A recently retired schoolteacher shared her career-long response to students complaining of boredom: “Only boring people are bored.” I strained to think of an artist who had ever complained of being bored. I wondered: Are artists innately gifted with a love of time? Are they anointed with savvier powers to daydream, to reflect, to be curious, inventive, doodling and self-reliant? Do they possess a diminished need for pastimes and entertainment? How did they get here? Are artists born not bored?
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In July 1977, a broke and couch-surfing screenwriter was sparked to action by a book of paintings by a Swiss surrealist. He called the artist in Zurich and invited him to work on some concepts in Hollywood. The artist, an insomniac who suffered from night terrors, was also afraid of flying, so they agreed instead on England, where for 11 months the artist lived above a pub in Shepperton, Surrey. There, he built a prototype out of Rolls Royce parts and reptile vertebrae, working only from a brief sent in the form of a letter from Los Angeles
An artist who wishes to remain anonymous called to say he’d fallen out with his creative partner. As a result, he was bogged down with disappointment, bad blood and a logjam of paperwork needed to release a big idea, now begging for a clear-headed, singular captain. Apparently, this idea was special enough to be fought for, but mourning, reworking and cleansing it has drained his bank account and put a hold on other creative options, paralyzing his happiness and momentum. At the risk of simplifying his problem, I suggested he get to work right away on something else.
I once took a turn as a sometimes player in a New York rock band. The leader, a long-haired, Gibson SG-wielding screamer who also studied Buddhist meditation, told me that in Rock ‘n Roll, making it clear about what you’re against rather than what you love is most effective. With this formula, rockers have successfully defined themselves. By kicking off a point of view, they have united, disrupted and inspired their audiences.
You may have noticed the odd times when something is irking you, putting you into a bad mood, and you sit down at your easel and do good work. While it’s not as pleasant as when you’re in a good mood and everything is coming up peonies, it works to your benefit in another way. In my experience, a bad mood helps the attention span and the critical faculties — not necessarily to be more creative, but with a wider vision and a sharper focus.
A wonderful email appeared in my inbox recently, suspiciously arriving six times and from six different people. Here’s one of them:
My name is George Barbara from California. I actually observed my wife has been viewing your website on my laptop and i guess she likes your piece of work. I’m also impressed and amazed to have seen your various works too, You are doing a great job. I would like to purchase one of your paintings “watermark, 60 x 60 inches, oil on canvas, 2014”, as a surprise to my wife on our anniversary.
A few blocks north of the Washington Square Arch in New York’s Greenwich Village stands the last surviving brownstone on lower Fifth Avenue, at Number 47. Built in 1853 as the residence of the first president of the Pennsylvania Coal Company, the house changed hands a few times after his death and then fell into disrepair. Eventually, it became a boarding house. In 1917, the members of a flourishing art club, having outgrown their nearby 12th Street rental, bought the house for $75,000 with a plan to pay off the mortgage with painting sales. They did it in just five years.
Although some artists may put me down for this, I’m pretty sure that the production of art has to do with a sense of well-being. I’ve found that art is at its best when the art more or less takes over your life. It’s great if you happen to be a fan. Other specifics contribute as well, like the ability to access both sides of your brain. I call this “bicameral wobbling.” Sometimes “BW” is automatic, at other times you have to put a cattle-prod in your ear.
On the beach at Le Pouldu, near Pont-Aven, Brittany, there’s a leaning formation of rocks that could be organized a bit by looking down on it and laying the horizon fairly high in the composition. It took a while to get the position right. A few minutes into the painting I realized it would benefit with a figure or some other motif in the lower right. The next day I organized my daughter, Sara, to stand in as a model. This painting was among the ones I brought home that summer. Off it went to a gallery and subsequently disappeared into the great Diaspora where all paintings go.
I’m willing to bet that lots of artists have never heard of William Bouguereau. He was, however, one of the most celebrated artists of his time — admired, collected, lionized — President of the French Academy, Head of the Salon, President of the Legion of Honour. He won the Grand Prix de Rome in 1851 when he was twenty-six. When he died in 1905 his reputation started to slip. His work disappeared into the basements of obscurity. Most encyclopedias stopped mentioning him, and those that did used words like “competent” and “banal.”