Does the smell of a rotting apple inspire you to write?
No? Me neither.
But there was this fellow, a philosopher by the name of Friedrich Schiller, who found the smell inspiring. He said it tickled his muse and helped him to write better. I can't check this fact with him as he died in 1805, but the idea of a cure for procrastination – as odd as a rotten apple – fascinates me.
That's why I interview creative, productive and successful friends asking about their daily routines and habits. I hope to learn what their bad apples are.
I already found out that a coffee scholar Emanuelis Ryklys blasphemously drinks tea. I also discovered the secret to illustrator Karolis Strautniekas' worldwide success is none other than long and focused hours of work (this came to me, and everybody reading, totally unexpected).
Nothing weird yet, however.
This time I talk to an artist Tadao Cern. His work is featured on magazine covers, he flies around the world to do exhibitions, it's safe to say that his every project becomes viral. He's also tall, has a deep voice, a beautiful family and a cool motorcycle. Surely he must have some tricks up his sleeve to have achieved all this. Maybe this time I will fulfill my quest and find a bad apple.
We arrange a meeting and I visit him in his photogenic loft studio. He meets me with a bottle of green slush in his hands. "To sip while we talk," he says pouring me a glass.
I raise my eyebrow. This must be it — the elixir of productivity, the Soma, the brew of the muse, the witch tea of viral content. Tadao knows why I'm here — to find a creativity secret —so he's saving us some time.
Now we will drink the enchanted potion, he will initiate me to the secret caste of the artistic society and we'll call it a day.
I take a gulp. I expect it to be harsh, nauseating and demanding of a strong stomach (the enlightenment shouldn't come easily), but it's disappointingly tasty and goes down smooth.
“Can you guess what's in it?” Tadao asks smirking
I want to say I taste something exotic and magical, such as gipsy tears or nightingale sweat, but it's much more simple.
“I taste apple,” I say, then guess three more ingredients correctly (failing on last one, but who could identify a cucumber?). The smoothie is delicious, but too mundane to be the secret to Tadao’ creativity. I was hoping for a shortcut and now I will have to keep asking.
So, I check to see if the recorder is working, slide to the edge of my chair and we talk. First thing’s first — the mornings.
Tadao wakes up early because his daughter wakes up early. He tries to spend as much quality time with her before departing for work and leaving her in the loving hands of his wife.
“Watching Ana learn absolutely everything from zero is a huge source of appreciation for my own skills and abilities,” He says warmly. “Compared to her, I'm a true virtuoso in finger control for example,” he opens his palm and does a centipede motion with his fingers. “She makes me appreciate my own life more”. He feeds her breakfast, drinks his own smoothie and is ready to seize the day.
Leaving home at about eight he usually walks or takes the bike, or when in a more adventurous mood, his motorcycle. He usually listens to podcasts. “I'd listen to Tim Ferriss if I want some inspiration or to some music If I want to think.” His first stop is the gym.
Tadao is strict with his exercise routine, pumping iron three days a week and doing 45 minutes of cardio two every second day “I mix it up so it doesn't become boring.” He says. “I once tried running every day, but it became a chore very quickly. I don't know what's this runners high you guys keep blabbing about, for me it was just pounding the concrete and waiting to get home.” You won't become Runkeeper buddies with Tadao any time soon.
Arriving at his studio he first scans over the email and Facebook messages but doesn't rush to reply. “If there's something as simple as a request to buy a print,” he says “I deal with it quickly and with pleasure. I procrastinate complex emails until later.”
I always imagined Tadao’ day at the studio like that of a Japanese sword maker – structured, meditative and neat, but he tells a different story:
"My day is mostly chaos. I run around, from easel to the computer, I drink smoothies, I listen to music, I cut, pack, glue spray and hammer".
Tadao is the only person I know who owns and actually uses a standing desk. “I don't want to interrupt my flow by sitting down when I run around the studio.”
“But you only do a couple of pieces a year,” I say “ how come are you so busy?”
“You know what they say, the laziest are always the busiest” he smiles. “My work is what most people would consider slacking, but everything I do is purposeful, no matter how trivial it may seem to an outsider. I can spend hours browsing on Instagram, but it's my research. I follow galleries, artists and curators. I immerse myself in the topic I'm interested in. If go for a walk, I contemplate and work on ideas. I don't do it to escape – it all has a purpose.”
“Hey Tadao Cern,” He imitates a patronizing voice “But going for a walk is not exactly work, scrolling Instagram is not exactly work”.
“What is work then?” he says, “that instant when you are dragging the brush across the canvas or the moment you release the shutter?”
“My day is not productive by a common standard, it's organic and not scheduled. If I compared myself to others, I'd probably feel guilty, but now I'm actually glad I'm not structured with my routines.
Productivity guys preach ‘the moment you get the idea, go and start working on it’, but that's just not how I roll. I need time to incubate and hatch my ideas. Why be productive if you don't have anything to say yet?
I know for certain that pushing doesn't lead to anything good, at least in art” he says.
“Let's say I have a vision for a painting. I know if I was really efficient, I could do the first layer in a day. But I don't rush, I think and optimize the process in my head before actually going to work. Maybe the first layer will take me 5 days instead of one, but my first layer will be perfect! I like to take time to think and create a perfect set of tools and circumstances for a project.”
“Here’s an example. One day browsing casually on instagram, I started thinking about a glitch in photography, the so called chromatic aberration, and decided to paint it.”
“I lived with the idea for a while, then experimented with Photoshop sketches and uploaded them on Behance, Facebook and Instagram. People seemed to be intrigued and fascinated. They liked it even more than the refined, serious pieces. My audience is not huge, something around 6000 followers on Instagram, but their reaction is a good indicator of a project's success. A couple of hundred likes meant there was potential.”
After a couple more weeks, I tried sketching with oil paint and found out quickly that the brush was just too clumsy for this task, the stroke too thick to achieve a seamless gradient. Then I let the idea rest in my head for a couple of weeks before it struck me – aerography should do the trick. I already had an air compressor, had bought it for another project and now it was just lying around in the studio.
I wanted to use it to spray oil paint, and encountered another challenge: the oil paint was too dense for spraying. I consulted some aerography professionals: ‘no, it can't be done,’ they told me, ‘aerography is not for oil paint’.”
Cern, of course, did not believe a single word. Like a mad alchemist, he experimented with oil paint and turpentine ratios in search for a perfect combination.
“I was spraying this mixture, which is mostly turpentine. I felt it on my skin, In my hair. I didn't have a proper hazmat suit by then.
I was getting dizzy, my whole studio and my lungs were full of this thick toxic fog. But then I took off the mask and looked at the canvas. It worked.
The gradient was perfect.”
Invent a new technique? Done. Now he needed a proper easel to work on his big canvases. There were some for sale, but they were not functional and much too expensive. “I let the problem simmer in my head, got the idea, went to a hardware store and constructed this… let me show you”
He darts to the back of his studio. There is a big canvas on the wall. The chromatic aberration effect is almost done, it’s already hurting my eyes in a pleasant way. There are some ropes and rings suspending the canvas, It looks like a complex flag-raising system.
Cern releases a knot and pulls on a rope. The canvas moves up and down, then rotates at his command. One word comes to my head — genius.
“All of my projects are born from past experiences and experiments.” He says sagely “I already had the compressor in my studio, which is an unusual thing for an artist, but an essential tool in the invention of Chromatic Aberration. Tools rest in the back of your head and your brain uses them to create new ideas.”
“Do you invest in work tools a lot?” I ask. The studio is full of interesting and seemingly expensive stuff, so I pretty much know the answer already.
“Yes, I think every creator should,” he says.
I'm not ashamed to say that quality gear is an inspiration to me.
Tado remembers wandering around New York with a brand new Canon 5D in his hands and a bunch of heavy red-striped lenses in his backpack.
“Everything seemed worth a shot,” he says. “I even overcame the awkwardness and started asking to take people's portraits”
He created one of his first photography exhibitions after returning from that trip. “I know that enthusiasm of having a new camera had a lot to do with it,” he says “I just took thousands of photos and some of them turned out great.”
“Now my Canon is not much of an inspiration anymore, but if, say, Hasselblad offered me to test out their new camera I would gladly do so. I would be excited and I'm pretty sure the result would be exceptional” he says. Here's your opportunity, Hasselblad.
Another example of gear being a catalyst for inspiration was Paintography: “When I decided work on Paintography, I already had the camera, the transparent table, all the lighting equipment. I had all the basics, but the conditions were not quite ideal yet.”
Cern went to the hardware store again (they should be on a first name basis with him there) and bought everything else he could possibly need in the process — stools, tables, lamps, duct tape and white gloves. First he arranged his surroundings to perfection, all he had left to do was execute.
Once I prepare my space and everything I need is at a hand's reach, it becomes an inspiration on it's own. The process is then a pleasure.
If you have to struggle and balance your canvas on a cheap wonky easel, it's misery not creativity. I couldn't do it.”
Tadao is the opposite of the stereotype of a suffering artist “I need my surroundings to inspire good thoughts, I need time and quality tools to feel the pleasure in working,” he says after taking a swig of his green smoothie.
“But you didn't get here…” – I stretch out my hands and wave them as to indicate his whole studio – “...in one day? What was your tipping point then?”
“My first camera was surely a gateway drug.”
Working as an architect he bought his first DSLR and started shooting around, playing with the post production.
“I didn't have any aspirations to be a photographer, it was just a hobby.”
After a while, unexpected even to himself, he got into wedding photography. “I remember learning that wedding photographers got around 1k per gig. I needed money and I knew I could do as well as the established wedding photographers.”
Most of wedding photoshoots were banal, the style of post-production predictable. “The groom takes the bride for a piggy-back ride – this was the industry standard back then. The bar was quite low, I knew I couldn't fail,” he laughs.
Cern' charming wife is a popular wedding organizer and he never hid the fact that he got his first gigs by getting in bed with the right people. At first, Tadao had no ambitions to do better.
“Do the job, take the cash and leave — this was my mindset at the time," he says.
His wedding photoshoots did great, people liked and shared the pictures, more requests started coming in. “My work was not special or exceptional, only proper. I did what was popular then – dimmed shadows, soft colors, creamy bokeh, all that retro feel.”
“But after a while I started to compete with myself,” he remembers “wanted interesting compositions, cleaner, sharper shots. I got more confident with my own style and started to move away from the mainstream.”
Right about this time, after his first summer of shooting weddings, he got a crazy idea about a photo studio.
“I started looking and found a loft space which was ideal, but expensive. I don’t know what was I thinking.
I had no business plan, only the confidence that I will do just fine.”
The place an empty, grey, dim and sad at first. He built a couple of stools from scraps. That was the first furniture.
Now the studio is Insta-worthy in all directions. It's a sanctuary of rugged aesthetics, full of framed prints, books and art paraphernalia. There's even enough space for a Harley Davidson, Tadao's beloved toy.
Speaking of toys, Cern says he likes having them, but doesn’t attach.
Before buying anything new, he sells the old, even things with sentimental value — his first custom-made motorcycle, a titanium bicycle, a Fuji x100s.
His medium format Bronica is still for sale (he shot his Cuba series with it, so you might consider investing). Tadao gets rid of things once they have served their purpose.
The following story, which for a lack of imagination I call An artist who sold his Audi, is a great example of his attitude towards things.
“I've always wanted a good car, like all boys do” he says “But I never understood buying a piece of affordable junk, like my school buddies who bought tired rusty Opel Asconas the moment they got their driver's licenses.”
Only at the ripe age of thirty, having achieved some level of success, he decided it was time to treat himself. “Finally I could buy the car I wanted, not just settle for the one I could afford.”
He bought the handsome Audi A7: “I enjoyed everything about it — how smooth the driving was, how clear the music sounded, how people looked at me thinking how come this shabby guy has such a fancy ride?”
He gradually became obsessed.
“The pleasure of having and driving the car was all I cared and thought about. I would park in the farthest corner of the parking lot so nobody would scratch it. Of course somebody would still scratch it and I'd get very upset. I forgot my bicycle, my motorcycle and my longboard. No matter how short the distance, I would take the car. It was taking up too much space in my life.
I then realized – if I care about an object so much, I can't afford it.
So, I decided to sell. I even remember the exact moment when I made the decision, a huge relief washed over me.”
He then bought a second-hand Toyota Avensis and says it's a perfect car. “I can't even remember the color of it. You can scratch it all day long, I don't care for it at all.”
“I paid a pile of cash, got a lesson in materialism, then took my money back. Quite a deal.”
“What's on your wishlist now?” I ask “What tools or gadgets or toys?”
“Five assistants” – he replies “And doubling the studio space”.
“Why so many assistants?”
“See, I enjoy the mechanical tasks — mixing paint, preparing stencils, packing the prints — only when I know I don't have to do them. If I don't have a choice, it becomes a chore.”
Tadao tells me having assistants would allow him to do what's the most important – work on ideas, sketch and experiment.
“I don't think the mechanical process of producing a painting is something sacred.
The ideas are special, finding the right technique is tricky, but the execution is only a formality. I can get others to do that.”
It’s easy to think big when things are going great. What if all went downhill?
“Imagine, tomorrow everything’s gone — the studio, the gear, the followers.” I say “All you have left is a couple thousand euros and your skills.”
Painful smirk: “Something like a victim protection program? I get a new face and have to relocate to New Zealand?”
“Exactly,” I say. “What would you do?”
He thinks for a moment.
“Well I wouldn't like to be in that situation” he admits, “but I wouldn't worry. I know who I am and what I'm doing. I would buy a laptop and tinker away for half a year. Sketching, thinking, creating. And I would come back to where I’m at now.”
“Where would you publish first to get followers?”
“You know, I wouldn't,” he says. “If I lost all my followers, I wouldn't break my neck trying to get them back. Social network fame means nothing in art world which is my direction now. Of course, it was my first opportunity to be visible, but I've grown and feel that
my social network persona and some earlier projects don't represent me anymore.”
Tadao even wants to remove some of his projects from the portfolio: “You are only as good as your portfolio's worst project. Some gallery might think he seems OK, but what was he thinking with the Blowjob?”
Even when forced to relocate to New Zealand he's still thinking about his portfolio and sketching, so I wonder if he knows how to relax and take it easy?
“Kind of” he says. “The weekend is often too long and I can't wait to be back at the studio, even when I go for a walk with my daughter, I'm still thinking about galleries.”
“I like thinking about work, it doesn't tire me” he says. “But again, my work is not work by most people's standards. I'm even trying to get rid of this word. I love the feeling when nobody pushes to do my work except my inner motivation.”
It wasn't always like that. Cern remembers when he worked in an architects' firm, he had an hour-long lunch break. “It was horrible and stressful. I would shove the pizza down the pipe and hurry back to the office. It was not a break, it was a source of anxiety.”
“Now I can ride my motorcycle to a park, sit on a bench and sketch until I get bored. There's no stress, nothing to get tired of.”
“But you must have difficult days or blocks” – I'm still trying to harsh his mellow. “What do you do then?”
“Well, editing hundreds of wedding photos can be boring” he admits and it gives me just a tiny bit of envious pleasure: yay, so he does get bored, he's a bit like the rest of us!
Audiobooks or movies playing in the background help with boredom. “Changing the surroundings works well too, the Contemporary Art Center's library is a great place to do the work.”
“Or If I'm blocked I just don't do it that day. I call the client and say next week, they say OK. That's the end of it.”
“My goal is as little stress as possible. Sure, I feel some uncertainty when I think about my projects. But it’s nothing compared with the pressure of somebody breathing up your neck.
“Tadao, you bastard, we can't launch the campaign because of you,” he shouts at himself impersonating a bad boss. “I'm allergic to situations like that. I've always known that about myself. So, I created the circumstances, where there's no pressure and no rush. And I thrive".
“Would you tell your 20 year old self to do anything different in life?”
He thinks about his wild twenties for a while.
“I wouldn't preach or tell myself to be more responsible or whatever.
I think all the stupid shit we did in the past shaped us into who we are now. And I like who I am now.”
“People tend to idealize the past and I'm not an exception. So, everything that happened becomes the best thing that could have ever happened. It's just how our brains work.”
“But I think people are the most unhappy when they know they had a chance to change their situation but didn't.”
“I’ve made many bold choices over my relatively short career and I'm glad I mustered the courage: wedding photography, studio, art — everything turned out great so far.”
“That said, I feel comfortable with my past. But if I had a word with my 20 year old version, I'd say read books and start exercising you handsome beast, but I probably wouldn't listen to myself anyway.”
“So by now you’d be really jacked and even more well read?”
“By exercising regularly I discovered a new aspect of myself. To get buff is not my sole purpose. I feel satisfied when I overcome my laziness and excuses. I love how exercising clears my head and structures the day.”
“To be honest, I wish I could bring some of that discipline to my work as well.” He says after a moment’s pause.
“And when it comes to reading, Kindle totally changed it for me,” Tadao says “Reading a paper book has always been too much of a ritual to me. It had certain solemnity to it. Reading a Kindle, on the other hand, is the most natural and pleasant thing. I can look up a word if I don't know the meaning, I can read in the dark, I can keep tens of books in it. I would never travel with a paper book, but Kindle is created just for that.”
“I've read five books in the past month because I bought a Kindle. I've read maybe five in my entire life before that.”
“Reading and lifting, both great habits to have, but there must be something you want to get rid of too?” - I try to ruin the party again.
“One habit that I would like to get rid of is this dependency of technology and social media in particular. It is truly an addiction,” he says. “Sometimes in the morning I think - 'what if I don't open Instagram today', but I always do.
Yes it's important to be seen, but I would like to delegate the social game to other people. I'm getting tired of the manipulation: 'I liked five of your photos and followed you, so follow me back.' It's shallow.”
“How would you keep in touch with your fans then?” I ask.
I would go to an exhibition opening, clink glasses and shake hands. Not scroll and double tap.
“Honestly, I don't think I would miss the virtual socializing. I don't socialize much in the real life either. I'm totally fine with being alone.
When my assistant has a day off and I have zero calls and zero meetings, it's a perfect day for me. I come to the studio, lock the door and feel like I'm back in the womb.”
We covered a lot of ground by this point. We talked about a creative chaos, inventing new techniques, traveling back in time and selling the expensive toys that have become a burden. It's time to conclude.
“What's the end of your day like” I ask.
“I like coming back home before my daughter goes to sleep. Then I read or we watch a film with my wife. If I'm in a good rhythm, I go to sleep at around 23:00. If I'm a bit off the balance or go out drinking or such my sleeping time creeps past the midnight. Then a lack of sleep accumulates and snowballs over my productivity, my mood, my clarity. Then I need a day to reset. But whenever I go to bed, I never have problems falling asleep.”
We finished our smoothie what looks like ages ago. The drink was not magical, but after couple of hours with Tadao Cern I feel charged with his confidence. Perhaps there was a drop of gipsy tears in the smoothie. I guess I will never know.
“That's it,” I say stopping the recorder. “I think we got it”
Tadao looks calm, but a bit worn out by all the questions and answers. “Great,” he says with a tired smile, “thanks for having me.”
I stand up, cracking the joints, which happens when you sit and time just flies by. I pack my belongings, we shake hands and I leave Tadao to do his thing — run around, drink smoothies, spray turpentine and hatch ideas in his bright and lofty creative womb.