Yesterday, Linda Flaherty of Fort Dodge, Iowa, wrote, “Recently, I found myself weeping before a self-portrait I was working on. Suddenly it was as if I actually saw myself. It was like looking at a portrait of someone I knew who no longer existed. I told no one about my crying. Is this a common experience? I’ve felt exaltation, disgust, delight, comfort, and all kinds of other emotions, but this was a first. What was happening?”
Thanks, Linda. I, too, have cried during portraits, self and otherwise, and not just because my work was lousy. Unexplainable outbursts are often from a flood of generalized emotion — perhaps about something going on in your life — that may have been building and suddenly finds release. Or it may be, as you say, a connection with someone who has aged, changed, or even passed on. In portrait work it can certainly happen when the likeness suddenly pops through and recognition occurs. I call this one “internal emotional applause.” It’s a very fine feeling, and maybe it’s inexcusable.
Through all my bawling experiences I’ve separated tears of joy from tears of sadness. Joy being the more frequent, the tearful event sometimes happens outdoors when conditions are near perfect and the work is going somewhat well. One is overcome by feelings of blessed disbelief. “How come it is me who is getting away with this?”
Most deadly is the combination of painting and music. I’ve flicked tears during Stravinsky’s Danse Russe, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and most recently Una furtiva lagrima from The Elixir of Love by Gaetano Donizetti as sung by Luciano Pavarotti. We’ve put the video at the bottom of this letter so you can test your own ducts.
Some folks never cry. Some others, perhaps the hypersensitive or even the depressed, cry at the drop of a brush. For those who can cry, I say, be proud. Humanity is in your tears.
Recently, someone asked what might be the most important words that an artist needs to know. My answer was based on what I think are the most important words everyone should know. They are love, joy, desire, empathy, kindness and excitement. Tears come to your eyes with the manifestation of those words, and artists stand a good chance of getting more than their fair share.
PS: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” (Robert Frost)
Esoterica: I had tears last weekend in Canada’s National Gallery. I was by myself in the room where the Group of Seven sketches are exhibited en mass behind glass. I always return to that room when in Ottawa. It’s like looking up old friends. Curiously, some of those sketches always seem better than the last time, and some others don’t seem as fine as I remembered. This recognition and its incumbent pathos trigger a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood, an understanding of my own shortcomings as well as a feeling of profound aloneness. Of the gentlemen exhibited there, only their strokes remain, and somehow, after all these years, those strokes draw tears.
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
I know what you mean by “profound aloneness.” Images of people or visible artist’s marks do it for me. Measuring up of an individual against the grand — eternity, humankind, universe. Traces of presence in things that are dead. Resonance with something absent, that we know of as live and dear. The resonance is one of the intriguing mysteries of science. Nikola Tesla is a national hero where I come from, and his experiments are still considered futuristic and inexplicable. I think of the process of portraiture as of releasing life from materials. It picks up the lifeline resonance by artist’s ability to accurately strike the right cord. There is no feeling like seeing a pale face emerge from the paper, layer by layer, trying to say something to me. I don’t paint the eyes until the very end — I don’t think I could bear their stare. There is always a sense of love, sorrow and betrayal in a finished portrait. As if I have enticed the image, but failed to fulfill a promise.
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by Dianne Clowes, BC, Canada
I can’t say I have ever cried while painting or looking at art. But music can do it. But what surprised me about doing portraits is how intimate I become with the subject — even if it’s from a photo and I never met the person. So much of their personality shows up (especially under a magnifying glass) I feel I know them very well.
I can readily understand why Linda broke into tears. We don’t usually scrutinize ourselves to that extent and I’m sure she saw herself as others do? Or — as you said — didn’t see who she expected to see due to — aging (THAT would do it!) — or more likely saw herself from the outside in rather than the other way around. So much more depth shows than we realize, I think. It should be a good thing!
Recalling family features
by Paul Massing, Amelia Island, FL, USA
No tears, but I recalled images of the men in my family as I painted a portrait of my son. The “recalls” were of fond remembrances of them. As I worked and toiled to obtain my son’s likenesses, the brush strokes in the facial expressions took on the likenesses of various family men. It amazed me that visual likenesses of them appeared as I worked. First, was of an uncle whom I had not thought about since his passing of many years. I then saw an expression of my father followed by grandfather and then of my brother. It was interesting how the changes that I put on the canvas evoked those memories. The final touches caught the likeness I felt was certainly my son’s only. “Jack, the Art Guy” setting out to go fishing is attached.
by Veronica Funk, Airdrie, AB, Canada
On a particularly memorable occasion, I wept in the shower as an image sprang vividly to my mind. It is a painting that I will create someday but don’t feel ready at this time… it is so much bigger than me. Just to think of it brings tears to my eyes. I have wept at the Winnipeg Art Gallery when I stepped into a room filled with Lawren Harris’ large canvases; I felt the undeniable presence of God. Tears sprung to my eyes when surrounded by the forest paintings of Emily Carr at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, and the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe at the Vancouver Art Gallery. And each time that I have wept, it has felt like a cleansing to me and I feel blessed to be the carrier of such strong emotion, to be an artist.
by Liz Holm, Frederick, MD, USA
There is currently an exhibit in NYC at MoMA that is bringing viewers to tears. People line up to sit one by one in front of the artist, Marina Abramovic, in silence, and “see” her… a living portrait. It’s become a bit of a phenomenon with folks lining up all day to sit across from her, and many are moved to tears. Cameras at MoMA have caught beautiful portraits of the viewers. I think when we truly look, and find something beautiful in others or in nature, we tap into some moment of truth or grace within ourselves. Not easy to do in a frenetic, bustling world, but reassuring when it happens.
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by Catherine Stock, France
A few years ago, I painted my friend and neighbor, Henry, for practice. I was very pleased with the portrait, but the family wasn’t impressed enough to consider acquiring it. Last year, a friend of the family came to see my gallery, spotted the portrait, and asked whether it was for sale. I hesitated, finally turning to find the woman dissolved in tears. It turned out that Henry was terminally ill, and suddenly the portrait had taken on heightened esteem and value. I don’t think I have ever had such affirmation of one of my pieces.
Most art is porn
by Angela Treat Lyon, Kailua, Hawaii, USA
This makes me think of Joseph Campbell, who described most art as ‘pornographic:’ not that it featured anyone who was being taken advantage of sexually (or otherwise) in content of the work, but in that it made you want to possess it.
He felt that ‘true art’ was beyond possession. I remember him saying that he felt that art that created what he called ‘aesthetic arrest’ — that heart-stopping, beyond-weeping, deep-to-the-soul connection that absolutely rips away your awareness of your surroundings and makes you dive into that Place Within and stop there and BE and feel — that was the only ‘real’ art.
In the late ’70s I attended a 3-day lecture series of his, and he showed ‘real art’ on slides every 30 to 60 seconds throughout the entire 3 days — it was staggering.
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Pictures & Tears
by Mary Beth Frezon, Brainard, NY, USA
There’s a great little book: Pictures & Tears by James Elkins that explores our responses to art and especially a tearful response. It’s a wonderful read about how to look at art and awareness of your responses. I found the suggestions by Mr. Elkins very helpful in slowing me down when at exhibits and keeping me conscious of my reactions to things I’m looking at and spending time with. Since reading this I enjoy repeat meetings with those old friends on exhibit and go more “with my gut” in choosing what to spend time with as I move around looking at pieces on display.
by Linda Muttitt, Fort Langley, BC, Canada
When I was painting for a show, I had this strong need to paint robin’s eggs in a nest, and for no particular reason that I was aware of then. My Mom crossed my mind several times while I was painting it, but in a casual, “Ah… Mom always loved robins so much” matter- of-fact way. And that was about it. So, I moved the brush, tenderly stroked those blues on the eggs, built up the colours on the nest, and then when I was finished, sat down to look at it, as I always do when I finish a piece. To my surprise, I was overcome with emotion — a rush of soft, tender Mom-memories; all the ways she held me safe and warm and loved; her patient, brooding times as I was growing up under her care; and the title for the painting that came to me suddenly, and so clearly: ‘Upheld.’ The flood of tears was totally surprising, but quite wonderful, as I felt my mother so close to me again — alive and cooing over the sweetness of the robin that built a nest above her back door. We were together, watching that mother robin again, taking all the time and energy needed to protect and raise her young.
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Hyperventilating over Gauguin
by Toni Cappel, Raleigh, NC, USA
I found the tearful reaction to art very interesting because I have a very difficult time allowing that kind of emotion to happen in myself. However, my art was so very influenced by Gauguin that I had to stop even looking at his work or it seemed to flow from somewhere in me right out my arm and into my brush. It seemed that everyone who came into my studio would immediately say” Oh, these paintings remind me of Gauguin.” This feeling became more evident when I went to the Musee D’orsey. As we got closer and closer to the Expressionists I could feel a quickening of my breathing, and a very heightened sense of emotion (even writing this I feel it) and just as we got to the first painting by my favorite painter, tears began to fill my eyes. One of my friends was surprised but not as much as I was. It felt like an “out of body” kind of reaction that I had no control over. Later I went to a show of the Expressionist at the National Gallery in Washington, DC and I began to hyperventilate as I saw Gauguin’s work in person again.
I have heard people say that they think music can evoke an emotional response but that the visual arts do not; but I disagree. When someone who does not cry easily cannot control that kind of visceral reaction then anyone should have the capacity to feel deeply. The subject may vary but I don’t believe that the reaction can be held back.
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by Sharon Cory, Winnipeg, MB, Canada
I’m an unabashed weeper, at all kinds of emotional moments. Some of them are to be expected, like looking at photos of the kids when they were little, or seeing a tragic news story and feeling helpless to change the outcome. But I remember being in the Guggenheim 40 years ago, looking at a Helen Frankenthaler and a Mark Rothko, and being overwhelmed by the power of the non-images. I felt foolish when my eyes teared up, but over the years it happened so many times, I stopped being embarrassed. The first time I went to the Orsay and saw a Gauguin and a Van Gogh up close, seeing Seurat’s Sunday at Grand Jatte in Chicago, Riopelle in Montreal, Tom Thomson’s work in many galleries. Too many times to list and so many other moments looking at unheralded genius, discovered in small streets on vacation. If I had to peg what makes me cry, it would be seeing the physical evidence of a human touch on paper or canvas, imagining their anxiety, their tears, even their blood (Van Gogh). What did that artist live through to get this result and to make me feel a spiritual connectedness to them through that evidence. I feel that too when I look at your work… I imagine you out in the forest with your dog, maybe listening to music, packing things up for the day. When I look at Art, I see a life!
I’ve cried at my own work too, usually in frustration, because it’s so hopelessly inadequate compared to what I wanted to achieve. But usually I’m feeling better by the morning and it doesn’t look so bad. I hope I’ll always be able to cry when I’m looking at Art. If the tears stop, I’ll know I’m dead.
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Du Haut des Bas
oil painting by
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 Dorothy Sherwood of Sarasota, FL, USA, who wrote, “Holy Moses – tearfully, I just went through a box of Kleenex!!!”
And also Brian Knowles of the USA, who wrote, “I used to break down and cry when I heard the song Vincent by Don McLean. I strongly identified with the Lyrics and their subject. Now I weep inwardly when I think of the politics and costs of marketing my paintings.”
And also Kristi Bridgeman of Victoria, BC, Canada, who wrote, “It happens every so often when I work on my landscapes. At the moment when I realize a piece is complete and I lay down the strategically placed and decidedly final dab of paint….”
Enjoy the past comments below for A veil of tears…