When you see Trés Taylor’s paintings you see the colors, the design, the playfulness, the story, the thoughtfulness and the spirit of life. They have a way of drawing you in, and quite often, just making you smile. He talks about and creates his pieces with such a sense of ease that it would be natural to think he has been painting since he was a young child. So, it is a bit surprising, but all the more inspiring, to learn that he became a self-taught artist at the age for 42 after a 14 year career in the field of science as a biochemist. Trés left his microscope for a paintbrush, and along the way started to live a life that was more true and authentic to him.
Trés spends his summers traveling the art festival circuit, and he has a genuine interest in making a connection with each individual who buys one of his creations – always signing the back of the painting with a special message to the buyer. The stories that accompany and inspire his pieces, along with his southern storytelling ways, bring the paintings to life in a way that makes them even more beautiful and alive. When you buy one of Trés paintings, you feel as though you are actually buying a small piece of joy. There is a real life to Trés’ work and after speaking with him, I feel that even more so. His journey is a resounding example of someone who really let go of his “shoulds” in order to chase what his heart was telling him to do. His want, determination, faith and love wouldn’t let it not happen! Read on to learn more about his path from scientist to artist…
Trés, you came to be an artist later in life, after a career as a biochemist. Can you tell us a little bit about your background story and how you eventually got to where you are today?
When I was in my 20s I got a degree in English. I wanted to be a writer, but I was real vulnerable to the criticism in my program. There was a writer who was quite famous and everyone was hoping to be liked by him. The thought was, if he loved your stories you would have a promising career. Everybody was working so hard to get his recognition. A lot of writing I was doing never measured up to what he thought would be worthy. I was very young, naive, inexperienced and so after finishing the program I got married and had a daughter.
I immediately decided that I had to support this family. So, there was this pressure to become a physician, because I had a father who was a physician. That wasn’t living authentically. In my own mind I thought I had to do as well as what my father had done. I ended up in science and for 14 years. I always was kind of looking off as if there was some other form of happiness out there, but I wasn’t sure what it was. The longer you get into that, the longer you train yourself and the more difficult or fearful it is to let go of it.
I think, ultimately, that’s what it always boils down to – It’s fear. It is absolutely the hardest thing to get past. Realizing that when you jump off that cliff – which in my case was leaving science for art – that’s it. I had been trying to leave science for a number of years. I would go right to the edge of that cliff, but stop. My daughter was starting college about this time, and I just thought it was the most frightening thing. Of course, when I jumped off it was like “Ahhhh!” But then I landed on my feet and it was like, “Wow – okay, I’m still alive.”
Was there any point of those 14 years that you enjoyed your work as a scientist, or did you feel like the entire time you had one foot out the door?
I absolutely loved the creative thinking of it, doing the research and trying to come up with the questions. Science is a very creative endeavor. When there is a question that you are asking you are almost like Sherlock Holmes. You have to do a lot of reading and go through the literature to see if someone has answered the question you are posing in your mind. Formulating those questions and digging through and reading about those things, I loved doing that.
But…that’s only partly how science is done. The other part of science is done at the bench. That was the part I was terrible at. I didn’t like working at the bench. I was a dreamer, really. I loved dreaming about things. I think also being confined to one place was very difficult for me. There was always a sense of not knowing how to leave it.
I should tell you, actually, that there is a little more to this story. The way I ended up as a biochemist is that I was interested in a science called ethnobotany, which was looking at how indigenous people used plants for medicine. I was living in Japan at the time and had kind of fallen into this. It was really fascinating. When I came back from Japan I went and talked with this scientist I had worked with a couple of years back about the possibility of bringing in a plant-based screening program. He was fascinated with that and so I sort of fell into the bio-chemistry by bringing in and designing this screening program which actually sent me to the Amazon where I did a lot of research and collecting of plants. I spent 3 months doing that and then the next 10 years inside a lab. There was always that aching feeling of knowing I had gone so far into this that I didn’t think I could just quit this after all of the years of developing this research project, investing all of this time and study.
That was actually all happening before I ever picked up a paintbrush. Painting was the thing that actually freed me. I had a relationship that had gone bad, and I was unhappy with my work. As soon as I picked up my paintbrush it was such a cathartic moment. It was like these demons (or whatever) that had consumed my happiness had just been lifted off. For the first time in a long time I was just being.
Can you explain what you mean by how you were “just being?”
I was just there making art. It freed me. It put me in the moment of making a very crude painting of a man and a woman flying apart in opposite directions with a heart between the two. It was so cathartic. I thought about it recently, and I think what happened was that all these emotions that I had been having and which were whirling around inside my head had finally found a way out through the physical act of painting. Once these emotions were transferred to something concrete, in this case my paintings, they were no longer inside of me creating havoc and sadness. The more paintings I did, the freer I became. I learned that I had been trapped by my thoughts and consequently wasn’t being present in my life. Painting brought me back to just being present which is where all joy resides. Not in the past and not in the future.
That all very much connects to the whole idea of art therapy. Sometimes what we can’t express with our words can come out in the creative process. For some people that happens through dance or gardening or weaving. Clearly, for you, it was painting. You are a self-trained artist – what made you pick up that paintbrush? What got you to even get to the point of knowing this was something you wanted to try?
It was kind of an accident – and I use that word very loosely, because I don’t believe there are accidents. In 1998 I was living in San Diego, and I went home to Birmingham, Alabama to where my family was living for Christmas vacation. I had just come out of a relationship, and I was really pretty sad about the whole thing. This was compounded with feeling lonely and depressed about where my life was going. I had not ended up pursuing ethnobotany or writing. I was working in a lab. I felt limited there. Clearly there was something that needed to be expressed, I just had no idea what that was.
I came home and a friend of mine, and I decided to go and visit all of these Alabama folk artists. We spent the entire week visiting probably 10-12 of these folks. Every one of them struck me. I was having profound experiences with people who were living very simple lives, didn’t have a whole lot, but had created these entire worlds of great imagination through the use of paint. They were surrounded by all of this art. The art was very naïve. These were all self-taught artists. All of them probably didn’t even have a high school education, yet talking with them I knew these were people who were living their lives fully.
So, at the end of that week, something was happening to me. I felt that being in their presence had really lifted my spirit. The last one I was with, his name was R.A. Miller, and I like to think that he spiritually handed me his baton. He was chewing his tobacco, had these red suspenders on and he was just this lovable old man. His eyesight was going and he couldn’t see very well, but he was still painting. He lived in an old shack made of tarpaper. He would make whirligigs. His entire house, this little shack, was this magic land of whirligigs. He had created his own little world.
I was taking his pictures and laughing with him. I told him I wished I could do what he does. He was looking at me and chewing his tobacco and said, “What are you saying? You are artist material!” He spits his tobacco out with drool all over his chin. I said, “No, I can’t even draw a stick figure.” He said, “Well, I’m telling you that you are an artist.” The reason he said that is because we are all here as creative beings. I think that is what we all have to get in touch with, that creative part of ourselves. Just about anything we do can be creative, it doesn’t have to be necessarily through paint or dance.
So, I went back to California and about a month or so later I decided to go for a bike ride. I was riding through a park where these museums are, and there was all of this old wood thrown out in front of the museum. Something just compelled me to go pick up that wood – which is what these old folks artists would do, use stuff that others threw away. I thought, “I’m going to go home and make a painting.” I put some of this wood on the back of my bicycle, took it down in my basement and made this painting of a man and a woman flying in opposite directions with this heart in between them.
Something really changed after that experience. It’s almost like I went into a trance, came out of it, and found a way to heal myself. I realized this felt so good that I needed to make another painting. Then I made another painting, and another painting. There was a point in time where I had so much art that I was putting my paintings on the floor. I had so many wet paintings on the floor in my bedroom that I had to climb out the window to go to work so that the paintings could dry.
I’d get to work and all I could think about was which painting I was going to do when I got home. I became obsessed with them. It was bringing me so much joy, just the act of creating and expressing. When I was in science I loved to design experiments, but I didn’t enjoy expressing it through the tools that a scientist has to use. It is very tedious and often the experiments don’t work. It requires a tremendous amount of patience. I guess I realized I was a very visual person – I was making art and enjoyed it so much because I could watch my experiments come to life.
Look at Einstein. All his experiments were done inside his head. He did “thought experiments.” He used mathematics as his tool, but his whole process depended on imagination. We had a lot of people in science like that. Science has kind of a bad rap. A lot of people think it is very linear and logical. Actually, many scientific discoveries are made by people having the imagination to come up with something that might be plausible…or maybe it’s not plausible…but it’s the imagination that made them ask that question and then pursue it. While science requires mathematics, and mathematics is a left-brain activity, you need imagination. You will not find a successful scientist who is not using the creative side of their brain. They have to use a great deal of imagination.
I think that being an entrepreneur or when you turn a curiosity into a business, a big part of that is realizing you are going to make mistakes and you have to be okay with that. Scientists have to try things out and some of them will fail and some will work out. I think the same is true for artists. I think artists are okay with putting something out there and then changing it, fixing it, experimenting with it. How do we allow people to do that…to make mistakes?
Thomas Edison said, ” I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” I actually believe that failure (and I think we use that word a little too loosely) is so important for discovery. A lot of my art, and a lot of my science, came from where I had an idea and tried to pursue something and it wasn’t exactly working out. But something else came up, and it was interesting so I went with it.
I just think that we put ourselves within this idea that things have to be a certain way, instead of being open to discovering a whole new way. The whole concept is so beautiful to me because there is a natural rhythm to everything. Part of our job is to find how that rhythm moves in our lives and how to allow that rhythm to flow rather than doubting it. I think it comes through intuition. I believe intuition is the key to a lot of people living authentic lives.
When you see or hear intuition that is coming from you. That is not a voice from outside that is thinking you should do something. When you listen to intuition it is a very powerful thing. We have gotten to the point where we can’t hear it as well because we are surrounded by so many forces that are shaping how we should act, dress, look, behave, and go to work. Intuition is a little dim voice underneath that.
It’s about really grounding ourselves so that we are in tune with that intuition, so that we are really listening to that versus the other things coming at us all of the time. How do you keep yourself grounded in your intuition and not something else?
I think the thing that is keeping people from what they love doing is fear. How do you address that? There is a Goethe quote that once you commit yourself to that one thing that you love, providence will open its doors for you in a way that you could never, even in your best intention, be able to design on your own. I call it the invisible hand. I’m here to tell you, that I can speak to the truth of this.
By all odds, I should not have become a successful artist, but I loved making art so much that I believe that that “love” opened the doors for me. Also, my happiness was so wrapped up in it, that it didn’t matter to me if I had to live, say on blackberries and tobacco, which incidentally, I did at one time. Being comfortable was not as important to me as doing what I loved, which was painting. It was just such a natural thing for me. I also believed that things would work out, because after all, I was happy from the day I started. There is a wonderful quote by Albert Schweitzer: “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.”
Did moving from a scientist to an artist change your definition of success? What is your definition of success now?
For me, doing what you love is the definition of success. When I was a scientist, I didn’t really know what happiness was. I had glimpses of happiness, but in general I wasn’t a happy person. It wasn’t that I was depressed or anything but going to work was a task. There was no getting up in the morning with a singing bluebird on my shoulder! It was just getting up and going through the motions.
When I went through this change at the age of 42, I felt liberated from a mental cage I was living in – but I didn’t even know I was living there. It was really strange. If you don’t know that you are living in a cage, but you do know that something isn’t right – that’s your authentic self, your intuition, saying that this isn’t right and you need to keep looking. The paintbrush gave me the opportunity for the mind to actually be present and actually enjoy the task in front of me. In science, I don’t think I was happy, because I wasn’t present with my experiments. When we are living from an authentic place it is like our cup runneth over. You feel like you are right where you are supposed to be. You are living what the ancient Chinese Taoist call wu wei. You are living in the flow.
There are certainly frustrations that I have as an artist and as a human being, but I try to catch myself from falling in that self-absorbed state where the focus is on myself, because in the end it is a trap that prevents me from living my life joyfully. I really believe there could be a revolution of joy in the world if we could figure out a way where everybody on this planet could do something that resonates with his or her authentic self.
We, as humans, are supposed to live authentically and allow the electricity of love and creativity to come through so that we shine like light bulbs. It is our fear though that prevents the electricity from coming through. All we have to do is just get out of the way, and when we do, then we become beacons of light that give warmth to others.
At what point did you drop the fear? In other words, leave the lab and decide you were going to become a full-time artist? What was that point where you said this is going to be a full time thing?
I made my first painting on January 10, 1999. In July of 2000 I had become so absorbed with painting that it actually gave me the courage to leave. My boss called me in and said, “You know, something has happened to you. You are not staying focused. Have you lost interest?” I told him that I had. I said that I was scared to death, but I needed to leave. I told him I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but that I had found something I really loved doing – and I would figure it out. I said, “I need six months. Let me just wrap up all of the research.” So, I had six months to get the mental strength to leave.
I actually decided I would give myself a couple of years to just see what happened. I sublet my apartment, which that gave me the opportunity to not have to take care of everything. I could come back if it didn’t work out, but truth be told there was nothing for me to go back to. I wasn’t going to go back.
In a short while I was broke and started doing little odd jobs here and there. I remembered that when I was in San Diego a folk art gallery heard about some of the art I was doing. They came by, and this was when I was still a scientist, and they asked if they could try to sell some of my art online. I said, “Sure, why not!” That week someone in Beverly Hills bought a painting and someone in Japan bought 3 paintings. After I quit my job, I wrote the buyer in Japan a letter to see if he would be willing to sponsor an artist. I told him, “If you will support me for 3 months, so that I can just make art, I will give you every piece of art I make or we can have a show and give it to charity or whatever.” He said, “Come on.”
He sent me a plane ticket. I flew to Japan and for 3 months I stayed in a little hot-spring resort and painted. Then I had a show and a newspaper came out and wrote up an article. The article was read by a ceramic artist who then came to me and invited me to go and work with him and collaborate. It was just all of these doors opening. There is a destiny. The heart has a destiny. So many strange things were happening that made me convinced I was on the right path.
I’ve noticed that people who go to art school, a lot of them don’t continue making art. They have learned to be critical and critique themselves and others to the point that they have critiqued their own imagination out of existence. I was the happy idiot, because I didn’t know what I was doing so I was able to just enjoy it. It is just like how children create. It is just an innocent place. I wasn’t trying to be the next Picasso – I was just enjoying the act of creating.
Did turning art into your career change the creation process for you? Did the fact that you were now making your living off of it kill any of the enjoyment?
When I first started painting I was doing it mostly because I enjoyed it. I never ever thought I would be making a career out of it, but life had an interesting path for me. I would say that it does change, but I’m not so sure the change is a bad change. It is always about how the artist approaches that change. The best way I can explain that would be that when I was first starting, I really didn’t know what I was doing. I was just doing it. There was a certain amount of freedom with that, but it was unstructured. An artist has to develop a voice. If you want to create in a way that is unique and offers different perspectives that are uniquely you, then you have to find that voice.
I think that’s true in anything. It can be in your cooking, in your gardening, in your dance. That “voice” gets back to being true to you and being authentic. It’s an interesting parallel between who you really are and how you create. It’s very hard to know what your voice is if you don’t first know who you are. The first years that I was painting I really didn’t know much about art. I think I came with a voice, but I was unstructured. I started reading a lot about color and experimenting – particularly Modigliani and Jean Dubuffet.
It gave me the freedom to be very experimental and really go the opposite direction of a fine artist who would try to render or paint like a master renaissance master. I went the opposite direction, very child-like and primitive. What happened in the years is that I have grown as an artist to be less wild, a little more controlling, and work the colors. It’s almost like my audience has been my mentor. You have to be very careful that you don’t just stick with that, because you want to evolve. So, you have to take risks.
The way I have done that is with balance. At the beginning of every year I think of new ideas and new approaches, and I do a whole new body of work. I’m motivated to try new things simply because I will get bored if I keep doing the same thing over and over. They are not huge giant leaps of difference because there is a certain voice that I’ve created already. But an example is that I now love to do installations. That is where I get to be really creative and it may or may not be for sale. I try to find a balance there.
I can imagine that helps keep it exciting, fresh, and a little bit new when you interact with the public in a little bit of a different way. Where were some of those large-scale installations?
Probably the most ambitious one was at the Eastern Shore Arts Center, in Fairhope, Alabama where I constructed a 40-foot monk. The next installation was at The Mennello Museum of American Art in Orlando, Florida. That was an 8 ft. by 8 ft. by 8 ft. chapel made out of barn wood. What I did there was to carve on the outside all of these different sized monks that I painted red, white, black or gold. Then, when you walk inside, I had an illuminated rice paper monk. I invited people to write their little prayers on a piece of paper and then drape it over the arms of this little monk.
I am extremely intrigued with the inner journey. I think the outward journey is just a very small part of our lives. I think the inner journey is where the real source is. Joseph Campbell says that is where our bliss is. All of the great teachers have said that. Everyone from Buddha to Christ has said to look inward for there you will find your truth – which is your reason to be and your joy.
I think that comes across in your artwork. I find your artwork to be very spiritual yet very playful. Where do you get your inspiration for creating and why do you use monks?
First of all a monk is a symbol, an archetype that is in all of us. For me, a monk represents that part of us that seeks joy, simplicity and peace. We all seek that whether we know it or not. A monk lives a very simple life by design, because joy comes easier when your needs are simplified.
Often we live so much in our brain that consequently we miss the present moments occurring in our life. This is why we are so consumed with dread and unhappiness. If we are living in the future or the past, those things don’t even exist. The monk, when he is in the kitchen, he is in there probably whistling…okay, monks probably don’t do this but I’m using this as the ideal…these are really just about practices of being here. I can imagine washing dishes as a monk and taking the little handle on the nozzle and spraying everybody in the kitchen and being a little bit of a rascal and having some fun.
I’m not a monk and I don’t want to be a monk, but I love simplicity, and the monk’s simple ways of living. I do believe that simplicity is where true joy and beauty reside. With that being said, I must have some Irish in me, because I do love a good laugh. I have to say that I have a bit of a rascal in me too. The monk in me likes to dance with the Cuban cha-cha girl and doesn’t take life so seriously that he has forgotten the reason why we are here which is to experience our life and to enjoy life. I do think we take ourselves too seriously, too often!
You are very lucky to work in a medium that allows you to think about these things and express them. But I would argue, that we all could do the same thing! If we are conscientious about how we are working then it can have a huge impact on how we choose to live our lives.
It’s so true. Nothing is wasted. Even though we look back and think, what the hell was that I was doing? In truth, I’m really beginning to think that everything is so important in the experience of life and that is why we are here, to experience life. If we don’t experience the bad times, like my tent flooding at an arts festival, and we only experience the sunny days, when artists have people coming in and buying the art, that is not really experiencing life. The flooding of your tent – how are you going to deal with that? Are you going to raise your fist and cuss the clouds? That’s not going to change anything – if anything it’s going to make everything worse.
14 years ago, I left my job and was having a very hard time supporting myself. But here is the most interesting thing that I can tell you…looking back on the 14 years, I never knew if I was going to be able to pay my bills the next month, but it always happened. It always happened. I think that’s getting back to the invisible hand. Success comes from what we love.
There is a book by Florence Scovel Shinn, Game of Life and How to Play It. She said there are 3 rules and I believe this to be true. It’s so simple it’s almost ridiculous. We do cloud our minds with such unnecessary stuff. The first of the three rules is fearless faith. In this case I have fearless faith in what I love. There was no doubt that I loved art, and I didn’t care what anybody thought about it. I loved it and that was enough. The second is non-resistance. So, when the world pulls the rug out from under you, you don’t stop. You just don’t resist it, you let it happen and flow with it. Then the third, which I think is the most important, is love. So, if you love, love, love you will find that the magic really does start to happen. You love who you are, you love what you are doing, you love your friends and you even love those people who make life hard for you because even they are helping you to grow and experience life.
At any point in that 14 years did you ever have a moment where you wanted to forget it and throw your hands up? What were some of the struggles?
Oh boy! Yes, definitely. The short answer is yes. I meet that a lot where I have expectations of myself as an artist trying to evolve and break out of a mold that I might have gotten myself into. But it always comes back to just being and doing what I love and when that happens then I see things start to happen that I really have no control over. I realize that there is something much bigger than me coming through and I just let it happen.
How do you tap into your creative energies? I so often talk to people who are in jobs where they are miserable and they don’t even know what to do. They don’t even know what they are passionate about. How do you continue to tap into your creativeness and allow the world to work exactly the way it is supposed to?
We do live too much in our mind. It’s about moving to the heart. The heart has knowledge that we don’t trust, but it is the true knowledge. The brain is a wonderful organ, but it’s just to serve the heart. The heart is the mystical/spiritual part of our life that we don’t have a whole lot of experience with.
I think the first thing we have to do is ask what we love. That sounds so simplistic, but it really is where it all starts. If you can figure out what you love you can say, “Well, if I love this then how do I bring more of that into my life?” By following your heart, you become the creator of your destiny.
Notes of Reflection:
- It is never too late. I hear people in their early thirties say all the time – I couldn’t change my career, it is too late! Or people who have families say that they have too much responsibility to make a change in their life. Trés story proves that where there is a will, there is a way. He had to make sacrifices – he wasn’t able to keep things exactly the way they were, but the biggest difference was not in what he had but in how he felt. It will undoubtedly require some lifestyle changes, so each individual needs to take the time to decide what is most important to them. But – most children would rather have happy parents then more stuff in their life!
- Wu wei is an important concept in Taoism that translates to “non-doing” in English. It is a practice of releasing conscious control over your life and accepting things just as they are. “Best described as letting go of thoughts/actions that may hinder or block the spontaneous flow of events that take place naturally.” So often when we are trying to create our own business or path in life, it is hard to not want to try and control what is happening. The very basic truth is that we cannot. And – sometimes when we get out of our own way, that is when the best things happen. Trust and practice wu wei.
- How do we work to take life a little less seriously? Some people are naturally good at this, while others need a reminder from time to time. Trés artwork – particularly his playful monks – are a visual reminder that life is meant to be enjoyed. Whether that is riding a bike with a basket full of flowers or sitting in a boat with no idea of the great sea that lies beneath you – it is all a wonder that we are meant to appreciate and value. Other wise, what’s the point?!
- The Music of Silence by Brother David Steindl-Rast
- The Essential Rumi by Coleman Barks
- The Bowl of Saki by Hazrat Inayat Khan [daily emails]
- The Dalai Lama’s Little Book of Wisdom
- The Art of Being and Becoming by Hazrat Inayat Khan
- The Art of Peace by Morihei Ueshiba
- A Monk in the World by Wayne Teasdale
- Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God by Rainer Maria Rilke
- Anything and everything by Alan Watts
- Terrence Mckenna’s video lectures on YouTube
- The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell
- The 100 Love Sonnets by Pablo Neruda
- The Seven Mysteries of Life by Guy Murchie
- Rebel Buddha by Dzogchen Ponlop
- A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield
*Images via Trés Taylor and Cherry Creek Arts Festival