The popular movie Frida raises anew the uses and abuses of mentoring. The ill-fated marriage between the crippled painter Frida Kahlo and Mexican fresco muralist Diego Rivera is classic. A familiar element is the successful and charismatic mentor interacting with the attractive and spirited novice. Jealousy, manipulation and disloyalty play a part in what is to become a living nightmare. Kahlo paints through her pain while Rivera goes about his business of egocentric manipulation and conquest. Sexual exploitation and retaliation are routine and both parties contribute to the marital failure.
More as potential than reality, the movie also suggests the incredible beauty of two painters who might be capable of creative synergy and unity. The ideal is two artistic temperaments that cling to one another with the dearest intimacy. By being so closely on the same track, a great deal can be left unsaid. When it happens, this kind of mutual understanding and complicity is one of the highest states of human bonding. It’s about as good as it gets.
Sensible mentoring is perhaps the most effective way to channel self-realization and success in another artist. Confidence is contagious, support is at hand and doors are opened. Proximity and availability make it golden. At the same time an evolved mentor knows when to leave well enough alone. It’s vital not to subvert or misdirect a legitimate vision. New-to-the-game artists need their sense of self worth as well as the elbow-room of time and space. One takes flight with one’s own wings. The slippery slope into co-dependency is to be avoided. No one can be fully the architect of another’s work, life or happiness. Mentors are gift givers. They understand. They have been there. They speed connections. At the same time the receivers of mentoring must have a dream, a plan, and a clear understanding of their own itinerary. In our brotherhood and sisterhood we have the deep and abiding knowledge that it’s a matter of letting others see that they can do it on their own.
PS: “My paintings carry with them the message of pain. Painting completes my life. Work is the best thing I have done with my life.” (Frida Kahlo)
Esoterica: Through 27 years Diego believed in Frida’s art. It was as a mentor that he never stopped caring. “For me, the most thrilling event of 1953 was Frida’s one man show in Mexico City during the month of April. Anyone who attended could not but marvel at her great talent.” (Diego Rivera) Frida was carried into her show on her death bed.
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
Frida Kahlo’s art
Suejin Jo, New York, NY, USA
I think the word ‘mentor’ is slightly misleading. In my opinion, Frida was a better painter than Diego from the beginning. Her art will live when Diego is forgotten. Diego did not mentor Frida’s art. He just inspired it, which is quite a different thing. Frida’s agonizing passion, love, gave her her art. Long live Frida!
(RG note) Frida, at age 14, brought her work to Diego, age 35, for “honest criticism.” She persisted in getting his attention. He began to admire her raw and unique vision. He was wise enough to understand that the physical pain that she endured from her early accident was part of the equation that made her art. Rivera’s art and his politics (Communism, free love, etc.) were always entwined — perhaps more so through his connection with Frida who was herself a remarkable free spirit. You may be right when you suggest that it was she that was his mentor. To speculate on who might be the better artist is not to the point. His style and intent was pretty well formed when they met. Hers wasn’t. Today, many artists identify with Frida — her physical limitations and pain, not to mention her indomitable spirit. There has even been a religion formed around her that recognizes her special days — birth, marriage, death, etc. It’s called “Kahloism.”
Strong willed Frida Kahlo
Pam Weber, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
I was fortunate to have been invited to the sneak preview of the Diego Rivera exhibition at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, last Thursday evening. Among the brightly coloured dancers, guitar strumming musicians and waiters offering finger-sized empanadas was a special guest: Guadalupe Marin Rivera, second daughter of Diego, by his first wife Guadalupe Marin. She gave a brief yet fascinating speech about life with her famous father and his renowned second wife, Frida Kahlo, with whom she spent time living under the same roof. Guadalupe said she would not see the film because of its negative portrayal of her father. Her interpretation of their relationship was quite insightful. She made it quite clear that Frida was a capable, strong willed woman who got what she wanted.
As for the subject of mentoring, call me naive, but I am of the belief that one good turn deserves another. I have always been forthcoming in sharing information with artists from beginner to mature level. I feel life is too short to taint our palette with ego and jealousy.
Mutual and generous mentoring
Pamela Simpson, Connecticut, USA
Your paragraph in the last letter about an artistic marriage “the ideal of two artistic temperaments that cling to one another with the dearest intimacy… this kind of mutual understanding and complicity is one of the highest states of human bonding” describes my marriage exactly. We are both painters and we mentor and support each other. I am very careful when he asks my opinion about a painting to see things through his eyes and critique it as he would paint it not as I would paint it. He does the same for me. We also have six growing children to mentor and support so codependency isn’t an option. It takes two of us to get all the jobs done. David also gets to mentor a deaf and autistic artist regularly and I work with her too sometimes. Our life is hectic and crazy sometimes but our marriage is “as good as it gets.”
In need of a mentor
Shannon O’Mara, San Francisco, CA, USA
I graduated from college eight years ago with a degree in painting, spent a year of that degree studies in Florence for studio work, and now haven’t attempted work at painting for over six months. It comes in fits and starts but never finishes. I’ve always felt that painting, like writing, needs to be practiced, but unlike many things that take practice, the solitary aspect of creating artwork can be lonely and therefore easy to avoid. A mentor is a concept I’ve always thought would work — my question is, where and how do you find one? It’s nice to think that a mentor will present him or herself when the ingénue is ready, but short of waiting for that to happen, what can I do? I’ve approached past instructors, ones who have helped me, but they seem completely disinterested or downright flaky once the class has finished. Plus I don’t really have a network of art friends, since I support myself financially through other means.
Do you have any advice for the interrupted painter for finding support, guidance and mentoring? I’m not asking for you to find me one, just a little more elaboration on how mentoring can begin.
(RG note) It seems to me that it’s just not a matter of finding any old mentor, past teacher, or available expert. Be alert to all possible connections and chance meetings. Mentors can come in all shapes and sizes. Be prepared to be a giver and you will become a receiver. Try to choose a working artist whose work you admire but who does not generally work in the same style or genre that you wish to pursue. Look for the uncommon and golden trait of empathy, but more than anything look for someone who has done more or less what you intend to do. Human caring is the fuel that propels the universe.
A timed bond of unconditional love
Alar Jurma, Montreal, Canada
The decision to accept a mentor, and as valuable as that can be, has always been a double-edged sword. It can both liberate from, as well as trap a person in a delusion. A true guide will always set the student free. The teacher-student relationship is really a unique bond of unconditional love. It goes beyond any romantic aspirations, and unlike in Frida Kahlo’s case, eventually becomes an elegant and loving melding of two souls, a quiet understanding between two spiritually unified people, and which encompasses all the great human qualities such as wisdom, compassion, and goodwill. Even in formal spiritual practice, the amount of time allotted to study with a Master was considered to be limited (by tradition) to twelve years. After twelve years, the Master would acknowledge the attachment that has been formed by always sending the student away, because that represented the last door the student had to exit in order to become totally free. And by leaving, the student’s attachment to his teacher did eventually become broken. This process may be compared to how we sometimes remove a splinter from our finger. First we find another splinter to use to dig out the one that’s giving us the pain. But then we don’t leave both splinters imbedded in our finger. We throw both of them away.
Cross-sexual nature of mentoring
In the arts the reality is that men most commonly mentor women. Men are seen as experts and women have traditionally sat at their feet. Furthermore, institutions such as the “casting couch” are well known. It’s a story as old as Adam and Eve. With the increased aggressiveness of women — the way of which has been shown by the likes of Frida Kahlo — this may be changing. But in many ways things are continuing in the way they have always been and we are still stuck with the situation to a great degree. As a successful male artist living in New York I am plenty occupied with opportunities to help emerging women artists who cannot break out of the pattern.
“Big” artist of little value
I live in a small community that will remain nameless where there is one “big” artist who will also remain nameless, as will I. This “big” artist could be of so much value to our artistic community. But she is above us all and does not want to adulterate her reputation by hanging around with others, even though some of us are well above the amateur level. She has been asked to jury or critique work from time to time but she always declines and we have to bring someone in from somewhere else. Have you any suggestions how we can get her to loosen up and take part in our community?
(RG note) Not really. She’s probably not a Lioness or a Rotarian either. Some artists prefer to remain behind a wall — for various reasons. Other artists have the calling. These are the ones with more joy than ego, who understand the full force of: “Every professional was once an amateur.”
Pain and suffering as the basis of art
Bill Cannon, California, USA
We must ask the age-old question: Why are men the most recognized artists? And then again, why are the feminine qualities in art not so well admired in ‘serious’ art circles. Perhaps some of the answer lies in my own teaching of writing — that the role of protagonist in a story is classically a male province, and when a female protagonist is presented, ‘she’ starts off in that male province and ‘she’ (the fictional character) must deal with being a female in a traditionally male role alongside of all ‘her’ other issues. I am sometimes criticized for this insight, but most of my students — and most are women — tend to accept it. I think it also represents a basis for much of the pain women suffer in real life as they must somehow resolve their devotion to men.
The significant element that is common to Rivera, Siqueros, Picasso, Pollock, Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo is the expression of pain. Siqueros is exquisite about that pain, as he makes the pain of the Mexican peasant his own…and in a political and revolutionary way. In Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, pain does not appear to be a significant factor as instead beauty and nature override, but nevertheless one can see and feel the pain that allowed her insights to emerge. In fact, the message of O’Keeffe is that beauty can override pain. And to what extent is the non-abusive influence of her mentor Stieglitz present in her work? Perhaps beauty-overriding pain is the message in Frida’s work as well. I find it interesting that nearly all of my writing students (over 100 per month online) exhibit pain and suffering at the base of their ambitions to write.
Never gave up
Fatima, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
I just moved to Canada and am still going through a transition period. I have about 15 pieces of my recent work with me. Currently I am working on small pieces of wood. And whenever I don’t have the resources I do some work on the computer, using “Painter.”
I did my B.F.A in Delhi, 10 years ago. Then for the next few years sort of did not try hard enough, though I never gave up. It’s all suddenly coming back again and I really don’t want to put myself down this time. I read these letters over and over and felt a great relief. I am at that stage where I have a dream in front of me, all what you talked about, but have little control over myself. I have to overcome a lot of things. I feel the “flow” when I paint. I have never exhibited my work — too scared to do it. It’s like living in a dream. Reading what you wrote was a startup for me. I’m looking for a place to exhibit my work. I need someone to guide me.
Galleries as mentors?
Janet M. Trahan, Long Island, NY, USA
Further to Barbara Elizabeth Mercer’s recent letter, I too am an artist who was invited into the Italian Biennale in Florence. I live on Long Island, an hour east of NYC. Unfortunately for me, there is no support available for me as an artist to participate in this show. If you do go I would really enjoy hearing your reaction to the event. Be wary of Galleries that ask for large amounts of money, according to my artist friends, who have exhibited at those galleries in NYC. It costs a lot and they do nothing to promote or sell the work, there is no incentive for them to sell work because they make money off the artists exhibiting. I was also invited to exhibit in a SoHo Gallery in NY. They found me through my website as well. I chose not to go with them, but to find a gallery that is for profit instead. I have been a gallery owner myself with 12 other artists. I sold my partnership because of time constraints (it left very little time to paint as well as earn a living). From that experience I can see the thinking behind a gallery owner. I also sell my work on consignment at a for-profit gallery and that is the route that I’m pursuing with other galleries in other areas. I’m also pursing the print and licensing market. I have two reps, one international and one national. That also costs money because I have to record all my work on slides and 4 x 5 transparencies. I do have interested publishers and a good relationship with my agent, rep and gallery owner. The gallery takes 50%, but they have established collectors for me and my work is selling.
Types of artists’ projectors
I need to know if slide projectors are better than Super Prism projectors, one of which I presently use. Could you enlighten me on the subject before I go out and spend a thousand bucks on something that doesn’t provide an improved image?
(RG note) The Artograph Super Prism for projecting opaque material has the advantage of reduction as well as enlargement (by reversing the lens). Further, it takes ordinary 250 watt as well as color-corrected bulbs that have a life of about 25 hours. I use older Kodak Carousels and project slides because slides have been my reference of choice since I started gathering material for my work. Slide projector bulbs are expensive and getting more rare. Slides are not all that fast to get developed in some places these days–but a suitable solution is the Polaroid slide system that I use when I’m in a hurry. Various zoom and wide-angle lenses are available for Carousels and other makes of slide projectors. Perfectly good slide projectors sometimes show up at garage sales and can often be had for a song. The type of projector you choose depends what the medium of your reference is — print, slide or digital. All can be converted to each other, of course. In the case of the latest digital projectors, color truth, color manipulation and image blending are a plus, so this is now the choice of some cutting-edge projector users. Artograph Super Prism Projectors can be found at www.dickblick.com/
Reliving the delight of childhood
Regarding what artist Richard Brown said in a recent response, I too was at a show at a large, government gallery. The subject was abstract works. As we strolled along I noticed a square with various coloured shapes writhing in it, all surrounded by stainless steel. My first response was, “How beautiful.” Then I wondered if it was a work of art, or some electrical panel for the lights. For a brief moment, I worried about what it was — art or technology. Then it became clear to me that there really wasn’t a difference. The electrical panel design WAS art. I think one of the main purposes of art is to get us to re-experience the delight in seeing that was had inherently when we were children.
Me and My Art
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