Yesterday, Todd Plough of Ellicottville, NY wrote, “When artists slip the collar of convention, only then can they roam the forest of new found sites. With skill they may return with their visions for others to see in the code of their paintings. I do not understand the language or code of the birds but I do still love their songs. New visions need not be fully understood–only agreeable. I believe that true genius does not understand the word fear–instead their sails are set by hope of unseen shores.”
Thanks, Todd. We’ve been writing buddies for so long that I thought I’d like to add something to one of your wonderful letters.
When I was a kid my folks took me on a road trip. As we approached the town of Hope, B.C., we saw, crawling up the shoulder of a steep hill, an ancient Model T Ford. A skinny, mustachioed man wearing a fedora was sitting up tall behind the wheel. Below him, a sign on the side of the old car read “Toronto or Bust.” Toronto was 5500 miles away. As we flew by in our ’47 Chev Fleetline I distinctly remember my dad turning to me, winking, and saying, “No hope.” My mom laughed. Dad turned out to be wrong. Two months later we read about the guy in the newspaper. He had driven from Vancouver, B.C., to Toronto, Ontario in a 1914 Ford. And then — he drove back!
I’ve often thought about that fleeting image and the guy behind the wheel. Perhaps it was the seed that became my lifelong love of vintage cars. But it was the look of expectation that was on his face — it was a look of hope. He was unconventional. He knew not where he would spend the night. He was traveling according to his own code. And he feared not.
We artists are like that guy. We stick our necks out with old fashioned technology and try to make a journey out of it. This journey takes us goodness knows where. But that’s the point. Every day we crank up the old machine and head out once more along the shoulder of life. Many of us do not make it to Toronto, New York, London, Paris or even Oz. Who is there among us who fully understands where we get our vision or to what end it goes? Who understands fully how what we do can be both agreeable and disagreeable? To folks like us, the main thing is that we are on the road. And what a road.
PS: Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tunes without the words
And never stops–at all. (Emily Dickinson)
Esoterica: I started drawing cars when I was in college. Right down the sides of my math notes. They were old cars, classic cars. I saw value in something that had gone before. I thought I was going Romantic. My psych professor thought I was “regressive.” The more I drew the more I began to think about a golden era. The Great Gatsby took me to Singer Sargent. Then Tissot and Poussin and Bonnington and Constable. I became obsessed with academic painting and I’ve never been able to get it stopped. I’m often disappointed in myself, but not in my trip. “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” (Maya Angelou)
Hope is genius
by Toni Ciserella, Richfield, UT, USA
Those who have hope display enormous amounts of faith and confidence in themselves, their fellow man and the universe; regardless of whether they truly feel confident, they act as if they are. A boldness that defies reasoning. Is it a careless mind to not perceive the pitfalls and obstacles that most assuredly will be thrown in their way? What is plain to see from a practical point of view is not present in the mind of the hopeful. Hope is genius. It creates its own power, energy and magic.
Live in hope
by Bob Posliff, Brampton, ON, Canada
Hope is the key word. I’ve been a passionate fly fisher for all my life and recently read in a book entitled Catch and Release by Mark Kingwell. His philosophy is that “To angle is to live in hope.” Drawing and painting are more recent passions and it seems to me that this sentiment still applies — to create is to live in hope. That quote is written large on the wall of my studio.
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
My father used to say, “Hope is a terrible disease.” I have learned the hard way that pinning your hopes on anything is really futile. If it was meant to happen, it will happen because we are in control. It is not like there is some magic force out there that deals out hope to the really lucky ones or those who have really wished for it. We as artists have to dispel the will of hope. It is the message behind our art that should define us. But we hope that people will like it and we hope that it will read the way we want and god knows we hope that one day we will make it as an artist. Someone once told me that the most successful artist is the one whose art is read exactly like the artist intended and everyone gets it… talk about fat chance!
Jumping off the wagon
by Sheila Psaledas, Dunbarton, NH, USA
I am always seeking new ways to express myself — either with a quirky change of paint application, or a combination of mediums. My work sells occasionally in the northeastern states, but it is traditional in its subjects and application. Although people around here like my work, I know I have to just jump off the traditional wagon and give myself a chance. It takes that “slipping the collar of convention” to make a stronger statement — and being true to yourself! Otherwise it would seem we are simply prostituting ourselves to please the public.
Rust in Peace
by Chris Riley, Edmonton, AB, Canada
I saw this car on a quiet side street in Lahaina, Maui and knew I had to paint her.I’m so glad I did. I’ve been doing some street markets for the first time this summer (keeps me working and in touch with people) and this painting has brought many smiles and many a great story as well. One in particular was a fellow, in his late 70s I would say, who told me he had a 1921 Model T and had to back it up hills to keep it from stalling because of the location of the gas tank. He currently still owns a Model A as well and drives them both and participates in vintage shows. I also found out my dad used to own a 1919 Model T that he had paid 50 bucks for. He had to crank it and jump in quick when it started so he didn’t get run over and it didn’t get away. It was always in gear. He drove it till a harsh Manitoba winter (no kidding!) cracked the block and that was that. Back to his horse Rocky.
Realism to abstraction
by Virginia Wieringa, Grand Rapids, MI, USA
This letter hit me between the eyes! Especially Todd’s amazing paragraph which begins: “When artists slip the collar of convention, only then can they roam the forest of new found sites…” Well, I’ve recently slipped my collar. For many years traditional still life and landscape were my focus. Now I’m working with mixed media and developing imagery related to universal experiences of the human condition and spiritual growth. My artwork has developed from being realistic to more abstract, contemplative, and dreamlike. This is a very recent development sparked by workshops with Linda Baker and Kathleen Conover. It’s not that my thinking has gotten any deeper in this short time period, but I’m seeing ways to visually transmit things I’ve been thinking for years and also to some extent imposing my thoughts on the shapes and designs that are coming up in my work. This mixed media experience has been a blessed confluence of experience, prayer, and intuition. I don’t understand some of the images coming out of my studio, but it’s wonderful to watch them emerge. I’m hopeful for what’s to come.
by Jenny Arntzen, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I’m moving into my new studio space from a basement studio where the duct pipes hung sixinches above my head and the only sunlight eased in late in the afternoon for a few short minutes. My new studio is on the second floor, a corner room facing east and south. Four large windows flood the room with light. A large cottonwood tree rustles and whispers in the slightest breeze just outside the windows. I’ve never had such a beautiful space devoted solely to my painting, drawing and writing.
When I turned forty, ten years ago, I asked myself, “If I die tomorrow will I be content with how I lived today?” The answer was, “No!” Then I asked myself, “What do I have to change? Everything!” Central to the myriad of changes that arose out of that moment, was the realization that I had to practice my drawing and painting on a daily basis. The commitment to practice entailed a willingness to invest in my ‘career’ as an artist, and to understand the irrational persistence required of me.
Today I am surrounded by the fruits of my labors, the magnitude of my decision. It’s only in being forced to move every last piece of my studio that I truly realize the depth of my undertaking. It is awesome. I will figure out where to put everything, into the new space. I believe my work will change, simply because I have not worked in this much light before. How will it change? My job is to be curious and see what happens.
More on Van Gogh
by Loraine Wellman, Richmond, BC, Canada
To continue the discussion on Van Gogh — I recommend Van Gogh, The Complete Paintings by Ingo F. Walther and Rainer Metzger (published by Taschen) — for the text as well as the illustrations. Van Gogh’s obsession with stars was part of a belief of the time that when you died, you would go to a star and find your true love. He was a lonely man and took to this idea. He also became obsessed with the idea that the value of paintings went up with the artist’s death — and felt that his death would put his brother in a better financial position. As for sales — he was getting a fair degree of recognition (more than we usually hear about), but he also tended to give away paintings if someone admired them — and nice gestures like that don’t translate to sales.
I still remember a trip to Seattle, when I was in Art School, to see a Van Gogh exhibition. Seeing his paintings close up — with no ropes, Plexiglas or other restraints in those more trusting times — was an incredible experience.
by Joy Gush, New York, NY, USA
Todd’s letter to you takes me back to the old-fashioned way of writing letters — thoughtful, descriptive, the love and beauty of selected words in poetic form — letters to treasure always healing both the sender and the recipient.
As of any given moment we never know how many people we can help through the dark times of life by letters we write that can be re-read at a later time. I have a collection of handwritten letters from my mother who released me from home in England at age 16. At that young age, my mother knew that in order to learn responsibility in caring for myself and others in my care the best learning comes from being guided in doing something worthwhile in my employment.
I know my mother longed for my letters of interest each week when I left England in 1956, at age 25, and immigrated to America, alone, to start a new life with opportunity to grow. Mum passed over peacefully in 1977, knowing happily that I had succeeded with whatever I had decided to do. I have her letters with memories to give me comfort. They were always filled with uplifting stories and with humor.
Handwritten letters today are rarely in my mailbox. Your letters, Robert, are wonderful, and important to me. I am grateful for every one of them. It is a great service you are giving to each one of us.
Mastery cannot stand alone
by Christine Schiff, Rockville, MD, USA
I do not believe mastery can stand alone. “Mastery” is all there when it is accompanied by “letting loose.” What I like to say of my process is that “the thinking has already been done” (before I put paint to canvas or pick up my pen to write). I trust that over a lifetime I have done the hard work already, both within and external to myself, in order that I may simply “show up,” fully and open, and “give myself” to my work.
I have the education, dedication and effort and in the end I have chosen to file all of that in the back of my head to be applied as it wishes, to forget about it and to “just paint or just write.” When you give up the expectations and let loose, the spark is free to fly. I truly believe that therein lies the accomplishment, the credibility and the sophistication.
Therefore I would strongly disagree with the way Deborah McLaren in her Questionable Selections comments has chosen to characterize these same words and qualities. Mastery is applauded but the spark provides the soul.
Mastery can always stand alone
by Deborah McLaren, Mystic, CT, USA
In the United States, over the past 40 years or so, there has been a departure from draughtsmanship and craftsmanship, and the general public has accepted this. However, I believe we are now heading into a new Renaissance whereby quality and craftsmanship will be expected, and the more educated the general public becomes on art, the more the Jackson Pollock wannabes will fall by the wayside. Spark can reside side by side with mastery, and should. But spark standing alone is very weak, whereas mastery can always stand alone.
by Mishcka O’Connor, Tucson, AZ, USA
Some years ago when I was recovering from a recent divorce, I was painting prolifically all day, every day, something I hadn’t had the luxury of doing for many years. Then something happened (I don’t remember what) and my focus shifted and for two weeks I didn’t go into my studio, so distracted was I with this problem I had to handle. During this period of abstinence I noticed that I became more and more emotional about every little thing as each day went by. One night as I was getting ready for bed I just burst into tears for no apparent reason. Then I had to acknowledge that something else was going on. I went into my studio and just started to paint — intuitively and almost blindly. Within 15 minutes my mind cleared and I felt pulled into the painting and I realized that abruptly interrupting my creative flow was what was causing my disturbance. It felt like some part of me that had developed its “voice” had been shut down, and allowing its expression in my visual language was healing my loss and pain. Interrupting this flow was making me a little crazy.
by Nikki Coulombe, Lewisville, TX, USA
Creativity is not exclusive to Artists. Creativity is a mindset, an attitude. If we are presented with a dilemma, what do we choose to do and how do we decide how able we are to do it? The only connection creativity may have to well-being is how it is utilized. Creativity can be an aide to enduring illness; to counteract the “low” energies or emotions, or express the darkness… or creativity can express joy, or may not have any relation to mood at all. It can be solely about skill, or exploring a concept, or to exercise an experience, or have no reason or goal at all except to relieve an inner drive to do something.
Artists have the advantage of knowing (or trusting) that there are infinite motivations, moods or methods that can take any form on any given day, and any or all of those aspects can be “used” to create products. Regardless of how we feel — low or high or in between — creativity is always there. (Use it or don’t use it.) Artists choose to use it to their advantage in a more obvious manner.
watercolor painting on paper
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 Ros Ritchie who wrote, “Some of us have to take ‘the road less travelled’ which can be thrilling to us, although not understood or accepted by others. Sometimes it is called ‘art for the few.’ With only one life (that we know of), it makes sense to follow our own path as far as we can.”
And also Sigal Shapira of Switzerland who wrote, “A bit of advice needed: how do I go back to drawing? I am a busy mom of 3 and raising 3 pets too. How to start again?”
And also Anne Atkinson of North Saanich, BC, Canada who wrote, “I particularly like this story. It reminds me of the eleventh commandment: Thou shalt never give up.”