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!

A Hole Is To Dig

 

A Hole Is To Dig

We’ve been in the faraway jungle nearly three months, and one enormous benefit I’ve noticed is how much less decision-making I face each day. I did not realize how previously burdened I was with constant choices, some big, most small … but all relentless and so often, pointless. Now, with the nearest stoplight one hour’s drive, choices are far less complex, i.e. which protein to put on my rice and beans or which of my two pair of shoes to wear, flip-flops or sneakers (flip-flops 96% of the time). Last Saturday, my youngest invited me to dig a hole on the beach with him. That decision was simple. 

Father & Son Dig a Hole
What is it about digging a hole on the beach?

As my wife and Kai paddled out to surf, I joined Bodhi on the cool, camel-colored sand. Game face on, my son took to both knees and immediately provided me very specific instructions on where I was to dig and where I was to place the excavated sand. I obeyed readily, delighted to be engulfed in my little captain’s zeal.

small father/son moment as a metaphor for a life well lived

Scoop by glorious scoop, my cheeky partner and I aimed at a goal and labored manually and patiently to achieve it. We enjoyed the beauty of sun-kissed nature together. The deeper we dug, the more the muddy, wet, layered truth of the world revealed itself, eventually unveiling the water that flows beneath everything. And, at last, when the time came to exit, the sea reclaimed what is and will always be hers.

These uncluttered, familial moments in nature are the whole point of living on a rural, remote coast of Central America. This slowing down and noticing is the thing itself. And Bodhi is my chief noticer. My lover of all things wild. Coiner of the phrase, “man-madey,” as in, I don’t like this wooden walkway, it’s too man-madey (in Muir Woods). Bodhi, on three separate occasions, requested three separate laminated Costa Rica Wildlife Guides, when he could choose any book he wanted. He rightly demanded last week that we stop the car to look at a family of monkeys swinging in the trees on the roadside near our favorite surf break. And those happy monkeys were worth the extra ninety seconds. 

Ellie Award Page

Speaking of happy monkeys, I’m thrilled to report that my For Freedoms, How Was School Today? billboard won an inaugural 2018 Ellie Award. “The Ellies celebrate the individual artists who are the backbone of Miami’s visual arts community,” says presenter, ArtCenter South Florida. I’m truly humbled to be recognized for this effort and to be included among a crew of fabulously talented creators. Amidst loads of local and national press, we even got loved up in ARTFORUM, a first in my long and woeful career. I started painting nearly twenty years ago to fix a broken heart. Thankfully, my heart is full. Now I paint to fix the world (which is slowly breaking my heart again). Thanks to all who supported the Kickstarter campaign and joined in the largest creative collaboration in US history. For Freedoms is really changing the game and actually might have real impact on this election, as this article so elegantly posits.

Curbed For Freedoms article
Brilliant analysis of the impact of our billboards nationwide.

While How Was School Today? speaks to the gun issue, you can now find my second For Freedoms Billboard, The Best Words, at Florida International University bus stops. This work is based on an actual Trump quote, “I went to an Ivy League school. I’m very educated. I know words. I have the best words.” It is a call to students, hungry for truth and knowledge, to recognize the value of their words and use them to propel society morally forward and not drag it backwards into darkness. 

For Freedoms Billboard at FIU. Based on original painting, The Best Words, Acrylic, electrical tape, vinyl on wood, 2018.
For Freedoms Billboard at FIU campus. Original painting – The Best Words, Acrylic, electrical tape, vinyl on wood, 2018. Available – DM for details. 
Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, 2018
This painting’s debut – Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, 2018

The fact that the whole world appears to be digging itself into a deep dark hole is all the more reason to sit on a beach with one you love and dig your nails into the wet dirt. Your head empties out with each handful, and the conversation tends to flow languidly sideways. 

When I got home from an early morning surf today, a small Gray Fox (Zorra Gris – I looked it up in Bodhi’s guide) stood in the garden. It’s quiet eyes and soft, metal-colored coat reminded me of an adorable dog I wanted to pet, and I immediately wished Bodhi was with me. He’d feel so deeply and purely exhilarated by this moment. The beautiful animal and I silently contemplated one another for a few earnest breaths until he turned and disappeared into the deep green. 

Pure Vida! 

Tamarindo surf day

Kai surf Oct 2018

PS. Speaking of choices, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE VOTE … NO EXCUSES … and make sure everyone you know votes.  Our society, lives and well-being depend on it.

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.