After painting steadily for six months while doing a minimum of socializing, I gathered my accumulated works and destroyed them. Oh, maybe I kept a few of the better ones. I had made up my mind that this six months was going to be strictly about learning and experimentation. There were piles of half-finished paintings showing every touch of goofballitis that hit me. Stuff was dripped, rollered, squeegeed and scraped. Paint was on discarded doors, chunks of Styrofoam, linoleum panels and hand towels. Some paintings attempted materials and techniques that found me incompetent. Other works had occasional modest glimmerings of goodness. That happened some time ago — I was in my twenties. In those days the stuff went up in smoke. With a used Kleenex and a dead teabag I whistled my way down Broadway. I was broke, and I was running on empty.
It was a new, more spiritual me that borrowed a few bucks from a friend and started again. I had reunited with the natural world — the outdoors and the wisdom of rustic solitude. I was an “Art Spirit” convert and more than ever I was convinced of the value of craft and craftsmanship. Workmanlike in my habits, I would now try for even more joy in my workmanlike hours. I made a sign for the wall of that tiny barren studio: “Quality is always in style.” It’s still somewhere around this one.
A similar and more brilliant cathartic story is told in Jerry Wennstrom’s book The Inspired Heart. He tells how, in 1979, he destroyed all his work and set out on a spiritual journey to find and to rejoin his own soul. It seems to me that Jerry’s book is to become one of the classics of creativity literature. Along the way he dumps his personal identity and begins to trust the Universe. It’s a surrender to a greater power and a metaphorical rebirth into a more evolved person and a better artist. He lives a life receptive to intuition and intelligent self guidance. He studies under the guru who is himself. His life and his art merge into one sensible whole, and he begins a journey to his full potential.
Every artist has such a story. Some hit down harder than others. Most are less dramatic than Jerry’s. The more I study our business — the more I meet with and enter into the lives of others — the more I’m convinced that for us there has to be something that might be called “character.” It’s not all just drawing and painting.
PS: “Your work is to discover your work — and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.” (Buddha)
Esoterica: Like a small play reenacted, you can give yourself these cathartic moments. Artists are often capable of ranges of emotions and flights of drama. Untapped, you miss out on the refreshment they give. If you are aware of your mood swings, you can utilize for profit their ups and downs. After a while you get more control of their intensity and your ability to recycle the process. The artist teaches himself the skills needed to heal himself. The artist reinvents himself. Constantly.
Will continue the journey
by Edna J. Patterson-Petty, East Saint Louis, IL, USA
I can truly identify with Jerry Wennstrom in his book The Inspired Heart. I learned to trust the Universe and my own intuition a few years ago. I am happier with the outcome of my work. I love who I am as a person, and I see things around me in a much clearer light. I shall stay on that path and continue my journey.
(RG note) Thanks, Edna, and thanks to all who wrote similar notes identifying with the trials and triumphs of Jerry’s remarkable book. This letter brought in an enormous response. So many valuable thoughts. In a way it makes me sad that we can’t put them all in here — but there would not be time to get on with what we do best. Thank you so much for this connectivity and this friendship.
Mind cleared to listen
by Suzanne Ste. Therese, Norwalk, CT, USA
Although not a painter, I have done this twice during my lifetime as a writer. First, after a complete breakdown and breakthrough when I realized all I had written was not a real voice but one I wished I had. Then, more recently, all of the work I rendered during that long period of suffering through the healing. I now enter into writing as into a Quaker meeting — neither expecting to speak nor expecting to not speak. It is very important for me to clear my mind and listen. Then, the hands work on the translation.
Past art a security blanket
by Kathy Cundith, Pleasant Hill, CA, USA
This morning, after a breakthrough in my “artistic” thinking, I went to my cupboard of saved works and began to toss. Ninety percent were experimental, failed, dreadful paintings that have been gathering dust for at least 10 years. I was feeling euphoric! Gone was the need to hold on to paintings that were clearly meant for no other eyes but mine. I now believe they were like a security blanket of sorts — proof that I painted.
Then I came in to check my emails, and read today’s Genn letter. Serendipitous? Clearly meant for me. I am in the process of a wonderful re-inventing of my work.
Creator from the soul
by Taylor Ikin, Tampa, FL, USA
Discovery of one’s self is not always a pretty picture, but more an awareness that you are only you and the sooner you let go of what you wish you were, the sooner you start on an amazing journey. Many artists spend their time trying to be like some other artist, usually someone who has achieved recognition by creating something special in their field — a process, technique, unusual application of mediums, etc. You can certainly learn from others, but you create from your soul. We should focus on giving more credit to the “self” who is trying to be expressive, rather than attempting to follow so closely the techniques of others. The freedom to be one’s self is a precious thing. We should cease parroting and grab the ring of creativity that is ours alone — and go forward on our personal journey to the stars!
Trouble with goofballitis
by Louis Runenberg, France
Modern, decorative art is now too impersonal and thus tells little or nothing anymore. Much of it is not far from house painting. A painter who hides under an abstract facility is truly the one who does not take any risk. Too much use of gray matter chokes off sensitivity and thus the truth.
Big lie of our times
by Schar Chappell, Auburn Hills, MI, USA
Perhaps the freeing of our spirit from the boundaries set from our own conditioning would open up the Us and not the They? Could we reshape our universe with the thought that we are the all of Us? Would breaking free of our conditioning lead to original thought, our own individuality, therefore creating a world of harmony? If we all sing the same tune you can’t have harmony. If you don’t have harmony life is out of balance, which is where we are today — hustle and bustle moving so fast — because we believe that is the way it is supposed to be done. I call it the “big lie” of our times. We separate ourselves from each other through fear. Fear causes us to war against ourselves.
Turning over a new leaf
by Antoinette Ledzian, Stonington, CT, USA
One of the secrets of personal growth is in the reflections we artists have in reviewing our life in terms of saved art work, journals, photography and any other attempts in capturing the steps and leaps along this magnificent human journey — the good, bad, highs, lows, beautiful and ugly.
Inspiration, spirituality, solitude, intuition, creativity, practice, play and reflection are such keys to wisdom — aren’t we blessed to recognize these necessary phases of art and craft which continually fill our soul? What more can we give to others than to be the best we can be at being our natural, vulnerable, mortal selves! I’m off for a walk in the woods with hopes of turning over a new, brightly covered leaf!
Embracing the free fall
by Yonnah Ben Levy, Stanwood, WA, USA
My husband Chaim and I started reading The Artist’s Way and doing the writing that Julia Cameron recommends every morning and our world is turning upside down. This is not the first time for me so I am attempting to embrace the free fall, knowing that everything has a time and season. Now I still am able to work in the studio off and on and, as usual with stress, the work comes out interesting in such times. So I am on the alert when I read letters like yours to keep going in this new direction with a positive attitude rather than wallowing in any kind of despair, the great temptation when things are seemingly falling apart.
Voice of the spirit
by Maritza Burgos, Melbourne, Australia
I believe that creativity is a product of your soul’s voice, your true voice, not the programmed, bound by rules or conventions, but rather that expression that can only happen when we become totally aware of our surroundings — of the natural world of which we are part of, and from which we emerge, before we are absorbed by the artificial, constructed world of cities. One’s art should be the extension of oneself, a reflection of the spirit or soul, that can only be when one is with the world and the universe. Painting, music, literature are the vibrations of the collective human conscience in its different forms. Creativity is the voice of the spirit.
Shining star finds trauma, hard work
by Carl Purcell, Ephraim, UT, USA
My own cathartic moment happened when I was just out of High School. I was talented (or so I thought), I had been the best artist at my High School (I hadn’t noticed that I was the only one) and I was sure that I would be a shining star at the University. There I was thrown in with a lot of other students just like me. None of us shone too much, but in each other’s company we didn’t notice. Then one day I walked into the gallery. It was an exhibit of the Masters Degree candidates. Years later I learned from one of the professors that that group was the best group of students he had seen in 30 years at the university. When I saw their work it was inescapably clear how far below their level I really was, and how little talent I had. It was devastating! I wanted to crawl into bed, assume a pre-natal position and turn the electric blanket up to 10. Massive trauma! I wondered if I should go home, turn on the gas and put my head in the oven. But art was all I wanted to do so I decided that from then on I would have to work harder than anyone else because I had the least amount of talent. I have never become as brilliant a star as I was just out of High School, but I have learned to love working hard at my craft.
(RG note) Carl is the author of Painting With Your Artist’s Brain.
Privilege of art-making
by Judith Reidy, Milwaukee, WI, USA
It’s not a bad life, marked by an occasional fond embrace or the smell of falling leaves. Then there is the glimmer of hope when your hand makes something that begins to work. Sometimes I wonder why I love this madness and can’t be like other people who keep a normal, steady day-job. I like being able to breathe and drink the space and shapes around me. I enjoy thinking about the teaming microcosms bursting with energy, there, not chance but design. For me, paint and materials are combined not by chance, but by my design. It is a privilege to be an artist though sometimes a little isolated from the bottom line. Can one make enough to take care for those one loves in a way that will meet their needs? Is it prudent to be an artist-monk reveling in life’s beauties, living a life of poverty, while neglecting the needs of others? Can one value looking at something made with ardour, over the commercial picture of the perfect life?
(RG note) Thanks, Judith. Our world is loaded with evidence that lives can be lived in goodness and generosity, while making by hand daily reflections of honest beauty that others may covet and are willing to pay well for. Poverty is not a prerequisite. For more on this see the clickback Your thinking words.
Uncommitted and not alone
by Kevin Casey, Richmond, VA, USA
I work a full-time job as a digital retouch artist for an ad agency and also, with my wife, own and teach in a yoga studio and am also a massage therapist. As you might imagine this more than fills the hours in the week.
I have dabbled in various media since I was in school for art and then graphic design in the early ’70s. I always have a sketchbook and drawing tools in my car without often utilizing them. While I have vacillated over which medium was “right” for me over the years, as I get older I keep coming back to drawing and my desire to have at least that as my form of expression and have given up all thoughts of the idea that I will ever have a “career” as an artist. My art would become an adjunct to my personal journey in yoga, which appears to be virtually the same path as that of the author you cited. As I reduce my life little by little to simple components (as simple as it gets in 21st Century suburbia) a pencil and some paper feels like the right choice for me. But still I struggle with the issues of time, quality and quantity. Every time I pick up a pencil it feels like the first time and my marks are unsure and then, occasionally, a moment of grace when the line flows through me. This is what I am aiming for.
I just felt the need to share that as I am sure I am not alone in having reached midlife and never been able to firmly commit to life as an artist but, at the same time, unable and unwilling to let it go.
True guru is built-in
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
The exile that leads me to the silence where I find the satguru, the true guru within seems to be built into my life. The loss of my aunt when I was about to turn 18 was one such occasion. Going off to Italy my senior year in college was another. Moving to NYC for graduate school and a life that reveres culture also lead me to some great depths of the soul. Then a big shake of my self-perception was having children. I don’t think I have experienced anything quite as powerful in testing my self-worth and my beliefs about my purpose and this life. Now when I slip into dark moments it’s not so overwhelming, it is more a time to unravel, slow down and reconnect with something that wants my attention. Being an artist is a calling and a blessing. I feel it is one of the main threads that unite all the elements in my life together. Being a sacred activity, creating art is reflexive of other practices like meditation and yoga. It gives me the space to strengthen my capacity to be present.
A jump off the cliff
by Stefanie Graves, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
A year ago my husband, a batik painter, and I, a watercolorist, jumped off the cliff to see if we could get this art “ship” to fly. We sold our condo, quit our day jobs, got rid of everything except essential things, stored them in a locker and set off for a 6 month art intensive in central Mexico. After that, we took 10 weeks to go round the planet to visit various cultures of interest as a means of inspiration and head-clearing. Now back in Mexico we’re preparing for a joint show of our work and sending out applications for art fairs, additional shows and seeking gallery representation. Sometimes it feels like we’re in free-fall while at others like we’re beginning to soar. It’s scary to take such a drastic leap of faith but at the same time I think it’s reaffirming of who we are at our depths. We’re learning more about ourselves and also becoming better in our skills as artists. Indeed, giving it all our heart.
Art creation became spiritual practice
by J. Bruce Wilcox, Denver, CO, USA
After a 6-year career as an internationally published display designer I burned out and quit, primarily because during that time I only produced 3 pieces of art. It was 1978. In 1985 I struggled through a suicidal depression because fiber work takes too long to create and I wasn’t making enough money to even exist on. And at that time I also lost many friends toAIDS. So after my early trashing of a narrow-minded religion, I put myself on my spiritual path in an attempt to survive.
I was relentless, reading everything I could beg or borrow as I couldn’t actually afford books, classes or seminars. And because my need to heal from an abusive childhood was so great, I began using the tarot on myself. I evolved. In doing so every single facet of my art creation experience became my spiritual practice.
I healed myself. I opened myself up to a direct connection to the Divine. And I am at last offering to help others clear out their own creative blocks. Anybody want an intuitive tarot reading?
Invitation to a mutual burning
by Laury Ravenstein, Port Coquitlam, BC, Canada
Four years ago I was working on a children’s book. Thought it was a great idea. Worked for over two years and produced 32 detailed paintings. The problem was, although I had great looking artwork, my writing sucked. I went through a process where I had to grieve the idea, accept the result and ultimately destroy all the work. It was not until the work was gone from my sight that the cloud of disappointment rose and began a re-birth of work. The healing process was not without its ups and downs, but I have picked up my bruised ego and made the experience work for me. The courage it took to destroy the work was high, but probably the most critical time in my artist’s life thus far.
As spiritual as the experience was, one day I would like to share it with the public. Any artists want to get together and burn their work together? What a statement of quality!
Three phases of creating
by Pene Beavan Horton, Sidney, BC, Canada
There has to be character. Some bit of the artist’s character or soul has to go into a painting. There are at least three phases to consider when creating fine art — feeling, seeing and drawing:
a) spiritual/emotional feeling about your subject, what attracts you to want to draw or paint it or sculpt it.
b) physical feeling: you have to feel the movement and the dimensions in your own body — i.e. if you paint the sky, you have to feel light and airy or dark and stormy, whatever it is that you are looking at — if you want to draw someone with a bent elbow, bend your own elbow and get the feel of it before you draw.
a) as Frederick Francks said in The Zen of Seeing/Drawing, look at something until it looks back at you. There’s a huge difference between looking at something and actually seeing it. Brenda Ueland said you will never know what your husband looks like until you try to draw him — (I suggest ‘or what anything else looks like until you try to draw it’).
b) pay loving attention to what you are seeing. Draw, paint, sculpt, with love, which goes back to spiritual/emotional feeling.
a) Begin only when you know how you feel about what you are looking at, and when you can actually see what you are looking at…
b) Decide what method you’ll use to capture the image.
There are probably hundreds of individual decisions each artist makes, but if feeling is left out, the work won’t ‘come alive.’
by Ron Sanders, Fort Wayne, IN, USA
A few years ago I wrote to you and asked “what’s wrong” to get a feel for how to strengthen my work. As a result of the responses that I received and your continued writings, I took three years away from my galleries to study and pursue new paths — to paint more from life and to improve my values, edges, color and focus. The three years brought growth and improvement in my work. This year I was accepted into two more large national shows and had the joy of painting with the Northwest Rendezvous Artists in Montana in August. I’ve even had encouragement from several of the country’s best galleries. But with no new work going out to galleries in recent years, there have been few sales and I survived on a few illustration jobs and commissioned portraits along with my low paying day job. We also had two more children.
Now I’m broke and unable to build new markets for my work fast enough to climb out of the hole. I need to provide for my three children and my loving wife who have patiently supported me through all this. My house and studio are for sale in a bad local real estate market where I will lose between $5000 and $20,000 on their sale. Now I am forced to set art aside for a time — for the first time in 30 years painting will not be my primary focus — and I must pursue a “real job” for the coming years (how many I do not know).
In my melancholy moments I feel overwhelmed by failure (to come so close to real success and to fall short and be sidetracked). In my stronger moments I remind myself that these are my choices based upon my priorities and that they are a calculated part of a larger plan. By focusing on other means of income production, I am freeing myself to pursue my true heart in my artwork, unhindered by the pressures of the marketplace or demands of galleries. I have canceled 4 of my 7 galleries and told a 5th to liquidate their inventory of my works. I may well end up with only one gallery by next spring and what works I do in the quiet times of my soul’s rejoicing I will send to them.
Now is a time of great change. I can see it as a time of winter’s sleep for my art career, or a chance for spring’s new life. I suppose at various moments in coming days I will continue to see it as both.
(RG note) Thanks, Ron. Readers might be interested in going to Ron’s original letter and artists’ responses to What’s wrong. Further, I don’t think it’s a good idea to instruct a dealer to “liquidate their inventory of works.” Liquidate suggests price cutting. This might be bad if you intend to parachute back in a couple of years. I’d say let them stay in situ and advance their prices every year rather than liquidate them now. There are some soothing and not so soothing thoughts on commerce here.
Female blacksmith discovered
by Simone Ross, Barrie, ON, Canada
In her clickback letter, H. Margret writes, “In all my years as a horse owner and artist, I never met one female blacksmith!” I’m happy to tell her that my current blacksmith, Lori, is indeed female and possibly the best blacksmith I have ever dealt with in my years as a horse owner. What she lacks in pure physical strength (and she’s pretty strong for her size), she more than makes up for in patience, empathy, and knowledge of horse behaviour and body language. She may not be able to manhandle a “problem horse” — but by the time she’s worked with it a time or two it usually isn’t a “problem horse” any more, because she has worked with its nature instead of trying to bully it. As in art, there are always alternate approaches if one is willing to explore them.
Inspiration from another artist
by Richard F Barber, Anshan, China
I was pleased to see that you published the material on J. Kwegyir Aggrey. I have been writing to him for some time now. He is a twenty one year old art student whose family is struggling to help him through art school, he has a deep love for art and I find him an inspiration to me — to see such a young man with the thirst for knowledge of the world of art, even when the chips are stacked against him, as regards the lack of materials (mainly because of the lack of money) he still continues with his quest to be an artist.
(RG note) Thanks, Richard. This morning Kwegyir wrote to us:
“Thank you very much for making it possible for me to reach out to the world’s great artists with my humble words by the help of the best world-wide artistic letters which also feeds the artists’ creative mind. Mr Robert, you have really made me proud!”
We just mailed Kwegyir a selection of paints and a copy of The Painter’s Keys. His mailing address is Jonathan Kwegyir Aggrey, P.O.Box MB122, Ministries, Accra, Ghana. West Africa 233.
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, 2005.
That includes Shari Rainbow who wrote, “I met an artist online who felt it was her right, as an artist, to have mood swings and it didn’t matter that she swung at and hurt people in the process. That was okay. That should be understood because she’s an artist. Yes, as artists, we are more in touch with our emotions. But I have much more respect for artists who stay in touch with their emotions so that an emotion doesn’t blindside them and send them off on a rant that harms others.”
And also Aliye Cullu of Gainesville, Florida who wrote, “Your letter brought me to sobs for a few moments. This week I have been painting what has persisted and begged for expression, mind’s eye images from my daily meditations. Bursts of swirling light, energetic squiggles, and metaphysical, symbolic stuff. Totally outside the direction I’ve been going in with my painting teacher. I’m tempted to take them to him, and say, ‘How do we train this voice to sing full and strong?’ ”
And also Rick Boggan of Texas who wrote, “As a man in my late fifties, having worked in the art related arena for thirty years (commercial art), I have just begun to live my life with serious direction for my own art. Doing the art is a blessing in itself, but the feeling of connection with community of like thinking and experience lets me feel.”
And also Terri West who wrote, “Three hurricanes and a midlife crisis will give those cathartic times. I have had a life ‘epiphany’ and so much so that I have changed my business to reflect it. ‘Epiphany Art’ is the new name. Even my art is evolving and I find myself welcoming each day to get lost in the paint.”