What Does It Mean To You To Be A Successful Artist?

A friend posed this question on Facebook today.  It is a difficult one to answer, because neither “artist” nor “successful” has a concrete definition.  So first I must explain my definition of both.

What is art?  How many times have you been standing in front of a DeKooning in a museum and heard someone say “my kid could do better than that, that isn’t art”?kooning_woman_v

How many people paid thousands of dollars for an inkjet print of a Kinkaid painting with dabs of paint strategically placed on it by minimum wage interns to make it an “original”? t-216Jackson Pollock got shitfaced drunk and dribbled housepaint on canvas and now it is called a masterpiece.


What is art?  Art is anything which is more than functional.  Art is any act of creation, any figment of the imagination, anything brought into being by the human mind.  So all of the above are art, and everyone is an artist.  I don’t care if you “can’t draw a straight line”.  Neither can I.365-10sm

The only difference between me and the person who claims they “can’t do art” is the desire to do it, and the willingness to work at it.  I recently decided to do a self portrait a day for a year.  The above image is one of my earliest.  This is my most recent.365-60sm

You will notice that I still can’t draw a straight line, but this drawing actually resembles me.  I am a person who loves art enough to keep doing it over and over again, even if I am not satisfied with the result, simply because I love doing it and want to learn.  I spent 30 years exploring color and design within very narrow non-objective parameters. chaos I sold some paintings, but never made a living at it.  I decided to play with photography and bought a nice camera.  Five years later, because I knew someone, I was making most of my living with it, and had my own gallery (which did not make money).juarezjuggler

After three years, the work dried up and I closed the gallery.

Was I successful?  Am I successful? If success means acclaim and wealth, no, I am definitely not.  If success means perseverance and productivity, I might be, but I know artists who work much harder than I, who have mastered more skills, make more art, and, often, make more money. So I don’t know if I am a successful artist.  I have had successes, the greatest of which is imparting a love for creation to my grandchildren, who have become fabulous artists in their own right. This image is from an opening at my gallery for their work.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I don’t feel “successful”, though, so I can’t tell you exactly what it means to me.  I set goals for myself all the time, but rarely achieve them.  Most of my dreams for “success” as an artist are dust.  I have ceased striving for financial recognition of my talent, and have begun searching for ways to use it to benefit others.  I suppose achieving that goal will make me a success of some sort.


1000 Words Photo Challenge (as yet untitled)


Photo by Alicia Pilar Mogollon

It wasn’t an easy death. She didn’t get to simply fall asleep one night and not get up the next morning. She didn’t sleep much at all for the last two or three months of her life. Constant pain only partially mitigated by opioids.The wouldn’t give her enough to really take away the pain. They were afraid, they said, that she might overdose and die, accidentally or deliberately. She would have, too. Given the opportunity, she would have chosen oblivion over the torture of clinging to a razor-sharp thread of life.

Oblivion. That’s what she had expected. Just the end. No angels (or devils). No light at the end of a tunnel. No reincarnation. Just nothingness. That wasn’t what she got.

At first, she thought it was a dream. One of those vivid hallucinations that came when a stab of pain ripped the veil off of her drug-induced slumber. This was different, though. Most notably, there was no pain, a sensation, or lack thereof, so alien in recent months that she almost didn’t notice it. Then, unlike the often jumbled and disjointed dreamtime world, the place she found herself was solid and real.

She was in an auditorium at the university, where she had given her last lecture before the cancer hit her like a battle axe, cutting her from her life. She was standing just offstage, which was odd, since she remembered entering down the stairs through the class. Someone was at the podium, speaking. Wait, that was her younger healthier self. In that moment she realized she was dead. Haunting not the present, but her own past.

As soon as the realization struck, the scene around her shifted. She found herself on the slopes of Sugarloaf, standing somehow on top of 48 inches of powder, watching her 43 year old self slalom gleefully past with her children.

Flash again, this time to her grad school dissertation, given in front of a panel of professors, one of whom was her future husband.

And again, back to her first year of college, seeing herself as an innocent, the world opening up before her, so many avenues to choose from.

This couldn’t go on forever, she had to come to a place where she could find rest. This wasn’t it, though, and neither was her next stop, as an angst-ridden 15 year old with dyed black hair, black lipstick, black everything. She wished she could step in to her adolescent self’s world and tell her it was OK, that the world wasn’t an evil place.

But no, she couldn’t quite connect to that past reality. Two more shifts; her first, halting romance, when a kiss was the most magical thing she had ever experienced, then, a painful memory, the day she lost her father to a train accident as he commuted to the city.

The next jump felt different, her landing more solid. She was in a dimly lit room by the window. Her 6 year old self came in, approaching the upright piano against the wall tentatively. This was it. This was where she could stop. She slipped into the little body of her child self, settled on the edge of the piano stool, stretching for the pedals, and began to play.


“A Squabble Of Philosophers”

So says Gregory David Roberts, in his sequel to the brilliant, quasi-autobiographical “Shantaram”, entitled “The Mountain Shadow”.  I love his writing, and I share his love for India, in all its frustrating dichotomy.  I recommend both of his books, but that is not what I want to write about.


What is a philosopher?  A philosopher is someone who seeks to find order in the chaos of existence, to organize the random, to give meaning to the arbitrary.


It is inevitable that philosophers will squabble.  Philosophy is, by nature, a fiction.  A fiction that can, by virtue of its cleverness, give solace or guidance to lost souls, but a fiction nonetheless.  The more one simplifies and fictionalizes, the more variations are possible, hence the squabbling.  Metaphor is appealing because we all “get it”, but it is malleable as well.  When people begin to treat metaphor as fact, disputes are inevitable.  Squabbling philosophers can be good natured about it, because they are critical thinkers and aware of the metaphor.  Devotees and adherents to particular philosophies, particularly those which have evolved into religions, tend to take disagreement personally and often respond violently.


[Photos taken in New Delhi and Rajasthan in 2007].


Sad News And Renewed Determination

My maestra (Spanish teacher) sent me a message on Facebook Thursday.  I’m always glad to hear from Celeste.

When I told my friend Rene, who owns the Orbita Spanish School in San Pedro La Laguna on the shore of Lago Atitlan in Guatemala, that I had a photo project in mind which featured the elders of the Mayan community, he paired me with Celeste for the four hours of intensive Spanish I took every morning.  Celeste is an outgoing 20 year old who seems to know everyone in San Pedro and has a strong connection to the elder generation.

She facilitated interviews with two nonagenarians and a septuagenarian, who happened to be her grandfather.  I met them, photographed them, and interviewed them, asking each to tell me a story of their youth and to impart some advice for future generations.

All three of them were kind, supportive of my project, and more than happy to talk at length about their lives.I am fortunate to have met them, and look forward to getting to know more of their generation.

Were I forced to pick a favorite, it would have to be Encarnacion Perez, the beautiful 91 year old comadrona (midwife) to thousands of mothers and babies around the lake.  She was sweet, wise, and full of advice for me.  We made plans to speak by Skype with Celeste’s help after I got back to the States.

When I got Celeste’s message: “Hola David”, I immediately shot back, asking how she was, how her school was going, and if she was still playing soccer.

She said “Encarnacion ha muerto” Encarnacion has died.

I was stunned

Encarnacion had said more than once during our conversation that I would never see her again, because she was going to die soon.

My experience is that, as a general rule, the older one gets, the more preoccupied one becomes with one’s death.  I have seen this in my grandparents and now my parents, and the first stirrings of mortality awareness are insinuating their way into my daily thoughts.

So, when Encarnacion told me she was going to die soon, I did what I always do, I said “no, no, you will be around a long time, and I will see you soon.”

I wonder if denial of others’ mortality is a self defense against awareness of one’s own.

The news of her death made me think of the inevitability of my own, but, more importantly, it brought home the urgency and seriousness of my project.

When I first visited Guatemala and Lago Atitlan in 2008, I, as a photographer, fell in love with the history-lined faces and brightly colored clothing I saw everywhere I turned.  Over several subsequent visits, I made friends, learned Spanish, and also learned some of the tragic and often violent history which had formed those lines.  My immediate instinct to photograph these interesting and colorful people evolved into a desire to document the culture of this generation while at the same time having some positive influence on the next.

My project, which I will be promoting this year, is a book, to be titled “Abuelos De Atitlan”, which means “Grandparents Of Atitlan”  It will consist of 50-100 photographs of Mayan elders, each paired with their self-told story and advice to their grandchildren, translated into English, Spanish, and Tzu-Tujil (the local Mayan dialect).

Proceeds from sales of the book will go to the participants and to local schools.  I hope, after successfully completing this book, to do the same for other indigenous communities who are slowly being assimilated and their cultures erased by globalization.  Success in San Pedro and beyond will be the most fitting of tributes to Encarnacion.


If you would like to stay apprised of progress on my project and the upcoming Kickstarter in May, please follow me here or at  Thank you for reading and sharing!


Canyon Del Oro Wash and Romero Creek, Catalina State Park – Christmas Day 2015

It was cloudy for most of the morning.  A guy I met on the trail commented that the light wasn’t very good for photos.  If you are trying to take a specific photo, you either need to have the right light or make it.  If you are just out looking for images, you can find good ones, no matter what the light is.Catalina122515-01 Catalina122515-02 Catalina122515-03 Catalina122515-04 Catalina122515-05 Catalina122515-06 Catalina122515-07walking stickCatalina122515-08babiesCatalina122515-09 Catalina122515-10 Catalina122515-11winter?Catalina122515-12 Catalina122515-13 Catalina122515-14 Catalina122515-15 Catalina122515-16 Catalina122515-17 Catalina122515-18 Catalina122515-19 Catalina122515-20 Catalina122515-21 Catalina122515-22 Catalina122515-23 Catalina122515-24 Catalina122515-25 Catalina122515-26 Catalina122515-27 Catalina122515-28 Catalina122515-30 Catalina122515-31 Catalina122515-32I didn’t see the spider when I took the shotCatalina122515-33 Catalina122515-34 Catalina122515-35 Catalina122515-29Catalina122515-36


Religion: From The Latin “Religere”, Meaning “To Tie Or Bind”


I have some prayer flags tied up outside my door.  I like the notion that each thread borne away on the wind carries with it a prayer.  It is only a notion, however.  If it actually worked, the billions of prayer flags strung across India, Tibet, Nepal, and the back yards of Western aficionados of Near Eastern spiritualism would have transformed the world by now.

Whenever something like a hurricane, earthquake, or terrorist attack happens, the internet is flooded with exhortations to pray, and I am sure millions do just that.  If it actually worked, we would no longer have hurricanes, earthquakes, and terrorist attacks.  It helps people a lot more if you go to where they are and do something directly for them, or, if you cant do that, give money to an organization that will.

Prayer just makes you feel better about yourself after you don’t do anything at all to help.  I think this is why the Tibetan prayer flags appeal to me.  Unlike “praying for the victims” of whatever disaster, prayer flags are abstracted and undirected.  They are a general wish of well-being upon the earth, which one can then go out and work concretely towards making a reality.

When I was in Guatemala last month, I befriended an aging Canadian expat.  He was a writer, so we talked a bit about writing.  At the beginning of my trip, I was thinking about retiring to Lago Atitlan, so we discussed his experience.  He had a lot of complaints about the place and the people.  He spoke very little Spanish, and I was studying the language, so we talked about that.  The day after the Canadian elections, I brought up the new, Liberal prime minister.  He was not a fan.  Surprised, because I tend to assume people think like me, I said something about how Trudeau was planning to withdraw all Canada’s fighter jets from Syria.  He said he thought this was a bad idea.  I asked him how it helped Canada to have a couple of fighters supporting our war in the Middle East.  My point was that the only militaries big enough to do anything about ISL were those of the US and Russia.  He responded by saying it was the first time in a long time that the US and Russia had agreed on anything.  Incredulous, I pointed out that Russia’s first air strikes were against people we support, and benefited Assad, whom we do not.

That was when he said: “I would like to see Islam wiped out.”

This man, who lives in a community of people who, just two decades ago, were victims of an attempted genocide, was calling for the extermination of 1.5 billion people.

I suppose I could say that his wish has no more power than the millions of prayers sent into the ether in support of whatever good cause, but then I think of the root of religion; “religere, to tie or to bind”.  Millions of people like this man bound together their evil wishes once before, and we had a holocaust.  Maybe the only inoculation against the binding together of evil prayers is the binding together of even more good ones.

Prayer doesn’t solve the world’s problems.  It won’t cure your grandmother’s cancer, and it won’t make the Cubs win the World Series.  It might, however, make a critical mass of good will that can help push aside the darkness, one windborne thread at a time.


A Purpose, A Project, And A Plea


Encarnacion Perez Gonzalez is 91 years old and comadrona (midwife) to thousands of children around Lago Atitlan, among them my friend Rene’s son and daughter.  There is a larger than life mural of her adorning a wall near the muelle Santiago.


These are some of the 190 sea turtle hatchlings released by a man named Jorge at the tortugario in Sipacate.  He has worked there for sixteen years, guarding millions of turtle eggs and shepherding the babies to the sea.

My friends Jen and her brother Doug worked for many years as EMTs.  I once asked Jen how many lives she had saved.  “More than I can count”, was her reply.

One of the most important things I took from my marriage was an appreciation for those who devote their lives to helping others.  Jane was and is a stellar example of this.  As a young woman she worked in AIDS hospice, then went to work at the VA, and now works at the University of Arizona Center On Aging.  She volunteered helping to create self-sufficient clinics in Honduras, which in part brought me here to Guatemala. All along she has given freely of her time to mentor young people seeking a similar life.

As an artist, especially one whose work was, for years, non-objective painting, my ability to use my work to help others was limited.  Of course I see the value of art to the world.  Those who spend their lives creating instead of just consuming perform a vital service to humanity.  Still, I felt the need to help individuals more directly, more concretely.  My only option as a painter was to donate one of my pieces to a silent auction for some charity or other.  Unfortunately, such events are attended largely not by those who wish to support the cause, but rather by those seeking cheap art. It is common for a piece of fine art at one of these auctions to sell for less than the cost of materials.

My transition, over the past decade, from abstract painter to photographer has afforded me an opportunity.  Because photography documents events and tells stories, I am able to communicate in ways that I couldn’t with my painting.  I can also use my art to benefit others directly and indirectly.

I currently have two projects underway.  One is a series called Artists Of Tucson, In which I am attempting to document as many of Tucson’s creators as possible, working in their studios, with their art around them.  I hope to bring this to the Tucson Weekly as a feature, and to publish a book, something of a catalog, in celebration of those who spend their lives making the world a more beautiful and thought-provoking place.

My second project involves the Mayan elders living around Lago Atitlan.  The photos above and below are the first of what I hope will be many, documenting this vibrant culture and lending a voice to those who have lived through both revolution and civil war to carry on ancient traditions.  Sometime in the coming year, I will initiate a Kickstarter campaign to publish a book containing portraits of these remarkable people, and, from their mouths, their personal stories and advice to future generations.  All copies of the book funded by the Kickstarter will be donated to the community here to sell for the benefit of those who need it.  If I am successful in this effort, my dream is to take the idea to other places where ancient cultures are in danger of being absorbed into the mainstream and forgotten.

I hope, when the time comes, that you will support and help publicize this project so that, one day, if I am asked “How many people have you helped?”, I will be able to respond as my friend did: “More than I can count.”


Agapito Rodriguez Rocche, 90 years old