Interview: Edward Minoff

When I first met Edward he was Ted and we both worked at MTV Animation. He was an instigator, a good natured trouble-maker, graffiti artist and gifted illustrator. His drawing was effortless and full of energy. Between then and now he made a serious transition - he is now a mature, disciplined and gifted painter known primarily for his studies of water. This New York kid captures the tranquility and peace of nature with a poet's touch. His story is one of talent but also dedication and living in the moment.

Do you still practice? If so, what do your practice sessions look like?
Practice never ends. In my case, I feel like there is some linear trajectory to my artistic career, so in some way each painting is practice for the next painting. I think this is particularly true of my ocean paintings. I spend so much time studying wave forms and the nature of water and air and the interaction between the two. Each painting reflects an attempt to better understand some aspect or property of the ocean environment. They all start with an idea or an emotion, but once the painting is underway it becomes a puzzle to solve. I guess my solving that puzzle, or acceptance of a lack of resolution is practice for the next painting where I will try to overcome some new obstacle or carry on trying to resolve an ongoing challenge.

Where do you find inspiration?
I think that if you are open to it, inspiration is everywhere. I have often found it in sports. I remember watching Roy Jones Jr. in his prime or Roger Federer and being incredibly inspired by either man’s ability to be so far beyond any of his opponents. They each also seemed to love their sport so deeply and I found that inspiring. I also find it in looking at nature. The relationship between bees and flowers always strikes me as such an absurd and inconvenient solution, but it is so beautiful to watch and has such an inspiring rhythm to it. When I see bees hovering over the little flowers on my tomato plants I just feel like the world is perfect. And that makes me want to paint it.

Where are you when you have the most a-ha moments?
Most of my a-ha moments come to me in the studio. That is really why I go there. Every day for at least a little time I like to be alone in my studio and look around at what I am working on, what I have finished and what I am not working on. I think that in a creative field one needs to construct a workspace that will lead to those a-ha moments. Maybe that is primarily an internal construct -- my workspace is my studio, but sometimes my studio is a beach or mountain top and other times it is the top floor of my house.

What do you do to maintain a creative flow?
I think that going to work every day is critical. Whether I feel it or not, I force myself to work. Sometimes the work itself will not be good and will get destroyed, but I don’t think that it is possible to produce something great through avoidance. I treat painting like I was going to work in an office and had a boss who would fire me if I didn’t show up. It might sound like a contradiction, but I also think that breaking out of the routine can do wonders. I think back to MTV when we were working together. I found that it was a lot easier to get my work done if I spent at least half of my time doodling, or making fun of our cubicle-mate with you or starting a prank war with Paul. I used to get sent to the producer’s office often for crashing a bike in the office or starting a food fight or some other misbehavior, but somehow that was what kept me motivated and how I got the work done.

How much do you rely on feedback from other to help shape your ideas?
I have a pretty great network of artistic friends and I rely heavily on their feedback. In the renaissance there was a dialog between artists. People often talk about the renaissance in Florence being supported by the openness of the studios and workshops there. Maybe Leonardo and Michelangelo never spoke but there was a dialog in their work. It is much more apparent with Raphael. The idea that an artist’s vision must be completely personal has led to lots of art that is completely inaccessible, at least for me. My favorite artists and art have come from movements that are larger than one individual, and speak to a wider public. I hope that my paintings resonate with an audience that extends beyond myself, so I love hearing from the voices that I most respect on where I am succeeding and failing. Back when I was doing Grafitti, all of the big walls that I painted were collaborations with other writers. I loved that. And the feedback was very direct. If your wall sucked, somebody would go over it pretty quickly, but if you did something great, everyone would respect it and let it run for a long time. Sometimes years.

What is the greatest obstacle to creativity?
Probably anxiety in all of it’s forms. I also find this in parenting. When I lapse and begin to feel like my two year old will never not scream like he’s fighting for his life when he hears the word “no”, I lose my ability to handle the problem creatively. In a calmer moment, I might be able to laugh at it and find it within myself to extend a hand and help him find perspective rather than get mad and throw away all of his toys. And when I am too worried about paying my mortgage or framing bill, I get paralyzed and I can’t paint well. Pressure can be a great motivator, and can help clarify decision making, but anxiety seems to lead to a dark and very uncreative paralysis.

When you complete a project, how often does it resemble your initial concept or conceived idea? How important is this for you?
I think a painting rarely looks exactly like what I initially intended. I find that openness to this is important. I can always go back and paint what I wanted to paint, but I find that the diversions along the way often lead somewhere more interesting. When you are consumed by single painting for several months, it is critical to be able to find freshness in every day’s work and every brushstroke. Maybe some people could remain engaged and on task for that entire period, but I need to be able to explore new directions during that span.

How do you know when you’re done?
There is a terrible cliché about this. I am haunted by my memories as a 14 year old at the Art Students League of New York of being approached by all of these older people telling me that the hardest part of a painting is knowing when to stop. I never thought of that as an issue, like a eating a slice of pizza - it is done when it’s all gone. Not surprisingly, as I am getting older I am finding that cliché to be true. I guess those folks at the Art Students League generally used the phrase to express a desire to preserve some spontaneity. I am finding almost the opposite; that I am increasingly having to do more fine tuning that lasts longer, and that when I think I am just about finished, I have a lot more work ahead than I could have possibly imagined. I recently spent about a month on a painting. I told my gallery it was done. Then I spent another month reworking it. I sent the gallery an image to go into a few magazines. Then I spent another month reworking it and repainted most of the foreground. It is not completely unrecognizable, but I am hopeful that other people will see improvements in all of the changes many of which are, unfortunately, documented.

How do you resolve creative differences with clients or creative partners?
I am luckily in a position where my galleries give me little or no input. Sometimes, I actually wish that they would say more, but I am generally free to paint whatever I want. Similarly with commissioned work, the clients with whom I work select me because they like what I do, and give me lots of leeway to be creative in my own way. I have actually been working on portrait commissions from drawings that I make with limited sittings with my clients. I am trying to connect to the art of portraiture before photography -- the art of a Van Dyke or a Rubens portrait, which was often executed from drawings of the sitter. The portrait clients must accept that the painting becomes about the painting and will not look like a photograph of them. I am refreshingly surprised by the interest that I have seen in this, but it requires a huge leap of faith.

What keeps you motivated even if you don’t connect personally with the project?
Again, I really am lucky to get to work only on what I connect to. I think that when I lose interest in a particular painting sometimes I can put it down and come back to it at a later date, but more often, struggling through and plugging away even if I have to scrape out the entire day’s work in the evening is productive. I can’t paint my way out of an impasse by not painting.

What do you do when you are stuck and have some sort of deadline or other pressure?
I love deadlines. I find myself most productive and most decisive when I am under lots of pressure. I probably had one of my most productive periods of painting just after my first son was born. I felt so much pressure to provide. I would be in my studio painting all night long. I also find that when I am painting for a show and the deadline is getting close my decisions are so clear and I simply don’t have time to get stuck. There are a ton of distractions that come up, like framing, shipping, and cataloging the work that take me away from the easel. That is the only time that I really feel stuck: When I am not free to paint.

How do you achieve your creative vision with a limited budget?
That is difficult. I don’t know. I think of Rembrandt going bankrupt a lot. I feel like you need to extend yourself and take a risk for your vision. You owe that to yourself. It is the worst thing imaginable to look back on your past and feel like you never really gave your vision a shot. People shoot films on iPhones, and record music in a garage with a laptop, so there is always a way to work within your means. But bottling up creativity seems dangerous.

What are the top 3 tools in your creative tool kit? ie. software, pencil, paper, journal etc.
Pencil, paper and...eraser.

What are the top 3 creative habits that have proven to be the most useful for you in your career?
Drawing is at the top of my list. Drawing is how I figure things out. It is what I have done since I was a little child, and I have always found it to be all consuming and a great way to lose myself. I also find it to be the best way to solve problems and to study the things that I want to paint. It is where the translation between an idea and the visual expression of that idea occurs. I find that a breakthrough can even come from the doodling that I do in a meeting, or while I am giving my son breakfast.

Teaching has been a welcome surprise. I began teaching at the Grand Central Academy, and have been off and on as an adjunct at Columbia University. Having to share my thoughts and ideas with students has helped clarify them in my own mind. In order to explain them I have had to devise creative analogies that have provided new insights about my own ideas or in some cases helped me to rethink and escape my own orthodoxy. Teaching has also helped me to be more disciplined -- I feel like a fraud if I am telling my students one thing and doing something else, so I find myself being more careful and thoughtful about staying true to my ideals.

Lastly, I am obsessed with cooking. It is a hobby and has less to do with painting than getting me out of having to give my kids a bath, but it is another creative outlet. I actually worked in the kitchen of a great restaurant called Maialino learning things like how to make my own ravioli or how to butcher a whole pig. The chef, Nick Anderer, is massively generous and is a big talent in the NYC restaurant scene. I also found that we have a great swath of common ground in the honing and perfecting of a craft. I am so inspired by the concept of cooking with love. I think that it actually comes from painting. This idea that a picture can be a symphony of brushstrokes; each one playing it’s part with perfection and love. My great-grandfather was a musician who came to America from Palermo. He was the youngest soloist ever to play at Teatro Massimo. He had this old world philosophy that an artist must do everything beautifully, whether it is playing music, repotting a plant or making dinner. So inspiring.

If you could offer a single piece of advice to a budding professional, what would it be?
Love what you do. If the love isn’t there move on and find something that you do love. It is the single most important ingredient, particularly in a creative field. I think that it is what all great people have in common. I am sure what makes Warren Buffett so great an investor is that he loves it so much that he has a devoted a lifetime to knowing his field inside and out. I find a weekend without painting or drawing to be depressing. It is what I want to do all week long, and when I finally have some time off it is all I want to do then as well. You have to find that. Life is too short to spend such a large percentage of it working if you do not feel fulfilled by it in some powerful way.