The Daily Practice of John F. Simon, Jr.
On February 22, 1999, John F. Simon, Jr. created the first drawing for a daily practice that continues to this day. He began with the intention of observing his unspoken rules for visual improvisation. A computer artist at the time, he hoped to define and code those rules into drawing software. He failed at that task, but in the process and over 5,000 drawings later, discovered something much more interesting
John F. Simon, Jr. is a visual artist and software programmer. He was born in Louisiana in 1963. His father was a lawyer, his mother a mathematician. Simon eared undergraduate degrees in Studio Art and Geology from Brown University, a Masters in Earth and Planetary Sciences from Washington University in St. Louis, and an MFA in Computer Art from the School of Visual Arts in New York.
His work can be found in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He helped design the world’s first app album for Björk, called Biophilia.
John F. Simon, Jr. and Martha Henry talked by phone.
Martha Henry: Why did you start your drawing practice?
John F. Simon: I was very interested in computer software. My early work is called software art. I was interested in whether or not I could write a computer program that would improvise drawing. In other words, could a computer program that’s a list of instructions do something that you didn’t expect? Could it be creative? A really interesting, broad question that has led me on all sorts of adventures.
One plan was to work with all the current AI [artificial intelligence] ideas of emergent behavior and self-organizing systems and artificial life and genetic algorithms, which is what happened in my software art over the next four or five years.
At the same time, I decided if I sat down with a piece of paper and a pencil and just kind of let myself draw, I could discern the rules for those preferences.
So were you basically trying to find a set of algorithms for creativity?
Yeah. (Laughs) I was young. I always say it was the wrong question but the right answer.
I can get computer software to behave so that it appears to be creative or life-like, but when I examine the code, not technically—but as a piece of writing, what I find is an author’s expression of what he thinks life is. The fundamentals or the rules are just mimicking some idea about how life jumps around or reproduces. One can almost never escape one’s own decisions in these automated processes. It’s impossible to have the program itself function in a creative way, uninfluenced by its programmer.
Why do you draw on 5 x 6 cards?
I have this material called Multimedia Artboard which I like a lot. It has a nice resistance to wash and watercolor and gives you a long, open working time. I wanted to cut up the big sheets I had into some size that was easily workable. I didn’t want to work large because I didn’t want any idea that this work was somehow made for sale. I wanted to be able to make one or throw one away without any regards for cost.
I like the stiffness of the card format as opposed to a sketchbook. They’re easy to move around. When I’m working on ideas, I stack them or lay them out in a grid on the table.
When I started with a pencil, it was a revelation—like coming out of Plato’s cave. I’d been working flat and on the screen and with rules and all of a sudden it was like WHOA! Surface texture alone will blow your mind. You’ll never get that on the screen.
How long does it take you to make a drawing?
It varies. Seconds to hours. On average, maybe 20 minutes to an hour. In the morning, I come in [to the studio] at about 7:30. Between 7:30 and 8:00, I start drawing. I stop at about 9:30 for meditation. I pick it up again around 10:00 and go until 12:00 on some sort of drawing—the cards or something larger. After lunch, I usually work on production of larger works.
Do you ever start a drawing and then rip it up and throw it away?
It’s happened. But usually I examine where the resistance is coming from. That’s usually much more instructive than getting rid of it. Why is it that I don’t like this is an interesting question.
Did your drawings change when you started posting them on-line every day to the public?
Yeah, everything has an effect. It made them better in a lot of ways. It allowed me to justify spending more time on them.
I had been doing the drawings since ‘99 to 2008—so almost ten years. There were maybe two or three thousand of them in my boxes that no one ever saw. In 2008, the whole thing went to shit when the market crashed. Any sales that we had pending were canceled. Anybody who was paying us off on a piece stopped paying. I had a baby and a new mortgage. I was hung out to dry for a while.
I was coming to work thinking I don’t really want to make anything because I have tons of stuff and nothing’s selling. So what is it that I’m going to do? What is it that every day I can’t not do?
Drawing is the most important thing to me. No one had seen the cards. I had this whole vocabulary of images that I was using in larger work and very few people knew that vocabulary. I needed to share them and help people over time understand that vocabulary.
If you talk about the heart of it, the pulsing source of the creative work, it’s in the cards for sure.
In 2008, you started adding writing to the drawings? Why?
You look at little children—I have two kids—they’re always making up some story that tries to make sense. Everyone does. So I said, besides just making up the lines, I’ll make up words to try to assign some meaning. If you allow yourself to make up a story, you may be surprised about what you’re actually telling yourself. So it was a way to open up.
What started in earnest as a business practice to try to write a good piece of software, 15 years later became a kind of self-understanding.
Where do you think creativity comes from?
I ask myself that question all the time. The way I would frame it is that the source just broadens out. Creativity is an aspect of everything in your life. Creativity happens in the way you dress, in what you chose to eat for dinner, in how you address another person. There’s creativity everywhere. You have a choice to do everything in any way possible.
Do you think it’s an evolutionary trait: we’re going to have a better chance of survival if we consider all the options?
I think that’s aided our survival, for sure. But I think it can be more universal. Isn’t it the nature of the universe to know itself eventually? And are we sitting at the cusp of that self-reflection?
I never understand what people mean when they say, “It’s the nature of the universe to understand itself.”
But we’re part of it. We’re not separate. Our nature is its nature. If it’s our nature to know ourselves, it’s the universe’s nature to know itself.
But then it’s the universe’s nature to wear plaid, too.
(Laughs) Yes, it’s the universe’s nature to do everything. As opposed to fabrics and designs that have yet to be invented. That’s the universe’s preference at the moment.
It seems like choice is a huge part of your definition of creativity.
I think so. You create the world when you make those choices. What is it that Whitehead says? It goes through “the formality of actually occurring.” Part of making art and why the drawing process works, I think, is that it actually comes into the world and feeds back. It is physically manifest. It goes through the formality of occurring.
I imagine drawings all the time, but seeing a drawing in my mind is not the same as actually having drawn it, stepped away, and come back to it. It’s different.
That’s an interesting phrase, “the formality of actually occurring.” What does that mean?
I think it comes from [Alfred North] Whitehead. All possible combinations are there, but which one is manifest in space and time? It’s kind of a definition of reality. The world was created. That’s kind of when reality came to be.
Are people who subscribe to your daily drawings privy to your creative process?
Yeah, that’s really what I wanted. I wanted people to see the day-to-day flow of creative stuff and me not knowing, along with them, what it was going to be and what was going to persist.
All drawings in this post are ©John F. Simon, Jr. and may not be reproduced without the artist’s permission.