Some recent studies with rats and marmosets may shed some light on how artists act. The study, spearheaded by Dr. Elizabeth Gould of Princeton University, has been looking at male reactions to the arrival of their young. It’s well known that females — including human females — go through profound mental and physical changes when the little ones are about to show up. Dads aren’t quite as well wired. Rat dads, for example, unable to handle the stress, sometimes eat their kids. In marmoset families, however, dad generally pitches right in — and only hands them over to mom when it’s time to breastfeed. Researchers found that when marmoset dads merely look at kids, changes happen in their frontal lobes. Nerve connections in brain areas associated with goal-driven behaviour become more active.
The study also shows that skills like spatial memory and foraging improve by just catching a glimpse of babies. Female needs for nurturing and caretaking aside, males are also stimulated by sight and proximity. I remember when our kids showed up — especially when they started to come two at a time — my foraging skills improved. I decided that I had to get serious about my art — or I was going to have to eat the little darlings.
But what’s really interesting and perhaps dangerous is that art may be a surrogate for the baby-nurturing process. Art may even have some advantages. Gestation is generally faster — and so is the rearing period. From birth to convocation may only be an hour, day or month. Art’s easier to get out of the house, too. You can give art away with impunity. You can even sell it — something you’re not allowed to do with the kids. Further, the active artist can pop out offspring at a rate that is both alarming and satisfying. Just by seeing our more-or-less successful offspring, we artists are stimulated to make and nurture more. For humans with no human offspring, the need for art may be even greater. (I’ve often looked at childless art collectors and wondered if they had a feeling of foster parenthood.) Empty nesters — those finished with actual child rearing — are today the fastest growing demographic buying brushes and paints. If this condition hits the younger generation, we could well see a time when every body conceives art, nobody conceives kids, people become extinct, and there are no more collectors.
PS: “If you consider that the prefrontal cortex plays a major role in planning, judgment and anticipation of the consequences of behaviour, you could make a clear argument that changes in that part of the brain would be involved with attention toward offspring.” (Craig Kingsley, researcher)
Esoterica: A plaster egg, when placed in a nest, makes many a hen broody. Humans, like others in the animal kingdom, are programmed to fill needs. Leaving unfinished work on the easel is just one way the mind can be fooled into fecundity. Artists write here every day and refer to their works as “my babies.” We creators “give birth” to our art and “nurture” it. Many painters report that they “talk” to their paintings and get their paintings to “talk back” to them. “Let the painting tell you what it needs,” says Charles Reid. This morning I was looking at my half-finished painting and found myself saying, “I’ll try and look after you in a minute, but right now I have to go into the house and help Carol with the laundry.”
Yes, eat the kids
by Monika Welch, Tauranga, New Zealand
During the painting process I feel the naivety and fragility of each piece and I am forever trying to reassure myself that all will be well. I feel I have high standards for these painterly babies, but they are not too lofty and, for the most part, they are flexible. When each individual is completed I feel genuinely proud. I have witnessed their rapid passing from childhood through to adulthood. It is time for them to leave the nest! The fact that there is a financial reward for their departure into new homes is something of an enigma. Imagine our human children leaving home and someone paying us for all our efforts, time and hours invested? It will never happen, so I feel this is the best solution: eat the kids and just keep on painting.
Disposing of unwanted works
by Faith Puleston, Wetter, Germany
Paintings have an advantage over kids in that they are more easily disposable, either in the form of gifts or commercial goods. But when I drive my old papers and bottles to the respective containers I often ask myself why there is no failed paintings bank for the items of which I was once proud but now wish to disown. Even painting over them does not really do the trick, so I have taken to dismembering them and putting them into big, anonymous plastic bags. But, being relatively civilized, I can only do that with the paintings which do not remotely count as “offspring” and the effort involved is even then more emotional than physical.
Creative spirit in second family
by Bruce Zeines, Brooklyn, NY, USA
I find the information about marmosets very interesting. I had children early and then a second time around in my mid-life. The first round with wife number one saw my adventures into the commercial world of graphics. My art took a back seat to my design work which is what paid me. My mid-life brought many changes. Foremost among them was the arrival of my son with my second wife, which coincided with an intense involvement with my imaginative gift, and the development of my true calling as an artist. I developed a second career. I have not had any hidden desires to eat my young. My six year old declares boldly when asked if he is going to be an artist, “I am an artist.” The creative spirit flows more freely in my second household. It seems that the spirit has learned a few lessons. I will try to pay more attention to my frontal lobes.
Love conquers all
by Roger Asselin, St. Petersburg, FL, USA
Some time ago my wife and I spent the most horrific night in our lives under a pine tree in a small tent filled with water as lightening came down seemingly as fast and heavy as the rain. With only a canoe to make our escape to a boat landing miles away, we were stranded.
Last Friday night my wife was in Kentucky for the weekend. We had the twin to that storm pass over our home. It hung there for hours. By instinct, I reached over to hold my wife as the Island experience came to mind. In my thoughts I was going to die. I woke with a start and immediately began painting. I wanted to capture the Island while it was fresh in my mind. I had to paint it because that storm bonded Marge and I closer than ever. It affected us and our love and out of this love I had to paint the Island as a monument of love. This would never have been able to be accomplished if my painter family did not love me. Love is the greatest inspirational force in the world. People live because of it and die because they lack it.
Art stayed through all
by Vernita Bridges-Hoyt, Spring, TX, USA
A typical thought by architects during design process is, “Let the building be what it wants to be.” During my multi-career life, architectural design is the closest I came to using my art talents as a profession. Now that I approach that “old” age of 60 years, I realize that Art has been with me from the start. Art has been with me since I could hold a crayon in my hands. Art is still in my soul. The children were born, grew up and left home to make their own lives. Art stayed with me through it all, sometimes hiding, waiting, but never leaving home. Now, I will finally make time for that which was born with me and stayed with me through all of my life paths.
Interactive arts entertainment events
by Victoria O’Neill, Frazer, PA, USA
When I started popping out my children, I gave up painting and turned my creativity into different areas, such as making unique toys, dolls, and clothes for them, etc. My children were born 3 years apart and pretty much took up most of my life. Once they were all in school full time, the idea was that now I could take up painting again. It was really the furthest thing from my mind. Becoming a parent gave me such a sense of responsibility to use my creativity in positive ways to serve others (and myself along the way). So I now conceive of, design, create and implement 100% interactive arts entertainment events, bringing people together through the arts. It is amazing to me how many people really love/need this kind of stimulation. I did take up painting again, and have become recently inspired to paint more, and I will, integrating these paintings into my events.
Kindergarten frees up creative parents
by Dee Milliken, NB, Canada
I read today’s letter with a twinkle in my eye: My husband and I just sent our only child to kindergarten this morning. It’s a mix of joy and anguish, as I’m sure you know. We are both artists, he is a musician and I am the crafter/painter/ — so sending our precious little one off to school frees us both up to pursue our art in more lengthy time frames, instead of the frustrating and all-too-short snippets we used to grab here and there as full-time parents juggling part-time jobs and being part-time artists. When people ask, “What are you going to do with all your time when your little one is in school?” Well, we have no problem filling those “empty hours!”
‘Letting go’ more difficult for women
by Robin Christy Humelbaugh, Stayton, OR, USA
You have given me a very good reason (among others from past letters) to know why I paint and why I hate to let go of any painting — because I want it to succeed. I also hate to let go of certain areas of my paintings because I have fallen in love with that little bit and if I don’t release it the whole painting is doomed. I think most mothers who paint may be worse in that regard than fathers. I teach adult watercolor classes and find that “letting go” for the women, in order to create a good composition is probably almost as bad as letting their children go off on their first day of school. Also, I have, by far, more women than men in my classes — does that not say something about nurturing?
Current increase in art interest
by Veronica Stensby, Los Angeles, CA, USA
I have noticed the greater increase of older students who are taking their art studies seriously in community colleges and city-run extension classes (along with yoga and all the other usual activities for the “leisure” class) here in the Los Angeles area. I would say this is a newer group of collectors as well. They may not be the Rockerfellers, but they want art that is valid and adds to their esthetic pleasure in life. I have, as am able, begun to collect the art of my colleagues and that of the “younger” generation. A hundred years ago starving artists, and those today as well, would exchange their art and benefit from living with it and learning from it. At LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) there is an excellent month-to-month rental program of contemporary art, with option to buy. One branch of the public library in Glendale (the Brand) offers prints and large canvas reproductions for borrowing. I suggest that many of the boomer generation (yes, I’m one of them) have disposable income and are looking for stimulating and inspiring works of art to add to their collections. Then there is the corporate group, young and older entrepreneurs who seem to want the edgy stuff that is shown in all the trendy galleries in Los Angeles.
Art and the birth process
by Carole Ann Borges, Knoxville, TN, USA
I have always been struck at how much the process of creating a piece of art resembles the birth process. There is the first stage in which every nerve and fiber of your being subtly (or not so subtly) heralds the coming event. During this preliminary period a peculiar restlessness or nervousness or emotional excitement occurs. Then there is the actual labor. This is often accompanied by an overwhelming and extended need to concentrate, to totally devote your energy to the process that is unfolding. Fear is common, but it can be tempered by faith in yourself and your instinct. Even though forces beyond yourself seem to have taken control at this time, you must somehow in the middle of this seeming chaos trust and relax in order to let the flow direct you. Also, when you are in the middle of trying to create something, you have a strong feeling of need to complete, to bring your original inspiration into being, and irritability with anything trying to distract you is common. Anger, frustration and even violence can occur. The last stage, the delivery or actual accomplishment of bringing forth something that preciously dwelt in another realm into this world, brings forth a great sense of joy, pride, and satisfaction. The exhaustion of completion does not occur until after this feeling subsides. The only problem with art is that you may have to go through this over and over again. Even hundreds of times! No wonder there is a great urge sometimes for artists to procrastinate before starting a project. Giving birth to a piece of art is a physical, spiritual, and mental experience that demands a lot from us. Most artists have a great feeling of love for the things they produce, a feeling that is, I believe, somehow related to the way the gods must have felt when they first created life.
Friendship begets unique art
by Canvas By Canvas Arlington Artists, TX, USA
Canvas by Canvas is a group of 11 Texas artists who share a love of painting and have a unique friendship. We formed after first meeting and painting together for over ten years at the Upstairs Gallery in Arlington, Texas. We have traveled together and celebrated everything (even a clean studio). Our individual painting styles are as different as our signatures but we unite our painting voices to produce dramatic fine art. Held together by email and regular meetings, in a loose association, we share a love of learning, discovery, excitement and the joy in living, looking and observing. Each of our Canvas by Canvas paintings is the combined work of nine of the eleven members of our group. Each ten-inch square is painted independently of the others. The charm of the finished painting lies in the individuality of style found in each section of the painting. Every one of the nine canvas panels is discreetly initialed by the artist who painted it and the whole piece is signed with our Canvas by Canvas group signature.
(RG note) Thanks, CCAA. Members of this organization are Cindy Campbell, Karen Foster, Barbara Hackney, Connie Michael, Pat Salazar, Elaine Schneider, Nancy Standlee, Maryann Stephens, Elizabeth Mitchell Taylor, Margie Whittington and Cindy Yandell.
Constable on Constable
by Joan Constable, North Fork, CA, USA
While I was in England a few weeks ago I had the joy of attending a rare showing of Constable’s large canvas paintings and to see the changes his emotions made in his brush strokes. Before his wife’s serious illness and after her death a dramatic change took place from his former classical approach to almost slashing the canvas with broad, impressionistic strokes. My family (who are distant relatives) have a good number of books on Constable and I have prints of some of his written journals in my own library expressing his techniques for water and skies. While in England, I could see how Constable would be fascinated with the ever-changing moods and colors and found myself taking far more photos of the sky than the scenery beneath. Painting my 2007 calendar in the UK was great fun using watercolors on polypropylene.
College compromises confidence
by Marni California, Abergele, UK
I find myself, aged 50, in the last year of a BA (Hons) degree attending an extremely disorganized college that has entirely disillusioned me towards pursuing a professional career as an artist. I thought college would be a haven of creativity. The first couple of years was a constant battle and though I am now in line to graduate with a good grade, I feel I have lost confidence in my ability to deal with the inevitable knock-backs that come in an artist’s career. I would be most interested in your own and/or other artists’ experiences with art colleges.
(RG note) Thanks, Marni. It’s a situation that arises all the time. Some of our readers may be helpful to you. College, disorganized or not, is a haphazard primer that opens the doors of possibility. Your real education begins now — as you settle down to carve out your own signature. Confidence is built by making minor gains, privately in your own workspace and on a daily basis. Workmanlike habits are the key. For several reasons, many college graduates do not make the transition into this zone.
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 Delores Herringshaw of Syracuse, NY, USA who wrote, “I cannot produce these art babies fast enough, whether they sell or not.”
And also Sarah Jane Conklin of Fall River, NS, Canada who wrote, “As the children got older, my need for art evolved as well. I often say that I paint for my ‘mental health.’ It is a lot cheaper than seeing a therapist, and a lot more fun!”
And also Karoll Dalyce Brinton of Sherwood Park, AB, Canada who wrote, “My mother keeps telling me that everybody’s getting into art. There’s more than enough of it around. Nonsense, there is always unmanifested beauty.”
And also Brian Kliewer of Rockland, ME, USA who wrote, “And sometimes we even get out ‘the photo album’ or ‘wallet full of snapshots’ and display our beloved little ones for all the world to see.”
And also Sheila Hadley of Rockville, MD, USA who wrote, “Art making is not a surrogate for anything. It simply is.”
And also Peter Brown of Oakland, CA, USA who wrote, “Do not get your panties up about marmosets. What is the point? Art is just what we humans do.”