“I think the book has been mislabeled a little bit, it’s about creativity. I actually think it’s about living a good life and I think creativity is part of a good life.” –Austin Kleon
Photos and Interview by Danielle Boise
Austin Kleon wowed audiences with his first book, Newspaper Blackout when it came out in 2010 from Harper Perennial. Early this year, Kleon released his new book, Steal Like An Artist, from Workman Publishing, a book about what artistic theft means, while breaking down the myths surrounding an artistic lifestyle.
“Chapter 9 – artists hate that chapter. Hate it ’cause it says things like stay out of debt, take care of yourself, marry well, get a day job and keep it. And they hate that because we are feed this very romantic image of what it is to be an artist. We are all suppose to be Don Draper, drinking really old fashions at Leon’s while trying to pickup co-eds. The truth of the matter is that the people that get work done in this world, they sit their butts down at their desk everyday and they get their work done. You don’t have the energy to do the work if you waste it on other things. Some people get away with it, as Neil Young says “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” I think it’s better to burn slow and see your grandkids.” – Austin Kleon
Steal Like An Artist itself has had an interesting journey. First, starting out as a talk, Kleon addressed to a community college in Binghamton, New York last year. From that talk it was then uploaded to his blog where it went viral, Roseanne Cash called it “Brilliant.” Leading Kleon to sit down and expand on the 10 things he wished someone had told him, an idea he credits his wife, Meg, giving him that makes up the tenets of the book. And now we are back to talking about it all over again – it’s the perfect loop in a digital age.
During his discussion at Georgia Center for the Book at DeKalb County Public Library on Wednesday April 10th, to support his ideas on artistic theft, Kleon references the Bible with Ecclesiastes 1:9 NIV
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
In the book Steal Like An Artist, Kleon quotes everyone from Shakespeare to Bowie and everyone in between – claiming it’s about mish mashing and remixing your heroes work, by taking it to the next level and creating something from what existed before. Kleon advises to “collect good ideas” while stealing ideas that “only speaks to your soul.” After Kleon read a couple of chapters from Steal Like An Artist he opened the floor for discussion. A member of the audience, a middle school teacher, wanted to thank him for his work on his first book, proclaiming “You Rock.” She used his book, Newspaper Blackout, as a tool in order to inspire her students to write and write they did.
Afterwards, I was able to sit down and interview Austin Kleon on his journey with Steal Like An Artist, creativity and who he is planning on stealing from next. Here’s what he had to say:
What has been the most surprising experience on your journey with Steal Like An Artist?
“My most surprising experience is the amount and variety of people who respond positively to the book. I’ve had everyone from preachers to artists to military people be into the book. When I first started writing it, I just wrote the book I wanted to read, like I said in the book. I wrote it as if it was a book I could stick in a time capsule and give to myself. But it turns out that someone said one time “that what is personal ends up being universal” and I think that’s been the case with this book. I think the book has been mislabeled a little bit, it’s about creativity. I actually think it’s about living a good life and I think creativity is part of a good life.”
What is the best question that you’ve been asked you so far?
“The question that someone asked me tonight that knocked me on my butt was “Does your wife agree with this?” And I thought, I never asked her. We talk so much and so much of these ideas have come out of our relationship. She’s my first reader and I bounce things off of her, but I guess I never really asked her if she agrees.”
Can you feel the inspiration and creativity collide?
“I feel that inspiration leads to creativity. Basically, there’s a feeling when that happens when you are making something and that feeling is much what it felt like when I was a kid copying Garfield cartoons with crayons on butcher paper on the floor of my Grandma’s kitchen. It’s a feeling that all kids know. It’s a feeling of play. It’s a feeling of simply exploring. The drawing, not to get too deep, but the page becomes the world you kind of explore with your marker. It’s really no different than watching kids play with Legos. That’s what it feels like when you’re really cookin’.”
Right now, who currently is inspiring you and who do you want to steal from?
“When I was at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I walked into the Cy Twombly Room and the funny thing about that room, Cy Twombly work makes people so angry that they have to put their own museum guard on the room. What’s really funny is that no one goes up to that room because it’s kind of corridor off. But when I saw that work, I immediately wanted to steal from it and his work has had that affect on me before. But not to get too detailed I have trouble with color, all of my books are black-n-white and red and I never understood color until I looked at that Twombly that day. There is something about the fact that he just picked up a color, like an oil pastel and drew lines. I’m a line guy, so it unlocked something for me. I can’t really explain it, but I’m excited to go back home. I have next week off, I’m going back home and I’m going to explore. I’m going to play.”
What are you currently reading?
“Mike Monteiro’s Design is a Job and Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch because Elmore Leonard is my favorite. He’s one of my favorite authors period. He’s not even a trash writer; I think he’s brilliant. I’m also reading Nicholson Baker’s Vox, which is the book Monica Lewinsky gave to Bill Clinton. It’s an erotic phone conversation; it’s really bizarre, but Nicholson Barker is someone who I read. I figured out what I like about Nicholson Baker: he puts me to sleep, but he’s not boring.”
What type of music do you listen to when you sit in your office and create a project? Does it change when you go from the analog to digital loop?
“A lot of times I don’t listen to music when I work, but I listen to music constantly. I actually listen to a lot of old soul music, stuff like Al Green or Bobby Womack or Sam Cooke. Also new guys like Lee Fields. My desert island music is ’60s soul and ’60s garage rock, those two together.”
What time of day do you prefer to work on your art? Is one time better than the other or is about routine and structure that works best?
“I’m a morning person. It takes discipline for me to get up, but if I can get up and get two hours then that’s the best. That’s what I tell people. Everyone has different bio-rhythms, but some people are night people, some people work in the morning. Morning people have an advantage because if you have a day job, which most of us do. John Water’s has this quote “I make stuff up in the morning and I sell it the afternoon”, but if you are a morning person you can get the work out in the morning and then go to your job and you already spent that part of you, so that can’t take that away from you basically. So if you are a morning person, you can get your work out of the way and then whatever you have to give at work is what they get. That’s presupposing that your passion work is what you do in the morning and your job is just what you do for money – although you could be passionate about both.”
Has the transition for you come from your passion work to the work for which your income is based?
“I’m at a fulcrum, a transitional stage in my career where this is actually becoming my main work. I kind of make a living between speaking appearances, book sales, art sales, and then any freelance work I do as a writer.”
Does it make you nervous about your drive now that this is no longer just your passion work?
“The trouble is the more success you have, the more work it is to keep your career going because when you are obscure and this is what I write in the book – enjoy your obscurity while it last because when you don’t have the attention, no one is sending you a 100 emails a day wanting something from you. You aren’t having to talk to agents and schedule stuff . You have plenty of time to do the thing that you really love. My friend Hugh MacLeod has this quote “Beware of turning hobbies into day jobs.” But you are still the luckiest S.O.B. alive, anyone who can do what they love to do for a living is completely lucky and shouldn’t complain. It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of hidden work people don’t see.”
Austin Kleon: Steal Like An Artist - Photos by Danielle Boise