What would the world be like if art was how we think?
by Ari Weinzweig
If I even mention mid-March of the year 2020, most of you will quickly start to remember the madness of the pandemic setting in. I have another, much different, memory of mid-March. It’s one that has nothing to do with the pandemic, though on the calendar it happened to coincide with Coronavirus’ unwanted arrival in Ann Arbor. Unlike Coronavirus, this is something you can actually see. It’s hanging on the wall of the far dining room at the Roadhouse. Next time you’re in, wander over.
You’ll spot it as soon as you enter the room—it’s an art piece that’s about 4 feet high and about 5 feet across. It was custom created by my friend, the Louisiana-born, now-New York-based, artist Patrick-Earl Barnes. The piece is painted on a thick wood board, and includes collage, paint, words, and images of people. It’s got personality, humanity, humor, diversity, spirit, and some subtle but still significant social commentary. It speaks of good people and good cooking, comfort food, diversity, deliciousness, the Roadhouse menu, caring, and creativity. As with most of life, the more closely you look, the more you’ll see.
More about Patrick-Earl Barnes.
Patrick-Earl and I met in the late spring of 2003 in New York City. I was in town for the Fancy Food Show and had diverted downtown to Soho to check out the food scene. As I headed up Spring Street towards West Broadway I came upon a guy selling his art outside from a street display. It’s not an uncommon thing in that neighborhood. Usually I take a quick glance and keep walking. But this time, I stopped. There was something special about what he had on display, an unexpected energetic connection that held my attention. I’d never seen anything quite like it. Everyday people with big personalities of the sort I’d like to get to know, were hand painted onto pieces of wooden produce crates. I bought three of Patrick-Earl’s pieces and took them home with me on the plane. (If you want to get a visual of Patrick-Earl selling on the street and of what it looked like when he and I met all those years ago, check out this articl.)
In the years that followed, I continued to buy pieces of Patrick-Earl’s work. I think I have about 18 of them now. He does a wide range of works, but the ones I have are mostly part of his “Storefront LLC” series. Various “shops” like Boo-Jee Bagels, Pescetarian, Silver Moon Barbecue, Life Coach, Fish and Grits, or my most recent purchase, Chicken Wayne. I love them all. Even far from Brooklyn where they were painted, they bring that part of our house alive. When I need a bit of spiritual grounding on difficult days I go visit them on our wall.
Here’s how Patrick-Earl explains his artistic approach:
I work mostly with collage, decoupage and found objects. My work combines various “isms” and disciplines, weaving history, social cultural studies and literature into a blend of instinctive spontaneous creations of art. I used my imagination, original ideas and new ways of expressing things by means of pictorial, form, color and design to give an outlet to my inner feelings.
Our connection went to the next level in the summer of 2016. I was working on the Epilogue of Part 4; The Power of Beliefs in Business, which would later become the beginning of “The Art of Business” pamphlet. One morning, Patrick-Earl’s monthly enews came up in my email—it showed a painting of a woman with the statement, “Art is how you think,” inscrolled across the top of the “canvas.” When I saw the line, I loved it immediately. It was exactly what I was writing about, said succinctly and sensationally well: Art isn’t just something we look at or listen to—rather art is most meaningful when it’s the way we live. Here’s what I wrote on the subject shortly after “The Art of Business” pamphlet came out:
While anger rises, frustration mounts, antagonism increases, and negativity and naysaying dominate the national news . . .
Maybe art is the answer?
What would happen if everyone approached their lives as artists? Put together their communication as if they were poets? Designed their spaces—small and large—as if they were architects? Listened to others like a musician? What if, instead of being just vehicles for making money, business leaders looked at their organizations as if they were making art for the ages? What if everyone—not just those who society calls “creatives”—is capable of turning what they do every day into amazing art?
The collaboration on the “Art of Business” pamphlet.
Patrick-Earl’s message was a perfect, to-the-point partner for the spirit of what I wanted to say. And because the idea of collaborating to build creativity was so congruent with the message of the pamphlet, it was too good to pass up. Since I often imagine the world in a series of black t-shirts (and because I wear them every day), I appealed to Patrick-Earl to put one of his “Art is How You Think” pieces onto something I could wear to work. I wanted to spread the word about his art. After a few emails, he agreed. Soon thereafter it happened. I bought one.
As Jenny Tubbs and I worked on putting the pamphlet together, I had the idea to ask Patrick-Earl if we could do a scratchboard drawing (of the type you’ll see in all the business books) of the shirt. It would be another way to show off his work and to take our collaboration to the next level. Patrick-Earl gave his permission. Our long-time illustrator Ian Nagy, as he always does, knocked it out of the park—it’s a great piece of scratchboard work. If you see the drawing, you can’t really tell it’s me—it’s just done from the shoulders down. Adding another layer to the project, when the pamphlet was published (again with Patrick-Earl’s permission) we put Ian’s “scratch” on yet another black t-shirt. Many of our staff have them, so you might have seen one around. It’s very Escher-esque—a t-shirt showing a drawing of me wearing a t-shirt with Patrick-Earl’s art. The funny thing is that a lot of people think that it’s me in the drawing. But it’s not. It’s actually Patrick-Earl. Or, maybe it’s not. Perhaps it’s just one of the amazing people Patrick-Earl paints. Or maybe it’s all of us coming together as one. Because while each of us is clearly unique unto ourselves as human beings, our energy and ideals can most certainly be shared. Which is, I believe, what you’ll experience if you stop by to see the new piece Patrick-Earl painted for the Roadhouse.
In 1985, three years after we opened the Deli, Bob Dylan released the song, “Trust Yourself”:
Trust yourself to do the things that only you know best
Trust yourself to do what’s right and not be second-guessed
It’s sound advice, which is, I’d suggest, the key to all good art. And business. And life. Trusting yourself is, of course, easier said than done—it took me decades to make meaningful headway towards it and I still have a headful of self-doubts. An interviewer once asked Patrick-Earl, “What stereotype do you most aspire to defy?” His answer: “I passed that issue a long time ago. I know who I am.” His response is right on, and well in line with Dylan’s words. Art works best when the artist puts their soul, passion, personality, values and world views into the pieces they produce. Whether it’s business, or music, painting, parenting or poetry, knowing who we are is the basis of all great art.
About our commissioned piece at the Roadhouse.
Last fall, long before any of us had any idea what it would mean to live through a global pandemic, I had the thought to ask Patrick-Earl to do a custom piece for the Roadhouse. The spirit, energy, look, and feel of his work seems perfectly suited to the energy of the restaurant. It felt risky: I didn’t know if he’d do it and we almost never use other people’s art in our businesses. My anxiety and uncertainty were high. But I took a deep breath and in early December, I wrote Patrick-Earl to ask. Thankfully he wrote me right back: “I think this is a great idea and would love the opportunity to use the wall in the restaurant.” He asked for materials to inspire, and to use in, the piece. We mailed off a packet of menus, newsletters, business books, t-shirts, posters and more that he could use for inspiration and raw material to make the installation.
On February 10, Patrick-Earl emailed me again with good news: “Happy Monday to you. The commission piece, ‘Zingerman’s Roadhouse LLC Storefront’ is finished and ready to be shipped to its new home.” We wrote back and forth over the next few weeks trying to figure out the best way to get the piece from Patrick-Earl’s studio to Ann Arbor. We finally settled on a plan—he and his brother, Pierre, would drive it out themselves in a rental truck. They’d leave N.Y. on the evening of Tuesday, March 10 and get to town the next day, Wednesday, March 11. When they arrived, my anxiety was already high about the pandemic. But I also had the positive anxiety about the wall piece, the kind of nervousness that goes with something one wanted to happen but hasn’t yet experienced. The piece we’d been talking about for four months was here. It was the first time we were going to see each other in person in 15 years. We carried in the wall piece and carefully unwrapped it. It was awesome. So while March will be remembered by most as the time the pandemic began here, for me March 11 is the day that Patrick-Earl’s piece arrived to its new home at the Roadhouse.
Here’s what I wrote to Patrick-Earl the other evening:
I have enormous respect for your work, your worldviews, and who you are in the world and the way your art works! Which hopefully, you know already 🙂 I was thinking today about the energetic element of great art. That it’s almost like a personal relationship—when you meet someone, and something just clicks. It’s the same with art or music or books. There’s an energetic connection . . . which is a blending of the energy of the artist that went into the work and then the energy of the viewer/listener/reader. I’m thankful you were out there by West Broadway selling your work all those years ago and that I decided to buy some! Your work is very aligned with the energy of Zingerman’s overall. But particularly with the Roadhouse.
Patrick-Earl’s commission piece is an extension of the Storefront LLC series that I first saw on Spring St. and West Broadway all those years ago. All of what I was drawn to on the street with those pieces is present, again, here in this one. It’s got soul. It’s got roots. It’s got depth. It’s got diversity. It’s one of a kind, multi-dimensional, and multi-national. It’s textured and tactile, sturdy and grounded. It’s got color and courage and creativity. Although it’s new, it feels like it could have been hanging on the wall for a hundred years. At least that’s my take. But, of course, the point is for you to come see it for yourself.
The beauty of art in everything around us.
In the context of finding art in the almost inane elements of everyday life, the Department of Homeland Security has signs that hang in airports (remember airports?) that say: “If you see something, say something.” I know it was said to enhance security. But I’ve taken it as an instigation to bring our creative game to work and life every day. If you see something, say something. Which is really the point of “The Art of Business” pamphlet—to encourage all of us to approach our lives, our work, our businesses, our day-to-day routines as if we were making art. Or music. Or poetry. Or painting. To take in the beauty that’s around us every day, filter it through our own philosophies, and put it back out in the world in a way that’s true to who we are and what we want to be.
Going back to the idea that the way we think is the way we will create our organizations and our lives, then Patrick Earl’s statement “Art is how you think” reminds us that art isn’t something to put on a wall or to go look at in a museum. It’s encouragement to engage differently, more creatively and caringly, with the world every day. It’s how I tap the keys on the computer, it’s the way I greet someone’s grandmother when they come in for lunch, it’s the wonder of the weeds even when they’re in the way of what I want to actually get done. Patrick-Earl says, “Art is a way to spread higher consciousness and inspire individuals to think.” Our work is to see it, to hear it, to pay attention to it. Our assignment is to appreciate it. And then make more.
How art can inspire change.
There’s been much conversation over the centuries about the role of art in social change. For years I took it literally—like “Listen to this song and you’ll race out to start the revolution.” Or “Check out this painting and instantly alter your beliefs for the better.” While either of those would certainly be cool, I’ve come to think about art and change of late, more as an inside-out activity. That yes, the art we experience can inspire social change. But the art only instigates; you and I need to implement. And that change will come more meaningfully when we create our words and our worlds in artful ways.
I keep hearing how “everything is going to be different” after the pandemic. I’m not so sure. I remember hearing the same sort of thing during past world crises as well. Other than longer security lines at the airport (see something, say something?), and more paperwork to fill out for mortgages, not that much seemed to have changed. Honestly, wearing masks and sitting six feet apart doesn’t seem all that different in the scheme of things and I believe that the medical world will figure those out for us. If things are going to be different, then we’re going to have to actually think differently. Anarchist Ammon Hennacy wrote half a century ago that the only revolution worthwhile was the “one man revolution within the heart.” If we make art the way we think, I’m pretty confident, that revolution will become real. And maybe it’ll be things like Patrick-Earl’s “Zingerman’s Roadhouse LLC Storefront” that turn out to have been what triggered the change.
P.S. We have some great postcards of the scratchboard of Patrick-Earl’s painting on the t-shirt. If you order a copy of “The Art of Business” we’ll stick five of them in for free. Write a few notes of appreciation and mail them (old school) to a friend and spread the good word.
P.P.S. In the context of thinking and living artistically, I’ve been reading the work of W. E. B. DuBois lately. DuBois lived through periods of enormous social ugliness, violence, and racial hatred—and yet continued to create amazing work through it all. In the spirit of this piece, I love Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America. It’s an exceptional example of how we could turn even statistics—often very grim ones—into works of art.
PPS: Maybe this is silly. Or maybe it’s the whole point of this piece. While I was working on writing this, I was sitting in the sun on the gray wooden bench out front of ZingTrain. I was wearing a black t-shirt I’d gotten from the DC restaurant, Busboys and Poets. It has a line drawing of James Baldwin on it, with the quote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” As I looked down at the screen to keep writing, I realized that an image of Baldwin’s face was being reflected back at me off the computer. I doubt I could recreate it even if I tried. It was a bit like an eclipse. The sun and the screen and the way I was sitting all had to be perfectly aligned for it to happen. I managed to get it in a photo. If you want a copy, email me. It won’t change your life. But it might make you smile and remind you (and me) to continue to look and pay close attention to the beauty that’s already all around us. And in a prelude to the soon-to-released “Humility” pamphlet), on Patrick-Earl’s website this weekend featured a photo of him wearing a t-shirt with the message: “life is more about seeing than being seen.” When we pay attention, the world has some amazing things to offer.