Abulia is the high-priced word for lack of willpower. While generally referred to as the blockage of initiative due to a head injury resulting in brain damage, it also applies to the lackadaisical attitude that sometimes arises in otherwise healthy humans. I’ve always been interested in the condition, having noticed it — at times in abundance — in myself. For some of us, it can be a more or less cyclical scourge that can put the muse into cold storage. Many potentially happy hours, even whole careers are ruined by creative abulia. Apart from garden-variety laziness, procrastination and bad habits, here are some of the main causes:
Fear of failure
Fear of success
As well as fingering the sources that might be the cause of the problem, here are a few ideas that can be used to fight it: We need to recognize that no matter how much support or encouragement we get, we are ultimately on our own. Also, no matter how much discouragement or negative energy we pick up, we are ultimately on our own. This realization helps develop four golden virtues: initiative, individualism, character and audacity. In the “artist as fortress” mentality, the queen surveys her domain and controls her destiny. Those bogymen who might behead her or inflict brain damage are dealt with before they get over the parapet. The would-be creator who operates thus has sharp foresight and increased power of action. And, as always, visualization is the pilot of accomplishment.
While each of the main causes that I mentioned may have its own antidote, it’s probable that a clear conscience is a necessary prerequisite. Also, we need to assume the queenly role without endangering the well-being of our near and dear. Given healthy and well-directed willpower, the art of life is almost as much fun as the art of art.
Esoterica: Here on M.V. Mareva it’s pretty straightforward. In the simplified nautical life you just put down a boat, row out and round up the material you need. Bad habits or other impedimenta are overruled by the availability of motifs readily at hand — something that is not always to be had in the home studio. Boat or no boat, all of us have the opportunity to refresh and renew our drive — whether it be a trip to a local park, a library, a social event or an art gallery. Inspiration at hand and the habitual application of the creative process itself go a long way toward washing out abulia. Man the pumps.
List of art-making ideas
by Devon Coles, Outlook, SK, Canada
So far I have yet to encounter the impenetrable wall of creative blockage. I am, however, convinced it is in the mail and am preparing for it. Whenever I don’t feel like painting, I go outside and take pictures of anything and everything. I am building a massive collection of visual information to draw from on those rainy days. Other times I sketch, I write down ideas for future reference, or I read. One of my university professors gave me a list of over a hundred general art-making ideas, such as, “a work that is indistinguishable from its environment, a work which generates its own mythology, a work that is ‘real,’ a work that is completed by the viewer…” etc. I have been and will continue collecting these sorts of ideas and inspirational material as an insurance policy to prevent those fateful days.
Oriental brush in the ‘real’ world
by Lisa Chakrabarti, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Most of the artists I am familiar with, either on a personal level or have read about, alternate between phases of almost manic energy and then doldrums — the abulia syndrome. However, apart from occasional laziness or nagging issues (illness, money, etc.), sometimes these seemingly fallow times are a needed re-fueling. No one can operate at a fever pitch without a rest. It’s a part of nature (physics, really — everything needs its opposite in order to exist). When I have days where avoidance seems to be more my metier than painting, rather than berate myself for laziness — which used to be my personal ‘default’ setting and which served none except my demons — I have come to realize that such a period is actually just the quiet in between some new painterly epiphany. It is a period of gathering energy rather than expending it.
My primary medium is oriental brush and ink painting. It is an unforgiving art in many respects because the ink reflects exactly where you are — mentally/physically/emotionally. You don’t make corrections or re-work anything when you paint, so the process becomes immediate. However, it isn’t all treacherous, because the Asian painting philosophy is that the work reflects where the artist’s ‘head is at’ at that given time. So whatever you produce, it’s real, warts and all.
Success in life and art
by Gaye Adams, Sorrento, BC, Canada
For the most part, those who develop a successful art career also have a successful life. They have a sense of humour, loved ones that love them back, healthy self-esteem, balance, discipline and tenacity. They are generous with what they know and try not to take themselves too seriously. These are attributes for success in any field, but most particularly in the arts. Because most artists are “sensitive” in every sense of the word, if you don’t take charge, negative emotion can ruin you. I like the Alcoholics Anonymous term “the committee of assholes in your head.” They are loudest when you don’t get that award, sales ebb low, or you get declined from a competition. These little voices can create enough angst to keep one out of the studio indefinitely. When I hear the committee nattering in my head, I let them speak their piece, thank them for sharing, then tell them to go sit down. It works every time.
Creativity and weirdness
by Suzanne Cross, Alamo, CA, USA
It is hard to distinguish creativity from eccentricity (or weirdness) in ourselves or in others. Humans are herding critters. We tend to isolate and attack anyone who deviates from the norm. It is hard to train our internal critics to be quiet in one situation to allow creativity to flow, yet speak up in other situations so we conform to others’ expectations. It is also easier to accept creativity in others when it satisfies our personal judgment of productive creativity as opposed to what we judge as just weirdness.
Revived on Mother’s Day
by Lyn Cherry, Maryville, TN, USA
Over the Mother’s Day weekend, I hosted a group of watercolor artists who came from as far away as Canada and Texas, to meet and paint in the beautiful mountains of East Tennessee. We had such a wonderful time that they have asked me to set up a second Smoky Mountain Spring Art Fling in Townsend, Tennessee. This little town nestles up against the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I got up around 5 a.m. on Mother’s Day, sat on the balcony of the Inn and sketched the mountains in front of me as the sun came up. During the night, we had had a tremendous storm with fantastic lightning that raced through the mountains. Mist lay in the hollows, clouds spread across the sky, and the air was cool and clear. My soul revived.
No fears here
by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA
I have always been a highly motivated person and fear has never been in my vocabulary. I can’t understand artists who pass up opportunities that are practically thrown in their laps. I have had to work hard to be a successful painter. It would never occur to me not to try everything to improve my lot. What is there to fear? Rejections are part of the artist’s lifestyle after all.
Wrong career choice for some
by Nancy Bea Miller, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Instead of attributing chronic artistic abulia to laziness or depression, I wonder if the reason is not more simple? It could be that such a person has simply made the wrong career choice. Talent for and interest in art are not the only requisite traits needed for making a career as an artist.
The main characteristic of most working artists seems to me to be a strong unabating desire to work. Of course, there are fallow periods for everybody. And, certainly, circumstances can make things harder or easier. But although creative desire can be dimmed or constrained, it is ultimately pretty much unquenchable. Artists have done their work lying on their sickbeds, in concentration camps, during ravaging illnesses, while raising young children, while struggling under crippling economic hardship.
Folks who have chronic excuses or constant reasons why they are not able to do their work, might want to consider if they simply haven’t mistaken a vacation (liking art) for a vacation (needing to make art). No shame in that. In fact, I believe Freud thought of this artistic desire, this persistent need to create, as a kind of psychological sickness. Why try to be sick if you don’t have to?
Each Must Go Alone
by Jeanne Long, Minneapolis, MN, USA
Your letter cuts through the abulia with knife-like precision and exposes the creative process to the light, allowing it to flourish, releasing it from the darkness of ignorance that stifles its growth. Recognizing that we are alone, surprisingly, leads us to the flow of the Wholeness of Oneness.
Each must go alone
Into the rushing night
Silently ceasing all searching
To sanctify space for the sight
Surrendering each hope of glory
Seeing through visions of might
Refusing to seek secret solace
In all who’ve forsaken the flight
Watching for time to turn timeless
Allowing each fear to burn bright
Creating a golden alchemical thrust
To catapult into the light
Not on our own
by Roberta Faulhaber-Razafy, Paris, France
I was somewhat perplexed by your statement that “we are ultimately on our own.” Now in many ways this is true, of course, but given what’s going on with your letters and on the website I think you are underrating the importance of artists supporting other artists. We are not as alone as we think. My intuition is that we are all linked in all sorts of mysterious ways, and bringing them into the conscious mind through interaction with others feeds our art. There’s the Movement, the Journal, hanging out with our artist friends, collectives, “political” activism (the Guerilla Girls, for example), and of course collaborations with other artists that go a long way to helping people overcome that list of causes you wrote about (been there, done that!).
Poisonous pedagogy is certainly a factor. I went to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, and professors there (no women, incidentally) wouldn’t teach most of the women because “You’ll just get married and have kids, why waste my time.” I could go on, but will spare you. Fortunately, I did find one teacher who actually liked women… he was a very good teacher in some ways, especially because he took us women seriously as artists.
Recently I’ve been reading a book of essays by Lucy Lippard: The Pink Glass Swan, in which she discusses definitions of feminist art, high and low art convergence, political and activist art, and feminist theory and art. But much of what she says is not necessarily limited to the female gender, I think… In reading this, I become more aware of other aspects of abulia, but also ways one can deal with this multi-factorial malady. Especially poisonous pedagogy and professional discouragement.
Creative spirit enhances life
by Wendy L. Huntington, Gabriola Is, BC, Canada
Several of my colleagues have forwarded your letter on creativity, which they received after taking a course that Mary Sullivan Holdgrafer and I teach called “Healing Stitches” on Gabriola Island, B.C., Canada. I work both with Mary and on my own teaching courses in the Seattle area that espouse the principle of engaging one’s creative spirit to enhance life in general, and healing processes of mind, body, emotions and spirit when they have become depleted with an illness process. It is then that the creative spirit has a tendency to be put “background” and forgotten. If brought forward again and engaged in fully, I have seen remarkable healing and personal growth take place.
I agree that self-motivation and self-responsibility in creative pursuits and working on one’s own are of great benefit, and would add that I believe the group process combined with exploration of creative expression promotes optimal learning and healing. Some of my favorite ways of expression are in art quilting, photography and ballroom dance. By noticing, tracking, and sharing myself with others through creative experiences, I have deepened my awareness of how and when I block myself, and how to find my way through that in order to tap into resilience and creativity once again.
by Hasan Demirci, Istanbul, Turkey
the meaning has a great deal to do with the aesthetical structure of the place. The so-called ‘golden ratio’ in architecture is said to be central to the sense of beauty. This does not, however, explain the whole scheme, for there are haunting places which do not have any geometrical shape at all. I have deduced from personal experiences that the greatest temptation for us to feel at peace is the sense of limitlessness, by which I mean the type of feeling we have when looking into the sea horizons, or into the sky, or even at railways. For the latter, too, has a queer quality of limitlessness.
Strong actions needed
by Leonard Niles, Lincolnshire, England
What a marvellous word is abulia. I have certainly had some of that in my life and I have certainly suffered from most of the symptoms you have described. Overwhelming responsibility, however, must take precedence; we are all burdened by overwhelming responsibility. The only way a painter will ever be the master of his environment is to go and live in a brick cell in some monastery, or like Paul Gauguin abandon their partner and family and go to live on some remote island. Unlike the more fortunate, most of us live in towns and cities — amongst all the noise pollution, the hustle and bustle and all those endless intrusions, noisy neighbours rebuilding their houses or trying out a new lawn mower that would pull the Queen Mary, and of course the constant ringing of the telephone. I know you can switch it off or disconnect it, or even throw it out of the window, but god help you when the spouse comes home having found out that one of the family has had an accident or one of the grandchildren is sick, or the mother-in-law has been trying to get in touch. How does one turn it all off? Even the Scottish Islands are overwhelmed each year by noisy trippers with their intolerable habits.
Healing through art
by Cecile Nunez, The Philippines
Regarding art and its powers as a healing medium, in my country, there is a strong impulse for a lot of young artists (19-30+ years old) to use art beyond its self-serving purpose. That is to say, we are awakening to the individual and collective sense of responsibility as community-shapers. There is great healing to be done where I am. Specifically, a group of artists and myself are working ways to bridge the gap between urban people and tribal folk (the indigenous), using art through toymaking, craftmaking, painting, etcetera. In truth, we are really bridging the gaps within ourselves — finding wholeness in our creative conversations.
There is immense joy in this. We are not teachers or leaders, really, but more of just co-creators when we work with children. Even with older people, it is the same. There is a beautiful passage of learning, of wonder, and there are “aha” moments like seeds to take back home so that our personal lives may find ways to nurture through other experiences.
Health concerns with pastels
by Diane Torgersen, Wilmington, NC, USA
Could you give safety tips for working with soft pastels? I work primarily in acrylics but I like to work up painting sketches in pastels. I think I have developed laryngitis and bronchitis using them. I now leave them alone, but would appreciate your comments.
(RG note) Thanks, Diane. All that dusty chalk, diatomaceous earth, gum tragacanth and beta napthol can’t be good for you–to say nothing of the carried pigments. This wonderful medium gives me a dry, sore throat too. I notice that they don’t bother me as much outdoors. For the studio, having an evacuating (local exhaust ventilation) fan built into an outside wall behind the pastel worktable is the best bet–a quiet fan that’s not too close to the neighbors. In confined spaces, wear a mask. A good book for artists’ health concerns is Artist Beware by Michael McCann.
Painter’s Keys site available in China
by Terra Lam, Hong Kong
I’ve just got back from the seminar/ workshop in the past weekend and was able to meet some friends who live and work in China. Good news. It is now again possible to go to the Painter’s Keys website in China — and my friends love my introduction as well. I just hope that people who are fond of the arts can continue to share more with freedom.
(RG note) Thanks, Terra. This is indeed good news. With all the trouble we gave the Chinese over their art pirating websites, you’d think that “The Great Fire-Wall of China” would have made us into chop suey. Freedom rocks.
James Joyce the Pluralist
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes Christie Cummins of Huntington Beach, CA, USA who wrote, “The well-adjusted artist is free to paint from within and block all the outside issues of life. But you can’t hold back the dragons unless you know the dragon and what makes him tick.”
And also Emily Mandy of Toronto, ON, Canada who asked, “My life’s a hive of industrious symmetry / inside hovers a host of focused furies / serving my creative queen / fertile deeds of dancing dreams.”
And also Janice Vogel of Senden, Germany who wrote, “I will go out into the blooming garden and enjoy the details of the symphony of nature.”
And also Margaret Henkels of Santa Fe, NM, USA who wrote, “Western artists are peculiar. They have the best supplies and conditions possible to make art, yet they complain the most!”
And also Barbara Callow of Brentwood Bay, BC, USA who wrote, “It’s so easy to let the people who love you say, ‘take it easy and just have fun.’ But without work you do not have the improvement that you need to gain the feeling of excellence.”
And also Heidi Hehn of Whitehorse, YT, Canada who wrote,”You always manage to send your thoughts out just as I need them. Sometimes I think the solution is to take all your writing and paste them on the walls all over my studio instead of wallpaper.