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Project Essays and Ideas

There is gift-exchange in my life, to be sure, but even I have never had the nerve to try an experiment as full as the one you undertook. Bravo!

- Lewis Hyde

You are perfectly right about landscapes being ok in the post-historical phase of art. But somehow more in the spirit of the times is your project of itinerancy, which has a performance dimension. Good luck with your undertakings!

- Arthur Danto

Project Essay 1: Gifts and Gift Exchange

Project Essay 2: Hosts and Hospitality


Touring can be rough - "sink or swim" on many levels. The urgency, excitement and demands of the changing situations tend to throw any preconceptions about what I'm doing it for out the window. Still, during some of the darker hours of the first tour, when the painting didn't seem to be going well enough to justify the trip, I found reassurance in Danto's philosophical encouragement, as well as in the broader cultural or intellectual value some people along the way saw in the project.

The project in fact grew out of an exploration of ideas. These two short exhibition essays (links at top of page) suggest some of that background.

I should add that, while I agree with Danto about the performance dimension, I did not conceive the project as performance art and tend not to experience it that way. It has been more a case of an artist living life at full capacity, in a context that is artfully and collaboratively arranged to support that end, but which is all the better for being real life, not something separate.

Nonetheless, I'll take the performance label when it helps and was delighted to hear another artist exclaim, "you've turned the art world hierarchy upside down by combining the 'lowest' form - landscape - with the 'highest' - performance!". Woo-hoo!

though not mentioned in the essays, some of Donald Kuspit's ideas gave strong impetus to the project. Namely, his suggestion that artists focus not just on creative work but also on living creatively; and the assertion that the artist's primary creative task today may be the creation of an audience.

First Itinerant Artist Tour Graphic: An avid doodler, I was pleased to see the path I took as a whimsical scribble across the map of the US.

A photo taken through the rearview mirror on my way from Taos, NM to Salida, CO.

There would have been no Itinerant Artist Project without Lewis Hyde's book, The Gift, a fascinating fusion of cultural anthropology and literary criticism which poses the question: can art be true to itself, can it have life as a gift or be seen as the expression of a sacred gift...in a market economy?

Hyde's conclusion was, "sort of, maybe." Certainly art occupies an uncomfortable, if sometimes honored, place in our culture. There are, thankfully, some arrangements for translating artwork into the income that can help an artist to survive. But the concept of value that permeates and drives the economy, and which, in turn, defines the functional priorities of society, has very little to do with -- and sometimes negates -- the values that fine art seeks to work with and transmit. Accordingly, the economy may have some room for art (understood as a luxury commodity), but economic society does not have a ready-made place for the artist. It's an interesting dilemma when a clear sense of personal vocation contrasts so strongly with the possibility of earning a living -- a dilemma that highlights some of the limitations built into the system of conventions we easily take for granted as "the real world".

Hyde's book suggests that some of the enchantment missing from our lives depends, for its renewal, not on fantasy but on a deeper sense of "gift" and a larger relation to reality than our society tends to support. He cites countless folk stories, myths and traditions that emphasize the importance of exercising our gifts, of honoring the source of our gifts by giving freely. In reading The Gift, I realized that my concerns about earning a living as an artist had distorted my approach to art and life. Such concerns and distortions may be unavoidable in today's world. The book's emphasis on "gift exchange", however, prompted me to think of how I might change the terms and live differently, for at least a little while, by trading art directly for the gift of material sustenance offered in a friendly spirit .

On the road, I've noticed that this change in approach -- enhanced by a reluctance to use money for anything except gasoline during the Project -- helps me to see more things as gifts and to appreciate them more fully: from the well-wishes of friends to a cup of coffee. The project's gift economy, along with the quality of social interaction and support it encourages, also contributes to a greater sense of possibility and productivity in my painting: in a typical month on the road, I do more paintings than I usually get done in a year or two at home.


The IAP draws on a number of traditions. While the 19th century American itinerant artist tradition may be the most obvious, I've been more interested in the much older, inter-related traditions of gift exchange and hospitality. "Hospitality," like "gift" or "gift exchange," is a concept that has lost a lot of its significance and meaning in modern life.

...if there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential, it is the concept of hospitality. One of the richest biblical terms, it can deepen and broaden our insight into our relationship to our fellow human beings. Stories from the bible not only show how serious is our obligation to welcome the stranger into our home, but they also tell us that guests are carrying precious gifts with them, which they are eager to reveal to a receptive host.

- Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out

In the quote above, Nouwen references the Judeo-Christian tradition in particular, but myths and stories in most traditional cultures emphasize the importance of hospitality -- celebrating those who practice it well and condemning those who are bad or treacherous hosts. The Odyssey has long been one of my favorite examples. And in Europe, as a college student, I'd experienced the generosity (and once the treachery) of strangers who had welcomed me into their homes -- and for whom the practice of hospitality seemed a natural and enjoyable part of life. It was something I didn't see happening much in the US, where, increasingly, distrust and fear and the desire not to be inconvenienced seem to dominate our interactions with strangers... where "visiting" is something we do on the Internet.

Being a pretty poor host myself, but confident that I could be a rewarding guest, I figured the best way I could do my bit to revive hospitality was to make it safe, easy and interesting for other people. This was in fact one of the reasons I undertook the IAP.


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