The way I look at it a work of art requires the presence of two spirits. The first is the spirit of the subject matter — the object or thing that the work is based on — Nature’s spirit. The second is the spirit or interpretation that the artist brings to the object — the unique style or manner that only the individual artist can give. Subject matter alone — the slavish copying of nature — does not make art. But art also falls short, in my opinion, when it doesn’t lean to some degree on the stimuli of place or subject.
Up here in the mountains I’m realizing that the dual spirit methodology is no better exemplified than in the work of Lawren Harris (1885-1970). He was a founding member of Canada’s Group of Seven and a life-long student of art and the world of self-discovery. By the time he came west to the Rockies he was into spiritualism and drifting toward Theosophy. Influenced by the Nordic school, art deco, and symbolism, Harris’s mountain paintings honour and monumentalize his feelings about Nature. Dual spirit requires that the artist see and feel the environment. In Harris’s case, his location pencil sketches began to redesign and simplify basic elements and forms. Back in the studio there was to be another step in his creative process: His paintings developed in a realistic manner, but were often quite unlike any particular view that might be seen in the outdoors. Attempts to find some of Harris’s actual mountain locations have been futile, and so they should be. Art is not what is seen, but what is to be seen.
For Harris, abstraction was just around the corner. Indeed, during the last ten years of his life when I knew him, he struggled daily with shapes and designs that bore no resemblance to reality. But they were enigmatic of the spirit he felt for wind, tumult, energy, elevation, placidity, and his lifelong concern, spiritual awakening.
PS: “The primary function of art is not to imitate or represent or interpret, but to create a living thing; It is the reduction of all life to a perfectly composed and dynamic miniature — a microcosm where there is perfect balance of emotion and intellect, stress and strain resolving itself, form rhythmically poised in three dimensions. So long as painting deals with objective nature, it is an impure art, for recognizability precludes the highest aesthetic emotion. All painting, ancient or modern, moves us aesthetically only in so far as it possesses a force over and beyond its aspect.” (Lawren Harris)
Esoterica: As a lot of readers will not be familiar with Harris’s work we’ve included some examples below. An excellent book that describes and illustrates his thought and methodology is A Hikers Guide to the Rocky Mountain Art of Lawren Harris, by Lisa Christensen.
Lawren Harris 1885-1970
by Lorna Dockstader, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
“The Group of Seven in Western Canada” is the show that is currently at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta. This is the national tour premiere and the details regarding this show can be found at www.glenbow.org. As a Canadian living in the west, I feel very strongly connected to the spirit of the mountains that has been captured by Harris. Their energy and his continues to live on in his paintings. While viewing some of them on Sunday I was flooded by such a strong surge of spirituality that it moved me to tears. Even in some of his abstractions the rhythm of the mountain forms are present — they are something to be felt as well as to be seen. Harris’s paintings are to me, what it means to be a Canadian.
(RG note) Lorna was the winner of the “Free Workshop in Brittany Contest.”
External influences becoming less important
by Jack Meredith, Sydney, Australia
Regarding your view that a painting needs to be based on reality. Perhaps you are right. I used to think that Jack too, but in the last 12 months my work has really veered into abstraction so that the subject has become the painting itself. The painting is now a complete end in itself and doesn’t bear much relationship to anything external to it. I’m sure there ARE external influences but within my paintings, they are becoming less and less unimportant.
Articulate the emotion
by Olinda Everett, Sao Paulo, Brazil
The dualities in the activity of making art are endless. I suppose not all apply to everyone, but some do, such as the conjunction of inarticulate form with aesthetic form, or the idea and the artifact. The emotion that we feel when looking at a landscape or a flower, has an independent source from the landscape or the flower itself. It has its source deep inside us. I suppose wanting to paint is about articulating that emotion in some way. And you choose your method. You apply your dexterity. The artistic bit happens as you manage to plug into the original impulse. The problem is that the aesthetic complications, the manipulation of media, so often become too challenging for the thread to remain active; or other preoccupations intrude in the process. Such as ‘my friend will not like this’ or you worry that the overall tone of the work does not match general interior decoration! Well, I speak for myself, naturally, and this is why I paint in hiding or only among strangers.
Better a bold mistake than a timid mark
by Mary Moody, Saskatchewan, Canada
I just returned from a week’s watercolour painting class at the Emma Lake, Kenderdine Campus of The University of Saskatchewan. This was my fourth class there and was a great experience as always, spending a week with a dozen or so avid painters, getting great instruction from Chris Lynn, enjoying a beautiful lake and forest. A number of people saw a fox family and everyone heard the owls one night. The meals were superb, too. Getting away from the city seems to release latent creativity as does seeing other people’s work in progress and hearing critiques. I thought often of Brian Ateyo’s advice to “Make a mark.” To me it meant: “Don’t be timid or tentative.” I’m happiest when my work is forceful and spontaneous, rather than tentative and wishy-washy. I would rather see a bold mistake than a timid mark. I also had good luck using Brian’s pallet following a class he gave in Saskatoon in May. Having a limited but beautiful pallet I was familiar with, simplifies the process, even if I replace a few colours (Cerulean blue is out!)
Thoughts for Kim Wyatt
by Theresa Bayer
Just do your art and forget about marketing it. You can always find somebody else to do the marketing, but you can’t find somebody else to do the art. Life is short. Concentrate on the art. Make whatever changes in your lifestyle are necessary according to your health problem and accept them, so you will learn to manage your illness. When negativity starts creeping up, and it will during moments of sheer frustration, absolutely refuse it, because it is a huge drain on your energy. Simplify and streamline your life as much as possible. There are many extraneous things you can let go of and you will gradually come to know what they are.
by Russell W. McCrackin, Corvallis, OR, USA
Kim Wyatt’s note started me thinking back over my 76 years. Forty some years ago I ruined my back lifting too much weight. I bruised my heels twenty some years ago, 100 miles into a long backpacking trip in the Sierras. Eighteen years ago I met my wife. Arthritis in my hands and knees visited me about ten years ago. Asthma sneaked in about 3 years ago. Yes, each of these has an effect on my daily activities. I take my medications. We travel. I paint. I enjoy life.
by Karl Dempwolf, Los Angeles, California, USA
Reading the letter by Leslie Jackson was an experience similar to many of Robert Genn’s letters. I thought I was reading something from a journal written during the renaissance. Deep inside of me I keep saying yes that is how I feel, I agree with that, but why do I find it so hard to express those same thoughts in my own words? I’ll just keep quiet and keep painting, and as many of us seekers of truth and beauty, I’ll enjoy the artistic life of chasing beauty right here in Los Angeles.
(RG note) Every once in a while an artist will write and express a deep-felt feeling in a particularly beautiful or vivid way. Leslie’s letter was one of them. When this sort of thing happens we feel it necessary to print even a long letter in full. Here’s another:
by Julie Sawyer
I like some of the different styles, but a lot of our modern art is just CRAP! Some of it looks like scribbling that toddlers make. Excuse my words, but too many artists have no creativity or true art skills and are selling art and making tons of money for what a slug could create on a sidewalk after a rain. I can’t believe people put out money for junk like that. And then the artist will feed them a line of CRAP just to justify and convince the buyers that it is art.
Realistic, in your opinion, are paintings that are detailed and photo-like in nature, I’m assuming. You advised a man once, (April 16, 2002) because “they appear to be photographically derived without having a distinct feeling or style that sets them apart from the vast number of folks who copy photos.” I thought his paintings were great and were not that photo-like. He paints what he sees and probably feels that it’s beautiful, in his eyes.
Then today’s letter got to me again. You said: “The second is the spirit or interpretation that the artist brings to the object — the unique style or manner that only the individual artist can give.” Everyone interprets what they see differently, I’m sure we all agree on that. And some of us see more than others and if we paint it, that is great too. The difference between what you see and paint and what I may see and paint shouldn’t be compared as one better than the other.
What I’m getting at is that loose and more abstract painters tend to tell tight and more realistic painters they should paint like them. I had a teacher that tried to get me to change and when I tried, I was very unhappy and everything I did looked horrible, it was not me. Then I met an artist who painted more like I did and he does very well for himself. You may think his art is too photo like, but take a look and tell me what you think. https://peterrgerbert.com/
“Subject matter alone — the slavish copying of nature — does not make art.” If we were to actually copy nature, we’d take a photo and that would be that, a photo! But we paint all that we see and we do see all the great detail in our subject and that is what stimulates us. The beauty in all the detail is what make our hearts beat and we want to put that in our work for those who might see it! There is nothing wrong with the way we interpret that in our paintings, whether they look photo-like or not!
There are times that I have been so overwhelmed by the beauty of what God has created that I feel I cannot paint it, because I could never do it justice. I get too intimidated by its sheer beauty so I just stare in awe!!
Some of the greatest artworks have been realistic paintings that have stood the test of time and are classic pieces that will continue to awe its viewers. I see very little of that type of work today and it would be nice to see us return to quality art like this again! We have newer subject matter these days to inspire us to create art unlike the past, but with the classic styles that truly define art!
Here are some articles to defend my views and to enlighten you and other artists!
The Reluctant Death of Modernism
Artists advocate return to classics
This is one we all could scream about, we can’t let it go on like this!! I knew a lot of this stuff was going on, but after reading this, I just was more shocked! We must rise up and do something to end it all. It gives a bad name for those of us who do legitimate art.
When Art Becomes Inhuman
Nature and Creativity
by Joe Blodgett
What you’re getting at is the dichotomy between the marvellous diversity, proliferation and amorphous quality of Nature — and the legitimate desire of creative men and women to reorganize, simplify or add spiritual values to their own satisfaction. Philosophically, this is praiseworthy, and Lawren Harris was a great exponent of it.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 100 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002, including Frank Bales from Staunton, VA who says, “Robert it seems to me that you have forgotten the spirit of the viewer. If there is no one to view the art, how spiritual can it be?”
And Jennifer Seymour who writes, “Seems you have many traveling artists among your readers. I recommend: http://www.studiopack.com It’s a company that specializes in art transport products, mostly backpacks.