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.
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
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.”
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.
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!
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
My dad represents what is right about America. Born to immigrant parents, he grew up poor in Miami, attended state college for a pittance, served in the Army, then started his climb up the professional mountain. He eventually started his own construction company, Florida Fill, and made a decent living until Florida’s whipsaw economy got the better of him. But it was this “failure” that exposed what I consider one of his great successes. As he shuttered his business, he faced a difficult choice: make his final payroll or tell all his people who’d been with him forever and who’d toiled to earn that check, sorry, but the till is empty (which it was). Though he had no legal obligation to do so, my father cashed in his own retirement to make that final payroll, leaving him with very little as he faced a dark and uncertain future. He searched his soul and found himself … in lieu of funding himself.
In my most recent site-specific installation, America’s Moral Dilemma, stacks of literary criticism text books invite us to spend some time pondering how our nation’s story shifted so drastically, to one of profit at any cost.
Just last week, the new regime at the EPA voted to relax clean water standards. This is not a liberal or conservative issue; dumping industrial poison into our drinking sources is a basic human health issue. I’m all for minimizing bureaucracy and maximizing profits, but let’s not commit suicide in the process. Back in the 80s, I was actually there, as part of the Wall Street guys selling his casino bonds, when our current president used every trick in the bankruptcy book to get out from under his bad business decisions. All of it was legal. But was it right? What would my dad do? What would you do?
On a lighter note, it’s been a busy week. In collaboration with my good friends at The New Tropic, my series, Meet Your Makers, debuted on PBS as a segment in the show Art Loft. This episode features my soul brother and art beast, Typoe. Check it out above and tell me what you think.
I also have a solo show opening tonite (March 9th) in Miami Beach. It features American flags cut to shreds, deconstructed and then reconstructed into beautiful new forms. This is my wish for our country – that we survive these dark times and come out the other side with an even brighter future.
My friend, the poet Aja Monet, recently said, “It is the duty of artists to make revolution irresistible.” I must admit I am angst-ridden trying to figure how to do this – to Find Myself AND Fund Myself simultaneously. To build bridges … and light a fire under others to do likewise. For starters, a percentage of my art sales this month will be donated to the ACLU and Anti-Defamation League. Hopefully, that still leaves money for me to enjoy the fruits of my labors.
While that alone is clearly not enough, I believe that’s what my dad would do.
In the Emmy-winning series, Friday Night Lights, actress Connie Britton slays as a smart woman in a dumb town. In Dillon, TX, where high school football is religion, she’s the sexy school principal working to be seen as more than the coach’s wife. The been-there-done-that parent managing a hormone-charged teen girl. The rock of her family. In other words, she’s the person we all hope to be. We’ve been binge-watching for weeks.
Rewind to 2002, long before Britton’s Hollywood A-List onslaught, when she was just starting to get her acting mojo and was the guest of honor at a San Francisco charity event supporting breast cancer. My friend, Janice, the event producer and a breast cancer survivor, invited me to donate a work of art to the silent auction. I offered this yellow NOW painting.
I’d shown my work very little at this point. This series of silhouettes, my shout-out to the universe for a soul mate and the first serious body of work I’d ever made, was just coming into its own. The piece stood on an easel, on a roof deck, beneath a brisk, starry NorCal sky. Music played. Hors d’oeuvres passed. Britton mingled.
With just five minutes left in the auction, I noticed several people had bid for my piece, including Britton, whose $500 topped the list. She walked over to the bid table with Janice, a few paces from where I stood chatting with a collector couple who’d purchased the very first piece I ever sold, a few months earlier.
Connie scanned the bids, looked at her watch and said in a hushed yet firm voice to Janice, “Just make sure I get that painting.” My friends and I exchanged raised eyebrows, each recognizing this small, sidebar moment as notable. A single yet bright light affirming that I was moving in the right direction down the dark street of life as a creative. If the co-star of the quiet masterpiece, The Brothers McMullen, just gave me props, perhaps the life choices I made to get here weren’t ridiculous after all. My collector friends silently high-fived me, pleased by their own recent decision to acquire my work.
Connie did indeed get that yellow painting. And I heard later that she hung it over her bed. This deepened my soul satisfaction further, because:
1) One’s bed is sacred ground, an indisputable place of honor for any artwork.
2) Britton’s party date and boyfriend at the time was Christopher Lawford, son of actor Peter Lawford. Peter Lawford was not only a member of Sinatra’s Ratpack but was JFK’s brother-in-law, having been married to the president’s sister, Patricia Kennedy. I found secret pleasure in the notion that this ravishing strawberry-haired thespian and a bona fide Kennedy were making what Shakespeare called “the beast with two backs” neath the soulful gaze of my aspirant silhouette.
God Bless America!
“Just make sure I get that painting.”
Those seven words still fill me up. One tiny sentence. One massively telling instance.
Most of us enjoy far too few of these. And when they do happen, we don’t acknowledge or even recognize them for what they are – split atoms … releasing the nuclear capability we all have inside. So, the next time you enjoy a small success, an affirmation, a clear-pitched moment, stop and pat yourself on the back. Let the light shimmer in the depth of your stomach and outward through your skin. Because you work hard! And we’ll all need that light when the street darkens again.
Connie, I haven’t seen you since that evening 15 years ago, but if you get this message, Thanks for the vote of confidence when I needed it. Love your work too! Please keep it coming.
My ever-perceptive 6-yr-old asked me this on the ride to school a few days ago, having somehow heard the term mentioned in his classroom.
A week earlier, just 2 days after the conclusion of an absolutely mental Art Basel, this very boy stood barefoot and shirtless in my studio, hands gloved in hunter-green watercolor paint, splotches on his shorts, inner arms and legs, one patch in the middle of his back. Home sick from school, I had to bring him with me, and in twenty minutes a bus with eleven collectors, one of whom had been paying serious attention to my career for over a decade, was due to arrive for a studio visit.
I gazed at the mess as the boy stared up at me, fingers spread as the paint dried between them. Tiny green footprints scattered from a seeping puddle in the middle of the floor beside a large rectangle of cardboard covered entirely in swirls of this same muddy green. Beside the cardboard lay a dozen squeezed tubes of watercolor paint, each with its cap off, wounded soldiers in my son’s apparent victory with his verdant imagination.
I shut my eyes and started shaking like a broken toy. Turned from him and literally stomped my feet and made an aggressive growling sound. “No No Noooooo,” I yelled to the concrete floor. When I turned back, my boy stood crying. Crestfallen.
“You didn’t tell me any rules, Daddy. You didn’t tell me what to do!”
I pride myself on being a self-taught painter who lets it flow and trusts the arc of the sun to choose the palette each day. More gut. Less mind.
My son felt green today and let it flow with the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet. And in response I chose to trample the flames of his passion, frightening him with a clenched body and sharp-edged raised voice.
Yes, I was sleep deprived, hungover and emotionally thrashed from a week running around playing the art game. Yes, my ego wanted to sell more at the fairs. Yes, I wanted my studio to appear appropriately shop-worn and smart for the any-minute guests. But his only crime was doing exactly what I gave him permission to do. “I want to paint, Daddy.” I handed him the paper and the paints and showed him where to go about his creative machinations in the next room, as I hung works and swept up and dove deeper into my own fatigue.
What does this one look like he wondered, opening one then another of the paint tubes. He brushed at first, then opted for his hands, because finger-painting is awesome. And footprints even awesomer. And eventually he tried every color in the box. Why not, Daddy said I could paint. And who says you can’t have it all?I guess I did when I started yelling at the air.
So, my lovely, sentient youngest child … anger issues are the residual stink left when a dad squelches his boy’s beauty and never bothers to own it.
Lucky for us both, I saw the error of my ways in the sheen of your tears. And, later that day, I explained to you how wrong I was. How sorry I was. How sad I was that I gave you the idea that it was not ok to make a mess in the studio, when that’s one of the best reasons to have a studio in the first place. And I told you again that night and again the next day, because … what anger issues remain from my complicated youth shall end with me and not be passed on to your gleaming beautiful heart.
You, my exquisite mess-maker. My teacher. My canvas.