How To Give and Receive Worthwhile Feedback

Stevie Wonder

“You’re amazing. I loved it. Wouldn’t change a thing!”

Unless you’re talking to Stevie Wonder, this is not legitimate feedback. It’s applause. We all need applause every now and again. BUT, without substance, your well-meaning commentary is the barking of a seal.

To paraphrase marketing guru, Seth Godin, if you want to improve, actively seek feedback that clearly and generously identifies ways you can more effectively delight your customers and create a more remarkable experience for them. Replace “customers” with lovers, bosses, parent or readers … and you get the picture.

The very first time I showed during Art Basel Miami Beach in 2003, my exhibition was attended by some heavyweight collectors (full disclosure – they were college friends of my father’s). The successful and stylish couple, late 60s, had been buying serious art for decades and had undeniable street cred: museum boards, art history education and an obvious aesthetic sense. I had no formal art training and had been painting for only three years, exhibiting just over a year.

Artist's Palette

My show was well attended. I had a beautiful woman on my arm and was feeling the love, when my father called me over to introduce me to his collector friends. The very first thing the handsome, goateed gent said to me was, “What’s with all the primary colors?”

His voice dripped disdain, as though I’d pissed on his favorite ascot. “It’s so amateurish,” he continued, while his silver haired wife nodded in agreement.
I stood flat-footed, marveling at his unmitigated audacity and thinking to myself, F*%k this asshole and his bobble head wife. “Picasso used primary colors,” I said.
“Picasso was a rare genius,” he said without hesitation.
“My work is stream of consciousness, and what you see is what I was feeling on that given day,” I replied, masking the hurt I felt.
“Well it doesn’t work. Get back in the studio and keep at it.”

He then went on to tell me that there were three ways to make good art: go to art school, be born a genius or suffer hideous pain and/or insanity. When he implied that my comfortable middle class upbringing greatly handicapped my ability to make powerful work, I’d had enough.

“What are you talking about? You don’t think my pain is as real as Basquiat’s?”
“He killed himself over his pain,” said the collector with a self-assured smile. I was speechless, as he looked over at his wife and said, “We need to hit our next event.” He reached out and shook my hand firmly and warmly.

I walked straight to the bar and ordered a bourbon for me and a vodka for my date. “This guy is a guest at my show and the first thing he does is tell me my work sucks? What’s that all about?” She shrugged.

That exchange hit home, because that collector had a bona fide eye for art. And once I moved past my bruised ego, I was glad that surly dog said everything he said. Because he was partially right.  

SF Skyline study from Brussels, Acrylic, World Book Encyclopedia, sheet music, paper and mesh on panel, 24″x48″, 2003

My work was amateurish at the time. My palette had not yet matured into more nuanced tones. My style was still predominantly derivative. In fact, it took me five years till I landed on what I considered my own language. What that chap gave me was straight-up tough love. And his commentary compelled me to take many of the works in that early show and finish them, because, they were still in their infancy. One such piece (above) was an abstracted, mixed-media SF skyline I painted in Brussels in 2003.

Latitude, Acrylic, World Book Encyclopedia, sheet music, paper and mesh on panel, 48″x24″, 2005, Stuart Sheldon

By the time I finished it in 2005, it had morphed into Latitude, the piece above, of which I am quite proud.  You can still see remnants of the earlier iteration. Some young collectors snatched it up enthusiastically.

The next time you have a chance to offer feedback to an artist (or anyone), show some courage and insight. Don’t simply say you like it, tell them how it makes you feel. Why it worked or why it didn’t. Tell them one specific aspect that you feel soars or crashes. Even Stevie Wonder will appreciate that detail. Of course, be diplomatic. No needs to hit someone in the face with a hammer, as my critic did with me.

And when you’re on the receiving end, it’s your job to filter, chew, swallow and utilize the nutrients served to put meat on the bones of your life.


It May Be Illegal But Is It Wrong?

Swim Together, acrylic, resin, paper, wax, tape and ink on canvas with original poetry, 40"x30", 2005, Stuart Sheldon

If you found 20-pounds of pot floating in the sea, what would you do? 

My stocky dad and his lanky boat partner, Dan, didn’t think a boat of just 21-feet warranted a name, but unofficially ours was the Thick and Thin, a tip of the visor to a friendship that began in kindergarten and still endures 75 years laterI grew up on that modest dive boat, communing with tropical fish, my freckly face pressed into a little yellow mask.

One summer day, when I was 12, we three sped home across Biscayne Bay after a typically exhilarating day amidst parrotfish and barracuda and brain coral. Suddenly, what appeared to be a large crate bobbed in the distance. As we pulled up alongside the jetsam*, my dad insisted on bringing it aboard.

We’d caught ourselves a “square grouper.” 

This was the mid-70s, when I knew nothing of drugs but that they were bad. I’d not yet discovered that a large portion America’s contraband came through my backyard.

Once on deck, the burlap-encased bale appeared to be water tight, wrapped by pros in some god-forsaken, machine-gun protected place, I imagine. I watched, mesmerized and confused, a buck-toothed by-stander, skinny as an eel and clad in a only a bathing suit. The mere idea of 20 pounds of marijuana floating like seaweed (no pun intended) shocked my wet-behind-the-ears, middle-class sensibility. My shock increased as my dad and his Harvard-trained lawyer partner had this conversation:

“We need to call the police,” said Dan, his voice deep, his patrician eyes stern.
“Wait a minute … Let’s think about this,” said my shirtless father, tan fingers raking his dark curls repeatedly.
“What is there to think about, Art?” Dan barked.
“Let’s just get to shore and review our options.”
“I’m just saying this would make some mighty fine Christmas gifts,” my dad said, as he hit the throttle and pointed the boat home.

My prepubescent moral compass told me we either had to dump this overboard or call the police. STAT.

Yet, my dad, who did not smoke pot at the time (he dabbled a bit later on), had some very dear friends who did. And, in his ever-generous approach to those he loved, he wanted to do them a solid.

As we planed off, I stared straight off the bow into the distance, the green mangrove coastline punctuated by an occasional high-rise. These waters were my domain, my protectorate. Now, an intruding force had infiltrated my sanctuary. The wind whipped my eyes as we sped toward a profound decision.

“Dad, you have to turn it in,” I said, walking back to join him at the helm.
“Maybe,” he said, his stubbled jaw set.

Were we to be drug smugglers now? What if the marine police boarded our boat for a routine inspection?

As I hosed down the dive gear back at the dock, Dan and my dad placed the bale onto the grass beside our slip. The cops were called. And irony of ironies, they shook down Dan pretty hard, as if he was anything but the good citizen this act proved him to be. “Where is the rest of it?” they kept asking him.

Treasure or Treachery? This is NOT my father. image courtesy of
Treasure or Treachery? And, no this is NOT my father. image courtesy of

I was much relieved by my father’s choice. But here’s the rub. Then, as now, federal law deemed pot evil. But federal law once deemed slavery good.

Law is not always truth. And law is not always right.

Laws are contextual and can be dangerous when employed inappropriately. As I’ve aged, I’ve come to realize that my dad’s thought process was not as unreasonable as it appeared to my young mind. In fact, today’s national trend toward legalization bears out his naive intuition. He simply wanted to help his buddies enjoy their private time, save money and avoid interaction with drug dealers. That was genuinely kind of him. That said, no matter how selfless his intentions, getting caught with 20-lbs of dope would have altered the course of his life forever. “Oh, you were trying to help your pot-smoking pals with their private stashes … in that case, case dismissed,” the judge would surely have said to him. Ha! He’d probably just be getting out of jail now.

My dad has always impressed me with his gut sense of right and wrong. I respect the fact that he gave this particular situation a good thinking over … and then did what was reasonable.

Hopefully, his friends enjoyed the neckties they got for holiday gifts.

*Flotsam is floating wreckage of a ship or its cargo. Jetsam is part of a ship, its equipment, or its cargo that is purposefully cast overboard or jettisoned to lighten the load in time of distress and that sinks or is washed ashore. That’s one of those things one can live a lifetime without ever learning. You’re welcome.

“I Don’t Know How to Look at Art”

Inside the Mind of Picasso, acrylic, oil crayon and resin on wood, 24″x24″, 2003

There are painters who transform the sun into a yellow spot. But there are others who transform a yellow spot into the sun.
Pablo Picasso

“I don’t know how to look at art.” More than a few people have told me this over the years. At my shows. At galleries. At museums. I’m always confused, because telling me you don’t know how to look at art is like telling me you don’t know how to have sex. What’s not to know?

Many insecurely believe there is some intellectual component to consuming fine art. Some creativity-appreciating gene. This misses the fundamental point of art’s inherent power to sweep over you like wind or water. To cool you down, heat you up and draw from you an emotion you did not even know was hiding beneath the surface of your daily life.

There is no more learning to look at art than there is learning to listen to music or learning to smell a rose. That lemony smell or that opening guitar riff in Reelin In The Years makes you feel more alive. More grateful. More eager. Or more disgusted, dejected, hopeless. I once stood in front of a Degas ballerina painting for fifteen minutes crying like a baby. Something about the dedication on the young girl’s face and the turn of her hand, which, mind you, was nothing more than a dab of ocher paint. And what the hell do I know? I got a business degree in college.

Sometimes I play a game with myself and pretend I have been blind for decades and just regained my sight. Then I look up at the sky. And that lone bird or ominous cloud becomes poetic, the thing that blind me would have given all the money in the world to see just one more time. Do that with a loved one. And watch their all-too-familiar face regain a magic moment of novelty.

So, those of you who think they don’t know how to look at art, just look in a mirror. Study your own face. It is an unbelievable construction. Or hit a museum. Or put a mask on and look at a coral reef. Or study your kid’s scribbles. Look/listen/taste/smell something. Notice whatever you notice. Whether you are basking or recoiling you are appreciating it as well as any up-his-own-ass art critic ever did.



Seven Years – No Itch Here

Today is my birthday. But the more auspicious event was yesterday – my 7th anniversary. For a guy who didn’t get the marriage thing right until he was 40, this is a big deal.

Wool and copper? Not the most obvious of symbols for a longstanding love affair. But, when I really thought about it, the meaning emerged.

Wool is warm and safe, a haven from the menacing elements. Jodi and I have been and are each other’s haven in the eyes of our storms. It is soft and cozy, a place to ‘nuggle, as Bodhi would say. Our lives are joyously over-populated with supine moments on the couch, on the floor, in bed … all four of us in the Tempurpedic on bright tropical mornings. Foot massages, bedtime stories, Enlightenment, MadMen.

It takes skill and devotion to draw a cashmere sweater from the back of a goat. Wool must be shorn, cleaned and expertly loomed. But this prolonged effort produces luxury.

We want for nothing. Our home is iconic. Our backyard lagoon is enchanted. Our kids are perfectly healthy. As are we, less a few allergies and some hideous toenails. Yet, we are hardly excessive. We fully appreciate our largesse. And we are totally in tune on making the boys understand and embrace their obligation of charity and compassion. This is one of the greatest gifts we will give them. And giving it to them is one of the greatest gifts we will give to one another.

Wool is versatile, becoming any multitude of things, shapes, functions, solutions. Our future lies wide open with possibilities, adventures, options and manifestations. Not everything is perfect in our lives. Wool can be scratchy. We certainly have experienced discomfort at the hands of one another. But these are rare exceptions to the rule of our lives. Our typical moment is plush and temperate, a swath of fleece on the cheek.

I love you Jodi. I love you Kai & Bodhi. And I love you my dear friends who have sent me heartfelt messages from across the globe today.


Design District Miami Installation – Spring ’11

One vial contains drops of my boiling blood. It all speaks to the steady erosion of our civilized society. And with its mutilated reference to publishing, it laments the degree to which the ever-babbling media continues to be part of the problem instead of the solution.