What Matters: Laurie Rosenwald on the Beauty of Not Trying

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Debbie Millman has an ongoing project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers, and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer ten identical questions and submit a nonprofessional photograph.

Laurie Rosenwald hosts “How To Make Mistakes On Purpose” workshops, wrote All The Wrong People Have Self-Esteem, paints in hot wax, speaks Swedish like a native New Yorker, has never used an emoji, and claims to have won all the usual awards. You can order her new book here.

 What is the thing you like doing most in the world?

I like to draw or paint and watch either 30 RockArrested Development, Toast of London, or Seinfeld at the same time. There’s a chapter in my book about the advantage and practicality of not focusing on what one is “supposed to” be focusing on, as sometimes not trying works better than trying. Its title is “Why P.G. Wodehouse is my therapist.” Since childhood, I have felt guilty about my television addiction. Let me rephrase that. I was an early adopter of what is now known as the shower principle. Because I was terrified of facing my imagination up to and including the fantasy murder of my manic-depressive mother, with whom I lived alone from the age of three to thirteen, I escaped into tv, and have no plans to unescape it, which is not a word.

Denial may be a river in Egypt, the unwillingness to face the troubling truth, or some third thing because you always have to list three things. In any case, there is absolutely nothing wrong with turning one’s back on harsh reality and instead, facing Mary Tyler Moore, whose well-scripted office relationship with Lou Grant spoiled me for imaginary, platonic relationships with other fictional newsmen.

Cognitive behavior therapy didn’t help. Alcohol didn’t help, and I think this particular serotonin reuptake inhibitor may have seen better days. 

What I am trying to uphold is our right as human beings with our Olympic level suffering, our painful predicaments, our all-too-real marriages, and all-too-virtual social lives to immerse ourselves in something comforting, predictable, and safe. Whatever gets you through the night.

Lucy gobbles chocolates from the conveyor belt, or Jerry calls out the window to Delores as I cut and paste one more curriculum vitae into the cyber maw of submittable.com, with the vain hope of some faceless foundation awarding me a genius grant, knowing I will be unceremoniously spat out when they realize another privileged crone waits behind the scrim.  

What is the first memory you have of being creative?

I have a photograph of myself lying face down on the ground in front of the lion enclosure in the central park zoo. The lions are surreptitiously watching me feeding candy to the ants. I’m about two. 

I also remember my father’s sculpture studio in the Lincoln Arcade building on Broadway and 65th, and, as a little baby, being lowered naked into an enormous canister of greasy, olive-green plasticine, a malodorous clay used to make bronze castings. He often left me in there to play for a while, shaping things with my tiny paws. That was his idea of babysitting. 

Did Robert Rosenwald really burn down the Lincoln Arcade with a Pall Mall? He was always bragging that he caused the four-alarm fire that consumed the neighborhood and cleared the way for Lincoln Center. He was a failure, a drunk, an irresponsible loser. We owe him much.

What is your biggest regret?  

Not being successful! On the one hand, not doing what everybody else is doing (see: ants) seems worthwhile in a world where some people have 10 million followers on Instagram. Jiff Pom has 10 million followers. 

Jiff Pom is a Pomeranian.

I am ashamed to say that I, too, want followers. Here I am comparing apples with some fruit nobody’s ever heard of, while quietly decomposing on the rubbish heap of history.

I do make a brief appearance in the third edition of Thames and Hudson’s Dictionary of Graphic Design and Designers, just south of Rand, Paul, and adjacent to Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Subsequent editions thought better and included me in their “who’s no longer who” edition of “elderly pariahs of editorial illustration.”

Designers of my vintage, mostly male except for the eight exceptions we all know, have garnered much well-deserved esteem. Others have garnered much respect and have followings that would be the envy of any toy dog.

In 2018 I was nominated to be an AIGA Medalist and did not get it. Truth be told, Victor Moscoso was among those who did win that year, and he is the consummate draftsman genius of mind-blowing psychedelic design, so never mind. Love him.

When I look at Rand or Cassandre or Glaser or Chwast, it’s obvious. If you’re considered really good, you’re called a designer, never an illustrator. Even if you almost always include drawing, there’s a different level of respect. I wrote an article about this, “Illustration: Graphic Design’s Poor Relation,” which resulted in widespread misunderstanding and an outbreak of illustrator ire. I think those people only read the title. I stand by it.

How have you gotten over heartbreak? 

What makes you assume that I have? 

What makes you cry? 

Since 1992, nothing. I’m not sure if it’s the Buproprion or the Trileptal. Sometimes I do get that slight pain behind the bridge of my nose when I think about my dear dead daddy or the frightening thought that my ex-husband will not be staying with me every few months forever like he does. He is my best friend.

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

In my work, I never feel that I have accomplished anything. I am always in the middle of doing several projects at once that never really finish. The joy is greatest during, not so much after. Like sex! Can I say that? Yet, I stopped smoking. In May 2020, I also stopped drinking! I’ll be proud about that right up until I relapse.

By the way, I paint in hot wax on wood, encaustic, so all my paintings are in a constant state of flux—I have a Dewalt heat gun that is really a time machine and magic eraser. Whether you like them or not, encaustic paintings will last at least two thousand years.

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?

A few years ago, I was asked to fill in an online form. The object of this project was laudable; to make sure artists of all races, genders, sexual orientations, and religious beliefs were promoted. That is an admirable goal—to be inclusive. 

But the form didn’t have a “what year were you born” box or “How many Instagram followers do you have?” Which now amounts to the same thing. 

Because the person who sent out the form is a millennial, age is not her issue, so she just forgot! Self-interest is normal and human; we humans are a masterful, ingenious race, with opposable thumbs, to which I proudly belong. I’d gladly tick that box. I’m a card-carrying homo sapien, and I can carry cards because of the thumbs.

I didn’t fill in that form because I cannot check a box that says: “Heterosexual,” “Homosexual,” “Atheist,” or “Jew.” Even “spiritual but not religious” doesn’t wash. I’m not remotely spiritual. I have my own faith—I’m a hamster. 

My parents were highly educated, liberal, sophisticated nincompoops. When I was three, my hamster died. I asked, “what happens when you die?” They lamely explained, “well, Buddhists believe this, Christians believe that, and we’re Jews, but not really, because lefty beatniks like us don’t believe in God. It’s just so uncool.” 

Also, they told me about sex when I was six. Clearly, I was confused because then I became a vegetarian. The point is, you cannot explain the finer points of spirituality to a three-year-old! I needed, then and now, to believe in a benign power protecting all hamsters, and me, forever. Behold, Hamsterism! 

What do you hate most about yourself? 

My potbelly stomach. I was born this way. My body type is Santa Claus. And, sadly, I cannot type or text well, hence no capital letters, and no, voice recognition doesn’t. It’s a disability that plagues me every day. Email destroyed my life. And I’m very shy, but only when it matters.

What do you love most about yourself? 

Hard to choose one sterling quality among so many. I have several marriages to my matchmaking credit. I am good at making and (usually) keeping friends from very different backgrounds. I give great parties. When this plague is over, watch out! I’m a fantastic dancer. Here is my playlist. You are welcome.

I can draw. When I walk into most galleries, I think, “can draw. What can you do?” Almost all new art looks like a vain attempt to épater la bourgeoisie, gimmicky half-hearted bids to shock, made by unskilled hands; if hands are even involved. 

Since that connard daguerre, most imagery is based on photography, and the skill of drawing has all but disappeared. And yes, this matters.

I’m a very good teacher. With “quantity, not quality” as a brief, people get out of their own way. And although it’s beside the point, the drawings are spectacular. Not trying works better than trying. I am passionate about the “How To Make Mistakes On Purpose” workshops because I see people being happy and surprised, inventing truly original things, and it’s just so much fun! It’s like a party but for innovation. 

And here is a link to them that will blow your mind, and none took more than nanoseconds. They are here to to use, no copyright. More where those came! 

I am brutally honest, yet steal the occasional lipstick. Although I do care what other people think of me and want to be liked, I must say and do what I believe in, which could be called integrity or being difficult. I am generous yet thrifty. I spend little on clothes and consider most expensive purchases as “cheating.”

I’ve always known exactly what I like and do not give a fiddler’s fart about fashion or designers and their idiotic labels. We are all designers. That’s what scissors, sharpies, duct tape, eyeliner, Krylon, Photoshop, and eBay are for. I’ve been wearing stripes nearly every day since birth. I shop by googling “wide red-white stripes,” size xl, and under $35. They (whoever “they” are) don’t make very plain blue leather boots; they simply do not exist. So I splashed out an Alexander Hamilton on Krylon cover maxx global blue gloss spray paint and primer, and presto! My apartment looks like a hardware store, and I usually have a band-aid on my thumb.

Also, I don’t go running around shouting about kindness and telling everybody else they should be kind. That’s more something I hate about other people than love about myself, though.

What is your absolute favorite meal?

Chobani coconut yogurt and outrage.