Dear Artist

Dear Artist,

It is true, you are a messenger.  But you first must hear the message.  Only in the quietness of your own soul will you know what is being said to you.  As you listen deeply, your message will come forth.

You belong in the margins.  In a place where no one is looking, you work your magic, and when it is worked, it reverberates across time and space into the hearts and minds of the masses.  But you must protect your soul from identification with the prevailing culture. You may send your work into the brightness of that never-ending day, but your soul must always reside in the half-light of your own humanity.   

As an Artist, you must constantly tend to your practice.  It is not enough to think about your work; in fact, it is counterproductive.  Do not make a habit of considering the work you might do. Let the process of making be the art itself.  Your practice will then resonate between your real abilities and limitations, and it will be your art.

Makers make.  The greatest crime against you is the lie that your Artist life has no value.  Most of life is speaking this to you in subtle and not so subtle ways. It is not enough to struggle all your life to try and be an Artist.  You must ignore every compulsion to sacrifice your own soul for the sake of financial comfort, pleasing your parents, or avoiding the sometimes painful occupation of the Artist’s way in this world.  

Live close to nature, however possible.  Even if you live on the 30th floor of a high rise, or have no house at all, make time to walk slowly in a park.  Care for one plant on your balcony. Spending time in the natural world will invigorate your creative soul and establish your life in a much larger context.  Life is brief, and the universe is unfathomably large. This brief moment is yours. Everything in the “True Artist You” is desperate to emerge. All you need do is begin.  It will be painfully awkward at first. Fear and self-hatred may darken your days. It will not seem worth the trouble, and this is exactly what the uninitiated world would prefer:  to keep your voice silenced while money makes more money and humanity is lulled to sleep by the rhythmic, predictable sound of the American Dream.

Artist, take care of yourself.  What you make will shape the course of history.  We can all see the problems in the world, and many of us feel these problems deeply.  Some of us are not living as Artists right now because we do not want to enter into the pain of the world.  To you I say, “Come”. Come out of hiding. Come out of your fear and self-deception. You are meant to live another life, a life you must learn to live through experience and inheritance.  You must begin where you are today and determine that you will get to know yourself as you really are. No matter what you discover, you must open your heart to this new self and show great compassion towards whatever you find.  

A new lifestyle awaits you.  There is life beneath the surface of things, but you cannot yet see it.  You must become the one who inhabits a new reality in order to experience this new life.  I cannot tell you in full what will happen along the way. But I can tell you that if you learn to trust your heart, you will live into the truth of your life.  If you are an artist in your soul but not living or working as an artist, you are probably miserable. And I am sorry for you, truly. But you don’t need to numb the pain any longer.  In fact, it is the pain, the grief of your own disheartened dissatisfaction, that provides the fuel to begin the process of becoming your true self.

Your grief is the first step on your journey home.  You may even slip into depression. Be careful not to take up residence in your grief.  If your artistry is fueled primarily by grief, you should consider that there is another way.  There is an endless supply of grief, anger and bitterness in the world, and perhaps you have found a way to shape it into something people want to own.  Or perhaps you experience a certain sort of gratification in expressing yourself through the grief, but now this pain has become your Muse. You may be a very talented artist, but you are stuck in the bowels of existence.  You must become willing to take the next step on your journey.

There is no place like the desert.  Who upon arriving at the edge of a desert would want to go forward?  Sand as far as the eye can see! But you must cross the desert if you want to enter in to the robust artist life that awaits you.  In the desert there are no other voices but the many you bring with you. As you plod across the long expanse of unsheltered terrain, you will experience every compulsive desire to stop, to run, to end your life, to avoid your craft, and to return to making art in the grief of your own complaints.  In the desert, you won’t believe that you have what it takes to make it.

The desert is a time of testing and a place of refining.  What happens in the desert is unique to each person, but if you persevere, you will one day awaken to a new reality.  It is nothing short of a rebirth.

Many people are living right at the edge of their desert, stuck in grief and disappointment, and making art that attacks the prevailing culture for its many flaws.  Even if you are making a good living and receiving praise for your work, the deeper truth is that it is costing you too much, personally, to remain here.

Those who pass through the desert have died the deaths of every false and compulsive version of themselves, and all that remains are the essential components of a grateful, creative life.  

Your false self is a parasite, feeding on you, the living host.  There are attempts by you to “feel creative” every now and then (like a drowning person coming up for air) but the majority of your life is lived through this parasite.  The true you doesn’t get to feel deep joy for the work you are doing, because you have permitted the parasite to determine the life you will live. The parasite only wants to survive.  It can never be truly happy. It is not you.

Crossing the desert is like a good long fast.  It will eventually rid you of your parasites. You will no longer think about life in terms of your retirement account and if you have the latest iPhone or how many Instagram followers you should have.  You won’t even concern yourself with how much work you are producing, showing, or selling. You will be marginally free of those thoughts, and remain free as long as you tend to the subtle motions of your soul.  

The art world is full of a lot of people, most of us clamoring for fame while struggling to keep the lights on.  The true artist life is a call to deep self-acceptance. It is coming to terms with being only adequately provided for financially.  It is accepting that your bank account may never move much past month-to-month living. It is learning to find meaning and value in a world absolutely full of beauty and wonder.  It is learning to pay attention to what really matters; and what really matters is you. You matter. Your soul matters.

The final step into your artist life is the acceptance of this incredible gift you have been given.  If you can see yourself and your life as a gift to receive, you have completely flipped the script that most of us have been conditioned to believe our entire lives.  This “gift” comes with deeply satisfying experiences of simply being alive. Sadly, many people die striving after this experience, having found only false and temporary versions of it.  The gift of being an artist lies in your fertile, creative life. You have removed all the blocks of shame and grief. You have realized that your work cannot please everyone, and perhaps will please no one.  You are free to make art that is truly inspired.

Making this life practical is about making it personal.  Every artist life will look different. What is important is honoring yourself in the process.  If you are more creative in the mornings, don’t get a job as a barista. If you need to stay up late into the evenings to create, don’t get a job as a barista.  Work to support the unique way that you are an artist. And try to work so that you have just enough to live on. If possible, don’t put yourself in a career that you can’t stand being in.  The wear on your soul will drain your creative energy. If you love being outdoors, work outdoors. If you hate working with people, find a job where you don’t have to interact much with the public.  You have permission to be creative in the way that you formulate your life. Just make sure you do it to radically support the artistic life that you must live.

What happens in the studio

The studio is a place of experimentation and execution. I am always looking for the medium and technique that best captures a feeling, and then I see if I can take that approach into making a new series of works. When I discover a technique, whether its layering and scraping, or incorporating a specific material into a sculpture, I will work to keep that process in place, while at the same time allowing each piece in the series to unfold with its own unique flavor. Eventually, what I have wanted to say has been said through the work. Sometimes this process takes a matter of weeks, sometimes it takes several months. If I have a deadline approaching, I notice myself spending more and more time in the studio trying to get every related work of art completed before a show. This work frenzy is mostly due to my anticipation of a brief but natural break coming after all of the intense studio time has ended and before I start the process again of first listening, and then making an interpretation of the major themes which surface.

In the in-between space, when I have finished a series and before I make the works public, I will spend time evaluating the paintings individually and as a series. The final judgement process is simply determined by whether or not I like the work. If a painting doesn't make the cut, there is always a reason. I will often set that painting aside in my studio and allow it to speak to me over time, in case there is some emerging technique therein that might offer me insight into the next series. This is particularly true towards the end of a long series, when the work begins to wander in a new direction. Normally this is a signal to slow down and take care of more administrative matters, like framing and photographing a series for a show. All the while I am keeping one eye on my own creative flow to determine how urgently I feel I must return to art making and catch the new wave of creativity.

A short talk I gave as judge of 2019 Poetry Festival

As the judge of the 2019 Poetry Festival at Convent and Stuart Hall, I was asked to share a few words about poetry:

It truly is a privilege to be here, thank you for having me. It was only a few years ago after shutting down in nonprofit I had run for 10 years, that I was driving Uber on the streets of San Francisco wondering about my lot in life as an artist and poet. While there certainly are worse jobs than driving for Uber, I cannot believe the good fortune I’ve had in joining Convent and Stuart Hall. Thank you Jason for introducing me to this opportunity, and to Rachel, Julia and the many others who have put their trust in me as a teacher.
Its probably most accurate to describe my vocation as artist, teacher and student of poetry, as poetry is still a relatively new expression.
In every cell of me though I am also a mystic, which if you don’t know the term is not a vocation so much as a way of seeing and being. A mystic looks for meaning and finds it in the embrace of the Present moment. The journey of mysticism begins with a loss of self and a discovery of one’s own belonging to the spirit of life - the mystical journey seems to spiral infinitely around these two poles.
Poetry has become a welcome companion to me on this mystical path of life with its many hills and valleys. Poetry joined itself to me one day while taking a walk at a bird sanctuary near my house.
Because I have lived as an artist for twenty years, I was ready for the moment a poem interrupted my walk. If you want to do anything truly creative it is essential to have a lifestyle that makes room for the interruptions of inspiration. I’d say the work of a poet is 90% lifestyle, 5% inspiration, and 5% other- which includes the occasions you are required to step out of your comfort zone and share the work of your soul with 500 wonderful strangers.

Over a three year period I walked and wrote around 100 poems. I figured I’d edit them and publish a short book. As a testament to the inefficiency of the creative process, more than half of the poems didn’t make the final cut, but what I complied I’m reasonably proud of, and grateful to be standing here to share some words with you.

To me, poetry is language of and for the wise. I think the worst kind of poem is the kind that is trying too hard to be a good poem. I’ve written more than a few of these myself, in fact, there’s probably at least one in the book I published. I’ll probably write poetry all my life, and I’ll definitely write more bad poems than good, but if I’m really really lucky I might write one great poem in my lifetime; though I don’t expect it.
I’m going to do something very non mystical now. I’m going to use some absolutes to describe what I think makes for “good” poetry; and for the sake of time I’m going to oversimplify. This is very non mystical of me. 
Good poets know that you can over expose any idea with too many words. Good poetry leaves space around an idea so the reader may approach it from their own experience.
Poetry is not prescriptive; though many would be readers are looking for such shortcuts to their own success.
Poetry instead takes the long way around and in doing so awakens your soul to know what true success in life means for you.
Poetry is not a roadmap for life though; no poet would presume such understanding.
Poetry may at times offer guidance, but more likely solace and companionship on the long, winding and sometimes treacherous road of life.
I’m going to close with a poem I wrote in September.  It has yet to be titled. If a good title occurs to you, send me an email.

These shoes are good
for walking around in circles
Looking for words
that have dropped from my mind
before I could find a pen

In truth I did not drop them
They were stolen by a multitude of news
That snuck past my checkered thoughts
and demanded to be seen

Responding to this urgency
is the making of a life, for some,
But I will stand as lighthouse in this storm
My solitude breaks even
the most tacit of waves

So that’s where I lost it
Somewhere between
the kitchen and my desk
When all of me
was in the meaning of words
And none of me
was watching my future

Those words are gone
An offering to the God
who hears my thoughts
Thoughts Which glitter like grains of sand
tumbling in the surf
Of a great ocean

Artist Talk - The mountain beneath the soul

Recently I had an art opening and poetry reading at a fantastic gallery space called, Phoenix. Here is the transcript of the talk I gave that evening.

“Welcome and thank you for coming. My name is David Nyquist. The art, writing and poetry you see tonight is mine.

I’d like to introduce myself tonight in a way maybe you don’t yet know me.  

I am a mystic

Being a mystic is a way of life -    not by religious order, but by a love for contemplation, quiet, and stillness. 

These “spaces” that I create throughout my life are not ends to themselves but doorways to a rich spirituality woven into the essence of the natural world. 

Spending time “awake” in the natural world has taught me how to receive a deep sense of belonging to my life that surpasses my insecurities, is helping me to overcome my selfish ambitions, and is freeing me to love more the things in this world that I find difficult to love.  To this transforming experience I ascribe the word “Belonging”.  This is a belonging that understands no national borders, nor any reason for shame.  It is the interconnectedness and interdependency of all creation.

I realize for some of you this sounds too woo woo; too high minded or idealistic to be of any practical good.  I will grant you that.   

And yet, in this place of belonging,   what I know is that if we all belong, and we are all different, then it is for some of us to write, to paint or to sing for the the high minded ideals that will restore our humanity, and for others to resonate with this inspiration and discover their part in the whole, their work on behalf of what is GOOD and right and just.

So, I am first a mystic.  My spiritual practices deeply inform my creative practices.  

My paintings are an attempt to capture the essence of what life feels like for me, and likely what life has felt like for you.  For example, I worked on the Marooned Series for several months.   

They are each distinct, and yet they came from a time in my life when I was learning how to trust the unknown and how to trust life and others when I am not control. Because the natural world is my great teacher, without conscious intent, I find myself using the imagery of oceans, fire, light and darkness to communicate my experience.

It was just 3 years ago that poetry found me. I was in Guatemala with a group of Westerners for an immersive experience into Societal Injustices for a Master’s program.  We were driving down a highway outside of Guatemala City - after leaving La Limonada, which is the largest slum in Central America.  I couldn’t keep it together. I pulled my hat over my eyes and wept silently for what I had seen. Moments later I had a pen and paper and was drafting this poem - La Miseria. 

La Miseria

Weave our way

into your tapestry of pain

through streets


into the womb

     of a nation

daughters and sons

     of oppression 

fathers and mothers 

     whose confession

can not be written

     will not be heard

though their blood 

     cries out

          "No more words!”

It paints the walls

     and makes holy 

the stream

     at the bottom

of this ravine

     whose coarse is charted

by mounds of garbage

     and buried dreams


     in your overcrowded


     of discard 

and smoke

     across Devil's bridge

at the bottom of


make room for my heart

     I leave it with you

weave in me your

     unspoken truth

La Limonada, Guatemala City

Returning home I entered back into a world that seemed more upside down than the one I had just left.  Being American is a difficult identity to embrace when you consider the many genocides and human rights violations that have secured and continue to secure for us our land, resources and wealth.

My experience in Guatemala shook me awake, and pushed me deeper into the marriage of my spiritual and creative practices.  

One of the ways I learned to confront my grief and outrage was by taking slow walks. Slow walks happen at the sort of pace that makes other people wonder if there is something wrong with you. 

But a slow walk actually slows everything down; thoughts, heart rate, attention span, our bodies, and it helps create a present-moment awareness.

Here are three poems from three such walks.


I’m turned around, 

looking down the dirt path 

I have just tread.

Why did I come so far


Some fear or grief 

arrested my mind

and stole my body 

as I strode the 

familiar path home.

I have no recollection 

of the paces which 

have brought me 

to this point.

The birdsong I long to know 

has yet to become my own.

Wasting the hours 

The evening sun is bright 

and I want 

an unvarnished look 

at my neighborhood. 

I’ve never noticed 

how this young tree 

bends toward the sidewalk 

just beyond the brace 

of its formative years. 

Further down the path 

I become the man 

spied by boys 

while tying his shoe. 

I am avoidant;

of their eyes 

(and the story 

they conjure about me);

of the smell of the estuary 

(as she purges herself of our shame);

of the cars reproval 

(for my slow, meandering way);

until this moment,

when the smell 

of some blossom 

stops me in my tracks,

and I linger like a fool 

with my nose in the air;

but it has gone,

and I 

for the life of me, 

cannot find it's source.

A Walk Within a Walk

Tracing my steps 

on a well worn path to sea

I can easily miss the beauty

as I pine for a mountain to climb. 

The sound of a jet plane above, 

an electric saw 

reverberating across the estuary,

a city shimmering on 

the bay in spring

as I seek the solitude 

of one alone with nature.

Time to begin again.

The mountain 

will soon rise before me, 

but not before the tide comes in, 

and with it an abundance of life.

I have come from 

the dust, mud, and clay, 

like the mustard flower,

the beetle, 

and the tide, 

which needs little help 

returning to shore.

Neither the writing, reading nor publishing of these poems, nor the making of paintings is enough to assuage my outrage over the many injustices in the world, and nor should they be.  

As much as I’d like my contemplative practices to heal the world of its ailments, both human and nonhuman, they really only serve to help me know how to better respond. There are times that a slow walk takes me further away from the point of inspiration I needed to find in my outrage and grief.  

This next poem is  A Keening for Liberty.  A keening is the sound of wailing you might hear at a funeral that goes on for days, in a place where they understand what to do with their grief.

A Keening for Liberty 

There are no new frontiers.  We have claimed them all. To 'own' untamed wild will cost us a lifetime of societal enslavement. 

Now 40 acres might suffice, but recompense has yet to come and so we wait (as sons and daughters do) for our parents to lead us into truth; but truth is lost on a piece of land somewhere between the coasts of my body. 

When we speak of such things it is better to ignore the tide that rises in the throat threatening to consume an honest reflection, lest perception be won by those who think that winning is the same as victory. 

Powers that be, your lot may be large but you are too small to see the forest for the trees which block your view and yet shelter me. 

In hidden places of the mind, where a man can truly be free, I sway gently in the breeze as my roots go down deep into a land you cannot see.  

As a mystic and contributor of creative things to our world, I have tendency to seek solitude. I’ve found that if I am attentive to the needs of my soul then I will show up better as a husband, father and friend.  This next poem was written after spending nearly a week in one house with four other families who are some of our best friends.


From our separate, hurried lives

we come together to savor again

the intimacy of belonging.

We swim through hot days

which dwindle all too fast

into evening.

 Then rest our weary bodies 

in close quarters

for the comfort we find in the 

soul of companionship.

The armchairs are where

spoken dreams are born 

or laid to rest.

Around the table

candles illuminate

our dark nights

with laughter 

and memories.

Our song is witnessed 

only by the stars who 

hold space above

and remind us of our own

eternal brevity.

This crease in time 

gathers the sacred waters 

of our friendship.

Here we learn to swim

and find strength

to meet our unknown horizons;

Where grow the promise

of thorn and thistle,

though the child within 

shall find an abundance of fruit.

Arnold, California

Cherishing one’s self is important, and if we learn to do that well, we will also cherish others, and hopefully find language to speak it forth. 

This final poem is called Friendship, and while it was written after a lovely evening with my friends Sarah and Tom, it goes out to all of you with whom I have ever had the pleasure of sharing a fire or an intimate conversation. 

Again, thank you again for being here tonight.

This is Friendship


Friendship ablaze 

around my hearth

like starlight, 

the afterglow of being seen.

Our words wove a tapestry 

into the night sky.

Threads of long suffering 

bound by glimmering hope and 

dark, unspeakable grief.

Now I sit alone, 

an ember.

The warmth is a memory

to which I return

until winds that blow

fan our flames 

once again.”


I arrived in Guatemala with a knowing in my soul that said, “this is gonna hurt”, and for that reason I was scared.  All too recently I had overcome my own terribly vulnerable state of being, and here I was heading into communities of systemic injustice and chronic vulnerability.  When presented with the opportunity to feel compassion, it can be tempting to choose judgement as a swift and quick end to vulnerability.  Fortunately, my heart remained open and I permitted myself to feel the suffering of Guatemalan’s indigenous people.  

It’s too long and detailed a story to tell here, suffice to say that in the 1980’s, native lands were stolen by American corporations, tens of thousands of husbands and fathers were secretly murdered and buried in hidden mass graves, and all of this was condoned by the US government.  

Those native people that remained relocated to Guatemala City with no money or applicable job skills.  They began to build shanties in a long, steep sided ravine which becomes quite dangerous in the rainy season.  Today, this ravine is home to nearly 100,000 people and is the largest urban slum in Central America.  Gangs to wage war in broad daylight and someone in Guatemala City dies of gun violence every 90 minutes. 

I left my 3 star hotel lobby one humid Guatemala morning and in the company of 20 other Westerners, I descended into the heart of this slum, called by it’s residents La Limonada because of their necessary belief that they, tough as lemons, will one day prevail.  The deeper our descent, the fewer people we saw on the street until it was just eyes peering out of slits in makeshift window frames.  The walk from our van to a nearby school was the most harrowing as we were all so exposed.  Did I hear gunshots?  Is that a large blood stain on the unpaved earth?  Why are we here?  

Our guide is well respected in the community, and she was the only reason we were permitted to walk freely through this neighborhood.  As she shared about the work they do with young children, I grabbed on to the hope in her words, like a passing raft in a raging sea.  And for a moment this was not my problem.  I remembered my 3-star hotel and loving family back in America.  I remember walking back out into the streets with a welcome self-deception.  I had survived this trip.  I would donate some money to this amazing organization.  It was going to be okay.  

Walking out of the school you turn a sharp corner and face a small bridge, beyond it the steep sided ravine climbs high with shanties.  There just 100 feet in front of us was an old woman with a laundry basket on her head, presumably going to do her wash.  I watched her walk and then stop at the bridge.  The normalcy I was desperately looking for was once again ripped from me as I washed her tip her basket full of plastic trash bags right over the edge of the bridge.  A split-second later they landed wet and heavy with a sound I will possibly never forget.  It was now my turn to cross the bridge, and as I peered over the edge every last vestige of hope spilled out of me.  What was once a small river had become the slums dumping grounds.  I found out later that the poorest of poor in this place will walk barefoot through the sludge and trash in search of small bits of metal that can be sold.  

Back in the van I pulled my hat over my eyes and wept.  Then I wrote the poem, La Limonada. When I returned home a week later, I began painting scenes from the stream at the bottom of the ravine, where I stood on Devil’s bridge and remembered why I had been so scared to come to Guatemala. 


My recent works really begins here, with the painting called, Release. I remember the moment four years ago when I was just about to make my first brush strokes after a nine month mental health hiatus. 

I was trained to never paint with true black, its inorganic presence in a composition has tendency to overpower.  But I presently knew no other color than the darkness that had been my jailer.  From the “black” I had just emerged and so into the black I would dip my brush in order to paint to my experience. 

Black, as it turned out, was not the right color.  It was too brilliant; too familiar, like a night sky.  My experience was that of one who ate food but could no longer taste, like who slept but was never at rest. 

And there was nothing I could do to change my state. It was only in the letting go of understanding, letting go of my need to ever be “better” again, and just showing up in the moment “as I am”, while open to all the possibilities held in an instance.

This is the moment I have tried to capture in the painting titled, “Release”. Alone, in my car by the ocean, letting everything go, a dim light of presence or hope came to mind for the first time in a year.  It was intangible, surrounded by my weariness and confusion, but it was there and somehow I knew that my descent into darkness was complete and the next portion of my journey was beginning. Following this I painting I began to work on the series called, Marooned.


Imagine yourself drifting in a life raft in the middle of an ocean.  The seas are rising and falling all around you.  There is nothing to do but drift.  The horizon holds all the possibility for life, but it is always just a horizon and nothing more.  Even as the weather changes the fact remains, there is nothing you can do to change your circumstances.

Marooned is a series of six, open-water paintings.  The theme was not a conscious one, rather I was looking for a way to say what I was feeling in this new season of my “adult aloneness”, to quote the poet David Whyte.  I had just entered the great uncertainty of mid-life, and it was engulfing me with a most unexpected vastness.

Looking at these paintings today I am comforted by the hope I see in the light breaking through the clouds.  This marks a shift in perspective for me, as prior to this Marooned series I was not so willing to receive with gratitude the simple gifts that life offers in the midst of otherwise difficult times.  Too often I had believed that a lack of joy and happiness meant that I was failing to engineer a good life.  When those efforts fail and we let ourselves fall apart, what remains is more true and more beautiful than any controlled outcome.  This is the beginning of acceptance, and becoming present to “what is”.  It is the very doorway to contemplation.


No matter one’s preference for comfort and security, each one of us is a traveler on a journey into the unknown.  A journey that will challenge us and change us, if we let it.

In the Buddhist koan that inspired my painting, Traveler’s Raft, a traveler that must cross an expanse of water to reach Nirvana.  After lashing together some logs and crossing over, the Buddha poses the question of what to do with the raft.  The story suggests he advises the traveler to gently place the raft on the shore and be on her/his way.

In life there are many threshold moments that capture the spirit of this “crossing over”.   The ones that loom largest in my mind usually require me to let go of something, be it control over a loved one, the mind’s faculties as we age, or the body in death.  The spiritual practice of “letting go” helps to prepare me for these inevitable thresholds.

When I painted Traveler’s Raft, I didn’t realize that the Buddha had offered the traveler an answer.  My gut response was to “burn the raft” and send it back into the water like Cortez in the Spanish conquest of Mexico, leaving me no recourse but to press on into my uncertain future.

I had in mind with this painting to express my own difficulty with change, and to acknowledge how tempting it can be to lose hope when life becomes challenging.  I never want to be in a position where I choose the easier option of losing heart while in pursuit of the things in life which are most meaningful to me.  If there’s a raft still floating on the shore that could take me back to what is familiar and comfortable, I just might go back.  Better burn the raft.