I'm excited to bring to you part of the conversation I had with Danny Gregory, an illustrator, writer, teacher, director, blogger, an artist, who is known to many from the sketchbook journals he's published. He visited Beijing and stayed in ISB as an artist in residence for a week. I had the awesome opportunity to do an "interview/Q&A" session with him and here's how it went:
Hi Danny! What do you like about Beijing so far? Have you found anything particularly different or intriguing?
There is no other place like Beijing that I've been to. There are a lot of changes and transformations happening around here and there are so many different kinds of people, financially, culturally and socially. Obviously, these are the things that any big cities have, but here it feels like everybody is energized and people in China seem to work harder and very committed to whatever they are doing, whether that's selling things on the streets or running a cafe. But it doesn't seem like it's super serious. People seem like they really enjoy their time here. Before coming here, I sort of expected to see more presence of the government and the air to be heavier than it seems to be. But I noticed that people are still very expressive...there are a lot of art here, there's a lot of freedom of a kind. I also find a lot of small things here quite unusual and interesting, like what people eat and drive to how people exercise together in the parks, the things that I've been drawing here [on the cardboards].
How did you like art classes when you were in middle or high school? Did it encourage you to explore the artistic side of yourself the same way you want to motivate aspiring artists?
I didn't really like them. I had a couple of mean art teachers, who made me feel bad about what I did. I remember I got a bad grade on a drawing when I was about 11, and it really affected me and it made me feel like art had some kind of rules that I didn't apparently understand. So that feeling carried over. Later, I started making art on my own. I really didn't want to take classes with anybody else and I wanted to just figure it out by experimentation, so learning took me quite longer than it needed it to, and I came up with "different" ways of making art. I think it's also ironic to be here and talking to kids about art just because when I was younger, I just really hated people giving me instructions and having an expectation for art that I had to produce. I remember this one teacher, who gave us an assignment to draw a "bird." So I went home and did a drawing of this oasis and a big pond with all different kinds of birds, like flamingos, parrots and cranes. And I brought it to him and he gave me a D. He said, "the assignment was to draw a bird, not a landscape." I still don't know what his expectation was; I just drew what I wanted to draw.
Wow. I think that's somewhat similar to IB Art in the way that it is looking for certain things in your work and it's almost like the "quality" of your art is determined by where your artwork belongs in the rubric.
I noticed that when I was in Kuala Lumpur, working with the IB students there. I saw the things they had to do and I thought, "this is depressing." There were times when I asked kids, "you know why are you doing this?" and they simply said, "because this is what I'm supposed to be doing." It's really unfortunate that they have to follow a strict criteria to create art. Hopefully, if you are really into art, you will do what you have to do, but also what you wanna do.
When I think of art, I tend to think about fancy museums, auction houses and galleries but when I see your art, it’s more of an everyday, casual thing... what do you think "art" should be?
Here's an analogy. you can study to be a chef- and you'll learn to cook in a certain way and you will work in a restaurant and cook things that people like to eat. You can also cook for your family and it's a completely different thing. That's what I do. I make food for myself, comfort foods, because that's what I wanna do. Sometimes, people come up to me and say, "you know, I can't make art because I don't know how to deal with the [commercial art world]. " And I say that art is just something that you do in your life- it's like taking a shower. You can do it any time you want and you don't need anything. The gallery scene is a very particular kind of financial world. It's designed to produce scarcity. I mean, if anyone could make art, it loses it's value right? But that doesn't mean that anybody can't make art. So I think selling and making art are two very different things. They don't necessarily have to be connected. It's a shame when people tell me that they are so afraid they can't sell art that they don't make art. That's like I'm not gonna cook dinner because I can't get a rave review in the New York Times!
I noticed that in some of your books, you use vivid colours and in some you just use black ink pen. Has your drawing style evolved over time?
Sure. I don't think it's my style that is evolved but it's just that I went through periods of varied techniques. Currently, I'm into using brush, so my current sketchbook is filled with sketches done in thick brush. I also went through periods when I would only use thin black ink pen, periods when I would use vibrant colors, fine point pens, gray pens... As you can see here, [points at his most current sketchbook] I've become looser and looser [with lines] these days.
Next year, I'm going off to college, which I am both nervous and excited about at the same time. What advice do you have for students and art students who will be going off to college?
I would say.... get the furthest away from your parents as possible. Don't be in touch with them very much. Start your own life. Be excited about the things you do! You would wanna find people who are like you, because you are gonna be very nervous and lonely. But at the same time, you should meet the kind of people who you've never met before. Also- when you are in college, don't just be in your college. Go outside, go out of town, go to the cities, take some risks- nothing bad is going to happen to you. The time you have when you are in college is the last time you have to be free. You don't have to worry about getting jobs or paying rent! So explore as much as you can. I would also say to take classes that are not necessarily in your major. You are never going to get the chance to study about ancient greek history or art history later. That time when you are in college is the time when you can be your own boss and just experiment. Don't worry about your grades too much!
Parts of the interview have been edited for clarity.