My last letter about different types of happiness jingled the studio inbox pretty steadily on Tuesday. For example, Bob Young of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, wrote, “I know by experience that art-making is a conduit to something higher than workaday life — but I’m finding it harder and harder to overcome depression about the low status of my day job and the low status of visual artists. It’s not just that painters are viewed with some contempt; increasingly, our work just isn’t viewed at all. Look at the entertainment section of any newspaper. It will have articles on just about every other art form but painting. It seems that painting is terminally ill or dead. At age 42, I have the typical dream of wanting to build a full-time career as a painter, but I’m increasingly pessimistic about that ever happening. The work may be meaningful, but it seems you need a monk’s or nun’s vow of poverty and hardship to engage in it.”
As is my habit, I put down my brush and wrote to Bob Young: “There’s a possibility that you may be using too many of the wrong words: “Poverty, hardship, pessimistic, workaday, depression, low status, contempt, ill, dead.”
Then, within a minute, this letter came in from Jane Champagne of Southampton, Ontario, Canada: “Before Martin Seligman et al there was Victor Frankl, a German psychiatrist who spent most of WWII in an internment camp. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he wrote that everything was taken from him except his power to change the way he felt. In such terrible circumstances he realized that the simple act of changing his vocabulary — the words he used in thinking — was enough to change his attitude, his feelings and his sense of being an individual who loved and was loved. This, he concluded, was why he survived when stronger men didn’t. His book has affected thousands of lives, mine included. When I despair that my painting isn’t going anywhere — you know: ‘What ever made me think I was a painter?’ — I change my thinking-words: ‘What made me a painter?’ Let me count the ways.”
These two artists are practically neighbors. They should meet. They have now. What a medium. Let me count the ways, indeed.
PS: “The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering the attitudes of his mind.” (William James)
Esoterica: I rather like the idea of “thought police.” Many of us maintain our own precincts. The constable on duty stands guard against the moles that undermine our temples. He arrests those who would steal our potential. He runs surveillance on what comes out of our mouths and gives warnings to the unruly felons of our heads. The wise among us pay attention to his ticketing.
The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
Click here to go to the template page of desirable words
One word difference
That and the previous letter about the different types of happiness opened the door to some incredibly important information: The need and the way to change a negative attitude, so that you can live a meaningful life. The thought that a man, imprisoned during WWll, survived by the sheer will to change his attitude speaks volumes. It seems to me a worthy life-long pursuit is to create your way toward a workable attitude. This includes looking at hard experiences in your life and coming to terms with them, as well as to find something good in an adverse memory or situation. A mere word can make the difference between acceptance and rejection. What a difference a word makes.
As a man thinketh
“As a man thinketh in his heart so is he… a man shall be satisfied (receive, eat) the fruit of his own lips!” Those are from the bible but true too is the kid’s saying: “What you say is what you are.” Ah, our lives are our mind’s canvas…our words are our paints and our attitudes are our brushes. I am a much richer person for painting. I’ve gained so much including an ability to see like never before. The joy I revel in at times from a painter’s eyes cannot be bought or achieved through counseling. I am not as good as the artist I will be tomorrow. I have enthusiasm for the future and a will to create that keeps my blood flowing and my heart beating. I am wealthy indeed.
The editing of thoughts
Yes, we do need to edit our thoughts, and not just for vocabulary. I have learned that I had to edit my expectations. Sure, it would be lovely to quit the day job and do art full time — but I wouldn’t be able to survive. So you take what you love and do it as best you can, when you can. It’s not that you’re lowering your expectations, just that you’re cramming as much of your passion into your life as you have room for. I remind myself, too, that what I desire is not necessarily what would ultimately be the best thing for me. Perhaps I get more from my day job than I realize (besides income); perhaps I need the company of the folks I work with, and perhaps I’d be paralyzed in the studio without that interaction. Who knows? I believe a higher power does, and trust that this is as good as it gets, right here, right now. We have the tools — we just need to seize them.
The mystery of such happiness
Susan-Rose Slatkoff, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
I started painting when I was 15, but around 26 I took detours through poetry, professional acting, and later on in life 20 years as a psychotherapist (which I still claim to this day is far more art form and spiritual dance than science). Seven years ago, when I was doing a three month residential Yoga Development Course, my painting came back to me through my spiritual explorations. I began to journal through paintings. Today I have retired from being a therapist and am now a full-time artist, because nothing brings me into the flow of life and Spirit the way painting does. My painting is my prayer. Whether my works are good, bad, or indifferent, the process brings me such happiness. Why this is so is a mystery.
Long term blessings
Karen Fitzgerald, Queens, NY, USA
My response to the gentleman who was so disparaging about his menial job and his invisibility as an artist was similar to the other artists’ response. And I also thought this: during this time it is more important than ever to think outside of the creative box. Think of ways you can be creative within your immediate community. The more artists work to bring the public to art, the more support we’ll have for what we do. Advocacy may take generations to change the culture of indifference towards artists. Sort of like planting a black walnut grove: these trees mature so slowly, but when they are finally 80 feet tall and producing copious quantities of nuts for the world, what a blessing that they stand together doing so.
Refocused on attainable goal
Linda K. Blondheim, FL, USA
About a year ago I came to the realization that I was never going to be a nationally recognized painter but that I could set the goal of being a successful regional painter. I stopped chasing my impossible goals, which were depressing me and started refocusing on my beloved South. I paint in Georgia, Florida and Alabama, en plein air. I am much happier now and more focused on my work instead of what everyone else thinks.
Rewire the brain
Karen Phinney, Bedford, Nova Scotia, Canada
The idea of changing our thinking is important to me right now. Through meditation, I have managed to eliminate a lot of self-destructive thoughts. It has helped enormously in my self-confidence and my attitude towards others. However, the idea that we can actually change those well-worn paths in the brain that self-doubt, fear and anger have grooved, is a revolutionary one to many. I need to be reminded of it now and again! I need to use it more in the service of my painting, which does not get done as much as I would like! I’ve met with a group of creative women. Several of them were also making the usual complaint that they need to get away from the seductions of the dishes, phone, etc. It’s a common problem. We need to rewire the brain to work the creative outlet. It needs time just like other more mundane tasks.
A positive statement that worked
Jo Ann Naylor
I have “artistic doubts” sometime and because of this decided to write a positive statement about my desires. I wrote: “Think and act as if you are a professional artist!” I posted it over my drafting table. Within 2 weeks, I found out about a suite that was for sub-lease by an old friend of mine, and it was affordable. I rented it as my studio. It is right downtown with lots of foot traffic. My other studio had been way out in the country and was very inconvenient. With my new one I have room for a small gallery and can open it on the weekends. It is working out very well and I am painting more. I really believe that the statement I wrote played a big part in all that happened. I plan to retire from my other work in 2006 and to be supported by my painting sales by or before that.
The joy of anger
For the creative process class I teach to students in art, theatre, writing, moving image and art therapy, I first read your email. And I reconnect with how I was feeling last night before I went to bed. . . more akin to the first writer’s sense of discouragement, although in my case it took the form of a generalized anger with everything. It’s important to be comfortable, ie have room for, all the feelings. Get to know in myself, oh here’s this anger now, welcome anger, you’re part of me and the world, just as much as the more satisfying feelings expressed in the second quotations. I’m always careful not to try to apply one feeling over another as a cover up. It does become a creative act when the darker one gets transformed into the one with more light and room about it, but it’s important not to just cover it up.
Separate pride from price
Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, Florida, USA
I think it’s much more difficult for men to trust their commitment to art, than for women. At least for my generation (I’m 55). When I was growing up there was no expectation from teachers or parents or myself that I would ever make much money. The choices that were offered to me were limited; teach, type, be a nurse, or wait until Prince Charming came along to buy me a house. I never tied my sense of self-worth to my income. It was easy for me to celebrate the completion of a really fine piece of work no matter how much money it would sell for. But I’ve seen my male artist-friends set themselves up for disappointment by pricing their work too high. When I was younger, I couldn’t make any sense of it when great painters took menial jobs to support themselves (and their families) while their beautiful paintings (with ego-stroking astronomical price tags) gathered dust in the studio. Because my sense of self-worth had nothing to do with how much money I made, it was much easier to set my prices at a realistic level. It may be different now. The pressure to make big bucks right away may be just as intense for young women as young men. But I still think the best advice for artists is to separate pride from price.
Knowing we are not alone
One of the best ways to stay on track is to communicate with other artists. Your letter is one way of doing that. Knowing that we are not alone in the way we feel is half the battle. Working together as artists, building a career, can be another option. I belong to a group that has come together to showcase their art and is dedicated to “make it out there” by strength in numbers. Going it alone is often an expensive endeavor and a terribly time consuming one at that. By distributing tasks and building on individual strength in marketing, scouting, accounting etc. we feel we can get somewhere more effectively.
Inside an angry world
We are given a gift to express, the ability to create is our gift. If we do not use it then we are lost inside an angry world. When I paint all my emotions come through with colors, lines and shapes. When I am done I can see what I feel inside. We are lucky enough to have this gift to see our emotions, through a medium of our choice. Life is filled with choices. If we choose to think the world is out to get us then yes that is what we will get. If we choose to think that we are not good enough, then we will feel depressed. If we choose to let what others say and do affect us, then we feel angry, sad, every emotion on the planet comes with how we feel. But we can also look upon life as a short and timely gift.
Thank you for today’s letter… I needed to read exactly this about the thought police… a change of vocabulary in my mind and what comes out of my mouth… I know this works because I’ve done this before when tormented, only to pop out of the torment when I changed my thinking. I absolutely know it works. So many times your words are exactly what I need to read.
It’s a wonderful life
Dianne Middleton, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
It is easy to feel down-trodden in producing original art, tremendous inner strength to persevere in your work. It’s agonizing. “Who will appreciate my work?” And is the toil worth it? Look what an appliance repairman makes per hour. Any private or public service employee doing any type of menial job. What does drive us to do what we are gifted to do? All an artist needs is someone out there who sees value in what you have to offer in your creative work. This in turn feeds your inner being with such energy that soon — you’re on a roll! Adding joy to people’s lives is such wealth, and a little money to yours. It’s a wonderful life!
We are hurting
I am an artist of Iraq. For obvious reasons you must not include my address or name. Not a minute goes by here without the feeling of insecurity caused by one other country. My father was shot dead by Americans in the southern desert. My uncle was ploughed under the sand by American bulldozers. We are now, with my mother and sister, a house of children and young men. Every day and night we look to the sky and wonder when the Americans will come again. I do not know whether we in Iraq have any big bombs. Maybe we do, but here in this home we know of only a few guns to defend ourselves. We are very poor. We have pawned or sold everything of value that we once had. I cannot have paint and must only draw. We are hurting. There are no antibiotics in our hospital. We are human beings who are isolated and angry, and we can do nothing about our situation, our geography or our bad luck. We do not want to dislike or fear the Americans any more than we now do.
Me and My Art
Barbara Kennedy, Seattle, WA, USA
Clinton “Bassie” Fearon
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