My dad used to say that I led a charmed life. He’d say, “He’s never had a job, he loves what he does, he’s a happy guy and he always seems to have enough money to do what he wants and look after everyone else.”
Hearing this sort of thing has given me pause to consider just what a “charmed life” is.
During the decade of my twenties, when all of my friends seemed to be doing just fine, I was struggling to make ends meet. My work was selling all right — for peanuts — and I was already developing a taste for cashews. The old bank balance didn’t always balance. I was an unfocused dreamer.
During my thirties the arrival of family responsibilities brought further pressure. It was at this time that I began to see that work habits were more important than almost everything else. In a TV interview I gave at that time, the interviewer asked what my goals were for the next few years. I said, “To work to get good.”
Fact is, I had a Damocles Sword hanging over my head. I saw quality work as my key to a charmed life, but I was constantly discovering my shortcomings. I lived with the spectre that I was a mediocre artist, so I was working daily to understand what was going on, and how I might improve. It’s a problem for those of us who try to make things look easy — no one sees the sweat.
As well as dealing with the frustration of my inadequacies, the nature of my independence required mutuality with others. The fine-tuning of dealers, agents and advisors became a sub-plot to my daily studio struggles. There were disappointments there too. Being nervous and maybe even neurotic, I’ve always strived for a minimum of conflict. In retrospect, I realize that there was plenty of conflict between my artistic dreams and the reality of my work. I don’t think I could have handled much more.
Somewhere along the line I became addicted to the fixing of my errors. The studio drew me in like a druggie to a needle, and I arrived early every day to get my fix. I’m still doing it. I’ve actually come to love this purgatory. Maybe that’s what a charmed life is all about.
PS: “The way to achieve happiness is to try for perfection that is impossible to achieve, and spend the rest of your life trying to achieve it.” (Winston Churchill)
Esoterica: While economics can be a driver, habits are better. When you’ve had one twelve-hour creative marathon, it’s a lot easier to have another. Even Fen Lansdowne (see responses in clickback Bird man), who ate and slept birds and loved to be in the field, was a compulsive studio worker. Speaking of fields, this sort of “charm” applies to any field. Adam Kreek, one of Canada’s Olympic Gold rowing eights, said, “We train longer and harder than anyone else in the world — we’ve rowed when our bodies are frozen.”
Filled with eager anticipation
by Gwen Fox, Colorado Springs, CO, USA
A charmed life — that is the artist life. We are the luckiest people in the world. We see our surroundings in a different manner than others. The colors, shapes and design that we see are then translated onto canvas or paper for others to discover a new world to love. I tell my students… sleep fast. The excitement of the next day fills me with eager anticipation. Blessed… ah yes.
by Dorenda Crager Watson, Columbus, OH, USA
The act of creating art is not only an addiction, but a dance with an unwilling partner. Outsiders think what you do as an artist is “easy” because they only see the final product and your joy at the end of the process… they are not there when you are tripping over Creations feet! They do not see the gallons of tears, the maddening frustration, the many false starts, and the multitude of hours that result in a piece of art… a charmed life (?) …yes, and I’m gleefully waltzing all the way!
Half crazy with apprehension
by Kathleen Thurston, Cincinnati, OH, USA
Work habits are the bane of my existence — and yes, I am broke. I honestly believe I am a visionary but I am almost always inclined to not attempt to reproduce my visions for fear of them not coming through on paper, canvas and other media the way they appear in my mind. Perfection is not my goal; reproducing what I see as I see it is. I feel I’ll start soon. I feel half crazy a lot of time, and what it requires is action to cut through the fog. I’d like to say my devotion to my son and grown daughters is motivation enough, but it isn’t.
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No silver spoon
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
My dad was very poor. I grew up in his home, and I was very poor. At some point I met art. I was about twelve. I have been a rich man ever since that day. Art has been my career and my side money. I had no silver spoon, but I had a sharp eye, and an instinct for art. The only man that influenced me was my grand dad. I spent every Saturday of my life with him. That was 1959 until 1972. I was a young boy. But, my grand dad taught me things. The wisdom I first caught, and the bit I live by, was his claim, and his credo. “This falling down house is just a bunch of stuff.” What a lesson, he provided for me. My grandfather was fearless. He and I made his home a dream castle.
I bought my own place. It was “condemned.” It is 35 years later, and my home is about 130 years old. It has become a treasure. I did this myself. I had no money from my family. No silver spoon.
Lessening the risk
by Stacy Zimmerman
My life is likewise charmed — ha! Never see the sweat, that’s exactly right. You must allow people in, close enough for them to see the sweaty parts, and in my case I keep everyone out so it lessens the risk, you see. That’s why I must finish a project before anyone sees it, else it becomes cursed and impossible to complete. Most of my work ends up in the garbage but occasionally something decent emerges from the rubble. I keep the good stuff for myself and sell the crap for peanuts. I do accept cashews as well.
Making it happen
by Kristine Morris
I am a painter and freelance writer and am writing a book with the working title “Making it in the Arts in Rural America.” As with all things, the title and focus may change as I learn more about what others do to survive while being true to the vision they have for themselves. My hope is that you, and others of your acquaintance, might like to contribute their stories to this book. My thesis is that most of what we read about artists is based on an unrealistic, and very much surface, appraisal of what such a life entails — that those of us who are working artists want very much to know how others are making it happen — that we somehow belong to a hidden circle of those who believe that, in spite of what we have been told, it is art that will survive — that it is worth the sacrifice it entails to be makers of art, worth it not just for ourselves (it is not an ego-driven pursuit for most of us), but for our species, and beyond that, for the nurturing of the eternal Spirit that blazes within each of us.
On a mission
by Carolyn McFann, Largo, FL, USA
Like Robert, those who know me have thought I’ve led a charmed life. My twenties were full of play, having fun but also doing a lot of artwork and working hard. Back then, clients liked to tell me they’re broke but I can do the project “for experience and exposure.” Experience and exposure help a little; alone they don’t pay the rent. I learned to stand up for myself and my art and get paid. I can dicker, sell and talk business after years of practise and many hard knocks. There were prosperous and lean times; it was a roller coaster that was ever changing. When money wasn’t an object, I traveled. When it was scarce, I didn’t eat much. Freelancing isn’t for the faint of heart.
Now, from the thirties onwards, I have been on a mission to improve my craft, learn from my past mistakes and improve upon old techniques. My work is always evolving, and I’m always learning. It feels good to be older, to know myself and my craft better. But I’m never satisfied; always wanting more, better, etc. It is an addiction, this never ceasing feeling of happiness in doing what I love. I am also fuelled by the desire to live comfortably, which I do now. I’ve paid my dues and am proud of it. My life has been a sum of learning experiences, and it’s interesting how it all ties together eventually. I guess in my own way, I’ve led a charmed life, too.
The last coat of varnish…
by Kevin Obregon
I know that we keep getting up earlier and earlier (I’m at 5:30 a.m. now) so I can get our day started, what with so much computer work necessary in keeping our small art business’ website interesting, tracking a rough-hewn PR campaign, e-mailing and phone-calling, and researching the market — all before noon! Five-thirty a.m., because that’s so the whole day won’t end up being spent on ‘the premise’ of being an artist and not ‘the product’ of being an artist.
But the charmed life really is charming. Almost existential in terms of what counts as an artist is your work, not the back-story, screams and shrieks of ‘Awe!’ and ‘Ah!’ that no one hears when you’re hard at work in your studio. But the real charm comes in the small reminders like when we have to venture out into traffic and exhaust fumes and remember why we left our jobs. Like having to wait in line at the post office when you could be finishing that last layer of varnish. Like waking up ten feet from a cantankerous money-printing machine that sometimes makes money if you move the right paint from one container to another. Like the unpredictability and ecstasy of depositing that check from a sale. It’s charming to hang out by the coffee maker, talking with your partner and deciding which color looks better with your sideways hair and dried spittle-smeared shirt.
by Corrine Bongiovanni, Windham, ME, USA
I can certainly identify with much about your struggle to “arrive” so to speak. I once took a workshop with another Maine painter, Carlton Plummer who is best known for his watercolours of rocky coastlines. He stressed how to fix mistakes and the reality that most can be corrected or turned into something worth keeping. Given the nature of watercolours and former teachers emphasizing that you “lay it down once and get it right the first time,” there was no room for anything but perfection! However, since adopting Carlton’s persistence and beliefs in resurrection of faulty works, I have grown a back bone of courage and confidence that keeps me keeping on. The huge secondary gain to no longer throwing so much work out has been the need to actually learn how to paint better, smarter, and how to keep learning through a painting in process. Curiously, I now feel more alive, more challenged, and more connected to each painting. It now feels like a reflection of my brain at work rather than simply something I do. Obviously, I still haven’t “arrived” but now, I’m not sure if I really want to reach that status. You may be right in where the charmed life is at!
Fighting the fight
by Nina Allen Freeman, Tallahassee, FL, USA
As a young artist, I lacked your courage to fight the fight and instead married and stopped painting. Years later, the painting called me back.
People sometimes ask me about my current work habits in the studio. I am one of those who rise early, in my pj’s with a cup of coffee and work in the company of the cat until noon.
Regular habits will get you in the studio, but it is the courage of commitment to your art that will keep you coming back. When I started painting again I learned how important this is to my being and I will never be without it again.
I read between the lines of your letter describing your early struggles a commitment to being the best. Too many of us settle early on the expectations of other people.
Thank you for your courage to continue to fight for your independence in spite of your misgivings and difficulties and for finding this way to pass your wisdom on to us!
Accomplishing life goals
by Paul Kane, Bloomington, IN, USA
Sometimes I get pretty down when I think about the many life goals I’ve failed to fulfill — and it’s not that life is over, so far as I know, but I’m far from young now, and many goals have become improbable. Others seem barely possible.
I can think endlessly about some pretty discouraging questions. What if I’d sold more work? What if I’d worked harder, or done things differently? What if I’d handled conflict or disappointment better? What if others had been there for me at critical points, others I relied on, but who let me down? Etc. Such rumination can be selfish and pointless. Sometimes there are elements of truth to it.
But isn’t it amazing how easily one can forget that, when starting out, one didn’t know if ANY life goals would be accomplished? It’s startling to me to think back on how I felt when I started out. There are so many things I HAVE accomplished that I barely dared to dream possible then. It took courage to have dreams then. And it takes some courage now to accept that not all dreams come true, but some do, and those are so much to be treasured.
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Encouraging the young
by Pamela Haddock, Sylva, NC, USA
I was at lunch the other day with some friends, one of whom is a 13 year old young man who loves art. His mom said, “He wants to be an artist one day.” I looked up and met his eyes and said, “He already is one!” The boy thanked me with his eyes and smiled to himself.
Later his mom mentioned he had trouble in math. One of the men at the table, a retired lawyer and hobby artist said laughingly, “Yeah well he better get good at math if he’s gonna be an artist so he can keep up with his losses.” The boy’s expression soured and he didn’t look at me this time. After the meal I went to his end of the table and put my arm around his shoulders. “You know what you want,” I told him, “Don’t let anyone’s words discourage you.” He hugged me and we parted.
I think I will copy your letter and send it to him. I don’t know his email address but I will probably try to register him for your letters. He is worth encouraging. You serve as an encouragement to me, thank you.
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oil painting on canvas
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 Phoebe Stone who wrote, “People have no idea how hard we work and how much pain we live with being sensitive and yes, neurotic!”
And also Mark Rue of San Antonio, TX, USA who wrote, “My father, a wise and artistic man, once told me, ‘Nothing in this world is perfect — the trick is not to reach perfection, but to get so close to perfect that no one can tell the difference.’ ”
And also Roger Thomas of New Zealand who wrote, “At a time when you start to doubt yourself creatively in a dull economic climate, the letters are very helpful. Keep them coming.”
And also Joy Gush of New York, NY, USA who wrote, “In life we do our best in all jobs that need to be done and somehow, at the right time, an ‘angel’ comes into our lives in meditation to help guide us and give us comfort. This has worked for me hundreds of times over the years when I have worked hard for that charmed life.”