A Conversation with Danny Gregory

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.







Danny Gregory @ ISB

A sign in front of the art room

A sign in front of the art room

Danny Gregory has been an inspiration to me, from the time I found his book, The Creative License. I first found his book sitting in my dad’s art bookshelf. I remember noticing how casual and vibrant the cover of the book looked, in contrast to those of the other art books and catalogs that sit sort of pompously in his bookshelf. I perused the book and photocopied some pages from The Creative License, and decided that I would draw whatever I want to draw everyday. I photocopied some of my favorite pages from the journal and put them next to my desk to remind myself to just draw whatever I want to draw. 

Being myself, I completely forgot to keep the habit of drawing after three of four days…(I get bored very easily) But, the illustrations on the side of my desk stayed for years, and I didn’t even remember what or who the pages belonged to, until when I saw the sign 3 weeks ago in the art room that read: Danny Gregory, the artist in residence.

Danny Gregory! I know him!... from somewhere. Then, I saw a picture of The Creative License on the bulletin board and remembered that he wrote my favorite book from middle school.

So, Danny Gregory was here at ISB this last week! For those of you who don’t know who Danny Gregory is, he is an artist/blogger/journalist/educator/author/speaker/director… He is a very creative, artsy man who decided to keep journals to record his everyday by sketching and writing. He uses sketchbook and blogging (!) as ways to celebrate and at times, cope with the beauty (and sometimes the ugliness) of life.

At ISB, he continued to create beautiful new entries to his newest sketchbook, volume around-like-81, and sketched ISB, from the mini-pagoda like structure and the big yellow dragon in the elementary school OLE to the Chinese ladies in the cafeteria. His sketches are quick and casual and capture the perfectly the atmosphere from ISB. He recorded in his sketchbook how fresh and interesting some things at ISB are to him, and it made me remember about how fascinated I was with the facility and the people of ISB when I first came here in 6th grade. 

He also did a lot of paintings on pieces of cardboard. I saw him starting the first piece, when there were only rough outlines of three figures on a piece of cardboard, but the 2 days or so later, the completed painting was already dry and hang up on the wall of the art department. He was so quick! His paintings look very much like his sketchbook entries, except the fact they are drawn on a piece of cardboard and the pictures are enlarged to fit the larger medium. I love how he uses cardboards instead of canvases- it makes his works look casual and also more “local.” Cardboards really work well to create a connection with the audience, I think. This is a similar technique to what Ann Weber, last year’s artist in residence, uses; it’s so interesting how the two artists who visit ISB both use cardboards as an artist medium!

In the process 

In the process 

Final product

Final product

works of students who were inspired by Danny's works

works of students who were inspired by Danny's works

Student work

Student work

Student work 

Student work 

Preparation for Danny's book signing that I was unable to attend.. 

Preparation for Danny's book signing that I was unable to attend.. 

Danny is all about bringing the artists in people. He believes that no one has to be an artist to express him/herself and that he has the superpower to bring out the creativity in people. And he does! He made me realize that art doesn’t have to be something that must be hang up in museums and guarded by multiple guards with multiple shifts or be sold by auctioneers and be carried by  experienced Sotherby’s staff in white gloves. I think the value of art comes from the effect the creation of art has on the artist him/herself and simply how it affects others. It doesn’t really matter what the market believes the monetary value of the art is, or how beautiful the work looks. At ISB, Danny encouraged elementary, middle and highschool students as well as some faculty and cafeteria ladies to freely draw and express themselves on paper. I didn’t have the opportunity to see a lot of the works that the elementary school students created, but I saw many sketches of bicycles and paintings of the OLE around the school. They looked so fun! I also saw a portrait of Danny done in pencil- it was so precise and it looked like a photograph- and it turned out that it was drawn by one of the Sodexo ladies in the cafeteria! The woman who always asks me if I want milk with my coffee (I think)! That really made me think about how narrow minded I am and we are when we used the term, “artist,” because, really, everyone is an artist.

It was short 5 days when Danny was here, and I wish that it wasn’t the week I had ridiculous amount of assessments and assignments on, so I could have had more time to see his sketchbooks and know him better. 

BUT luckily, I had the awesome opportunity to interview Danny and to learn more about his motivations and opinions about art in general. I will be writing about that in a separate article! 

Now I am going off Page One to see if it has his book, A Kiss Before You Go... 

We Love Video This Summer

Pace Gallery loves video this summer. 

Before visiting this exhibition at the Pace Gallery in 798, I had never been to a show that exclusively focused on video art.

When I think of video art, the korean artist, Nam June Paik immediately pops into my mind because I have written on my sketchbook about him and his work, but apart from that, I really don't know much about video art. I have the impression that contemporary video art tend to be confusing, weird, and sometimes very graphic and gruesome. I don't know why but that's just my impression on videos. 

So I was very excited when I learned that Pace was putting on a show that exclusively focuses on video artists because that meant that I get to see works from a wide range of video artists, from Chinese to non-Chinese, from prominent ones to not so well-known artists. I was like, yes. 

This is the first piece of the show and one of the works that I found the most intriguing. It was actually displayed outside of the entrance of the show, right next to the description for the show on the wall. 

The two screens each showed one man, who was strolling around in an unknown city in China. He has a strange, machine-looking object on his back. In each of the screen, the man confidently walks up to a bus and inserts a tube to the pipe on the back of the bus. The polluted gas that is emitted out of the pipe goes through the machine on the man's back and the from the machine comes out beautiful soap bubbles that rise up in the air. The pedestrians around the man turn around to see the soap bubbles. Some stay to watch the bubbles and some simply walk past. 

So the video captures the process of pollution turn into something beautiful and clean and directly tells us that we have control over how we change the environment and how we deal with big problems like the pollution in China. I noticed that the artist uses video as a way to record a process of an action that cannot be performed in the gallery or the museum. It's like how we normally use videos: to record an action that cannot be in any other place.

This work was very abstract; it was just basically a recording of squiggly lines floating around and slowly shifting through an empty space. It kind of looks like what happens when you drop blank ink in water. The video was played on a very old-fashioned square, boxy Television, creating a very strange juxtaposition between the kind of "stylish" video and the antiquated look of the device on which the video is played. Unlike the soap bubble artist, this artist used video art as a way to illustrate a movement and put it in an unfamiliar context. 

This one was shown at the beginning of the show. The five screens were disconnected but the screens were coherent and showed one video. The piece initially shows birds on a tree, some hopping up and down on a twig and some flying around other birds. Then, the birds all shoot up toward the sky as the video zooms out and turn into vibrant colors and lines.. The piece looked like it was drawn with watercolor and ink. It was really pretty. 

There were no labels that indicate the name of the artists in the show, so it was hard to tell what kind of artist created the works. I'm very curious about how Chinese artists, in particular, use video as a medium, so I hope there will be another exhibition on Chinese video art. 



IB Performance Art

For the last art project, one of my classmates in IB Art did a performance art piece. 

The work was performed in one of the studio rooms on the performance arts hallway and people were invited to watch the show after school at 3:30.  

When I entered the room, there were a rectangular canvas on the wall and white sheets of paper laid out on the floor. On the sides of the wall were two white tables, each with white glue or white paint and some materials like palette knives, big brushes, and a white mask. 

At about 3:35, the artist, wearing a white mask, began pouring the white glue/paint on the flat canvas, letting the medium drip to the floor. The room was dark lit, so the whole area where the artist was standing and painting seemed very bright in contrast. After pouring a fairly large amount of the material on the canvas, she grabbed some large brush to smooth out the white paint on the white canvas. And then she began pouring more and more paint, and started using other things like the palette knife and the white mask to smooth out the paint on the canvas. It was a strange thing to see the artist obsessively paint the white canvas with white paint because from where the viewers were standing, there seemed to be no change in how the canvas looked. 

About halfway through the process, the artist began taking volunteers to paint the canvas with her. She stayed silent throughout the whole performance, so she just went up to a viewer and signaled with her hand to tell them to stand up and follow her to the canvas. The artist gave the equipments to the volunteer and made her paint the canvas however she wanted, but with white paint. 

Towards the end of the performance, the artist's movement looked more violent, and the viewers could hear the artist panting and obsessively repeating the process of pouring the paint and smoothing the paint out. By the end of the performance, the part of the floor where the artist was standing was covered in paint, and very slippery to stand on. The artist often slipped, but she didn't seem to care at all. The canvas stayed white throughout the performance art. 

At the end, the artist lied down on the floor, facing down. It seemed as if she has given up on painting but she also looked like she was in pain. 

Seeing the work made me think about insecurities I have. The way the artist tried to use different equipments to cover the canvas with white paint reminded me of the ways that I can get so obsessive with things that I am not confident with. I do my best to cover my flaws, but when I think about it, I can never really "cover my flaws" because that is just part of myself. No matter how hard I try, it's still going to show through. 

And the piece gave me time and the opportunity to think about how I always tend to look for what I'm lacking instead of what I already have. And if I continue to do the same, I probably "burn out" like how the artist collapsed to the floor at the end of the performance. The work really made me realize that I should take more time to appreciate what I have, what I already have accomplished and who I am already because.. it's just who I am and I can't change that. 

It's great that I got the opportunity to see this piece, especially in this stressful time of the college process, because I don't often get time to think about things like this at home or at school. It also gave me an inspiration to consider performance art for my next IB art piece.