Advice for My 20-Year-Old Self

April 11th, 2019

When you’re 20 years old, you’re a less-awkward version of a teenager who thinks he’s an adult. You don’t know it, but you’re on the verge of discovering so much about yourself. There’s so much advice I would give my 20-year-old self.

First Time at Piazza Michelangelo on the outskirts of Florence. L-R: Me, Patrick, Chris. Behind us you can see the famous Duomo, Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore.
Our first Time at Piazza Michelangelo on the outskirts of Florence. Left-to-Right: Me, Patrick, Chris. Behind us you can see the famous Duomo, Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore.

By the way, if you would rather not read this whole thing, just jump down to the bottom of the page where you’ll find a video version of this post that highlights four main pieces of advice I’d give myself.

It all started with a Facebook discussion about Teflon in cookware.

A friend shared an article about the harmful effects of Teflon in cookware, and I lamented that I would love to go back about 12 years to when my wife and I made our wedding registry and tell myself to get something different. We are gradually replacing the Teflon-coated cookware with stainless, piece by piece.

But, I wondered, what else I would tell myself if I could go back in time?

I’m forty now. What if I went back twenty years to when I was twenty years old?

Like everybody else, I had to get a shot of myself pretending to push the leaning tower of Pisa. Yes, we all did some variation of this.

In the spring of 1999, I spent a semester in Italy. I had the time of my life, and I can’t wait to go back — and take my family with me.

I realize if I were to visit myself 20 years ago, I probably wouldn’t listen to somebody twice my age! At 20, you still have something of a teenage mindset and think everyone over the age of 30 is uncool and out of touch.

That said, if I could go back 20 years to talk to 20-year-old Brad, here’s what I’d tell him, and I hope that he would listen.

Take care of your physical health now!

When you’re 20 years old you think you’re going to live forever. But trust me, start an exercise regimen now. You’re about to spend most of your waking hours sitting at a computer and it’ll mess up your back. In 20 years you’ll be doing yoga to help everything stay limber.

Eat low salt, low fat, and low sugar. That’s kind of hard to do when you’re in Italy, and you get enough exercise walking everywhere that it doesn’t matter right now. But when you get back home, you might even try eating vegetarian for a while. In a couple of years they’re going to merge Palm Pilots and cellphones into something called a smartphone, and we will have fancy watches that talk to our smartphones and we’ll be able to track what we eat and how many steps we take. Yes, it’s weird. We will probably look back and laugh at how we would try to get the last 500 of our 10,000 steps for the day before midnight by pacing in our living rooms. But it’s surprisingly effective.

Take care of your ears. Don’t go swimming in a red tide. The telltale sign is dead stuff washed up on the beach. You’ll regret that.

I lived with about 50 other people. Spot me in the bottom right corner.

A strong body is no good without mental and emotional well-being.

You’re having the time of your life there in Italy right now, but I know how incredibly lonely you are. Right now this doesn’t make any sense. How can you feel alone while hanging out with 50 other people in this amazing 500-year-old villa situated outside Florence, Italy?

You’re what’s called an introvert. Being an introvert means you recharge by getting alone time. Get a gelato or a cappuccino and sit in a piazza by yourself and journal or draw, not with the intention of impressing anybody. Just get it out. Then, find a friend you can trust, and “hey man, I need a pick-me-up right now.” It took me years to understand how important it is to be vulnerable.

When you get back to the states, you’ll fall back into the trap of looking at porn online. It’s going to get even easier to get to. Get help for that now. It will escalate and won’t go away on its own. Don’t let it fester for the next 10-15 years. It’ll hurt your marriage down the road. Just trust me on this. This is something I wish I had tackled sooner. 

See a therapist. You probably have OCD, SAD, bipolar disorder, mild depression, mild anxiety, or some combination of those. This is something else I should have addressed 10-15 years ago. The stigma of seeing a therapist is about to go away.

Stop stressing about girls, but don’t waste time with the wrong ones.

You’ll date a lot. You’ll be convinced that one girl in particular is “The One.” She’s great, but her parents rub you the wrong way, to put it mildly, so eventually you break it off. It is painful. But after that, you’ll find your wife. The saying about marrying your in-laws is true. So if you don’t like a girl’s parents, don’t date her. Thankfully you’ll figure this out on your own, before making a big mistake like marrying into the wrong family. I’m happy to report that will like your in-laws.

But don’t get married in December. My wife and I both wish we had gotten married at a different time of year. We had a Christmas wedding. Christmas weddings are pretty, but December will be mega-busy for the rest of your life now and it is hard to find a chance to celebrate your anniversary the week of Christmas. When you skip the family Christmas get-together it pisses people off. Fortunately, you’re not a people-pleaser.

So don’t worry about pissing people off. You’ll be miserable if you try to make everybody happy.

Learn how to manage your money

Find out who Dave Ramsey is. Dad listens to him on the radio. You’ve heard of him, but you don’t know anything about him. Basically, this is what he says: make a budget, avoid debt, start tithing, start saving. Tithe and save 10% of what you make. Yes, you end up with 80% your income, but it is worth it in the long run.

This is boring adult stuff. But if you don’t start doing this now, you’ll find yourself at the end of the month wondering where your money went. The good news is, you figure most of this out by about 30. If you must take on debt other than a mortgage, pay it off as quickly as you can. At 40 I’m wishing I had saved a lot more.

Remember the cheat code to get 99 lives on Contra? Well, here are the cheat codes to your career.

Up, up, down, down, left, right, B, A. I wish it was that easy! But it’s not as hard as you think.

1. Start an email list. Start with a dozen friends and quickly build it to 100.

That dorky, flimsy Rolodex is about to be replaced by the address book in Palm Pilots and computers. Your contacts are your most valuable asset. Start an email list by collecting your friends’ addresses. Say, “I’m going to send out a weekly email about art and design, can I send it to you, too?” Collect 100 addresses as quickly as you can, and honor your promise to email something once a week. Once email distribution services become available, sign up. Write about your art, your design processes, your philosophy.

2. Weblogs are the future.

Right now, in 1999, weblogs are mostly used for logging daily research items at colleges or for people to collect links to cool stuff they find on the web. In a few years, they will be called “blogs.” It’ll be the next big buzzword. You’ve seen them, but you don’t know it has a name. Basically, it’s a website that gets updated regularly.

Blogs will revolutionize pretty much everything, and it’ll be super easy to launch one and get your message out to the world. 20 years later, it’s hard to take seriously any business that doesn’t have a blog.

Your website should be a blog. There will always be other sites you can have a presence on, but your blog is your home base. The same kind of content should go on your blog as your email newsletter: your art process, what art means to you, the results you get for your design clients. Focus on the people who hire you and buy your work, not your peers. Unless, of course, you want to provide services to people like you. Chances are, you don’t.

(Until you build a business and then make a business out of telling other people how to do what you did. That’s lucrative, but it takes time to get there.)

Don’t agonize over each update – publish as often as possible. Publish every day for a year, and people will start to notice. You’ll get better at expressing yourself. After a year or two, start to think like a magazine and create an editorial calendar. You’ll build a small media empire this way.

In 2003, something called WordPress will come out. Learn WordPress right away. It’ll be rough around the edges in the beginning, but it’ll become the platform most websites are built on in 10-20 years. It’s a great blogging software and in 10 years it will be a defacto content management system, or CMS. It’ll be dry and geeky and boring at first, but if you learn WordPress, you’ll have a skillset other people don’t have, plus a killer website for sharing your work.

The search engine Google launched a couple of years ago. Learn Search Engine Optimization (SEO). (By the way, buy stock in Google, Apple, and Amazon as soon as possible.) Learn the basics of SEO, and you can apply that to websites, podcasts, social media, marketing products, you name it. Good SEO is good business: be relevant to your audience. Build connections with people by producing something that resonates with them, whether it is writing, video, or audio. Yes, you’ll create all of those things.

3. Read all the business and marketing books you can find, and make a plan.

Buy books, check them out at the library, whatever you need to do. Find out who Seth Godin is and read everything he writes. Learn about art businesses and make a plan. How did Andy Warhol make money? Salvador Dali? Read up as much as you can, and make a plan.

Here’s a simple plan that works: design something cool every day, publish it, and send it to your list. Make art every day and publish it online. (Are you noticing a pattern yet?) Show up every day, even if it isn’t perfect. It’s that simple. Just publish something. This still works in 2019. Start there. Then you can find out who your people are, who likes your work, and talk to them and understand them.

Don’t think of your audience as an audience. Think of them as your tribe, your people. Once you demonstrate that you understand them, they’ll see you as a friend and start buying your work. Build up a body of work, and talk to galleries. It’s scary, but it’s worth it.

Make sure your parents know you have a plan, and follow-through. Let them see you working to get your art out there.

3. If a job sounds like it’ll suck, don’t take it. 

What might be cushy job for good money will likely crush your soul.

4. Get involved with non-profits. 

Not everything is about making money. It’s about making connections and doing good.

5. The wealthy have a several income streams.

Here’s how you can build multiple income streams as an artist and graphic designer:

  1. Launch a website/blog to share your work. Show your process. Offer freelance services to start an income stream apart from your day job.
  2. After a hundred articles or so, offer to write for other websites, for free. Eventually you can do this for money. That’s another income stream.
  3. Sell original art directly online via eBay. Sign up for PayPal and take payments that way. That’s another income stream.
  4. Offer prints online. That’s yet another income stream.
  5. Sell consulting services and open up group masterminds or create a course to share what you’ve learned. That’s a few more income streams. I know several people who have done quite well this way.

You’ll be independently wealthy by the time you’re 35 if you do this. If one area doesn’t do so well for some reason, you have others to make up for it.

Your 20s are for working your ass off. In your 30s and 40s, you’ll want to spend time with your wife and kids. Make something, find out what works, change it up when it doesn’t work, and try again. This is the “ready-fire-aim” approach to business that will absolutely work in the 2000s, 2010s and beyond.

Don’t neglect your spiritual health.

You’ll figure this out on your own, but let me just say this: Don’t waste time on churches that don’t make you feel welcome. Church should be a safe place that motivates you to do ministry. Find your own faith. Question denominational thinking.

Don’t ignore the voice telling you to make art.

Make a daily art habit. 

The results will surprise you. You’ll improve really quickly. You’ll discover what you do and don’t like to paint. Try to finish something every day, or at the very least, paint at the same time every day. For completing a painting every day, I suggest picking a small scale, like 5 inches, or a little bigger if you find yourself getting too tight. Stay loose. I’ve found painting after dinner works best for me. Not 4 a.m. You’ll try for years to become a morning person, but it doesn’t work too well. 

Upgrade to the best possible gear as soon as possible. 

Computers, cameras, paints, brushes, canvas, software. Stay ahead of the curve. Build it into your budget.

Inventory your art. 

Track who buys it and for how much. Make a spreadsheet, buy software that does it, whatever. Track this and look for patterns. (This is something I need to do now, actually.) Paint more of what people like, but don’t confine yourself to that. Make sure it lines up with what you value. For example, I know you can paint florals really well, but you don’t enjoy it so much. 

Experiment with different mediums and techniques. 

Try acrylic and metallic paint. Trust me. The metallic paint seems tacky at first but it winds up pretty awesome.

Don’t waste time watching TV. 

When you get your first apartment, you’ll do nothing but watch TV. Four-hour blocks of reruns of Stargate SG-1 on Sci-Fi channel, plus nostalgic comedies on Nick-at-Nite, and membership at a video rental store down the street will have you watching an entire season of a show in a couple of days. “Binge-watching” will be a thing. Serialized TV will be reinvented, and in 15 years, broadband will be everywhere, and we’ll be able to watch TV on the internet.

Make art instead of watching TV. If you run out of money for canvas, draw stuff and post it on your blog. You’ll run out of money at some point and take photos of stuff and throw it together in Photoshop. Keep doing that. Do it every day. Then when you have money again, buy canvas and post what you paint on your blog regularly.

Make a schedule and stick to it. 

Try doing different tasks on different days. For example, make new art on Monday. Write about it on Tuesday. Edit your writing on Wednesday. Publish it on Thursday and email your list when your post goes live. Plan the next thing on Friday. Use the weekend to read and absorb new information and restock the well of thoughts and experiences from which you draw creative inspiration. Repeat.

Your education goes beyond your classes in school.

Consider changing your major.

You will wish you had graduated a few years later and majored in interactive design, design for the internet/web. That wasn’t an option in 1999. Instead, maybe major in marketing, with minors in graphic design and painting, although you will wish you had majored in painting.

There’s so much stuff you can learn online or at the library.

In 2019, colleges and universities are losing their status quickly. If you really want to learn something, you can learn it online for free or for cheap. I’m not pushing my kids to go to college, and I come from a long line of college graduates! Who knows what 2029 will look like?

The best way to learn is to get to know people.

Listen to smart people. Read voraciously. Buy coffee for the smartest people you know and listen to what they have to say. Follow their instructions and report back to them.

I know you’re tired of all this, but I have a few last things to mention.

  1. Upgrade your hearing aids sooner. They are expensive, but worth it.
  2. Take care of your car. Keep the oil changed, the tires rotated, the tires fresh, keep it clean.
  3. The next few years are going to be hard. In 2001, you’ll see some tragic events unfold. The job market will be tough. You’ll persevere. 2009 will be difficult too, as the country experiences another market slump and you lose a job you like. Buckle up, Dorothy.

via GIPHY

via GIPHY

Do you think 20-year-old Brad would listen to that, or tune it out?

Knowing myself, I’d probably ignore a lot of it. But if 50-year-old me came to me today and told me what to do, I’d listen.

What would you tell yourself if you could go back to age 20?

Bummer: What a Flat Tire Taught Me About the New Year

January 6th, 2017

On Christmas Eve, we were on our way back from my parents house after celebrating Christmas with my parents and my sister’s family. About halfway home, we noticed the tire indicator light in our Toyota Sienna minivan came on. We thought it was probably no big deal and continued on to the Christmas Eve service at church.

Of course, once we got home, I saw that the rear driver side tire was just about flat.

Oh great. This was not the way I wanted to spend Christmas.

Well, on Christmas Day, after the kids opened their presents, I went out to the garage to remove the tire and put the spare on.

The flat tire had a screw right smack in the middle of the tread. Maybe this can be fixed without too much trouble, I thought.

So far, so good, right? We will just have to get to Costco first thing in the morning before it gets crowded and get the tire fixed. We’ll be out maybe a hundred bucks or so.

That afternoon I went upstairs and discovered that the commode was backed up.

My first thought was:

You know how things happen in threes? Maybe number one was the flat tire. Number two is the commode being backed up (no pun intended). And what’s next for number three?

Pessimistic thinking, I know. Just waiting for the other shoe to drop. So I get up the day after Christmas wondering what the third bad thing that will happen is going to be. We get loaded up in the car to celebrate Christmas with the in-laws.

Guess what?

The van won’t start.

The battery has been drained because a door was left open all night (the van was in the garage). So I was kind of bummed since it delayed us in getting to Costco as soon as it opened to get the tire fixed.

But here’s the thing.

With all of these situations I have been fully equipped to handle everything.

  • I know how to change a tire. The most challenging part was getting the spare out from under the van and I’ve done this before. (The worst was on a country road long after dark in July when it felt like the heat index was a thousand degrees.)
  • We have a plunger. So the backed-up commode was not the end of the world. Once you have a two-year-old stuff an entire roll of toilet paper in the commode, you keep a plunger on hand.
  • I have jumper cables. I was fortunate enough to have the other car in the driveway. I managed to get it close enough to the van to use the jumper cables.

You may not be spiritual, but…

The point of all this is I have a feeling that God is trying to tell me that in 2017 I will have challenges, but I am fully equipped to take them on.

I will have inconveniences and momentary setbacks. But I have everything I need to manage them. I have the tools. And it and if I don’t have those tools right now, I have the means to obtain them.

So I feel pretty good about 2017.

How about you?

(PS: Costco replaced the tire at no cost to us since it was still under warranty. Hooray!)

Photo Credit: Imthaz Ahamed

Advice for Art Majors: How I Would Do College Differently

June 24th, 2016

There is something of a debate over whether artists who pursue formal education should attend an art school or a liberal arts college with an art program.

I went to a liberal arts school and loved it.

I loved my 4 years at Harding. I would gotten a lot out of AI Atlanta or SCAD or RISD, but instead I went to Harding University, a Church of Christ-affiliated liberal arts college. And I’m glad I did.

I got to interact with a lot of different majors and types of people. I had friends who were theatre majors, English majors, math majors, and more. I got to know people from all walks of campus life. I know college students are their own demographic, but there are so many subgroups on campus.

Memories are made outside the classroom

I gotta say the best parts of my college experience were not so much what happened in the classroom but what happened out of the classroom. Getting to hang out with my fellow art majors just to get something eat or hang out in the dorm. Late night excursions to Taco Bell or the Bulldog in Bald Knob for a hamburger.

And how can I forget the hours I spent at Midnight Oil Coffeehouse?

From their opening week my freshman year until the time I graduated, I was a regular there. Remember Norm on Cheers? That was Midnight Oil for me.

I went there for Bible studies. I hung out with friends. I took dates there. I studied and read and sketched. I loved it so much that did a couple of paintings of the interior. Those beat-up walls. The cool art. Friends setting up to play acoustic sets. That ugly old sofa that everyone loved. This was before Starbucks was everywhere, so Midnight Oil had snarky signs explaining that this was “real” cappuccino, not the kind you find in gas stations.

There was a lot of stuff to do despite living in a small college town in the middle of nowhere.

The funniest off-campus experience I had was when about five of us graphic design majors decided to try the taekwondo studio that was giving free lessons.I attempted to deliver a kick. As I did so, I broke wind.

My eyes bugged out of my head, and we just about all collapsed in giggles.

It was a complete accident but it was hilarious.

There was a group of five-year-olds practicing their moves with their game faces on. They could probably take us all down without breaking a sweat, and we 20-year-olds were giggling because somebody (yours truly) farted.

What I wish I had done differently

My only regrets are that I did not stick around at least one or two more semesters to add some more studies to my repertoire. I wish I had earned a painting minor. Or maybe a second major. (I have a BFA in Graphic Design. I love graphic design, but I love painting even more.) Or a minor in marketing or business.But I was ready to graduate and be done with school. I was ready for the next phase. But I wasn’t prepared for it.

Advice for art majors

I encourage art majors to get a minor in business or marketing. Every artist or graphic designer will have to know how to brand and market herself. At some point you’re going to work for yourself, whether you want to or not! Knowing how to run a business is a must. At the very least, you’ll be running a side gig at some point. I’ve been laid off from two full-time graphic design jobs, and having that freelance design side hustle really paid off. So well, in fact, that when I got laid off a year ago, my side hustle very nearly became a full-time gig before someone offered me a great full-time job as a graphic designer.There is a lot you learn on the job but learning it in the classroom can get you there faster. And the connections you make have the potential to last a lifetime.

Why Fog Keeps Coming Up in My Art

September 16th, 2014

This time of year in Nashville we have a lot of foggy mornings. The sky is gray, and it feels like the sky is just a few feet away from you. In a sense, it is.

The world seems to disappear and reappear right before your eyes. Landmarks and skylines disappears.

My drive into Nashville looked like this one morning recently.

It was pretty and quiet.

I think fog has been such a powerful metaphor for how I’ve felt the past 10 years.

I’ve fallen in and out of love. Moved in and out of my parents’ house several times. Dated a bunch. Finally met someone I thought would be perfect for me. Married her and a year later I became a dad. Six months later, the economy took a “downturn,” I lost my job, and we moved in with my parents for a year. I got a job I couldn’t stand, we bought a foreclosure, and then we had another baby. Eventually I quit the job I didn’t like and tried my hand at freelancing full-time. Then we found out we were having a third baby, nearly lost the house more than once, finally landed at another job.

Whoah.

During it all, everything has been up in the air, unclear. I’ve felt like I was on the road, headed… somewhere. At full speed.

And even now, though things aren’t that bad, there’s still uncertainty in the air, and I don’t really know where I am going just yet. You probably don’t, either.

While things grow more stable (wait until the kids are teenagers!) nothing is completely clear, but that’s okay.

I know it is just fog. There are solid objects out there that I have to watch out for, so I use caution.

I just keep my headlights on to help everyone else out.

Be a light in the fog.

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I Like It.

July 15th, 2014

All too often this is what I hear from people regarding art or design. They have an either/or response: they like it or they dislike it.

I suppose this is natural and a fundamental part of our humanity. If something makes us uncomfortable or unpleasant, it’s probably a good idea to stop doing whatever that thing is.

Yet what makes art “good” isn’t necessarily what makes it pleasant or even likable.

Nowadays the creative process or the theory behind it is what makes art compelling.

Not what it looks like or even how beautiful it is. While beautiful art is making something of a comeback, there’s still a lot of 20th century art sitting around that isn’t necessarily fun to look at, but it has some strong concepts and processes driving it.

But back to liking or disliking something: when you say this, it sounds like you haven’t given it further thought. Sure, you may be going on your instincts, and your gut is often right, but simply liking something makes it sound as if you haven’t critically observed whatever it is you’re looking at.

I want to hear more people qualify what they are liking or disliking. Picasso’s Guernica (1937) isn’t pretty, but it is important, because it makes some pretty bold statements about how ugly total war is.

It is both personal and impersonal: the impersonal war obliterated a town not far from the place Picasso grew up. There’s nothing pretty about it and there isn’t supposed to be. It’s brutal.

The painting moves you because it tells you how terrible war is. Everywhere Picasso turned, the newspapers were full of death and destruction of people, animals, property. He was overwhelmed and outraged and it shows.

And you want to say whether you like or dislike “Guernica”?

That’s about as dumb as saying whether you like or dislike the war that prompted it.

Look deeper.

Not just at art, but the world around you.

We’ve become so dumbed down by a simple thumbs-up. Life is far more complex than that. Develop a vocabulary to talk about it.

Adventures

February 25th, 2014

I’m something of an adrenaline junkie. I get bored easily. I want life to be bold, exciting, colorful.

In college, I spent a semester in Europe. It was a blast. I loved random trips to other cities. The adventure of finding my way around a place where I couldn’t speak the language. Getting lost and eating weird food with my friends.

I spent my 20s traveling a lot. Moving a lot. Hanging out a lot. Dating a lot. Not as “adventurous” as backpacking across Europe, but still exciting in many regards. A lot of ups and downs. I made some art. Fell in and out of love. Found the woman I’d spend the rest of my life with.

By the end of that decade, I had settled down. I had bought a house and gotten married.

Two weeks after my 30th birthday, my first child was born. Needless to say, the adventure of my 30s has been much more domestic. More stressful in a lot of ways. Job changes, more moves, more babies.

I don’t get out much now. An adventure now is fixing a flat tire and trying to figure out how to pay for a new one. Taking my daughter to the art crawl. Watching my child take his first steps. Listening to my little boy talk in paragraphs about sea monsters and pirates.

But what’s funny is that 15 years ago, I never imagined that I’d be at a corporate desk job, painting occasionally, raising a family, and LOVING IT.

Soon we will go on a quest for a new chest of drawers to replace the one handed down from my dad that he had as a kid. It’s in my daughter’s room. It broke, probably beyond repair, and fell on my daughter when she was trying to put away her clothes while my wife and I got the boys ready for bed. That was scary. A crash and “help! help!” from a curly-headed little one holding a chest of drawers on her shoulders.

My life is still very much an adventure, just different. Sometimes a lot scarier. But just as fun and crazy. And that’s part of growing up.

God Wants You to Make Better Art (Uncovering My Own Story Made Me Realize How Much Work I Have To Do)

October 11th, 2013

Last month, I attended a multimedia webinar hosted by Blaine Hogan, Creative Director at Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. “God Wants You to Make Better Art” was on a Wednesday night, just after when I would normally have been at mid-week Bible study. So I skipped church, put the kids to bed early, and attended the $10 webinar that Blaine hosted. Hope had a meeting of her own, too.

(You can find a version of his presentation here on his blog: Move More People and Make Better Art.)

STORY

Blaine’s overarching theme was that of story. I thought this was pretty interesting since last year our congregation studied from The Story, a Bible study that puts everything in a continuous narrative from the framework of viewing the Bible as God’s story.

Blaine’s angle was that we look at our own stories, and search for the themes that connect us with those around us.

His own story can be viewed as tragic, starting from sexual abuse as a child, moving to pornography and alcohol addictions as an adult, while following a career path as an actor. “At 18 I had become a professional actor and by 25 I had become a professional addict as well.” But it doesn’t end in tragedy: he wound up finding healing at seminary.

Blaine’s story is one of constant redemption, a testament to God’s amazing grace: He redeems us no matter what we’ve done, what we will do.

God redeemed us once, for all time. I think it has taken Blaine many reminders over the years to understand this. (I need to be reminded of this frequently, too.)

Themes & Metaphors

For the 2012 Christmas event at Willow Creek, Blaine explored this theme of redemption and wanted to make it relatable to people from all walks of life. He saw Christ’s coming as a salvage mission. So the stage set for the multimedia presentation had reclaimed materials such as found wood, and the Christmas story was narrated as one where God was coming to earth to rescue the people he loved.

(Hogan said the challenge for making it accessible to everyone was to avoid dumbing it down or devolving into kitsch.)

Clearly, Blaine’s own experiences cause him to vividly experience the theme of redemption in Scripture. And that’s important. You can’t downplay that. It just might be the most important theme of the Bible other than love — the motivation for redemption.

Newtonian Physics and Art

Hogan talked a little bit about Isaac Newton. Newton’s first law of motion maintains that
An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an unbalanced force. An object in motion continues in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.
The application to art is that if you want to make art that moves people, you have to make moving art, and to do that, you must deliver a moving pitch, and to do that, you must develop a moving idea, and before that, the artist must be moved first. So, to do any of that, you start with stories. And that’s where Blaine’s own story comes into play, and how he found his themes and put them to work in his own art.

How can your art move people to Christ? Of course, before knowing how to do this, you must start with your own story.

What are the themes and metaphors I can draw from my own experiences to inform my art and make it accessible to everyone so that they are moved to Christ in some way?

So, I set out to uncover my own story.

I had no idea what I was in for.

Some say that to find your own story, you should journal a good deal and find your themes that way.

Thing is, I’ve been actively journaling about ten or eleven years now. It started out as Morning Pages (as outlined in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way) but I got away from that and currently use a journaling template somewhat like Michael Hyatt’s.

It has been a long time since journaling has uncovered much of my themes (and I really don’t want to go back and re-read and re-live the bad parts where I whined a lot a decade ago.) So I’ve been stumped.

I’ve let this percolate in the back of my mind a few weeks, and on a lunchtime walk, it hit me: my biggest theme is one of loneliness and anger and resentment.

This might surprise you. Then again, it might not. Depends on how well you know me.

I’ve long resented my hearing loss, and the way that has held me back in numerous ways. It makes me angry on some deep, vague level. I think this is the root of everything for me. And on some level I’m an angry person. Most of the time I’m neutral. Sort of. Definitely not as mellow as I thought of myself when I was a teenager. I guess the anger and resentment started to surface in my 20s, once I was out of college. I put my fist through a pantry door once. I’ve been to anger management classes but that was 11 years ago, and a lot has changed in my life since then.

My hearing loss has made me angry, resentful, and above all, lonely. I think on some level I’ve been angry at God about this, resenting my hearing loss for at least thirty years.

In college I discovered porn on the Internet. So for a long time, I tried to treat that loneliness with porn. But that only made my loneliness more intense. Which made me angrier. And magnified the resentment I felt toward anybody who seemed to have a connection with anyone other than me, so it spiraled deeper and deeper. This lasted over a decade.

Until last year, I realized what was going to happen to my marriage and my children if I didn’t do something about it. I made a conscious decision, breaking down into tears in the bathroom with my wife, promising that I wasn’t going to look at porn again. It’s the same as cheating on her. Wait. No “same as.” It is.

It hasn’t been easy. There are times I want to load something disgusting online for a quick thrill or simulation of intimacy without the effort. (But I know there is no reward for that.) I’m not about to damage my relationship with my wife and my children and even my parents for the next 30 or 40 years just from a half-second jolt to the lizard brain.

I’ve also got a lot of resentment toward the idea of false praise. There have been significant moments where I’ve displayed my art and heard, “Ooooh, Brad! That’s amaaaazing!” and it rang false. As a result, I have had a hard time accepting praise.

Yet I hungrily seek approval.

Nowhere is this more evident than on social media, where it seems everyone else has more clicks, pins, likes, plusses, or hearts than I. No wonder social media sends me into such a dark funk. I try hard to make a concerted effort to get likes and clicks and retweets, and then after a week or so I throw up my hands and give up, depressed and angry when I look at Buffer’s analytics and see what I’m sharing isn’t getting clicked on. Then I’m back at it again the next week. Again with the spiral, looking for a quick fix that makes me feel accepted.

• • •

Wow. This been cathartic. I don’t know where this came from, nor what to do with it. In many ways I’m still on this journey. As it turns out, my perspective is rather pessimistic and distrustful. There’s no hope or redemption. I’m shocked at my own pessimism. I’ve never looked at myself this critically or deeply. It’s depressing. I don’t like this.

And yet.

Somewhere inside me there is hope. I think my parents instilled some spark in me that is optimistic, that believes there is good in this world, that somebody believes in me.

I do know this: I want to give my kids the self-confidence that I didn’t have. Every day, I make a point to tell them how proud I am of them, and that I will always love them no matter what they do, for the sole reason that they are my children, and there’s nothing they can do to change that. It’s hard, being as preoccupied as I am with my art (or lack thereof) let alone deep-seated doubts about my own merit.

This is not the story I want. Looking in the mirror is difficult when I discover how apparently intrinsically negative I am.

I suppose now I should set about writing myself a better story. But how?

I don’t have any answers right now, but I’ll get there. I just know it involves forgiveness. Probably again and again and again.

See? There is hope. Even if it is just a tiny spark.

Empty (Never Forget)

September 11th, 2013

I painted this October or November 2001. I was so devastated by the 9/11 attacks that I had nightmares for weeks afterward and struggled with any sort of creative output.

It’s the Twin Towers, voided and burning. Empty.

It’s how I felt for quite a while after 9/11.

The day my generation realized childhood was definitely over.

Big

August 29th, 2013

My daughter Annie will be five soon. She’s the oldest of three children, and the only girl. Recently her middle brother was sick, and she did a lot to help her Mama take care of little brother. A few days later, I asked her to watch her baby brother while I put the middle brother to bed while Mama was out.

She told me that when she helps watch the boys it makes her feel “big.”

It was really cute.

At the same time, it made me sad, because I don’t want her to hurry through her childhood. She won’t be a child for long, but she will be an adult for quite a long time in comparison.

When you’re 30-something, though, doing all those “grown-up” things are just a matter of course. You don’t feel any more or less “big.”

At least I don’t.

I suppose adulthood for me is something that came gradually. There was no one moment in my life where I said, “Oh, yes, I’m an adult now. This is what being an adult feels like.”

Not getting my driver’s license, or going to college, or spending a semester in Europe and backpacking around without adult supervision.

Buying a house didn’t make me feel like an adult, though it probably should have. Getting married 2 years later didn’t, either. Neither did becoming a dad, or losing a job, or starting my own business.

Maybe it’s because I’ve never looked like what I imagine a typical adult to be, which in my mind is someone who wears a suit and tie every day and carries a briefcase. Does anyone look like that anymore? I wear jeans every day and have a three-day beard most of the time.

For some reason none of these “grown-up” things ever made me feel like a grown-up. They felt like a matter of course.

It’s almost like I’ve been a spectator to my own life.

And I can’t say if that’s good or bad.

Quiet

April 15th, 2013

I’m Deaf.

I have severe-profound hearing loss.

We found out when I was two.

Since then, I have worn bilateral, behind-the-ear hearing aids.

Not everybody notices right away. When they do, it seems to be a bit of a surprise. Maybe they don’t encounter deaf people very often?

One thing I think some people are envious of is that with the flip of a switch, I can have near-complete silence. I have to admit that it’s nice to get up before the rest of the house, pour a cup of coffee, and sit down in my big leather chair and do some writing — in complete quiet.

Quiet is one of those things we pursue so relentlessly. We live in an age where our pocket or purse alerts us constantly of all sorts of updates about everything from social media messages, to weather, to email, to our current bank balance.

Then there are our commitments to bosses, children, spouses, family and friends that are demanding our time.

We worry about the economy and the government and anything else they can find to report about in the news.

Finally there are bills to be paid and repairs to make that drain our pocketbooks.

It all amounts to a lot of stressful noise.

Of course we want quiet!

What we really want is peace.

And buying stuff doesn’t help, no matter what our friends on Madison Avenue tell us.

I don’t have the answer to the noise, but I do know who has the answer.

I have a gift: making visual art. I want to create art that brings a sense of calm and peace, whether it is paintings or photographs like the one above.

Muted colors, simple, un-cluttered compositions, low contrast.

Do you feel peace and calm when you look at it? Or do you feel frenzied?

Do you feel quiet?