Golden obsession


Dear Artist,

My doctor once told me that in order to give up cigars I had to replace them with something. His recommendations were surfing, cycling and snowboarding. Yesterday I was talking on the phone with an old friend and she surprised me by telling me she had a lifelong private battle with alcoholism. She was now about to celebrate 5 years of proud sobriety. She had joined AA and done all the right stuff. While she has always been a painter, more than ever she has replaced her booze habit with the brush habit. “If I didn’t have my painting,” she said, “I’d be dead by now.”

For those of us with addictive personalities it’s a matter of “bait and switch.” The bait is the increased quality of life that you give yourself by being creative. The daily, hourly joy you get by making things. My friend and I agreed that there was plenty enough in art to keep a person high for life. Realizing the weaknesses within ourselves we permit a “golden obsession.” It’s an extreme sublimation into a healthier zone where no one gets hurt and everyone is in a state of win/win. It’s not easy. The person who wants to make the switch must bring a pile of character to the job. For some it may not be possible without the love and care of others. It helps to know others who have been in the same boat. Nothing has yet been devised that beats the twelve steps of AA. But it still comes down to a personal decision to move in a different direction. So much has to do with habits. It requires the will to identify and throw out the bad and bring in the good. When art-process and art-spirit kick in, easel-life can be much like intoxication. My friend and I agreed that a sense of humour is useful as well. Humour puts things into perspective. “Everyone has their ‘El Guapo,'” says Steve Martin in the movie The Three Amigos. The ladies in that troubled Mexican village beat their ‘El Guapo’ by getting down to their sewing.

It’s also good to have some sort of talisman or fetish to watch over you and keep you on track while you’re working. Over the last year several artists have reported the value of teddy bears. In another letter I’ll discuss the use of kumquats and bananas. Right now I have a small polished beach-stone beside my easel. I haven’t had a cigar since Cuba.

Best regards,


PS: “The painter’s obsession with his subject is all that he needs to drive him to work.” (Lucian Freud) “The creative habit is like a drug. The particular obsession changes, but the excitement, the thrill of your creation lasts.” (Henry Moore)

Esoterica: One of our most frequent email requests concerns gallery choice and dealer relationships. A while ago I devised a confidential “Art Gallery Evaluation Sheet” that identifies dealer virtues and potential problems. With this sheet, artists are able to assign values to specific gallery situations and start thinking about what’s really important to them. Several artists have tested this simple printer-friendly form and found it useful and filled with insights that they didn’t fully understand before. Today it’s fine-tuned and ready for you at

The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.


Teddy bear nurtures inner child
by Sabine, Germany

My son dug out one of my talismans, which was my company while driving my first car. I was so glad to rediscover this little guy again, a teddy bear of course. I placed him on top of my computer screen. This was just two days ago and actually I finished my first digital art piece last night! I have waited to do digital art for years, and now the time has come. It is so important to nurture the creativity of the inner child and I think the teddy bear is one of the best companions to keep in touch with this spirituality. Also, I think to be able to change habits is strongly related to the power of this inner child, how it sees the world without judging and through its heart. I’m feeling sort of tuned in.


Addiction  to overtime finally beaten
by Julie Rodriguez Jones, San Pablo, CA, USA


painting by Julie Rodriguez Jones

Until four years ago my addiction was the overtime habit; working days, nights and weekends. Being a woman and feeling, as many of us do, that we have to do better than our male peers, I stayed late and took work home every night and every weekend literally year round, including until 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve. You get the picture. No longer! It took my physician and an instructor at a unique course at UCLA (The Leadership Lab) to realize what I wanted. I quit the overtime habit cold turkey during the summer of 1999. My life was changed. In my mid forties I went back to art. I’m happy — no, euphoric — with art and the creative process. I’m at home with my family. I have transitioned to art full time. We are now moving to a home with an office and a studio. Change is possible at any age.


Alternatives to AA
by Paul Kane

Alcoholics Anonymous has its value and has helped many people, including myself. However, it is unfortunate that more alternatives are not available, because AA is much like a cult and has some of the unfortunate qualities of a cult.


SOS sensible for any addiction
by Gerten Basom

There are some who find it hard to get on board with AA. I browse thru SOS (Secular Organizations for Sobriety) from time to time… and read… realizing that the ‘artistic’ nature has the ability to get ‘hooked’ on crutches when the going gets rough… be it self pity or booze, drugs, smoking or whatever. SOS is at


Many get the same thrill
by Sara Genn, Vancouver, BC, Canada


painting by Sara Genn

I can’t imagine a life without the reliable thrill and satisfaction of seeing something appear from my own hands. Sometimes I realize that there are people in the world that have stopped getting this feeling entirely — maybe after someone told them to get their act together (isn’t it grade 8 when art stops being compulsory?) I feel lucky I’ve got it because I believe it’s giving me a meaningful life. Then again there are all kinds of people all over the world who are making their own pots, clothes, cookies, blankets, boots, bread, cards, furniture, fridge magnets — and they must all get the same thrill, too.


A lifetime of experience with galleries
by Pnina Granirer


painting by Pnina Granirer

I have had a long career, many exhibitions, published books and had them published on my work. I have shown for almost 14 years with a high end, avant garde gallery, and after leaving them, with other galleries, as well as in Public Galleries. After all this, I’m disenchanted with galleries. In the end, they have tremendous power over the artist. No evaluation forms, artist-representation contracts, etc., really work. The bottom line is this: If they want you, if you are a big enough name and your work sells, they will be interested, but they can drop you at any instant if they feel like it, or make your life in the gallery so insufferable, that you will leave.

I had decided to forego galleries, unless they come to me and seem sincere. Alas, my last experience with a new gallery, which actually opened with my work, but turned out to be speaking with a forked tongue, left me even more disenchanted. After that I did show in a few galleries that were really interested in my work, liked it and wanted to help me show and market it. Unfortunately, the honest and truly art-loving ones don’t seem to be doing as well as the more ruthless ones, and sometimes they close down.

I’m a prolific painter and enjoy finding and exploring new ideas. This is another problem, since once one shows in a gallery a certain work that sells, they want you to continue doing it forever. However, I still dream of the ‘ideal’ dealer, who is genuinely interested in my work, believes in what I do and wants to educate his clients to understand it and be willing to take risks, just as I do as an artist. The best part is doing the work.

(RG note) A valuable tool for artists called the “Art Gallery Evaluation Sheet” has been created and can be found at


Art should speak for itself
by Cissy Gray


painting by Cissy Gray

I too feel that many people are hung up on CVs, when they should be looking at the art and letting it speak to them. I do wish that the artists who run around waving their credentials would remember that, and encourage their fellow artists to create instead of trying to accumulate awards, which “look good on the CV.”



CV a boring document
by Jennifer Garant, Naramata, BC, Canada


painting by Jennifer Garant

My CV is about as unimpressive as they get… hah! I think though that at one time a CV was important in the fact that people were buying art that someone else advised them to buy (a dealer or gallery perhaps) and an impressive Vitae might validate the purchase of maybe a so so artist. Now I’m finding that people buy paintings based on their own tastes and have more faith in themselves. The impressive CV is almost as daunting and boring as a name-dropper at a dinner party.




Never received a prize
by Sylvio Gagnon, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada


painting by Sylvio Gagnon

I’ve never received any prize for my art. Every day I receive much more. Passersby make remarks about my art; children ask how I can do such marvelous pictures; so-called experts will comment on its quality and painters will congratulate me. All are happy to chat with me and they all gladly accept my business card. Some will ask my advice, if I give courses, if the painting is for sale and how much. Some people will buy on the spot, others will visit my studio to see more paintings. Some will come back in half an hour and be amazed at the rate of progress of the painting. I have art works in collections in many countries: Canada, USA, Argentina, France, Austria, Germany, Japan, Korea, Belgium, Egypt and Italy. After all of that, why would I want a prize to include in my CV?


Of butterflies and bees
by John D. Vedilago, Göteborg, Sweden

It’s six in the morning and I am on my second cup of coffee. I am up in my studio and as I look out over my darkened city, slowly coming to life, I can’t seem to get the butterflies and bees out of my thoughts. From the eyes of an experienced artist comes the perfect, visual crystallizations, of seemingly very complex issues, that, like Mondrian, strip away and lay bare the landscape revealing the truth of its structure and in the process generating a hundred other images. It is true that many artists view themselves as butterflies flitting about creating a visual diversion from life. The butterfly as separate species is purely the concept of image over substance. As such, it symbolizes a whole host of metaphors to surround, the role of artists and art, particularly in capitalist industrial and post industrialized societies. I think artists, like yourself, are much more like the worker bees. Bees savor each flower, really work it, and if they really like it and it has substance, do a dance showing others the way to what they have discovered. After toiling in the sun amongst the flowers all day, like Vincent, return to hive, take what they have gained and turn into the sweet life sustaining honey that will nourish the next generation. Without bees, there would be no sunflowers painted or otherwise.

The issue at the core of bees and butterflies, is the belief amongst Artists of the world that they are a defend, superior, species of human being and that their right, to live a vivid life, and their freedom, to engage in the artistic process, is more valuable and worthy of protection and support than others. More importantly, this belief is what creates an underlying and perhaps unconscious, elitist’s contempt that makes the statement, “Here, the worker-bees are more important than the butterflies”, having a negative implication. In essence this supports the belief that some people and cultures are worth more than others. There are many, in the art world and the real world, who would argue the romantic validity of a point, that the lives of many bees should and need to be sacrificed to secure the life of one butterfly.

Just what is the cost of maintaining and producing butterflies, in any quantity. Between Europe, the USA, Canada, Japan, and I will throw in Australia for good measure, I will give you 100 million butterflies. To create the freedom loving capitalist environments and conditions, which you might argue are necessary to produce and maintain this many butterflies, the one billion worker bees of these freedom loving capitalist societies, must consume annually two thirds of the world’s resources. Even at this rate of consumption, the leader of the pact the United States (which Canada, Europe and Japan are expected to emulate), has a culture and economy which has produced over 1 million homeless children and 5-10 million homeless adults. Tens of millions of people are on welfare, and 26% of its workforce working at wages below the poverty level. Its education system has a chronic 15-30% drop out rate. A culture and society so violent that, children are killing children at a rate unmatched even in countries where children are used as soldiers. The one statement I can make with complete accuracy from my experiences is “A homeless person with a brush in his hand is perceived by society as being more worthy of engagement and rescue, than one with only a cup and a smile.”

Even if we totally discount the failures, do you honestly believe that you can ensure the successes of that culture, and level of lifestyle, for the other five, soon to be six, billion people on the planet? Eighty percent of this so called success has been achieved within the last fifty years. We should not mistakenly believe that it is the true nature of things or even remotely sustainable at its current level. Freedom, Socialism, Capitalism and Communism are in effects social experiments or, as I would like to put it, movements in Social Artworks. Their success or failure will be determined in time. History may prove Castro, as social/artist, right, not because of issues related to freedom, communism or socialism, but precisely because of his insistent belief in the economics of not creating butterflies.

Artists all over the world have a great responsibility and role to play in the development of egalitarian and participatory cultural models. Kandinski in his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art put artists at the top of a great pyramid and saw their role as moving society forward. In order to engage in that role you have to be a literal and integral part of the pyramid (or hive). As butterflies you can only observe, distract, make comment, and move on in the circle of butterflies. Is this not an accurate description of the “art for art’s sake” art world? A world of Victorian tourists, always on the search for the bizarre, strange, titillating, the unusual experience. A Gauguin in Tahiti, or young Van Gogh explaining, “I have tried to emphasize that those people, eating the potatoes in the lamplight, have dug the earth with those very hands they put in the dish. It speaks of manual labor, and how they have honestly earned their food.” Butterflies, Bees acting like butterflies, or is just accepting the dignity of the Worker Bees, an interesting set of metaphors.

Let us take what we have learned as painters and sculptors, and find ways to use the same processes of artistic engagement to engage those around us to create art. The greatest and most profound art that any artist can generate is the art of another. In the end, I believe, if your art fails to take you to a place that not only validates, but activates and ensures that same process in everyone, then you’ve missed the point and the journey is half over.


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 60 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2003.

“Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.) contributed by Josanne Van Hees


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