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Chuck Close on Creativity, Work Ethic, and Problem-Solving vs. Problem-Creating

“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

Questions of why creators create, how they structure their days, and where they look for inspiration hold a strange kind of mesmerism over us mere mortals, an elusive promise of somehow reverse-engineering and absorbing genius through voyeurism. In 2003, artist Joe Fig began interviewing famous painters about how, where, and why they do what they do. The result was Inside the Painter’s Studio (UK; public library) — an anthology of 24 conversations with some of today’s most revered contemporary artists. Among them was legendary photorealist Chuck Close, who despite his paralyzing 1988 spinal artery collapse remains one of the most prolific, disciplined, and sought-after artists working today.

In the interview, Close echoes Tchaikovsky and Jack White in the supremacy of work ethic over “inspiration”:

I was never one of those people who had to have a perfect situation to paint in. I can make art anywhere, anytime — it doesn’t matter. I mean, I know so many artists for whom having the perfect space is somehow essential. They spend years designing, building, outfitting the perfect space, and then when it is just about time to get to work they’ll sell that place and build another one. It seems more often than not a way to keep from having to work. But I could paint anywhere. I made big paintings in the tiniest bedrooms, garages, you name it. you know, once I have my back to the room, I could be anywhere.

When asked about the motto or creed by which he lives, Close puts it even more forcefully, negating the notion of creative block:

Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work. And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will — through work — bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great ‘art idea.’ And the belief that process, in a sense, is liberating and that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day. Today, you know what you’ll do, you could be doing what you were doing yesterday, and tomorrow you are gonna do what you did today, and at least for a certain period of time you can just work. If you hang in there, you will get somewhere.


I never had painter’s block in my whole life.

Indeed, like many famous creators, Close enacts this belief in his own daily routine:

On a typical country day I am painting by nine, and I usually work until noon. Three hours in the morning. I will have lunch either at my desk, or if it’s nice I will go to the pool. Of if it’s really nice I will go to the beach for an hour. Have lunch on the beach perhaps, and then I come back and I paint from one to four, another three hours, and about then the light is failing, and I am beginning to fuck up. So then my nurse usually comes at four, and I stop working, clean up, have a big drink, and that’s a typical day. I work every day out there, every single day.

Close closes by offering emerging artists some words of advice on creative autonomy:

I think while appropriation has produced some interesting work … for me, the most interesting thing is to back yourself into your own corner where no one else’s answers will fit. You will somehow have to come up with your own personal solutions to this problem that you have set for yourself because no one else’s answers are applicable.


See, I think our whole society is much too problem-solving oriented. It is far more interesting to [participate in] ‘problem creation’ … You know, ask yourself an interesting enough question and your attempt to find a tailor-made solution to that question will push you to a place where, pretty soon, you’ll find yourself all by your lonesome — which I think is a more interesting place to be.

Then again, there’s always the question of whether it’s at all possible — or desirable — to fully purge ourselves of influences, given everything we create is an amalgamation of our lived experience, our “personal micro-culture,” without which we’d be unable to come up with “new,” combinatorial ideas.

Images courtesy Princeton Architectural Press / Joe Fig


How People Live In The Suburbs: A Vintage Illustrated Gem

“Swinging is a good time to close your eyes and make-believe.”

Much has been written about what makes a great city, with recent theories placing walkability atop the list of favorable assets, deeming suburbs among the least desirable, most unsustainable, most culturally insular places to live. In fact, every week from now until 2050 more than a million people are being added to our cities. But the city-suburb relationship didn’t always skew this way — in the first half of the 20th century, suburban sprawl was hailed as a pinnacle of industrial progress and by the 1950s, more Americans lived in suburbs than anywhere else.

Last week, while researching the lovely vintage gem The Little Golden Book of Words, I came upon another out-of-print treasure: How People Live In The Suburbs (UK; public library) by Muriel Stanek, originally published in 1970 as an educational supplement teaching primary school children about the basics of social studies. Through a mix of vibrant illustrations by Bernadine Bailey and photographs by Philip Gendreau, the slim 48-page book captures the golden age of utopian visions for suburbia, a bittersweet memento from one of history’s greatest failures of urban planning.

How People Live In The Suburbs was published as part of a Basic Understanding series of primary school supplements, also including How People Earn and Use Money, How Farms Help Us, and How Our Government Helps Us — all, sadly, out of print but delightful if you’re able to secure a copy.


Charles Olson Reads “Maximus, to Himself”: A Rare 1963 Recording

“I have had to learn the simplest things last.”

Charles Olson (December 27, 1910–January 10, 1970) is one of the most beloved and influential modernist poets. He remains best-known for The Maximus Poems (public library) — a loose exploration of American history and a meditation on the philosophy of place, which he began in 1950 and continued to work on until his death from liver cancer in 1970.

The opening of his poem “Maximus, to himself” is one of my favorite lines in both literary history and the history of thought — so I was beyond delighted to discover this rare 1963 recording of Olson reading the poem himself, courtesy of my alma mater’s PennSound archive — the same treasure trove that gave us Adrienne Rich on love, happiness, and creativity. Enjoy:


I have had to learn the simplest things
last. Which made for difficulties.
Even at sea I was slow, to get the hand out, or to cross
a wet deck.
        The sea was not, finally, my trade.
But even my trade, at it, I stood estranged
from that which was most familiar. Was delayed,
and not content with the man’s argument
that such postponement
is now the nature of

        that we are all late
        in a slow time,
        that we grow up many
        And the single
        is not easily

It could be, though the sharpness (the achiote)
I note in others,
makes more sense
than my own distances. The agilities

        they show daily
        who do the world’s
        And who do nature’s
        as I have no sense
        I have done either

I have made dialogues,
have discussed ancient texts,
have thrown what light I could, offered
what pleasures
doceat allows

        But the known?
This, I have had to be given,
a life, love, and from one man
the world.
        But sitting here
        I look out as a wind
        and water man, testing
        And missing
        some proof

I know the quarters
of the weather, where it comes from,
where it goes. But the stem of me,
this I took from their welcome,
or their rejection, of me

        And my arrogance
        was neither diminished
        nor increased,
        by the communication


It is undone business
I speak of, this morning,
with the sea
stretching out
from my feet

Complement with T.S. Eliot reading “Burnt Norton,” Lucille Clifton reading “won’t you celebrate with me,” and Sylvia Plath reading “The Disquieting Muses.”


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