Growing up in North Myrtle Beach, I knew a number of kids whose parents owned small businesses—beachfront motels, seafood restaurants, even miniature golf courses—and I always thought it must be neat to be part of a family business. As I got older, it occurred to me that I was kind of part of one too, except our family business was more colorful than the the Gay Dolphin, crazier than Crazy Zack’s, and even more bizarre than the Ripley’s Believe it or Not (also, far less lucrative than any of these establishments).
My family’s business is art.
My parents met in art school, as did my grandparents and a set or two of uncles and aunts. It took me awhile to realize that’s not the norm—that most people make a living toiling at a desk or out in the elements, not toiling in front of a canvas, that most kids don’t get art supplies for Christmas and sketches of themselves for birthdays, or play marathon rounds of Exquisite Corpses at family gatherings.
When you imagine the life of an artist, you may think of struggle, starvation, drama, and searing emotional turmoil. I’m not gonna lie, those sorts of things can go with the territory, but not always. One of the most un-tortured artists I’ve had the great fortune to know was my mother’s father, Robert Amft, also known as Grandpa Bob. He died four years ago, but today would’ve been his 100th birthday.
My grandfather was a painter, sculptor, and photographer. Making art was like breathing to him—a given, a mandatory part of life. He approached his art with playfulness, joy, curiosity, and humor. Unlike many of us *cough cough,* he never seemed to be paralyzed by self-criticism or by self-importance, blocked by fear, stricken with guilt, bed-ridden by gut-wrenching introspection. He made the hard work of making art look easy.
Sadly, I inherited neither my grandfather’s untroubled Zen nature nor his innate artistic prowess. Grandpa Bob was quiet and laid-back, not the type to bend your ear with artistic manifestos or homespun advice or back-in-my-day diatribes, and I was always too shy to come out and ask him for advice or words of wisdom.
But I’ve examined the way he lived, reading between the lines of his actions and daily habits, and I’ve managed to discern some lessons written there, an elegant formula for living a creative, fulfilling, long life.
In honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth, I’m spilling all the beans, shamelessly sharing my grandfather’s secret recipe with the general public. Colonel Sanders had his 11 herbs and spices, Dr. Pepper its 23 flavors, and Robert Amft his 14 key ingredients for a happy life. Here goes:
1. Make space in your life for what matters to you. After Bob retired from his job as a commercial artist and book designer, he went from being a prolific artist to an off-the-charts, art-making machine. Over the years, the production and storage of his art took over his lovely 3,000-square-foot condo. The living room became his large-scale painting studio, one guest bedroom his watercolor studio, another his sculpture workshop. The cedar closet stored hundreds of paintings and not a single winter coat or wool sweater. Small sculptures sat on every available surface and canvases were stacked, rolled, and hung everywhere. By the turn of the millennium, the art was taking over, and his dining room looked like this:
2. Be willing to change, adapt, and, occasionally, to sacrifice utility for beauty. Even the furnishings in Grandpa Bob’s home couldn’t withstand the immense force of his artistic vision. One visit, my mom noticed the dining room table was missing, walked into another room, and found its remains, which Grandpa Bob had transformed into a sculpture of a peacock.
3. Things get more interesting when you look at them with a new perspective. Bob didn’t seem to overlook, ignore, or take anything for granted. Seemingly random objects became useful to him, fodder for his art.
Table legs, salad forks, cutting boards, wooden bowls, metal plumbing straps, were transformed and given new life in his sculptures. Cityscapes, family members, unique shapes from protractors or packaging materials, memories, famous images, scientific concepts, and dreams worked themselves into his paintings. Nothing was wasted.
4. Leave your house every day. Sometimes on a day off, I stay inside all day, and it’s relaxing and wonderful, but at the same time, it’s alarming how difficult it starts to feel to leave the comfort and safety of my little nest and face people again. So it impressed me to realize that, even when he got to be in his 90s, Grandpa Bob made it a point to leave his cozy condo every single day to face the sometimes brutal Chicago weather outside, if for no other reason than to move his car for the snow sweepers, but usually also to
5. Go out to lunch. Because going out to lunch means you get to eat something delicious that you didn’t have to shop for or cook yourself, it’s cheaper than going out to dinner, and you can save half your food and take it home in a doggie bag and then—boom—dinner is solved too.
6. Exert yourself physically. Bob lived on the fourth floor of a building with high ceilings and no elevator, so leaving the house every day automatically entailed a pretty good cardio workout. I don’t remember how many of those steep steps he had to climb to get to his door, but I remember visiting him at about age 13 and getting way more winded and annoyed by that long trek up the stairs than he did at age 70.
7. Swim. Do as Bob did and live in a building with a community pool in the basement, or live near a large body of water, visit a lake cabin regularly, join a gym with a pool, or, if all else fails, sneak into a hotel pool, but go swimming. Unless you’re a rocket scientist, it’s your only chance to be weightless, and it’s as close as you’ll get in this life to physically and emotionally feeling what it’s like to be like an otter.
8. Go thrift shopping. A key source of material for his assemblages came from Bob’s love of thrift shopping. And he would sometimes stumble across something and randomly send it to me, like a collection of decorative pill boxes or a soft red turtleneck that lasted me 20 years. Thrift shopping is evidence of the amazing things you can discover when you go into something with an open mind, no expectations, and a twenty dollar bill.
9. Study your predecessors. There’s been a whole heck of a lot of people who have lived and died in this world before you came along, and they left behind words, images, and ideas that might inspire you. Before postmodernism and appropriation and self-referential art were being written about, Bob was ahead of his time, paying homage to the art that came before him, finding inspiration in and re-imagining famous works.
10. Never stop learning, even things outside your discipline. Grandpa Bob visited the library at least once a week, and I remember as a kid being surprised to see a painter engrossed in a books about quantum physics and chaos theory.
11. Commune with nature and befriend the animals. Bob was an avid fisherman, he loved the outdoors, and he had a way with wild animals.
One of the rare words of advice Grandpa Bob gave me was when I asked him about what it was like to have a pet raccoon and he said, “Raccoons make terrible pets. They’re nocturnal and mischievous. A crow, on the other hand, is very smart and makes a good pet.” As someone who loves cute fuzzy creatures and is slightly afraid of birds, I found this piece of wisdom deeply disappointing, although I appreciated his candor.
He regularly donated paintings to fundraisers for animal rescue groups. When he lived in his condo, he had a squirrel who, in warm weather, often climbed up the tree and into the open window of his watercolor studio to drink from the glasses of paint-tinged water. I’ve tried to work out a similar deal with the squirrels who live outside my little treehouse, to no avail. (The cats may not be helping my case.)
12. Eat bacon and buttered toast. I’m not a dietitian or a doctor, but these seemed to be staples in Grandpa Bob’s diet. He lived to be 95.
13. Have fun. Some people say that serious art, “high art,” is never light or humorous. I say those people are to be pitied. Grandpa Bob taught me that art can be humorous and majestic, ridiculous and sublime, all at once. My favorite pieces of art always are.
14. Finally, find what fuels you. Life is hard and it takes a lot of energy to get through your days. I’ve seen people use some destructive things as fuel—anger or alcohol or self-pity. But Grandpa Bob, he ran on high octane, premium grade art. Art (any kind, not just visual or “high art”) can keep you interested in life, give you goals and a purpose, help you process your emotions and make sense of the senselessness that gets thrown at you. Yes, a dining room table or a white shirt or a pristine, un-paint-splattered floor may get destroyed along the way, but, all things considered, that’s a worthwhile trade-off.
So there you have it—what I know of Robert Amft and his secret recipe for a good life, which I hope you will steal and use for your personal enrichment. Because it seems to me that the more people who are out there trying to create some beauty in the world, the better off we all are.