I’m delighted to introduce our next Creative Superhero, Danny Gregory! He is the author of several books, including Everyday Matters, The Creative License and a brand new illustrated memoir, A Kiss Before You Go.
I met Danny years ago and was an instant fan when I picked up Everyday Matters. His work is breathtaking. When he came to visit SF in 2004, I took him to the most California style event I could think of – a chakra healing at Psychic Horizons. We had great fun there! and spent the rest of the day sitting on stoops and drawing beautiful old Victorians. Danny has a way of making art a beautiful and accessible practice. Enjoy this interview!
What is your superpower?
I guess it’s the power to make things.
I feel compelled to fill my days with making all kind of things — drawings, books, ice cream, films, reservations — and to investigating ways to make other things. If I spend time just sitting at my computer, it’s because I’m trying to figure out how to light something or how to mix staining watercolors or how to cut PVC piping or cook delicious brussels sprouts.
I think this power has led me to my other power — helping make other people make things. People can be so scared of discovering their creativity, of making mistakes, of not having talent, and one of the main focuses of my own creative efforts has been books and films and blogposts and such that show people that it’s really just fun and that they should give it a try. My ultimate gift to them is helping them develop the habit of creativity because you need to keep at it to build your creative muscles, at which point it really becomes awesome.
My arch enemy: that demon that sits in every person’s skull and works to convince us to give up before we start. And, ironically, convincing you that you suck takes a fair amount of creativity in and of itself.
What are your obsessions? and how do they make their way into your creative work?
I love diaries and journals. I love sepia ink and copperplate calligraphy and inkwells and fountain pens. I love debossed type and engravings and chunky handmade paper. I love leather book bindings and libraries with ladders and card catalogues. I love maps and diagrams and cross sections and step-by-step diagrams. I love children’s book illustrations from the 1940s with a single spot color. I love splotches and splashes and obvious evidence of error and spontaneity.
I put all of these influences into my illustrated journals, making them of the moment, yet timeless too.
What are the top 5 things you’ve learned so far as a creative entrepreneur?
I’m not really a creative entrepreneur to make money. But I am imbued with the entrepreneurial spirit when it comes to evangelizing on behalf of creativity, drawing and journaling. I feel a bit awkward and craven discussing my readers as ‘customers’ and my books and approach as a ‘brand’ but for the sake of answering Andrea’s questions, I shall here.
1. Give away as much as you possibly can for free. The best relationship you can have with your customer/reader/fan/ is a long term one based on trust and generosity. So I give away ideas, lessons, advice, even the books I write. I wrote a novel and a memoir and sold them for as little as Amazon would let me, making 0¢ in profit, but getting my work out there to people who probably would have been glad to pay for it. Then, when my publisher puts out my next book, I know they will be interested in supporting me and helping me to share it with the world.
2. Get your customers to be your partners. I solicit advice and direction from my readers all the time. I ask them to help me pick out my book jackets, to give me detailed feedback on my books. I ask them how they think I should promote my books, which magazines to send them to, how to get them out there. They feel like they are a part of my success. And they are.
3. Turn your customers into a community. Nine years ago I started a Yahoo! group called Everyday Matters (or EDM) and now it has four thousand members who regularly chat and share their own work. They get together in person too, and have formed a global network of people who like to draw Then I set up a Facebook group which now has three thousand members who post their work online every day. Another group on Flickr has posted over 70,000 works of their art to share. I have EDM communities on YouTube and Vimeo and Twitter too. Amazingly, there is very little overlap between the membership of these groups except for their newly awakened passion for making art and sharing it with each other. That’s thousands of people who are linked together, achieving their greatest dreams, and I am lucky to be the overlap of all these circles.
4. Work hard and keep giving. For a period, I was an inconsistent presence online and my relationships waned. But for the past few years, I have answered all comments and details, have solicited advice, made entertaining and instructional films, hosted competitions, giveaways, events and more. I work on these things as soon as I get up in the morning, during my lunch hour, in little breaks through the day, and well into the night. I am always looking for inspirations, for ideas I can borrow, for new technology platforms I can extend to.
Writing books and running online communities is not “my job” — I am executive creative director and managing partner of an 800-person ad agency — but it is my love, and so I give it all the time I can spare.
5. Give of yourself. I tell strangers online things about myself that my neighbors, colleagues and most of my friends don’t know. I share my struggles, dreams and losses with them, I spill out my guts quite regularly. And we are there for each other — they tell me about their crises, their addictions, their struggles, and I do what I can to help. And when Amazon announces that my new book is available for pre-purchase, many of them plunk down their money for a copy sight unseen. But inspiring a a forty-year-old person to start drawing for the first time since elementary school, allowing themselves to be creative, to even think of themselves in some private moment as an ‘artist’ even with a lower case a — that isn’t about making my small share of the cover price of one of my paperbacks. It’s about feeling like I have a purpose on this planet and something to give.
Tell us about a time when you had to practice courage.
My wife died very suddenly. One minute I was at work, the next I was telling my son that his mom had been killed. Every aspect of our lives turned upside down in an instant but we had to carry on (What choice was there?) So I don’t know if strictly speaking my response was courageous …. anyway, over the past three years, I have changed many things about my life and about how I see the world. I decided that Patti would want me to make the best of this situation, that I would turn it into a creative act rather than a submission. That’s why I wrote my new book, to show how one can face death and trauma and turn it into an act of love and creativity. Making art out of the my experience was a key to this survival. I looked for beauty in the everyday, just as I had when I wrote Everyday Matters, the book that chronicles how we got through Patti’s accident and subsequent paralysis fifteen years earlier by looking for the light all around us.
I believe that vulnerability is a superpower. Tell us a story about how embracing your vulnerability. What were the gifts on the other side?
I think my journey with drawing has been all about this. For years, I allowed my inner voice to shit all over notions I might have had about being an artist or even being able to draw reasonably well. Then, by allowing myself to fail, to make crappy drawings, and then to share those with strangers on the internet and in my books, I got over it. I still fall down a lot but I know I am capable of doing good work sometime and that keeps me going.
I am always struck by the many people who share their drawings on the Everyday Matters community, particularly those who have obviously just started and are struggling to see clearly and draw confidently, struck by their willingness to put it out there nonetheless, and struck by the generosity of all those encouraging voices that tell them it’s great and to keep going. I think criticism can be marginally helpful at best but time and habit are the most important ingredients in developing the skill of drawing. I believe anyone can draw and be pleased with the results if only they’ll persevere and have fun doing it (which is why you persevere of course). If you are thwarted and discouraged before you achieve any sort of competence, it seems a real shame. So I urge people to be willing to be vulnerable and to realize that this is the source of all strength.
What are a few things people wouldn’t know by looking at you?
What did you believe as a kid that you no longer believe?
That my sister is an idiot.
That I should be a veterinarian when I grow up.
That marriages don’t last.
That artists starve in garrets.
What is your current mantra? Tell us about the last time you used it.
Last weekend, my beautiful girlfriend and I had just cooked amazing coq au vin for the first time, the setting sun was reflecting off the red stone of the NYU library across the street and bathing my living room in hot pinkness, my dogs were snuggled up together in a furry ball on the couch, and my phone buzzed with an email from Jack at art school with a photo of his first amazing oil painting, and I thought, “This is it. This is what it’s like. I am happy.”
DANNY GREGORY is the author of seven books, including A Kiss Before You Go: an illustrated memoir of love and loss, An Illustrated Life, The Creative License: Giving Yourself Permission to be the Artist You Truly Are, and Everyday Matters: a memoir. Tens of thousands of creative aspirants regularly visit his weblog, www.dannygregory.com. He has created illustrations for numerous books and publications and is Managing Partner and Executive Creative Director of a global ad agency. Danny lives in Greenwich Village with his miniature long-haired dachshunds, Tim and Joe.