There’s a possibility that artists may be more vulnerable to the slings and arrows than most people. Even the egocentric and bubbly among us can be sensitive and touchy. Personal failings as well as monetary and relationship problems lie heavily on us, affecting our mood-swings and the quality and energy we put into our creative and other life. In some cases, including mine, the result is spots of anger, irrational exuberance, minor paranoia.
Why? I think it’s partly to do with our aloneness. Creativity comes with a load of private responsibility. We dream, conceive, plan, assemble, execute, and often distribute — with little or no help from anyone. Two or three failures in a row, in lifemanship or in our art, can depress and cause a setback. It’s always seemed to me that a main part of our job is maintaining some sort of self-delusory defense. Call it what you will — attitude, habit, character. An admirable quality I often note in artists is the intelligent way they are able to deal with the ups and downs. Here are a few systems:
Confessional: It’s good to have someone to whom you can confess and share the deepest and most intimate feelings of concern. One needs a like-minded fellow traveler for this. A generic guru or hourly counselor will not do. The person must be “significant.” One of these as a friend is a treasure beyond rubies.
Work-therapy: No matter how low the ebb the immersion in actual work goes a long way toward the cure. It recranks the cycle, gives satisfaction to the hands and brain, and even if the results are less than perfect it reaffirms the primacy and individuality of the soul. A thought in mind, a tool in hand, and we are again lost in our own world.
Blessing-mentality: You may go to sleep counting your blessings, but it’s better to go to work counting them. When you can see your cup running over, it does.
If anyone has other ideas or methods, believe me, some of our readers would like to hear about them.
PS: “It has done me good to be parched by the heat and drenched by the rain of life.” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)
Esoterica: An area of vulnerability is the potential intimidation by those perceived to be more successful than ourselves. This worry is quickly routed when we step back from our smaller horizons and look at the big picture. It’s fun to keep in mind that Picasso was jealous of Braque, and Braque was jealous of Othon Friesz. (Who he?)
The following are selected responses to this letter. Thank you for writing.
Part of the circle
by Matt Haider, Victoria, BC, Canada
I think the problem of trying to create when in an unproductive mood can be overcome. I simply recharge my batteries by first bringing my painting to a halt and then using my daydreaming “skills.” I lose myself in a book on a struggling artist such as Van Gogh or any number of painters from the past. This helps me to remember that all these trials and tribulations are nothing new. Artists have always had to put up with unfair and “cliquey” juried shows (Monet, Pissarro), inspirational problems (Tom Thomson’s need to be outdoors), money problems (Sisley). In other words, just embrace the fact that there are the same worries now as there were 100 years ago and that we artists are, as my friend Dan Gray says, “part of the circle.” Just do your best work, stay focused, and maybe some poor, uninspired painter will read your story in 100 years!
(RG note) Matt wins a free copy of The Painter’s Keys for this letter. There are so many excellent letters coming in that we might almost publish all of them. My apologies to those artists who have not been included here. All letters, including partly quoted ones, are carefully archived for potential later use. Above all else I’m aware that an artist’s most precious commodity is time. I continue to feel it’s best to publish only ten or so selected letters in each clickback. Some artists write frequently and their names often reappear because what they have to say is valuable, funny, or insightful. Short, single point, and off the wall seem to be most appreciated by our immediate team. If you have ideas how this section of The Painter’s Keys can be improved, please let me know.
by Sven A. Anders, Trondheim, Norway, and NYC, NY, USA
Admiration can be a stabilizer. It is conducive to study and learning. When in a down-period, discovering a solution to a work-problem can turn everything around. Just knowing that you are working toward the same goal as a master painter is comforting. Jackson Pollock was jealous of Picasso, as was portrayed in the current motion picture Pollock. Jealousy is admiration with a mean twist. Doubt of one’s own ability. Anger at less appreciation for the work. Fear of unreachable goals. Pollock had a significant confidante, a like-minded fellow traveler, but he wasted the gift. He used alcohol to ride the ups and downs. He died violently in an alcoholic haze.
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
For me, daily writing first thing after I wake up functions as an inoculation against minor depression, and there’s nothing like finishing a good painting to cheer me up, even if I have to paint four hideous ones before the good one finally appears. In extreme circumstances self-medication (chocolate and red wine) can turn the emotional tide. Long walks and swimming laps for an hour in the middle of the night help me blow off steam and every once in a while the best thing I can do for myself is to spend a day watching movies. Good deeds work, too. A few hours doing portraits over at the hospital E.R. and giving them away always helps to put things back in perspective for me.
Have a show
by David Lloyd Glover, Nevada, USA
What characters we must be to survive as artists. In my former life I was a happy collaborator working with talented artists, designers, writers and concept people. So how do you survive the aloneness of creating in a vacuum? My connection to reality is art exhibitions were I can interact with collectors and get a sense of purpose. There is nothing like the validation you get from people who “get it.” Having a show energizes me and keeps me going with renewed vigor.
Make your own luck
I’ve always deluded myself that I just “let things roll off of my back.” Realization hits that this isn’t true when I bend a needle on my airbrush, “accidentally” use the wrong color, use the solvent to clean my waterbase brush- all within 5 minutes — and “it hits the fan.” Bottled up emotions will come out at the worst times, as we all know. Sometimes, when everything is going wrong I find I have to start from scratch. I grab that cup of coffee, take a sip and say, “Damn, I appreciate this awesome cup of coffee.” Then I’ve started from square one and can continue on a positive path. We make our own luck — good and bad.
by Jane Capellaro
I am wondering, with a slight feeling of jealousy, about the child prodigies who have a waiting list for their paintings, outrageous prices, a gallery to handle all the details and supportive parents, TV publicity even, what does this evoke in you about adult artists still struggling to achieve some success? Personally, I regret not staying in school and wish my art education had been better.
Leave today’s concerns for tomorrow
by Kim Wyatt
A local art critic just printed an article in the San Diego Union Tribune extolling the way art, music and dance teach people to cope with stress. Now comes your letter arguing that artists find it harder to cope with stress. I worry incessantly about everything. I taught myself to stop! Lying awake in bed at night didn’t help me. If I did finally come to a conclusion at 3 a.m., I either couldn’t remember it in the morning or realized it made no sense at all. Add to that the fatigue of sleep deprivation and I was worse off than ever. Now I leave today’s concerns for tomorrow. Often a simple phone call sets things right. Do I worry more because I’m an artist than non-artists do? Well, I do have to figure out how I’m going to buy art supplies and pay show entries and shipping charges. But non-artists have interests that cost money too. So no, I don’t think we have it that much harder than anyone else. It’s a stereotypical delusion that we, as artists, are ill served to perpetuate.
Chemicals and fresh air
by Bonnie Hamlin, Manitoba, Canada
A deficiency in calcium/magnesium can cause or increase mood swings. I’d suspect any nutritional deficiency would have a negative effect. Vitamin B12 works to conquer this: something to look into if you are a vegetarian — otherwise be careful, too much can cause nerve damage. When I feel frustrated I go outside (we live in the country) and plant my feet firmly on the ground while inhaling deeply through my nose. The kind of breathing where my chest expands and then my stomach muscles push the air out, then I raise my arms and imagine all the frustration, anger or whatever leaving and going up to the sun to burn up and return to the earth as love and peace.
by Elle Fagan, Connecticut, USA
Most artists use a friend to one extent or another, but there is a danger in glutting in the balm, and losing creative sights. I have observed and experienced the best/worst of the moral support and bonding that artists do. Something made me drop out of my group. It was the best thing I could have possibly done! It suddenly made me feel so clean! Now I miss my group, so will rejoin them some day. But I hope I learned something from it all, and I will monitor myself more carefully in the extent to which I enjoy supports. I have also been dangerously frayed by expecting external answers to problems sometimes solved best by centering, regaining inner peace and poise and vision. Creativity is a part of every soul, the ability to express it, is something else again… those who have been gifted for work in the arts are sharing something very special with the Life Force itself… delight in it. Sometimes the word “delight” is enough to break up the clouds.
Join a forum
by Marlou en Basz, Rotterdam, Netherlands
What has helped me a great deal in overcoming a major setback is becoming part of an artforum and talking about all the insecurities and fears. I found this wonderful artists-community and the people there have been indeed true gems! The possibility to talk if necessary at any moment of the day or night is so fantastic! What helped me most though was the invitation of some one to come over to her studio and work there with a model, just for a few times. That gave me the push to start working again! I also just read that of the USA population 2% have major psychological problems, but 20-40% of the artists do!
Dangers of isolation
by Meg Wolfe, Indiana, USA
I’ve had some experience with discouragement, from the isolation that comes with deafness, as well as failed marriages, single parenthood, bad luck in business, and now an empty nest, aging parents, financial straits, and increasing health and mobility problems. I found some congenial souls at an artist’s website, and one in particular has been my daily confidante, and I hers. It is no coincidence that finally having an art-confidante coincided with an increase in my artwork. Thus we accomplish the confessional, the work-therapy, and the blessings all at once. The biggest danger in isolation and disappointment is irrelevancy. On one hand, we can feel so discouraged that we feel there’s no point in our art. On the other hand, we can be so isolated and immersed in our own heads that our work will have meaning only to ourselves and it won’t resonate with anyone else.
Power of imagination
by Sonja Picard
Imagination is the closest link to our soul. It is not bound by past beliefs and fears. I use my imagination in the rough spots. I argue your point of (We dream, conceive, plan, assemble, execute, and often distribute with little or no help from anyone.) In my world I never journey alone. For me my home and surroundings, my loved ones, even a visual on a cover of a magazine sparks me into something as long as my imagination is active. My dreams, conception and plans can change with someone crossing my life-path. The only thing we do alone is execute. But I have seen some artists who are unable to do that without a hand to hold all the time. I guess if I believe I am always alone there is no gratitude for the life that weaves through my world.
Gift of love
by Emily Mills
Is my gift from now on to use my artwork as a prayer for love? If I cannot have the love I need, I will spend my life painting about it, because I have the satisfaction of knowing it does exist, and I have a sense of completeness. It is a strange gift because I am cured of the search for love, and have gained insight into meaning in life. Art is the loneliest of professions because one must see the world from above the tangled webs of humans to work with the muse. I feel rewarded for all the years of searching for the muse. I believe she only comes to those that have proven themselves worthy by their relentless searching and suffering. Art is a prayer, always was, always will be.
by Jeanne Norman Chase, Florida, USA
It is funny that you can get an acceptance and find yourself on cloud nine and then totally dismiss the feeling when a rejection comes along. And a good friend is a wonderful thing to have. I have one who I go to for solace and vice-versa. Without her, I really do not know how I would have survived all of the slings and arrows. We should count the blessings and be thankful for them, even if they come slower than the arrows.
I have two significant others
by L. Irwin, Mission, B.C., Canada
My counselor or significant other has always been two people. My husband, and my inner voice. The first comforts, the second, the inner voice, is the nagger. “Get going, do better.” I have seen many struggling artists without a support system and they seem worse off than I. There are women with husbands who look upon their work as something not valuable and a waste of time. Whenever I seem to be in a slump I try to talk it out, look inside, and then tell myself, “You’re just building steam.” Getting ready for the next surge of creativity. Besides what else would I do that I can love and hate all in the same moment.
You may be interested to know that artists from 84 countries have visited these sites since January 1, 2001.
That includes Carolyn at “Art Calendar” who says, “Make your wishes and dreams your goals.”
And Helmut Dray of Hotmailand who says, “The naked news for artists is that our vulnerability is our strength.”
And Michael Swanson who says that most of our vulnerability is caused by the dominant population of “linear thinkers” who cannot be bothered to grasp the understandings of us “spatial thinkers.”
And Ricardo Leonardo Leone of Los Angeles who thinks, “Rugged individualist artists tacitly write their own daily ‘Prayer of Jabez’ to keep themselves on the creative straight and narrow.”
And John Rocheleau who says, “Flight begins with a leap of faith.”