The Camelot Community Neighborhood Party

Jim Public, Camelot Community Neighborhood Party, October 29, 2011 111102

Last Saturday the Camelot project bore its first real social fruit. Until then, my neighbor-meeting and -drawing campaign has served three purposes of dubious communal value:

  1. It has given me an opportunity to test and toughen my nerve by cold-knocking on strangers’ doors.
  2. It has provided (so far) six subjects for ink drawings.
  3. It has offered something tangible for me to write about.

All of these aspects of the project have been totally good for me and possibly good, neutral, or bad for my neighbors. As I tallied in the results post last week, more than 60 of the 226 doors I knocked on were opened by nice people. I do feel more comfortable in this little subdivision now that I’ve spoken to many of my fellow residents. I have enjoyed doing these drawings of people who have been strangers until very recently, and I am brainstorming different ways to get more of my neighbors to let me draw them. I have also loved having a story to write about in these blog pages; I have only a speck of patience for other people’s written musings, and I try to hold myself to a standard of sticking with action as much as possible in these posts. I have a new appreciation for why the media loves politics, sports, and markets: journalists need to produce copy for a living, and these facets of civilization provide daily action which writers can turn into words and stories. I’m all about this.

With the occurrence of this party, I can say without scruples that the Camelot project has at last done some small but real good in the world. The bounce house was the soul of the event. One or two dozen people, mostly but not all young, took their turns jumping, flipping, falling, screaming, and panting in the inflatable castle that was our front yard for an afternoon. Amazingly, no one was hurt enough for it to have reached my attention. My wife turned some flips to prove that she still has it in her, which she absolutely does; I expect at least one annual bounce house in our future until she finally outlives her flipping years, and I think she’s got a lot left in her.

My next door neighbors and a family around the corner from us helped a lot with making the whole thing go down. It was great to have two adjacent yards for the action to spill into. We didn’t fully block off the street; rather, we staged our ballooned trucks at the front of our street to announce that something was going on, both to attract foot traffic and deter cars. I was too anxious about causing trouble with a full renegade road-block, and our pseudo-barriers did the trick just fine.

Much soda, chip, and hot dog was consumed. I manned the grill, cooking the one thing on it that not even I can ruin, which is a caution that perhaps we shouldn’t be eating hot dogs in the first place. In addition to the road-anxiety I was also nervous about serving beer, so I left it in a cooler inside my front door. I offered it to adults during the party but only had one taker until the festivities officially ended at 4pm, at which time the remaining 10 or so adults kicked back and the Newcastles and Shiners started making more of an impact on our bellies.

We estimated that around 40 people came through. I love the win-win dynamic of open invitations: it is a self-selecting crowd. Those who don’t want to be there don’t show up, so the assholes and misanthropes won’t wreck the party, because they won’t come. Those who do come are the sociable ones. A lot of the attendees I remember talking to on their porches, and their presence at the party felt to me like a reciprocal neighborly gesture. We had a good variety of ages, genders, and language groups. I was happy when a Vietnamese man I hadn’t met before arrived and started chatting with my new neighbor from across the alley who speaks very little English and is really friendly. There was a gaggle of meek Asian sisters from across the street who, when the bounce house had worn them out, asked my permission to go back home. Awwww, those sweet kids.

For the future, one neighbor has suggested to me on a few occasions that we should do a progressive dinner, in which several households prepare different courses for a meal that we all eat together in stages, moving from house to house. It sounds like a cool idea, but I’m more into baby steps. The outdoor potluck or chili cook-off ideas are more up my alley, and since I am now the unofficial social instigator in our community, I suppose that means that I get to set the pace of our future community get-togethers. I shall wield the power of future neighborhood fun with great care.

Need I say that all this represents a total blend of art and life? I’m far from the first artist to merge socializing with art-making, to fold the activities of artist and citizen into one activity, but this fusion of the two best things about life–experiencing art and connecting with others–makes me happy.

Camelot Door-to-Door Results

Whew. I’ve finished the most difficult part of the Camelot project. It took just over 3 weeks for me to hand-deliver my newsletter about trying to meet all my neighbors and draw portraits of them as gifts. I usually left the house at 4:30pm on weekdays, with a few weekends in there to try to squeeze in more homes. I’m still processing the experience, and the results and consequences of this effort to be neighborly are still unfolding.

Below is a picture of me in my Camelot-canvassing get-up. In case you’re wondering, yes, I do realize I look like a bit of a putz. My pants were high-waters on this day, which happens to be the last day of the mission. Also, I chose to tuck my shirt in on this last day, for reasons that escape me now, especially looking at the underwhelming visual effect of the ensemble. Listen, I try to look decent, but the fact is that my only real physical assets are that I’m still thin and haven’t started balding yet; other than that, I’m an awkward dude with bad hair and a second-hand wardrobe. I embrace this, even as I try not to look at too many photos of myself.

Jim Public on his last day of going door-to-door in his neighborhood, Oct 28, 2011

I look like an upstart preacher who has neither congregation nor decent wardrobe, or an office temp circa 1975. I am anti-superstition, but I would like to share that I wore the same shirt for the duration of the door-knocking and I didn’t wash it till I was done. I’m not sure why. Maybe it gave me confidence to have a little secret to keep–that I adhere to 19th-century hygiene standards–as I approached strangers, feeling vulnerable. Let me assure you that the dirty bohemian lifestyle is not all affect–some of us are just like this.

Here’s a breakdown of the data I collected so that I could look at evidence for how the experience went rather than rely on my faulty recollection.

  • 226–homes I visited (excluding my own)
  • 222–homes that appeared to be occupied
  • 82–neighbors I spoke to
  • 61–neighbors about whom I wrote the word “nice”
  • 8–neighbors who were obviously home but didn’t answer
  • 5–neighbors I spoke to through unopened doors
  • 5–neighbors with “no soliciting” signs
  • 5–neighbors with “no soliciting” signs who were not mean to me for knocking
  • 1–neighbor who told me it wasn’t a good time at all
  • 1–neighbor who warned me not to get too close because he was contagious
  • 1–stern English-speaker who refused the newsletter
  • 1–nice non-English-speaker who refused the newsletter
  • 1–couple who invited me into their home
  • 1–neighbor who Jehovah’s-Witnessed me on her own doorstep
  • 1–neighbor who later invited us over for a huge Vietnamese-Catholic house warming party, in which we were the only white people and we got to listen to a 15-minute call-and-response chant-song of the Stations of the Cross and Hail Marys as a blessing of the new home, which sounded absolutely unlike anything I’d ever heard

Plus, there’s the neighborhood party that occurs in about 24 hours that would not have happened had this project not happened. So, as jittery as I am about putting this thing on tomorrow in spite of my lack of experience with such events and my lack of organizational skills, I am happy that at least a few people will be gathering, bouncing, eating, and chatting in front of our house.

So, the door-to-dooring is over for now. I know a few more of my neighbors. By tomorrow evening, the neighborhood will be a little more acquainted with itself. I hope that more people will come forward to have their portraits drawn. And, we’ll see how things continue to develop here in Camelot.

Neighbors, October 25, 2011

Jim Public's neighbors October 25, 2011

I’m happy to say that I’ve been doing a few more neighbor drawings. I had started to think that I wasn’t going to reach 10, much less my original goal of an easy 100. If people show up this weekend for the neighborhood party, there’s a chance that others will volunteer to receive a nice ink drawing from the local artist.

I do think the drawings are getting better as I go. Maybe my community is more shrewd than I’ve given them credit for: they want to be drawn later in the process when I’ve really gotten my chops down. I should be taking another photo this week, and I have high hopes for several more appointments after Saturday.

For a few weeks I had started to move on mentally from this goal of drawing the neighbors. So few people have taken me up, and it does take a decent amount of work for which I don’t earn anything. But, it’s not like this project is taking me away from making a living. Things are quiet right now, which is part of how I ended up here in the first place. Obscurity can offer freedom. I’ve accepted that I’m basically starting over as an artist, and when you’re starting over you don’t reach out to take–or at least I don’t. You’ve got to reach out to give.

I may have said this before, but I’m treating this as if I’m in the street musician phase of my career. I show up when and where I can, open up my guitar case, and just start playing. Maybe someone throws me sixpence, but I just want people to hear the music. Who am I to ask for people’s money in exchange for my trying to live the art dream? What do my life and career goals have to do with you?

These are some of my thoughts at the moment. I’m happy to draw as many of my fellow Camelotians as I can. It feels good to make the neighborly gesture, plus I get to reproduce the drawings and show them to you, which also feels good.

Up Next: the Camelot Neighborhood Party

The Rangers just lost a close Game 1 of the World Series, so here I am to compensate for my disappointment with the loss and my disgust with my own time-wasting by contributing to Jim Public’s web presence.

Chances are you’re familiar with the kind of schedule-craziness that forces you to drop everything and do something immediately, otherwise you won’t have a moment to get to it for a week, at which time it will be too late. Today, October 19, I realized that I had to design, print, and deliver 227 invitations to the neighborhood party we’re throwing on October 29, and I had to do this today because a succession of fully booked calendar dates begins tomorrow, which will obliterate my work-time for the next week.

This is no big deal; you know how these things go. I just share this stuff sometimes because I usually think of other artists as being solely devoted to their practice, like brush-wielding Ahabs, who forbid their children and family trips and dishes from deterring their aesthetic monomania. But life happens to all of us: surely Francis Coppola has had to put a script aside to take a son or daughter to a soccer game. Even during these spells when a tight home schedule pulls my hands away from paper and pigment and dispatches them to dishcloths and detergent, my mind is still in the art game, which I hope counts for something besides the regular sub-par performance of my chores. It’s said that sitting and concentrating on shooting free throws is as beneficial to a player as standing at the line and actually tossing them. I’m out to prove that this works for creative pursuits, too.

Here’s the flyer I designed, printed, and delivered today:

Camelot Neighborhood Party Flyer 111020 Jim Public

I’ll do my street tomorrow with my son, who doesn’t like being dragged along to neighbors’ porches; but, as my own street is pretty small, we should be able to get through it together. We’ll be asking my neighbors if they’re cool with me blocking the street with our cars for those few party hours. I called the city and learned that you can’t officially block a street for a party unless you’re a registered neighborhood association, and that is not what the Camelot project is about, though if someone wants to pursue the official path I’ll be most supportive of it. My interest is in getting together with some of my neighbors in our purely voluntary, unofficial capacities as citizens and humans. People, such as myself, often say they don’t know their neighbors but would like to; what I’ve done with the Camelot project is act on this desire that I know many of us share, and as a result of that little bit of action, we’re having a party that wouldn’t have happened had I continued to stay on my property feeling all lonesome. I hope you don’t mind my pride about this; it just feels kinda good.

More broadly, I think I’m feeling the spirit of independence that fuels both the Tea Party and the Occupiers. I think there’s something about civilization that periodically over-structures our lives and causes us to roar back like captive animals. Well, I’m not roaring so much as stretching my confined limbs, but I have become more aware of how absurd it is that we let institutions, both visible (government, corporations) and invisible (culture), limit the exercise of our wills and imaginations. If you want to block the street, you can call the city and start a weeks-long process of gathering signatures and filling out forms, or you can give your neighbors the heads up and park your truck across the road. If you want to meet your neighbors, you can keep on wanting it while your fear of rejection or embarrassment keeps you in your comfy chair, or you can comb your hair, walk out of your house, and start ringing door bells.

Oh, and I did have a funny thing happen in my marathon afternoon of putting flyers under welcome mats. After I delivered the goods to the neighbor who had me draw his dad and grandparents and then didn’t answer for his photo opp, I had just turned onto the sidewalk for the next house when I heard, first, a door fly open and, second, “You fuck–” The neighbor saw me and halted, muttering that he thought I was this other guy, then he emerged with his hand extended and thanked me again for what I did for him. When I told him that he stood me up of the photo opp, he apologized and smiled broadly at me, showing off the really nice dental work that he had apparently been receiving when I had last rung his doorbell. His tooth supply has doubled, and they look natural and quite clean. He said he’d be at the party, that I’d get my photo of him and his wife for the drawing. And he was, as I’ve come to expect, wearing only boxers.

Neighbor, October 9, 2011

Jim Public's neighbor, Octeober 9, 2011

When I met this neighbor around a month ago, I had just started the door-to-door phase of Camelot in earnest. Her friendliness and surprising lack of alarm at my pitch was refreshing. On the second day of walking and knocking the neighborhood, I was working an area several blocks from her home when I saw a woman walking her dog across the street. She asked how the project was going, and at that moment I matched her face to the one I has spoken to earlier. We had a nice, brief chat; she told me she had plans for the next day, but she’d contact me and make an appointment for the photo op.

This encounter was the first and only one of its kind, and the kind of chance visit I have hoped might happen more often as a result of this project. I love the idea of running into people in the neighborhood and not just politely saying hello to each other, but knowing just a little about each other so we can have an actual conversation.

Our little chat gave me the resolve to keep canvassing, and that day ended up being the longest day yet of going door to door, ringing somewhere between 40 and 50 doorbells. I hope she’s happy with the resemblance; I think it’s pretty good, but it can always be better!

I Think I’ve Been Had

Jim Public portrait of two grandparents, September 18, 2011

Early in the door-knocking phase of the Camelot project–I have only a few dozen homes left to greet!–I met a neighbor who, whether intentionally or not, got the better of me. Even before he answered the door, I knew I was dealing with a character. Minutes earlier, I had been chatting with a friendly retiree a couple doors down who told me laughingly that the neighbor in question was a Cajun Vietnam veteran reprobate, which he told me he meant affectionately.

I rang the doorbell, waited, rapped on the door, waited, and at last the man answered the door not wearing much. When I told him I was a neighbor and I’m doing this neighbor-meeting-and-drawing campaign, he told me I could draw his grandparents and went into the house for a few minutes. He returned with an 8 x 10 framed photo of his long deceased grandmother and grandfather, along with a very small photo of a man in uniform who turned out to be his father. He handed them over to me, asking that I not take too long because these were his only prints of these photographs.

A little stunned, but feeling open to the strange possibilities of my quest, I accepted the task, and told him that my intentions are to draw my neighbors, and he said, “You can draw me and my wife when you finish with these.”

Normally I would have declined. As with lawyers, accountants, nurses, so with artists: there are people who think, because they know you outside your professional capacity, that they can ask you to do for free what you would charge others for. I’ve had far more offers to draw and paint people for free than I’ve had offers to pay me for these services. But in the context of the Camelot project, I’m in a giving mood, so I went for it. I don’t plan to make this a habit, but that’s just how this interaction with this neighbor went down.

What really struck me about this conversation is that this guy was in no way caught off guard by a stranger on his doorstep offering to draw him as a gift. It was as if he’d been waiting for an artist to knock on his door so he could get some free drawings of his kin, and when I arrived, he was ready, as if to say, “I’m glad you finally dropped by; I’ve got just the thing for you.”

So, I did the drawings, walked them over to the neighbor, who was happy to receive them, and we scheduled an appointment for me to come and snap a photo for the drawing I had intended to do from the beginning. When I showed up at the designated time, there was no answer. I stood waiting at the door, slowly accepting what felt like a foregone conclusion: I’m not going to get a photo of this man and his wife. He probably forgot the appointment; I don’t think he meant to dodge the photo op. But, as I’ve gone through the neighborhood and found that very few people answer their doors and even fewer are receptive to the notion of my drawing them, I’ve realized that chasing my neighbors in order to be friendly and offer a gift isn’t the best use of my energy. I’ll continue to make the effort to connect with them, and leave the decision to have the drawing made in their hands.

Which is to say, I don’t expect to be making the drawing of my Cajun neighbor and his wife; but, if something changes, I’ll let you know.

And if you want a portrait like this done, I’ll soon be adding a page where you can commission one. They’re 10″ x 8″ and the price is $50 for the first person and $25 for each additional person. If you’re looking for a good deal on a family portrait, look no further.

Jim Public portrait of a father in uniform, September 17, 2011


The door-knocking, neighbor-meeting campaign continues. I’ve been going out each day between 4:30 and 5:30, which is a time that works well for me since it falls before our supper time, and, therefore, I hope, before most everyone else’s supper time, too. I’ve been to 138 homes, which puts me past the halfway point in this project.

In the past week I’ve developed a growing fondness for the word “welcome,” especially when it’s printed on door mats or crafty signs that people use to make their porches more cozy-looking. It’s not that anyone has made me feel particularly unwelcome. A few neighbors have spoken to me through their doors, one told me he wasn’t interested and turned down my flier, and one opened the door, looked me up and down quickly, and told me it definitely wasn’t a good time. No one has been hostile, which I appreciate very much, and I sympathize with those who are reluctant to have a chat with a dude who just knocked on their door.

When I approach a home that has nothing on the porch–no mat, no cute signs, no pots, brooms, or chairs–it feels a little cold, as if the residents aren’t eager to have folks approaching their door. Occasionally I see a “no soliciting” sign, which does strike me with anxiety for fear of a confrontation; I don’t savor the idea of trying to be polite and neighborly to someone who thinks I’m soliciting them. So far, thankfully, I’ve not had to defend my campaign to anyone, and honestly I’m pleased and surprised that so few front porches greet you by saying, “No soliciting”.

The welcome mat, the “enter and be happy” or “god bless this home” signs, these make me feel all warm and friendly as I approach the door. It’s not that my will to knock on the door is affected by how welcoming it is; I just get a feeling of general reassurance that there plenty of people even here in isolated suburbia who make the effort to put a happy face on that threshold where one’s private space meets the great, wide, public world.

I have also been adjusting the way I talk to people on their doorsteps. Specifically, I had been getting bummed by the consistent expressions of polite bewilderment when I told my neighbors that I wanted to draw a picture of them. It seems that when a stranger at your door tells you, after about 15 seconds of conversation, that he would like to take a snapshot of the members of the household and make you a drawing as a gift is cause for alarm. There is no precedent in my own life for talking to a stranger on my own porch and feeling that he is there just to be friendly, and that whatever he may be saying or offering is part of no ulterior motive, but a sincere gesture of neighborliness.

So, I now introduce myself as James who lives a few streets over, who has lived in the ‘hood for about a year and is going around meeting people in an effort to get more familiar with the neighborhood. I say that I’m also doing a neighborhood project, and I hand over the flier and ask them to look it over and contact me if they’re interested, and then I continue to talk about living in the ‘hood and see if the conversation goes anywhere. This approach spares me the awkward feeling of having just startled someone who is polite enough to stand in their doorway with me for a minute. I would rather have a brief, neighborly conversation than make a pitch for what is turning out to be an offer that is being far less warmly received than I imagined it would be.

That’s the great thing about taking your ideas out the front door and into the world of people: you start to find out just how big the gap is between the drawing board of your ideas and the field of play where those ideas confront reality.

A Nice Day for Door-to-Dooring

jim public door to door 110917

Friday afternoon I grabbed a stack of “A Quest for Camelot” newsletters and walked over to the front of our neighborhood, to the house I pass most often as we drive in and out of here. I was a little excited, mostly anxious, about knocking on all these strange doors. I was jumping into the Camelot quest for the first time. I rang 21 doorbells that day, and today I got up to a total of 66, so I’ve completed 29% my goal of knocking on all of the 227 doors in this neighborhood.

What happened at the first door (shown in the picture above) foreshadowed what would occur in 73% of my interactions on my neighbors’ front porches: the experience begins and ends with the knock. So, armed with my newsletter, I was prepared for this contingency. I folded them to show the title first, so that the neighbor would possibly recognize the name of his or her neighborhood, Camelot, and not throw away the letter immediately.

At several of the homes there were obviously people inside. Some people peered at me through a parted curtain and walked away, and others carried on talking in a different language and opted not to answer the door. Living in a neighborhood with a large Asian population, I am not surprised that they didn’t answer their doors often. One woman answered, smiled, said, “No English,” but continued to stand there civilly with me while I briefly tried to pantomime my little speech before thanking her and leaving the letter in her hands. I have found that if there are slippers and some kind of cement or ceramic toad/lion/dragon figure on the porch, no one is answering that door. The combination of simply not being home and the culture and language barriers have made this theory 100% accurate so far. We’ll see if it stands when I finish.

Of the 18 people I did speak with, two were suspicious and dismissive and spoke to me through their closed door, a few were reserved but nice, and 14 were between friendly and really friendly. All things considered, though I’m still anxious about how much more of this I have to do (cold door-knocking is just plain nerve-racking, but I think it’s doing me some good), it has been a good run so far. I have not met any blatant misanthropes, and I’ve met 14 nice people I probably would never have spoken to had I not knocked on their doors.

At this point, then, the glass is definitely mostly full. Let’s hope it stays that way as I try to get the rest of these newsletters hand-delivered by the end of the month!

A Quest for Camelot: September Newsletter

110913 jim public camelot newsletter september 2011

The Camelot project is a work in progress, and I’ve already had fun watching it shift and develop in real time since its inception this past summer. Having knocked on one or two dozen doors, not entirely as prepared or tailored as I had intended to be, I’ve decided that a monthly newsletter may be the way to formalize what I’m doing. The newsletter allows me to give something to my neighbors each time I visit; I like this because it lends a sense of purpose to what has started to feel a little like loitering. It also lets me communicate with people who may not be comfortable standing on their porches and chit-chatting with the local idiot, and it’s something I can leave behind when I knock and no one answers.

Each newsletter will feature some of the latest neighbor drawings. My hope is that those who are skeptical of my intentions, after seeing monthly renderings of people in the community, will come around and let me draw them, too. I feel that the newsletter, its contents and its monthly regularity, will build just a little sense of community around here. Even if it is short-lived, even if it revolves only around this project, a little bit of community building is always a good thing. In my wildest fantasies (which are an uninterrupted torrent in my imagination) I foresee pot-lucks, neighborhood parades, barn-raisings, and the like, resulting from the Camelot project. But, even if nothing materializes beyond what I’m doing right now, I will be happy for the experience itself.

Walking Through Camelot

walking through camelot 110901

It’s still terribly hot here in the Camelot neighborhood, and forecasts of cooler temperatures and rain have been steadily warming up and drying out. September in Garland is much like August except school is in full swing, and, to the detriment of students and staff alike, on hot days like these the kids don’t go outside to run and scream for recess. It’s just too toasty.

I can report, in spite of the swelter, that I’ve made some small progress in the Camelot campaign. I’ve knocked on fifteen doors, and talked with ten neighbors. I’m working on the fourth drawing of the series. I mailed my friend Erin’s drawing over to Fort Worth a few days ago, after all the botched attempts to get close to a likeness; when she receives it I’ll post the image.

I knocked on my first door that said, “No Soliciting. Day Sleeper,” in larger-than-ordinary lettering, right there on the door. It was just after 7pm, still light outside but the lowering sun was providing enough shade that we could hop scotch from patch to patch and feel okay. I say “we”: I brought the kids along. Although I didn’t know the “No Soliciting” house was coming up, I felt less creepy and rude having them there with me. I could hear a tv inside the house as I read the warnings on my neighbor’s door, so I went ahead and rang. He was guarded as he opened the door, but the kids and their melting popsicles seemed to put him at ease.

We talked for a few minutes. He said that my request to come sometime and get a photo of him for the drawing was a bit forward of me and that he’d need to see examples of my work and think it over. And he’s right. What I intended to be a win-win for my neighbors–drawing a free picture of them–is also an imposition. Who lets a stranger, whom they’ve just met by answering the door, take a photo of them?

So, it looks like I will be stretching my timeline in this process of meeting, photographing, and drawing neighbors. When I mentioned to some friends in the neighborhood that I probably need to make a brief newsletter about my project and my intentions, they jumped on the idea and said it would be a good occasion for a block party. If someone (myself) is willing to deliver fliers to all the homes in Camelot then we can announce the party and try to ensure that everyone is invited! In fact, two of my neighbors have suggested this, so we’re going to do it, probably in late October when it’s only in the 90s. I’m happy to report that some good for the community has already come out of this project!

Next, I’ll be drafting a short newsletter, explaining my intentions to meet and draw everyone in the neighborhood and make a book about the experience, featuring images of the drawings and some prose about how it all went down. And, we’ll be planning this block party, which is now less than two months away. I’ve never been to a block party before–what fun!

Camelot? Yes, Camelot

In my last post I talked about making mistakes, and although I don’t intend for my errant ways to become a habitual topic on this blog, I would like this morning to present you with an example of sloppy decision-making.

When I dreamed up this idea of Facelife I first came up with the quest of meeting all my neighbors and then I came up with the name, which I thought was a funny reaction to Facebook and to what is lacking in online social media, namely facetime; society functions better when we, in addition to choosing our friends as we do online, also have to learn to coexist peacefully with the more random assortment of folks near whom we happen to live in our community.

In naming my endeavor, the responsible route would have been for me to consider the name for a while, weigh the pros and cons, and decide, ultimately, if this would be a name I was willing to stick with. If Mark Zuckerberg, for example, decided that he didn’t like the ring of “Facebook” and decided, today, to rename it “Zuckerbook,” pandemonium would ensue.

My neighbor-meeting project has no ambition or possibility of becoming the type of cultural and business phenomenon that Facebook has become, but I should have treated it with the same kind of care at its inception, because renaming things in mid-stream is bad form. But, it turns out I don’t like the ring of “Facelife.” I don’t want something I’ve done to have a reactionary title. (Last year, I purchased a web domain called “” before dumping it for similar reasons and moving forward with the better-named “,” and I should have kept that lesson in mind.)

As I’ve been chatting with neighbors and learning more about this community, I’ve learned that the neighborhood’s nickname is “Camelot,” which I should have deduced on my own since the name of each street here has an Arthurian regality to it. So, henceforth, my quest is now called Camelot! I won’t be going back and re-writing history in old posts, but I have re-named this category on the blog, and the term “Facelife” will cease to issue from my lips.

To Camelot!

Screwing Up, Over and Over Again

If I ever decide to write a blog devoted to my screw-ups I have an overabundance of material to work with. I could begin with my decision on Monday to write down as much as I could remember of my conversation with Marge so I could share it with you, as a kind of character sketch to accompany her portrait. Because we had such a nice, long chat, I was concerned that I might mess up some of the facts, so, like a diligent journalist, I submitted a draft of my story to her for fact-checking.

After delivering it to Marge, who received it with alarm at having possibly anyone read what she had to say to me, I realized that I was a jackass. Conversations are generally understood to be meant for those involved, and I had done the equivalent of revealing a hidden tape-recorder to my new acquaintance, which could not have been great for her trust in me. I spent the rest of the evening, all that night, and the next morning preoccupied with the guilt of having been a jerk to a senior. And the following morning, seeing her in her yard after I had dropped off JPG at school, I pulled up, rolled down my window, and told her to disregard the story. I apologized for the invasion of her privacy, and told her that I’ll just stick to chatting and drawing.

I think it turned out okay. She didn’t mind what I had written and, anyway, was way more interested in talking to JPS, who was groggy in the back seat. Don’t you love how seniors adore children! Seeing her affection for my kids helps keep things in perspective during the many times a day that those guys drive me nutty.

I lack the gift of playing out scenarios to test them for potential problems, and I’m only a little less bad at identifying my screw-ups as they occur in social situations. Usually I just go for it and stand prepared to apologize, which I end up doing quite a bit and which can’t be good for the image I’d rather project as a man who knows what he’s doing and stands behind it, no regrets.

Fortunately there is an area of my life about which I am resolved and confident–my artwork. But I screw that up all the time, too. However, one thing about art that makes it better than life is that when I screw up a drawing, nobody gets hurt but me. And it does hurt. I get frustrated at my feeble skills and then take a minute before I start another drawing, wondering how I’ll manage to make it any good after all the botched versions leading up to it. I present you a case study below.

4 Erins, each screwed up

I spent twice as much time failing to get a likeness of Erin as I did eventually finishing the drawing. I would draw, realize it was awful, get angry, leave the table all flushed with hopelessness, and then return to start the cycle anew. Drawing a young woman has its challenges, because every line has the potential to age her by decades. Erin, who is probably a couple years younger than I am, kept turning out looking like a wizened, mature woman from the Rex Morgan comic strip. The woman in the upper right looks okay, just not like Erin. I especially marvel at the version of Erin as Abe Lincoln.

So, I share this with you as evidence that one success is usually the outcome of many failures, and that the cliches about never giving up are good advice.

Neighbor, August 23, 2011

110823 Marge

Facelife has begun!

On Monday morning it was not yet 90 degrees and there were some clouds in the sky. “The sooner I start this, the better,” I thought, and I recalled that I had seen a retired-age woman working in the yard of the house where I had planned on beginning the neighbor-meeting campaign, which meant that she might be home during the day. So, before I had time to think about what I was going to say, I approached the door and rang the bell, relieved that it was too late to worry about whether or not to go through with this.

The woman opened her door and I introduced myself as Jim who is trying to meet everyone in the neighborhood. After a few seconds, when she seemed comfortable with the idea that I had just come by for a chat, she stepped onto the porch and we began a visit that was to last for the next 45 minutes. I thought about the piece of door-to-door soliciting advice that warns about people who would take up too much of your time talking if you let them, and we laughed when I shared with her that this admonition was the very thing I was hoping for.

Marge is very nice. I took my kids over there yesterday to say hello, and she gave them some books, lollipops, and a ceramic Casper the Friendly Ghost that goes in a flower pot. We talked about knowing one’s neighbors and how it can improve our quality of life. She told me a story from her childhood about an old Jewish man they called the Sheeny (she never knew what the spelling was supposed to be) Man who came through the street once a week collecting old tires and other castoffs. She said that when he came through, rather than chasing him off with a brandished stick, she and her siblings would run inside to her parents shouting, “The Sheeny Man’s here! What can we give him!” I like that little story. Having a sense of community forces each of us to judge less and accept more.

I feel good about this first door-knocking! We’ve chatted a few times over the past few days. I hope I don’t have to endure too many shoo offs and/or language barriers before I find more folks who are up for a neighborly chat. I gotta say, I’m a little high right now. The social beast in me, for the first time in a long time, is patting its great belly, eyes half opened, smiling, sated.

The Public Family, August 22, 2011

The Publics, August 22, 2011, by Jim Public

That’s me and JPW, the tall ones in the back. JPS is the short one with the silly grin, and JPG is showing us her demure smile.

So, Facelife continues to come together. I have always hated approaching people without having anything to offer. This has been a problem for me in dealing with the gatekeepers of the art world, and in fact it is my experience in the arts that informs my distaste for having little or nothing to offer to someone. Artists want other people to show their work and help them to be successful. We hang around receptions and weasel our way into parties and dinners so that eventually our big break will happen. Hanging around artists for long enough, one starts to feel that they see you and everyone else as potential ladder rungs that they may step on as they climb to art-stardom. I’m all done with that.

Which is one of the reasons why I’m focusing on my community and not on my superiors among the cultural scene. So, back to Facelife, when I introduce myself to the people in my neighborhood, I want to have something real to offer them as a gesture of goodwill. I also seek a life in which the facts of daily living and the less tangible world of art can blend into one. And, I have stumbled upon just the thing to unify art and life! With the permission of each person/household I meet, I’ll snap a photo of them, make a drawing, scan it for my records and my blog, and give the drawing to the subjects as a gift.

As I try to build my audience through my blog and other activities in the community and on the web, I’ll be showing these drawings and sharing a little about the characters in them as I get to know the people around here. I feel that giving the original drawings back to the people who made them possible is the neighborly thing to do; it’s a gesture that I hope will embody my appreciation for the role that they play in this Facelife experience.

The above drawing of the Publics is a prototype. Mine is the first of the 227 homes in the neighborhood to be represented on this blog.


Yesterday ended the Public family’s epic month of vacationing, and we now look ahead to 3rd grade starting in a few days for JPG and pre-K for JPS a few weeks further. As we were getting settled on the plane which was to rend us from Salk Lake City, and as we were just tasting the first bitter notes of acceptance that travel season was indeed over, something unexpected and very nice happened: the woman who was to take the seat to my right extended her hand and introduced herself, “I’m Nancy.”

I’ve made small talk on airplanes over the years, and I’ve done my fair share of burying my nose in a book, but I’ve never been so directly and pleasantly addressed by the person who was to spend the duration just inches away from me. I would have bet money that any chit-chat with my fellow passengers would have begun with a bemoaning of the summer heat. “I’m Nancy,” with an extended hand, is a reminder that in all things simple directness is not only the easy way, but the most effective.

She was very nice. In fact, I recognized her from our flight four days prior to Salt Lake from Denver, the inverse of the journey at hand. I didn’t remember the tall, suited 19-year-old young man seated in front of her, Nancy’s second oldest son, whom she had been escorting from Minneapolis to Salt Lake for his mission (or mish, as those of us who have spent the last 1.6 decades in close contact with Utah and their famed religion sometimes call it) to the Philippines. As we talked, we learned that her son and my near-4-year-old son both have hearing loss of different kinds: her son has eustachian tube issues that have left his ear drums perforated–something they are hoping to correct after he returns in two years–and JPS has neurological hearing loss, which cannot be corrected surgically but has been very effectively treated, so far, with an excellent pair of cute little green hearing aids and a few incredible speech therapists.

She talked some about raising 6 kids–all boys but the youngest–and I talked about being an artist and stay-home parent. I had accidentally brought my five most recent paintings on paper to Utah in my large sketchbook, so I pulled them out and did a little show and tell. It was fun. This is the kind of thing I live for. Meeting a kind stranger, talking a little, and, as the icing on the social cake, showing some artwork. I like to think that showing one’s artwork to strangers is a good thing, because most people seem not to have much contact with art or the makers of it. But, what was so nice about the whole experience is that the 90 minutes we spent next to each other were so warmly colored by the way she initiated it.

It’s so easy to despair about the state of humanity; every day offers too much evidence that we humans are a sorry lot. In fact, two nights before the flight, we were playing a game at my brother- and sister-in-law’s house, and to the question, “Which animal/insect do you find most disgusting?” I answered, “Humans.” It was for laughs, but there was some truth to it, too. One of the things I hope to get from Facelife is a counter to that tendency to see the worst in people. We’re complicated, full of goodness and badness, and I think that if you seek the good in people you’ll find it. I’m hoping to.

As you know, it’s still terribly hot, so I have yet to knock on my first door of the Facelife campaign. But, what a timely and inspiring moment I had on that flight! Being on the receiving end of what I’m setting out to do, and being greeted by someone in such an open manner, have gotten me more excited about meeting lots of strangers. If I can pull it off like Nancy did, it will turn out to be a simple task.

And, I should mention, as we talked on the plane, I regretted my answer to that disgusting animal question. I should have said bagworms.

Everything’s Hot But My Feet

Vacation has a way of stretching out the mind. I’ve just spent the last week in a re-purposed Girl Scouts camp in central New Mexico. My household met up with most of my wife’s siblings and parents for 6 days of camping, and it was quite the bevy of cousins, uncles, in-laws and so on. JPW, my wife, brewed a 54-bottle batch of homemade root beer, which was not only delicious but perhaps mildly alcoholic, as I was pleased to hear from my mother-in-law, whose tongue never touches booze and seems well qualified to make that call.

The site was remote enough that my phone had apparently been discharged for several days before I wondered where it was. Obviously, there was no wi-fi for the bloggers among us on the mountain. Without the satellites and towers to keep me connected to this beloved digital world, and without my computer or studio to fill my days with habitual tasks, I had a lot of time to fill my lungs with piney air and reflect on the state of my life; and, while I could fill untold numbers of posts with these reflections, I’m going to exercise some discipline and tact and just share a little of what my idle mind turned up last week.

It’s been a few weeks since I dreamed up the Facelife project, and I’ve got to say I’m getting some cold feet. Maybe it’s like my granddad, Pappy, told me in the moments before I surprised my bride with a self-penned serenade on our wedding day, which is that the panic helps you to be alert and ready to perform well. Pappy spent decades in front of audiences, leading choirs and directing musicals in northeast Oklahoma, so I think he was no stranger to these jitters. When the Facelife endeavor starts, what I will be doing is something of a performance, as I approach the front door of stranger after stranger and try to introduce myself as a normal dude who’s trying to do something interesting in the neighborhood. What I fear is that, no matter how sincere and prepared I am, my neighbors will see me as too weird, possibly too threatening, for their taste, in which case I will transform from a benign, anonymous guy in the neighborhood into a definite weirdo who should be avoided.

The optimist in me says that many people will think what I’m doing is mildly interesting and then go back to their Vizios and forget about me. Then, the next largest group will like the idea of my knocking doors and introducing myself, busting down a little of the isolation we suburbanites often feel from each other. I hope to strike up some acquaintances and, if I’m lucky, maybe a decent friendship with members of this nice group, but I’m not planning on the latter; we’ll just see what happens. Then, finally, the smallest group will be the few whom I freak out by my forwardness. Like I said, I’m not planning on knocking the “No Soliciting” homes, but I must assume that eventually I’ll run into a feisty, proprietary libertarian who will brandish me off her land.

I’m considering saying something like this:

Hi. My name’s Jim. I live here in the neighborhood, a couple streets over. (I’ll offer my hand if they come out to greet me.) I’m trying to meet everyone in the neighborhood. (And if they don’t have anything to say at this point, or if no turn of conversation presents itself, I’ll say:) I’m writing a blog about the experience of meeting all of my neighbors, and I’d like to invite you to read it sometime. (Leave card with info. And if I feel the conversation needs to end, I’ll bid them good evening:) Have a good evening. I’ll see you around.

If you have any ideas for improving this pitch, bring them on. Pretend I just knocked on your door and gave you this introduction. Are you annoyed? Alarmed? Pleased?

Tips for Going Door-to-door

Knocking on peoples’ doors as a way of introducing myself to them is an unnerving prospect, so I’ve gathered some tips from the web that I hope will keep me out of bad situations. A caveat: I’m writing this post in a lobby where MTV2 is broadcasting, so I can’t guarantee the quality of what follows. You know how it’s a good idea when you’re trying to do your best to surround yourself with the best? It’s dangerous to try to make something worthwhile when the context you’re working in is of such sub-par quality that any effort on your part represents a substantial improvement on the situation. Right now there’s a show on about a heavy black guy and a skinny white guy who may be a skater. I feel like a normal fish in a very stupid pond.

  1. The first thing I’m going to do is keep a friendly expression on my face and speak in a clear, confident voice. I won’t offer a handshake unless the person comes onto the porch to greet me. And I’ll state my purpose right away, as most people assume that I’m a religious proselytizer or a salesman until I say otherwise.
  2. I will have either a card or a brochure to hand out. I think I’ll say something like, “Can I leave this with you?” I should offer it with a choice, so I’m not forcing them to take something they don’t want. And, because people may not be receptive to me as I stand on their porch and take up their time, the literature I leave will give them a chance to see what I’m about on their own time.
  3. Some sites warn that there are some lonely, chatty people out there, and that I should keep a mental clock and not stay for more than a few minutes, especially if the person wants to debate me. The advice I’m reading is mostly for political canvassers, and since I’m not out to promote any political values, I think I’ll be okay to chat for a minute. After all, these are my neighbors, and as long as my internal crazy alarm isn’t buzzing, I’ll savor a chat for a little bit. I live in the region where King of the Hill is set, so I’ve been really wanting to sip beer in the alley and shoot the bull with my neighbors. This may be the way to make that happen!
  4. I shouldn’t be discouraged by a string of negative responses, because most people just don’t like to be bothered. I’ve just got to persevere. I really can’t wait to see how people react to my overtures. A lot of people may well think I’m crazy because suburban protocol expects us to keep to ourselves and not to go out of our way to engage each other. So, I’ll try to keep my chin up when folks blow me off, and with luck and persistence I might be able to convert some of them to neighborly friends.
  5. If someone insults me I should just be cool, smile, and say, “Have a nice day,” because there’s no need to start a confrontation. Maybe I’ll add, “See you around,” since we live in the same neighborhood, just to remind him or her that we’re part of the same community, and that you can’t just dis someone and expect never to see the person again. I want to promote a little interconnectedness in the neighborhood. It is said, and I believe it, that one of the reasons there’s more social and political division these days is because we don’t know our neighbors and, therefore, don’t know how to live with people who are both decent and different from ourselves. I want to cut across this trend.
  6. I should emphasize that it’s just me, and that I’m not sharing anyone’s agenda but my own. I’m already at a disadvantage by knocking on their door and bothering them, so I need to express my motives clearly and immediately and try to bring their guard down.
  7. Wear a nametag. Oh man, this is awesome. I’m going to design my own tag to identify myself and look professional. I won’t be a nameless drone, but Jim Public, your local artist!
  8. In keeping with my respectable haircut, I’ll also dress conventionally. If I dress unusually I may associate myself with radical ideas, and most people don’t like that. My ideas, in fact, are somewhat radical, but they are also based in the familiar tradition of community, so my hope is that the nice shirt and nametag will help take the edge off my agenda of getting my name out there by getting to know my neighbors.

Man, this blog is starting to get a little heavy on words and light on action and photos! This is as it must be for now, but I am determined to round out the content with more activity and more pictures. Soon enough. Once Facelife starts in earnest, this blog will pick up the pace in all kinds of unpredictable ways.

Terms for Going Door-to-Door

Still several weeks out from knocking on my neighbors’ doors, I’m still trying to name the thing that I intend to do. I may have to start using the term faceliving for what I’ll be doing, however, because I haven’t found an appropriate term that means, “to make a friendly introduction of one’s self to a stranger.” Here are a couple of possible synonyms and their definitions.

canvass (verb), 1. to solicit votes, subscriptions, opinions, or the like from; 2. to examine carefully; investigate by inquiry; discuss; debate.
solicit (verb), 1. to seek for (something) by entreaty, earnest or respectful request, formal application; 2. to entreat or petition (someone or some agency); 3. to solicit orders or trade, as for a business.

Both of these terms denote a desire to get something from someone, be it a vote, an opinion, or a sale. The fact that there really is no common term for introducing yourself to strangers that doesn’t include an intention to gain something from the strangers makes me step back an consider my own intentions.

It’s true that I don’t know very many people in my community right now, and I feel that knowing more of them would improve my quality of life. In this respect, I think it’s safe to say that my conquest is about no personal gain except the gain of personal acquaintances. As I start faceliving in my neighborhood I won’t be showing anyone my artwork, much less asking anyone to buy it, so I don’t like the terms canvass or solicit.

I may make cards that feature my name, vocation, contact info, and some representation of my artwork to hand out to the people I meet, and at this point of giving a card to someone I think I would feel like more of a canvasser or solicitor. Going back some generations, there was the old practice of paying calls to your neighbors and leaving cards as a way of identifying yourself as the visitor. My practice will be similar to this, but because there is a possibility that the card recipient could visit my website and make a purchase forces me to admit that I am more of a door-to-door salesman than someone simply paying a social visit. On the other hand, my primary goal with faceliving is to make myself known to my community as an artist who works right here in the north Garland suburbs, because in order for my artwork to have any significance it is much more important for the work to be known than sold. Sales will happen as a result of the artwork having a growing audience, and it is the nurturing of this growing audience that is my top priority.

For now, I guess I’ve stumbled on calling this door-to-door activity faceliving, though I won’t use this as a technicality that lets me bug people with “no soliciting” signs. I’ve given this some thought, thinking that it could make for some entertaining anecdotes in the blog if I introduced myself to strangers whose doors tell the world they want to be left alone. But, I’m opting for letting them be. I won’t go out of my way to piss people off with this project. It’s already likely to throw folks off to have me on their doorsteps, so I’ll try to keep the odds closer to favoring me.

On Going from Door to Door

I’m still several weeks away from the official kick-off of the Facelife door-knocking campaign. As I go about my summer travels and family gatherings I’ve been searching the web for tips on being a successful door-to-door canvasser. I’m putting together a preliminary list of tips that should give me courage as the big day nears, and I’ll be posting that list shortly, for those of you who are moved to join in this Facelife endeavor and meet your neighbors, too.

One piece of advice that keeps it all in perspective is that if the experience of knocking on strange doors and speaking to new people about yourself ends up being as terrifying and awful as it now seems, having not yet tried it, you can just quit and get a different job. This advice is directed toward salespeople and campaigners mostly, but it reminds me of two helpful facts about my career. First, I’m not going to give up my art career so easily, but if this tactic of becoming a more engaged member of my local community, both as artist and citizen, doesn’t work, then I can just shelve it and try other approaches. I don’t need to get a different job, just a different method. Second, I realize that the career I’m building is an unconventional one, and, for some, not even a real job at all: I’m pushing for a career in which I make a living doing exactly what I want. So, because my job at this early stage doesn’t look like a real job, particularly to people who have bosses and regular paychecks, I feel that doing something that most of us find intimidating gives this art career more street cred. Or in other words, if I want to be a professional artist so badly, I better be willing to put myself through all manner of trials to get there.

If I ask myself, “Will doing this help my art career even a little?” and the answer is “Yes”, then I need to go ahead and do it, unless I’m exposing myself to danger or violating ethics. I need to demonstrate to myself and my audience that being the kind of artist I want to be is not about hiding in my studio and playing the role of the delicate fellow, but about making the best looking stuff that I can and showing my enthusiasm about that stuff to as many people as I can.


facelife logo

I’m excited to announce that my inaugural quest as an artist building himself a grassroots art career has a name…

Yes, in fact it is Facelife. And here is what Facelife is: I will be donning a nice shirt and putting gel in my hair, walking through my neighborhood, and knocking on all 227 doors, by way of introducing myself to my neighbors.

I use Facebook quite a bit as a means of reaching people and building my audience, and I appreciate the site for its ability to keep people connected in new, strange, virtual ways. I will continue to use Facebook, and I may well take my friend Kerry Bill’s advice and jump into Twitter here before too long; but, I also want to defy the promise and the function of Facebook with this Facelife project, namely, by doing in the physical world what Facebook–really, any social networking technology–allows us to do in the virtual world. I am going to pound some old-fashioned pavement, knock on some doors, and literally say hello to real people whom I don’t know.

I’ll tell you, I don’t know what to expect from this expedition. I imagine no more than 5% of the people I talk to will end up having any interest in what I’m doing. I suppose a lot of people won’t answer their doors, and others will be terse with me, as anyone who makes a point to knock on strangers’ doors should anticipate.

But, I’m excited about it. What’s got my insides all full of the good jitters is that I want to do this both as an artist and a human being. The artist wants people to know who he is and what he does; he wants to build an audience and become a valued part of his community here in north Garland, Texas. The human being just likes to know people. About every other evening I take a walk through my quiet neighborhood, my home for the last 13 months. I like developing a relationship with the land, the weather, the streets, the houses, and the neighbors; and, I credit these walks with accelerating this period of adjustment to my still-new life in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. Facelife will help me take my relationship with the neighborhood to the next level.

And, each motivation gives courage to the other. The artist is relieved that the human being just wants to meet and greet people rather than try to get something from them, be it a profession of faith, a donation, a sale. And the human being is emboldened by having a pretense for the visit; I’m not just there awkwardly to say hello, but to introduce myself as a local figure who does something the stranger might find interesting.

Of course, I want for these Facelife efforts eventually to engender sales so that I can make that ever-elusive living; but, as any visual artist knows, most of an artist’s audience is comprised of non-paying constituents. And that’s okay. Art can and should be enjoyed for free much of the time. If you’re really good, you figure out ways to scrape rent together each month.

So I’ve gotten my appearance as settled as I can for now, I have a name and a plan for what I’m doing, and I’m working on the map to help me keep track and share my progress as I go. I’ll continue to prepare through August–researching tips for door-to-door types, and so on–as we do some family traveling and wait for the heat to ebb, and I expect to hit the sidewalks at the end of August, just as JPG gets started in third grade. I can’t wait to see this play out, and to share it with you.