“Neither an ogre nor a patsy be.” I don’t know who said it but in my books that quote just happens to be valuable. It’s not necessary to be unduly tough, nor to be weak. Furthermore, some of the most successful artists I know live relatively normal lives, raise families with flair, run happy homes and make social contributions above and beyond their art horizons. They also make win/win deals, have amicable commercial relationships and enriched friendships with a wide range of people outside the field. In other words they make an “art” of life.
This is in contrast to the popular myth of the malcontent nonconformist who lives in a perennial state of anger or self-indulgent liberty and thinks the world owes him or her a living.
My inbox frequently presents letters from people ready to jump in and talk the talk and walk the walk. This sometimes to the wholesale sacrifice of other life-enhancing activities and relationships. I feel it’s a great idea to live in art but it’s also important not to miss out on the other stuff. Realistically, it’s a tough world out there, and there’ll be disappointments. Competition is deadly, and getting worse. The pursuit of a balance ought not to degrade one’s passion or interfere with the necessary quiet focus. Life itself is a canvas on which we are privileged to move our various brushes but once. There will always be space for charity, kindness, love, courtesy, fair play, decency, family, motherhood, fatherhood, and not taking ourselves too seriously. Come to think of it, right there’s a batch of subjects.
PS: “An inexhaustible good nature is a precious gift. It spreads itself like oil over the troubled sea of thought, and keeps the mind smooth and equable in the roughest weather.” (Washington Irving)
Esoterica: Shocking though it may be, moderation seems to be key for many artists. It’s reported that a life of moderation clears the way for the balanced convergence of imagination and productivity. “Moderation in all things — including moderation.” I don’t know who said that either.
The following are selected responses to the above letter. Thank you for writing.
A beautiful life
Wendy, London, England
This letter comes at a good time because I am struggling with just how much better I can make my personal life. I have just emerged from art school and have to fine tune a few things and learn some people skills I guess in order to get along better. This I have never learned and it drove me into my art as an escape from my failure in those other areas. I noticed a quote in The Resource of Art Quotations: “A truly beautiful life is the highest work of art in the world.” (Boris Volkoff)
Dick Ponting, UK
Would-be artists who want to walk the walk ought to look on the project as an experiment. If they give it all they are worth for a while and they fail — that will be okay too. At least they have tried. For whatever reason they found themselves wanting — unsuitable for the work, not talented enough, too slow — whatever — they will have completed the experiment and be ready to go on with some other calling in life.
Growth of the human animal
Nic East, Home Hill Forge, Jim Thorpe, PA, USA
It is within the personal self that needs arise and desires are felt. The human is not a solitary computing machine, but is a feeling, thinking, loving creative social entity complete with all the wonderful mystery that has developed around our evolutionary process. Eon after eon the need for socially interactive expression has grown from barbaric brutishness through spectrums of sensitivity toward cultural refinements of the highest order. Art is only an aspect of this mighty event amid the long struggle to know and experience everything imaginable.
Share the ride
Ron Wickersham, Dayton, Ohio, USA
As a full-time artist I have a quote, and it goes: “Art is my vehicle through life; may we share the ride together.” Art will take you places… do things… and you’ll meet people. These things would not have been possible if a person did not undertake this journey called art.
Life is lifeblood
DWP, Dieppe, France
Life itself is the lifeblood of art. Without a close attachment to living, dying, and the pulse of nature and humankind there can be no art but a dried up theory. Vital artists have always known this and do not shut themselves away from the world. “I need to feel the excitement of life stirring around me, and I will always need to feel that.” (Pierre-Auguste Renoir)
This was a brave letter because it sets forth a problem that we all face as teachers and mentors of those who would be artists. How do we empower those who will only achieve a minor success? How do we advise those who have not enough of what it takes to really work at it, live it, and absorb enough technical knowledge to be able to create continuously and effectively? How do we gently tell them that life is what’s important? Apart from what a lot of people are saying — really great art is still a rare commodity and hard earned.
Not an incomplete human being
Judy Wood, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada
Because I am driven to create, and can become a little snarky if I don’t, I am in the studio for at least some time each day, but I find that I must have a good quality of life “as she is lived” or the work suffers. Since my abiding passion outside the art world is horses, I spend several hours a day at the barn in the company of horses and horse people. The physicality of riding and horse care, combined with my ongoing appreciation of the beauty and wonder of horses, does much to enhance my studio work — most of which is of horses anyway. I find the combination of “downtime” at the barn and “uptime” in the studio to be a good complement. Living a quality life and being an artist are not mutually exclusive. Being a miserable person is not a necessary adjunct to the creation of art. One of my horse friends has recently come up with the phrase “an incomplete human being” to describe those amongst us who fall short in the humanity department. We shouldn’t let our calling as artists push us into this category — indeed, in many ways we need to be more complete human beings than the average so that we can realize ourselves as artists and as people.
Annette Waterbeek, Maple Ridge, BC. Canada
As a mother who needs to be the one who raises the kids who are now in their early teens, a half-time graphic artist/compositor for a local newspaper… who WANTS to evolve into a full time artist, balancing is TOUGH but not impossible. It is all about finding your way. “Challenge” is my word for the process, sometimes it knocks you down but …”Neither an ogre nor a patsy be.” Get up, brush your self off and keep going. And when gifts of direction are given to you they are like breaths of air.
Beverly Wolsey, Comox, B.C. Canada
As a beginner artist who has been a beginner for quite awhile, but enjoys the whole thing I related to your last letter. After retiring from a busy and fulfilling job, with a busy wonderful family (with one daughter a working artist and another a biologist/musician) I have had to tuck art courses in here and there. Now that I am retired or living my mature lifestyle of gardening at our ocean home, kayaking, biking, friends coming to stay at the beach I am still tucking my art hopes in here and there. I find the whole thing still enjoyable. There is one day set aside for painting with my guru instructor Robert Lundquist and many small moments in my little room playing with the ideas I get from the world around me. I may never shake up the art world with my style but I see, feel and think about what could be done with all the elements wherever I go. I look at everything closer and instantly think — “Wow, that would be a great thing to paint.”
Dry periods in life and art
Susan, Tarrytown, NY, USA
What struck me about the last responses is the unity and the overall fact that there are dry periods in life. And after all, painting is a part of life. In each one of my days there are dry periods. To make them less dry, I put on some music to help change my mood and “let her rip”. (i.e. washing the floor to ice-skating music and pretending I am a figure skating star) Art is not so different than anything else — it’s a fortunate expressive part of life. Some specific techniques: Draw or paint with the other hand. Put a mitten on your hand and paint a picture you have already painted.
Not giving up
Harlan Simantal, Portland, Oregon, USA
Thanks very much for posting all those encouraging comments in the last clickback. It helps a lot knowing other artists out there share the same frustration. And all the advice was useful. One quality I have is persistence and tenacity. I remember once or twice just getting mad and being very deliberate and decisive in my painting, talking to myself. It worked. I’m not giving up.