King of The Jungle

The King Is In The Castle

“Dust everywhere… and out of that emerged this beautiful boy with the bluest eyes I’d ever seen, holding his hand out to help me to my feet.” – Marie Lu, Legend.

We ate sushi and spaghetti for Thanksgiving last week with a giggly group of old and new friends in the remote Costa Rican surf/yoga mecca of Nosara, a place my wife and I hold deeply sacred. Sitting alone on my board the following morning, Black Friday, I stared into the vast blue and recalled the last time we visited – twelve years earlier – utterly broken and terrified we’d never have children. 

Nosara Thanksgiving 2018
Nosara Thanksgiving 2018
Our Sausalito, CA Houseboat 2006

Three miscarriages in one year had turned the lights out on our typically shiny, happy life. The third, at 19 weeks, shut our hearts down completely. All we wanted was kids. A few weeks before Christmas 2006, we opted to bury ourselves deep in Nosara’s jungle with hopes of healing. Sunlight dusted the sky our first morning, as Jodi slept, and I paddled into the warm, buttery ocean. I stared into that same Pacific void, taking deep circular breaths. And got magnificently lost in the ocean’s bounty for the next three hours, until my arms were spaghetti, and I came in to meet my wife for breakfast. Jodi sat immersed in Overcoming Life’s Disappointments by Harold Kushner, and she handed me a passage that read, “When we open our hearts to pain and suffering, we begin to heal, not because suffering is redemptive but because opening our hearts is.”

Tell Me Again, 70"x48" Acrylic, paper, antique maps, linen on panel 2005
Tell Me Again, 70″x48″ Acrylic, paper, antique maps, linen on panel 2006

When we returned to Sausalito, Jodi told me she was ready to try again but that this was the last time. If our fourth pregnancy did not work, she simply could not handle another attempt physically or emotionally. That was a tough pill to swallow, but I swallowed it in silence. 

The fourth pregnancy with Jodi on bedrest with her dog and manservant in our houseboat.
The fourth pregnancy – Jodi on houseboat bedrest with her dog and manservant.

Opening our hearts

Watching my squealing boys jump into the bean-shaped pool last weekend … and paddle out by my side into the forgiving surf … and engage smartly with interested adults, I felt music in me … a soulful bass line that thumped in my open heart. A rhythm born of both agony and ecstasy beneath a melody sung in the voices of children. My children. 

Before we ever met, Jodi and I dreamt of living abroad with our future families. We had no idea that the family part would be such a struggle. But that struggle produced in us both a hyper awareness, not intellectual but cellular. Akin to a blind person who one day gets to see. Every color, every shape, even the most mundane, becomes sanctified. One simply wants to keep one’s eyes open and see see see. 

Really Good Food - acrylic paint, 1950s Betty Crocker Cookbook on wood panel, 48x32” 2016
Really Good Food – acrylic paint, 1950s Betty Crocker Cookbook on wood panel, 48×32” 2016. Available.

Yes, the world is a mess, but my gratitude burns hotter than ever … for the privilege of fatherhood and the love of a fine woman. And living parents. And friends who keep me laughing. And the opportunity to live simply in unspoiled nature. And the ability to transform whimsy into works of art. Mine is a full belly that has known the pain of hunger. 

Art Basel 2018

Find my work at Pinta Art Fair during Art Basel Miami 2018

For the first time in a while, I won’t be attending Art Basel Miami this year (I’ll be surfing). But I invite you and your friends to find my paintings at the Pinta Fair in Wynwood. 

Gratitude not Attitude!

The Day I Killed a Baby Unicorn

My most cherished boyhood moments took place peering through the lens of a small yellow mask on the coral reefs off Miami’s Elliott Key. Here I discovered my happiest happy place, bowing before the Queen Angels, saluting the Sergeant Majors, egging on the eels, and chuckling with the clownfish. And, of all the wondrous creatures that populated my undersea utopia, one possessed more majesty than all the rest — the lionfish.


These exotic beings existed only in the faraway Indian and Pacific Oceans, so I could never actually see them in the flesh and had to settle for rare glimpses through the windows of tropical aquariums. But when I did, their peculiar languid beauty, brownish-maroon and white stripes billowing along fanlike fins, entranced me and exploded my young heart with the wonders of nature.

The fact that poison lived at the tips of their fluttering quills made them even more impossibly magnificent. My childhood unicorns.

When I moved back to Florida a few years ago, I was shocked to learn that lionfish now over-populated our reefs, thought to have arrived in Florida’s waters in the mid-1980s, most likely when some aquarium owners tired of them and released a handful of the fish in the Atlantic. With no natural predators, they began to procreate in our buttery warm habitat with reckless abandon. Now lionfish are considered the most destructive exotic species in marine waters off Florida and the Caribbean.

Lionfish Frost Science Museum

According to National Geographic, “They have voracious appetites and consume dozens of organisms in one feeding, drastically reducing other fish populations and altering delicate reef ecosystems. In addition, lionfish can lay up to 30,000 eggs every four days, and their venomous spines leave them with no known predators in Florida waters. Ocean currents and hurricanes helped lionfish spread from Florida’s Atlantic coast to the Bahamas, throughout the Caribbean Sea, and into the Gulf of Mexico.”

These unwanted invaders have evolved into not only a disaster for our regions’ beloved undersea ecologies but to our economies as well, because once they gain a stronghold, they’re difficult and expensive to control.

You’ll see lionfish now available at the fish counters of many markets. I even tasted a surprisingly delicious sample of lionfish ceviche at Whole Foods. In fact, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission “encourages divers, anglers, and commercial harvesters to remove lionfish in Florida waters to limit negative impacts to native marine life and ecosystems.”

In other words, anyone finding a lionfish, regal and gorgeous as it may be, should kill it.

Father & son at the beach

One day last year, my kids and I splashed in the Miami Beach surf, frolicking amid large ocher clusters of sargassum seaweed. These floating clumps teemed with life, and we’d shake them to see what emerged. My boys scooped fingernail-size brine shrimp into the cups of their hands and watched them jackknife their tiny bodies to escape back to their seaweed cities.

I managed to scoop a small fish into a plastic cup. No larger than my thumb, it had, I noticed, what appeared to be the beginnings of the stripes, wings, and frills of a lionfish. My kids and I marveled at this adorable, unusual creature. Curious to confirm my hunch, I walked with my little cup-bound captive to the lifeguard stand. “Yup, that’s a lionfish, all right. I’ve never seen one this close to the beach,” said the female guard.

Sonar, Lunar, Jocular Fish, acrylic, oil crayon on wood, 12x12" 2003
Sonar, Lunar, Jocular Fish, acrylic, oil crayon on wood, 12×12″ 2003

My mind immediately skipped to the next step: What do I do with this tiny cute little thing?

“You have to kill it,” she said through a slight wince.

So there I stand on our sun-dappled beach, my children squealing in the turquoise surf of my sanctuary, as they fall backward into waves. My world stands in perfect harmony, except that, in my hand swims not only the creature I held dearest as a boy, my unicorn, but a baby unicorn that I’ve just been ordered to murder.

I stared into the cup. The helpless lionfish cub slowly swiped its tail back and forth, totally oblivious to the massive Orwellian moment vexing me to the core of my conservationist heart. A few minutes passed. At last, deciding the greater good of our marine ecosystem trumped the life of my little chum, I took a knee, dug a hole and emptied my cup into it. As I covered the makeshift grave with sand, I said, “I’m sorry, my friend. I really am.” The little boy in me could not make sense of this moment, yet the man in me knew it was the right thing to do.

Note – This post appears in my April 2018 Family Matters column of The Biscayne Times.

Like, Really Smart

A friend called me excitedly last year out of the blue. “I have an idea for one of your spiral paintings. What if you did all of Trump’s craziest tweets?”

Reading every one of Trump’s tweets was the equivalent of being ball-gagged at a punishingly loud speed metal concert where all the musicians are naked junkie hookers screaming renditions of the Star Spangled Banner through terrifying face tattoos. Your sense of balance, humanity, decency and the future is destroyed and yet, you cannot look away, because you’ve never seen anything like it. And so began one of my most peculiar commissions.

Like, Really Smart, Acrylic, Nylon American flag, book pages, playing cards, inkjet prints on wood, 48x48” 2018

Here is what I learned.

In our modern bully pulpit sound bite reality, everything you need to know you really did learn in kindergarten. And this guy learned none of it. Throughout the experiment, I kept asking myself, “What would I think if my 8-yr-old said that?” The answer was simple – I’d feel I was the worst parent in history, and my child was one of the rotten kids that should get unceremoniously bounced out of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Like, Really Smart, Acrylic, Nylon American flag, book pages, playing cards, inkjet prints on wood, 48x48” 2018

The title of the painting, Like, Really Smart, comes from my very favorite tweet of all – “Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart.” Wait a minute … Is our president a 15-yr-old girl working at a Forever 21 in Encino?

Like, Really Smart, Acrylic, Nylon American flag, book pages, playing cards, inkjet prints on wood, 48x48” 2018

Originally, the center of the piece featured the earth exploding…TWEET TWEET BOOM. But I felt the potency would not be the same without our little commander’s baseline scowl (plus, he’s so cute, no wonder so many of the porn stars he cheated on his wives with liked it when he grabbed their pussy).

Like, Really Smart, Acrylic, Nylon American flag, book pages, playing cards, inkjet prints on wood, 48x48” 2018

I then realized that no self-respecting thug would leave his gilded penthouse without custom grills, so I painted him in a proper gold set on those pearly whites.  

Like, Really Smart, Acrylic, Nylon American flag, book pages, playing cards, inkjet prints on wood, 48x48” 2018

If you study this painting, you’ll notice our fearless leader’s democracy-destroying tirades radiate outward, literally warping the further they travel across the surface of an actual defaced US flag.

Old glory is upside down, cut to pieces and blistering in parts where the stars and stripes are no longer just red, white and blue but also gold, a nod to money’s hallowed station in Trump and Company’s to-hell-with-dignity-and compassion-just-show-me-the-loophole dystopia.

Like, Really Smart, Acrylic, Nylon American flag, book pages, playing cards, inkjet prints on wood, 48x48” 2018

There were only so many tweets I could fit into 48×48″ but some so obviously reveal his true character, i.e. when he blindly extols the virtue of a known pedophilic bible thumping megalomaniac – “Spoke to Roy Moore of Alabama last night… Sounds like a really great guy… He will help to #MAGA!” 

Like, Really Smart, Acrylic, Nylon American flag, book pages, playing cards, inkjet prints on wood, 48x48” 2018

If my child sang the praises of a 30-yr-old man who thought that repeatedly getting in the pants of skeeved-out fourteen-yr-old girls was, like, just fine in the eyes of his Lord, not to mention the Senate, I’d rush my kid to a shrink and, while sitting in the waiting room during his session, I’d hit myself in the face with my shoe in disgrace for the entire 50-minute hour.

Like, Really Smart, Acrylic, Nylon American flag, book pages, playing cards, inkjet prints on wood, 48x48” 2018

My buddy who commissioned this piece is a heavyweight in TV media, so he wanted me to focus on the Fake News meme. Trump kicked 2018 off with a real heart-warmer that basically said, Happy New Year everybody, especially you disgusting journalist people who write bad things about me. Now, there is a fine example of modeling hope and grace from the top. Were my own kids to send this note to their friends, colleagues (or 49 million followers), we’d enter the realm of Dickensian punishments – think tying them to a lamppost in the town square in their long-johns and lashing them with a buggy whip … then sending them to their frigid attic rooms without supper.

Listen, I have to admit that this guy is busy. Lots of stuff coming at him. He said it himself. “As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!” So, let’s assume my kid says to me, “Dad, so much happened today, with school and soccer practice and my playdate, how do you expect me or my friends to tell you the truth about stuff. It’s hard, you know?” To which I reply, “Is it, son?” as I Google military schools and orphanages.

Hard fact – Of his 49 MILLION FOLLOWERS, a great many of these folks believe Trump is DA MAN – strong, proven, willing to burn it all down, drain the swamp. Having just read through virtually every entry on the crazy train, I don’t see what they see. But I can count. And, while I’m no math whiz, I think the square root of 49 million is WE’RE DOOMED … unless a great number of people get off their lazy, complaining, binge-TV-watching asses and VOTE in these next elections. It’s really that simple – VOTE, YOU BITCHES and make sure everyone you know votes!

Like, Really Smart, Acrylic, Nylon American flag, book pages, playing cards, inkjet prints on wood, 48x48” 2018

And if you need me, I’ll be in rehab trying to scrub these filthy tweet stains off my eyeballs. 

We’re All Pink Inside

A few months into dating my wife-to-be, we hit a rough patch and I thought I’d blown it. Utterly devastated, I wrote her a poem titled, Two Cups of Cacophony, expressing how complex people need time to understand and appreciate one another … because love is hard and takes work. Thankfully, she got the message and remains my anchor in the sunshine and the storm all these years later. 

We're All Pink Inside, Inkjet printed poem, latex paint, acrylic paint, graphite on canvas, 70x206” 2017
We’re All Pink Inside, Inkjet printed poem, latex paint, acrylic paint, graphite on canvas, 70×206” 2017

You’ll find the poem that saved my life embedded in my latest painting, We’re All Pink Inside, a reminder that within us all lies a pure pink vulnerability, the glue of human connectivity. And that within our peculiar species, there are no colors, no races … just a vast collection of animals, all pink inside, trying to be loved. 

Join us at our immersive installation, LUSH at Fancy Nasty Studios, featuring 10 multi-dimensional artists from across the globe, each riffing on utopia, an attempt to provide a fleeting moment of bliss in our pain-racked world. I’ll be there with all the artists on Friday, noon – 4pm.

LUSH Art Basel Visiting Hours
Thur Dec 7- Sat Dec 9, Noon-4pm

Artist Meet and Greet
Friday, Dec 8, Noon-4pm

Fancy Nasty Studios
6728 NE 4th Ave, Miami, FL 33138

For Freedoms, Acrylic, political posters, burlap, paper on canvas, 60×120” 2016

And while you’re out getting your art on, visit my work at Smith Davidson Gallery in Art Miami – could not be more tickled to see my massive flag painting make its American debut alongside works by Banksy, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and other of my subversive heroes. 

LA Times wrote, “Stuart Sheldon created one of the billboards, an American flag posing spiraled questions about freedom. To him, it’s about urging people “at a granular level” to start over, with less fear and more optimism.”

Love one another!

The American Dream in Postage Stamps

Liberty Flame

To know my immigrant story, watch Fiddler On The Roof. My ancestors, peasants in Poland, died in Auschwitz and arrived thru Ellis Island to begin again. I imagine, as their ships entered New York harbor, they wept seeing the Statue of Liberty, just like in the movies. Which is why I felt so touched when my oldest friend, Mark, visited my studio with his grandfather’s precious stamp collection.

Mark handed me a stack of baby blue notebooks, each filled with a colorful trove bearing witness to his grandfather’s lust for life. I stood mesmerized by the luminous physical beauty of these objects dating back 50 years or more. Each told a story from a faraway place. “Are you sure one of these isn’t worth a million bucks?” I asked. “Nope,” Mark said, eyes ablaze, “just turn them into a piece that represents the American immigrant experience.” And so began the most compelling commission I’ve received.

Mark’s heritage mirrors mine, a descendant of Eastern Europeans who crossed the sea to escape persecution and destruction. What’s enchanting about Mark’s grandfather is that despite the darkness in his past, he chose to attack happiness in his success and chase his wanderlust dreams to the far corners of the globe, something his own ancestors could never dream of doing. As Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” Sadly, today only 36% of Americans have a passport … which explains a lot. 

Mark was my college roommate, an accounting student, who unlike myself, locked himself in his room for days studying for his grueling exams. He toiled in school and when he graduated, he kept that pace at work. Thirty years later, he is self made … and now wishes to celebrate the country that allowed him to earn his own hard-fought success. A country that he (and I) love as deeply as his grandfather did. And a country now darkened by hateful, shameless scapegoating of the latest in our series of immigrant arrivals.

The very souvenirs that affirmed Mark and his grandfather’s enlightenment were now in my hands, and my mission was to assemble them to represent what was right with America, so that we all have something to aim at in our fight against what is wrong. 

Every single American is an immigrant.

Even the indigenous peoples walked here from distant lands over the Bering Straits. But what exactly is the American immigrant experience? With the notable exception of the slaves brought against their will, what ties together all American stories is hope. A yearning for a better life. An opportunity to start fresh and thrive.

Senator Jeff Flake, AZ, a conservative Republican about whom I have very mixed feelings, wrote a magnificent op-ed titled, We Need Immigrants With Skills. But Working Hard Is a Skill. In it, Flake describes Manuel, a man who works on Flake’s family farm. “All Manuel had to recommend him was his strength and his belief that America was a place where, by the labor of your hands, you could create a life for yourself. That is all, and that is everything. It is Manuel’s résumé that puts him in the company of so many of the men, women and children from all over the world who, since the beginning of the American experiment, left behind everyone and everything they knew to come to a place they had seen only in their dreams, in the desperate hope of building a life for themselves — and if not for themselves, then for their children. “

My grandfather slept on a mattress stuffed with straw on a dirt floor in a village outside Cracow. His family bought water from a water seller and ate meat once a week, a chicken for the Sabbath meal. He immigrated at sixteen, and like Manuel, his only asset was a willingness to work hard. That fundamental drive evolved into a life as a skilled carpenter and then a building contractor. He sent his sons to school. And I type these words today from a beautiful home as my young sons prepare to go to their fine school.

The American Dream is real.

Coming To America, Acrylic, Antique international stamps, inkjet prints, denim on canvas, 54x164" 2017
Coming To America, Acrylic, antique international stamps, inkjet prints, denim on canvas, 55×165″ 2017

From the Statue of Liberty flame that made my ancestors cry, Mark’s precious stamps-from-everywhere swirl out into the universe, spreading their heat and light and eventually becoming part of the glorious firmament that hovers over us all. It is in this light that we Americans, all Americans, are to be bathed and warmed and assured that one day, the promise of opportunity and democracy will come to us. A life where hard work and honesty pay off. A place where the hate songs cease. And wise men prevail over fools.

Mark – my friend since nursery school … you posed the question, what is the American immigrant experience? The answer is simple – YOU are the American immigrant experience!

Dystopia the Beautiful – My 1st London Exhibition Opens Sep 28 – Oct 13

Burnt Acrylic, American flag and collaged inkjet book cover on canvas, 35" x 19" 2017. AVAILABLE.
Burnt, Acrylic, American flag and inkjet book cover on canvas, 35″ x 19″ 2017. AVAILABLE.

“I’m jus’ pain covered with skin.”
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

My Beautiful America …
What has come of our utopian experiment?
Our chorus of voices?

New paintings sing old songs.
Longing songs.
Shocking songs.

Each a wish.
A soft light
In a dark corner.

Easy on the eyes
Robust, complex, yet
Grieving, burnt and forlorn.

Dystopian American novels.
Shorn of novelty.

Shredded to bits.

Unleashing the hideous truth.
So that we
can make it right.
_______

The Lottery, Acrylic, American flag, inkjet book cover on wood, 12x12" 2017. SOLD.
The Lottery, Acrylic, American flag, inkjet book cover on wood, 12×12″ 2017. SOLD.

In The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, a bucolic American town gathers excitedly once a year to celebrate a longstanding tradition. On a blue-sky day in beautiful park, every man, woman and child waits as one name from the community is selected. The moment the “winner” is announced, everyone, including the family of the winner, picks up a rock and stones the winner to death. Why? Because that’s how it’s always been done. 

 

The Road, Acrylic, American flag, inkjet book cover on wood, 12x12" 2017. AVAILABLE.
The Road, Acrylic, American flag, inkjet book cover on wood, 12×12″ 2017. AVAILABLE.

Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road, is one of the truest love stories ever told between a father and son, not what one would expect from a chilling tale of a society unraveled by apocalyptic anarchy. We never really learn how things got this way, but it appears some “leaders” got a bit trigger happy with the nukes. A man walks down the road with his young boy, reduced to animals trying to find food and water while avoiding murderous, cannibalistic hoards.

 

The Man In The High Castle, Acrylic, American flag, inkjet book cover on wood, 12x12" 2017. AVAILABLE
The Man In The High Castle, Acrylic, American flag, inkjet book cover on wood, 12×12″ 2017. AVAILABLE.

Philip K Dick’s 1962 novel, The Man in the High Castle, presents America if the Axis won WWII and Nazis were in power in Washington. Hmmm.

 

Fahrenheit 451, Acrylic, American flag, inkjet book cover on wood, 12x12" 2017. AVAILABLE.
Fahrenheit 451, Acrylic, American flag, inkjet book cover on wood, 12×12″ 2017. AVAILABLE.

In Chandler’s 1953 masterpiece, Fahrenheit 451, books are illegal and firemen’s jobs are to burn them all. Information is controlled by the government, delivered via large screens in people’s homes. A Pew Research Center survey published in July 2017 revealed that 58% of Republicans believe America’s universities negatively impact the state of the union. In other words, higher education is bad. I do not even understand the question; let alone the answer. 

Fire and Fury, inkjet book cover on frying pan, 2017. AVAILABLE.
Fire and Fury, inkjet book cover on frying pan, 2017. AVAILABLE.

Bleak as the subject matter may be, I cannot overstate my excitement for this show. And am flattered by the galleries description of my practice:

Exhibiting in London is a bucket list item for me. YOU are invited to the Fitzrovia Gallery. Here is your formal invitation. The opening party is Sep 28th and my artist talk is Oct 3. Extra bonus that the show runs during the illustrious Frieze Art Fair. Please share with your friends in London; I will welcome them with open arms, as I shall be in town for a week, keen for adventure. 

“Until you have done something for humanity, you should be ashamed to die.”
Horace Mann, American Educator