How old were you when you picked up the paintbrush for the first time?
Well, when I came out of the womb, I had a paintbrush in my hand. Mysteriously. When I was about 8/7 people were scribbling on the page and had asked me to turn the scribbles into something. So I would scribble and turn it into a horse, I´d scribble and turn it into a helicopter… it became a challenge for me. People (and the teachers) were coming to me with scribbles and I´d turn it into a drawing just by utilizing all the lines on the paper.
So, it´s funny because a lot of things from when I was 7 years old, are still used now in my 50s to teach people how to draw.
When someone said I can´t draw, I´d scribble on a piece of paper and show it to them and tell them “What do you see in that scribble?” And for a moment they´d hesitate and but then they´d see something and then I´d say “Ok, now draw it.” They would draw using the lines to create a picture and then suddenly they´d realized that they´ve got that creative ability!
What´s your favorite color, and why?
Yellow, because it reminds me of meditation and monks and temples and Buddhism and Mahayana and Theravada and all this kind of weird, but wonderful stuff. Blue because it reminds me of the Mediterranean and sea and freshness. Lots of people say ¨This is a freedom color, anyway,”
So, yellow crafts spirituality, and blue for being free as a traveler and whatever else comes with it.
What was your first job as a painter?
I became homeless when I was 15 and I was in homeless hostels and I just saw things that I didn´t really need to see. I was in an environment that I had no control over the things going on around me. There were people carrying knives, there were gangs, there were drugs.
So, one day I saw something very traumatic, and I said: “Well I don´t really need to be here. You know, this isn´t a prison, I can walk out any time.» And I just decided to get on a bus and took a small bag with me, with some clothes and stuff and I went to somewhere, I can´t remember where and managed to find some work as a painter.
Just doing some basic painting, not artistic work. And then, I slept rough while I was doing that job, so for a while I was sleeping in a squad. I remember I used to sit in a chair and I´d watch a mouse come out of one side of the fireplace and go all the way around the room, and then go all the way around the room back to the other side, and then into the other side of the fireplace. It was every night I used to watch it, so it became a comfort thing to watch this mouse, exploring the room every night and then I´d fall asleep.
How did you become from “painter” to “artist”?
I was just painting and decorating and then I´d combine the two together, being a painter and being artistic. I didn´t consider myself an artist at that time and someone would give me a photograph and they´d say “Could you paint this landscape on that wall?” and it was in a restaurant and I was 18. And well I said, “I don´t know. I probably could.” And they said, do it do it. It was his grandfather´s home in Sicily and so I took the photo, I started sketching on the wall, I painted the wall and it came out really nice. He liked it and he spoke with his friends in the Sicilian community and Italian community and they gave me more work in restaurants and that´s where it started really. I got some nightclubs from that. I got some Italian restaurants, some more restaurants. I got some homes, people said would you paint angels on the ceiling or stuff like that. It just went on from there, you know. It kind of snowballed from there and I just kept on painting. It was like therapy for me, it balanced me. Without it, I don’t think I´d be the same person.
Do you see a dark side in the new generation of artists?
I think that when it becomes a big competition, when everyone is competing to be better than each other, instead of just using it as a means of expressing yourself, then it´s dangerous. Because then, you get people that stop using it to balance themselves. And it´s sad when you´re in a whole classroom of people and one of them look over their shoulder at the person next to them and says, “He´s better than me or she´s better than me.” They shouldn´t be taught that way, they should be taught to say, ¨Right this isn´t a competition.
This is a means of expression and there is no better or worse because I can walk into a gallery and look at a painting and say, ¨I like it¨ and a person can walk into a gallery after me and look at the same painting and say ¨I don’t like it¨.
There´s no good or bad, everyone´s got their own opinion of what you do. You could draw a stick figure, and someone could come in and see it and really like it and the next person cannot like it – you see? I´m not in a competition and a lot of young artists are always competing and that´s exhausting. I think that´s the only thing I notice that´s unhealthy.
So you don’t worry about having competitors?
When I was younger people used to say, “What do you want from being an artist?” And I said, “More artists” And not long after that, Banksy got recognized for his stencil work and then suddenly there was a tsunami of young artists coming off the streets being recognized for their work and I prayed for that, that’s what I really wanted.
My work started to get thinner and thinner and it got hard to make a living, but you know, I didn’t care because I was surrounded by paintings, painters and artists. It was like wow, but after the years went by, I started to realize that they were approaching it with a really bad attitude. Because they were competing. And they almost wanted to destroy other artists, so then you had them coming in and covering other people´s work. I know of a particular artist who goes around to established paintings that are finished and then signs them with his signature. Those things like that I hear about and that really shakes me up.
Any tips for artists?
Fall down 7 times, get up 8. I think unless you´ve fallen and have made lots of mistakes, you don´t really learn. And some people fall, and they never learn anything, anyway. That´s another thing, with being an artist, there is no wrong or right. There is only contagiously, you do it until you feel comfortable with it and then you stop. There´s no wrong or right, it’s just experimental and enjoy it, enjoy the process and express yourself. And that´s it, that´s all it´s about really.
The most important thing for people to realize is that it’s not a competition, approach it as someone who enjoys doing your work and let people have their opinions. Let them like it, let them not like it.
I used to have students come to me in my environment and the first thing they would do is tear their wok apart. And they couldn’t find something right, because all they´ve done in school for four years is be criticized. So, they were taught to criticize work, and they were taught to accept criticism and give it, but they were ruthless.
How can we learn to be good critics?
I just to said to my students, “Ok, try this, go out, go look around some work and make a list of the things you like about it first. Then, list down what you don´t like about it and then go speak to an artist and see their response when you approach them with what you like and then with what you don´t like.” So, instead, of just launching into them and being rude, if you are going to approach things constructively, acknowledge the good stuff first and then go for the bad stuff, so it´s not an attack on an artist.