Nate, Nan, me, Peter, Sophie, and Sophie’s then fiancée Erik at Ruby Beach, Washington, 2018

In the blog post I wrote yesterday, I talked about how I recently listened to a podcast consisting of speeches given under the general topic of personal development. One of them was given by a successful salesman turned motivational speaker in which he said that a lot of salespeople get caught up in minor tasks at work and neglect their sole major task: to spend time in the presence of potential customers.

He kept repeating the phrase in the presence of, entreating his audience to work on ways they could reduce the percentage of time they were doing things that supported their major task, and increase the time they were in the presence of. 

Now, I have zero interest in selling as a profession, but, perhaps because I am currently ensconced in a couple of projects that have temporarily kept a paintbrush or wood chisel out of my hand, the words in the presence of hit home for me, and I realized, not for the first time, that despite being a “full time artist”, all too often I engage in what the speaker would characterize minor tasks, and not enough time in the studio artist’s version of the phrase in the presence of: In my studio, creating art.

However, life, like some art, is all about perspective, so I thought I would provide another one this morning.

Beginning early in 2020, I took up the oddly named but highly addictive sport of pickleball. One guy I play regularly is on the cusp of fifty, although you’d assume he was at least a decade younger. Recently, when I asked him how it was that he could engage in the sport at virtually any time of day, and whether he was, like me, self-employed, he responded that he’s been semi-retired for a couple of years, and is thinking about fully retiring later this year.

I thought, “Wow. How nice. Fully retired before the age of fifty.”

When I meet someone who says they’re retired from this or that profession or career, I typically respond with a comment that we artists don’t ever expect to be able to retire, but then again, we have no desire to.

It’s meant as a bit of a joke, but it’s essentially true: at the age when others are either considering retirement or have already done so, most creative people I know aren’t in a financial position where they can completely stop working. But even if they could, I contend that most wouldn’t. That’s not their chief aim for creating, though it’s often an essential byproduct.

The money that’s made, making stuff, allows us to continue making more stuff.

Since that quick conversation about my friend’s approaching retirement between games, I’ve been mulling the concept, and, one morning around a week ago, while sitting with my wife, each of us holding one of the two lattes I make at the start of each day, I told her I’ve come to the realization that ever since March of 2016, when, at the age of 47, when I resigned from my position at the Colorado College to become a full-time artist, it’s felt like I’ve been living the retired life.

Only, it’s a creative retirement, a term I coined, oh, just about five seconds ago.

For me, creative retirement involves doing a wide variety of activities that are of interest to me – what I’m sure looks and would feel a whole lot like work to most people. Activities that are in my admittedly broad wheelhouse. (Coincidentally, “The Wheelhouse” is what we’ve coined one of our two new studio apartments. Last week I welded up a bunch of wheel-like gears, cultivator wheels, and flanges and attached them to the wall in the apartment, which is nearing completion). Often, these activities are, to a degree, physically and/or mentally taxing. And they’re activities that typically result in, it is hoped, the exchange of currency.

Interior of The Wheelhouse, nearly completed

Some people might think that retirement means never breaking a sweat or earning money, but you should see how much some retired guys, myself included, can sweat on the pickleball court. And I know a number of people who continue earning money, at times in amounts that rival or exceed what they made prior to retirement.

But more to the point, the activities I’m engaged in are nearly identical to the ones I’d be doing even if there were no need for income.

Why, come to think of it, at this very moment, I’m writing not because I plan to monetize my blog or turn it into a book – Creative Retirement, a guide to living your best, most artistic “afterlife” ever. No, that’s not something high on my priority list.

To some, getting up early in the morning to write would be considered a chore; a pain; work. For me, it’s just one facet of creative retirement, and days when my eyes pop open at 2 am, plus or minus, I maintain that it’s not due to insomnia. It’s because I’m excited to get back to my creative retirement activities. Either that, or one of the dogs on our bed, dreaming she’s running, has just kicked me in my back.

My creative retirement primarily occurs in my art studio, but other times, like now, or later today, when, alongside my carpenter, Miles, I’ll be be installing the board and batten siding on the second of two new studio apartments we’re building, or the awning roofs I built, it occurs elsewhere.

(I should ask Miles, who is in his sixties, what he thinks about retirement. Were I able to write him a large enough check that he could set his tool belt and his Estwing hammer down and never pick them up again, would he? It’s highly doubtful: despite his septuagenarian status, it’s evident by not only his excellent work, diligence, and attitude, to say nothing of his near daily, “I had a good day today”, delivered with a ready smile behind his bushy mustache, that, while working on The Wheelhouse or, below, The Loft, Miles, like myself, is doing what he enjoys. He’s employing his gifts. He’s making the world a better place, one rebuilt pocket door and plumb batten at a time.)

At times, “elsewhere” entails travel to California, Oklahoma, Florida, or other locales, installing art or meeting with potential clients, collectors, collaborators, galleries, or participating in an art residency.

Doing a site visit at the Cox Business Convention Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma for my public art project “Highlight” in 2020

Talking with high school students at the Holland Hall School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, during my art residency in 2022

Sometimes such travel looks, to others, an awful lot like vacation. But to me, as with miscategorizing what I do “work”, calling such travel “vacation” is a bit of a misnomer… unless, during that travel, I find myself unable to create for more than a few days.

Then, whether I’m traveling in Italy, lounging by an infinity pool in Sayulita, Mexico, kayaking on Lake Crescent in Washington, or having dinner with good friends in St. Helena, California, I start to twiddle my thumbs and it begins to feel, counterintuitively, just a bit like work.

Time, I then think, to get back to my creative retirement.

Time to get back to my art studio.

Firenze, Italy, June, 2016, a few months after becoming “creatively retired”

Sayulita, Mexico, 2022

Tasting the fruits of Jess Arnsteen’s labor at the Farmstead in St. Helena, California, 2022

So, yeah, it’s all about perspective. Maybe, as I told my wife the other day, the activities I’m engaged in currently – effectively those of a general contractor as well as a framer, finish carpenter, and more – are just facets of my wonderfully diverse creative life, and as such, shouldn’t be labeled “minor tasks”. Why not celebrate the fact that I often find them creatively engaging and, well, at times, downright enjoyable?

Sprucing up The Wheelhouse’s gable in my studio, January, 2023

Just as fun as pickleball can be, times I’m beating my 49 year old, nearly retired friend, which is rather rare (both retiring at the age of 49 and my besting him at pickleball).

Heck, just as fun as I’d often find the activities I was engaged in, back when I was ‘working for the man’.

Painting students building stretchers and stretching canvas in the shop I supervised at the Colorado College, November, 2014