There’s something to be said for families and extended families who live and work together in a creative hothouse. Think of Robert and Clara Schumann — they took in a boarder, Johannes Brahms, who managed to fall in love with Clara. She had eight kids and still had time to produce twenty compositions. The boys did quite a bit of work as well. Under one roof they made beautiful music. And then there are William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy up there in the Lake District writing poetry together among the daffodils.
Dynasties such as the Wyeths spawned a passion and commitment that might not have been sustainable with only one hand clapping. Nothing beats the kind of joy artists can have when they work together for a mutual or parallel goal. Sometimes there’s a division of labour as in many of our tandem subscribers. Others seem to flourish in loving competition tempered with mutual respect. Clubs and associations can give the hothouse effect, but we still go home to our private and often lonely rooms. In great workshops artists in a state of familial togetherness, eat, sleep and live for a finite time in a world of art. These workshops give a mind-bending high. There’s a rededication of energy that comes from new information, demonstrated techniques, and concentrated excitement. Mild rivalry forces growth. The learned skill of sharing is key to the hothouse environment. While private struggle has its place as well, here are some ways to heat up your hothouse:
Be a doer, not a speaker.
Be on somebody else’s team.
Smile when you see the spark.
Welcome others to your space.
Smell the daffodils, together.
Bless courage, originality and spunk.
Ease the way for others to help you.
Allow your passions to be contagious.
Sandwich criticism between layers of praise.
Pay attention to the kids; yours and those of others.
Give confidence — it’s the greatest gift you can give.
PS: “It is good to rub and polish our brain against that of others.” (Montaigne) “Without him I would have given up.” (Pierre Auguste Renoir on Monet) “Art is my vehicle through life; may we share the ride together.” (Ron Wickersham)
Esoterica: A friend of mine, David Butt, put a major show together during a 14-day workshop. He was at it morning, noon, and late at night. He seemed to pick up his energy from the others and they from him. “When do you eat?” I asked him. “I don’t need to,” he said.
The following are selected correspondence arising from the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
Never the bride
Name withheld by request
As an art instructor, workshop giver, and professional fine artist I am on the horns of a dilemma. In creating the hothouse effect for others I find myself constantly in the position of giving away what I could be. I am not alone in this as I know several frustrated artists who teach in the local university. When they care to admit it they are always the bridesmaid, never the bride. In making a life of empowering others we steal our own power, we cheat ourselves of our own true lives and potential, and for what — security, control, prestige, praise, economics? You must at times feel this too Robert.
(RG note) For some reason, no matter how my cup is emptied, there always seems to be half again left to give away.
The popular focus of the Wyeth dynasty as being the “First Family of American Art” has been vastly overblown and does a disservice to many other families with more competent members. Cozying up to the Wyeths is like motherhood and apple pie in the USA. and is second in offensiveness to the current public adulation of illustrator Norman Rockwell.
(RG note) Baloney.
We do open mikes together
by Karen Cole, Santa Fe, NM, USA
I live in one of those environments, my husband and I both work at home with a small sliding door between our studios, usually open. He is a graphic designer and I paint. We often ask for each other’s opinions and sometimes merge in a project. We also do open mikes together. Sometimes people ask, “Don’t you guys get sick of each other?” I think my friend’s answer is my favorite — she is in a similar situation: “No, my husband likes being around me all day.”
by Lorna Hannett, Water Valley, AB, Canada
I just returned from my first experience in painting with a group for an extended period. I attended an artist’s camp in the Crowsnest Pass in Western Canada, with 20 other artists. We explored, took photographs, and painted for a week. In the evenings, we held critiques. I learned so much! It was wonderful to be so immersed in art, to be able to connect with others that understood where I was coming from. Our family and friends are supportive, but only another artist understands. I have not been an artist long, only starting a few years ago after my children left for their own careers. I have been shy and unsure of myself, so did not attend workshops. Well, I have had my eyes opened and this will definitely not be the last of such journeys. It is something that I can recommend to all. I was so inspired, I came home and painted for five days straight, hardly stopping to eat or sleep! It was a mind-bending high.
We are family
by Alice Smith, Kent Island, Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, USA
Twelve years ago I joined my first travel workshop. I was very excited about the new experience and a bit concerned because I didn’t know another person that was going. I got on the plane slightly apprehensive and after we arrived the most remarkable thing happened. Within 48 hours, we were all a ‘family.’ Some of my closest friends have come from those shared experiences. Last September I had the privilege of taking a group of my students to Brittany in one of Phil Levine’s Workshops. It was considered by all to be one of their best trips ever. Brittany is lovely: Towns, quaint villages, flowers galore, open air markets, chateaus, castles, cafes, water scenes etc. I brought back hundreds of photos that will keep me happily inspired for years to come. The people we met all along the way were cordial and friendly, most of the tourists were gone, the weather was cooler than in the summer and the pace overall was a delight. It was truly like stepping back in time.
by Mickie Acierno
I have experienced the “hothouse” effect of the workshop… the meeting of minds, talent and spirit; the resulting creative energy that lasts and lasts. But until recently I had not experienced the effects of sharing my life with a partner that “sees what I see.” I have been incredibly blessed and lucky at the age of 47 to now enjoy and experience the luxury of having a creative partner. I didn’t really know what I was missing. I suppose at many levels I did… but didn’t have anything to compare to. Now I do. Whether it is a sister, a brother, a relative, a friend, or a spirit-mate, bringing someone into your life that can produce the “hothouse” effect with and for you, is the most amazing gift you can give to yourself and your creative side.
The Williams effect
by Chris Pfouts
Leave us not forget Robert & Suzanne Williams. Big Bad Bob is of course the reigning king of lowbrow art Robert Williams the four seasons as seen through the eyes of and successful beyond all measure on his own terms. Bob encouraged imitators and actual copycats and I thought he was nuts for doing it. Turns out he was the smart one — instead of being one lonely guy painting abandoned cantinas and hot rods and circus horrors, he’s at the head of a movement. And Suzanne paints these crazy mathematical works that have only one layer of paint, no over-painting at all, very precise and very beat in the Kerouac sense all at once.
The odd couple
by Olinda Everett, Sao Paulo, Brazil
I work together with a friend. We have many goals, ideas and opinions in common, but artistically we could not be more different. Our styles, motivation, and temperament are different. Our hand is different. When I am with her, I have to be doing only things I am very sure about. The true creative/experimental process goes on in private, in secret almost, but it is certainly powered by her input — almost a digested version of ideas we share together. How much exactly she retrieves from my presence, I cannot tell, but am sure this is a two way process. The ideas and the courage to tackle them, come not from discussing the making of art but from the sharing of life experiences, from reacting to events from politics to natural disasters. This friendship, then, becomes more than friendship in the regular sense. It is redoubled and reinforced in the creative field as well as in psychological development. It contains tensions and disagreements that ordinary friendships could not survive. It creates layers of meaning, depths of understanding and self-realization and provides fertile ground for development, both personal and artistic. This is not a comfortable, steady situation, for at all times I am called upon to maintain my ground and ensure that my views are not swamped by another’s strong personality. For that is the challenge, I believe, that spurs output — to remain your independent self while creating in close proximity with someone who is commercially more successful and also more focused on results.
A blessing or a curse?
by Zoe Pawlak
I’ve read your ‘Painters Keys’ book. It was my dad who started forwarding me your e-mails. I have been surrounded by your words and fueled by your advice. Although I am young and ever-defiant, the yearning is there, but action is easily replaced by distraction and the classic excuses. I’ve been told my whole life that “I can do anything I want to.” As an articulate, 20 year-old, four-limbed, ‘talented’ woman, I have been born into a world that is heaped with opportunity. My family said, “You can be anything you want to be.” My softball coach said, “Zoe, in two years, you can be pitching at any University you want.” My art teachers are saying, “Zoe, if you apply this, you’re gonna be able to say anything you want.” Is this a blessing or a curse?
With the recognition of a talent or a yearning, comes a responsibility to that call, and it demands that you do something about it. That’s the part where I’m caught right now. I know that I could go head first into being an artist, but I suppose I don’t really know what I want to say. There’s a shame in that, though I have to give myself leeway at this age, but it feels as though everyone else already knows what they’re articulating in their paintings. My favorite teacher in my first year at Concordia University in Montreal (painting and drawing) said that all I have to do is decide what it is that pertains to me, my generation, my concerns, fears about this world, loves that I’ve had, the human form and what’s happening with it, etc. But I let my insecurities about my abilities take over. I discredit the content due to my ‘inability’ as an artist by backing down on both boldness of content and boldness of brush. Do I want to delve further into a career that constantly makes demands on me and pushes me further into being the center of my own universe? I have a fear of that happening. That my art is (or will become) all about me. We’re the first generation of ‘do-whatever-you-want-kids.’ It doesn’t take much looking around to tell that we’re lost as hell. Though exciting and liberating, we also have a debt to the opportunities that our parents, feminism, post modernism, and artists before us have allowed. The path has been beaten down and now I have permission to say anything I want. A blessing or a curse?
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 100 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.
That includes Annette Waterbeek who says, “The rubbing of like-minded brains is such a wonderful feeling.”
And Mervin, of somewhere, who writes, ” ‘Mild rivalry forces growth.’ True, true, true; This may be why men often have the competitive advantage.”