Where You From? Where You Been? Where You Going?


Standing shoulder to shoulder as our kids sprinted down field last year, I casually mentioned to a fellow Miami soccer/surfer dad that we were looking to move to Playa Grande, Costa Rica. “Whhaaaat!” he blurted … then grabbed his phone and started punching numbers. “My oldest, best friend lives there,” he said, as he raised the phone to his ear. A few seconds later, he barked, “Hey Frank! My good buddy’s moving to Grande; you gotta talk to him,” then thrust that phone into my face. “Ummm, Hey Frank …” 

Life is one giant road trip of random encounters, each holding the power to change you forever. That call is why we live where we live, a few streets from Frank in a jungle by the sea.  

Dawn, Nathan and family
Nathan, Dawn and family … from Brighton, England to Costa Rica
6 months from Canada to Costa Rica in this van
6 months worldwide in this van

Meet Dawn and Nathan.

Like many of us over the years, these gonzo, gorgeous Brits talked a big game of mixing it up and living abroad. But when they pulled the trigger, they went MASSIVE. Wiry, with Obama ears and laugh lines acquired on many a pub stool, Nathan and I met early on at our kids’ Playa Grande surf camp. Beat up longboard under his arm, he won me over instantly with his cheeky smile. What I did not know was that one year earlier, he and Dawn had sold everything, shut down their businesses, packed up two kids (10 & 12) and moved their entire life across an ocean to Canada, where they immediately bought a van and drove six madcap months across the US and into Central America, finally landing in our little slice of paradise.

Seven months into our Bucket List Year, one thing I’ve noticed over a lifetime of travel, is there’s always someone far more hardcore than you are. Dawn, describing their adventure in her gravelly, ever-smiling Lauren Bacall voice, told me they wanted to “follow our hearts, learn, grow and be inspired in a tropical environment … with a language we felt we could figure out” … as if learning Spanish from a dead stop was no biggie. 

Where to next?
Where to next?
The hillside town of Taxco, Mexico
The hillside town of Taxco, Mexico
El Salvador hotel room that “resembled the corridor of 1970s psychiatric hospital”
El Salvador hotel room that “resembled the corridor of 1970s psychiatric hospital”

Along the way, they survived their first ever earthquake, a whopping 8.1, that lasted one whole minute, as the four of them stood trapped on a cantilevered balcony in the historic hillside village of Taxco, Mexico. “We clung tight to a pillar, watched the buildings collapse around us and honestly thought we were going to die,” said Dawn, still incredulous. 

Their “most crazy day ever” took place at the El Salvador/Guatemala border, when their car was seized. Dawn describes it this way – ‘No way back, no way forward, no luck with bribes, hassled by rug dealers and scammers. We found ourselves in a hotel room that resembled the corridor of a 1970s psychiatric hospital.” She was forced to sit alone with her kids fighting off local street drunks in a tiny dive restaurant while Nathan took an eight-hour round trip to the capital to beg the El Salvador Minister of Transport for a permit to take their car through the country. But they made it happen … and now Dawn’s sparkly, blue-green, pura vida eyes and recently shaved head greet you when you enter The Libelula Lounge, the lush glamping B&B they created with vision, fortitude and sweat. 

Libelula Lounge and Lodgings
Libelula Lounge and Lodgings
Glamping in deluxe air-conditioned African tents
Glamping in deluxe air-conditioned African tents
Live painting at Libelula
Live painting at Libelula

“Seeing all our life experiences and our passion pulled together to create an expression of ourselves is incredibly exciting, daunting and challenging. But to know we had a dream and followed it is wonderfully liberating and energizing. It installs strength and confidence and a deep sense of knowing limitations are only what we choose to place on ourselves,” says Dawn. For Libelula’s grand opening, she and Nathan commissioned me to live paint a piece and, in light of their insane journey, I wanted to celebrate intrepid travelers everywhere. Those with the courage to leave their comfort zone, make space for life’s beautiful mayhem and trust that their best selves will emerge even better on the other side. 

Where You From? Where You Been? Where You Going? 

If you’ve spent significant time on the road, you know these three questions form the mantra of each new encounter, the reference points to engage, learn and share with the human being in front of you. The kindling for friendships that may blaze for a minute or a lifetime. 

Libelula Commission. Where You Been? Where You From? Where You going? Latex and acrylic paint, 1937 World Atlas on wood panel, 36x72" 2019
Libelula Commission. Where You Been? Where You From? Where You going? Latex and acrylic paint, 1937 World Atlas on wood panel, 36×72″ 2019

In this artwork, against a background of gleaming blue ocean, the horizon fades to serene infinity. Before us, lies the perfect wave, a spiraling tube that echoes the original moment the universe spun itself into being. If privileged to enter this sacred vortex, one’s thoughts evaporate and a rare moment of absolute clarity arises. No past. No future. Only NOW exists. One experiences literal “tunnel vision.” It is this moment of pure immediacy that I strive to live within at all times, for it is the only point in time that is not an abstraction.

The tube is collaged from pages of a magnificent 1937 World Atlas given to me by a crazy Aussie many moons ago. If you study the collage closely, you’ll find every country that is home to someone wonderful I’ve met since moving to CR, each an ambassador of life’s big pivots.   

Original Libelula sketch
Original Libelula sketch – I must admit, I’m delighted with this piece and how it matches the original idea.
Mad adventures from England to Central America
Mad adventures from England to Central America
1937 world population
Check out the 1937 world population!

Finished piece installed
Finished piece installed at Libelula

“Waves are toys from God,” says pro surfer Clay Marzo, and I say whoever plays with the most God-made toys wins. Dawn summed up their ongoing mission as an opportunity to “see our children flourish in life from the experiences they have had, follow their own dreams and be able to deal with all that comes their way.”

Henry Miller, one of my creative heroes, said, “One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.” Right now, in this grand place, immersed in fierce beauty, a bountiful sea and people I greatly admire, I am indeed looking at things in a new way.

Father and daughter make it to paradise
Father and daughter – destination reached

Didn’t Know What I Didn’t Know

Paradise found

“A distressingly large portion of the world doesn’t do you any good whatsoever. In fact, it does you bad. Casts static between your ears, drowns out who you truly are.” — Charles Frazier, Nightwoods

Something changed in me recently. Perhaps it’s being north of 50, but gratuitous inconveniences have become unbearable: traffic, message board vitriol, pollution, loveless marriages, political absurdity. I’m over it. So over it that I left the room …  and by room I mean country … aiming to whittle my life down to a sharp point using the gleaming blade of distance from all that I know best. I now see that I didn’t know what I didn’t know before coming to this beautiful place. I didn’t know that the scourges above can be replaced with solitude, happy couples (and their happy kids), minimal politics and big clean nature. I feel lighter. 

Praying Mantis - Ancient Greeks considered the insect to have supernatural powers to show lost travelers the way home.

“I got a couple friends and my family, that’s all I need,” sings Jake Miller, the talented singer/songwriter son of old friends.

I knew exactly three people when we arrived in Costa Rica – my wife and two sons. But we made a couple wonderful friends Day 1 and, well, it seems that’s about all I need right now. Because, in the past six months, our nuclear family has become tight as a drum. Not to say it’s all smooth sailing. But, being faraway together and in each other’s company a fat chunk of each day is a monumental end in itself. With maybe 5+ years left of real childhood to savor, that is one priority we’re nailing. We found a praying mantis in our kitchen last night. Ancient Greeks considered the insect to have supernatural powers to show lost travelers the way home. But where is home?   

At 29, I visited a friend in bustling Boulder, CO (hey Mike!) to crash on his couch and party for two weeks. I left seven years later. Luck handed me a cool magazine gig, and as the devastating beauty of the Rockies swept me into her spell, I pared things down and traded my convertible for an old Bridgestone mountain bike on which I commuted five miles to work each day, rain, shine or snow.

Pearl Jam at Red Rocks, backcountry camping, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, single track, sweat lodges … looking back, I can mythologize those years with words like carefree and happy-go-lucky, because there was much of that. But, in truth, those years were defined by my heart’s aching quest for love and family, the things I desired most entering my thirties. At the end of that first year in Boulder, I met a fine woman at Telluride Bluegrass. She was camping alone in her pickup which blew me away off the bat. Two weeks later she was living with me and before long, I asked for her hand in marriage. I could write volumes about that relationship, but suffice it to say, while I think the world of her and always will, we divorced after only two years. Seeking the fairy tale, I jumped too soon and, in the end, found myself right back where I started, alone and yearning for a family, only now, with a heart obliterated by guilt.  

Life moves in one direction only and offers minimal value in looking back for too long.

I now have that family I sought, and it’s a beauty – healthy, funny, complex, adventurous! That yearning no longer exists. But we romantics never dream in a vacuum. When one comes true, we replace it with another. Now, I dream of tranquility. 

I’ve found no English equivalent for the melodic Spanish word sencillo. It means sublime simplicity – straightforward, easy, effortless, clear, natural, uncomplicated. Like a Tuscan meal seasoned only with salt and olive oil. It’s just a piece of fish, zucchini and a tomato … but it’s the best thing you ever tasted. Artists Defining Visual Culture 2018

"The People Who Defined Visual Culture in 2018" Artsy Magazine

2018 was a major year for me, not necessarily sencillo but profound nonetheless. Along with leaving the States, highlights included the For Freedoms Billboard campaign, the ArtCenter / South Florida Ellie Award and being mentioned in the same universe as Banksy, Childish Gambino, Colin Kaepernick and JR in Artsy’s “The People Who Defined Visual Culture in 2018.” Hats off to Wyatt Gallery and For Freedoms founders/visionaries Eric Gottesman and Hank Willis Thomas, and thank you and the whole FF family for including me in this ongoing noble experiment. 

2019 is off to a smooth start with my first Costa Rican commission in motion (below) and talk of exciting stateside activations in the Fall. Still, I must confess, looking forward, I fear irrelevance. My physician brother, ever a voice of reason, recently prescribed this dose of wisdom, “The only person you need to be relevant to is yourself.” Those are marching orders for the year(s) ahead! 

First CR Commission

First Costa Rica commission and live painting gig 2019

may the time for stepping over puddles
and onto soft ground
be fast in coming
may a certainty formulate
where before a question lingered
so that targets know the points of arrows

Brussels 2003

Pura vida!

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!