My son James and I are on a car trip in northern Manitoba. The roads here are interminable and straight as rulers. They connect spacious fields of wheat, rye and fescue, while aspen and birch woodlots alternate with neat cattle ranches. Hereabouts, the land-toughened sons and daughters of immigrants from a dozen European nations hold fast to an abiding sense of community. There’s quilting, painting, drag racing, model aircraft flying, motocross racing, steer wrangling, buckboard restoring, old-fashioned country-fair mingling, and plenty of yard-sale dealing. Way out among the golden stubble we find a disused church reincarnated as “The Biggest Pickerel Fry in the North.” The grassy parking lot is full. The Rotarian chef is a culinary artist who could be on any cooking show. Across the dusty gravel an old flat-fronted community hall advertises tonight’s dance. “Informal–be there or be square.” I’m thinking that the sense of community flourishes best where spaces between are the greatest.
A short while ago a certain well-known painter told me that he didn’t want to read my stuff because he didn’t want to be influenced by me. After giving his remark some thought I realized he had a point. One of our main jobs as artists is to balance community with independence. We need to think our own thoughts and do our own things. Many pros that I admire implicitly feel that distance-keeping helps to build their uniqueness. Looking around, these pickerel eaters and buckboard builders seem bound up in a hive of mutual joy and cooperation. The question is: “Does community lead to mediocrity?”
In the patchwork quilt we see them looking over one another’s shoulders. We also hear of private winter bliss in private rooms. In this unschooled flatness there’s many a Grandma Moses making magic in a mouse-deserted granary. Art is rampant and crafts predominate. At the fall fair there are wood carvers, model builders, photo-workers, soap makers–and somebody doing “The Art of the Turk’s-head Squash.” Smiling Mennonite women spin and interact with their embroidering kids. Papertole and silhouette-cutting are alive and well. A nearby sign announces: “Hand-Painted Canvas Art”–as if it has just been invented. Outside, there are the middle-aged model-aircraft guys. Long-wintering with glue and perseverance, they have now emerged to fly their radio-controlled treasure. Over these golden fields there’s competition, camaraderie and community.
Esoterica: With the healthy and ongoing democratization of art, we can expect a continued harvest. In the century just past, we celebrated nonconformity. We also celebrated celebrity. Sometimes I think we are back again in a century of private art for joy — of “art for art’s sake.” Out here on the prairie the art spirit seems to be blowing on the wind.
Art is broader than we think
by Janet Smith, Australia
In school and college I was taught that Art is represented through western-style painting. If you ever want to see how a community producing art does not lead to mediocrity go to Bali. There, villages specialize in producing an art product, be it silversmithing, painting, batik or wood carving. All these villages have no TVs in peoples’ homes. I have often wondered since my trip to Bali why westerners believe that they own the definition of art and that art can only be described on their terms. Surely the Mennonites and the Balinese show us that the definition of Art is much broader than our historical knowledge of it.
(RG note) Thanks, Janet. Almost 1000 writers have so far responded to the letter “Community.” Several mentioned Bali. For example Elfrida Schragen wrote, “The artists in Bali are abundant. Each village has a specialty. One village may exclusively carve standing ducks, another exclusively elaborate wooden frames, and another only a specific goddess in a specific pose. Within the village the standards range from incredible to poor.” Thanks, Elfrida. A metaphor for any cow-town? Or New York? Thanks to all who wrote. All unused letters are carefully archived for possible future use.
Embrace our own thumb print
by Paul Cade, Brighton, England
It is not community that creates mediocrity – we are human and by nature our need for community is part of our nature. The same as it is for the artistic spirit’s driving need to walk a road less traveled. Mediocrity is created by the notion of “good enough will do” and it is also aided by the dumbing down of our media and buying into fear and conservatism. It takes courage to think for yourself, or to risk failure, and the irony of life is that to get better and live to our full potential it is imperative that we embrace our own thumb print, the unique individuality that we were born with and the history and environment that we grew up in. It is through failure that we learn our skills as well as who we are and how much more we are capable of. It is our uniqueness that makes a community rich, sameness does not.
Solitude fosters individuality
by Linda Hankin, Welland, ON, Canada
I live on a farm and work in a studio in the upstairs part of the 1875 house, surrounded by 42 1/2 acres of cropland. I’ve worked in this studio since 1989 and have worked in the main part of the house since 1978. Being solo and surrounded by fields and not networking with other artists, or seldom on a daily basis, frees the artist to create their own way through. No trips to the city either. The bonus to all this solo activity is when I exhibit the work. Viewers could tell I wasn’t influenced by someone else. I pay tribute to where I live — in the middle of a field.
Plein air clones
by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA
Due to the current popularity of plein air painting, I can now see so many artists of that genre who have cookie-cutter style. Everyone seems to want to look like the early California painters. Those of us who dare to be different are subtly shunned by promoters and judges alike. When I started painting on location in Florida 15 years ago, no one had ever heard of plein air painting. Now it is all the rage. At more and more events I see paintings lined up that could be carbon copies, with the same palette and style.
Remain pure in thought
by Nancy Christies
I had the great experience of hearing the painter Wolf Kahn this summer in Vermont. Two comments he said pertain to your last letter. One was to “keep the childlike vision and remain true to your ideas.” The other pertained to when he and his wife were looking for a summer home after years in Maine. They completely ruled out the Hamptons (fancy Long Island, NY – where artists swarm) or art colonies. His point was to remain pure in thought and work and to try not to be influenced by other artists. He now resides on a beautiful farm in VT and was boasting his bushels of peaches this year!
Nothing original under the sun
by Leonard Niles, Lincolnshire, England
Why do painters constantly advocate breaking from the traditional school of thought? Is it the case of attempting to create paintings that will owe nothing to any other piece of work or artist–something unique and original in the world of art?” It’s a wonderful philosophy, but unfortunately an unrealistic delusion, simply because no one has ever been able to demonstrate a work of art that is entirely different. Every painting I ever gazed upon, including those in the clickbacks and those of the great masters all echo some previous painter’s accomplishments. Every conceivable aspect of painting has its roots in copying. Painters are by nature copyists. Every work of art, consciously or unconsciously has been subjected to traditional values in one form or another. The truth is that there is nothing original under the sun!
Creative development of a generation
by Marsha Finney, Dallas, UT, USA
Being a “city girl” I often wish for a slower pace and a deeper connection to place. Of course, what you described didn’t seem particularly slow! I imagine that the crafting, creative activities have always flourished in this place. But oddly, this awakening to our handmade, artistic roots seems to be epidemic. I’m not sure what the tipping point was, but arts and crafts are everywhere and it is suddenly very cool to be wearing the jewelry you made with the purse you knitted slung over your shoulder. It may not be “canvas art” but the spirit of creativity is alive and well. The Internet is allowing communities to develop regardless of physical location. Surely this form of relationship-making is spurring the creative development of a generation. Where people once sat in a circle, learning from family and friends in some time honored tradition, we now join forums to learn and share.
Art lumped together with craft
by Jane Freeman, Bemidji, Minnesota, USA
I live in Bemidji, Minnesota which has an art community strong with all kinds of crafters. This can sometimes be a problem. These communities see artists such as myself as crafters as well. Somehow we get lumped together and I am asked when my work will “go on sale” as if I hold a “blue light special” on weekends or something! Ha! This aside, it is also a grand place to be an artist in the places where stillness is so common. I look forward to my winters without any disturbances and getting a lot of work done. The thing that I have noticed is that the environment has pushed me. I am not a club joiner and prefer to stay home and pursue my art.
Relationships validate artists
by Winston Seeney, Belmont Lake, ON, Canada
John Donne once penned that no man is an island onto himself, but part of an isthmus. It would seem to me, that to best interpret what you see, you have to have a meaningful link to that community. Isolation can lead to uniqueness, but uniqueness also walks the halls of mental institutions. Artistic relationships enrich life’s fabric and provide a wealth of validation, encouragement and new perspectives.
by Laura Orchard, Santa Fe, NM, USA
The moment your well known artist friend announced that he “didn’t want to be influenced by you,” he was influenced by you. Being influenced through reaction is as valid and creative as being influenced through attraction. Whether he reads your letters or not, whether he communes with other people or not, we are all dipping into the collective consciousness moment by moment. As a member of the human race, he has no choice but to be influenced. It’s in our nature and part of the creative process. If he’s stuck on the paralyzing concept of needing to be original or unique, he needs to get over himself.
(RG note) Thanks, Laura. The remark, which artists frequently make in one form or another, is rather an admission of one’s own personal disappointment or a temporary lapse of muse. I’m sure we have all felt this way at one time or another, and to “close off” is an oft considered response.
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
I am glad that you are having fun as a visitor. As a member of the community I am sure you would quickly go insane. The giveaway key for me was “be there or be square.” The only way to nurture your own individuality (and time) is to be very square, and that is not an enjoyable position in traditional communities — yes, community does thrive in mediocrity. Not all of the Mennonite women are smiling — what you are seeing is a visitor’s view — enjoy it, but don’t fall for it. I was in a pottery workshop last night with some local girls. I envied them on having lot of friends and family — until they relaxed and started talking, virtually taking apart and scrutinizing their girlfriends and relatives. It was a real feast of cannibals. I am so glad that those “sweet” girls don’t know where I live.
by Veronica Funk, Airdrie, AB, Canada
I grew up in Northern Manitoba, way up North past Thompson where the road (if you could call it that) from the south ended. I began a love of art and of all things creative because of where I lived. There were weavers, guitar builders, musicians, painters, potters, stone sculptors, moccasin makers and more. The local “Education Centre” showed all kinds of art, including Native art and exposure to literature, and the occasional artist would visit and discuss their work and encourage us in ours. The small community was made up of many Native Canadians, as well as a mixture of many nationalities. And of course, the scenery with an abundance of unspoiled trees, lakes, and the Northern lights that would dance and fill the entire sky with colour. The spirituality, beauty, and seclusion of a place like that can’t help but inspire a person to create. In the middle of winter we would all get together to enjoy the outdoors with the Winter Games – bannock baking, snowshoe races, dog sled races. In summer we fished, canoed, and camped along quiet shores. Alone time is good, but I think a little community time is necessary, whether or not it is art related, just to refresh and renew the spirit.
The little town that could
by Tinker Bachant, GA, USA
We live in a rural, mountain area in Georgia, similar to the place you describe. Someone got the idea of turning an abandoned schoolhouse into a center for the arts. It’s now a theater for performing arts, a gallery for painters, sculptors, and other artists, a history museum, an art studio where classes are filled to the brim, a recently added pottery museum and showroom. Our tiny, no traffic light, place in the road, has been named one of the top 100 art “towns” in the USA! We attract visitors from all over and foreigners as well. All from a gathering of artists who gave themselves an opportunity to let their lights shine.
by Barbara Reid, Bakersfield, CA, USA
I’m typing this from the sardine tract homes of my neighborhood in central California. I’ve lived here almost 25 years and it’s getting claustrophobic. Lately I feel no sense of community; perhaps I need some “space between.” Every day the news reports more growth. I think we’re supposed to be pleased. I’m growing almost desperate for aesthetics. Everything here is too mapped out, too copied, too predictable, down to the font size signage on the strip mall joints. I’m sick of the restaurant chains, even the good ones. Lately I read more online and watch more television, perhaps to “get me out of here.”
Last month we visited “Georgia O’Keeffe country” north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Georgia had several homes in the area during the second half of her life. During the excursion, my husband and I met a former chauffeur for “Miss O’Keeffe” who makes his home in Abiquiu. Napoleon “Paul” Garcia became the highlight of our trip, sharing anecdotes about Georgia and mapping out her purview of the area. It became easy for me to see why Georgia fell in love with not only the beauty of the desert, but also with the “spaces between.” She had that — the intimate and close-knit communities that cherished and respected her in Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch, but also the wide open spaces where she painted.
Doesn’t get any better than this
by Rosalind Pinsent, Bellevue, NF, Canada
I live in a very small community in Newfoundland. As a young girl of 19, I came from a large mining town to live in this small outport. It has been my experience that competition and community can share the same table. After 34 years of being challenged to meet the needs of a community according to the gifts and talents given to me, I have become more resourceful, more creative and certainly more satisfied as a human being! Yes, I like community where uniqueness is not only accepted but appreciated and encouraged as well. Yes, of course I am still eccentric. Yes, I am still different… but to the community… no matter what I do the response is always lovingly… “That’s just Rosalind!” It doesn’t get any better than that!
Community cultivates vision
by Carolynn Doan, White Rock, BC, Canada
Yes, the making of art is most often an individual affair. However, the art that ‘takes your breath away’ is art that comes from the heart. The emotional aspect of a piece of art is extremely important and can be at least as difficult to develop as the shapes of a painting themselves. These ’emotional’ aspects of a painting come, it seems to me, from a culmination of a lifetime of community experiences. These community experiences help one develop how they look at and indeed, experience the world around them. Although artists often need solitude to create their best works, they are constantly drawing from ‘community’ as they do their job. The relative uniqueness of a piece of art ultimately comes from these experiences.
Don’t take community for granted
by Rainy Burns, Belize
As artists in developed countries we often take for granted the contribution to our art that communities around us provide. I live and own a small informal art gallery in a little fishing village in Belize. There is a young man who works 60 hours a week as a kitchen helper in the beach bar and restaurant next to my gallery. I’m not sure why he is alone in our village as he is only 17 years old and completely self-supporting. One day he asked me if I would help him learn to draw. Someone had given him a small canvas and he had drawn a toucan on it. Money and availability of supplies had stopped him there but he persisted. I am a watercolorist but I found a friend who gave him three tubes of acrylic paint and an old brush. He went home and painted his toucan and brought it back to me in the morning. He had used the three colors (red, blue and yellow) straight from the tube. I took him into my studio and gave him a 3 minute mixing lesson before he started work. “Look, Ismael, what will we get when we put yellow and blue together?” His eyes got as big as his grin when he saw he had a green as well. “I wanted that for the leaves,” he told me as we kept going. In 3 minutes a whole world of possibilities opened up for him. I perceived myself to be just beginning in my art but Ismael taught me where the beginning really is and how far I’ve come already. A small group of artists in our community started an art association and the awareness of art grew in a place where there was none before. Can you imagine becoming an artist in a place where there are no role models?
Art and craft
by Jayson Phillips
How do we reconcile the differences between “fine artist,” artisan, and craftsman? For years I assumed in my naive ideological way that all artists were craftsmen but not all craftsmen were artists. This is not a caste system that relegates craftspersons to the bottom of some artistic hierarchy. Including people like Jeff Koons under the auspices of “artist” creates and illustrates a point; the artist does not personally have to be a craftsman since other artisans do the actual fabrication of the piece. Is Koons the artist or an art director? Many people find the designation of craftsman/craftsperson demeaning. The measure of artists and the meaning of artisanship have become so loosely defined as to become virtually meaningless. Even the word “masterpiece” has been reduced to a synonym pertaining to any and all work, regardless of merit or proficiency. The prolifery of amateurish “craft fairs” has stripped the title of craftsman from all its esteemed former dignity. “Craftsman/craftsperson” should not be confused with “crafter” but it is. Does our fear of being reduced from the designation of artist to craftsperson influence our willingness to co-mingle with other artists and craftspersons? Is there a snob lurking in all of us, afraid that our work will be regarded on the same level as those who we qualify and quantify as lesser artists (or mere craftsmen) through personal association? Or, like the novelist, is the role of the (serious) artist one of an observer, the outsider who reinterprets the world around him/her as uniquely as possible?
Remain open to influence
by Kelli Tinker, Pacific Northwest, USA
I actually took an art class from a professor where a group of artists refused to look at the professor’s slides in order to avoid being influenced. Why even take the class? I believe that I am a strong enough person with my own distinct take on the world and have my own conviction of where I want my art to go, so when I read your weekly note I balance it against what my own thoughts are and where it fits into my thinking and belief. I might read something that I agree with strongly or disagree with or have never considered before and then I will consider it against my own character of beliefs. I will continue to enjoy the thoughts of another human being without being worried that I am not strong enough in myself to handle outside influence. No, community strengthens our differences and challenges us to excel!
Pregnant with ideas
by Treza Bordinat Ager, Olivenhain, CA, USA
“Never join an organization.” (Georges Braque) While this may seem a little harsh, in reality, it is probably very good advice for artists. What we do is a solitary endeavor. A distillation of our own mind, of our own talent, of our own feelings, and a ripping open of the gut to bear the fruit of our “art womb.” I oftentimes feel myself to be “pregnant with ideas.” Other times, unfortunately, I feel that I have a “barren womb.” Perhaps it is a need for quiet time, perhaps it is a need to fill the “image well.” It’s a need to go out or a need to go inside one’s self, and concentrate on refilling that internal visual well that we subconsciously or consciously dip into every day. Meetings with others, clubs, societies, workshops, all of which bite away at our “daily grind,” are all well and good, especially for beginners, but when you have blossomed from that time of adolescence, it is time to hit your adult stride, to concentrate. Bear your fruit on your own. Many of us twiddle our lives away; going from class to class, seminar to seminar, when what we really need, day after day, is to apply the seat of our pants to the seat in our studio!
“It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters.” (Stephen King)
Honesty and sincerity of Van Gogh
by Paul Foxton, UK
I recently came across comments made by a prominent painter. He bemoaned having to live and work in our current period, nostalgically harking back to the Renaissance as a more exciting time to be involved in the production of art. I disagree. This is the most interesting period for artists. Never before has so much diversity been acceptable. Never before has so much information been readily available to aspiring artists. Never before has it been so easy to make connections with other artists, at least in what we rightly or wrongly term the ‘developed’ countries. All you need to do is connect. “Does community lead to mediocrity?” Perhaps. But equally, this preoccupation with uniqueness and ‘personal vision’ can lead to the production of mediocre, repetitive and uninteresting ‘visions’ expressed with a mediocre level of skill. In many ways I see the Post-Impressionists, in particular the romantic figure of Vincent Van Gogh, as the beginning of the current obsession with personal artistic vision. But somewhere along the line, the parts of Van Gogh’s psychological make-up which made him such a popular figure in the first place were forgotten – his honesty and his sincerity. If opening oneself to influences from the greater community of artists leads to the forging of connections with these people, to work which can be seen, understood and enjoyed by more people, to more honesty, at the expense of some rarefied and obscure personal vision, I’ll take that kind of mediocrity every time.
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 Leif Ostlund of Toronto, ON, Canada who wrote, “Find me one artist, ONE, who has had their career negatively influenced though study… Inspiration gets us to the easel, the work refines our character.”
And also Criss Stenge who wrote, “Sometimes community is just the overhearing of a meaningful word or phrase. Or an email that sets up a chain of associations that bring out images that will set you up for another six months!”
And also Rose Frim who wrote, “You have been responsible for pointing me into many new directions, both in art knowledge and appreciation as well as into explorations into the wider world of philosophy.”
And also Dianne Harrison who wrote, “Nothing requires more active balancing than trying to be ‘part of’ a community and not being swallowed up by it.”
And also Helen Scott of New Bern, NC, USA who wrote, “Perhaps there is a time for community, a time for ‘aloneness,’ a time for sharing and a time to keep to oneself. Perhaps, in the back and forth of it all, the best of things are created.”
And also Deborah Briggs of San Diego, CA, USA who wrote, “I’m also wondering if it might be a function of the difference between archetypal male/female — the female energy being so much more relational. Creative synthesis being what it is, I imagine for a lot of folks it is a blend of both.”
And also Loretta Puckrin of St. Albert, AB, Canada who wrote, “While it can be beneficial to retreat and synthesize the recent experiences (we all need ‘processing’ time) it is very difficult to grow without outside stimulation.”
And also Lynn Johnson of Rising Sun, MD, USA who wrote, “During the Great Depression, my grandfather took in and fed hobos that rode the rails looking for work. When derided by his neighbors for treating them with respect, he replied that he could always learn things from anyone, including hobos.”
And also Cyndie Katz of New Boston, NH, USA who wrote, “When I’m queen of the world, there will be mandatory two hours a day devoted to making art. Furthermore, commuting will be forbidden! My bet is that people will be so much happier they’ll never overthrow my regime.”