I’m wandering in a magic farm called “Serendipity,” a place of fragrant gardens, hencoops, sheepfolds, shady arbors, scarecrows and a hee-hawing donkey. There’s fifty painters scattered in nooks and crannies and I’m looking over shoulders. As I see it, everybody’s trying to make something a bit unique. This is not a body of workmen following a blueprint and constructing a unified monument. Everybody’s doing his or her own thing. Everybody here is a specialist.
That’s what makes us an interesting bunch. There’s community, yes, but there’s also a field of solitudes. I hesitate to make a comment or a suggestion. I know the joy of working a problem through on my own terms. The satisfaction I’ve had making minor discoveries of style and manner. The pride and excitement of self-guidance and the bravura of cooking without a recipe. For this life there’s no true handbook. I’m thinking of the wise bag-lady in The Dreamway, who said, “In the wide dreamscape, very few are truly extraordinary, but at close range, you are one of the few.” One by one I see everyone at close range. One by one I’m even more convinced. Extraordinary. Everybody here is a specialist.
Who’s to say what’s good and what’s bad? That’s a fashion-driven reaction to the norms of what’s currently to be expected on half-sheets, sketchbooks, or stretched canvasses. Whether a pro or first-time-out, it’s more to do with the brush on the support, the art-mind interaction, private struggle, private joy. At the end of the day the artists fold away their paraphernalia and glance sideways at their efforts spread casually on the grass. Some want to cover up, even destroy — others hang out in modest expose. The permutations and combinations of color and brush, paper and marker, location and personality have created an infinite variety. Everyone’s done differently. Everybody here is a specialist.
PS “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.” (Martha Graham)
Esoterica: Sometimes I think we suffer from the tyranny of comparison. Contests, competitions, thrive on it. Who cares? “Since you are like no other being ever created, you are incomparable.” (Brenda Ueland)
The following are selected responses to the above letter. Thanks for writing.
by Ron Ashwell, Cambridge, UK
When you keep on doing any task that requires skills, you begin to repeat small patterns of success and minor trails that previously took you to a desired destination. You temper this with creative invention, daring and unusual gambits, but these too are part of the specialization that makes your statement unique. It’s most important to know that these patterns exist and take pride in their execution. Specializations are perhaps the valuable part of individual personhood and lend much to the definition of self.
Ground to a halt
by Zoe Pawlak
I have a painting sitting in my living room/studio: half finished, music playing, new oil paints, roommate away for 8 hour chunks — but… but what? My art-brain challenges. I CAN’T finish! I’ve read your Painter’s Keys book, and my dad was the one who started forwarding me your e-mails. So, by no initiative of my own, I have been surrounded by your words and in turn, have been fueled by your advice. Although I am young and defiant, and not at all into plein-air or landscape of any form, one thing remains true, the yearning is there, but action is easily replaced by distraction and all the classic excuses. I am currently reading “The Artist’s Way” and although a little too “new age” and even a little more than that, formulaic, I am enjoying myself. Any way you can suggest to get over myself and start painting that you can think of would be greatly appreciated. The painting is half done and is already sold, but I haven’t touched it in over 3 weeks.
(RG note) There is no single antidote for the non-completion crisis because there are so many causes of the disorder. They include fear of failure and fear of success. Also, I’ve noticed some paintings have an unexplainable something wrong with them that’s difficult to diagnose and nearly impossible to cure. Try this: Put the painting in another situation under another light. Look at it for some time until it starts to tell you what’s wrong with it. Focus yourself by arranging your materials and simply grab it and start operating. The reward is to get the thing behind you and to get on with healthier projects. I’ve seen one inoperable painting hold up an artist for three years. Terrible state to be in. Can be fatal.
How to structure time and build momentum
by Zoë Evamy
Having moved here only a year ago, I still haven’t tapped into the artist circles in town. I was brought over from Arizona (another wonderful place to paint) to work for a digital animation company. (My job involves creating colour and lighting moods using small thumbnail paintings). Having come to the end of my contract, I now find myself in a position to paint for myself full time during the summer. This is something I have longed to be able to do and I’m aware of how important time management is in this. My worst fear is wasting this precious time. My question to you is “How would you recommend I structure my time in order to build momentum and keep it going?” My plan is to work on location as much as possible and finish my paintings in the studio. Any ideas you have would be much appreciated.
(RG note) Two Zoes with similar concerns right after the other in the emails made me think there was some sort of cosmic need here. That’s why I tackled this Zoe question in the current letter. My first thought was to suggest not to bother tapping into the artist’s circles around town. Artist’s circles can be comfortable dens of avoidance. It sounds like what you’re asking for is a summer of getting good. I hope I was able to shine my small flashlight on this important subject.
Brilliant demos required
by Jack C. O’Brien, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Instructors are caught on the horns of a dilemma. They can either tell the student how they think it ought to be done, perhaps even take a brush and show them how they think it should be done, or walk away and let them figure it out for themselves. The first two can throw a student off track, the last can lead to personal discovery. In my experience the best thing for instructors to do is to try to concentrate on doing brilliant demos.
Martha Stewart mentality
by Haruyuki Ikeda
Your quandary on the “Serendipity” farm is exemplary of the Martha Stewart mentality going around these days. Painting for most of us has nothing to do with the formulaic creativity now popular. Art, and particularly painting, when properly understood and pursued, is a private, exploratory voyage.
by Betty Johnson, Philadelphia, PA
I find myself feeling intimidated by so many artists and how good they are. It doesn’t take long to find yourself comparing your work with what others have done. But I had forgotten that they had to have a start and then move forward to where they are. Thank you for helping me to see that no matter who we are we are special. Now the paintings I do are from me and can never come from someone else. That’s what makes me unique.
by Mary Jean Mailloux, Oakville, Ontario, Canada
The Martha Graham quote struck a tender chord. Though always wanting to dance in the light of recognition, I always thought that I never had the right stuff. My group’s positive recognition of my works, (not with overwhelming praise) but just casual, “neat stuff” or “nice touch”, has meant so much because it comes from people I admire. Taking the leap into the public eye with my work has been gratifying. I feel I’ve been given permission to do it the way I see it, with my own “panache.” Never thought I’d ever hear someone who is a painter say they’d like to paint like me.
(RG note) “It has bothered me all my life that I do not paint like everybody else.” (Henri Matisse)
by Alexandra Galanti
With regard to hesitating to make a comment about someone’s work — I have thought many times as I edit someone’s work, “What gives me the right to edit this person’s thoughts or feelings?” It can be disconcerting at times that in my profession I HAVE to make changes to pick out the ‘bad’ before I can look at the ‘good.’ I have to follow the ‘norms’ and have expectations. The result? I sometimes change the very essence of what that person was saying and for the most part, they have to accept it.
(RG note) We are always careful in editing letters, particularly this one.
by Jutta Kaiser
I manage a biotech laboratory as my day job and found your letter was especially nice after “Serendipity” and made the transition so much easier. In science one needs a certain amount of creativity and curiosity to design successful experiments, and the results can be as satisfying as a well-done painting. The balance of science and art is perfect for me. In a computer test my right and my left brain seem to be well balanced but I hope my artistic side will win eventually!
by Aara Svelde, Faro, Portugal
For many of us there was no handbook given to guide us in our lives, let alone to guide us as artists. It is at best a hit or miss activity and the power we gain is largely that which we have ourselves gleaned. In our lives, loves and passions, and in our experience while here, there can be in all of us, the making of a subtle greatness.
by Lim Ip Pei, San Francisco, California, USA
Your walk in the garden of “Serendipity” reminded me that painting has many of the attributes of the popular Falun Gong which has recently had such a large effect in the orient and is now spreading to other places. In the practice of art it includes a meditational process which centers the mind and has the additional value of creating tangible and often beautiful results which enhance our lives and the lives of others. The benefits of practicing Falun Gong (or Falun Dafa as it is also known) range from improved health and newfound energy to mental clarity, stress relief, and peace of mind. It is different from most other qigong practices in that it goes beyond the pursuit of health and fitness to the goal of wisdom and enlightenment. At the heart of the practice are the principles of truthfulness, benevolence, and forbearance.
(RG note) Information on Falun Gong can be found at http://www.falundafa.org
“What’s “The Dreamway?”
The Dreamway is a very little book-book I wrote a few years ago that can be seen here: http://painterskeys.com/the-dreamway/
You may be interested to know that artists from 85 countries, as well as every state in the USA and all provinces in Canada have visited these sites since January 1, 2001.
That includes Bobbie Kilpatrick whose current favorite personal quote is “Life’s an attitude.” And George Balcan of Montreal, PQ, who understands the “last day” feeling when leaving a great place.
And Dieter Woltgen of Ulm, Bavaria, who writes, “All of an artist’s world is a field of serendipity.”
And Jurate Macnoriute of Siauduva, Lithuania, who is presently translating the twice-weekly letters into Lithuanian and Russian.
“It’s the most inspiring thing on the net!” say many artists. They’re talking about the Resource of Art Quotations. A half-hour browse will find countless pearls of wisdom that will speed you on your way. And everyone finds something different. It’s by far the largest collection anywhere.