We know you poets enjoy writing to the art of photographers and other artists. So today I’d like you to write to the art of Danny Gregory, artist, author and co-founder of Sketchbook Skool. Danny has given us permission to use any of the drawings on his Flickr Page as long as you attribute him in your post.
I had never heard about Danny Gregory until last summer a friend pointed out Sketchbook Skool to me – Sketchbook Skool is an online art skool dedicated to illustrated journaling. I had been sketching for a few months but felt I needed more incentive and encouragement to make it a more regular habit. This friend and I exchanged a few emails and I was convinced to enroll in Sketchbook Skool.
I started the first online ‘kourse’ in October 2014 and was hooked right from the first ‘klass.’ This has changed the way I now look at the world and, most importantly perhaps, the way I look at myself. Since then I have also read some of Danny’s books: “Everyday Matters,” “A Kiss Before You Go,” and “An Illustrated Life: Drawing Inspiration from the Private Sketchbooks of Artists, Illustrators and Designers.”
Rather than just feature Danny Gregory’s art, I thought it would be fun to learn a few things about Danny. Because, like sketching, poetry is about art and creativity I thought I’d contact him about an interview for Poetics. He accepted immediately, and I am grateful that he answered my questions so thoroughly.
I hope that you will enjoy the interview and that it will encourage you to engage in more creativity.
Danny Gregory, can you introduce yourself in a few words?
Sure, I am an author and an artist. I was born in London, grew up in Australia, Pakistan, Israel and New York. I spent thirty years working as a creative director in advertising. I believe that art is a natural part of life but that many of us are afraid to give ourselves permission to create. I want to try to provide ways for people to overcome that fear because I think that now more than ever the world needs as many creative people as possible.
What inspired you to draw on a regular basis?
Like most people, I stopped drawing when I was about ten years old. When I was in my mid-thirties, my wife was run over by a NYC subway train. She was left paraplegic, in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Our son was 9 months old. This experience shook me to the core and I felt that life had lost all meaning. After a long time of searching for a purpose and a way to see the world, one day, I was moved to draw. That first drawing led me to the art of illustrated journaling, to filling a book with drawings and writing about my life, my world, the beauty I was discovering all around me.
How did this change your life?
I think we live in a time of distraction and disassociation. People seem further and further removed from the reality they live in, constantly leaping between virtual experiences in the palms of their hands.
So I think it’s crucial to find a way to spend some time in the here and now, the actual reality we inhabit, not filtered through Facebook and Instagram and Netflix and YouTube. I love technology but I worry that if we don’t spend more time in unfiltered reality, we will lose touch with what matters, we’ll care less about the consequences of our actions, we’ll become utterly plugged-in and tuned out.
I also think we live in a time in which meaning is harder to find. We have lost faith in the institutions and rituals that anchored us, that gave us perspective and reassurance. We need to understand what all the small things we do add up to because that’s all there is in life, a series of moments ending in the grave. If we don’t make those moments matter, we will end up feeling we wasted our time here on earth.
Art has helped me with both of these issues.
Making and sharing drawings and paintings in a book has helped me to be here, to live in the moment, to slow down and focus on an object in front of me and overcome my preconceptions and buzzing brain to actually see what is here. Unlike meditation, it’s not about shutting off stimulus, it’s about really tuning into what my senses are showing me, making the world brighter and more in focus. By living less just in the realm of my imagination and anxieties, I am happier, more realistic, more aware. And art has connected me with wonderful people who I can share these experiences with, people who can tap into their creativity without being dependent on technology and on commerce to do it.
Art has helped me to see the beauty in what surrounds me, to see that my life does have a point, that I play an active role in it, that there are synergies between my experiences, that my life is valuable because it fills pages and books and shelves. Those illustrated journals are not just Art for its own sake, they are the road map of my experience, the sum total of what I have done and seen, and I think it’s good and valuable to me and others.
What then led you to write and publish books?
I thought a lot about the power I’d discovered in drawing and started blogging about it in 2003, recording my ideas, drawings, live events It was just for friends but eventually I had over 10,000 readers. Soon thereafter, I met an editor at a book launch party, discussed a couple of projects with her and the following week I had a contract for my first book. Each book led to the next and I am just launching a new one and writing my tenth.
As a child and teenager who were the artists that made an impression on you?
Ronald Searle, James Thurber, Dr. Seuss, Alfred Bestall, Robert Crumb, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, David Bowie.
Who are your favorite artists today and do you think their art influences your own?
Ronald Searle, Robert Crumb, David Hockney, Vincent van Gogh, Tommy Kane, Francis Bacon, Jenny Saville, Jean-Michele Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Jack Tea Gregory.
Why did you decide to create Sketchbook Skool?
There were several reasons:
1. I had been doing occasional workshops and they took a lot of time and work but only reached 25-50 people.
2. I know a lot about making short films after thirty years in advertising. I had been making a series of videos called Sketchbook Films which captured the ways interesting artists draw. I hadn’t been able to find much like it, well-crafted documentaries that told a story, clearly showed technique, were engaging, inspiring and somewhat didactic.
3. I had several friends who were making a go of teaching online and I wanted to see what that would be like.
4. I met my partner-to-be Koosje when I was speaking at a conference in Amsterdam and we wanted to find a project to work on together.
5. I have tried taking formal art classes and they didn’t do much for me. The ones I experienced turned art making into a set of rules and guidelines, jargon and super-specific techniques. And for lots of our students, early experiences with traditional art lessons and art school left them wounded and full of self doubt, alienated from art making and afraid to ever do it again.
Our goal is to make an art skool that’s as much about life, about how you see it, how you integrate creativity into you everyday activity, as it is about how to use gouache or what pen to buy. We want to keep it simple and fun, keeping people from worrying about having the right sort of materials and focussed more on the process of discovery, than just on the result. We also encourage people to draw everything, not just nudes and bowls of fruit and plaster skulls. And we encourage them to teach each other, to advise and comment, to realize that there aren’t really authorities when it comes to expressing yourself, there are just examples and stories to get you fired up and going. And finally we want to encourage people to fail, to embrace their mistakes as the rich lessons they are, and to quieten the inner critic that has long driven them from their creativity.
Some people come to our skool wanting very specific sorts of technical lessons — how to draw perspective, how to draw a portrait — and though we cover those sorts of things, we do it more obliquely, more in passing as we go about the business of recording our lives. It’s not for people who really want rigid, formal training, the sort of thing that can be found elsewhere, but I always wonder if that sort of rigidity will really help people or if it just seems like a reassurance that will be able to draw a turtle or a pirate but misses out on the real lessons art can give you about living, about seeing, about taking risks, about yourself.
The irony is that despite our non-traditional approach our students are uploading thousands of amazing, accomplished, moving and gorgeous drawings every day.
How has this impacted your life?
Sketchbook Skool has evolved a lot in the past year. We started with the assumption that we might get a hundred or so students and could do this in our spare time. We had to stop enrollment when the first kourse maxxed out at 2,000. Then we produced our next two kourses and, rather than asking our teachers to shoot their own videos, we hired crews and began shooting across Europe, Australia, and the US. We have now produced dozens of hours of video, enrolled thousands of more students, and hired several people to help us with administration and marketing. It has become pretty much a full time job.
However, I have also just written and illustrated “Art Before Breakfast” and am almost done with “Shut Your Monkey”. I also give a lot of talks at schools. Oh, and I spent a month as an artist in residency in China and Malaysia. And I am still devoted to making my own art too.
So Sketchbook Skool has impacted my life in lots of ways but it is still not my only job!
What similarities do you see between sketching and writing poetry?
I don’t know much about poetry writing but I imagine there are many similarities. My interest is not just in “sketching” but specifically in illustrated journaling which is a combination of drawings and short pieces of prose, mostly very distilled. My favorite sorts of poetry respond to moments of observation and use those glimpses to start a meditation on a larger theme. I think the same is true of my drawing. I called my first memoir “Everyday Matters” and I think lots of poetry has a similar concern. I think good drawings are a combination of polish and spontaneous creation. Too polished and they lose humanity and mystery. Too loose and they lack meaning. I imagine the same is true of writing poetry. Poetry and drawing are both crafts which take practice and habit to get to a point of flow and ease. Do it enough and the struggle lessens and one’s inner feelings are translated into rhythm and line.
I saw on your blog that your new book, “art Before Breakfast”, will be released next Tuesday, could you tell us more about it?
“art Before breakfast: a zillion ways to be more creative no matter how busy you are” is another of my attempts to make drawing and art making more accessible. I believe that creativity can become a habit if taken in small bites that can fit into an otherwise over-filled life. Most people would like to make art but fear that they lack the time and the talent. My new book makes it simple to find moments between life’s events, ten minutes here or there, in which to capture what’s in front of you and meditate up on it. I teach simple techniques that will get even the most fearful novice going as well as ideas that more advanced creative people will be able to use to reanimate their mojos. It’s pocket sized and designed to be a constant companion filled with zillions of ideas and helpful encouragement. Like all my books, I wrote it because I wanted to read it and couldn’t find it anywhere.
To what extent do you believe this also applies to a hesitant poet?
Art making doesn’t have to require lots of equipment, education, “Talent” or time. Instead it should just be a part of life. In “art Before Breakfast” I equate it with the time we used to spend smoking cigarettes. It can be similarly addictive, accompany other activities, be a pleasant process rather than be goal-oriented, and is ultimately really just for you. Unlike cigarettes, writing poetry or drawing in a journal are comparatively inexpensive and non-toxic.
Again, choose any of the sketches on Danny’s Flickr Page for inspiration, and go from there. I really look forward to reading what each of you comes up with.
What to do after you have written:
• Post your poem to your blog
• Add a link to your poem via the ‘Mr Linky’ below
• Read and comment on other people’s work to let them know it’s being read
• Share via your favorite social media platforms
• Above all- have fun!