The Face of the Abyss

This is a monthly newsletter about current artwork, influences, past projects, and upcoming exhibitions, often with some personal content thrown in. I will also include announcements when prints or originals are up for sale.

First, I have several exciting pieces of news:

1. I was invited to exhibit my art at Four Barrel Coffee (the Valencia Street location in San Francisco) this summer. I will be showing my "Composite Landscape" paintings, which will be for sale. Four Barrel is an independent, locally-owned coffee roastery and cafe that maintains a wonderful space for art. I'll post more about it when the show gets closer, but I'm very happy to be part of this exhibition, alongside other local landscape artists. The curator at Four Barrel asked me to make another landscape for the exhibition if I have the time and energy (he is aware that I am nine months pregnant), so I've been working on that. It's about halfway finished, based on several canyons from across the United States.

2. I finally have an online fine art store! I still have a wide variety of beautiful giclée prints for sale, and I’m selling one last original painting—"Flowers", which I painted last year. It is professionally framed in UV-protected glass, $700.00. It’s a special painting to me, as I was able to work from life instead of having to depend on photographs for reference; all flowers are from the San Francisco Botanical Garden. If you are interested in owning it, please email me!

Flowers  (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

Flowers (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

3. My insect/flower painting series is finished! I have now made ten lovely paintings of superimposed insect and plant pairs, each one about a different interspecies relationship. Ten paintings are enough for a solo show, and I am officially starting a slow hunt for a gallery space to show them. When I find one, the paintings will be for sale, and I will probably make a limited run of prints available as well. Don’t they all look beautiful together?

I now have eleven days until my due date, so labor could happen at any time now. Therefore, everything I start to do these days is begun with the understanding that it may be interrupted by what will probably be the most dramatic event of my life.

It's a strange way to live.

Consequently, I’m starting to do more reading than project-oriented work. Recently, I’ve been reading about Clive Wearing, the famous musician and musicologist who suffered catastrophic brain damage from herpesviral encephalitis in 1985, which left him with severe amnesia. His memory span ranges from only 7 to 30 seconds, and so is unable to form any new memories. He is currently 80 years old, and has been living in this unimaginable, present-bound reality for 34 years. His wife Deborah wrote a beautiful, astonishingly lucid and insightful book about his condition: “Forever Today: A True Story of Lost Memory and Never-Ending Love”. She describes how Mr. Wearing adapted to his condition by developing external cues that provide the temporal continuity his mind lacked: a stereotyped stream of wisecracks, familiar subjects and people (where he had better access to his old memories and felt on safer ground), and, of course, his music.

There are two separate cognitive networks for learning and memory. Fortunately for Mr. Wearing, these networks can operate independently, although in normal brain operations they generally operate in concert, supporting one another. This is how Mr. Wearing was able to adapt to his condition at all. While he could not consciously learn new information, he could learn implicitly—that is, he could form non-conscious memories that involved motor movements and action sequences, speech structures and mannerisms, and emotional response patterns. Thus, he could gain the ability to navigate a new home quite well, but he couldn’t give such direction to another person. He unconsciously began to unbuckle his seatbelt when he and his wife approached his nursing home in the car, but he was unable to consciously recognize the place as familiar.

As Deborah put it, it was as though he stood on a tiny platform, suspended over an unfathomable abyss. That platform represented his present experience, and without external cues to act as stepping stones that lead him forward—in a conversation, in an unfamiliar place, in his own thinking—he became utterly lost: insensible death closing on on all sides, endless annihilation stretching out before him.

Who else might have a special dependance on implicit memory processes? Babies and very young children are far less able to form explicit memories. For them, learning mainly consists of actions and action patterns, social-emotional development, language structures, and other non-conscious memory processes. “Infantile amnesia” is a term psychologists use to describe the phenomenon that makes memories from infancy and early childhood inaccessible later in life. To a cognitively impaired adult, the abyss is terrifying: to have a sense of self and then to lose all context for it is an existential catastrophe. To an infant, the abyss is familiar: perhaps the only familiar environment it has, at first. To an artist, a poet, a musician, or a dancer, the abyss is no more familiar than the landscape of the moon and no more terrifying than watching the sea. It is instead a valuable resource: of adventure, excitement, mystery, and inspiration.

I often feel now that I am on Mr. Wearing’s little platform, a cliff overlooking an unknowable void. Parenthood will change absolutely everything, and there is no way to know what might come. Anything at all is possible. It is, in every sense, a blind leap of faith. No one can know the abyss, but that leap of faith feels like home to me. It’s just another act of creativity: a reckless step forward into the dark, trembling with curiosity, hope, and joy.


This is a monthly newsletter about current artwork, influences, past projects, and upcoming exhibitions, often with some personal content thrown in. I will also include announcements when prints or originals are up for sale.


It's been a while since I wrote a post about the tarot deck I published back in 2014 (a full ten years after designing it), but it's still there, in the background of my life: still selling to customers all over the world, and still a useful tool to me in my art process.

The Cheimonette Tarot, published in 2014. Decks available for purchase  here .

The Cheimonette Tarot, published in 2014. Decks available for purchase here.

In case you're not familiar, tarot is very similar to a regular deck of playing cards. Like playing cards, tarot has four suits, which are in fact earlier versions of clubs, hearts, spades, and diamonds: which were once staves (or polo sticks), cups, swords, and disks (or coins), respectively. Like playing cards, tarot has ten pip cards in each suit, ace through ten, and face cards, although tarot has four instead of three per suit. The biggest difference between them is tarot’s addition of twenty-one "trump" cards, otherwise known as the major arcana.

Many regard tarot and playing card decks as fundamentally different in the way they are used, but this is probably less the case than they realize. For most of its history, tarot was used for games and gambling (and still is, in some parts of Europe). When it did start being used in fortune-telling in the 18th century, it was often treated as just another amusing game one could play with friends. The cards and the symbols depicted on them gained more and more symbolic meaning from this point onward, with most of the present card meanings derived from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an organization devoted to study of occult traditions, and from which come the “classic” tarot decks most widely used in divination today. Tarot is now widely associated with spiritual practice, in which practitioners aim to use the cards to see into the future, and gain insight and guidance in the process. I'm in the somewhat strange position of practicing tarot very differently than most of my customers: I don’t use tarot for divination, I use it as a tool for exploring my thoughts, building narratives, and developing art ideas. I have no questions, no objectives, no goals; I just wander through the symbols and piece stories together from them.

This is certainly not to say that art can't be goal-oriented, or that ambition cannot inspire creativity. Different artists conceptualize and produce the art they make in different ways. For me, achievement is not a good motivator, and so the way I make art is not fundamentally different now than it was when I was a child. The skills that let me draw the things I want to draw in the way I want to draw them were certainly gained with a goal in mind, but this type of drawing does not feel like art to me, it feels like practice. For me, the real joy in making art is the dynamic exchange between visual qualities I try to control, and visual qualities I make no effort to control. In my superimpositions, I choose the objects I want to combine, but not their placement. This approach produces an endless array of unexpected conjunctions and tangents, creating visual puzzles for me to "solve". Watercolor is also inherently unpredictable. I can pick the colors, but I can never predict exactly how they will interact, how they will spread and how they will dry. Each work of art I make thus becomes a visual conversation between my own technical capabilities and the uncontrollability inherent in the process and the medium. In a sense, my paintings make themselves. The joy is in making them; the best part is over when the painting is finished.

This progression from achieving control to being forced, either by choice or by circumstances, to forsake it is wonderfully exemplified in the sixes and sevens of the tarot deck. I have always seen the sixes as the "Beauty" cards. They represent a complex, stable harmony of ideas—the most successful manifestation of each suit's particular personality. The first five cards make progress towards the ideal world of the six, while the seven is the beginning of the end of the world. It's what happens after the dream of worldly success—as though glory-chasing were merely a developmental phase—that is the most fascinating and beautiful to me. The ways in which finite things come to an end will always be more interesting than the ways in which they may achieve immortality.

The Seven of Staves (2005). Ink, watercolor, prismacolor, and gouache on paper.

The Seven of Staves (2005). Ink, watercolor, prismacolor, and gouache on paper.

My favorite sevens are from the staves and cups suits, probably because imagination (staves) and emotion (cups) are the human faculties best adapted to handling confrontations with human frailty. In the Seven of Staves (above), mortality becomes a cherished source of wisdom and inspiration. The Seven of Cups (below) is about how frightening things can get when one wakes up from the dream of success and realizes that it's all just a story they wrote themselves. These awakenings can occur numerous times, and range from a true leader's realization that her followers are not friends—much less family—and that she is just as alone as she was before her rise to power, to the times when a narcissist is forced to recognize his cherished dream of himself and the esteem he commands from others as delusions. If acceptance fails to follow, this card, which I regard as one of the saddest and scariest concepts in the tarot, can become a prison from which one can never escape.

The Seven of Cups (2004). Ink, watercolor, and prismacolor on paper.

The Seven of Cups (2004). Ink, watercolor, and prismacolor on paper.

I do not mean to condemn those whose lives are built on goals. I think that ambition is a deeply human characteristic, responsible for many of the most wonderful achievements of our species. Nevertheless, looking at human beings in terms of achievement and its power hierarchies has always been viscerally distasteful to me. I am certainly not immune to glory-chasing; I want respect and admiration as much as most people, I guess, but I don't like wanting these things. Compared with the experiences I have as an artist, they seem sordid things with which to occupy my life. Having an art career is in itself a goal-driven activity, just like any other career, but this is not why I make art. Even if I knew that not one person would ever like any of my work, and that I'd never get one bit of recognition or affirmation as long as I live, I'd still have to go on making it, because art is something I love to do. Ambition is inherently oriented towards the future, while joy is an experience one can only have in the present. This is why all strategies for seeing into the future are inherently ambitious. I don't think there is anything wrong with ambition, but without joy, ambition becomes mercenary: a game of status-hungry schoolyard kids chasing the trophy of social capital.

When I was three years old, my family got incredibly lucky. We met a woman who lived in a house across the street from us named Tilly, from an island in the north of Germany. Tilly had been born into a big family that ran a tavern on the island, a job which she had loathed but faithfully worked at for the first forty years of her life. The British occupation ended, and her family offered to send her to America, hoping perhaps that she might marry an American. Tilly had always wanted to travel, and seized the opportunity. She landed in New York City, and after a few months of unpleasant work in a relative’s delicatessen, she took a Greyhound bus all the way across the country to another relative’s chicken farm in Petaluma. As soon as the bus took her over the Oakland Bay Bridge, she knew that she had found where she wanted to live: San Francisco, the most beautiful city in the world. The Petaluma relatives offered her a job on their farm, but Tilly preferred to try cooking and housekeeping so she could be in the city. They examined the help wanted ads, and found a Mrs. Brown, who spoke German and needed help running a large house by the ocean.

Tilly remained with Mrs. Brown for 25 years until her death, shortly after my family moved in across the street. Tilly, by then in her mid-sixties, was considering whether to return to the island, where she could have a pension and live in an old age home for islanders, but she ended up falling in love with my family, and stayed with us until she was past eighty years old. Tilly worked for us, but she was also part of our family. Even after she left San Francisco to spend her last years on her island, we all kept in close touch, exchanging phone calls and letters almost every week. She was like a parent to me, and I am probably even more like her than I am like my mother or father.

Anyone who has met Tilly will know what a presumptuous assertion that is. She was as close as it is possible to get to being a real-life angel. If this image suggests sanctimonious propriety to you, I should elaborate that she had a wonderful sense of humor, both about herself and the world, and that her humility and generosity were absolutely genuine. She never seemed to have any aspirations to be "good", and never regarded herself as particularly bright or special. Nevertheless, she was the happiest person I ever met. She admired others for their accomplishments as one might enjoy a magnificent garden, and was kind and giving to everyone around her merely because she took pleasure in being so. Unsurprisingly, everybody she ever came into contact with—even if it was just in pleasantries over the phone—loved and respected her. Every good thing she had in her life, no matter how mundane, made her feel like the world's luckiest person. Perhaps she appreciated her life so intensely and minutely because she had grown up in wartime Germany, and with so little personal freedom. Until she came to us, she had never had a room of her own. Having her own apartment was one of her greatest pleasures, and one which she never relinquished, even after moving back home to the island.

She made me want to be like her. I wanted to live life in such a way that I never took anything for granted. I wanted to take the same joy in patience, generosity, and kindness as she did. As anybody who has raised children knows, these are not inborn characteristics of the human condition, but with such a model before me, I acquired some of her feelings and attitude. It is now over two years since Tilly died in her sleep, at the age of 96, still healthy and living independently in a little third story apartment in her home town.

The dictionary defines "Glory" as high renown or honor that is won by great achievement, but it provides an alternate definition: “magnificence and great beauty”. Glory therefore includes ambition and joy: the bliss of success and the visceral experience of sublime pleasure. It also has a third definition, as exemplified by the phrase "gone to glory", which refers to a soul's ascent to heaven. Tilly was a Lutheran, and believed in heaven (although she preferred to believe in reincarnation rather than hell). Personally, I believe that joy and ambition are both necessary ingredients for a bearable mortal existence. Civilization is structured on ambition, and this is a reality whether or not it is an ideal state of affairs. Joy is a state that cannot coexist with ambition, and yet without it, ambition has no meaning. Perhaps this seeming contradiction is similar to my art process: the conversation that happens between taking and relinquishing control, over and over, until the painting is done. Perhaps Glory is a state in which the painting is never done: an infinite loop that offers an endless array of unexpected answers, and an unending wilderness of beauties to explore.

The Summerlands

            My mother and I both sleep very lightly. I think this is probably because we were both very fearful as young children, although my problem was merely that I had an overactive imagination. In the quiet darkness, without any distractions, I would spin yarns of dark fantasy and horror. So as I grew older, I started to stay up late reading in bed, until I got so sleepy I could no longer keep my eyes open. The habit stuck, and today, even waiting until I’m very sleepy doesn’t help me stay asleep. This light way of sleeping feels most natural on warm summertime nights, when crickets sing in the darkness and the sun rises very early. The kind of nights where you move in and out of sleep so easily that it's sometimes impossible to tell if you're really awake.

            This month I've been alternately painting the new nursery, and finishing up my insect/flower pieces. The latest one is about two species that I remember from the countryside in the late summer, in the upstate New York orchard I used to work at, where the best plums only ripened in late August, and grew so ripe they would split while still on the tree, dripping sweet juice. The wasps clustered along the split seams and gorged themselves on nectar, and us farmhands, not wanting to spoil the intact fruit, would eat the split ones, flicking away the wasps with our fingers. The plums were miraculously cool inside on those hot summer afternoons, and I would eat them all day. Late August was also when apple season really got going, and apple picking, sorting, and grading took up most of our time. But I always made time for the plums, and I generally ate them in the company of wasps.

Detail of “Wasp x Plum” (Vespula vulgaris x Prunus spinata). Ink and watercolor on paper.

Detail of “Wasp x Plum” (Vespula vulgaris x Prunus spinata). Ink and watercolor on paper.

            I was a child of secular Jews, which meant that Sunday School was more like cultural education than religious training. In other words, I learned more about the adventures of Noah, Moses and Joseph than I did about existential matters like what happens after we die. As it turns out, even religious Jews don't have much to say about the afterlife, because there is almost nothing about it in the Jewish bible. There is some reference to "Sheol", a place of rest for the righteous and the wicked alike, and rabbinic traditions, influenced by Christianity, added a "World to Come", in which all righteous souls will dwell. Generally, both observant and non-observant Jews focus on earthly existence as the scene of action and good works. Nevertheless, heaven has been of great interest to me, for as long as I can remember.

            Summerland is an idea that originated in 19th century Spiritualism, a religious movement based on communication with the spirits of the dead. The term was coined by Andrew Jackson Davis in 1845. He described the Summerland as a place where "spirits of good will" dwell. They live a semi-corporeal existence, in an environment of great beauty, with greatly magnified senses and perceptions. The Summerland was a version of the Christian heaven: a place of beauty, love, and learning, but more like a civilized Eden than a place of peace and stasis. Davis described it as an idealized earthly existence, with reunited families in their own homes, grand institutions of learning, and a continued life of change and progress. I like the connection between heaven and summers, even though summer isn’t even my favorite season. I like thinking of my light sleep—and maybe all the unpleasant parts of my life—as finally becoming natural and right in the context of a perfect world.

            I don't exactly believe in the existence of the Summerland, or in any of the descriptions of heaven I've found in religious traditions, but I do trust my own ideas about heaven. The human mind is guided by imagined possibilities. We imagine perfection, and are attracted to anything that has characteristics of the world we so badly want to live in. This dream of a perfect world seems to be a phenomenon common to all cultures and eras of human civilization. While it's hard to imagine that there is any universally-shared, perfect version of existence, we certainly have individualized heavens of our own. I believe that these heavens are subtly linked, by our common qualities as human beings.

Some of you might recall I said something similar about art a while back. The experiences art can give us are inherently personal, and inherently connected. Some art is about beauty, some is about visual exploration, some is about a narrative or message, and some art is simply about the process of its creation. Whatever it’s about, it’s always informed by our perfect world, our Summerland—by its structure, or the revolution needed to bring it about, or just the glimmers of it in the real world we see around us every day. Maybe what I’m trying to do by superimposing images is see if the Summerland has any autonomy. Maybe I’m trying to find out, by artificially imposing uncertainty on my own artwork, if a perfect world can create itself.

The Pleiades

There are five people in my life with whom I've had what I call creative relationships. I don’t mean to suggest that they were all significant others—in fact, only one of them was a romantic partnership. When I think of them, I see a tremendous beauty of mind. If they have any unifying traits, this is it.

I've been thinking of them for some time as the Pleiades—who, in Greek mythology, were the daughters of Atlas and the sea nymph Pleione. They inherited the animistic traits of their nature deity mother, and the weight of the universe from their titan father. I believe I see each of them for who they are, rather than who I wanted them or needed them to be (which is really the best and purest kind of intimacy). At the same time, these are deeply subjective relationships because these people hold such important places in my life. I know how burdensome this can be. I don't know that any of them even wanted such a role, but love is like that sometimes.

I will probably never stop missing them. All I can do is hope that I contributed something good to their lives, as well.

The Pleiades (or Seven Sisters) star cluster.

The Pleiades (or Seven Sisters) star cluster.

One of the beautiful things about love is that one cares more about the other person's happiness and well-being than about having them in one’s life. I am glad the Pleiad who died is free from a painful disease. I am glad my far-away friends have found a better life for themselves than they would have had here, and I accept the two relationships that have ended—indeed, I am grateful to have had these people in my life at all, even if I never see them again.

I am not exaggerating when I say that these people fundamentally changed who I am as an artist. I have a lot of sadness about the fact that I am no longer in close contact with any of them. As I move closer to being a mom, I find myself thinking about the people I want my daughter to know. She will find her own people, though, and she will likely to find herself and her work in different parts of the world than I do. Nevertheless, it’s sad that my Pleiades will exist to her primarily as stories.

This month I made a new painting in my insect/flower series: Gadfly x Lotus. Whereas, in the previous paintings, I experimented with convergent forms and species, I am now experimenting with symbols and concepts. It was a gadfly that the goddess Hera sent to sting the maiden Io, transformed into a white calf by one of the many love-interests of Zeus. She was condemned to wander the world as a cow, seeking relief from the bite of Hera’s gadfly. The hero Odysseus's men fell prey to the land of the lotus-eaters. As soon as they ate from the flowers, they stopped caring about their former lives, thereby entering a kind of dreamlike oblivion.

I think I'm not the only person who finds oblivion more frightening than suffering. One of my Pleiad friends, Wolf, was once in the hospital. I had never seen anyone in so much pain before. Finally, the nurses administered so much medication that it was a constant struggle to even stay conscious. Wolf became very frightened, and elected to lower the dosage, even if it meant dealing with a level of pain that was close to intolerable. I think I’d have felt the same way. Many of us would rather look a monster in the face than endure its presence in the darkness.

Gadfly x Lotus (Tabanus bovinus x Nelumbo nucifera), 2019. Ink and watercolor on paper.

Gadfly x Lotus (Tabanus bovinus x Nelumbo nucifera), 2019. Ink and watercolor on paper.

Another Pleiad I called Rabbit. Wolf and Rabbit probably did the most to inform my identity: both of them thrust me much farther down the road towards my ideals than I ever would have gotten without them. I'm not just talking about the perfectionistic drive to reach certain standards of personal achievement, I'm also talking about moral issues—which is always a part of my art: my social responsibilities, how I ought to treat other people, my duty to stretch my sphere of influence. I admire both of these people tremendously. Rabbit in particular seemed to symbolize what I myself might accomplish if I worked hard enough. She certainly deserved the high opinion I always had of her, but I see now that it probably wasn't a fair friendship. I was always struggling to keep up, and this likely had negative effects on my own progress, and may have damaged our friendship. Nobody benefits from pedestals—all they do is force people apart.

I made art with only two Pleiad friends. One is a truly brilliant poet named Raphael Matto (you can buy his books here), who informed a lot of my early drawings and writing. His work still helps me whenever I need to look at my art from a literary perspective. I still keep particular thoughts and feelings in some of his poems, perfectly intact and waiting for me whenever I need them.

The other Pleiad I used to call my steam-engine, and I am still learning things from our now long-past conversations, experiences, and drawings. Before I met her, I didn't understand how to make non-representational art, or even how to think in a non-representational way. I think mainly in pictures, and I think she thought mainly in numbers. I had always viewed numbers-based thinking as unreachable for me, but with her I saw that seemingly disparate cognitive approaches could be analogous. The categorical language of images and the quantitative language of numbers and algorithms had common ground, and there was a network of interlocking, subterranean tunnels between them. These connections, in the context of a person I admired so much—and at the same time, felt such close kinship with—have expanded the way I think. Many people feel lost when they look at abstract art, but it's really very simple: all you need is the ability to love something without knowing what it is. However, the implications of this are immensely complex. All of a sudden there is context for relating to everything; the edge of the universe is simply gone.

Attractor 4, 2014. Graphite on paper.

Attractor 4, 2014. Graphite on paper.

The very first Pleiad I met died in 2013. Dr. Hudson was a professor who taught me to value what I found meaningful even when nobody else did. I had an artistic style that wasn't popular with my art teachers, and a writing style that the English department found "too weird". When I visited Dr. Hudson in his office, we talked about literature, travel, languages, philosophy, and science. While I didn't always feel understood, I learned that it didn't matter. All that mattered was that I loved my work. I’m not sure I agree that we should always believe in ourselves. After all, sometimes we really aren’t competent or trustworthy—nobody is. But I do believe, thanks to Dr. Hudson, that we should always, always believe in what we love.

He gave me so much, but I'm not sure what I ever gave him; he just seemed to enjoy talking to me. Perhaps being a father figure was simply a role he enjoyed—I know that he kept in touch with other students long after they graduated. He was never too busy to listen to me, never laughed at my problems, and was always fearlessly open, sharing his stories, his interests, and his vast knowledge and experience, whenever I asked. I know I probably needed him much more than he needed anything from me, but that is, after all, the nature of parenthood.

And I suppose I can make a return on his kindness to me by doing the same for my future daughter.


As I wrote in my last post, this year I participated in San Francisco Open Studios for the first time, at the beginning of the month. This was my first time doing any kind of formal exhibition (aside from participating in group shows), and so I wisely dialed down my expectations.

If it was only my friends who came, that would be ok.

If I didn't make many (or any) sales on the weekend itself, that would be ok.

Even if nobody showed up at all, it would still be ok.

As long as I got a chance to practice talking about my art, or at least displaying my work, that would be enough. And, while I was waiting for 11AM on Saturday November 3rd (the official opening time), I looked around at all the art I've made this past year, and it felt really good. I had already pre-sold about a third of the original artwork, so I knew that this was my last chance to be near some of my paintings. Every painting carries a lot of meaning for me. Each is filled with memories of what I was doing and thinking and feeling at the time of its creation. It's a trite sentiment, but it's true: every painting carries a piece of me, and there is one kind of bereavement when it is finished, and another kind altogether when it is sold.

Composite Landscape IV (2018); 9” x 12”, watercolor on paper (Sold: Somerville, MA).  References: Ithaca, NY; Shenandoah National Park, VA; Mount Davidson, CA.

Composite Landscape IV (2018); 9” x 12”, watercolor on paper (Sold: Somerville, MA).

References: Ithaca, NY; Shenandoah National Park, VA; Mount Davidson, CA.

As it turned out, that weekend comprehensively exceeded the expectations of my most optimistic friends. Every secret hope I cherished, when I wasn't busy wisely lowering my expectations, was left in the dust.

Friends (including friends and acquaintances I hadn't seen in over a decade), strangers, curators, and neighbors filled my studio for the greater part of the weekend. Orders from social media flooded in. One woman, who had done her research on my portfolio and who I had never met before, bought a piece of art that wasn't even up for sale: I had to dig it out of my closet and come up with a price on the spot. They came in waves. I was often so busy answering questions and making sales that my wife had to help. Altogether, about a hundred and fifty people stopped by. Given how far into the San Francisco residential boonies I am located, and how far away from any other artist's studio, I was amazed. I'm still amazed.

This wasn’t my first venture into selling my artwork. The tarot deck I created, and which was published via a Kickstarter in 2013, has continued to sell, reaching more than 36 different countries across all seven continents. I write each one of my customers personally, and they often respond, explaining why they felt drawn to my artwork, telling me about their home town or home country, and describing the creative ways they use the deck—in their psychotherapy practice, improv groups, performance art, theater troupes, retreats, workshops, meditative and creative practices, and the classes they teach. I've never managed to habituate myself to how touching and wonderful this experience is, no matter how often it’s happened. Every time a customer writes me back, even if it's just to say a quick thank you, I think about how they are using something I made, making it their own, and interpreting it and using it in ways I could not have imagined. I am humbled, I am grateful, I am honored, every single time.


Now the same things are happening with my paintings. Original paintings and limited edition prints are now hanging on the walls of friends, strangers, neighbors; they are now part of their home, their daily life. Frequently, I have gotten to meet these customers in person. As they integrate these pieces into their daily consciousness, discuss them with their family and friends, and share them with their children, my artwork will come to belong to them as much as to me. To me, this is the best thing about being an artist.

Limited-edition prints of “Lacewing x Maple”, “Beetle x Rambutan”, “Flowers”, “Moth x Iris x Columbine”, “Cicada x Catalpa”, “Brimstone x Thistle”, “Mantis x Orchid”, and “Locust x Locust”. (Sold: Bodega Bay, CA)

Limited-edition prints of “Lacewing x Maple”, “Beetle x Rambutan”, “Flowers”, “Moth x Iris x Columbine”, “Cicada x Catalpa”, “Brimstone x Thistle”, “Mantis x Orchid”, and “Locust x Locust”. (Sold: Bodega Bay, CA)

To use a somewhat crackpot metaphor, seeing a piece of art that I really love is like finding a poem I wrote when I was nine (my first really good piece of writing, which I have never posted or published and probably never will), inscribed on a tablet in a ruined temple on the steppes of Mongolia. It has always felt like a miracle that someone I have never met and with whom I have little in common can reach right into my secret soul, through the exquisite meaning and beauty of a single piece of art.

I always try to learn about the artist, if possible, after I have seen their work. Sometimes I find an unrelatable personality, an ugly story, or an individual I wouldn't even like to meet. Maybe this sounds strange, but I am always pleased when this happens. It is rare, but I find a terrible person behind the art I love in maybe one case out of forty.

It is painful to find so much evil in the world. It is discouraging to be around people who do not share my values, and to read true stories in the news that are full of violence, hatred, and selfishness. Finding that a person who is otherwise hateful (say, Richard Wagner) has nevertheless produced a work of sublime beauty that has moved and inspired me is, well, comforting to me.

I believe it is a very human temptation to slide towards the annihilation of everything we find morally repugnant: ignoring the homeless, neglecting the ill, smugly denigrating the ignorant, or disowning killers, rapists, and abusers as human beings. Like many human temptations, this one runs contrary to the work I want to do in the world. Every wonderful work of art, music, or writing, every groundbreaking scientific discovery, every advancement we as a whole make towards truth and kindness and courage gives me hope. A person's works do not redeem their moral transgressions—the exquisite music Wagner wrote does not excuse him from mistreating the women in his life, nor from his contributions to Nazi ideology. However, it does remind us that we share a common human nature, which is, was, and always will be capable of the most hideous evil, world-changing accomplishments, abject cowardice, astounding strength, and profound love.

Impossible City

This is my monthly art-related newsletter/blog. It's generally about the new art I've made, news about exhibitions, and other art-related ideas I've been thinking about.

Art News

1. This year, I am participating in San Francisco Open Studios! This means that my studio will be open to the public for a whole weekend. My neighborhood's weekend will be on November 3rd and 4th, from 11AM - 6PM both Saturday and Sunday. My best artwork from the last year will be up for view (most of it will also be for sale), and I'll have a limited number of signed and numbered pigment prints for sale as well.

If you live in or near the San Francisco Bay Area, please come!! I would love to answer your questions about my art, say hello (even if I haven't met you yet), and/or graciously leave you alone if you want to look at my art in peace. There will be snacks and nice places to sit, and a weird-looking white kitty to pet.

The address is 110 Santa Clara Avenue, San Francisco. This is one of those unusual neighborhoods that has plenty of parking, AND is an easy walk from public transit (the West Portal MUNI station).


2. Fifteen of my original tarot paintings will be on exhibition through the end of the year at Azari Vineyards in Petaluma, starting in mid-October. The estate is an incredibly lovely place to visit—they even have a guest house!—and their wine is really and truly superb. You could take advantage of this beautiful autumn weather to plan a day trip to taste some wine, look at my paintings, admire the beautiful views of Petaluma Gap, and take a stroll around the grounds.

For those of you who don't know already, I published a tarot deck in 2014, and despite zero advertising on my part, sales continue to be pretty great (thanks to the photos, reviews, and videos posted by my amazing customers!). The only continent right now that doesn't contain any of my tarot decks is Antarctica—anybody know a tarot-lover in Antarctica?


“Treehouse”. Graphite on paper.

“Treehouse”. Graphite on paper.

As for the art I've been working on recently, I seem to be on a little bit of a hiatus. I'm done with my insect/flower paintings, and I've got a really big, interesting idea for my next series, but the idea hasn't finished cooking yet, so to speak. I know from experience that I can't rush these things. I just have to keep scribbling notes and sketches in my sketchbook and thinking about what it is, exactly, that I want to make.

When I'm developing an idea, I start chasing other people’s art. I spend hours in libraries, thumbing through picture books on history, urbanism, botany, ecology, neuroscience, marine science, or whatever. I spend hours in museums, sometimes spending all my time in one room, scribbling furiously in my sketchbook about a train of thought originating from a single sculpture and then racing home to look something else up.

Sometimes nothing else will do except wandering around the city at some odd hour, listening to the strangest and least music-like recesses of my music collection.

I don't yet have a good explanation for the new idea I'm working on, but I'm going to try anyway (after all, I suppose that's why you're here, reading this). I want to make art about impossible urban places: architectural interventions that make cities more accessible, more surprising, more imaginative. In particular, more human and less...institutional, I guess. Huge cave-dwellings, stretching out and interconnecting below the basements of skyscrapers. Treehouses installed in the recesses of highway overpasses. An entire apartment block gutted of its rooms and floor subdivisions, a shell for an empty, quiet, cathedral-like space, cut through by shafts of light from the vast wall of windows, with ladders and hammocks and bunks and bookcases covering the walls.

None of these ideas are in any way feasible, or even desirable, in real life, but that's exactly what I like about them.

I think there is something in me, as an artist, that has a great antipathy to anything practical. Perhaps this secret dislike extends farther than myself: maybe it’s shared by general scientists, or people who work in pure mathematics, or unpopular philosophers, or kids and teens who want nothing to do with the grownup world of trading 40+ hours a week of the only life they'll ever have just for the privilege of continuing to survive.

Anyone else? The rococo aristocracy, hobos riding trains, island-owning billionaires, anarchists foraging for meals in restaurant dumpsters and squatting in condemned buildings: people who try to place themselves far above or far below the mundane concerns of modern mainstream survival?

I certainly don't mean to propose generalizations. It remains difficult for me to imagine the variety of different reasons a person might have to long for the freedom of a permanently unrealistic world. I know that most seek to contribute in material ways to the world around them. An architect feels pride when she sets foot in a building she designed, and observes how the occupants use it. The world is full of research scientists who long to find a cure for cancer, a way to reverse global warming, a new innovation that will end world hunger.

I am no exception. I would not be able to live with myself if I didn't keep trying to find ways to positively impact the people and places around me. But I do think there are those of us who, while we know there must be practical innovations to change the world for the better, yearn for a world of pure ideas, where everything is possible.

To be honest, that kind of world really doesn't sound important, even to me. It sounds like the insipid fairyland of a very spoiled child who never managed to grow up (welcome, by the way, to the deepest of all my fears about what I really am).

Nevertheless, brain scientists and psychologists tend to believe that it is important. They describe us as existing within a "layer of thought", which acts a neurological buffer between our own impulses and the sensory information we receive. Our ideas, our beliefs, our worldview, and our moment-by-moment experiences are often largely intellectual in nature. The social sciences are full of studies illustrating that people get by on dreams even more than they do on realities. Viktor Frankl, who survived Auschwitz, knew this. “Ever more people have the means to live,” he wrote, “but no meaning to live for.” Not only does this world of impossible ideas help us survive, it does so by being the most desirable part of human experience—by imbuing it with interest, joy, meaning.

I always end up believing that this impossible world is important, and not because of all the scientific, political, and moral arguments backing it up, either. I just believe in it because I can't help loving it, even if I and everyone else turns out to be wrong, and it really is just a waste of time.

It is my own core belief. If this isn't true, then nothing is true.


This is a monthly art-related (or at least art-adjacent) post about what I've been doing and thinking about. Welcome to the month of August!

General News

1. One of my tarot paintings, "Love" was accepted to a group exhibition at The Studio Door in San Diego! It will be on view from August 3rd to 26th. If you're one of my tarot customers and live in the area, it's really worth seeing the original painting, and it looks like it's going to be a wonderful show!

2. My drawing "The Sparrow and the sparrows" is up on view at Arthaus Projects gallery in Williamsport, Pennsylvania! Exhibition closes on August 11th.

3. I am participating in San Francisco Open Studios this year! Open Studios is a series of five weekends where local artists open their studios to the public and sell their art. The weekends are divided up by neighborhood, and my weekend is November 3rd and 4th. If you're going to be in the bay area, mark your calendars and PLEASE COME! I'll be posting more details as the event gets closer.

Painting in my home studio, photo by Jessica Palopoli (

Painting in my home studio, photo by Jessica Palopoli (

It's been a weird weekend. Over the last year, I succeeded in tracking down the movie that scared the everloving shit out of me when I was four years old, and I finally watched it last Saturday night.

If you ever have the opportunity of revisiting movies (or stories, songs, amusement park rides, pictures, or any other innocuous thing whose fearsomeness derives from the unformed and imaginative mind of the very young), I recommend doing so. You will find that you remembered some parts with surprising precision, and that other parts (in my case, most other parts) were largely fabricated. It is a glimpse into how utterly unrecognizable the same event can be when experienced by different people. I often think how miraculous it is that any of us can communicate with each other at all.

Me wearing my favorite elephant bathing suit (I still think the Pink Elephants song from "Dumbo" is one of the best things Disney has ever done), summer of 1983.

Me wearing my favorite elephant bathing suit (I still think the Pink Elephants song from "Dumbo" is one of the best things Disney has ever done), summer of 1983.

Now, of course, you would like to know what the movie was.

Embarrassingly, it was "The Horror at 37,000 Feet", widely known (among Shatner fans, at least) as William Shatner's worst movie—a made-for-TV production that first aired in 1973. The plot featured a haunted airplane, and ended relatively tamely, with two gore-free human deaths and one frozen dog. It was apparently still making the rounds on one evening during the summer of 1983, when my parents took me to their friends' home for a dinner party. The household children, who were several years older than me (and I imagine were secretly hoping to be entertained by putting a little kid into hysterics) were clustered around the TV, and of course I joined them. It appears I made it through almost the whole movie before silently leaving the room and rejoining my parents.

I need hardly say that William Shatner's worst movie was not, on second viewing, especially scary. The interesting part wasn't the movie, it was watching prototypes of all my nightmares since age four march across the screen for 90 minutes. Although I had apparently invented several scenes, my inventions had done a strangely excellent job of capturing the story and the characters' state of mind—better, in fact, than the actual movie did.

To conjoin a pair of disparate dictionary definitions of the same word, "artifact" (an unintentional or meaningless by-product of, say, a scientific experiment or photograph) turns out to be a valuable treasure-trove of historic information. Making up stories is an essential part of the pattern-recognition processes of the executive system. Our minds come up with a plausible narrative about what is going on and even who one is. These narratives never quite match with reality, but that is not their purpose. Without our stories, we would not be able to learn, to remember, to sympathize with others, to recover from negative emotions, or even to recognize ourselves. We would have no coherent identity.

I'm not exactly saying that such mental artifacts are either desirable or destructive—it really depends on the mind that's making them, I guess. Although every story we can think of is in some sense true, not every story is equally useful. However, I am surprised by how often our memories turn out to be deeply insightful fabrications, if that makes sense. Because isn't this, too, a form of art? Isn't reconstructing reality in a more human-sized way, in a way that distills its importance and meaning for us, what art is? And our minds do this all the time—it is fundamental to our functioning in the world. Many scientists even argue that this storytelling part of the brain is the cornerstone of consciousness.

Locust X Locust ( Chortoicetes terminifera x Robinia pseudoacacia )

Locust X Locust (Chortoicetes terminifera x Robinia pseudoacacia)

Speaking of finding important truths in trite places, the idea for my latest painting came from a misunderstanding I have always cherished. When I first heard the word "Locust", I thought the teacher had said "hocus" (as in Hocus Pocus). The association is now immovable; I always think of magic—of fairytale, joyfully implausible magic—when I hear the word Locust. Magic then becomes the foundation for all the word's other associations: penny-slice leaves clattering in the breeze (the black locust tree), destruction and ruin (the plague locust insect), species invasion (the tree), the dry, muffled snapping sound of the swarm (the insect), creamy and delicately scented cascades of blossoms (the tree), the judgment of God upon Egypt in the Book of Exodus (the insect), and so on.

The best part of making something new is always over as soon as it is finished. Artists and makers who feel the way I do tend to make the most intricately detailed things, because we don't ever want it to end. More opportunities for new artifacts, too.

The Life-Cycle of the Angels

Many tarot books describe the first 21 cards of the deck following the Fool card—otherwise known as the major arcana—as the "Fool's Journey", in which the Fool progresses through 21 stages of existence. In the Cheimonette Tarot, one could just as easily call this the Angels' Journey. The Fool transforms into the Angel in two ways, both of which are represented in the narrative sequence of the major arcana.

The Biological Life Cycle

            If you have been following my recent work, you've seen my recent botanical/ entomological paintings, which experiment with different pair relationships: morphological (maple tree samaras resemble the wings of lacewings), geographic (the Southern Catalpa and the tredecassini 13-year cicada have intersecting habitats), morphological (maple tree samaras resemble the wings of lacewings), and chromatic (the petals of white columbines have the same hue—even down to their rose-mauve shadows—as the wings of the white moth). As I learned more about each of these species, I became familiar with their life cycles, which are often incredibly detailed and bizarre. For example, periodic cicadas remain underground in their larval stage for the majority of their lives, progressing through several morphological stages as they feed off the sap from tree roots. At last, they "hatch" out of their hardened larval bodies into the large, singing imago (the winged adult) at which point they mate, reproduce, and die over a span of only a few weeks.

Magicicada tredecassini x Catalpa bignonioides, (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

Magicicada tredecassini x Catalpa bignonioides, (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

Acer circinatum x Chrysopa perla (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

Acer circinatum x Chrysopa perla (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

Aquilegia vulgaris, Iris sibirica x Haploa reversa (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

Aquilegia vulgaris, Iris sibirica x Haploa reversa (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

The Cheimonette Angels

            The 21 cards of the major arcana organize different primary concepts of human experience. In the Cheimonette Tarot, the Fool (card 0) takes two overlapping routes to become the Angel (card XX): in one sequence, the Fool simply grows wings (card XII: the Hanged Man) and finally reveals the Angel nature it had all along (card XX: the Angel); in the other sequence, twin angels divide (card VI: Love), separate (card X: the Wheel) and converge (card XV: the Devil), and finally combine to become a single Angel (card XX), by appropriating the human qualities of the Fool.

The Fool (2002). Ink on paper.

The Fool (2002). Ink on paper.

            These two parallel life cycles of the Fool/Angel can be thought of as interrelated, symbiotic life cycles of different biological species: sometimes mutually beneficial or harmful, sometimes competitive, sometimes parasitic, sometimes merely commensal. The two angels in Love (VI) are locked in a shared gaze of mutual support, trust, and safety: the perfect foundation for great freedom, experience, and exploration. In the Wheel (X), the angels have separated to form two independent bodies, working together to turn the wheel of time, dreaming their private dreams. In the Devil (XV), separation has become painful and the angels are reuniting catastrophically, seemingly in the act of annihilating each other. Only by becoming human can they be whole again, and they at last take on the animal characteristics of the Fool (its two tails), and resurrect as a single being, with the flower of immortality from the Tree of Life growing from its body, and the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge for a heart.

VI: Love (2003). Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper.

VI: Love (2003). Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper.

X: The Wheel (2003). Ink and watercolor on paper.

X: The Wheel (2003). Ink and watercolor on paper.

XV: The Devil (2003). Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper.

XV: The Devil (2003). Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper.

            The other life cycle is simpler and gentler. It represents not the fall of a God, but the apotheosis of a mortal. Even though the Fool and the twin angels have different characteristics (the Fool has its tails, and the angels have their wings), they are arrestingly similar creatures: bald as an infant, androgynous, and seemingly sexless. This insight is personified by the Hanged Man (a card I should have renamed as gender neutral), hung by its own tails in a window of one of the Moon towers (which appear in both the Priestess and Moon cards). The Fool in the Hanged Man is clearly not compelled into its position: as a symbol of its freedom, it holds an unattached chain between its hands as a plumb weight. Out of its back grows incipient wings. It is passively waiting for its transformation to occur, suspended between the strange world within the Moon tower and the outer world occupied by us, the observers. Its eyes are open—which shows that waiting is perhaps not so passive as it might seem. It believes in its own potential for divinity. In the Angel card, we can see that the Fool's conviction was justified.

XII: The Hanged Man (2003). Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper.

XII: The Hanged Man (2003). Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper.

XX: The Angel (2004). Ink and watercolor on paper.

XX: The Angel (2004). Ink and watercolor on paper.

            Plants and animals tend to have precisely as much as they need—and no more—to survive. If their lives are hard, they usually have the ability to endure those hardships. Animals are exactly as intelligent as they need to be, and so are we. Our own phases of existence are less apparently intricate than those of the 13-year cicada, but they are profoundly detailed nevertheless. The world we live in today is both of our own creation as well as far beyond our control. We experience reality as a web of probabilities: a fine mesh made from our own sensory experiences and from trusted authorities we use as outside sources of information.

           But I believe that these probabilities rest on a set of core beliefs. Whether those beliefs are religious, scientific, philosophical, or emotional in character is of little importance. What is important is that there is a fundamental particle, somewhere, in all of us, that will bear no division, no scrutiny. Our blind spot.

"If this is not true, then nothing is true."

Not all of us must reach that part of our life cycle where we are called upon by circumstances to shatter our fundamental beliefs. When we are, we often become even more hard and immovable, so that our shells may be the easier to shatter, our hearts more easily broken. To allow the possibility that the imago, winged and singing, may emerge from the ruins of truth.

The Composite Series

It's been a long time since my last post. For the past two years, I have been in a Ph.D. program, training in neuropsychology, and I haven't had time to do much artwork.

Then I got to a point where I became completely overwhelmed. In the aftermath of this, I realized that art really needs to be at the center of my life—no matter how valuable or interesting I might find other careers, my heart can only be in one place at a time.

So, I dropped out of school and went back to being an artist. The best part is that I got to keep my position in neuroscience research, and am still working in that part-time. Science feels a lot like art, except that the execution of an idea requires different materials than I'm used to using.

Anyway, here's what I've been working on recently: a series of seven paintings that take a Kantian approach to objects as transcendental schema—finding the "Tree" within three overlaid individual trees (in this case, Baobab, California Live Oak, and Dawn Redwood). Here is the finished painting (shown first), followed by previous iterations of watercolor underpainting leading up to it, in chronological order.

Trees (2017). Ink and watercolor on paper.

Trees (2017). Ink and watercolor on paper.

I also did another piece based on a similar concept: "Islands", which depict three overlaid islands, both from perspective view and an aerial view. They are loosely based on an island in the Stockholm Archipelago (which is one of the most beautiful places I've ever had the privilege of visiting), Tuckernuck Island (part of Nantucket), and Föhr, an island on the Danish border of Germany, and the birth- and death-place of a beloved lifelong friend of mine named Tilly, who died at age 96 last year.

Islands (2017). Ink and watercolor on paper.

Islands (2017). Ink and watercolor on paper.

I've started another one, "Bridges" which is by far the largest watercolor painting I've attempted. I plan to complete seven of the series in total, with "Towers", "Birds", "Ships", and "Tunnels" yet to come.

In any case, it's good to be back. And, as always a big "thank you" to my fans of the Cheimonette Tarot. Your continued patronage, kind words, and enthusiasm has given me the confidence to return to making art. If the Cheimonette Tarot continues to be so successful, then maybe I can make more things that people will love.

Lots of Love,