What makes us tick?


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, Rita Roberts of Monte Vista, Colorado wrote, “It seems that I have a much greater need for things to make sense than that of the general population. Is this a common trait among artists? Might this be the source of that dutiful angst we seem to take on? I understand the idea that art is making order out of chaos. Perhaps I could be grateful to others for accepting endless contradictions as one harmonious truth so that I can spend endless days in the studio on a search for meaningful order. Any thoughts?”

Thanks, Rita. These are questions that bother watchmakers when they take watches apart. Artists also ask these questions all the time, so they’re legit. Trying to make sense of things may not be common to all artists, but it certainly is for many. Psychologists tell us that’s why we have the need to remake our world in the form of pictorial landscapes, etc. Really, when you think about it, a lot of this stuff doesn’t need to be made again.

On the other hand there are those who would make nonsense out of things. Humour, metaphor and fun also have their place. Every time I’ve tried to nail down a single item that makes artists tick, or a single way to make them tick better, I begin to feel dyspeptic. There are just too many answers. There are as many answers as there are artists. That’s what’s wonderful about us. But it’s my opinion that no matter where you’re coming from, there’s guilt.

Guilt is hard-wired into the human psyche. Attempts at eradication have been disappointing. Guilt continues to influence and manipulate us. Get an artist down on a couch and you’ll often find out that angst is guilt. As a driver, guilt may be just as powerful as love.

There’s a bit of a solution for this one. It’s called “I’m okay; you’re okay.” Let others find their joy in accepting those “endless contradictions as one harmonious truth.” That’s what accountants and lawyers and doctors and economists and politicians are for. They’re all okay. What’s not to love about them? Also, they collect our stuff. After my last letter about the ignominy of being rejected, there were nearly a hundred artists who wrote to say that the only thing an artist can do is to keep the brush moving. That’s purification. Analysis is nice, but if you play around with it long enough — “boinggg,” the mainspring pops out.

Best regards,


PS: “My strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure.” (Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

Esoterica: Balancing sensible self-examination with creative work-habits is our main job. “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” said Alexander Pope. “A lot of learning,” said Bob Genn, “is almost always deadly.” But a steady, curious, workmanlike, inventive, questioning, delighting, flourishing, daily application of the processes at hand leads to all kinds of good stuff.


Why do I paint?
by Kim Denise, Hilton, NY, USA


“Green Apple”
oil pastel on paper
by Kim Denise

Why? Why do I paint? I don’t know. All I know is that when I started painting, I finally stopped torturing myself with the existential “why.” Everything just made sense, for the first time since I was about, oh… nine years old. The world continues to spin around me in all its rage and madness and despair, but here I am, encapsulated in my vision, churning out evidence of the beauty and the meaning and the essence of what’s good in this world. Why do I paint? I paint because I am. It’s the only way to bear it all. I guess I was made this way.




Higher ‘plain’ of consciousness
by Lenny Niles, Lincolnshire, England

Individual personalities appear in most cases to be inextricably linked to strong demonstrative motivation which undoubtedly developed in early childhood, when having been left to form their own manners, expressions, and drives, accommodated all the inborn tendencies that clearly manifested themselves along with all the other incomprehensible facets of individualism.

Comparative observations of children in early childhood demonstrate sufficiently that there are certain inexplicable differences in just a small minority of gifted children who display in the very early years a latent capacity and overall artistic temperament which we assume, owing to their lack of any previous experience, inevitably must be inherent.

Yet the very same overriding expressions of the self — or even selfness — have existed in all generations since the dawn of time, and concern itself only with cultural diversity. One common factor however always remains paramount and, in spite of all the continuous moronic destruction, our goal is always to create beauty where none previously existed, and this alone is the very reason why we were raised above all unpleasant adversity and placed on a much higher plain of consciousness.


Curiosity rules
by Helena Tiainen, Berkeley, CA, USA


“In Memory Of”
mixed media painting
by Helena Tiainen

Trying to make sense of things can be tricky. Being able to make sense of anything would mean having all the information that it takes to make it fit into something that is known and accepted or understood by the person trying to make sense. Life and reality are tricky. Even when we think we have made sense out of something, we may still be living in total illusion. In a way trying to make sense of something is like putting together a puzzle. All goes well as long as we have all the pieces of the puzzle that belong together in one place and available. But if there is a piece missing… or a piece of another puzzle in the picture… we will be thrown off. Life is not simple. Not everything makes sense. Or fits into neat configurations. And after all, whose sense are we talking about anyway? I think, more than sense, I look for a spark, a recognition, an igniting emotion to be inspired. I think I have been on this planet long enough to figure that my knowledge is only a fraction of the whole picture and no matter how I try to gain understanding, that is always the way it will be. My sense may be your puzzle — but — curiosity rules.


Fear and love
by Jann Semkow, Edmonton, AB, Canada

I am trained in applied ceramics (ACA 72). I do have a day job “exposing” visual art to high school students which is not an emotional or creative drain. My students are primo, as is the staff. I have two years to go in this vocation until I refocus my creative spirit towards a fulfilling life extension (a.k.a. retire from said vocation). I want to put my self “out there” before then.

It is serendipitous that the topic of guilt should pop up here. I have just this week addressed, in name only, why I am not in my own little clay work studio attached to my house — with regularity. The name is called ‘fear’! I ask myself if it is fear of commitment, fear of success, fear of failure, fear of self-love, fear of sharing, fear of acceptance — or all! Why one would fight joyful experience I do not know.

It is said that there are only two real emotions one experiences in life. Fear and love. All others come from these two. Having a thousand (well many) ideas for expressive forms and themes is a problem for me perhaps, or perhaps it is not. I have goals and aspirations for a continuum of works. Clay and wood, clay and steel. Logically, I feel one needs to bite the bullet and seek the joy in the moment and start, maintain some discipline and follow through on short projects. So kick me already! Do you have any thing to add?

(RG note) Thanks, Jann. There is no easy answer for the teacher-artist transition. It is often a matter of entering into a purgatorial retraining and reactivation of neural pathways. Try these: Shut the door. Relish in your moods. Get books. Struggle on your own. Get a four-legged companion. Be mute.


Not understanding
by Scott Menaul, Clearwater, FL, USA


original photo
by Scott Menaul

We spend a lot of time and energy trying to make sense of the things that we don’t understand. I have discovered that some of those things will never make any sense because they are simply insane. Some of our behavior or the things that people say are “crosswired” or associative thinking wouldn’t make any sense to another. If we can recognize this (that it might not ever make sense because it isn’t based on fact or reason) we can let go of having to make sense of everything. I have found this new understanding of the not understandable very liberating!

(RG note) Thanks, Scott. I just assigned part of my investment portfolio with a broker who has a system that is known as ‘agnostic’ (I do not know). This system does not attempt to understand what makes certain stocks go up or down. It just automatically gets you into things when they are going up, and gets you out of things when they’re going down. Okay, I’ll let you know.


The endless discursive
by David S. Pyle, Montreal, QC, Canada

It’s not only guilt, but shame and fear. The Un-Holy Trinity. Underlying that, and superceding it, however, is the need to love and know — and to be known and loved.

In a world whose framework is based on a dualistic mind (conceptual) and mentality (perceptual) — and all that arises out of that — there is an inherent “split” built into it. It is that split — that separation and division both within and between — that is the source of our anxiety and our neuroses that drives us, our lives, our work, our art, to make sense of who, what, how and why we are and aren’t — a seemingly endless discursive.


Break through the guilt
by Gail Griffiths, Monmouth, NJ, USA


“A friend’s house”
oil painting
by Gail Griffiths

Guilt has never played a part in my painting. Actually, as a useless emotion, it doesn’t play a part in my life. I paint because I can and for what I get out of it. I paint for the four hours that feel like thirty minutes. I paint for the intimacy I can have with the object I am bringing to life on the canvas. I paint for the freeing of my mind and the lifting of my heart. I paint for the positive feedback which makes me feel good. Negative feedback happens also, but I take it from its source. The artist who has guilt is fortunate to be able to break through the guilt and be able to paint.


Painting for joy and peace
by Melodye Murphy, Maitland, FL, USA

My art is “making order out of chaos.” I have so many thoughts and ideas running around my head that when I sit down and start painting I feel calmer. Since I paint non-objective, most of the time I don’t have an idea of what I’m going to paint. Usually a color or color combination jumps into my mind and I pick up the brush and put paint to paper with no starting point in mind. The chaos I do run into is that I have so many specific ideas I would like to try, they don’t get a chance to come out. I need to find the discipline to sit down with my idea in mind and paint it down instead of going with my gut. Sometimes my gut makes garbage but other times it’s quite interesting. I paint with two different groups each week and I don’t think they quite understand me. They are always blown away with what I come up with. They are very realistic painters and say they can’t paint without a picture/photo in front of them to guide them. I don’t know if I am right or wrong, but it doesn’t matter. Painting gives me joy and peace as well as fun.


Analysis doesn’t matter
by Jean Koznarek, Shaker Heights, OH, USA

When I read the part about guilt, I was right there with you. My guilt stems from my lack of production. Though I accept that not much time is my own with three teenagers and a husband and a household, I still feel guilty when I am not down in my studio. To deal with this, I go away for several weeks every summer to paint and just get my head clear again. The solitude is lovely, yet I crave the company of other artists. Do you know of any art communities with summer programs? I have been looking at Penland School in NC. Since I am a painter, a 51-year-old woman, I have opened my horizons to the various spots out there.

Lastly, the column was an interesting analysis of what makes the artist tick. After 35 years of doing artwork and massive introspection, I have come to a fundamental conclusion. None of that analysis truly matters. I have finally been doing pieces I like and enjoy doing. Making an already difficult undertaking, making art, simpler. It’s like the person who looks at an artwork and says, “I don’t know about art, but I know what I like.” A museum director said to me one time, “If you understand something, you won’t be able to help but like it. That doesn’t mean you want to live with it though.” Understanding is not always analysis, but I agree with your comment on knowledge. It is a dangerous thing.


Shutting off harmful thoughts
by Diane Overmyer, Kalamazoo, MI, USA


“Broken and Abandoned”
oil painting
by Diane Overmyer

I do feel that artists generally look at things at a deeper level than the general population. It comes from being sensitive. We take note of ordinary daily occurrences such as the hues in the sky as the sun lowers each day. So it is only normal for us to react to and process daily events on a deeper level also. This can be a blessing or it can be a curse. The key is shutting off the harmful and debilitating thoughts while keeping and building on the ones that give us creative energy. I find that writing down my art ideas that result from some experience or news during the day is always helpful. Some of these ideas then eventually find their way into my paintings, like the one I have attached to this letter.


Just join in the dance
by Tim Steven, London, ON, Canada


“Floral flight” triptych
original paintings
by Tim Steven

For years I’ve questioned my over-thinking. Lately I’ve just been following my brush, although the thinker in me doesn’t know how to explain my art any more — even to art galleries. I used to do ad stuff, then equine commissions — now I do figure paintings, and butterfly/landscape abstractions. Actually, I still do all the aforesaid. What do you know about being a dance host on a cruise ship — maybe one that paints when not dancing?

(RG note) Thanks, Tim. Not much. Except that you will meet a lot of girls while painting.


Calling upon our genie
by Sandra Bos, Cookeville, TN, USA


“Abstract bloom”
original painting
by Sandra Bos

When and if we find out ‘what makes us tick,’ we will probably be on another planet somewhere. Being analytical just throws a wrench in the works. To quote Robert Henri, “painting is a mystery.” No one really knows why we paint; it’s just what we do. Also, I think we are constantly learning about ‘what makes us tick’ while in the process of creating something. Who can make sense of anything in this world? And, actually, who would want to?

Someone once said it’s like calling upon our genie in the bottle, or you can call it our higher consciousness. Whatever it is, it does not analyze, it creates. This is the “mystery,” and I guess it’s what you could say makes me tick. It’s what makes me want to create. It’s what makes me get up and go to my easel every morning. “Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things.” (Edgar Degas)


Introvert or extrovert?
by Bettsie Miller, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA

Synchronicity in living and life and learning is a huge part of the circle of life. Just yesterday I was working with a friend and ‘took’ the Myers-Briggs personality preference inventory — based on thoughts and insights first inspired by Carl Jung. This is a great learning tool and one that will help every person understand how they interpret and see the world and also how they relate to others. So my commentary to Rita Roberts is not that artists need to make sense of things, but more clearly those with her personality traits seek to do that. Find out if you are an introvert or an extrovert. It will help you make sense of the world, as well as understand yourself.





Mid March Madness

watercolour painting
by Guy Magallanes, Redwood, CA, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.

That includes Char Wilson of Winfield, KS who wrote, “Accepting the unacceptable is the hardest lesson to learn and the most important to achieve inter-peace. And when we can’t… guilt sets in… and destroys our creative perfection.”

And also Paula Timpson who wrote, “As the wings of the world flutter, may our lives dance in the silence of the stars.”

And also Jane Champagne of Southampton, ON who wrote, “Guilt is a nonproductive emotion; banish it. It leads nowhere, does nothing positive, and can drive one to drink — artist or not.”

And also Betty Brooks who wrote, “My harmonious truth is that chaos furnishes the building blocks for order, and order breaks down to replenish chaos.”

And also Sharon Clark of Alpharetta, GA who wrote, “This is a uniquely female trait. I have found that trying to make sense of things is more unique to women than men. I believe that it is an innate part of us to want to organize our lives, including our art.”

And also Coulter Watt of Quakertown, PA who wrote, “‘What makes us tick?’ That’s between me and my shrink.”

And also Mary Elizabeth McIlvane of Altamonte Springs, FL who wrote, “I was locked in by the life-choking power of guilt but now, as I approach the last years of my seventh decade, I have broken free to know the joy and pleasure of me, my needs and my voice.”

And Mardy Grothe of Raleigh, NC, USA, who wrote, “William Sloane Coffin, once observed, ‘I’m not okay, you’re not okay, and that’s okay.’ ”




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