In this episode, we talk to Tim Donovan, who went to art school in his early 40s while helping to manage a brain injury rehabilitation program, and is now the co-director of NYC’s Launch F18 gallery.
Follow Tim on instagram: @timshutter123
Tricia [00:00:03] Hey there. I’m Tricia Rose Burt, and I want to ask you a question. What creative work are you called to do but are too afraid to try? Are you in IT but dream of doing stand-up? A PR exec who longs to write a screenplay? Did the pandemic change your priorities? Do you want to leave your fully-funded PhD, M.D. program and go to New Mexico and paint? Or maybe you’re like I was in my early career, trapped in a lucrative but soul crushing corporate job when what I really wanted to do was tell stories on stage.
Tricia [00:00:39] In this podcast, we’ll hear from artists who took an unexpected leap and found the courage to answer their creative call, so we can inspire you to answer yours. Because this is no time to be timid!
Tricia [00:00:52] Welcome to the show. In this episode, we’re going to explore the first principle of the No Time to Be Timid Manifesto: The riskiest thing you can do is play it safe. It’s my own personal mantra and for good reason. My life is littered with instances where I said yes to things because I thought they would make me secure. And then more often than not, things exploded instead. Like my first marriage, or my job as corporate communications director for a financial services firm. But there’s also times I said no to things, good things, because they might push me out of my comfort zone. And some of those choices still haunt me.
Tricia [00:01:36] Like years ago, when I worked for one of New York’s top PR firms. It was a usual day. I’d sit in my office in Rockefeller Center. It had a small window with a view of Manhattan, which made me feel kind of important. And I’m wearing pearls and sensible pumps, billing my time in 15-minute increments. I’m on the phone pitching one of my clients to the director of marketing for Z100, the largest radio station in New York at the time. Still might be, for all I know, and I’m prattling on about this promotional idea for whatever client it may have been. And he says, Tricia, I’m not remotely interested in this promotion, but you have an amazing voice for radio. If you come down to the station, I’ll make a demo reel for you for free. You really need to be on the radio. And I said, No, thank you. I said no thank you to a powerful radio executive who believed in my abilities enough that, without even knowing me, offered to make a demo reel for me for free.
Tricia [00:02:32] I think I said no thank you because in those days I had no idea who I was or what I wanted. So I did what other people told me to do, and I’d been told by college advisors to go into public relations, and I was such a rigid thinker, I didn’t know I could do something different. And I was also told by family and society to pursue certainty and stability, to conduct myself as a serious and stable person. Radio seemed like fun, and fun never seemed like an option. It’s been nearly 35 years now, and I promise you, not a year goes by that I don’t wonder what would have happened if I’d said yes to that offer. Lucky for me, somebody invented podcasting and now I’m getting a second chance.
Tricia [00:03:19] Our guest today, Tim Donovan, rarely says no to opportunities. He attended art school in his early forties while helping manage a residential rehab program for brain injury patients and is now the co-director of New York’s Launch F18 Art Gallery. He’s also been sober for more than 20 years and speaks openly about how his recovery and creativity go hand in hand. Hello, Tim. Thank you so much for joining us.
Tim [00:03:46] It’s great to be here.
Tricia [00:03:48] You know, I’ve watched you. We’ve known each other for 20 years. Tell me your first act of creative courage.
Tim [00:03:55] Oh, boy. It was when I was in third grade. Okay. And so I’m not really sure if I required much courage in third grade. I think as we get older, we have more barriers around us that we seem to think are insurmountable. You know, I’m sure I had some fear, although I don’t remember. I was pretty cocky, but I was really proud of these clown drawings.
Tricia [00:04:21] So what was it? It was a solo show? tell me.
Tim [00:04:23] Solo show in third grade and Mrs. Willgroff’s room. Great lighting.
Tricia [00:04:29] And what was your topic again?
Tim [00:04:31] Clowns. Portraits of clowns. And I don’t know whatever happened to them. But I remember it being a great success. And people were interested. People came to it. It was like at recess. I had a little opening. Probably shots of tequila. But it was something I forgot about, you know? And it wasn’t until I was in art school and and going through the process of getting sober, you know, evaluating my life that I was like, Wow, I did that. And it was a huge success.
Tricia [00:05:03] Did you sell out?
Tim [00:05:03] Probably.
Tricia [00:05:05] But that’s where they went- they sold.
Tim [00:05:07] Right, right. Right.
Tricia [00:05:09] What got you to go to art school?
Tim [00:05:13] I was probably 40, early 40s and recently sober. And everything changed in my life. And I really needed to find a way to express and validate my expression. I ended up at the New Hampshire Institute of Art with all these kids coming out of high school that had an energy that I have not had since their age. Right. But me being forties, I had other qualifications. I had some experience in in my belt, some life experience, even though a lot of it was blurry. I had to close one eye to see it.
Tricia [00:05:53] And you… What did you just say?
Tim [00:05:54] I had to close one eye to see it. [Laughter] But, you know, it was really great. These people, these kids were these students, these, you know, colleagues of mine that we were all together in these art classes and they were making great art. You know, I think that I always had some level of creativity brewing in me. You know, I’m just that type of person. I was really into music, not that I ever really played music. I tried to at one point, but there we go. I mean, you know, like I’ve always said, why bother, you know, picking up the guitar when I have no time to go on a world tour, so completely sabotage myself, like, you know, how do people do it? Right. And so it came in in different ways. And again, I was really busy working at a job that really utilized a lot of my creativity of working, putting people back together again after brain injury. So, I mean, I had this component.
Tricia [00:06:48] But when did you start doing that?
Tim [00:06:49] I started doing that right when I got out of high school. So 1981 and do that till this day and find it very creative. I mean, there’s so many different ways to label creativity in my life, but as far as visual arts, I always had art books. It’s interesting. And I remember even there was a gallery here in town in Peterborough called the Sharon Art enter. And as brave and outrageous as my lifestyle could be, I always had it in the back of my head that I didn’t think everybody was allowed to go to art shows like, and I don’t know where that ever came from. Like it was exclusive.
Tricia [00:07:25] Who could go?
Tim [00:07:26] I don’t know. People with money, you know, or people who had a sense that I didn’t have. Like I was not that it wasn’t like it was factual. It seemed like it was factual to me, not judgmental, like, oh, why would I, you know? But then I just started going and but long story short, it really was when I got sober in 1999 that everything, the whole world stopped. Thank God it just stopped. And I was in a position that I had some ability to notice what was being put in front of me, which was this woman needed help at the MacDowell Colony, which is a big art colony here in Peterborough. And I showed up for it.
Tricia [00:08:11] And tell me who the woman was.
Tim [00:08:13] She was Helene Aylon, and she was and unfortunately she passed away during COVID, which was so sad. But she is a multi-media type of artist. A feminist artist in so many ways, works with religion and all this stuff. But she also does a lot of installation art, which I had no idea what installation art, but she was integral in me validating. When I say validating, it’s not that I didn’t validate it like, Oh, I’m not worthy. I just didn’t think that you could in any way that you.
Tricia [00:08:46] Could what.
Tim [00:08:46] That I could could actually do that and.
Tricia [00:08:49] Do that being art.
Tim [00:08:50] Or art. Right. And who has the time, right? Because I’m at the bar all the time. It’s like you know, if I could crawl out of this place, maybe I could do something. And I did.
Tricia [00:09:04] And so how did you get to meet Helene? How did that first introduction even happen?
Tim [00:09:09] Well, so she had fallen and she had some hip injury, and someone in town said, Hey, Tim works in rehabilitation. Maybe he could get her a wheelchair. I’m like, All right. So I just brought a wheelchair up and brought it down to her studio, which was an unbelievable studio, the Alexander Studio at MacDowell. And she was really interesting. I’ve always loved interesting people, and I looked around and she said, Hey, you know, I’m looking for some help for, you know, an afternoon or two, which I found out with her was never accurate about what she was the time frame so that I said I wasn’t working at the time. I was on a hiatus from work and I said, Yeah, I’ll help out for a couple of, you know, afternoons. Fine. And it turned into six weeks of working with her. And I don’t know if I would have ever really gone to two art school on my own, but she she was so clever. She was like, you really need to go to art school to learn how to take photographs. You need to go for photography. And I was like, Oh, she must see something in me. And and I think she did, but she’s like, That way you can photograph my work for free. And I was like, Oh. So I took her advice and I kind of interesting was going to business school at that point in my life, and I was in an accounting class and the professor was such a nice guy and he just he he was so tormented because he looked at me because, you know, because I was sober and I’m ready to do this. I own a business. Here we go. I’m a businessman. And he said, I’ve never seen anybody work so hard and fail so miserably. He’s like, he goes, You, you don’t understand. This isn’t your language. You don’t understand this. He was when you talk to me, it’s like you’re talking another language. And he said, you know, you need to go to art school, you know, and you need to go up the street to go to the art school, which I was kind of offended, you know. But it was so interesting because Helene said you need to go to art school to learn how to photograph, you know. Really kind of for the first time in my life, I was able to get out of my own way. And so I was like, okay, just stop. Consider what’s going on. It’s fearful for me because art school, like, how are you going to ever make money on art? You know, see, that’s it. All these, you know, societal barriers go running through my head. But I just followed my feet and I just went.
Tricia [00:11:34] And so did it feel risky?
Tim [00:11:37] Well, it it did. However, it was, there was a little bit of a time span between Helene saying that because I was taking some pictures and then I started to take some pictures on my own. And then I was kind of, you know, dabbling in community classes for photography. So never really kind of going the full distance. But I was also in New York with Helene. She said if if I helped her move all her work, which was a lot of work, in the new hall to New York, that she would make her place in New York my home away from home. And I took her up on it.
Tricia [00:12:13] And had you spent much time in New York before then?
Tim [00:12:15] Never. You know, I spent time all over the world. And for some reason, you know, my higher power left New York for me for when I was sober. And it was really interesting. So I recognized that and I said, I need to take this this up. And it was a really, really great opportunity. So I started entering my works in shows down in in New York at know, NYU, Small Works Show, all these things back to the great gallery. And they got accepted and I was just like, Oh. So the interesting thing is by the time I got on my feet and said, I’m going to go for my BFA at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, and I had my portfolio, which did not look like anybody else’s portfolio. I can tell you that right now.
Tricia [00:13:00] What describes from the work that was in it?
Tim [00:13:02] Well, I had pieces because I was documenting my sobriety through art, and I had bricks with words on them that I was smashing and looking at. I had a whole table, just a regular coffee table that I had covered with Band-Aids.
Tricia [00:13:19] I remember that.
Tim [00:13:21] Aand and so I was just I was documenting my healing and my recovery. And then I would photograph it. And then I was taking other photographs that were that were abstract. But I went to the dean with my portfolio, and I had already been in shows in New York. And it’s like, why do you why do you want to go here? And I said, Well, I can drive here, you know. And that was the truth, really. I couldn’t leave and go to art school in New York or anywhere else. And this is what was presented to me. I stepped up to the plate and I went.
Tricia [00:13:53] You also had a job at the same time.
Tim [00:13:55] Job, right? Right. A whole life. Yeah. You know, a life and even a bigger life that was emerging. And so, you know, as fearful as I was about that. And I remember going into him and going, oh, and not feeling at, oh, I won’t be accepted or this. And that is, where is this going to lead to? And I had to rein that back in and said, it’s one day at a time. Here I am in front of the dean with my portfolio. And I surprised myself because he goes, you know, we want you to become a better artist. And I said, you know, I sure I want to be a better artist, but if I really unpack it, I want to become a better explorer. That is the most important part of art for me exploring. And I was in such an exploratory phase in my life that I had this some language that was dormant for so long, now just bursting from me. And it was so important and it was so valid and it had such meaning to me. And I said, you know, Yeah, I want to be a better artist, you know? But there is some exploration that needs to be done here. And I still do that to this day.
Tricia [00:15:07] What do you think would have happened if you didn’t go to art school? Where would you be?
Tim [00:15:11] Well, I think that I would have just continued, you know, emerging anyway, because I was I was recovering. And I think that I would have done more with my job, I guess. So I think I would have just continued on that route. Yeah. But I look at that in see that in black and white. Okay.
Tricia [00:15:34] Explain that to me.
Tim [00:15:35] Well, when you know, because I don’t think I’ve really been ever asked that question. And when I just answered it, it seemed like it was an old, you know, Super8 black and white version of what my life would have been, which would have been okay. But when I look back on my life as an emerging artist and being creative, it’s just full of light and color and, you know, probably some great theme music. You know, I’m thinking really kind of thumping disco like, let’s go and and I’m so grateful for that because I, I could have stayed on that, you know, Super8, black and white. Like, it’s not that it’s not valid. It would have been fine. But I’m not in this life to be fine. I’m in this life to say, okay, it’s such a gift to be here. And I know that I have creative energy in me. I need to use it and to decipher how to use that in in every opportunity, every nook and cranny of my life.
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Tricia [00:17:13] So how long did it take you to get through art school?
Tim [00:17:16] Ten years.
Tricia [00:17:18] I love the persistence of that. You know, I mean, because so many are like, well, if I can’t do it at the best school and do it in two years or what, you know, you just make it work in your life.
Tim [00:17:28] I wanted to live there. I wanted it to never end. But, you know, we placed restrictions on ourselves as we get older, you know? And so here I was just like I was saying before, a 40 year old in an environment where people were ready to go and didn’t have those then other fears and insecurities. But there were conversations about life and exploration. And I loved that.
Tricia [00:17:53] So tell me about your because you had a fantastic solo show in Boston, I guess, in 2012, 2013, something like that. So talk about that opportunity and what that felt like.
Tim [00:18:07] I was doing these great big portraits. I mean, interesting. Now I had clown portraits and then I had vampire portraits. And and so.
Tricia [00:18:16] Explain about vampire portraits because. Explain about it.
Tim [00:18:19] Boy. And I was exploring identity at that time. And color all this color was coming out in, you know, in my photographs, in my paintings and this and that. And I submitted one of these colorful photographs to a gallery, and he said it was uncomfortably similar to someone else. So I was like, I had a temper tantrum for a little while, which was justifiable. However, then I ended it and I started just draining all the color from my photographs. It just instinctually like not even understanding why. And so at the same time, I was writing this essay about popular culture in vampires and kind of lining that up and comparing it with discrimination. And I just drained the color out of all these portraits that I was doing and, and then printing them. 44 by 64. Huge. And I had a solo show in it right out of when I graduated finally.
Tricia [00:19:15] APPLAUSE and.
Tim [00:19:16] Applause finally. And had a show at Gallery Kayafas in Boston with ten of those large portraits. And it felt great. However, feeling great and accolades like that for me, I have to be careful a lot because they can be such empty calories. They feel so good at the time, but the accolades and the recognition, it doesn’t last. I got some great reviews from Kate McQuaid from the Boston Globe, but again, I had to stop myself and say I was not in this for accolades, I was in this for exploration, you know, and I’m very grateful and, you know, that I had that show and but I never did another one after that.
Tricia [00:20:02] Well, you haven’t done another one out of your own work, but you have then you then created something else, which is what you’re really good at because you’re really good at creating events and creating conversation. Yes. As you said, bringing people along. Which enter Launch F18 in New York. Right. So talk about Launch F18 and describe the space for me.
Tim [00:20:23] It’s a postage stamp. No windows. Okay. We do have a mop sink, which is a very good. I came across that when I graduated from the New Hampshire Institute of Art. I, I want to be in New York because I wanted a conversation about contemporary art and contemporary life. You get more traditional art here in New Hampshire, which is amazing and wonderful. But I wanted that specific dialog of contemporary conversations. And and I love New York. I just loved it. I mean, I grew up on a dairy farm here in New Hampshire, and I just want to try something different. So I came across this space in Tribeca, which 13 years ago Tribeca was a completely different place. Nobody was down there. I love saying that because now I sound like a great New Yorker that way, like nobody was down there.
Tricia [00:21:10] You’re just on the cutting edge. Cutting edge just. And yet because.
Tim [00:21:13] Now I mean, it’s just galleries galore down there and we have this little space and we just started doing shows and it’s on the sixth floor. You can’t see it from the street. We just went for there some years that we’ve been very active with it. Some years we’ve had to kind of step back a little bit and say, Geez, it’s going to be by appointment only. But we’ve never felt discouraged by doing too much or too little. We’ve just kind of let it be what it’s going to be.
Tricia [00:21:42] Well, how many artists are you representing now?
Tim [00:21:44] Oh, probably seven or eight, you know, but we have other people utilize our space. We do group shows, we do theme shows, and we’ll do solo shows by our artists. So it’s a real mixed bag.
Tricia [00:21:56] You’re pretty fearless. What does risk look like for you?
Tim [00:22:02] So risk is, risk is something that needs to be evaluated. For me, I, I unpack it a little bit, but I take that chance because ultimately I’m going to be okay. It’s like, okay, if I lose some money, maybe I lose face a little bit. I’m going to be okay. You know, it’s the whole, I think, Socratic oh, you know, an unexamined life is not worth living, which I think is a little dramatic, you know. But again, I get it. I don’t want to be automatic. We’re not on this planet or whatever we are, you know, for very long. So it’s not really about the risk in front of me. It’s like, how am I going to feel if this risk doesn’t turn out the way I think it is going to turn out? Which is very different than saying, what if I fail? It’s not ever a failure. It’s just a different direction that I didn’t plan on.
Tricia [00:23:00] Talk a little bit about how you got involved with the Provincetown Film Festival and then ultimately where that led.
Tim [00:23:06] It’s interesting because I was searching to do something creative even before I got sober, and I remember going to Keene State to volunteer to be in student films and they were fantastic. I was like, What are you going to do with these films you’ve spent so much time and energy on? Let’s do a film festival at this place called The Folk Way, which was legend in Peterborough, and I’ll never forget that. It was a tiny little room we had got. I think we got a projector from Emerson or something. They donated it and it was a New England student film festival. We had about seven or eight short films and I was in this room and I remember people on the lawn looking through the windows at the movie because it was filled inside, unfortunately. So you take you follow what’s presented to you. The place closed because we want to make it an annual thing. And I’m like, Oh, you know? And then everything was just kind of falling apart in my life anyway. And so I got sober and I was afraid to go anywhere by myself. So my friend Lisa and I were going down to the Cape to Provincetown, which is was not a great place for me to be alone early in sobriety. So we’re driving down there and I heard this woman, P.J., talk about this new Provincetown International Film Festival that they were they were starting to work on it. So I looked her up. I went to her store. She had a store in town, Provincetown. I said, you know, I did this film festival, student film festival. I would love to volunteer. Now I’ve done it for 20 years. And the moral to that story is that a volunteer go out and say, geez, I maybe I don’t know how to do. And I was you know, I was 39 when I did the 40. You know, she wasn’t you know, I’m 18 and can I volunteer for this? It was like, no, in the risk I was taking was that I wasn’t sure if I would really like it or what would people say if, you know, I’m a 40 year old in volunteering, what do you what are you crazy? No, this is what I want to do. And I tell you, it’s led to some really, you know, great opportunities.
Tricia [00:25:14] Yeah. And also the relationships. So you do have a show with John Waters.
Tim [00:25:18] John Waters, absolutely.
Tricia [00:25:19] And Gus Van Zandt, both of them are in a show right now in your gallery, right? Absolutely. You’ve got major filmmakers that are now in your network and. Right. That you can show their work.
Tim [00:25:28] And so but really, the value of it is it has led to an incredible amount of great experiences. Yeah.
Tricia [00:25:37] Part of the reason why you have had these experiences and can say yes to them is because you’ve been present for them. When you were drinking, you were not present for them. No. Because you were drinking. Right. But. We all have our version of drinking. If we’re trying to avoid being creative, it’s like, I’m either going to shop too much, going to sex too much, I’m going to work too much. I mean, we have these ways of avoiding risks that come out in other riskier ways. Sure. I mean, it’s it’s for me, again, this is my personal mantra is the riskiest thing I can do is play it safe. Because when I was leading a more safe and predictable path, it was causing me to exhibit behaviors that were not healthy and that no one was benefiting from, least of all me. Often people think, Oh, if I’m an artist or if or if I take a creative risk, we can only look at what we might lose as opposed to like, Well, no, no, here’s the gain. Here’s the gain. Talk a little bit about your gain.
Tim [00:26:41] Well, first of all, gain, I think, you know, can be uncomfortable. And that’s okay. And I know that. And sometimes if, you know, I feel like I’m making it’s not uncomfortable that maybe I’m not pushing it enough. There’s a tremendous benefit for being uncomfortable. I think that where. And again, I don’t like to make blanket clauses here, but we’re addicted to comfort, you know. And for me, alcohol was was an addiction. Absolutely. And a distraction. And I put my energy towards that. You know, you could say willingly or unwillingly disease and all that stuff, but it consumed me. So once that was alleviated and I recovered, I got myself back. I had the energy to say, okay, I room, I have room to explore. So risk, comfort, discomfort at the end of my days, if you will, I don’t want to look back and wipe my brow and say I played it safe. Thank God. No, no. I want headlines now. It’s like, you know, he died dramatically and his life was crazy. And this life was in living color. It was beautiful. You know.
Tricia [00:27:53] That’s a perfect place to end. Yeah. Thank you. Thank you so much.
Tim [00:27:58] You’re welcome. This was a lot of fun.
Tricia [00:28:00] Thank you. Thank you. Tim’s my hero for a bunch of reasons. And his words prompted me to ask myself, and now you, some questions. Is your life unfolding in silent black and white instead of light and color with great theme music? Are there areas where you’re playing it safe because you’re addicted to comfort? Are you putting your energy towards distractions instead of exploring your creative call? Tough questions, but the answers could send you in a completely different and more exciting direction.
Tricia [00:28:36] If you want more creative courage, join us in two weeks for Episode 2: There is more than one right way in life. We’ll be talking to Matt and Liz Meyer Boulton, ordained ministers who changed course mid-career and are now Emmy-Award winning filmmakers. And remember, this is no time to be timid.
Tricia [00:28:59] No Time to be Timid is written and produced by me, Tricia Rose Burt. Our executive producer is Mia Rovegno. Our sound engineer is Jim McClure of Betsy’s Folly Studios. If you like what you hear, please spread the word. Subscribe to the show and review us on Apple Podcast or wherever you listen. No Time to Be Timid is a presentation of I Will Be Good Productions.