In Lucca I’ve borrowed a friend’s workshop for a sanctuary. Wine cellar and bicycle garage, it’s a tiny grotto in the bowels of a 13th century home, its main wall contingent to the base of an 11th century church. In summer’s midday, while the town’s at ease, it’s a cool retreat with one high window that brings only distant bells, the occasional chatter of children and the beguiling clip, clip, clip of stylish heels.
Italy lives with the burden of history. To see Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures in Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia is to inhale the marble dust of genius. Tuscany itself is so laden with great art that it’s easy for artists to say, “Why bother?”
While it’s difficult to know the comparative statistics, in North America it’s estimated that four percent of the population try their hand at fine art. I’m sure the percentage in Europe is much lower. Is this because Europeans have the idea that it’s all been done before? Is it because of the do-it-yourself and loner-nature of the American mentality? More important, is it possible that a vacuum is necessary to sustain creativity?
Michelangelo, while often in the company of assistants, was known for his silence and private focus. He worked long hours — sixteen to twenty hours a day by some accounts. One of his apprentices, on finding him late at night collapsed and asleep at the base of a sculpture, removed his hammer from his grasp. The skin of Michelangelo’s hand came with it.
In Michelangelo’s time there were sculptors all over Tuscany and anxious patrons to keep them busy. In Michelangelo’s mind there was only one Michelangelo. In the long hours of midday, and late at night when his students rested, his steady hammering filled a vacuum. He had the audacity to think that only he could do the job.
Everyone needs a sanctuary to gather thoughts and apply personal tools. It’s in a sanctuary where a sense of self is daily repaired and polished. Things begin to make sense in a sanctuary. Even for the most limited among us, a sanctuary is where progress is made and work gets done.
PS: “Painters are not in any way unsociable through pride, but either because they find few pursuits equal to painting, or in order not to corrupt themselves with conversation and so debase the imaginings in which they are absorbed.” (Michelangelo)
Esoterica: Yep, Mike had his grumpy side. While in awe of the gift of life, all artists habitually feel the need to do something about it — to honour it, to monumentalize it, to give it back in some way. It’s a frustrating game. But that’s the imperative of art. Alone in our sanctuary we face it and sometimes beat it. “Lord grant that I may always desire more than I can accomplish.” (Michelangelo)
by Josephine Siedlecka
Regarding your claim that the percentage of working artists is lower in Europe, it seems that, based on a visit to some cities in Italy, you are dismissing the many hundreds of thousands of working artists in the dozens of countries that make up the continent of Europe. I don’t know the statistics of working artists but a quick Google shows that Italy alone has more than 65 public art schools as well as hundreds of private ones. There are thousands of galleries — old and modern. Fine art and sculpture old and new can be seen on every street corner. Just as Michelangelo’s genius was not stunted by the heritage of more than 2,000 years of Italian art and sculpture that preceded his generation, I am sure Italian artists today are not discouraged by the great work of the Renaissance either. Each generation finds new forms of expression.
(RG note) Thanks, Josephine. Your questioning my statistics is appreciated, and one that was echoed by a few others. The question is fairly well answered by Tatjana’s letter below, but I’d like to add a bit more. While my observation is largely anecdotal, I’m not generalizing from one visit to some cities in Italy. I’ve painted, travelled and worked with other artists in most European countries and lived and worked for example in Spain for more than a year. My work has been sold in Europe and is in collections in most countries there. My observation is that, with the possible exception of Great Britain, there is little of the huge demographic of art clubs filled with eager, and often empowered, wannabees that is prevalent in North America. While there are certainly exceptions, the idea that middle aged ladies (and gentlemen) can take up the brush and become successful does not exist on the continent. A rich artistic history does not ensure continued art production by the general population. Further, you may have noticed that in all cultures, the existence of Public Art Schools, even those offering degrees and diplomas, does not guarantee that there’ll be more practicing artists around.
Further, the per capita number of commercial galleries is lower in Europe, although it looks to me like the number of “single artist-owned-and-run galleries” is about the same as in North America. At the same time, historical art is alive and well in European antique shops. But in its own way it’s depressing. This morning on the streets of Lucca I was not surprised once more to find the work of Vincent van Gogh, and others of our favourites, oil on linen, in excellent condition, very cheap indeed, and fresh from China.
New born artists
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
The do-it-yourself is not exactly how I would describe the North American mentality that gave birth to this wonderful democratization of art. I would call it an American miracle mentality. People have seen many examples where, (what Europe would call) dilettantes have accomplished major achievements and opened doors to others. In Europe dilettantes are not encouraged. Being an artist in Europe is a profession for which one gets schooled and goes through the established road map, with more or less success — like in any other job. This is a shortcoming that has mostly been removed from the gene pool in the New World, to its great benefit, and for the benefit of us, new born artists!
Blooming with artists…
by Cappy Jack
I cannot agree with your vacuum idea and your belief that there are fewer Europeans making art than North Americans. I am an American who has lived in Amsterdam for over five years. I am in the midst of a city that is blooming with artists like Florence was so many years ago. I call it the new New York. And I draw my inspiration from them and not from any vacuum. Hide away in your sanctuary, Robert, where is your art? My friends in America are producing art willy-nilly for the rich folks. But over here, everyone seems to make it, show it and more than anything, enjoy it!
Privilege of a sanctuary
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Normally where I work is so inferior, it is almost a joke to call it a studio. It is a tiny garage with a couple of small windows, crowded with the dust and clutter of the art trade. Many of us artists work in these humble leftover spaces in our houses and only dream about the tall ceiling, north-lit studio of the sort that William Merritt Chase or John Singer Sargent used. No doubt these spaces are still coveted and tended by portrait painters around the world. Recently a friend offered me the use of a spectacular room in her palatial house that overlooks a hundred mile vista atop the highest point in our area. To call it ‘grand’ is a gross understatement! My tall ceiling-ed room has huge arched windows that allow wonderful light to spill unencumbered into the space. A large easel sits proudly on a smooth hardwood floor. I arrived with a couple drop cloths and the minimum of gear and tip toed into the room with the reverence I would feel entering a cathedral. Unlike Michelangelo I paint just a couple hours at a time, but the calm environment seems to stop time for me. Every minute seems focused and utilized and my paintings are magically finishing themselves. What a privilege it is to have a sanctuary!
Painting in a trance
by Corrine Bongiovanni, Windham, ME, USA
In pondering my need for sanctuary or even isolation while painting, I realized that my best work comes when I’ve been able to paint in a light level of trance. I’ve painted long enough to be able to enter those light trance states fairly easily but… they do require an intense and narrow focus on the work, a certain degree of excitement about it, and of course, you can’t be agonizing over life’s daily chores and errands at the same time. Putting painting second to other “must dos” in life will only destroy the focus I need at the time. If painting can feel like the priority for my time use and mental focus, then it’s much easier to mentally de-clutter and be able to work in almost any space. Creating that mental and emotional arena where nothing else matters for a time is more necessary than the actual physical space of sanctuary. If I have done all my thinking before I pick up the brush, I can paint almost anywhere. Otherwise, I need to separate myself from any outside stimulus.
The fanlights of Lucca
by Brian Gilbert, Chattanooga, TN, USA
I’m enjoying your writings about Lucca… my family and I spent three days there last summer. Perhaps you’ve already noticed them, but take a look at the fanlight grilles over the doors. As a blacksmith, I paid particular attention to them. Many have been preserved, but many more are rusting away. They are irreplaceable… it would cost about $8,000-$16,000 each to make one today. All are unique.
I like to think of hand-forged architectural decoration as Easter eggs for grownups. A million people walk past them without a second thought, but having done that sort of hard-labor artwork myself (in the summer, no less) I love to notice the detail and design in old blacksmith pieces. Often, even the simplest door hinge would have some sort of decoration that made it unique to the maker, like a simple x and some dots chiseled into the surface. It’s a creativity urge showing through despite the economic pressures of producing a functional object. These pressures are present today, and while I’m sure it was a very different business climate for the 17th century blacksmith, I imagine that he felt them too, to some degree. Italy’s rotten with old iron, but Lucca’s a good place to notice it. One of these days I’m going to try to write myself a huge grant to fund a documentary trip there… before it all rusts away.
Work temporarily erases problems
by Dustin Curtis, Decatur, AL, USA
After an unusually stressful few days filled with normal life occurrences, all I had on my mind was our current problems. My wife and I were pretty stressed out about finances, children, etc. On the third or fourth day of dealing with the issues, I went to my easel to work on a painting and without thinking too much about it, 4 hours slipped by. Later as I was still painting my wife walked in and mentioned one of the issues we were dealing with and it hit me; I had totally forgotten about the “issues.” I made the comment to her that I hadn’t even thought about that for the last 4 hours. This was new to me because I don’t paint for stress relief or as a hobby in order to have something to fill my time with. Nothing wrong with either of those, but I usually struggle when I’m painting and it tends to be hard work emotionally and spiritually. There’s nothing wrong with hard work so I actually enjoy it. Now I have another good thing to look forward to; shifting my focus while I’m painting can actually give me a break for awhile. To me that is the definition of sanctuary.
Sanctuary of Mother Nature
by Jeri Lynn Ing, Red Deer, AB, Canada
I have just returned from a week long retreat — a summer landscape painting workshop in the beautiful Central Alberta — where we were left to fill each day as we saw fit. Our mentor, Dave More, would wander from artist to artist to assist, poke, prod, challenge or just to watch in our painting process. It was an amazing joy; I found myself and my art change. Just being left alone in the fields, at one with Mother Nature, with no distractions, no cell phones, no newspaper, no TV and no Internet, allowed me to reconnect with myself and my inner sanctuary. I was left to come and go as I chose, to paint what I found fascinating, only being beckoned away from my muse by a lone bell’s toll for my three amazing meals each day. What a gift — to give yourself totally over to art, to let art be your master, and to see, wait and watch where you were being led each day. We all need to find our sanctuary, to refresh, renew and to gather the strength, courage and most importantly the audacity to paint, even greater, again the following day.
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More collectors than ever before
by Brett Busang, Washington, DC, USA
In Michelangelo’s day, all art was commissioned — which is to say, commercial. There were no dabblers because there was no time for them and no need to see mediocre work in the midst of sheerest glory. Michelangelo’s vaunted work-ethic was fairly typical. (Think of Tiepolo knocking out his murals or Canaletto making preparatory sketches for his vedute.) Now curators and dealers often lump my work and others in with inferior plein-air painters or wannabe realists. Most simply won’t take the time or trouble to make significant distinctions. If it’s about light, it’s like all those other impressionists; if it represents something, it’s merely realistic and can’t be much more different than all those other paintings we’ve seen already. For the average artist, however, our times have been a tremendous bonanza. There are more collectors than ever before, a teeming plethora of galleries and museums, and an overall sense that art is not only high-toned, but “cool” — which draws in younger people. I think maistream culture has passed it by, but it is, paradoxically, healthy and vigorous. A higher proportion of people are painting decent, if unremarkable, paintings today than ever before. I’m not sure that’s a cause to celebrate, but it certainly argues the enduring appeal of an art-form that doesn’t resonate much outside of studios, galleries, and museums.
A richness growing
by Stede Barber, Los Alamos, NM, USA
I am a painter who currently makes my living in other ways, and am steadily moving forward to shift the balance into more time for my art, and making my living through my creativity. I love my friends and family, and meeting new people, yet among my friends I seem to need far more quiet time to myself than most. I’ve been criticized for it by some, who don’t understand, and others just patiently love me. Learning to take care of and please myself first has been one of life’s lessons — that it’s not a selfish thing. As I put my heart and time into my work, and keep a balance in my life, there’s a richness growing. It seems that being true to oneself is ultimately being able to give of one’s best.
Lessons from the bull ring
by Gary Lanthrum, Manassas, VA, USA
The Spanish bullring is not always appreciated, but it was the genesis of a word similar to sanctuary, but with a bit more power. During a bullfight the bull will occasionally find a place in the ring where he discovers himself. He loses all fear and becomes very calm and determined. This happens in spite of all the pain and distractions of the ring. This place is called the bull’s querencia and it is both a physical location and a state of mind. A bull that has found his querencia is a very different animal, and is terrifying to a matador. I’m still looking for my querencia. In the meantime I battle the demons of work intrusions, home repair, and everyday life as I try to paint. My work still comes out appearing distracted.
by Janet Toney, Greeneville, TN, USA
While living in Italy we heard more than once, “The last great Italian painter was Michelangelo!” This usually being said with a wink, and as explanation for any kind of painting — walls or whatever! Yet, we saw many artists working and attempting to sell their paintings! My opinion: Where there is the desire to create, most will; not worrying as much about who likes their work as if he or she likes it, and if it is satisfying. Those who feel the call but deny it are unhappy souls indeed!
Trying to make a living with one’s art is a whole different thing. Not many can live the lonely life of a Michelangelo, but some can! Some are fortunate enough to sell their work for a livable wage, and some are not. This is nothing new. We have only to look back at van Gogh! But all need some quiet time to create. No matter if the creations are feeding the wallet or only the soul. Some of us use the middle of the night, as my sister-in-law does to do her creative crafty handwork. Some find a space in our homes that we put off limits to others. Wherever, whenever, we can find it, a place to think and imagine, a sanctuary, is necessary to make the art we must make!
Sanctuary of the soul
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
An artist’s soul is his /her sanctuary. It’s where artists can go to commune with their thoughts, to work out their ideas, or contemplate the future of their work or of art itself. I don’t have assistants to do my work as Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci. My physical studio, where hours are spent stretching canvas or drawing a new idea. is also my sanctuary. This is when my mind wanders while my hands toil at the common labors of painting. Where I can try and become greater than myself. Touch the hand of God as it were.
Why bother you wonder? Artists of all ages create works that try and explain their world. We may never say it as gracefully as the Masters or have their insight or facility, but we commit to try to do the very best we can, to reach far beyond our limits and maybe soar with eagles once in a while. By painting, we connect with the masters. Get a glimpse of what they might have gone through. There is an inner calling forcing artists to create. I don’t have much choice in the matter. I’ve been given this gift. When my work is difficult, I inwardly curse this ability and wish I were like other men whose interest extends mostly to sports and other diversions. When I soar, I can think of no better vocation than art. My mind and body tingle with anticipation and excitement. I literally shiver with joy at what I’m doing. A small laugh bubbles from my mouth, which causes my model to wonder what I’m doing at the easel. And when the results come together, I could expire then and there and be happy.
Thriving on ambiguity
by Jim Noel, San Diego, CA, USA
Although I have a secluded and private studio as my sanctuary, I find I can always access my inner sanctuary as the need arises, even in a crowded meeting or on the beach. Avoiding too much discussion of my creative process or current works prevents “corruption” of the creative state.
Painting is an activity that only other painters can comprehend, although the results are open to any observer to interpret after the fact. At the same time, non-verbal communication is prone to misunderstanding, and that is part of the fascination that art holds for us all. Perhaps our underlying humanity makes it possible to live with ambiguity, even to thrive in it.
The spirit of ancient sanctuaries
by Jamie McDonald Gray, Calgary, AB, Canada
Being a big fan of historical buildings and spaces (and not having much of that at my disposal here in Calgary), I often dream of working in the type of sanctuary you are currently lucky enough to borrow; those spaces occupied by people for hundreds of years. I imagine that in those places I could feel the presence of those who’ve gone on before me. The very stones would have sopped up history and an essence would be exuded for me to sense as I worked there. I imagine that I would be more inspired than usual and make better and more important work. However, what I actually have is something that I’ve come to recognize as being just as precious. It’s a tiny room in a corner of the basement in my 35-year old house, in which I have all my supplies, tools, a desk and one comfy chair. Most importantly, it has a door that locks. It is my version of the celtic chapel studio I think I’d love; a place where I can work in peace, think quietly, talk to myself, or have a good cry if need be. I think anyplace which temporarily keeps your family out so you can quietly swear at a stubborn piece is sanctuary enough!
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You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Sigal Shapira of Switzerland who wrote, “Today what Italian artist can you mention? Like the Dutch school, it is a period that was there and gone. Italy today is very different…”
And also Adria Klausner who wrote, “You hit the nail on the head! I was born in Italy. In the mid 1950s I attended Brera, the Italian Academy of Fine Arts in Milano. It did not last long. Pretty soon, after visiting galleries after galleries and churches after churches, I got discouraged and thought to myself: I’ll never be that good! It is only in my later years, in the United States, that I dared to go back to art school and do my own thing, without having to imitate the great masters.”
And also Kendra Page of Glendale, CA, USA who wrote, “I love making art because it is a solitary endeavor, and what I create comes just from me; it’s mine; it’s the one thing I can be justifiably selfish about. It’s unique; no one else’s work is just like mine. I think that’s what keeps a lot of us going, having something to call our own.”
And also Marilena Fluckiger of Vancouver, BC, Canada who wrote, “I do think that a vacuum is the ideal backdrop for creativity. It is when I am traveling that I am the most creative. I guess that’s because there is no bombarding of daily tasks and responsibilities. There is no English speaking TV. There are no pets or family. There’s only me and my mind. And I need to do something!”
And also Georg Vihos who wrote, “Michelangelo laboring, political, personal rivalries, battling ill health, financial difficulties, domestic problems and yes, creating TIMELESS ART. Sometimes it is easy to forget — this job is not for the weak.”
And also Wendy Leedy who wrote, “A sanctuary can take so many forms. Mine is in my barn listening to the horses as they consume their grain. The sounds and feelings of contentment seem to allow me to focus on what’s important and dismiss that which is not. Thank you for inspiring me to realize the importance of my sanctuary.”
And also Royce of Key West, FL, USA who wrote, “I will appreciate and ‘look through new eyes’ at my tiny 9×9 foot sanctuary. Palm trees, the last bloom of Royal Poincianas and endless blue sky peeks through the French-paned window. From your sanctuary to mine; from my sanctuary to yours. The ripple effect of your work quietly touches the creative spirit and reaches out to ends further than we can ever know, leaving us all a little more inspired than we were before.”
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