Andrew and Debra Veal started rowing their 23-foot plywood boat across the Atlantic. After 13 days, suffering a panic attack, Andrew bailed out. That left Debra to go it alone. The 3000 mile journey that was supposed to take 6 weeks, took Debra more than three months. She battled 30-foot waves, force 8 squalls, sharks, and supertankers that bore down on her. Sleeplessness took its toll. Through it all, pinned up in front of her rowing station, were the words “Choose your attitude.”
What are the mottos we have pinned above our stations? “Dream it — do it,” and “God, I’m good,” are two that come to mind. But somehow, it’s not the one that’s there, but the one that’s really there: “You’ll never make it,” and “Forget it, you’re a lousy artist anyway,” can rule the mind. Parental influence, peer indifference, poisonous pedagogy and magnified fears can be what we see and act on. Like Debra, we face a tough row. Like Debra we have to know that attitude is a matter of choice. And like Debra it’s our true attitude that carries us to the far shore.
Just as Debra crossed an ocean, we too do our job stroke by stroke. It’s the strokes that build strength, resolve and proficiency. It’s the strokes that build the confidence in the idea of finishing. Every morning Debra had to massage her fingers from their locked state. They had to be physically pushed straight in order to get them going again. Salt sores blistered on Debra’s bottom. She found that by rowing naked on a sheepskin — exposing her skin to the air and sun reduced the problem. Debra stroked on.
Our attitude permits us to create and re-create as we go. We do it on our feet — or on our bottoms. Yesterday an artist friend asked if there was any one thing that had been the most valuable for me. I was thinking about Debra and I realized what it was: Always have a painting on the easel. It’s there, waiting, needing, daring you to quit, inviting you to carry on, only in want of — stroking.
PS: “I cried from 8am till 11am. I finally plucked up enough strength to get out of the cabin and row. The wind was so strong, fighting the waves kept on making me dissolve into tears. I’m so exhausted and I just want to sleep.” (Debra Veal, diary, day 65)
Esoterica: Debra and Andrew were disqualified for taking outside assistance when Andrew was taken off Troika Transatlantic by a safety vessel. The Atlantic Rowing Challenge was won by Kiwis Steve Westlake and Matt Goodman on Telecom Challenge 1 in 42 days. They arrived in Barbados on 18 November, 2001, 70 days before Debra! The editor of the London Times wrote on 28 January “the winner of the race is the girl that came last.”
Learning from the experience
Teresa Wilber, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA
As in all challenges, the big picture can at times seem terribly overwhelming and never ending, until we realize that life is not about getting to the end, but rather learning from our experience. We learn that each step, one at a time, gets us to the top of the mountain, just as each stroke, one at a time, gets us across the sea. We all become instant winners at that very moment, no matter how long it takes.
Paula Sue Butts, Folsom, CA, USA
I have been rowing like Debra. I felt I was missing something. Maybe it’s acceptance. Just like Debra’s journey she prevailed by accepting her situation and even became creative by discovering a relief for sun exposure. What things we can accomplish by merely paying attention to strokes and details. I too have just recently come to the understanding that no matter how long I paint I must pay attention to the strokes and details. I shall try painting while naked, I may just discover something new, just like Debra :)
Many ways to win
Mottos really do help. Debra Veal’s story was one of real commitment. That’s what it takes to be successful. It’s also very encouraging to note that there are many ways to “win”. Most of us give up too quickly when we can’t seem to reach the self imposed goals we think are important. We think we have to be the very best and forget that running the race is just as important. It doesn’t matter that you don’t come in first. The one motto that has helped me with my art career the most is….”The difference between an amateur and a professional is the professional does it.” I’ve used the excuse “artistic slump” more than once to explain why I am not painting. Forget that excuse, you just have to get in there and do it even when you don’t feel like it. I’m adding “Choose your Attitude” as another great motto to hang in the studio.
Begin it now
Anne Copeland, Lomita, California, USA
I think that the biggest failure is not from those who try, but those who never try. I love and live by Goethe’s saying: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.” You cannot find a better statement to make your very own for your life. We all need to remind ourselves every single day that all we are now, and all we can ever hope to be is within us right now.
Right now I’m going through my lowest productivity period in years, one painting per week for the last 3 weeks. (probably I just need to buy more canvas) Still, I post no proverbs just photos that I like, many snapshots layered over others are taped up near my painting area. Still without words to drive me, I do have attitude, an endless sequence of attitudes — well I try to honour them all, mostly I try to stay plastic: maybe flexibility is my most overriding attitude, that and probably a commitment to observation and discovery. Well there is that, but also, I think I started painting a lot to help me face personal turmoil, I might just be getting too calm this month… nahhh…
(RG note) It never ceases to amaze me just how valuable it is to order in a bunch of fresh canvasses, and have them there, smiling at you, winking at you, in a big pile beside your easel.
Just filling the urge
I would like that woman’s e-mail address. Does she have a site? Van Gogh is the best example of how a person can be on the right track, propelled by gut feeling and some kind of strange obsessive stubborn conviction, that no one seems to understand. Add to it, the reality that in the end all your work could end up in a dumpster after you are gone and the estate is settled. For me, I just paint to fulfill an urge, when I don’t have the urge I just don’t paint, this is not some stupid contest. But if it is, I feel like the winner that came in last.
(RG note) Thanks to all who wrote to ask where they could learn more about Debra Veal. There’s a chronicle of her odyssey at http://www.thebarnards.btinternet.co.uk/rowing.htm
No laurels needed
Olinda Everett, Sao Paulo, Brazil
Why row so hard in order to come last? Why push your life to the brink and experience so much pain? To do something that you may be proud of, to stay true to yourself and go to the end. When she is no longer strong enough to row across the village pond, she will remember and be satisfied with life. The opportunity to do this is with all of us. Seldom do we get into the Times of London, but we need to carry these heroic private feats with us, even if we came last and did not get the laurel wreath.
Winner far, far behind
Barbara Elizabeth Mercer
Thank you for this story of immense soul and bravery, it makes me feel so much happier knowing that I am coming in last but to myself I am a winner. I used to joke with friends that I am so far behind the others that I am avant garde! They always got a great laugh out of this and I believe still do and should because it is true. I have two guiding lights at the top of my easel — “Follow Your Bliss,” and “Love is life made irresistible.” (George Bernard Shaw)
The right to be right or wrong
Walt Evans, Klamath Falls, Oregon, USA
I look forward to reading the many highly intelligent artists out there and am amazed at the insights that people have and write to you about art. However, I am also amazed at how ignorant and sometimes narrow minded some comments are. I once worked at a small southern museum. One of my first days of working in the art museum I was taken aback by how differently people saw art — and made strong comments on it — and how I, in my innocence, thought my opinion was valid and right. I came to realize we live in a world of wonder where every one has a voice in it and every one has a right to be right or wrong in their taste.
(RG note) We have an abundance of excellent material coming in — so many that we must put some in reserve for future inclusion. These letters run the gamut from intelligent and informative, to humorous, beautiful, as well as opinionated. We try to strike a balance so there is brevity and variety. We apologize if your input is not included every time. We are thinking that someday we may publish a permanent collection — in book form, of the best, worst, and most outrageous of your letters — with your permission of course. Thank you for writing.
Is it just my imagination, could there be too many folks out there who refuse to tell their mind to adopt an attitude of laissez-faire? “Choose or die! Stand still in one spot!” “You make me feel dizzy and confused when you hip and you hip and you hop!” So many sweet choices there are; I might be right, I might be wrong. All I know is that ants chew on my toes when I stand anywhere too long.
Pnina Granirer, Vancouver, BC, Canada
When following new ideas and new forms, I found that it is important to go deep into the new exploration, to stick with the new work until all which could be said about it has been said and only then move on. In my case, I stay with a new series anywhere between 2-10 years. When I feel that I start repeating myself and when I know that I have exhausted the subject, I stop and look for new ideas. At that stage, when starting a new series, the most exciting moment is when I walk into my studio the next day and do not recognize my own work. The newness stimulates and renews me, giving me impetus to explore further.
Anne Bevan, Asheville, North Carolina, USA
It sure feels like I am out here rowing alone lately . . . and awfully hard ! But I do have something pinned up where I can see it every day — “T IS FOR TENACITY” And the immortal message from Winston Churchill: “Never, never, never, never, never give up. The world belongs to those who realize that the game is not over until you quit. And when it comes to your dreams and your goals, it is always too soon to quit.”
Faith in drawing
This was a remarkable tale of persistence and overcoming. As I think on my past 2 years as a full-time artist, and all the self-defeating attitudes that have arisen in response to the challenge, I realize that the key is having faith in my original decision to become a professional artist. That decision is something like drawing out a painting before putting the brush to the canvas. The drawing is the commitment to do this painting in this or that manner, for this or that reason. It holds all the elements of the final work, in potential. I remind myself often to draw it out well, visualize and feel the subject thoroughly during the drawing. Then, when I have those doubts about the work, I say to myself, “Have faith in your drawing,” and so I continue to stroke the canvas. Similarly, we would be wise to remind ourselves to have faith in our well-drawn and well-visualized decision to be artists — and keep on stroking.
Green grass syndrome
Kelly Borsheim, Cedar Creek, Texas, USA
I read somewhere that the way to reduce writers’ block was to end your day with a half-written sentence. So I always make “cut” and “save” markings on my stone each night so I can avoid sculptor’s block (pardon the pun) the next morning.
The note posted in my studio says, “I never saved anything for the swim back.” It’s from the 1997 movie “Gattaca” and explains how the natural-born, imperfect man (a God-child) finally beat his genetically engineered brother in their competitive distance swim in the ocean.
In my bad moments I tell myself that I have no imagination. Unlike other artists, I simply copy what I see. This criticism echoes the sentiment I sometimes hear from abstract artists as they defend their methods to representational artists. It is then that I remind myself that there is a fine line between separating ourselves enough to find our own voices and putting down the voices of others. In my good moments, I simply refer to these thoughts as “The Green Grass Syndrome” — what I do is just not nearly as interesting as what my neighbor is doing. And I rejoice that I have such capacity to admire the many different creative efforts of others. Then I get back to work.
Please, don’t stop philosophizing along with passing along the tips! I received my first “kick in the pants” when a friend passed on your issue covering In Praise of Supports early May. As she put it, “THE Muse of all Muses, says to stop limiting yourself, get off your behind and MOVE, preferably forward”. I’ve been moving bit by increasing bit ever since. The artist in me has been long buried deep, driven down by childhood criticisms couched in terms of ‘consoling,’ that members of our family just ‘aren’t artistic/athletic/musical.’ For years I bought into that and the long-set beliefs are difficult to break through . . . This artist part of me now determinedly works its way out, as would a rock climber inching up from a deep well. I see daylight above and occasionally almost feel as though I’m peeking over the edge into the light of ability. Your letters give me a lifted step, though I sometimes feel as though I’m receiving it by deception as the ages-long voice whispers, “But you’re not an artist!” It’s all right, I tell myself at these times, that you probably would not mind it coming to that part of me who craves to be artistic. At least now I allow myself to delight in experimenting with various media and take pride in at least some of the results. Having an over-abundance of interests, and being one who never did want to learn how to play “Three Blind Mice”, but prefers to plunge straight into the concertos, hasn’t helped either. As a parent now, I am ever so conscious of this, and smile when I hear my child confidently and without a blink of self-consciousness, tell someone, “Well, that’s because … part of me … I’m an artist, you know.”
(RG note) It was this letter that made me write the one about Debra Veal. Thanks Claudia. The idea that Debra’s story would work as a metaphor came from Angela A’Court of London UK. Thanks Angela.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2003. That includes Lindsey Santaniello of Bridgewater, NH who wrote, “On top of my computer monitor is a little post-it with the words ‘I am unlimited.’ It is my daily reminder…” And Lynn Kenneth Pecknold, Port Alberni, BC, Canada who wrote, “I trust you aren’t ‘sitting on sheepskin.’ No, you probably are!” And Lida van Bers who just completed a mural in Jordan, Ontario, Canada, 16 by 96 feet long. She wrote, “I said loud and clear: Go, you can do it, give it all you can. Remember, this is like any other painting.” And Carole May Coty who wrote, “Debra’s was indeed an inspiring story. I believe it was Abraham Lincoln who said, ‘I will continue to work hard. Someday, someone will notice.’ ” And Dale Shutt of Ile-du-Grand-Calumet, Quebec, Canada who wrote, “I am a collector of words and sayings. Some are quotes from literature and poetry, some have been used as inspiration for paintings and some are just for laughter. There are two in my studio that have been there a long time. ‘Don’t Panic’ which I batiked when frantically preparing for an exhibition. The second was put up originally for students but I immediately realized it was for me too: ‘Open the vision in your head to the reality of the creation and have fun.’ ” And Jeri Fellwock who wrote, “I usually try to have 2 or 3 paintings going — all at different levels of being finished. When is a painting finished?? I think some of my paintings could have been finished 2 or 3 paintings ago. I guess they are done when I think there are no more strokes to put down.”