It’s Such a Perfect Day*

Perfect Day?

Behold the Perfect Moment / Perfect Family / Perfect Life*

In this recent photo, a gorgeous family camps on a faraway beach in paradise, savoring the sunset in front of their beloved yellow VW bus. Aaron’s the only man Adrienne ever had, and she loves him at this sun-kissed instant just as she did when they met as teens 25 years ago. He tattooed their vast life adventures across his lithe body and muscular arms with which he pulls his flaxen-haired squad in close. Together, they read, surf, cook, laugh and explore magical places: Thailand, Rome, Yellowstone. The world is theirs to conquer.

Now, let’s take a closer look. Just hours before this pic was taken, Aaron spent the morning at the hospital in excruciating pain, prodded and poked in his belly, where cancer raged. Thinking he might expire that very day, he told his wife, “I’d rather die camping than bubble-wrapped in a hospital bed.” So they geared up and drove. This photo does not show Adrienne’s panic attack en route to this beach. Nor the Fentanyl patches on Aaron’s back. And how, just minutes before, she got the VW miserably stuck in the sand, nearly sabotaging the excursion. As that glorious sun set behind them, their universe was totally unraveling. 

The truth is rarely evident to our naked eye. 

Local vibes

Jodi and I came to Cost Rica for an ex-pat “Bucket List Year” with our children. This wildly successful experience showed us a simpler way to be, to raise kids, to spend our days. It shifted our priorities so deeply that we remain for a second year and have started construction on a home. While our future remains a beautiful mystery, we are in for the wild ride … and invite you to join us.

Tropical Thanksgiving
Earth Day
Jodi’s surf team places 2nd … out of 2 teams!

Our life looks pretty peachy in pics and on social media these days: sunsets, fitness, waterfalls and giggling kids. But, let’s be clear … bounteous as our circumstances are, I often wake feeling lost and untethered lately … unsure and unclear on my next move … as a dad, as a creative, as an American. Thing is … self doubt does not photograph as well as me surfing with my kids.

Work in progress

Parenting two complex, ever-clashing kids is rough and getting rougher, particularly negotiating the ADHD minefields of our youngest. Are my intuitive fathering choices in this complicated moment wrong, too angry and judgmental … even psychologically damaging to the kids and their longterm view of me? Are we misguided to invest in a dream sanctuary immersed in natural splendor far from the bustle … just to fill it with two kids who fight viciously and constantly? Hardly pura vida. Thank god for Jodi’s level head and constant reassurance.

PAMM Artist Talk and For Freedoms Town Hall Nov 7, 2019. 
For Freedoms Town Hall to a packed house.

And then there’s the massive question of purpose.

Being north of fifty and far removed, literally and figuratively, from all our lifelong reference points, Jodi and I constantly reflect on whether we are doing enough for the world (we are not). And what crisis to focus our energies on (there are so many). I recently presented an Artist Talk and For Freedoms Town Hall to a diverse packed house at the Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM). Fellow artist, Zoe Buckman, and I explored How Success is Measured in Activist Art vis-à-vis our practices. The evening then pivoted to a Town Hall discussion that quickly became very emotionally charged and highlighted painful racial fissures in the local community. Afterward, I received very conflicting messages: general praise from the white audience and disappointment from the black audience. To me, this dichotomy exemplifies the racial disconnect between well-meaning liberal citizens. And it reveals a blind spot in my attempt to be of greater service as a connector and champion of societal fairness. I am grateful for this wakeup call, because one of my priorities, as I enter this next phase of life, is discovering how a middle-aged, middle-class, white guy can best add value to these critical conversations.

Please watch the PAMM video, and share your feedback – start at 35:00 to miss all the lengthy intros. Or, start at 14:40 to hear Zoe Buckman’s wonderful talk before mine. 

 

Aaron Surfboard

Aaron & Adrienne – an exemplary love story.

In today’s Insta-world, we often work overtime to make our lives appear golden … viewed with a tad of envy, even. The tricky part is that much of what we see is, in fact, exactly as it appears. In the photos above, what you actually see is an extraordinary 25 year fairy tale starring four people who cherish and love their lives and lean into one another to savor and suffer all that life has to offer. You see a seasoned couple whose flame still burns hot and who prefer to stay home, drink wine and crack each other up instead of going out on the town. And you see two wonderful boys, raised to be adventurous gentlemen by fearless parents who understand that time is precious and the cameras are rolling.   

Fare thee well, amigo.

Thank you, Adrienne, for allowing me to share your story of devotion and loss. Your journey with Aaron illustrates the power of life’s deepest connections and complex illusions. I cannot for a minute understand your current pain, but I will tell you that your radical courage and fierce honesty are what Jodi and I hope to infuse into our new home on a hilltop overlooking the Costa Rican sea where Aaron’s ashes roll with the waves. We aim to create a place where all can be vulnerable and safe. Where children and friends, old and new, explore ideas and nature. And work together to fix what’s broken in ourselves and our world. No illusions. No masks. Just room to exhale, contemplate, cry, laugh and escape. 

Our CR slice of Pura Vida
Our slice of Pura Vida

In his book, In Love With The World, Buddhist monk, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, writes, “We are all transformed through love and loss, through relationships, work, kindness, and tragedy. But we get scared of change, because when we identify with a pattern of behavior, giving it up can feel like death itself.” For Jodi and me, as our patterns of behavior continue to change radically, I welcome this ego “death” and the annihilation of the labels that construct my identity: artist, activist, entrepreneur. Though I imagine this “death” is part of what is making me feel lost. Still, I embrace it, because I am not those labels. Nor are you your labels. We are just people doing our best to find light in a dark world. 

Zoe Buckman and I interview one another in a recent Cultured Magazine piece.

Finally, check out this insightful piece in Cultured Magazine, where Zoe Buckman and I interview one another about the evolution of our practices and life goals. This article is honest and unadorned, and I’m proud of it, for that is what I aspire to be. 

 

*No such thing

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!

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. 

The American Dream in Postage Stamps

Liberty Flame

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.

Coming To America, Acrylic, Antique international stamps, inkjet prints, denim on canvas, 54x164" 2017
Coming To America, Acrylic, antique international stamps, inkjet prints, denim on canvas, 55×165″ 2017

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!