“This tremendous world I have inside of me. How to free myself, and this world, without tearing myself to pieces. And rather tear myself to a thousand pieces than be buried with this world within me.” Franz Kafka
“Go for broke. Always try and do too much. Dispense with safety nets.” Salman Rushdie
The image above is an illustration from my new children’s picture book The Adventures Of Edison Matthews, a story about a bored little boy who uses his imagination to conjure new adventures. Though it appears toward the middle of the book on page 13, it was the first painting I did for the project — almost two years ago now. But the image of a boy in footed pajamas riding a purple rhinoceros has been in my head for even longer.
A few months before the real Edison was born, I decided to make a series of whimsical paintings to hang in his nursery; a collection of fantastical scenes that would surround his crib, blanketing his playtime and naps in wonder and enchantment. For some reason still unknown to me, the first thing to emerge from the vapors of my mind was the boy on the purple rhinoceros. And, as is so often the case, I sketched out a thumbnail of the painting and put it away in a drawer where it sat untouched and unviewed for a decade.
However, it wasn’t the usual case of “out of sight, out of mind.” Although I never got around to making the paintings for Edison’s room (something that still saddens me because it feels like missed magic), I would frequently think about the purple rhinoceros. It would appear to me at what felt like the oddest times, flashing into my mind like a default screen saver that had just been refreshed. Across the slow parade of years, more and more images grew from its repeated visits until there was a list of paintings. Until there was a simple story to go with them. Like a vine unhurriedly extending its tendrils until it overtakes the entire wall, the evolution from that lone image of the purple rhinoceros to a series of paintings to a picture book happened gradually — sometimes in my conscious waking thoughts, sometimes in the background of all the other enterprises that make up a life. In fact, the image became a metaphor that I used to chide myself when I would take on a creative project that was so big, multi-faceted, or complex that it couldn’t be finished quickly and would have to be set aside for periods of time. “Another purple rhinoceros,” I would exhale with a mixture of relief and discouragement.
Here’s the thing, though. Now purple rhinoceroses are all I want to work on.
Purple rhinoceroses are the creative projects and work that challenge us, stretch us, and involve all the best parts of us because, deep down, they hold the most meaning for us. For that reason, purple rhinoceroses are also rare — like their mythical cousins the unicorns — and you have to keep both eyes open and hunt for them. And when you’re finally face to face with one you’re forced to take your time, partly because there’s so much to do, but mostly because you’re filled with love and gratitude for the opportunity. Just like the violet beast’s purposeful plodding, you’re in no hurry. Even when you’re not actively working on one, you can’t ever really let a purple rhinoceros go because it’s the sort of work where we are most fully ourselves. We are laboring in service of taking something authentic and important from within and placing it out in the world. An ancient legend that I just made up has it that if you look a purple rhinoceros directly in the eye, you will see yourself as you truly are.
My purple rhinoceroses all roam about in the savannas of music, improvisation, poetry, and painting. And when they — and I — are ready, we meet and they take me for a ride on their back.
What are your purple rhinoceroses? Where might they be grazing? When you see one in the wild, will you have the courage to make eye contact? I think you will.
Keep imagining anything …