On Consent, and Face Painting

I’ve been decorating children’s faces for twenty years, and I have two rules before I even put paint on my brush:

First, the child must AGREE that they want to be painted. Kids can be shy, but if they can’t at least make eye contact and nod, I’m not touching them. When parents push, I ask to please find me later if the small one changes their mind. I don’t want their money if I’m forcing a child into something with which they’re uncomfortable.

Second, I have a taller bench for smaller people. I ask “can you get up there, or do you need some help?”  I do not lean in, and I make no assumption to the outcome. Usually, even the little ones clamber right up. Children appreciate being given a choice.

If the child says, “I need help”, I won’t put my hands on them unless they make eye contact and raise their arms. If they don’t, I ask “Is it okay if I put my hands on your sides?” Again, no leaning in, just a question, and I wait for the response. Sometimes, they want help, but not from me. They want it from their guardian.

I am grateful for the nascent national discussion of consent, but I believe it can go so much further than sexual assault and harassment. Consent threads through almost every aspect of our interactions with other human beings.

A sad friend may not want to be touched. They may just want an ear, or to be left in silence. Ask “what do you need”, and then respect the decision. It’s NOT about you. Just because YOU like to be hugged when you are sad does not mean everyone else does.

A husband saying, “I don’t want to touched that way”, even if he wanted it the last time you were together, has the right to have his body treated the way he wants. It’s NOT about you. Respect his words – he would not have said them otherwise.

If you offer food to someone, and they say they aren’t hungry, it’s NOT because you’re a bad cook. It’s because they’re not hungry. (And even if you ARE a bad cook, don’t take it personally. They don’t want to eat the food, and that’s their choice.)

If you desperately want grandchildren, and you daughter doesn’t want to procreate, it’s not about YOU. It’s her decision, her body, and if your desire for children is so strong, consider adopting one of the thousands languishing in orphanages.

Consent is getting out of our own heads to truly listen and respond to the desires of those around us. If they want something to which YOU do not consent, that is your prerogative. Perhaps the exchange is unpalatable to where the friendship doesn’t work, or the relationship is redefined, but it’s all a conversation.

When we respect the emotions, the bodies, the time of those around us, arguments melt away, understanding deepens, and we can become fully, comfortable ourselves in the knowledge that we will be treated the same way.

At the Louisiana Renaissance Festival, photo by Richard Montet
Me working at the Louisiana Renaissance Festival, photo by Richard Montet


The choice is yours…whatcha gonna do about?

If we keep our channels open, and our assumptions shut, we can learn something every. damn. day.

It could be anything:
how to miter a board
how to hold your face to make strangers smile, or not see you
how to hear music differently
how to understand a poem you’ve known forever
how to connect more intimately with a friend
how to learn a new route to an old haunt
how to let pain fuel growth
how to push differently, and therefore harder, with exercise
how to be kinder to others by beating up the bully within ourselves
how to accept that fear is an emotional response to the unknown

It’s all a choice. Either we learn and grow, or we hide and die. The world changes slowly, but we can change our response to the world the moment we decide to do it.

Love, light, learning and luck to you all

.Crying Ledge

Why You’re Sitting Home Alone…

Because I am fascinated by people, and pay close attention to human interactions, I’m noticing a refrain with heartbreaking regularity: “I’ve lost touch with my friends. I don’t go out anymore. I’m so lonely.”

I can’t soften the blow. If you’re all by yourself, waiting for someone to reach out to you, you’ve got no one to blame but you.

Look at this way: When you were a single digit protoplasm, your folks probably coordinated play dates with other similarly sized blobs. You got a little older, and there was grade school, then high school, with a whole new cast of characters planted in your path. You became buddies with the guy whose locker was next to yours, you met a cool group of kids at the drama club, you hung with your fellow players after hockey practice.

If you went to college, suddenly, your schoolmates had similar majors, or at least interests. There were a plethora of clubs & activities & parties to hit, maybe fueled by the social lubricant of beer bongs & body shots. One group of friends led to the next, and you were overwhelmed with more people than you knew what to do with. Good on you!

But once school’s prepackaged camaraderie was over, you were out in the real world. The first few years of adulthood can a bitch – you’ve got student loans, maybe a young family, a shitty job that hopefully leads to a less shitty job, but it’s probably gonna be awhile before you’re self-sufficient. This means the focus is on the next buck, the next rung on the social hierarchy, and those advancements are often made at the expense of interpersonal relationships.

I think this happens because we are told that money & status are the only worthwhile goals. By the time we come up for air, twenty years have evaporated, and everyone has retreated into their own specialized compartments. Suddenly all your friends are gone because no one bothered to nurture those relationships, and you have no idea how to make new ones, because you never really had to learn.

Lasting friendships take WORK. They’re not about clicking a box on a website, or sending out a mass text on New Year’s Day, or hoping that at least one person can be conned with a six-pack and a pizza to move a sofa after seven months with no contact.

We must make time for the ones that matter. Pick up an actual phone and CALL someone. Schedule a shared cup of coffee on a Saturday morning. Have a potluck dinner party (it’s also a great excuse to clean the house). Reach out when you’re happy, not just when you’re depressed & need an ear. Relationships (not just the romantic kind) take effort. If you plant a garden, you wouldn’t just drop some seeds on the ground and expect to eat salad for the next 30 years, would you? Nurturing a beloved inner circle is exactly the same, right down to cutting back the wayward bits or dousing vinegar on the weeds.

Friends don’t only hafta be the ones dropped in your path, either. Questioning a friend’s toxic relationship, I was told, “we’ve known each other since kindergarten”, as if this were a good excuse to allow someone to continue making her miserable forever. If your “friend” drags you down, tries to make your life smaller so you’ll stay with them, belittles your triumphs, sabotages your happiness, it doesn’t matter how long they’ve been doing that – it only matters that you’ve allowed it for far too long. It’s time to cut them loose. Better to be lonely than brutalized.

And perhaps you don’t have anyone who DOES interest you. You can find them, but YOU need to make the effort. Figure out what you like to do, find a place where other people do it, and GO THERE. Join a group online, and if one doesn’t exist, start one. Make an effort to make it happen, cuz it won’t happen otherwise. Be the catalyst.

Reach out to those in your life who have brought you joy, clarity and support. Let them know how much they mean to you. Walk across that burning bridge. And the ones who are dead weight? Love yourself enough to let them go.

You deserve better.

Wanna Eat? Charge for Your Work!

Oh my brothers & sisters, coming up in the challenging, but oh-so-rewarding path of making a living with your art, you are breaking my heart with your business practices.

I have a friend who’s a mechanic. All week, he wrenches on scooters and motorcycles, sometimes throwing in the odd motor, engine, or small appliance. The creases of his hands, no matter how hard he scrubs, are always limned in the grease of his trade.

I call this friend when I have a broken thing what needs fixing. And, on his day off, he will come over to my place, and do the thing, and I insist on paying him.

He balked at this at first – “but you’re my FRIEND”.

“Yes,” I agree, “but I’m asking you to do for me what you do for a living. I appreciate you taking time off to help me, but I don’t expect it for free.

If I needed help moving a washing machine or a ride to the airport, I wouldn’t consider payment – because we’re friends. But for you to come over on a Sunday to fix an oven door, that’s different. You get paid to fix stuff. I’m paying for your skills.”

As a professional artist, I do not work for free. Even for friends. For a friend, I might consider doing a logo or a tattoo design that I might not otherwise do, but I will still charge money for it. Because that’s how I eat.

So many talented creatives either charge nothing for their services, or undercharge to the point that they may as well be charging nothing. And they wonder why they’re hungry! Insecurity, uncertainty, and most of all, the ringing refrain that artists starve and never make a living with their work, become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It IS possible to survive, and even thrive as an artist, but only if you treat it as a profession.

Watch out for the following lies (which are usually told with blinding smiles & hearty handshakes to bright-tailed, bushy-eyed newcomers):

We can’t pay you, but you can use it as portfolio piece.
This will look great on a resume.
There’s no upfront money, but it’ll be a big royalty check.
You’ll get paid when we sell the project.
Do some sketches so we can see where you’re going with it.
You can have a gallery show, just sell these tickets!

In the words of my friend, the pro-Dom Master Dread, “Fuck you, pay me.”

This life is not for the faint of heart. You’re probably not gonna make a paycheck every two weeks. You’ll have to drum up your own work. You’re responsible for marketing and office managing and sales repping and PR. I have busy seasons selling directly to the public, and then whole months of slow where I just create in my studio. But, because I CHARGE for what I do, I can budget. I know where the lean months lurk, so I can plan for them.

We needn’t starve in hovels because popular culture assumes we must. I don’t know where the hell that idea came from. Buying food costs money. My mortgage company expects the bill to be paid on time.

If a client is serious, and they love what you do, they will PAY you for it. There is no shame in making money. Figure out how many hours a piece is gonna take you to do, factor in all the back & forth tweaking with your client, and make sure you are making a living wage. Be responsive, professional, and meet your deadlines.

Respect is earned, and only doormats work for free. Charging for your work makes it real – for both parties.

(If you like this post, and you wanna know how I learned to make a living doing what I love, I’ve got a book over here!)

Strange Agendas

I display my deepest heart-work to the general public. I’ve done so for over twenty years. Strangers say my paintings are brilliant, or burst into tears, or divulge intimate secrets, or ask what drugs I’m on or how the therapy is going, or tell me what my next piece should be, or insult me, or ignore my work altogether.

I’ve been grabbed & sung to & screamed at & flirted with & assaulted. Someone once pulled a knife on me.

Most recently, a holier-than-thou New Orleanian mis-read my bio, insisted I moved here post-Katrina, and call me a “faux-hemian”. Even my being a working artist, with no trust fund in sight, sitting out here, making a living with my paintings, landed on deaf ears.

Everyone has their own strange agenda, but even in the face of this exhaustive psychological pummeling, I’ve preferred to be brave. I will risk being open, to talk art and life and creativity. Weaklings sit back, mock, snigger, criticize and decry other’s efforts.

Opinions don’t matter. What we DO, does.

Polyglot English

Driving home early this morning through the tight, 200-year-old streets of the Marigny, when a shirtless, sweaty man on a bicycle stops directly in front of my car. Body tense, shoulders flexed, grinning over his shoulder – he’s not moving. This is a confrontation.

I roll down my window, pitch my voice girlish and high, “Couldya scoot outta the way please, baby?”

“So, you’re on an egomaniac trip as well, too?” He’s on something, he’s got some kind of fucked up agenda, and I have no interest in knowing what.

Sweet voice, intensifying the Southern,”Naw, baby, I’m just tryin’ to get home after work.”

He deflates, drops his shoulders, skedaddles away on his bicycle. “Okay, see you later…”

The success of a communication is if you get the response that you want. Between New Orleans and New York, I have learned to speak many languages.

Who knew I had fans among the Unitarian Universalist Church??

So, I just got an excited call from my friend, Pacita. She and Dan do shows around the country teaching folks about absinthe, while selling teas and fantastical clothing. They’ve also been carrying a selection of my prints.

This weekend, they’re doing something a bit out of the ordinary: they’re at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Rhode Island. And my book & artwork are  selling like gluten-free hot cakes at a Celiac Convention.

Talk about a group of folks I didn’t even know to know about! But, after doing a little research, I think I get it. Unitarian Univesalists are all about “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and spiritual growth. And so are many of my paintings. They’re heavy on the self-exploration, and a lot of my stuff has an element of religious iconography, without the heavy God-the-father-Trinity-Hell-Damnation stuff.

I mean, look at “Worlds Within”:

It’s all about inventing your own path, listening to the voices within, but there are hints of majesty and the Kabbalah and chakras in there, too.

The other funny thing that happened is that a woman, who apparently knew my work, cornered Pacita & asked if I knew they were selling my stuff. Pacita pointed to the painting I did of her a few years ago, and said, “Really, we’re good…!”

This is a painting of a powerful, defiant dancer.
Pacita’s Invictus

Anyhow, if you’re of the Unitarian Universalist persuasion, and you’re headed to Rhode Island for the shindig, pop in & say hi to my friends, and mebbe check out my work (what’s left of it!)…they’re in booth number 803, right by the front door:)

A Slice of My 9-year-old Self

I am afraid of the fire extinguisher.

I am confronted with it every time my father takes us across the blue ironwork bridge to visit his mother. We creak and jerk upwards in a cheap, brown-paneled elevator. It opens on a grey green, dimly lit corridor, down which our footsteps echo as we go to grandma’s apartment.

My feet hurt in the shiny shoes I am forced to wear for these occasions. The stabbing in my soles throbs in time with the clicking of my heels as I pace my father down the hallway. My little brother’s short legs struggle to keep up with us, and I tease and kibitz with him, combating the excitement of the unusual outing, and my terror of the upcoming right turn.

Smells of cooking and old people waft from under the blank doors, which march past us on both sides. Their single spyglass eyes judge us, silently. It is hard for me to picture real people behind those flat gazes.

My father refuses to pick me up so I can see in. He once gifted me one of those peepholes, somehow pried from its door. Peering through the small brass tube, things look very large, but through the other end, they are tiny. I think that this peephole is magic, somehow, and cherish it. My father tells us to keep our voices down

We round the corner, and there it is: an impossibly long, hanging, folded grey accordion, a nozzle on one end, coiled into its vertical box on the wall. The extinguisher looks as if it hasn’t been used in a long time, in forever, that it is somehow sleeping, yet could be awoken by the slightest small motion, spiraling violent from its slim coffin, a monstrous jack in the box with enough ropy length to chase me down the hallway. I am not sure if I will be safe by the time I get to my grandmother’s door, surely it can reach that far. My heartbeat hammers in my ears, keeping time with the pain in my feet.

We pass. I’m safe, again. For now.

Facebook Intervention Day – June 30th!

(This is an edited post from 2011. I was asked to share it again…)

So, I did a FaceBook experiment yesterday. I didn’t go on the site. Not once. All day. And this was trickier than it sounds. Here’s why:

I work for myself. I’m a painter, and I wrote a book a few years ago. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do, at least not so elegantly, if it were not for social networking. I have a fan page where folks can choose to follow me, or not, at FaceBook, which in turn forwards to Twitter. People I’ve met, or painted (I paint skin at various festivals around the country, too), or who collect my art, or who learn about me from friends of friends – all of them can come to the Marrus-clearing house to see what I’ve created lately. They jump on the page, or jump off when they’re ready.

I try my damnedest to interact with as many as I can. I’m grateful that folks care enough about my work to follow me.

But it’s a timesuck. I get caught up in multiple conversations about politics, or some new movie, or a young adult novel which doesn’t pull punches, or, or, or…and all these things detract from my own work. And, I’ve noticed something more frightening, more insidious than just that.

Social networking is changing the way the human brain operates, or at least, MY human brain. Maybe you have a similar experience.

I think this “always connected” life we lead, is breaking our heads. I dunno about you, but I can’t focus on a task for longer than fifteen minutes before I get twitchy. I sit down to write, to paint, and the happy hours where I’d just lose myself don’t happen as often. Now, I need the TV on, or music, or a chat window open, or to see if I’ve got email, or maybe somebody responded to my last blog post.

I don’t think this pigeon-head-bobbing attention span is healthy. I kid myself that it’s necessary, I’m running multiple businesses, I need to be connected, but the cyberworld does not need me constantly massaging it.

It’s gratifying, tossing a thought to the void, seeing who picks up on it, seeing where it goes. I’ve recently learned about “legend maintenance”. In this age of short attention span theatre, we must constantly remind our audiences we’re still out here. Our hydras demand to be fed, but at what cost?

I propose a challenge. On June 30th, just for one day, let’s let go of FaceBook. Realize how often our fingers reach out for the mental stimulation comprised of someone else’s lunch, or sports gossip, or baby pictures, or cute kitty videos. Wonder, without the mind-numbing pabulum of scrolling through other peoples’ lives, how better our time might be spent on our own. The human capacity for willful distraction is immense – let’s reclaim our time, our lives, the relationships right in front of us.

Here’s how hard it was for me: I had a doctor’s appointment at 8:45 am. I rode the several miles on my bike, getting to the hospital at 8:40, only to be informed that I was 23 hours and 55 minutes late, but if I wanted to wait til 9:30, perhaps the person in that time slot might not show up.

So, I waited. The TV was on, tuned loudly to a strident morning show host who kept singing snippets of showtunes, poorly. The people around me coughed and dropped things and did what strangers do when forced to wait in a small room together. My fingers twitched to check in on my phone with the folks I CARED about, but no. I got a few magazines and read them until it became clear that I’d have to come back Friday.

I headed to the gym. The elliptical trainer is boring at best, but I split my cardio time between music, the TV, and hopping online. It makes it go faster. Mebbe someone will post a cool new video that will become part of my workout mix. I fought the urge, but I fought it.

Finishing my workout, I had an appointment at one, but I was starving. I headed to my favorite restaurant for lunch. I called a friend to join me, but he was out of town, so I ate alone. Great time to look online, see what folks are doing, have a virtual lunch with someone rather than a realtime one alone. I resisted. It was hard. Instead, I focused on the fabulous food, the texture of the walls, the happy conversations around me.

Off to my next appointment. I was a half an hour early. The pull of the net was strong. I had conversations with the people around me instead.

I have a heavy smoker friend who calls her cigarettes “20 friends in a box”. With the advent of these social networking sites, we now have 200, 2000, 2,000,000 “friends”. So many distractions. No time to be quiet in our own heads, no time to work out our own conclusions, no time to just be ourselves.

Downtime is not evil. A little boredom lets us regroup. Some of my best ideas come to me when I’m in a lull. Since all this connected-madness started, my attention span has changed. Someone’s WRONG online, I drop what I’m doing. Micheal & Sarah are now friends? GREAT, that’s two seconds of my life I’ll never get back. The phone is ringing, it could be a job, or someone calling to invite me out, or a wrong number. An email shows up..a text dings…it’s the world outside our own sacred selves clamoring for attention. My thinking is fractured, I fall asleep with a the ideas of other people clamoring for attention. I’m guilty over a “friend request” of someone I genuinely like hovering in the void, but I don’t have room for even one more new voice in my head. There are already too, too many.

We must step back. We must say “no” to all these distractions so we can say a better “yes” to the things that really matter. Our own lives. Our own thoughts. Our own children, plans, creations, and yes, even a bit of boredom.

So, June 30th. Who wants to join me? We are not 140 character tweets. Those 4300 people are not your friends. “I ate a pastrami sandwich” and “My father died today” should not scroll by with the same level of gravitas.

Let’s take back our time. Let’s remember what friendship truly is. Let’s call this phenomenon what it is: an addiction.

Who’s with me? Look! There’s a FaceBook Event! (And yes, I can taste the irony through my keyboard…wonderfully delicious irony.)

How Doing Sales Taught Me to Move Through the World

I’m a street artist who’s been selling my paintings to the general public for two decades. Almost any weekend of the year, you can find me set up in the center of some thoroughfare, talking art, psychology, color theory, or giving directions to Bourbon Street (that last one if I’m home in New Orleans).

I encounter people from all over the world, from every conceivable stratum of society. In just the last week, I’ve had intimate conversations with brain surgeons, witches, Nebraska housewives, train-hopping street kids, high school teachers, bridal parties, and middle managers attending an ophthalmology convention. I meet more people in a single night than most do in a year. It is exhilarating, exhausting, entertaining, and ultimately it pays my bills.

Because in the midst of those thousand conversations, what I’m there to do is make a living. That’s why I’ve paid my booth fee & dragged my stuff to that particular spot & centered myself in a manic human river. I’ve got to engage and direct people’s attention where I want it to go. I can’t get distracted by visiting friends or a stranger’s conversation about his tattoo, cuz I’m out there for ME. My goal, for a pre-determined amount of time, is to show, and hopefully, sell my work.

This is a wonderful training ground for moving through the world, because in some fashion, we are all sales people. The thing we are selling is US: who we are, what’s important to us, what causes we fight for, how we want to earn a living. You might be the most altruistic woman in the world, doing everything you can to help Mogadishu refugees, but you’ve gotta sell your vision to the right people to make that happen.

And, you can’t do that unless you vet, not just the people who come into your life, but the events, jobs, addictions and hobbies that are only too happy to consume you.

There are only so many hours in a lifetime – YOUR lifetime, and every moment, every person, leads to the next. If you don’t pay attention to where you focus your energy and invest your time, someone, or something , else will do it for you.

When I’m out there, talking art, the space in which I do it is MINE. It’s sacred. I’ve paid to be there, with my talent, my sacrifice, my time, and my cash. It is up to me to steer the conversation to where I want it to go, watch the response of the crowd, and focus my greatest energy to where I believe I will find the greatest result.

Patterns emerge from the microcosm of selling to the public to the macrocosm of how the world works:

Someone belittles my work, or a drunk tries to distract me, or I get hit on. None of these things are why I’m there, so I shift my focus to someone else, and engage them instead. By taking my energy away from what I don’t want, the connection loses its power, and the person usually moves on. If there’s a conversation that I WOULD like to continue, I’ll offer my card and say I’ll be happy to resume it at a later date – I can’t indulge even these small luxuries when I’m working. I always try to be gracious, but the world is too big, and there is not enough time, to deeply engage with everyone who appears along my path.

There are only so many moments in a life, and mine is sacred. So is yours. Learn to say NO to what you don’t desire in your life, so you can say YES to what you do want. Decide who you want in your path, and why, and for how long. Keep that clearly in your head, and you’ll get where you want to go.

To see more about making a living doing what you love, please check out my book here, and if you wanna support my work, prints are available here. Thank you!