Hop on the rug with us…and get to know how artist writer Austin Kleon lives life well.
If you happen to search Austin Kleon’s name on Google, the related results that come up feature the likes of Picasso, Pollock and Duchamp. It speaks to the fine company the Texas-based creative is in, as a fellow artist writer. Kleon, who’s become known for authoring a trio of best-selling, inventive self-help books, Steal Like an Artist, Show Your Work! and Keep Going is also beloved by his fans for his doodling, too.
“They started out together, got divorced, then got remarried later,” says Kleon, when asked what came first, art or writing. “They were together early in my life, in the comics and picture books I read, and then they got divorced by school, when there was English class and Art class and I felt like I had to choose, and then when I was out of school, they got back together again in my own work.”
Growing up in Circleville, Ohio, Kleon earned his Bachelor of Philosophy in Interdisciplinary Studies at Miami University, setting up his future career where he’d bring an interest in cross-cultural perspectives to his work. Kleon’s point of view is always informed by his diverse interests, which can range from the intricate sounds of seminal electronic band Kraftwerk to the speculative fiction of Ursula K Le Guin.
In becoming who he is today, there wasn’t a time when Kleon "found" his voice, because for him, it’s something that was never really lost in the first place. “When people say, “Find your voice!” that assumes that your voice is one thing to be discovered and then held onto forever, but it’s more like an ever-evolving thing,” he says. “The best thing I ever heard about it was from the poet Billy Collins who said that you start out imitating 6-12 voices and then they merge into your own. The signal that you’ve found your own voice is when you’re doing that thing that only you can do.”
It’s a philosophy that’s carried through in Steal Like an Artist the first in Kleon’s trilogy. You can start out imitating others, but it’s in the gaps and spaces in between trying to emulate those you admire where you find your sweet spot. Each of Kleon’s books came about at the time he needed the advice contained within them for himself. In 2011, he was a copywriter, whose first book, Newspaper Blackout, a collection of poems made by blacking out newspaper articles with a marker, had been published the year before. Steal Like an Artist came about as a list of advice he would give to anyone trying to figure out how to exist in the world as an artist – a list he was trying to figure out in an attempt to make the transition from a salaried job to a full-time writer.
Similarly, Show Your Work revealed that sharing the process of one’s work helped shape that work, and Keep Going! which came out in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, gave Kleon – and all who read it – a roadmap to persevering in trying times.
While the books have been helpful for Kleon, they’ve helped millions of others in the process too. “I’m surprised by what books people need when,” says Kleon. “For example: I thought when the [COVID-19] pandemic started that everyone would turn to my book Keep Going, which is about creative resilience. But the book that’s been the most popular is Show Your Work!, which is about gaining an audience by sharing your process. In hindsight, it makes sense, as this is a time that people are working from home or rethinking their life and trying a new career or side project. But you can’t really anticipate this stuff, you can only get down to what's true.”
Art that changes the world
Kleon’s admiration for his fellow artists stems from their ability to create work that has the potential to change the world. “The truly great art that I see or experience actually changes the way I see or experience the world,” he says. “So, for example, when I saw Andy Goldsworthy’s nature pieces for the first time, I suddenly saw leaves in a crack in the sidewalk that looked like an Andy Goldsworthy. The same is true for blackout poetry: after you do it, you start seeing every text as a field of words you could pick and choose from.”
For someone who is adept at sharing advice, there are some pieces of it that Kleon returns to often in his own life. “‘Keep all of your pieces in play.’ That’s from a guy named Steven Tomlinson who lives here in Austin,” he says. “So, if you have 3 things you're passionate about, don't feel like you have to choose one and get rid of the others. Keep them in your life and spend time on them, and eventually they'll start speaking to each other.”
Kleon’s passions do, indeed, talk to one another, and he lets readers in on the conversations they spark in his newsletter and daily blog. The connections Kleon creates inspires fans of his work to create their own – whether they’re looking to become artist writers too or just needing a dose of mind-expanding fun.
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Feature image courtesy of Clayton Cubitt.