Out here on this island I take my watch at the edge of a mysterious forest. A gentle and occasional wind-chime, like a Buddhist bell, divides my time zones. With vanilla tea I lounge on a hammock and then set up on the dried grass and look out through a confusion of vegetation at a sparkling ocean.
The question, “What shall I paint,” is very much the same as “What shall I do on this golden day?” For many of us the answer comes with a sense of place. (It could be Manhattan, a ballet class, or a PTA meeting.) Where I’ve landed — from the distant mountain pile-up to the sowbugs that cross at my feet, there’s subject matter. Right now there’s a white-tail deer nibbling at somebody’s pot of nasturtiums. Earlier, sandpipers moved persistently and out of reach as I came along the water’s edge. For a while and from a great distance I watched a solitary sunbather.
Could there be a sense of mission? This place needs the artist as much as the artist needs this place. It’s not just a matter of sitting here and rendering something, it’s a matter of thinking it out and finding the spirit. Many before have discovered the spirits of their places: Thoreau’s Walden, Van Gogh’s Arles, Hemmingway’s Havana, Charlie Russell’s Montana. There’s something to be had in the West, East, South and North. The job of the artist is to be sensitive. It has to do with a willingness to come to know. “What shall I paint?” Nobody said it had to have a horizon line. Nobody said it had to be like it was before. There is no rule that insists that one ought to stick to the same tubes. Our business is the conveyance of feelings. Our business is to reorganize our places to our own liking. Our mission is to make our marks in the mystery and the chaos. And as I am sitting here I realize that it is not just me who is looking for objects to get my brush around. It is also this place that is advertising in front of me, that is actively seeking an available artist.
PS: “No place is a place until it has found its poet.” (Wallace Stegner)
Esoterica: It takes time, patience, and perhaps privacy. It may be necessary to reset the bearings and pulleys of one’s mind. It may mean simply exhausting all of the other possibilities. “Some are born in their place, some find it, some realize after long searching that the place they left is the one they have been searching for.” (Wallace Stegner)
The following are selected correspondence arising from the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
Return to the scene
Ted Beardsley, Northern Rensselaer County, NY, USA
How well I observe myself accepting the advertisements. And, what’s especially interesting, though I may paint that which sought an available artist, there have been so many times when the very same scene beckons again and again. I note that each time I am lured to the specific landscape scene, the atmospheric qualities have changed. Each opportunity then becomes a new spiritual experience. Truly, we are guided, I believe, not only when making some crucial decisions, but when allowing our creative energies to commingle, as painters, with that scene which beckons.
Not as it seemed
Linda Burchill, Richmond, B.C., Canada
Walden has this mythical quality around it. But the reality is far from the truth. I traveled to Concord (a place steeped in history) and took in many of the local sites. Having read Walden by Thoreau, I believed what most people believed — that Walden was this idyllic existence where Thoreau is said to have spent two years in seclusion. His thoughts and inner examination are the basis of the book about Walden Pond. In reality, Thoreau battled for many years with depression. He took to staying at Walden Pond as his own private sanctuary. Here’s the shocker: He went home to Concord every weekend to the home of his parents. His mother continued to do what mothers of that era did, which is practically everything.
Walden Pond 1906
When Thoreau, Emerson, Alcott and a few others (including their families) moved to Walden Pond to set up a community that would follow the edicts of these great thinkers, the men spent the time in great debates, philosophizing about many aspects of life. They did not plant enough crops and the women worked very hard to try to support the colony. In the winter following their move to Walden, this community of “enlightened thinkers” almost starved from lack of effort in filling the pantries. Truth be known, Walden did not live up to its expectations. And neither did Thoreau.
Alar Jurma, Montreal, Canada
It always gets my attention when you write about the “artist” rather than the “sticks and stones” part of painting because a thousand monkeys painting for a thousand years will still never paint that (so-called) “masterpiece.” I know because I’ve tried! The “conveyance of feeling” is paramount in all art, to be sure, because it’s in the realm of “feeling” that our own divinity exists. The process of painting seems to me to be one of “reduction” and “simplification” as we try to get to the pure essence of the feeling, which is evoked by what we see. And I think to pull it off properly requires a well- honed or “subtle” intellect and which each one of us has to struggle with in our work to achieve. If our mind is just a little too bent or a little too rusty, then our creative expression suffers proportionately. And once again, finding and resorting to that inner silence within ourselves, by whatever method we prefer, will always be the “way of the artist.” And no matter how interesting or evocative a place may be, if there’s nobody around to notice it, then it would be like begging the time-honored question: “If a tree falls in a forest with no one around, does it make a sound?” The correct answer of course is, yes it does make a sound! But, who cares? In other words, we need that metaphysical wizard; the “artist” in society to transmute what is commonplace and ordinary into a more meaningful and heightened human experience. It’s actually just another type of “team-effort” I think, and therefore a lot like hockey, but maybe with a little more “spiritual purpose” behind it.
I live here in my heart
Pamela Simpson, New England, USA
I have just returned from a three-week trip to my favorite place, Monhegan Island, off the coast of Maine. We brought all the children for the first week and I was delighted to find that a few of them felt it was their special place also. After being there one day our 11-year-old artist daughter said, “When I was on the beach this morning, if anyone asked me if I lived here I would have had to say yes because I live here in my heart.” I feel I live there in my heart too and I am looking forward to seeing what my hand and my heart will express about this place over time.
Wallace Stegner, 1909-1993
Jack Grant, Great Falls, Montana, USA
I’m glad that you finally quoted Wallace Stegner, one of my favorite writers. Author of The Big Rock Candy Mountain and many other books and essays. He is the great conservationist author of Western USA. An itinerant childhood with his wanderlust family took him at one time to Great Falls, Montana, where, for a while as a kid he mowed the lawn of Charles Russell.
(RG note) Several artists wrote to say that Wallace Stegner was among their favorite authors. Donna Jo Massie and Bob Sandford thankfully put me on to him. A common theme in all of Stegner’s works is the idea of place and home. He explores questions such as how does one develop a sense of identity, purpose, civilization, along with a sense of home, in a country where discontinuity dominates. His central theme is the quest for identity, personal and regional, artistic and cultural.
A force of energy
When the student is ready the teachers will come. I met an artist who spends many hours alone at a place on the shore building rock upon rock. He is visited and watched by people from all around the world. I had been jogging on the seawall. I wasn’t going to go around the entire path, however I was open to the idea. I was being brave. I had nearly completed my run when I saw the work. I was amazed at the height of one of these sculptures and also the number of sculptures. This man gave off an energy that startled me. I felt a surge of energy pulsing through and around each individual rock that sat upon another as if reaching for the sky. It seemed as though the force of energy of the rocks exuded its material presence. I told the man that I thought what he did was beautiful. I looked at him straight in the eyes. I don’t know if I could describe this moment with words, but it seemed important to me — perhaps because I made it so. I wanted to shake his hand (I was curious to know what it would feel like). This man is special. He knows how to harness something.
Taking a new look at the home town
Carol Hama Chang, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
It IS amazing how strangers will find beauty in something that the locals have all but overlooked. I can wager that their artists can tromp all the way to our hometowns and find beauty. Isn’t that always the case? The trick is to view our hometowns through the… eyes of foreigners.
Steve Bloom, United Kingdom
I remember traveling up Borneo’s Sekonya River with my cameras to photograph orangutans. I can still remember the smell of the clean air and the soft light in the morning. Sadly only days after I left there was a forest fire and the destruction to the area wildlife was horrendous. I never saw the inferno that followed, but heard stories about a bleak and charred landscape — not the warm and gentle forest that I remember. It made me realize how transient everything is, and how important it is for me, as a photographer, to waste no time in photographing what I see and feel.
Information on studio lighting
Can you tell me what is the best overall studio lighting after natural light? I’m converting a small single-car garage to a studio and have put in skylights but need advice on what’s best for nighttime painting. Some say halogen tracks — some say one big fluorescent… can you help?
(RG note) I don’t recommend fluorescents. When you have your skylight installed try picking up some halogens that closely copy the color temperature of the natural light at mid day. Recently I’ve switched to the less expensive and more available screw-in halogens. Having said that, there is still quite a variation between individual bulbs. Night or day it’s a good idea to have the main easel light source mounted directly on the easel. Many artists these days are talking about and investing in Ott Lighting. It’s an expensive but purportedly perfect studio light source. Ott technology can be found at http://www.ott-lite.com A previous discussion about studio matters, including lighting, can be found at http://painterskeys.com/studiotips/
Art must remain free
There once was a young artist in Europe who felt much the same way as Julie and Betty (in your previous responses). This artist could not understand the art that was being done and could not understand why his own work was not accepted. He worked diligently to succeed; in fact he became very famous and finally accomplished many of his goals. He even opened up many of his own art galleries and commissioned grand pieces of art to furnish his new galleries. Around that same time another man was working hard to bring art to new heights, it was part of his grand scheme to create a better world. What were the names of these two men? Well, the first we all know too well — his name was “Hitler” and the second was named “Stalin.” The lessons that we have learned from the past tell us that art must remain free; indeed creativity must be flexible in order to be genuine. On to my second point. Why are artists so angry? I think it is because they do not have enough opportunities to succeed — simply put, there’s just not enough support for struggling artists, financially and emotionally. How can this be changed? Perhaps established artists could work to bring visual art to a new height? Make it as glamorous as the music industry maybe? I would like to hear what other artists think should be done to make the job of being an artist a less difficult one. Any ideas?
Me and my art
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, 2002. That includes Stephen Quiller of Creede, Colorado who says, “Most of the time a subject chooses me rather than me choosing the subject. It reaches out and grabs me.” June Raabe of Ladysmith, British Columbia who says, “When something inspires me I rush to grab it, to snatch it before it is gone, convey the juice of it, the essence, the heady aroma of the emotion.” And Karen Cole of Santa Fe, New Mexico who says, ” ‘What shall I paint?’ I once asked this question to another artist. She answered, ‘I guess almost everything has been painted, so maybe it’s how you paint it.’ ”
Finding a sense of place
One knows it in their natural being
A matter of accepting and releasing
Quiet contemplation could
Like-minded people could
A good laugh, friendship, failure
Please, please only the creative spirit
A privilege that we choose what we want to do today