Art as Theft
Wherever he goes, local artist and author Austin Kleon brings the party.
When I first meet him, it’s early evening in early June, and we head to 24 Diner. Kleon chats with ease, eats meatloaf with gusto and then hops across the street to BookPeople. Tonight, he's set to deliver a talk on his new book, Steal Like an Artist, a hip manifesto for aspiring creatives.
The book, which is currently on the Times’ Best Sellers list, offers 10 tips to creative folks who want to further tap into their artistic sides.
Over at BookPeople, Kleon's talk runs without a hitch, but what happens afterwards widens my eyes.
Normal: Dozens of readers approach him to have their books signed; an hour later, a few stragglers remain. Noteworthy: The Ohio native’s good Midwestern manners never waver, though I know Kleon's got to be dead tired since he’s at the tail-end of a cross-country book tour.
I watch as one fan introduces her daughter to Kleon as “a badass.” They have a sweet exchange and, obligingly, Kleon writes in the young woman’s copy of Steal, “You’re a badass.” Then, like the best kind of teacher – funny, firm and encouraging – he adds, “Now prove it!”
Behind them, another fan, an aspiring comedian, asks Kleon if he’d be willing to listen to some jokes. I can hear Kleon laughing at a one-liner as I walk down BookPeople’s stairs.
Kleon’s warmth throws me for a loop because genius and social ease don’t often go hand in hand, and the man is a genius to be sure.
His first book, Newspaper Blackout, announced him as a poet and prolific doodler. His Tumblr, which pulls from a vast stockpile of literature and art, showcases him as an intellectual heavy hitter. But I’ll be darned if, upon meeting the guy, I don’t just want to shoot the breeze over beer.
Kleon is a natural extrovert, which explains why Steal Like an Artist feels more like a hangout than a creative self-help book.
When I dive into the first chapter, for example, I find about ten people rubbing elbows, in print: Kleon quotes his mom, Jim Jarmusch, Mark Twain, RZA, Marcel Duchamp, Andre Gide…you get the idea. They’re all folded into his chapter on creativity tip #1: STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST, a phrase printed across two of the book’s pages in bold, hand-scrawled letters.
Every artist steals ideas, Kleon tells me. The best artists steal from the most people and remix their plunder uniquely; that’s what makes their work appear original. But nothing’s completely new. And, says Kleon, just knowing that fact can free you to embrace creative influence.
“I don’t subscribe to the lone genius theory, the kind where you’re hit by lightning," he says. "You’re a mashup of what you let into your life. So, the way to get better work is not to shut yourself off from the world, but to concentrate on the things that really mean something to you.”
Kleon tells me one of his favorite people to steal from is Lynda Barry, a writer and artist known for drawing comic strips with a raw, childlike quality. (Kleon’s doodles, which appear in black-and-white in Steal Like an Artist, have a similar feel.)
He also built Barry into his chapter on creative tip #4: USE YOUR HANDS. He explains why: “After Lynda wrote her first book — she did it pretty quick — it took her 10 years to write the next one, Cruddy, because she started using a computer. The computer had a delete key. She kept overthinking.
"And, then, she discovered the Chinese paintbrush. She did the first draft of Cruddy in calligraphy, on legal paper. Probably 1,000 pages. She said there was something about that, working slow and letting the line come out the hand, and not being too far ahead of her mind, that the story just came to her. It sounds a little mystical, but, basically, it’s like a brain hack.”
Like every artist, Lynda Barry is a thief. She stole an ancient painting method to write Cruddy. But that's just one link in a stealing chain. I say that because Kleon, when he saw Barry's work, decided to steal her commitment to physicality.
To ensure that he puts elbow grease into both his writing and drawing, Kleon has two separate desks set up in his studio: one with computer stuff, and one with just art supplies and paper. He moves between Keyboard Zone and Sharpie/Post-It zone to keep the creative juices flowing, he tells me.
We talk a bit more about Barry, and I realize he stole another thing from her: charm.
As Kleon explains: “Lynda’s Midwestern, she radiates niceness. Like, I know she’s not nice all the time, and she’d probably tell you that, but she has that kind of concern for people. She’s one of the first artists I ever went to see where I felt like she genuinely believed that everyone in the room was worth as much as she was.
"And when you think of most artists at lectures, they’re like, ‘IIIII am the aaaahhhhtist, and youuuu are the aaauuuudience’ And when I met Lynda I was like, holy crap, here’s this brilliant person who let her audience in.”
Artistic thievery can be broad, Kleon explains. It’s not just about what you’re reading or the art you’re looking at, but also where you choose to live, or who you’re hanging out with.
“There’s a great story about writer Barry Hannah. He had this student, and the student is asking for writing advice and Hannah says to this student, ‘Have you tried making yourself a more interesting person?’" Kleon laughs.
"That’s just about the meanest piece of advice you could ever receive from a creative writing teacher! But part of the idea of my book is that it’s important to work on your relationships, to take care of yourself. That whole bridge-burning, cocaine-snorting, womanizing artist ideal has done more harm than good.”
I get what he means: be cool, but don’t be reckless. However, I still wince when I read creativity rule #9: BE BORING (It’s the Only Way to Get Work Done). This sounds none too sexy but, unfortunately, it’s completely on the money. Kleon encourages artists to keep a steady day job, stay out of debt and marry well.
He writes: “It’s best to assume that you’ll be alive for a while. (It’s for this reason that Patti Smith tells young artists to go to the dentist). Eat breakfast. Do some push-ups. Go for long walks. Get plenty of sleep.”
Kleon doesn’t romanticize creativity. He’s like the Benjamin Franklin of the art world: he adheres to lists and practicality to get the job done. Creativity is just a tool, he explains, and you can use it to paint a painting, draw up a business plan or get a good job. That makes it an important tool to maintain or reawaken, even if you need to refer to a 10-point list à la Steal Like an Artist to do it.
“Picasso had this saying,” Kleon tells me, “that all children are artists. The problem is how to remain one when you grow up.”