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the artist, jjh | oil on panel

Always on My Mind
I always loved that quote, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” It’s one of those quotes I found myself integrating into my own life at every turn. When Momz said I could have a sip of her wine, I’d take two. I was an artist after all. If I needed to put my dogs into a duffle bag and smuggle them into a hotel to avoid an unreasonable pet fee, it was cool. That was an artistic thing to do. And if, during my college days, I fancied decorating my house with the same type of pint glasses found at the bar across the street, but for less than retail price, well, artists did things like that.

Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die
I’m speaking metaphorically, of course. But I figured that this was some Universal Artist Code. Until I found out that Picasso never actually said that. Like, “Elementary, my dear Watson,” or “I invented the internet,” or “Money is the root of all evil,” it’s one of those misquotes that just gets passed around and around so many times, like a joint at a Willie Nelson concert, that nobody bothers to ask where it came from or what they’re drawing in. And inhaling and exhaling the same stinkweed fiction as everyone else is fine until, still speaking metaphorically, you wake up hours later to find that you slept through Willie’s set and your metaphorical friends left your ass behind in the literal grass.

Which is exactly the way I felt when I learned that Picasso never gave artists permission to steal. It was, in fact, the poet T.S. Eliot who deigned such permission, saying that, “Good poets borrow, great poets steal.” I was like, “Right on, man. I can be a poet and rhyme some of the time. I’ve seen Apocalypse Now! I know the world doesn’t end in kapow, but with a whimper.” And all was good in my poetic little world, until I read this post and learned that this, too, is a misquote and what the dude actually said was:

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.

Write Your Own Song
And just like that, I had to rearrange my whole metaphorical moral code. No more ryhmin’, no more stealin’. Instead, if I was going to steal, I had to at least earn the right to do so – I had to absorb what I saw and turn it into something that was uniquely my own. Which is why it may not matter much that I stole most of the painting above. I swiped the image from Chicago artist and friend, Jeremy Herrera at JjH Studio, picking his virtual pocket and pilfering this photo of him for my own work. I helped myself to the wooden board it’s painted on when I found it laying in the streets of Bogotá. I filched my painting style from two or three other painters, but accidentally mixed them up to such a degree that I’m not sure whose is whose or which one is my own. But, as I’m often quoted, “Most people, in my opinion, steal much of what they are. If they didn’t what poor items they would be.” Actually, that sounds a little too English to have come out of my mouth. I may have “borrowed” that from the writer Julian Barnes – maybe even word for word.

So, to all the artists, all the creators, all of those who build what they are from the work of others, feel free to steal, to borrow, to copy, to imitate. Just make sure that what you end up with, is unquestionably, uniquely your own.

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