The two main types of eccentricity are “genuine” and “phony.” If you’re sensitized to human nature, you’ll find excellent examples of both types among your friends. Then there’s the grey area where some folks start out phony and end up genuine. But that’s another story.
The phony ones lead such dull lives that they find the need to cook up stuff to make themselves stand out. The genuine ones come by eccentricity quite naturally — often unaware of their own idiosyncrasies. Eccentricity is the sidecar to the powerful motorcycle of individualism. Anyone who has read my stuff will know individualism is a good thing.
My friend Egbert Oudendag (1914-1998) was of the genuine kind, becoming even more genuine as he aged. Dining exclusively on spare ribs and grapefruit, owning up to nine bicycles at a time, eschewing the medical profession and painting while in the nude were just a few of his peculiarities. Egbert appeared poor and simple but was wealthy and smart. Our mutual bank manager thought him “mad.” I wrote a short chapter about Egbert in “Love Letters to Art.
The controversial American journalist Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914) defined madness as “affected with a high degree of intellectual independence; at odds with the majority; in short, unusual. It is noteworthy that persons are pronounced mad by officials destitute of evidence that they themselves are sane.”
Egbert opened all his freshly purchased oils from the back end of the tube and cut in significant quantities of a secret oily brew. This gave him the longest and most languid stroke I’ve ever seen. His inventiveness in so many areas stemmed from his disadvantaged background in Holland before he immigrated to Canada. Eccentricity, coupled with need as the mother of invention, defines style. Egbert had style.
Eccentricity is getting more difficult to fake. In what appears to be a rebirth of artistic responsibility, we are honouring craft and proficiency, as well as individual initiative. Conservative waves are spilling over the shaky dikes. We might just be left with empowered eccentrics who quietly make their own genuine articles. Eccentrics work. They think things out. They ride many bikes. This is a good thing.
PS: “Eccentricity is a method of distinction so cheap that fools employ it to accentuate their incapacity.” (Ambrose Bierce)
Esoterica: Truly creative people are perennially in a state of reinventing themselves. Anyone who cares to focus for a time on any difficult task is bound to exhibit elements of eccentricity. Artists need to take stock of what they are doing that’s different from the norm — peculiarities of mixing, drawing, stroking, looking. Name them and claim them. We must see our uniqueness clearly and be prepared to go wherever it takes us. So what if it involves taking your clothes off? That’s the way we were born, eh?
by Sally Brucker, Takoma Park, MD, USA
Francis Bacon thought alcoholism fed his eccentricity. He is one of my favorite eccentric artists. Madness can feed eccentricity but do be careful about distinguishing between the two, as alas, they are quite different. Madness and creativity do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. As an art therapist who runs a Studio program for those living with mental illness, I can say that with assurance. Demons and depression are creativity killers. Check out the American Visionary Art Museum of Baltimore if you want to see the work of true eccentrics!
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Eccentric Auntie Mame
by Beth Deuble, San Diego, CA, USA
Kizmet! Just writing in my own journal this evening and mentioned one of my favorite eccentric characters, Auntie Mame (Rosalind Russell’s tour de force role). Reportedly, the character of Auntie Mame was based on Patrick Dennis’s real-life aunt, Marian Tanner. She was a good-natured eccentric, who lived to be nearly one hundred years old. Ms. Tanner’s advice to those seeking a more interesting, adventurous life was to never be afraid to try a new experience and to keep an open mind about everything and everybody. During this economic downturn I encourage people to view this wonderful 1958 film: “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!” Anyone for martinis and rattlesnake appetizers?!
Madness and eccentricity
by Roland Ford, Baltimore MD, USA
Whether it’s true or not, most of my friends have described me as eccentric which is actually a misnomer. If I were financially secure as a result of my art I could be declared eccentric here in the USA. But as I am financially near the poverty line I can only be described as “mad.” I believe there is no difference between the two concepts, mad and eccentric, the difference stemming from the semantics of a particular social structure.
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Eccentrics of the world, unite!
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
I really appreciate the Esoterica here. It allows me to find the good in my so-called eccentricities. The reason I point this out, is because eccentricities sometimes make me feel estranged and alone in a way that has been difficult. It also makes simple tasks hard, in a society where homogeneity is cultivated. My mind just doesn’t like to conform and generally thinks differently than standard perspectives. It takes stamina and perseverance to prevail when you see your eccentricities as a handicap. Perhaps it is time I see them as a strength and let them flower. It’s Spring after all!!
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
The two kinds of eccentricity are “socially acceptable” and “socially unacceptable.” Most of us eccentrics fit into the former category. A certain amount of weirdness is tolerable and some might even find our quirks interesting or charming. If you go over into the other realm, people may run from you. It’s interesting to me that to make any sort of living as an artist you are going to have to meet and talk to a large number of artists and non artists. These folks are going to have to find you a pleasant enough character. We live in a society. Artists are going to have to connect with people. Some artists try too hard to be weird and this is counterproductive and bad for business. They try hard to NOT be like other people, when it is perfectly fine to be part of the human crowd, brushing teeth, doing laundry, walking the dog and having families. Painting in the nude is a good example of an eccentricity that is likely to turn people off in a big way. It’s not morally wrong or illegal but it is definitely way off the mainstream. If this artist kept this quirk to himself, for me that would be the way to go. If he broadcast this eccentricity as in marketing, I would consider it just more hype. Eccentricity has that capacity to both attract and repel.
Nothing dull about it
by Martha Faires, Charlotte, NC, USA
Charles H. Spurgeon said, “The Lord who cannot endure vain repetitions is equally weary of vain variations.” He was speaking theologically, of course, but I can’t help but think the principle is equally applicable to good art. It seems some artists are eccentric about variation with no thought for the tried and true. Others are only comfortable with repetition. I hope I can hold fast to the good and not neglect the better. There would be nothing dull about that kind of life.
An eccentric relation
by Jennifer Noxon, Almonte, ON, Canada
My great aunt Betty Lane came to mind as I read your recent piece on ‘Eccentricity.’ She was a lifelong painter, musician, teacher, single mom and fiercely independent human being whose eccentricity caught my fascination as a young girl visiting from the suburbs of Toronto. Getting to know her was like being transported into a world that redefined the word ‘possibility.’ She had lampshades made out of coffee cans punctured with patterned holes to let the light through, musical instruments hanging on her walls, teabags hanging out to dry, a working easel in the middle of the living room, fascinating collectibles brought home from her travels, and a basement full of stacks of paintings, sketches, beads, and bobbles. Though she was not the easiest person to get along with, I returned several times to visit, staying for a prolonged period as a young artist trying to find my feet, and finally to see her off. The last time I saw her, just before her death, she commented on how beautiful my eyelashes were in silhouette (even with fluorescent lighting). It is the memories of my aunt that keep me going in times of question and doubt. Her flame continues to burn brightly. I believe she held out the flame and I, with open arms, took it.
Today, I, too, am a teacher, musician and painter and I have no doubt that my relationship with Betty Lane had something to do with the choices I’ve made. In sharing our creativity and allowing our individual-ness to shine we pass on the flame to the children that come after us. We owe them that much.
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The eccentric life
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I come from a family of stock brokers and business people. Sunday dinners at my family often made me wonder if I was an alien. None of them made any sense to me. From there, I was happier in the art department than the soccer field. As a teenager, I would spend my allowance at the art supply store not the movies. I would rather have gone to an art gallery than a public swimming pool on any summer day. I went to art school, not business school. I work as a waiter to subsidize my life, I don’t have an RRSP nor do I have a stock portfolio. I have travelled extensively to create my work. I find inspiration in some of the most intricate things. I rarely cry at movies and yet some artists’ works leave me speechless. I work every day at being an artist and it has come to define me. To many my life is absurd, but I assure you, my paintings are not… I wouldn’t change a single thing.
Ordinary people need not apply
by Helen Kirk, Sydney, Australia
I’m not surprised to hear that some people “fake” eccentricities — I have been told that as a middle-aged, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon, Christian woman who is happily married with two children I have very little chance of being taken seriously in the art world. It seems you need something unusual or interesting or tragic about your background or lifestyle before you can be considered a REAL artist.
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by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
What looks like an eccentricity to most people, is often just another individual’s manifestation of “thinking outside the box,” or in other words — creative intelligence.
The great majority of people live their lives strictly within the limits of social norms. They do what others do, follow the teacher, join the herd, and essentially, simply plod along without ever questioning what they are doing. The eccentric is a person who is not afraid to challenge the norm, and he or she often sets the norms for the future.
Your example of Egbert Oudendag is a case in point. Opening a paint tube on the “wrong” end would seem like the act of an eccentric. But if one is planning to mix that paint with an oily medium, what better way to access the pigments quickly and consistently, than from the back door? My guess would be that one inch of paint from the “wrong” end is an almost measured amount. Squeezing the paint through the top is much more variable and much more tedious.
Long before The Origin of Species, and for most of his life, Charles Darwin kept his study lined with containers of earthworms. I am sure his friends were winking at each other behind his back and shaking their heads. But then, crazy old Charlie proved that we owe the formation of all the soil on earth to our lowly friends the worms. I believe he published his book on worms well before his book on evolution.
As for “phony” eccentrics, or poseurs, one simply gets what one sees as the poseur’s eccentricity is usually just a matter of costume or style. My point is that we should not be too quick to pass judgment on others just because they do things outside of the norm. That odd person just may be on to something.
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 Terence who wrote, “If you’ve never read The Velveteen Rabbit, I highly recommend it… a wonderful story about becoming real… not quite phony to genuine, but along those lines. Kids (and adults) love it.”
And also Margo Palmer of Dallas & LaJolla, TX, USA, who wrote, “I have always agreed with whoever said, ‘Never underestimate the stimulation of eccentricity.’ I prefer people with at least a little eccentricity… they’re so much more fun!”
And also Janet Morgan of Brooklyn, NY, USA, who wrote, “I don’t know who said it, but I love it: ‘It isn’t that we get more eccentric as we get older, it’s that eccentric people live longer…’ ”
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