A week ago, author and aircraft expert Wayne Ralph interrupted my painting by dropping by with a book. A Distinguished Old Bentley Drove Down to the Sea, was not your typical gift from one artist to another. A children’s illustrated poem, “suitable for 4 to 6 year olds,” I figured he gave it to me because he’d seen me driving around in my ’38 Bentley — and just in case we ever have any grandchildren around here. I leaned the book against a pile of half-finished canvases and didn’t look at it until this morning.
You can read the whole thing, out loud, in two minutes. It’s about an old Bentley who was not feeling too good about himself, who went for a drive and parked out on a pier. While he was bemoaning the state of his spark plugs, a humpback whale passed by and heard Bentley humming a song. The whale was also having personal problems.
“My daughter had twins in the last hurricane,
And my son wants to marry a lobster from Maine.”
The whale is encouraged by Bentley’s song. Thinking things over, the whale heads off with a splash to look after his family, while Bentley realizes he’s been a benefit to the whale. Bentley concludes, “I like being me,” and backs down the pier and drives off in a cloud of contented smoke.
I admit it, every time I paint a picture — or write my twice-weekly letter — I’m thinking that something in what I do might bring value to another person. I believe that reaching out and connecting with others may just happen to be our highest calling. In the regular inflow of emails, many artists tell me that they don’t paint to please anyone but themselves. A lot of this attitude, while commendable in some ways, is a cloud of smoke.
It’s my observation that all of us, no matter how iconoclastic and independent, while looking to our own spark plugs, also keep our eyes on connectivity. I don’t know how you feel about it, but I think universal love gets into art, too. Without connectivity in our lives there’s no reason to keep our spark plugs sparking. It’s not a difficult plot.
PS: “Here I’ve been thinking how everything’s wrong,
And yet I’ve encouraged that whale with my song.” (Lisa Rae)
Esoterica: In the palliative care unit of our local hospital there are several large works painted and donated by my daughter, Sara Genn. They depict little people floating around in space, variously connecting and disconnecting with one another. Hardly a month goes by without someone phoning me and mentioning they have seen these works. On green-painted walls of stress and sadness, Sara’s paintings bring a smile or a chuckle to patients and visitors as they come and go. While art may inform, challenge and teach, it also helps people feel good about themselves. In the final tally, this may be its ultimate use.
Connections, one by one
by Paul Foxton, UK
This old Bentley has realized that the simple sharing of experience can help other people along their own path, and, like you, I’m beginning to wonder of this isn’t the highest achievement one could hope for through one’s work. At a time when so much ‘professional’ art appears to be made primarily for the consumption of art critics and with gaining the maximum column inches as its goal, it’s very refreshing to bring things back down to the basic human experience and make these small personal connections, one by one.
by Lisa Chakrabarti, Los Angeles, CA, USA
“The purpose of art is nothing less than the upliftment of the human spirit.” If I’m not mistaken, that quote is attributable to the late Pope John Paul II. No intention to bring religion into the picture (I’m not Catholic), but I think he’s ‘right on the money’ with that one. My interpretation of his words is that spirit flows from the painter outward to the painter’s audience of viewers. We uplift ourselves when we paint – it is our spirit, or ki (Japanese), that does the painting, and this ki extends outward – to the rest of the universe. This is powerful stuff! In today’s often insane world, art can be a positive force that offers balance, again, to both the artist and audience.
Artist’s integrity crucial
by John Lincoln, Peterborough, UK
I am sure you will have alluded to this yourself at some point that to produce art that is aimed at pleasing an audience is almost inevitably doomed to failure. It could mean the artist has to ‘follow fashion’ instead of being true to themselves. In my view an artist’s integrity is crucial to the value of what he/she produces. This does not mean that the artist ignores the need for connectivity. The two positions of independence and connectivity are not mutually exclusive. Art is a fundamental necessity for the quality of all our lives, whether as practitioners or consumers (receivers/observers). Art, in the broadest sense, can and usually does provide the means by which humankind can relate to the world and everything in it, both physical and spiritual.
Art to induce positive action
by Suzanne Joubert, Montreal, QC, Canada
Matisse said he wanted his paintings to make people happy. I suppose this has gone out of fashion since the most celebrated art of the present time tends to underline all the reasons we have to be desperate about the world. Maybe such art does contribute to make people more aware of say, environmental problems or something else of the kind. But we also need the reverse attitude because despair does not induce positive action.
Sharing the event
by John Stuart Pryce, Sunderland, ON, Canada
I have wondered for years why we take the sometimes difficult road to achieve more eloquence in our work and better express what we see and feel. I was fortunate a few days ago to be painting in a beautiful area near my home. I arrived early and set up my easel in the location that would give me the advantage of the low rising sun. The results were incredible as the cool light backlit the orange and red leaves of the trees and rising mist as the warm sun heated up the season’s first heavy frost. I painted as quickly as I could and looked around to see if anyone else was there. How sad it was to witness this beautiful event alone. This reinforces my belief that we are creating art not for only our own needs but for a desire to share. Not unlike the need to share a funny joke, good news or even bad news.
Sharing our spiritual awareness
by Christine Taylor, St. Philip, Barbados
I have just completed an intense, weekend psychology workshop here in sunny Barbados, where I live. It centered around the fact of us all being connected by common feelings and similar experiences and that we affect those who we come into contact with. There is a great Love & energy out there and as artists we get to access this creative wisdom and plug into it. Like the native aboriginals in Australia, we can enter our “dream time” and are called to share this gift of visions with our fellow journeyers through life. What a healing treasure we have at our fingertips! Artists seem to have a special spiritual awareness and I am so grateful to get to experience it on a daily basis.
by Jennifer Davis, Papillion, NE, USA
For years, I painted out of a home studio which was – and still is – everything any artist ever dreamed of having. However, something just didn’t seem right. I was bored and losing interest. Searching to fill the unnamed void, I rented a small studio space at a warehouse converted into artist studios located near downtown in a high traffic area. Suddenly, my desire to paint… my “mojo” as I call it… exploded. I received excellent feedback from others, was exposed to a variety of disciplines, and listened to the comments and suggestions of potential clients. It made me want to continue to paint, because my work appeared to make others happy. Their happiness became my happiness.
by Gene Black, Anniston, AL, USA
I would like to say that I paint only for myself. The fact is: that would be a lie. I am connected to people. If no one else seems to find value in one of my works then I consider that piece to be mine. I am honestly thrilled when a friend, co-worker, or total stranger sees one of my works and likes it enough to stop and give it more than a cursory glance. Those who make the claim, “I paint only for myself,” should back it up by hiding their work away. They should not attempt to sell it or show it. Showing one’s work implies that it was done for others. Certainly placing your work on the Internet says, “I painted this for others to see.” Let’s clear away the cloud of smoke and try honesty. Honesty in a work of art elevates it beyond the mundane.
Public and private art
by Kris Shanks, Rohnert Park, CA, USA
I create two kinds of art. One is for public consumption, and while the making of it is for my pleasure and challenge, sharing it with other people and knowing that it touches them in some way is what keeps me going, just the like Bentley in your story. But I also make art that is private, just for me, as a way to work out feelings. As a visual person, it helps me to have a visual representation of whatever inner turmoil is bubbling up. The best move I ever made as an artist was to recognize the difference between my public and private art.
Public and private art
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA
I love your “Bentley” story. I’ve often used children’s toys in my still life paintings because they reduce an adult world reality to a playful metaphorical object. I couldn’t agree more with you, “…that reaching out and connecting with others may just happen to be our highest calling.” To help others or a loved one is of the highest order. Helping others succeed or better their lives raises the whole boat in the sea of humanity, benefiting everyone, self included. There is great pleasure in doing so and is partly the reason I enjoy sharing my piece of the pie with you and your readers.
Ironically, yesterday as you were writing “A Cloud of Smoke” I was out collecting an old piston and spark plug at the junk yard for a new painting to be titled Internal Combustion, with all the double entendres intended. But really it’s about The Driving Force within us all.
by Fred Asbury, Memphis, TN, USA
Art is only one of many forms of communication. From cave drawings to the present most complicated concepts, it is still one artist trying to communicate his or her view of the world to other people. The concept that we only paint for ourselves is an arrogant and condescending approach to this communication process. Some artists, writers, actors, etc. fall (and I stress fall) into this lesser human trait of feeling that their work is far more important than the people viewing it. Painting or any other form of art is never done just for the artist, and those who make this pronouncement are saying that they are only talking to themselves. This speaks smokescreen to me.
Counterbalance to failures
by Liz Nees, Long Beach, CA, USA
Although I care deeply about the quality and content of the finished piece (it has to please me, first), the destination of my work is important to me, too. Yesterday I received an email from a collector who had just purchased one of my pieces. She was so happy and excited and wanted to share photos of its installation in her home, to let me know where it was now situated. (I wasn’t even aware the piece had sold—the collector contacted me before my dealer did.) It means the world to me to know my art has enriched someone’s life. Other collectors tell me how much they enjoy their pieces—they say that every time they look at the piece they notice something new. An architect sends me a Xmas card every year, and every year he mentions how much he and his wife enjoy the painting they purchased from me. This is part of what keeps me going as an artist. It helps to counterbalance the failures and rejections.
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 Su Rogers who wrote, “Connectivity is a wonderful thing, but cold hard cash to accompany it would be even better. Oops, did I say something only a heretic would mutter?”
And also Fiona Robyn who wrote, “We ought to create what we want to create, but surely we only create in the first place because we want to communicate something, because we want someone to hear what we’ve said and think ‘yes!’ ”
And also Cheena Kaul of India who wrote, “I am a graphic designer and a partner in a software development firm, but took to soft pastels a few years back. Since then, it’s been my dream to pursue it full time. I’m just waiting for my 6 month old boy to grow up a little, so that I can spend some more time on my easel!”
And also Adolfo McQue of South Africa who wrote, “To paint only for oneself is very lonely. I believe all the arts are driven by a wish to share, on a practical level. If we could paint only for ourselves our market would be limited to ourselves or our twin brother if we had one. In my opinion, ‘Art for art’s sake’ does not exist.”
And also Tom Robert Frederick of Fort Collins, CO, USA who wrote, “My better works emerge during periods of extraversion and lesser works during periods of introversion. I’m consciously avoiding the artists’ stereotype of ‘doing their own thing’ in favor of my personal mantra of ‘to create works that evoke positive emotions in the viewer.’ ”
And also Andy Haury of Knoxville, TN, USA who wrote, “As a teacher of Art — 9th through 12th grades – how do I entertain my students? Sometimes the days just seem as though I am smashing my head against a brick wall, then, like the Bentley, something will happen to rescue me and make it all worthwhile – and when I least expect it.”
And also Diane Overmyer of Wakarusa, IN, USA who wrote, “Now that I am running a gallery, and being exposed to people from all over the world, I have found that my art itself is changing in many ways. I am taking the direction of my work very seriously, but I am taking each painting less seriously.”
And also Carla Sanders who wrote, “In my studio, it is all about me and never just about me. My art is medicine (like Sara’s art at the hospital is medicine). I know this because people tell me. It is medicine for me and medicine for someone else.”
And also Alison Mackie of Florida, USA who wrote, “Universal love is the standard-sized socket that everyone can plug into! No adapting mechanism required. Whammo, just plug right into love, sweet love. Is there anything finer than that?”
And also Virginia Davis of Barboursville, VA, USA who wrote, “Who are you? …A human being on the face of the earth? Where do you live? …I’m on the face of the earth with you.”