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!

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. 

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.