my career, my relationships. Even if they haven’t for you, personally, please believe me when I say that they do for many, many people. Words have power.   

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The Price of Art

If you are an artist, you know how good it feels to sell a piece of art. Every time. It never gets old. In a small way, it’s a validation that you have not been wasting your life.

A few weeks ago Brigitte and I were showing and selling our art at the Howard Theater in DC as part of the RAW Artists Showcase there. It was an amazing show that blended visual artists, performance, modeling and fashion, and hair and makeup. During the show, a guy came up to our booth and said he wanted to buy one of my prints. I thanked him and told him the framed prints were $25, but he insisted on haggling with me. Because I was sticking to my original price, he said “Come on, man. I’m an artist too. I know how much these things cost to print out. They don’t even cost you two dollars, probably.” Or something similar.

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Go fuck yourself, Jerry.

Here’s the problem: artists deal all too often with people who think their art is worth however much they think it is, possibly based on what they can afford, not on how much time or energy the artist put into it, or what their rent is every month, or even what the artist needs or wants it to be. Each of us looks at art and ascribes a value to it for us. Sadly, these estimates are usually woefully low in the price department.

So there I was at RAW with a guy who likes my art, who wants it enough to buy it, but maybe he doesn’t want to pay me what I need.

Enter another problem, this one philosophical: Theoretically I believe that art should be accessible to everyone, and that anyone should be able to own art. I prefer “pay-what-you-can” models of doing business. I read Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking and think everyone else should too. Hell, often I give my art away for free, or donate it to causes, but I was having a hard time doing that for this guy. (Dirty secret: I would be very upset if someone stole a piece of my art, but I would also consider it a high compliment to the work. But don’t actually steal my art. Because I get enough compliments to get by already. And also because I’ll find you.)

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The back cover probably says “…and I’ll hunt you down like a dog. Because I’m broke as shit.”

The biggest problem with the guy at the show was that he was going about it all wrong. There’s a difference between saying “Hey, you know I really love your art, and I’d love to go home with a piece, but I just can’t afford it. Would you consider letting me have it at a discount?” and “Look, I know what this stuff is worth and you can afford to let me have it for less than you’re asking. Come on, don’t be a dick.” One is an “ask” and comes from a place of vulnerability. It’s a matter of need and can’t as in “I can’t afford what you are asking.” The other mode is an attack, using guilt to embarrass someone into capitulating to your demands. That may sound a little harsh, but I feel like it’s true. It’s about want and won’t as in “I don’t want to pay you what you’re asking for.” And when you’re stating that you don’t want to pay, not that you can’t pay, the fact that you’re using guilt to manipulate someone is slimy. Guilt is a method of control.

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You manipulated me? Whoa.

If you’re an artist then I really hope you’ll listen to me when I say that no one gets to tell you what your art is worth except you. Artists have to deal with a lot of shitty attitudes. Especially in the current political climate, the idea that art is not worth as much as other trades is both pervasive and destructive to our culture. And this notion that art is maybe not worthless, but is still “worth less” is absolutely NOT true. Artists are some of the most hard working people I know. They have trained just as hard, and often harder, to be good at a thing, the value of which is great, but all too often not recognized. And on top of that they compete with mass-produced wall art available at large chain stores, which drives consumers toward that dangerous and unrealistic notion of what the price of art should be.

Back at RAW, I could feel Brigitte’s indignation toward the guy rising. She’s incredibly protective of me and knows what goes into my work. So before she got upset I had to point out to the guy that everything I make (and everything that Brigitte makes, by the way) is hand made. It takes time to carve a design. It takes time to print each one. If a print doesn’t come out well, I have to toss it. Each of those misprints costs me money. Ink costs money. Heavyweight paper costs money. The blocks I carve into cost money. Brayers, plates, palette knives, shop towels, mineral spirits, gouges, frames (not to mention s-hooks, zip ties, folding tables, aluminum chairs, extension cords, clip-on lights, bulbs, duct tape, hand tools, or grid panels) these ALL cost money. It costs us money just to show up. The huge investment of both time and money is probably what turned traditional printmaking into a dying art form. Every time I make a stray cut on one of my blocks, I have to decide whether or not it ruins the entire piece. One stray mark and all that work is wasted. It’s an extremely deliberate process. It drives me nuts.

In the end, the guy agreed to pay me $25 for the framed print. He came back later and bought a bracelet and an additional framed print. I gave these last two things to him at a steep discount. I’m not without a heart, after all, and the second time he came back he was a little less insulting. He wasn’t a bad guy, he just didn’t get it.

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The obligatory “you bought my art without haggling with me” handshake.

I have to struggle–we have to struggle–against the notion that I am–we are–doing something wrong every single day. I’m not sure where it came from, but I know it’s always been swirling all around me. From a different standpoint, I have to acknowledge the fact that I am extremely privileged to be able to even make art and write, that it was an immense privilege to study art and writing in school, and that I am extremely privileged to even be able to choose to be a poor artist in the face of getting a “real job” (see: father, guilt, shame, artist). If I made more money, I’d surely be in a better place to support the causes I care about right? And what if I’m not a very good artist? What if I’m a terrible writer? Am I wasting my time? Could I be having a bigger impact on the issues I care about some other way? I know there are people out there who would kill for the chances I’ve had to make some dough. But I’ve done all that before, and I didn’t do anything better than how I’m doing it now, and I wasn’t happy.

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“I used to be a surrealist painter, and then someone told me I should get into Tech Support.”

In art school a lot of our teachers tried, in their own ways, to prepare us for what was out there. Carver Center was not a microcosm of the larger world. I never went on to go to MICA, or SCAD, or RISD, or Cooper Union, but I’d bet they were similar. At Carver, the world revolved around art, as it should in art school, as it helps to immerse one’s self in it. But the outside world doesn’t think it revolves around art. It treats art as something extraneous and trivial, and easily brushed aside. You have to understand how hard this is. No one can tell you. You won’t believe them. They’ll tell you that you have to be the best and no one really makes it and you’ll probably compromise and settle. I listened to them. I misunderstood, because they were trying to steele me for the frustrations, but I thought they were attesting to my imminent failure, because most of what they were saying was “this will be hard,” without giving out many strategies for dealing with hardship besides “be forewarned.” I shouldn’t have listened to them. I bailed on art my junior year at Carver, went on to community college, and have since worked a plethora of strange, unfulfilling, and incredibly boring jobs that have nothing to do with art or creative writing. It’s been a learning experience but what I wish now isn’t that I had more money, or more recognition, or that art was more valued. I wish I had that time back where I should have been working and studying. Maybe it’s easy for me to say that now. I’ve never gone hungry. Maybe I would have. Maybe there would have been more tears. But we have one life, only the one, and if we don’t do what we love as much as we can, I worry that we’ll regret it.

My last entreaty here is aimed at my fellow artists, writers, dancers, musicians, chefs, and other creatives: please, don’t be shitty to yourselves. As artists, you likely have plenty enough people who will be shitty to you without fail, so don’t demean your own art. And don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good. Laurence Fishburne was Cowboy Curtis, for fuck’s sake: we all start somewhere. Forgive yourself for imperfection, and know that you have value, your art has value. Never let other people dictate the value of what you do, because no one else can do it like you can.

“What is it about art anyway that we give it so much importance?  Art is so respected by the poor because what they do is an honest way to get out of the slum, using one’s sheer self as the medium.  The money earned, proof, pure and simple of the value of that individual, the artist. The picture a mother’s son does in jail hangs on her wall as proof that beauty is possible, even in the most wretched.  And this is a much different idea than the fancier notion that art is a scam and a rip-off. But you could never explain to somebody who uses God’s gift to enslave that you use God’s gift to be free.”

~from the film “Basquiat,” 1997, adapted from Rene Ricard’s essay “The Radiant Child,” 1981

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Black History Month

or The Importance of (and Near-Impossibility of) Creating Good Art Every Day

Let’s talk about momentum.

I have this little day planner called a Passion Planner. It’s pretty fantastic. A small start-up enterprise, the Passion Planner people have designed the perfect scheduling tool to help me organize my thoughts and stay accountable. It functions like a regular planner, but is guided: it helps you identify the things you really care about and need to do, and then helps you strategize on how to break that down into manageable steps. I highly recommend buying one, if one can only look past the fact that I have not, in any sense of the word, stayed accountable recently. It’s not Passion Planner’s fault. I think my inability to achieve all my goals has a lot to do with my tendency to over-book and then over-extend myself. I like to think that I am Superman, but I’m not.

I did the same thing during February, which is Black History Month. I didn’t meet the big goal I set for myself for the month: to carve and print a significant black person or character each day of the month. It was very important to me, especially considering recent events, to take the power and privilege that I have and use it to effect some change, even if all I changed was the content of my own body of work. I chose some of my prints to benefit the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. I aimed my art at the inequities I saw. 

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“I have a huge and savage conscience that won’t let me get away with things.” ~Octavia E. Butler

My partial failure also has a bit to do with momentum. The first week or so went really well.  I had a little bit of a head start, having sketched out a few of the figures I wanted to carve, like Thurgood Marshall and Frederick Douglass. Some momentum there. I would carve first thing in the morning and then do a quick print run in the afternoon. But after that first week the momentum stopped. During that second week, Brigitte and I took a trip up to New England for a long weekend: Neil Gaiman was reading from his “Norse Mythology” and giving a talk at The Town Hall in NYC (I’ll talk about this in another post), and B and I thought it would be a convenient excuse to go just a little further north and visit her family.  Then the snowstorm that was slated to hit New York moved in a little faster than we anticipated and we had to leave a day early to beat the bad weather. When we finally got home, I realized that I was five days behind on my objective. Okay, no problem, I’ll just double up and do two a day until I get caught up.

But it never happened. Life took over. The house needed fixing, or errands needed running, or the cats were destroying something, or we had people coming over for dinner, etc, etc. That one little hiccup of not creating every day totally derailed me. Not only did I not get caught up, but the project more or less came to a standstill right there. I’m still happy I did it, but I did not complete the 30 day challenge.  

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“Malfunction, sir.” ~Lt. Nyota Uhura

I did meet some of my other Black History Month specific goals. I read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. I saw the documentary based on his writing, I Am Not Your Negro. I read Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. I started in on Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point.  I left the theater after I Am Not Your Negro in tears. The movie is extremely moving and powerful, and is likely the kind of thing more people ought to watch. The Fire Next Time gave me so many great quotes and things to think about. It put me in someone else’s shoes. It broke through my white perspective, helped me see things I couldn’t see prior to reading that book. It showed me my own complicity. Sower was one of my favorite sci-fi reads of all time. I did most of it in two days, listening to the audiobook (Lynne Thigpen is a fantastic reader) while I worked on things around the house. It’s post-apocalyptic, and usually that’s not my bag.  But I loved it. I’m excited to read Kindred next month for Women’s History Month.

I think it’s important to carry this sort of thing through the entire year. Why do many of us choose to focus on black lives only during this one particular month? Why don’t many of us who are not black refuse to read black literature? Why are the only authors we can name Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou? Is white identity so fragile? I’ve recently taken a personal inventory, the results of which are stark: I read a lot of CIS het male authors, and have for a long time. It’s no big news that my favorite genres of science fiction and fantasy are dominated by old white men. The panels at F/SF conventions are overloaded with wrinkled graybeards who want to tell you how it is. In all fairness, I do love some of these folks, but it’s time to change how we’ve been doing things.

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“The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” ~James Baldwin

For the rest of 2017, my focus is on writers who are queer, or black, or Muslim, or Hindu. Voices that are trans, hispanic, native, genderless or gender-fluid, polyamorous, female, gay, lesbian. In literature as well as in entertainment, there is an inequity, and a communication breakdown. I will prioritize those stories. I will buy them, and I will read them. I will take my work during Black History Month and I will carry it forward for all of 2017, gathering Hispanic Heritage, Women’s History, and all the others along the way. And when 2017 is over, I’ll take another ruthless personal inventory of the books, art, entertainment, and words I support. I hope maybe you will join me.

That idea of momentum is key. I did well on days 2-7 of my BHM challenge because I started on day one. I did well on day one because I was already planning for what I was going to do prior to day one. And I had a few more prints to show than I had days where I worked because on a few of those days I completed more than one piece. Start strong, plan early, and when you are doing well, keep going. It’s much harder to get started again from a standstill. This applies to social justice as well. Keep it up. Don’t just do Black History Month. Do Black History Year. Do Women’s History every day. Some of us aren’t Social Justice Warriors. Some of us are Social Justice Mothers, and and Volunteers, and Neighbors. Some are Social Justice Artists.

For art in March I have my sights set on another 30-day challenge, this time carving and drawing notable women. I’m currently eight days behind, having not done a single carving recently. But it’s never too late to start. I’m not stressed: maybe I won’t get to thirty pieces done, but even if I did seven, that’s still seven more than I’ve done at this point. Brigitte and I are writing a new story and our main character is female. We are committed to at least half of the characters being female. It’s a good start. We have momentum.   

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“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” ~Frederick Douglass

Gratitude

You pay my bills for me.

Let me rephrase: your patronage enables me to pay my bills.  I am an artist and a writer.  This is the only way I make money.  I have never gone on unemployment, even though for over a year I have been technically unemployed.  I depend on two things to make money: the vision and power of my work, and the generosity of loved ones and strangers, of fellow visionaries like you.  You all have made the message clear: you like what I do.  Without you and your support, I couldn’t do it.  Thank you.  This is a daily struggle for me, to survive in this new city, to afford supplies, to keep going.

So today’s message is about appreciation.  But it is also about taking a stand.

Tomorrow, many folks will be lured out to join the maddening crowds at places like Best Buy or Target or Walmart or wherever.  I’m not judging you for getting up at an ungodly hour or even camping out (however, I may launch a late night assault on your location via nerf guns and water balloons).  But I do want to impart a message, one that probably warrants a more lengthy post, but one that is important for me to tell you now with what words I have.  Maybe just don’t do that, because there is a better option.

Buy local.  Buy art.

I’m not simply advocating for myself.  There are so many artists out there, making great stuff, knitting, painting, handcrafting, sewing, building, illustrating, making music, honing their bodies and minds into fine-tuned instruments of beauty and construction.  They bring new worlds to life, offer us a retreat for when the world gets too much.  They beautify our homes and our neighborhoods.  They give us the words for what we feel.  They give us a tune to dance to.  So instead of buying yet another TV, the latest and greatest breadmaker (which you’ll use once in the coming ten years), or nineteen Frozen Elsa dolls (got to have the variant with the icicles instead of snowflakes on her dress), instead of doing all that, please please please think about supporting local artists and craftspeople.

This weekend on my Etsy store I’m having a sale.  This isn’t a Black Friday sale.  I hate Black Friday.  I hate the term Black Friday.  This is a Thanksgiving sale.  A Show of Gratitude, as it were.

From now until Tuesday at 12:00am, you can visit my Etsy store and get your prints for 50% off.  I’d encourage you to treat this as a buy one get one kind of deal.  Get one for yourself.  Get one as a gift for a friend.  Hell, get a dozen as gifts for friends.  Just visit my BlottoArt Etsy store and enter this coupon code: damntheman.

I’m doing this NOW, on Thanksgiving, because while I don’t want to take time away from your families (you were already online, I’m assuming), I don’t see any point in waiting until tomorrow to offer you a chance to get unique, awesome gifts for your loved ones.  And if you don’t see the print you want, because I haven’t made it yet, you can go a step further: commission me for a piece.  Print, painting, drawing, whatever.  You want Iggy Pop?  You got him, man.  Art Donovan for your dad’s Sport’s Wall?  Done and done.    And then you get to say “See this piece?  I made that happen.  It was my idea.  And I have the very first one ever made.”  Boom.  For real.  Message me at dpblotto@gmail.com.

Check out Etsy stores.  Find a artist to support as a patron on Patreon.  Take part in the Handmade Holiday Pledge.  Make good art HAPPEN.  We cook to order.

Here are just a few of us:

BlottoArt
Iron Intentions Forge
Beerhamster
SariCosplay
Catstooth
Lorraine Imwold Art

Joe Granski Art
Tattoed Heart Studios
Optic Nerve Arts

Reach

Failure

Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” ~Winston Churchill

The last year of my life has been the hardest and strangest I can ever remember. And upon reflection, the pattern I see is that over the last year I have failed, over and over again, in spectacular and humiliating ways.

This was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.

I’ll explain why in just a moment. For now, here’s what you need to know:

In September of 2013 I was riding high. I had a high paying job in the IT sector. I shared a house (more of a mansion or chateau, really) with a friend of mine in Maryland. I had a pretty decent relationship with my live-in girlfriend. I had just joined a local writers’ guild, Columbia Writers, to focus on finishing my novel Hunt for the White Fox. I had more money than I ever had in my entire life. I was, figuratively and sometimes literally, flying along the highways of my life at ludicrous speeds, with my hair on fire and my new lease on life fluttering around in the backseat someplace.

Then in October, I lost my job. I felt like a fraud, someone who was just playing at being able to be a grown up, hold down a real job. The following week, I lost my girlfriend. In fairness I should add that it was my decision. My heart was in a bad place. I lost a few friends in the aftermath of the breakup, which left me feeling like a bad person for my decision. There had to be reasons why people were leaving me, and those reasons had to be about my deficiencies: I had failed at being a good person. I became an object of minor but nonetheless hurtful gossip.

After all of that I wanted nothing more than to escape from Baltimore. Charm City, my home, well, the old gal had gotten big and mean. Construction crews were everywhere, paving over the things I used to love. They tore down my high school. And I had born witness to the slow deterioration of many beautiful places. The city was dirty and crowded and violent. Since the only thing I still truly enjoyed about Baltimore were my family and close friends, and since I saw them more and more infrequently as time went on, I made the decision to say my goodbyes and move to Portland, Oregon.

What is the point of being alive if you don’t at least try to do something remarkable?” ~John Green

So let’s pause for a moment.  Yes, it’s sad that I lost some things: money, love, stability, friends, a home. But loss isn’t the same thing as failure, though they keep close company. I gained something as well.

Opportunity.

The loss of those other things presented a sudden and fleeting opportunity: no longer tied to Baltimore—and feeling a little disillusioned with the place to be honest—I was free to leave. After all, I had never intended to stay at that job forever, and I had wanted to move to Portland since I first visited. So I did.

In March of 2014, I packed my entire life into four red suitcases and flew to the other side of the country. Even the question of what to take with me was a problem, but getting rid of things or packing them away and only traveling with what I absolutely needed to survive–sanity intact–was very invigorating. I left Baltimore feeling light, and bright, and true to myself. The plan was to live with my best friend and collaborator, James. I drew up a big idea for finishing my novel and developing my art. I dreamed of getting into shape, living green, selling my car, riding a bike, losing weight, feeling good, looking good. I hoped to meet hordes of strange, inspiring weirdos covered in licorice tattoos and full of wild, dangerous ideas. I looked forward to exploring a vast, new city on the far edge of the American World. I was convinced that my failures would not follow me. I fully anticipated effortless success in Portland. After all, how could a person like me survive in the world if not in a town like this? But no matter where you go, a wise woman once told me, there you are…

Nono, go past this part. In fact, never play this again. ~Rick Moranis

I’ve been in Portland for nearly eight months, and I have truly, completely, embarrassingly failed. Again.

The novel is far from finished. My body, while healthier in so many ways, refuses to shed some of the odd shape I fixate on each time I stand in front of the mirror.  I have a bevy of primed canvases waiting patiently on my pristine easel, collecting dust, but they remain blank. (Easels, it should be noted, should never be pristine.  The best easels are those which, after many years of hard use, are barely functional anymore.) My solitary red shelf, home to the handful of books I’ve collected since coming to town, is strung with cobwebs (I am an exceedingly slow and negligent reader).  The Greek Chorus of my father and brothers stand in the back of my small room like phantoms.  Things they have said like “Make us proud,” or “Don’t come around here asking for help,” or even “Did you find a job yet?” echo in my head.  Worse, the funds I had set aside to see me through until I could find a job out here are nearly gone.  The coffers are nearly empty.  I’ve let myself go a bit.  I’ve stopped going out to find those beautiful weirdos.  I’ve realized that I might be even weirder than they are.

All of these could be good things.

I’m about to pull a bit of “bullshit magic” on you. But it’s true.  Not having any money presents a unique opportunity (albeit one I would rather I didn’t have). Without money to do anything, I am now free to work on those canvases. In an attempt to make some money, I’ve thrown myself into my art in new and interesting ways in the hopes that someone will buy it. I listened to the incomparable Neil Gaiman. I make art every day.

In August, I had to fly home to tearfully take care of packing up the last vestiges of my old life and home. While I was there, I organized the first of what I hope will be a series of successful art shows under the heading of Ignorant Art. Much of my work went home with happy patrons that night. Fear and shame have kept me from asking for help from some people, only to have it thrust upon me by others. I have discovered some of my most stalwart and generous patrons to date. After the art show, all aflame with vigor and inspiration, I started drawing and making prints with a fury and a rhythm I did not think was possible.

And writing a novel, it turns out, is relatively inexpensive work and requires a lot of alone time. Well, I certainly have that now. Finally, when I look in the mirror, I am pleased with my progress, but not yet satisfied, and that keeps me going back to the rock gym on my bicycle every week.

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” ~Thomas Edison (maybe)

There is this really insidious switcharoo that got pulled on us. We’ve been brainwashed to believe that failure should be an indication of whether or not we should continue, when in fact, it may be the opposite. Failure may mean that it is imperative that we continue, and that we learn, and improve, if the object of our desire is at all important to us.

So the question we need to ask ourselves is not “Will I fail?” You will. At some point at least. The question to ask is “Now that I have failed, what do I need to do to succeed?”

The answer, it turns out, is to make some small adjustments. We need to know what we did wrong. Then we need to try something else by adjusting our course. Motivational speaker Tony Robbins has some very good advice on that front. Now, I have always been irrationally scared of Tony Robbins. He’s a huge man with huge hands and when he smiles at me with that big, toothy grin I just imagine how he could probably swallow my whole head and chew my bones up. But he’s got a point. When you start again, very small adjustments at the outset amount to huge deviations in trajectory later. So don’t get discouraged. You don’t need to reinvent yourself. You just need to make small adjustments. If you can turn your problems into opportunities, all the better.

Here is another example of what I mean: a friend of mine runs a non-profit centered around the performing arts and the org needed some books of original plays printed up. When their org ordered the books, they ordered a great many more books than they ought to have. Where instead there should have been two hundred dollars of material, now there was two thousand.

Oops.” ~Anonymous

Now, my friend had a choice to make. She could either let that one simple mistake turn into a huge problem, or turn it into an opportunity. Yes, I understand. Saying things like “every problem is an opportunity in disguise” feels like a lot of hot air. But in this case, and in many others, it was true.

So instead of eating the cost entirely, writing it off as a problem, or holding someone’s head to the chopping block (the books were non-returnable, of course), the decision was made to do a citywide free book giveaway.  They put volunteers in public venues and they gave all those books away for free to community members.  They marketed the event online as a game: they posted maps and clues as to where they’d be on the giveaway day.  Each book had their season flier in it.

The disaster of truckloads of spare material was turned into a huge public awareness campaign launched for their twentieth anniversary.  Mistake acknowledged.  Limitations accepted.  Opportunity created.

Want to know how it turned out?  It was hugely successful.  There were people sitting in the park reading the plays in the books aloud and acting them out.  And now those people have the org’s schedule of events for the rest of the season in hand as well.

And that is how you become a fucking magician, an Alchemist of Potential.  You turn problems into solutions.  Even Neil Gaiman does it: the title of his terribly popular book (and movie) “Coraline” emerged from a failure in spelling out the name Caroline.

If you search around the web for some applicable quotes on failure, what you find is a bland gruel of empty platitudes salted with a few worthwhile pieces of perspective (including some attributed to Thomas Edison, which I can only assume he stole—along with nearly everything else—from Nikola Tesla). You’ve already seen some of them in this article. But none of them balanced inspiration with the dark humor and sardonic edge that I prefer. And none of them really brought to a point how I wanted to wrap this all up, except this one:

“No human ever became interesting by not failing. The more you fail and recover and improve, the better you are as a person. Ever meet someone who’s always had everything work out for them with zero struggle? They usually have the depth of a puddle. Or they don’t exist.” ~Chris Hardwick

For me, I try not to see what I do as failing so much.  I try to see it as ensuring that my inevitable memoirs make for a slightly more engrossing read.

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“Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes, break rules, make the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.”  ~Neil Gaiman