In the jungle mores of high school, the choosing of teams was my frequent mortification. Standing in a lineup, the stronger, dominant males would be picked one by one until it was down to just me and my pal Maynard. Sometimes Maynard would be last, at other times the honour would fall to me. There would be a distinct groan when my team realized that the luck of the draw had once more blessed them with my inadequacies. Except for this ritual denigration, I have to say that I actually enjoyed soccer. But not only did I never, ever score, I seldom got the ball. What a klutz. What a liability.
Up in the art room it was another story. Here I thrived. Between the school annuals, murals, posters and interschool competitions, I was the titular Michelangelo, in demand and respected. Even our principal, Mr. Forster, stood like a pope in stunned awe as I crawled among my high scaffoldings.
The need for power may be at the root of some creative lives. Many artists have told me art gives them a purchase on the universe and their reason for being. Like me, in childhood they often found themselves unable to compete in more socially acceptable ways. Art gave them a place to be. And just as art-power is discovered and developed in youth, it can be lost or discarded in later life. Some see a conspiracy against themselves — parents, teachers, spouses, peers, rivals. Whatever the reason, the power and the glory wander away and are lost. Julia Cameron, who has an excellent understanding of this dialectic, states: “When we are angry or depressed in our creativity, we have misplaced our power. We have allowed someone else to determine our worth, and then we are angry at being undervalued.”
With a philosophical attitude, a great deal of latent anger can be neutralized. A better illusion is imagined and put into force to replace a poorer one. Leopards can change their spots — and they can change them again and again. The good news is that the success ratio for creative people is high because we are already in the business of illusion. Psychotherapist Anthony de Mello puts the responsibility squarely where it belongs: “It’s an illusion that external events have the power to hurt you, that other people have the power to hurt you. They don’t. It’s you who gives this power to them.”
PS: “Painting isn’t a question of sensibility; it’s a matter of seizing the power, taking over from nature, not expecting her to supply you with information and good advice.” (Pablo Picasso)
Esoterica: At the same time, power-centricity can be a personality disorder as dangerous as substance abuse. It’s often the result of a legacy of real or perceived personal invalidation. To some degree this disorder can be overturned by the active production of art. The antisocial power-over-others is supplanted by power over art materials — a harmless sublimation with potential benefits. Like the twelve-step program in AA, mastering power-centricity takes a steady application of character and self-education. “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.” (Lao Tzu)
by Kate Jackson, Merced, CA, USA
Boy I really needed this one today! I’ve designed the set and am heading up the paint crew for our local Summer Youth Theater program at the college. Why is it everyone (artistic or not) has an opinion on how the set would look “better” if it was done this way or that? Trying hard not to give away my power, yet be open and receptive to others’ ideas. Don’t want to be diva-ish about it… but it is my vision afterall. Thanks for bolstering my confidence.
All artists appropriate images
by Mary Shaw, Phoenix, AZ, USA
Regarding your reply to Angus Bungay complaining about Wally Thissen using his images: We all, as artists, appropriate images (consciously or not) from the world around us – including the work of other artists. Where did Angus Bungay get his ideas from? Native American kachinas? Mythological figures? Kudos to Wally Thissen for recognizing and acknowledging his sources. To publicize the e-mail address of Wally Thissen for potential public humiliation is cruel and unnecessary.
“The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” (Albert Einstein) And shall we be sued by God for painting a river or mountain?
Our own rejected thoughts
by Dan DuBois, Toronto, ON, Canada
I was a last pick at schoolyard soccer because I was lousy at it, disconnected, or distracted, and frustrated because physically, I was easily one of the stronger kids in grade school. But a dab hand at rendering! A big kid sensitive to colour! I am probably not unusual in having gone the other way, forcing myself to fit in, to play games of speed, agility, teamwork, and burying the talent that gave me what I always considered a kind of flukey, unfair advantage over the other kids in class. The result was that I could kind of pass at regular games I had drilled myself on, but failed at anything sprung on me unawares. Golf is an example, which is de rigeur at executive team building sessions.
Lately I’ve taken up brushes (hey well into my fifties!) and what a stroke of luck that was. What was born in me hasn’t died. I’m no Rembrandt, or for that matter, Genn, but I’m good! Your letter and example — Robert, whatever else is in your life, you did not waste time playing games designed to another’s specifications.
“A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within… Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson on Self-Reliance)
Our creative spirit holds the power
by Joye Moon, Oshkosh, WI, USA
Being the most petite, or should I say scrawny, child in my class, I was always at the end of the picking order for any game to be played during recess or after school. Thank heavens for Mary Ludwig! She was bigger and taller than all the boys and, let’s face it, she had more testosterone than a grown man! She made sure I was never picked last. Mary knew I appreciated this as well, as I knew she revered my talents. She would always ask me to draw things for her and I did so with my thanks.
When people see my artwork they are somewhat surprised as to the size and strength of my paintings. My art is where my power can be displayed. I’m always thinking about a strong composition, bold saturation of colors and full strength of value. For an artist, it’s nice to know that one’s size does not matter. We can create whatever our strength will allow, with no limitations or preconceived ideas merely because of our physical stature. It’s something that can’t be seen… it’s one’s creative spirit that holds the power.
Humiliation to appreciation
by Kathleen G. Arnason, Willow Island, MB, Canada
The horrifying line up of choice… judgement… the spelling bee picks… I wanted to die… even to this day I refuse to do crosswords or play scrabble for fear of humiliation. So, in what do I finally find comfort and passion? How do I define myself? As a writer! If only my English teachers could see me now. I still can’t spell but I am probably able to use a dictionary faster then anyone on earth. Plus, if anyone thinks spell check is the answer forget it. Spell check was designed by spelling bee captains to trick you. Now when I find a spelling mistake, instead of almost getting sick, I realize how very fortunate I am. I stop to appreciate all the amazing gifts I have been granted. I have actually turned this around and used each mistake as a reminder to not be so hard on myself, to love myself and to pick myself first!
No short cuts
by Paul Foxton, United Kingdom
Once again one of your letters strikes a chord with me, this one the loudest of all. Like many, I’m a born again painter. When I returned to painting a few months ago, it was like coming home. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why I gave it up in the first place. Again, like many, initially I tried to lay the blame at other people’s feet. Art college, commercial drudge work, people undermining my confidence. But taking responsibility for our own actions is one of the most liberating and empowering things we can do.
I see two worrying trends in modern western societies: unwillingness to take responsibility for our own lives and the desire for the ‘quick fix.’ Both these things are, in my opinion, incompatible with meaningful, honest work. Taking responsibility is liberating because it allows us to accept that our mistakes are our own — and that means we have the power to put them right. Denying the quick fix and accepting that slow, steady practice is the only reliable way to progress allows us to achieve our goals. No plastic surgery can give you a painter’s eye, it must be patiently developed over years. There are no short cuts. By and large, we all work in a kind of unavoidable isolation. E. M. Forster‘s “only connect” is a recurring theme in these letters. That’s precisely what you do.
I run one those ubiquitous painter’s blogs. A post entitled “There Are No Short Cuts” made last February, may clarify my feelings.
Self-expression becomes narcissistic
by Sally Pollard, Weiser, ID, USA
My problem with your premise about the artist taking the power to know oneself is that mainstream art seems to be twisting creative self-expression into blatant and often banal narcissism, blessing it as an accepted art form.
Objective realists (easel painters) paint their observations but the mainstream, in an attempt to be avant-garde, seem to be becoming more like tort lawyers than visual artists, in the absence of good visual endeavors, often spewing excessive verbiage to create a case to support their self-relating rather narcissistic creative endeavors. I would guess they do this to sound intellectual because they certainly don’t look very visual.
Is there a place between the easel painter (painting often tired subject matter but pretty pictures) and the mainstream art (in past comments you have called it art in the entertainment world) with its pseudo intellectual self-indulgences? I get tired of traditional paintings, boring landscapes, nice pictures and bad abstractions, however the intentional self-referencing narcissims nauseate me. I love paint but am torn between the reactionary picture-making and art as entertainment modalities expressing narcissistic pseudo intellectualism…
I went to an art show called Materiality at J. Crist Gallery in Boise a couple months ago. I bought 2 pieces by Boise sculptor Amy Westover from that show that were rather narcissistic, but I didn’t mind because they were also beautiful. She took nude photos of herself and printed them using polyester transfer on to worn bars of soap, then beautifully presented them like ivory treasures. She was full of narcissistic bull crap too, saying bits of her DNA were dormantly preserved on the bars of soap; potentially the artist could be cloned later when the technology evolved. Perhaps she was relating the printing process to the cloning process. Can art and the creative act be so two-dimensional? I had to laugh.
Balanced form of self-love
by Lynda Lehmann, New York, USA
I totally agree with you that producing art gives us power. I see it as a power over ourselves, over our energy, perception, motivational systems. And perhaps most important, I view it as a supplanting of our need to achieve a social equilibrium (which in my mind is never really possible anyway), by a need to achieve harmony with ourselves in relation to the universe. The truth wear six billion faces, and each has different life circumstances, a different life script, if you will, and a different mode of being. For me, doing art takes me to a place from which I can accept all scripts and embrace the subjective and relative nature of truth. Because my own script is to me so engaging, at times enthralling, and always varied and full of mystery, it teaches me both tolerance and hope. It gives me confidence in the infinite potential of the universe, for hope, harmony, and healing. In short, it gives me joy.
I’ve heard it said that artists, in doing art, are participating in a God-like Creation process, and indeed it is true. While we are by no means transmuted into gods by the creative process, we at least become His humble hand-maidens. We see glimpses of beauty and wonder in places where other people may fail to look, unearthing it at every turn. We see new relationships, both visual and metaphoric, sociological and scientific. And this is our reward for moving away from the more petty power struggles that so often escalate into real and dangerous conflicts around the globe.
I’ve heard it said, also, that we artists make art in order to find love and to be loved. I think the apex of this is that in the tender connections we make to the universe, we find some degree of self-love. I think this is a balanced form of self-love that perceives the relative and tenuous nature of things, including the subjective nature of our own lives. Therefore, in my opinion, it is a mature self-love, not to be confused with narcissism.
by Marlena Fluckiger, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I relate to this letter, especially in my previous life of elementary school teacher. Despite a lack of any formal art training, I was eventually promoted to school art teacher, then district art specialist — ? Cool but weird! So, in this capacity, I was able to be awed by my students’ creative talents once I established the work ethic guidelines. Not only that, but I soon discovered that ‘art’ was the perfect way to establish contact with the ‘bad’ kids and, of course, the non-jocks and other non-conformers. These kids were always my personal favourites, anyway, so it was inspiring to be able to connect to them on a level that they, too, could benefit from.
Meaning and visibility is power
by Dwayne Davis, Williams Lake, BC, Canada
Wow! I have to say “wow” to the way you have touched on how I’ve been subconsciously pursuing my art. I have played sports, raced cars, and worked in road construction. All of these pursuits, I was able to do with fair result. But, with art, I feel exhilarated and important. Somehow special in the world. It has become who I am. A game, race, or job, no matter how crucial or impacting of an accomplishment at the time, fades to an experience reserved for the few who were there. Changing and diminishing with time to the point where the “trophy” sits on the shelf, collecting dust, having no real meaning attached to the effort that it took to receive it in the first place.
The first time I found Michelangelo’s artwork in a school library (I was about 8 years old), I fell in love with his works. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to leave a legacy. I wanted the admiration and awe I felt for his accomplishments felt for mine. I wanted my effort to be out there for all to see. My “gift” shown off and respected. I revel in my “gift,” that so few in the world possess, and in turn, I am humbled and inspired by those, whose “gift” I see produced via these forums, in galleries, and in websites. The creative minds, the talent, the perspiration, frustration… The true love of their craft showing through.
Art is a language that can be understood by all who have the senses to appreciate it. Art tells a story, evokes response, makes the simple complex, and the complicated understandable. It is the only true language that, for those who appreciate it, may do so on their own terms with their own personal spin, and without any need for an interpreter. That is Power!
The attached image file is my latest piece I have recently finished. It is a themed mural of the four main industries of the city: ranching, mining, logging, and tourism (rodeo). Painting “public” art, such as this mural, has become a passion for me. It is the size and the visibility that I have come to appreciate. I enjoy the physicalness of painting that large, as well as the interaction and “energy” I receive painting in front of an audience.
Study for wealth of ideas
by Vicki Ross, Rogers, AR, USA
I recently spent a month in France, under the tutelage of Kippy Hammond of KH Studios, USA and La Bonne Etoile in France. I brought back with me the suggestion of taking one item and seeing how many different ways I could present it. We chose crystals for me. The purpose has several goals… to learn to ‘see,’ to become more familiar with my medium (in this case, so far, pastels) and, maybe most important, just do studies. Not to be signed, framed or potentially sold. Just for the sake of study. I must say, I am having a ball. Have completed 7 so far and ideas keep cropping up!
In depth on location
by Jeanne Long, Minneapolis, MN, USA
Last summer I spent many weeks on an intersection in St. Paul, Minnesota painting a series for a Plein Air Project, Four Corners and the Cathedral, a Study in Light and Place. Ten artists painted dozens of paintings of that one corner and a jury selected an exhibition, displayed in the Local Color gallery last fall. That intense period of being forced to paint at the same intersection proved to me the importance of working in series. When the project began, I saw mostly buildings, color, and design possibilities. When the project was over, I was much more aware of light, atmosphere, and nuance. I saw more of what makes a picture vs. what makes a painting. Much of my work was just pictures and that was true of the others as well. But through that exercise in series work, several real paintings were born. In those works, the spirit of the place transcended pigments and emanated through form. Opening night of the exhibition was packed and paintings changed hands at an exciting rate, a testament to a connection between viewers and deep observers of that space, facilitated, I think, by working in a series.
(RG note) Thanks, Jeanne. Results of the project can be seen here.
Perception is subjective
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville Florida, USA
Perhaps all artists are intuitively aware of how subjective perception can be. As Isaac Bashevis Singer said, “No doubt the world is entirely an imaginary world, but it is only once removed from the true world.” I know the world I think I live in is a construct of my own hopes and fears. Making paintings from what I can see in front of me helps to make the imaginary ground I’m standing on seem more solid.
Empower young artists
by Carole Borges, Knoxville, TN, USA
Your last letter about Art and Power really hit home. It made me remember a time when I was a substitute teacher teaching a class of 5th graders. I was immediately warned that one student, George, had always been a problem. He daydreamed (oh! such an unforgivable sin!) and had trouble completing his work on time. The other kids teased him and exiled him, as they all were academically ambitious. It was a private school, and one kid actually sobbed when I gave him a C. He was terrified to go home and tell his parents because he truly thought the C would damage his chances to “get into a good medical school.”
Well one day, I looked around and there was George — bent over his desk with a notebook in front of him (not the textbook he was supposed to be reading). He was concentrating so intently he didn’t even notice me sidle up behind him. What I saw totally fascinated me. On both pages of his notebook George had drawn different wonderfully imaginative creatures and then labeled each with an emotion: happy… mean… sad… They were all beautifully and meticulously drawn and there were many. I must have gasped or something because George suddenly realized I was there. He slammed his book shut and looked up at me like I was going to go after him with a cat-o-nine-tails. With his chin to his chest, he slumped into his chair expecting to be publicly ridiculed and embarrassed. But George didn’t know me. “You’re an artist, George!” I gushed, happily. “Me too! Isn’t it great!”
When I held George’s book up to show the class, the kids responded with surprise and interest, and suddenly George became a transformed person. As the kids swarmed around him, he started flipping page after page over. Suddenly George became confident, eager, and proud. “Hey, maybe we can get George to do the weather map for our newspaper,” one kid said. “Or maybe cartoons!” another added. By the end of that week George was courted, looked up to, and admired by almost very kid in the class. He also began to concentrate on his classwork more and even to get it done on time.
Baby artists are especially needful of encouragement and praise. It’s like they are born a different breed. To discover one, and to name him or her as an artist, never ceases to thrill me. They just beam like anointed angels! Kids who don’t fit in because of an artistic temperament, simply glow when they hear you say, “You’re an artist! Me too! You’re one of us!” I think for some it’s the first real sense of identity and pride they have ever had.
Boise River Weeping Willow
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 Angela Treat Lyon of Kailua, HI, USA who wrote, “Wouldn’t it be more fun if Angus Bungay and Wally Thisson got together and had a back and forth image-conversation? Each inspiring and expanding upon the idea of the other. Art is the perfect vehicle for taking all of us to higher levels.”
And also Heather King of Napa, CA, USA who wrote, “I too flourished in contented solitude in the art room of my boarding school in Compton, Quebec, while my peers battled it out on the soccer field and tennis courts. Your words, ‘think of what could be’ are a wonderful touchstone as I more fully engage in ‘fine art’ painting and a new to me medium, after a long career as an illustrator.”
And also Jane Kley Hermann, MT, USA who wrote, “Edward Hopper’s wife, upon being interviewed for a publication, when asked what the most difficult aspect of being married to a great artist is, said, ‘It took me a long time to realize that when he is looking out the window, he is working.'”
And also Steve Hovland of California, USA who wrote, “The challenge of anger is to transmute it into creative work.”
And also Jane Pennington of Australia who wrote, “The previous letter reminded me of a product called WD40. It’s a water repellent spray, used on engines, etc. The name stands for Water Displacement, and the 40 refers to the fact that it took 40 tries to get it to work, so perseverance definitely does pay!”
And also Dave Wilson of White Rock, BC, Canada who wrote, “It’s an illusion that external events have the power to hurt you, that other people have the power to hurt you. They don’t. It’s you who gives this power to them.” (from A Course in Miracles, pub. Foundation for Inner Peace)