Two Months in the Jungle

Moments after the car honked and we kissed the kids goodbye for another school day, backpacks on their shoulders, I heard excited voices outside and opened the door. In the bright Costa Rican sunlight stood my soft-spoken/board shorts/no shirt/six-pack-abs/carpool-driving neighbor holding his flipflop and swatting repeatedly at the back of Kai’s red uniform shirt. He then bends over, raises the flipflop like a hammer and smashes something on the ground with a crack. Scorpion! Welcome to the jungle.

Squad!
Squad!
Homemade BBQ
Homemade BBQ
That's how you serve bananas. This way the birds, butterflies and humans call enjoy.
That’s how you serve bananas – the birds, butterflies and humans can all enjoy.

It’s different here. We live on the edge of one of the world’s five Blue Zones, unique places where, for some inexplicable reason, many people live to 100. One can go days without shoes or shirt. Makeup does not exist. Nary a manmade light mars night’s sublime emptiness. We four arrived with five rollie suitcases which was three too many.

Nature does not play here. She rules. And conquers. One must surrender. Become her lover. Enjoy the ride. Or perish. Last week, both boys experienced gut-wrenching hold-downs in the surf, after which they told me they actually thought they were going to die. Not what a dad wants to hear, but the most effective way to learn respect for the elements in which you live and play. The rain, when it comes, comes hard. Fierce poundings in which swarms of small black bugs magically enter our home and cover the ceiling in the evenings, only to magically disappear the next morning. 

Wild monkey!
Wild monkey!

Grommet!

Shut up and dance!
Shut up and dance!

Our most compelling new reality is the repositioning of time. I’m not a particularly early riser yet, since day one I’ve awoken with the sun around 5:30, rested and ready. These early misty mornings begin alone on the veranda behind binoculars, scanning the layered distance for movement in the trees: monkeys, yellow/blue/red birds, pizotes (raccoon meets anteater). I still feel compelled to read the bitter U.S. news in the morning, but less and less of it. Daytime hours fill themselves like tide pools: surf, yoga, art projects, writing, reading, cooking, homework. The kids hit it hard at class each day as do my wife and I at Spanish school (past tense irregular verbs … que dificil!). I run my business affairs with a phone and a laptop. Darkness falls 5:30ish, when we eat dinner. Rich sleep takes our youngest soon after 8. The rest of us before ten.

Mi vida!
Mi vida!
Homework with a view.

We are not on vacation. In fact, September and October have been milestone months in my career. As part of the For Freedoms 50 State Initiative, “the largest creative collaboration in U.S. history,” I’m proud to be employing creativity in an attempt to inspire solutions to our existential problems. This collective effort has been covered on CNN, Vanity Fair, the NYT and many more. Read more about my project here.
 

 

Art World Ballers!
Fine company: David Byrne, Gordon Parks, Hank Willis Thomas … 

An integral aspect of this effort is its widespread activation – a nationwide network of over 300 artists and 200 institutional partners producing public art installations and local community dialogues that inject nuanced, artistic thinking into public discourse. My For Freedoms Billboard sits on I-95 in Miami, geared to urge voters to find candidates who support reasonable gun safety policy to make America a less militant & violent place. The New Tropic really captured the essence of the workI urge you to join this epic collaboration – donate a dollar just to say you were part of something that just might change the game. 

A friend asked me if I ever saw myself living in a remote corner of the world. Short answer is no. I’d say I’m more a city boy. My wife too. Yet, we’re both enjoying being utterly and gloriously disconnected from the life we left just 2 hours, 17 minutes northeast by plane. No night time sirens here. Just the buzzes and chirps of cicadas and geckos and god knows what else. And our kids, who can already surf and who run out the door to play with the lovely children just next door, have never been happier, more joyous, more their best selves. Just finished lunch of fresh mahi caught yesterday by aforementioned scorpion-slaying carpool neighbor. I’m not missing home yet. In fact, in the new digital dystopia, I’m trying to get a handle on what home means.

Stay tuned… 

Find it. It's out there!
Find it. It’s out there!

 

We Left America

 



We left America. 

More precisely, as reminded by our local friends, we left the United States. We still live in America, Central America. Playa Grande, Costa Rica, to be exact. Our home sits atop a mist shrouded mountain in a dense jungle above the Pacific. We wake with the sun to a symphony of Congo monkey roars and birdsong madness. Sip our coffee gazing out over dense green into endless blue beyond which nothing exists. At dusk, the sky drops its golden pebble into the sea to the west. Ours is a truth spoken in future tense for decades … now manifest. Every moment a mirror into which we stare. And looking back at us, the words … You. Are. Alive. 

Welcome to our bucket list year.

It is a curious thing to capture what you chase, for once the butterfly is in the net, what do you do? We cannot keep it, for a butterfly kept is tragedy. Instead, we must recognize that the butterfly was illusory, simply a pretext to run on a hill in the wind … because running on windy hills is good for us. A thing we should do always. 

I am literally now living on a windy hill. And so, it is time to let the butterfly go and take pleasure witnessing each moment of it’s unfettered flight. But, I have a confession to make. Instead of watching the butterfly from a state of perpetual awe, I’ve wasted precious time these inaugural weeks looking over my shoulder in worry at faraway things I could be doing elsewhere. Vanity-driven nonsense that won’t mean a thing in a hundred years and will actually detract from the exciting art projects I currently have in motion (more on these in the weeks ahead). That grind will be right where I left it when I return. And, as my wife so astutely points out, shame on me if I waste another minute in paradise fretting about the stateside hustle.


So, I am stating this aloud, with you as my witnesses. That self-imposed, little bitch, stress session stops now! I am here for one year, in Costa Rica, with my beautiful wife and magnificent boys, wrapped in the warm embrace of the purple/blue/grey/green hillsides and the buttery Playa Grande surf … with nowhere else to be but where we are. 

Pulling back the throttle right now. New surfboard’s in the truck. Just ordered War & Peace and Brothers Karamazov which I never read. Heading off to Spanish class shortly. Eyes wide open. Eager to fall deeper in love with my self and my family. 

I’m all in!

Gonna be magical. Already is. And I’ll be sharing occasional bits and pieces in this blog. if you’d like to see more regular pics and posts, follow the journey on FB and Instagram @stuart_sheldon.

Pura vida!

I Love Libraries – Museum of Contemporary Art Miami Exhibition Opens THIS THUR, May 31

The only thing that you absolutely have to know is the location of the library.                          Albert Einstein                                                       

I just spent a year as a ProjectArt resident teaching young kids in a wonderful, tiny, beat up, inner-city library. Here is what I learned. The public library remains one of our last optimistic spaces, a refuge of focus, exploration and escape, no matter your age, wealth, race or education level. 

All hail the nerds!

Each Wed and Thur afternoon, as I set up my art table with the week’s lesson, a group of studious coed teens sauntered in from Edison High across the street. Week after week, as I taught clay and mandalas to 8-yr-olds, I had the distinct pleasure of witnessing these not-quite-kids’ and their teenage interpersonal dynamics. Over spirited games of Uno, as they earnestly debated the merits of various Superheroes, they also navigated obvious crushes with telltale touches on an arm or shoulder. They argued playfully about various video games and dug into meaty topics with a genuine hunger to know the truth, ie. “are we born gay or is it learned?”

Living the library dream!
Wannabe nerd!

Watching their camaraderie and the unmistakable smack-talking affection of friends-for-life filled my chest and gave me hope. I worked so hard at being a cool kid in high school, when I’m really a bookish nerd deep down. Could I do it all again, I’d far prefer to have hung out in the library with these goofballs, debating history and pop culture instead of wasting time and getting high. No tough guys here. No players. Just kind-hearted, smart kids trying to be normal, happy people in a world stacked against them as young black men and women. I’d love to hug their parents for instilling such basic decency and hope my wife and I succeed likewise with our kids.

The Best Words, 2018. Created in a public library.
The Best Words, 2018. Created in a public library.

Another unique aspect of my ProjectArt residency was that each of the eight Miami artists were tasked with making work IN the library. We had no limitations other than responding to the library environment. Come out to MOCA THIS THURSDAY to see what each talented creator conjured up in his or her spot. The works will be exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami from 6-8pm – On view May 31 – June 3, 2018.

ProjectArt Article May 2018

I’m not going to rant about how America is becoming dumber, fatter and less tolerant as our right brains wither into brittle bitter fossils. But I do urge you to read this wonderful article above, A Response to Creativity Crisis, for a lovely take on how ProjectArt, currently in six cities, is part of the solution. Or just look at the face of my student below.  

Mandala class for ProjectArt
Mandala class for ProjectArt

And while you’re reading articles, check out this terrific piece titled, From dystopia to utopia and back with Stuart Sheldon, chronicling my Fall 2017 London exhibition and my Art Basel 2017 installation, LUSH at Fancy Nasty Studios. London based writer, Fiona Doyle, really captures the essence of these recent epic endeavors. 

LUSH at Fancy Nasty Studios
LUSH at Fancy Nasty Studios, Art Basel Miami 2017

Hope to see you at MOCA this week or at a library somewhere soon. 

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!