About fire

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Dear Artist,

Several artists visited my studio to pick up their paintings that I’ve been using for a small research project. With each friend I came around to asking the same question: “What’s firing you up these days?”

Self-portrait posing as Les Miserables protagonist Jean Valjean (Portrait of Emile Bernard on wall) -- oil on canvas 45 x 55 cm by Paul Gauguin 1888

Self-portrait posing as Les Miserables protagonist Jean Valjean (Portrait of Emile Bernard on wall)
oil on canvas 45 x 55 cm
by Paul Gauguin 1888

The answers were as wide and varied as their artistic personalities — from concerns of ecology, health, failed relationships, teachers, clubs, joy of painting, and just plain joy. It was funny — one of my wealthy friends was burning with anxiety over poverty, while a poorish one was worried about burning out from too much joy. I often think a significant study could be made of just who does the complaining, and why. Some had to think long and hard to answer my question about what was firing them up. One admitted: “Not much.” More than once I was in mind of Fred Shero‘s remark: “Success is not the result of spontaneous combustion. You must first set yourself on fire.”

The Cellist (Portrait of Upaupa Scheklud) --  oil on canvas 92 x 73 cm by Paul Gauguin 1894

The Cellist (Portrait of Upaupa Scheklud)
oil on canvas 92 x 73 cm
by Paul Gauguin 1894

Through all of this I kept my antenna up for self-awareness, including the business of being sensitive to local stimuli. I guess I was looking to see if anyone was burning with what Walter Pater called “a hard, gem-like flame.” I’m always curious how we come to terms with our feelings about our worlds and what we are prepared to see in them. Paul Gauguin, in a world-weary moment, asked himself: “How does one re-light the fire the very ashes of which are scattered?” Indeed, looking for or rekindling fire is the daily chore and the daily joy. How it’s done is a wonder of human nature and the secret trial of artists. It’s also the “trick.” At fire, we must all become specialists. In a jaded world, passion is the premium. It can be seen in the eyes, and there is little evidence of storm or bombast. It seems to me that the best of passion is a reserved glow — the plain and humble burn of a quiet heart.

Nave Nave Moe (Sacred Spring: Sweet Dreams) -- oil on canvas 74 x 100 cm by Paul Gauguin 1894

Nave Nave Moe (Sacred Spring: Sweet Dreams)
oil on canvas 74 x 100 cm
by Paul Gauguin 1894

Best regards,

Robert

PS: “We need to pay exquisite attention to our responses to things — noticing what makes our flame glow brighter. If we pay attention to those things, we’ll be able to catch the flame and feed it.” (Nina Simons) Esoterica: Kindling: The best are not words, but things: A new brush, a clean canvas, paper or panel. A lump of clay, daring. A photograph, asking. A drawing done along the edge of an airplane ticket, one so long at the wet and moldy bottom of the drawer of sentiment, once tired, now revived, its time come round at last.

This letter was originally published as “About Fire” on October 10, 2003.

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The next workshop is being held at Gibsons School of the Arts, B.C. from July 15th to July 17th, 2015.
The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.
 
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