I’ve never stayed in a monastery, but I’ve visited some, both East and West, and I’ve certainly bumped into a few monks. I’ve also known a few nuns, but not intimately. I was once offered a job as a missionary, but I didn’t like the position.
But as for the painter, I like a monastic life. Mine’s not as rigid as the pros’. I rise early, paint before breakfast, correspond, paint, break briefly for a simple lunch, perhaps a brisk walk in the forest, maybe a snooze, then back to the studio. Dinner is at home with friends or family. I work each day until tired, read a bit, sleep well, and do it again the next day. Several days can pass without moving the car. It’s productive — the monastic life gets results. As Picasso said, “I like to live like a poor man with lots of money.”
It’s all about the renewal and rebirth of life through creativity. Similar to the nuns who tend the fields, or the monks who labour in the hothouses, there’s satisfaction in growth, change, green shoots, raking up old leaves. Art reaffirms life and is in harmony with many universal principles. Perhaps the studio is even greater than the nunnery or the monastery. In the humble studio one hears the constant plop, plop, plop of product. Product that honours our land, our people, our earth.
To be in touch with creativity on a daily, even hourly, basis may just happen to edge yourself closer to divinity. If our universe is indeed a creation, (an idea that competes with the idea that our universe is an idea) then perhaps we need to be on that wavelength. Pushing paint is a high calling. To do it well you need humility. You need to walk the walk. You need a well-regulated, simple life so that you might become both servant and student.
And there’s another thing. It’s the fellowship of the Brotherhood and Sisterhood. They are all with us — the good and bad artists in the dusty books of history, in the galleries, in the promise of tomorrow’s children, or right here now as you meet them on this remarkable medium that befriends us all — even though we don’t really know each other. Art can take flight in an odd but active monastery.
PS: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.” (Matthew 6:28)
Esoterica: Like Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline of the ancient Roman Catholic liturgy, or the five daily pauses of Islamic prayer, an artist can create defined spaces for reflection and contemplation. The creative monk recharges and begins again. Each pause may be heralded with a new squeeze of paint or a sharpening of tools. Thankfulness infuses every breath. Every new passage is a fresh test of studenthood, patience, applied joy and creative love.
Taking back the Artist’s world
by Sandra Bos, Cookeville, TN, USA
I love your ‘play on words’… it was good to have a giggle this morning. I also love your letter because it reminds me of those days when I spent quiet, contemplating, humble days, as a student. It was so wonderful and I miss those times. Your letter reminded me to take inventory of my world as an Artist. I spend way too much time thinking, and worrying about “stuff.” I’ve been wondering why my creativity and passion have been missing. I am going to work at ‘taking back my Artist world.’ I realize now that I need more quiet and alone time to fall head over heels, again, with painting, which of course is the love of my life.
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No more traffic stress
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA
I loved reading about your quiet lifestyle! Even though mine is not quite where yours is, I am heading in that direction! Since deciding to paint full time, my life contains much less stress! Today I had to run some errands in the city north of my home. As I was sitting in traffic waiting to get through a construction zone, I realized that the stress I was feeling was something rather foreign to me, since I don’t have to drive in heavy traffic very often anymore. And even though it can be stressful not having a standard source of income, such as one gets from a job, I will take that kind of stress anytime over all of the other types of stress I had with my previous jobs.
I still don’t seem to have enough hours in the day to get everything done I would like to be able to do. But I am much less frustrated because I am able to put 100% of my energy into something I am really passionate about!!
What about time for Life?
by B.J. Adams, Washington, DC, USA
Your described monastic life sounds ideal. I’m glad you added, “correspondence.” That seems to be taking up more and more time in our lives, although it can still be a silent, lonely addition. However, you left out “Life.” By that I mean staying guests, cooking (creative at times), laundry, the breaking down in everything and anything in a house, or appointments. I love it when something is canceled and I have a wonderful full ‘found’ day, alone in the studio. My car can stay in the garage for several days, also, but now I must drive to my photographer’s… that, too, is the business of art.
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Continuing joy and amazement
by Stede Barber, Los Alamos, NM, USA
This is a most beautiful writings about art and the artist’s journey, perfect for me in so many ways. As inspiration to continue to do my art in the way that seems best for me. A reminder that I don’t have to define my work as “good” or “great,” or “in style” etc… I just need to continue in the joy and amazement of unfolding, learning, and the deeply patient exuberance of it all. It’s OK to feel — and enjoy feeling — like there is so very much more to learn. I am working on a thesis that art is an expression and experience of the Soul, and you have written so beautifully about just that.
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Peace descends in the studio
by Julianne Biehl, Dallas, TX, USA
The simple joy of the daily creative life: no frills necessary, just fulfilling one’s mission here on earth. As I enter the quiet of my studio it becomes a holy place. I forget the rest of the world and my undone tasks and enter into a relationship with my art which is a form of meditation. I have often marveled at the peace that descends on my soul as soon as I cross the threshold. It is a gift given to the artist that is difficult to explain. It is a connection to the source of our creation for which I give an unspoken prayer of thanks.
Allow a painting routine
by Jeanean Martin, Boyds, MD, USA
Although I have never felt quite like a monk in a quiet monastic environment due to a large bustling household, I have felt the need for a sense of isolation and actually am acutely aware that my best work is done in privacy. “Walking the walk instead of talking the talk” is probably the closest thing to the secret of making art. It is one of the most simple, yet profound statements. Simply talking about something will never get it done. I have surrendered to the idea of being a “famous” artist and have embraced the idea of being simply a “working artist.” I am a humble artist who is well aware of those painters of the past who have walked before me and have so much respect for their contributions. I like the idea Robert proposes: “You need a well-regulated, simple life so that you might become both servant and student.” Make the time and keep life as simple as possible so that the working day painting routine can happen. Through the work the creative process can take hold. Without the work there is no growth and the creative spark will die.
Women and the monastic life
by Anne Shingleton, Tuscany, Italy
I read and enjoy your letters, but on this occasion, with the greatest respect, I would like to point out a fundamental practical fact missing from your letter on the monastic painter’s life.
Monks live collectively because the household work is divided between them all, within a strict routine, which enables some monks, not all, to have more free time in which to worship and do whatever monks do. For an artist without such a support system and having a small income, there would be little time to live the monastic life. Who cleans the house, pray? Who prepares the meals, does the shopping, and sorts out the bills and other daily problems? Who cares for the old folk, the children? The reality is a less romantic picture than you painted and must include all the household members.
Being in touch with one’s paints on a daily, even hourly basis is wonderful, but for most women it is a rare luxury to find the time to do so. This simple fact partly explains why in our society there are more professional artist men than women.
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Getting other monks to help
by Bela Fidel, Scottsdale, AZ, USA
Such beautifully written and felt text reminded me of an article I’ve just read in ArtNews. This article was about the current collaboration between artists and artisans. Turns out that many of the successful artists collaborate heavily with artisans. To the point where they provide the idea and the rest is done by the artisans.
They mention a recently published book about the subject, written by Michael Petry, The Art of Not Making: The New Artist/Artisan Relationship.
“Petry cites Marcel Duchamp and Jean Arp as modernist forerunners of using skilled technicians to craft artworks, but contemporary artists take hands-off creation to new levels.” To make a long story short, let me quote Jorge Pardo (I assume he is a known or successful artist — why else would they quote him?): “I don’t think that art gets made with your hands.”
Once I read this article I remembered your letter in praise of taking workshops, honing our skills, etc. I have been painting for over 35 years and I am still learning, still realizing how much I don’t know (Gee, every day!); toying with the idea of going back to painting grapes and faces, which I did 30 years ago (I now paint abstract, mostly) but would probably have to get a teacher to help me brush up on it, etc., etc. Reading Maurizio Cattelan‘s statement in this same article, “I don’t design. I don’t paint. I absolutely never touch my works,” just makes me feel old fashioned, antiquated, and makes me wonder if I am not as successful as I would wish because I still do art with my hands!
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Laughing alone in the studio
by Dorenda Watson, Columbus, OH, USA
The life of an artist is usually not the norm… at least by current society standards. In this day of “rush, rush, rush,” and “do, do, do,” the idea and process of making art is almost archaic. I think it takes a brave soul to buckle down and make art and an even braver soul to attempt to make a living at it. In order to do this (and do it well) you must be extremely comfortable with your own company. You must be able to make yourself work, because there may or may not be a paycheck at the end of the day.
You must consider yourself a capable student of the arts and this means having the ability to learn and change according to the path you follow. You will make good art, and you will make bad art, and both are indicators of growth.
You must be willing to sacrifice to make time to do this gift you have been given. Whether it is 10 minutes a day or 8 hours a day, this time must be dedicated to the talent you possess.
No interference should be allowed during this sacred time. It is your time to be and do what most can only dream of. You were chosen to develop a most wonderful gift… how can you not?
And most importantly, you must be amused by the whole process and your part in the play. You must laugh at the absurdity and the loveliness of this calling.
You may be laughing alone in your studio, but what better company than a joyful artist pursuing the role of a lifetime!
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The monastic wife
by Jeanne Gillis, Lethbridge, AB, Canada
I have to chuckle at some of your comments in this particular letter; especially about the bit with the nuns tending the fields. I like your lifestyle and wish I, too, could do as much painting as you. Do you cook your own breakfasts, lunches and dinners, do the shopping, errands, do the banking etc.? If not, yes you do have a great life (which I envy). However, as a married woman painter with her own downtown studio, no kids, it is still a struggle to paint as much as I would like to. I get frustrated at times because of lack of time in the day because mundane chores get in the way of the creative process. What’s the answer for serious women artists?
(RG note) Thanks, Jeanne. I just came in from going to the bank, but that was unusual as I thought I needed a break from the monastic life. I make my own breakfast, but Carol makes our lunches and dinners. She loves cooking and is good at it. To be fair, my assistant Sarah Garland looks after most everything in the studio. (She put this clickback together and said I ought to respond to this one.)
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The power of focus
by Ignacio Rosenberg, Chicago, IL, USA
Seeing how I follow all my endeavors pretty much completely opposite to the way you describe here (I have many different things going at once, I do a bit of each and sometimes nothing at all, I travel a lot for work), do you consider that in order to be truly successful one has to be a slave of his craft? I don’t mean it in an offensive capacity, but I’m wondering if being a master of something one is passionate about comes hand in hand with dedicating oneself to nothing but that craft?
(RG note) Thanks, Ignacio. When I’m painting, I’m painting — constantly baffled at the combination of joy and struggle. Other interests include philately, birding, boating, socializing, and old-car-itis. In my case I don’t think I’m totally monk-like.
mixed media 30 x 30 inches
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That includes Darren Adams who wrote, “They say everything in business is position, position, position.”
And also Jane Sanford Harrison of Eugene, OR, USA, who wrote, “My friend Lynn and I are at a watercolor workshop in Tuscany. Last night she read to me from Roger Housden’s book Seven Sins of a Life Worth Living. This morning I read her your letter, which corresponds to Roger’s thinking and our own conversation late into the night. Today we go to St Antimo’s Abbey spiritually fit. Thanks for your contribution!”
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